What does it mean to Fear the Lord?

Oh, that they had such a heart in them that they would fear Me and always keep all My commandments, that it might be well with them and with their children forever! – Deut 5:29

The ‘Fear of the Lord’ is a reoccurring theme in the scripture, and to ‘fear God’ has long been a way of saying that one was a true servant of God. But now I am afraid that the concept of fearing God has departed from much of the church, and with it much of His presence and power. Some modern Christians even maintain the idea that fearing God is a bad thing, a position they use 1 John 4:18 to bolster (e.g. ‘perfect love casts out fear’). But this position can only be held by those who have little knowledge of the Bible, for both Old and New Testaments command us to fear God, and speak well of those who do. Indeed, Jesus had the ‘Spirit of…the fear of the Lord,’ and ‘delighted in the fear of the Lord’ (Isaiah 11:1-3). Surely we should follow in His example.

With this in mind, I would like to prove and explain four things:

  1. What the fear of the Lord is not.
  2. What it is.
  3. Why it is a good and beneficial thing.
  4. Why we must walk in if we expect God to move among us.
  1. What the fear of the Lord is not

A. The fear of the Lord is not an emotional reaction in the way we normally understand fear. To think that to fear God is to live with feelings of terror or dread is to misunderstand what the fear of the Lord is. It certainly can include feelings of fear from time to time, but it is not that, per se.

B. The fear of the Lord is not fear of God’s judgment. Those who have cast off their sins have no fear of judgment, for they are washed and cleansed. We should certainly fear judgment if we pick our sins back up and walk in them. But if we maintain a humble attitude and put our sins away, we have no fear of judgment. Jesus, as previously stated, walked in the fear of the Lord and delighted it. He, of course, had no fear or danger of the judgment of God. Therefore we can conclude that to ‘fear God’ has no intrinsic connection to the judgment of God and should exist even in those who have no reason to fear His judgment.

  1. What the fear of God is.

The best definition for what it means to fear God is to be deeply concerned and preoccupied with what God thinks about what we think, say, and do. It means to care supremely about God’s opinion on every matter, and to seek to please Him above all else. This has nothing to do with feelings or emotions, per se. It is an act of the will, a decision. For anywhere that the Bible commands us to do anything, it is always a command to do and not to feel. God knows as well as we do that we cannot directly control the way we feel. We can control the way we feel indirectly by focusing our attention on objects that evince emotion. But we cannot directly control the way we feel. For example, we cannot say to ourselves, “I wish to feel happy at this moment,” and then expect to feel happy. We can, however, direct our attention to happy things in our lives, like our family, our friends, our spouses, and our many other blessings. When we do, natural feelings of happiness cannot help but arise in our hearts. The same is true in the opposite: if we allow our attention to be given to evil and horrible things, we cannot help but feel sad or angry.

The same thing is true regarding the fear of God. Although it is true that forgiven saints have no fear of His judgments, it is still a fearful thing to be in the presence of an Almighty God. Moses, though a blameless and pure man, said that he was ‘exceedingly afraid and trembling,’ in the presence of the Lord. And John, when the glorified Christ appeared to him, fell facedown as a dead man in His presence. Only when Christ said, “Fear not,” was he able to overcome this great terror. And when we direct our attention towards Him, thinking of His great power and awful judgments, when we contemplate the many that will be hurled away from His presence into a lake burning with fire and brimstone, we cannot help but be filled with a holy terror. Paul comments on this very thing, saying to the Corinthian church: “Knowing the terror of the Lord we persuade men” (2 Corinthians 5:11).

But, as already mentioned, fearing God is much less about how one feels and much more about what one does.

An example of this can be found in the midwives of Egypt in the days of Moses. When they were commanded to kill the sons that were born to the women of Israel, they would not. Why? The scripture report that they feared God.

But the midwives feared God, and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but saved the male children alive. – Exodus 1:17

We see that they could have acted in the fear of the king, as many others have down throughout history when carrying out great atrocities. But these midwives acted in the fear of God. They were more concerned with what God thought than the Pharaoh.

An example in the opposite direction would be that of King Saul. He had orders from God to destroy the wicked Amalekites and their livestock, leaving nothing alive. But he did not complete his mission and, instead, came home with the best of the livestock. At first, he defended his misdeed by declaring that the livestock was for a sacrifice to the Lord. But the prophet Samuel called him out for his disobedience, declaring that to obey is better than sacrifice:

Then Saul said to Samuel, “I have sinned, for I have transgressed the commandment of the LORD and your words, because I feared the people and obeyed their voice. (1Sa 15:24 NKJV)

In this case we see that Saul’s actions were evil because he feared the people, rather than the Lord. He was more concerned about what the people though than what the Lord thought. As a result, he lost his kingdom.

Who a man fears determines who he will obey. Will we seek to please man or God?

  1. That fearing God is a good thing that brings great benefits.

The Bible associates the fear of God with godly men and great benefits. We already know that Jesus ‘delighted in the fear of the Lord.’ But He was not alone in this. Abraham feared God (Genesis 22:12), and Isaac (Genesis 31:42). And remember Job, who was beloved of heaven, whom God spoke so highly of to Satan? What did He say of Him?

Then the LORD said to Satan, “Have you considered My servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, one who fears God and shuns evil?” – Job 1:8

In the New Testament, we see that Paul was a man of ‘fear and trembling’ (1 Corinthians 2:3), teaching us all to do the same (Ephesians 6:5, Philippians 2:12). And Cornelius, a man highly praised by God, was called ‘a devout man and one who feared God with all of his household’ (Acts 10:2).

The Bible speaks of the fear of the Lord as both the foundation and the pinnacle of wisdom and knowledge. In Proverbs, we read that ‘The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge’ (Proverbs 1:7), and that ‘The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom’ (Proverbs 9:10). In Proverbs 2:5 we read that when one seeks for wisdom and knowledge with all of one’s heart, then he will ‘understand the fear of the LORD…’

The fear the Lord is connected with power to overcome sin and to overcome the fear of man. It is called a ‘fountain of life’ (Proverbs 14:27) that ‘prolongs days’ (Proverbs 10:27). It is considered better than great treasure (Proverbs 15:16) and yet is the key to ‘riches and honor and life’ (Proverbs 22:4). It is said to bring ‘strong confidence’ to those who embrace it (Proverbs 14:26), and cause those who have it to ‘abide in satisfaction’ (Proverbs 19:23.) It is a shame that so little is spoken now of the fear of the Lord. At one time we spoke highly of a ‘God-fearing man,’ but that language is sparsely used anymore. Perhaps we should revive it, asking one another this question: “Do you fear God?”

  1. That we need to respect, honor, and fear God if we expect Him to move among us.

Then the churches throughout all Judea, Galilee, and Samaria had peace and were edified. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, they were multiplied. (Act 9:31 NKJV)

If we wish for God to move among us, to add to us, to multiply us, we must, like the early church, walk in the fear of the Lord. We must deeply care about what God thinks about all that we do. Are our lives pleasing to Him? Do we compartmentalize God? Do we give Him a little part of our lives but keep what we don’t want Him to touch? Have we done a thorough evaluation of every part of our lives, leaving nothing untouched? What about our relationships? Are they godly? Our entertainment choices, our leisure time, our private life? Do we treat our family properly? Do we live in a Christ-like manner at work? Are we completely and 100% honest when it comes to money? Are we faithful in our giving to the Lord? Do we act like our money is our own and not His?

When we fail to consider Him in all that we do, we grieve Him. When we fail to respect and honor Him as we should, we quench the Spirit. If He is grieved and quenched, can we expect that He would bless our efforts? We cannot. Only if we humbly serve Him and honor Him can we expect Him to move in our midst.

John Bevere, in His book entitled, “The Fear of the Lord,” recounts the story of when he once was invited to Brazil to preach at a large conference. The conference was held at a large venue that normally housed athletic games. As usually with these types of conferences, many vendors, food and otherwise, did business in the walkways of the stadium. He found that when service had begun, that many people continued to go in and out of the main conference area, often carrying in food and drinks, talking to one another and otherwise not paying attention to the service. There were many, of course, who were, but enough who were not engaged to sully the atmosphere of the event. It was being treated as an athletic game or concert and not as worship to the one true God.

I no longer have the book in my possession, so I cannot directly quote it, but I believe I can faithfully recount the gist of what happened: When it was time for John to speak, he berated the people for their lack of respect for God and for this meeting. He commanded that everyone get in order, to stop going in and out, and to engage in the service as they should. The people received the rebuke and discontinued their moving about. Instead, they made their way to their seats and proceeded to respectful participate in the worship of God. As a result, Mr. Bevere reported that a mighty wind blew into the building. It was the presence of God that swept in, and a mighty move of God commenced, one of the greatest that Mr. Bevere has reported to experience.

What is the lesson? The lesson is that God is not a commodity to enhance our life experience. He is the one true God, the Creator of all things. He is seated on the throne of Heaven and deserves our fear, respect, and honor—much more than any earthly king would. Most of us pay our proper respect to dignitaries upon the earth. How is that we so often do not honor our great Father in heaven?

Let us keep all this in mind when we approach Him in any way, whether in our personal prayer life or at church or any other time we invoke His holy name. He is certainly holy, and should be treated as such.

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