Are We to Fear God?
by Eric Lyons, M.Min.
The word “fear” appears in the New King James Version of the Bible 367 times. In some of these occurrences, the text is expounding upon “the fear of the Lord” and its relationship to wisdom (cf. Job 28:28; Psalm 111:10; Proverbs 1:7). In numerous other passages of Scripture, one can read where God commands that His creation fear Him (Leviticus 25:17; Deuteronomy 6:13; Matthew 10:28; et al.). It is widely known that one of the repeated truths in the Bible is that God’s “mercy is on those who fear Him” (Luke 1:50). It also is well known, however, that in the New Testament Paul informed Timothy that “God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind” (2 Timothy 1:7). The apostle John went even further, saying, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves torment” (1 John 4:18).
Some time ago, I noticed where Steve Wells, author of the Skeptic’s Annotated Bible, highlighted 2 Timothy 1:7 and 1 John 4:18 (verses indicating Christians are not to fear), and placed alongside these verses twenty-six Bible references that specify we are to fear God. He then asked, “Should we fear God?” Obviously, it was Wells’ intent to convince his readers that the Bible’s discussion of fear is contradictory. How can a person fear God and not fear God at the same time? Although this is a question I thought a skeptic never would raise due to its seemingly obvious answer, it nevertheless requires a response.
In most cases, when the Bible praises man’s fearlessness and his need to move beyond fear, it is using the term in a different context than the way it is used when referring to “the fear of the Lord.” The passage in 2 Timothy 1:7 is not teaching that we should not fear God; rather, Paul was instructing Timothy that we should not fear for our lives while doing the Lord’s work. God wants His children to be fearless in their service to Him. Such courage will help His people “not be ashamed of the testimony of our Lord” (2 Timothy 1:8). Like the Israelites who were instructed by Joshua and Caleb not to fear the people of Canaan (Numbers 14:8-9), Christians must not fear their adversaries around them, nor the task before them. God expects His people to understand that “He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world” (1 John 4:4).
But what about 1 John 4:17? Is it not referring to fearing God? A person must keep in mind that the term “fear” is used in various senses in Scripture (and whenever different senses of the same word or thing are under discussion, the skeptics’ allegations hold no value). Fear can mean terror, dread, and horror; but it also can mean awe, reverence, and respect. The “perfect love” about which John writes casts out the former, not the latter. As the late Guy N. Woods noted:
“Fear,” as here contemplated, is not that which the Psalmist declares is “the beginning of wisdom” (Psalm 111:10), a reverential, godly fear, which shrinks from any action which would displease God, the fear which an obedient child has for a loving father;…but terror, dread, slavish fear, such as is characteristic of a slave in the presence of a cruel and heartless master…. The fear that is absent from genuine love is the fear of the whip in the hands of the master; the dread of the chastisement which comes to the disobedient. Perfect (mature) love casts out such fear, because it cannot exist where genuine love is (1979, pp. 304-305, emp. in orig.).
In Malachi 2:5, the prophet linked fear and reverence together in describing the attitude that Levi (whose name here represents the entire priestly class) possessed at one point in the past. Malachi stated: “So he feared Me, and was reverent before My name.” The Hebrew word transliterated yare’, frequently translated “fear,” also means “religious awe.” For this reason, some modern versions (like the New American Standard) have translated Malachi 2:5 thusly: “So he revered Me, and stood in awe of My name.”
Today, God expects His people to revere Him, not panic at the thought of Him as a slave might fear his cruel master. Furthermore, one way a Christian walks “in the fear of the Lord” (Acts 9:31) is by boldly following in the steps of the Savior, Who stood fearless in the face of His adversaries.
Woods, Guy N. (1979), A Commentary on the New Testament Epistles of Peter, John, and Jude (Nashville, TN: Gospel Advocate).