In churches today, many of us might be surprised to hear a sermon on the fear of God. If we do come across one, we may hear that “fear” doesn’t really mean fear. We’re told it means “respect.”
While it’s true that respect and awe are involved, the Hebrew noun pa-had means “dread, a sort of panic.” It means the same thing in Greek, where the word is phobos, from which we get the word “phobia.” The fear of God is a form of xenophobia—a fear of the stranger, or, in this case, the One who is utterly strange and altogether different.
The fear of God is a form of xenophobia—a fear of the stranger, or, in this case, the One who is utterly strange and altogether different.
The fear of God is not primarily a fear of something (for instance, judgment) but of someone. It is God himself who provokes our phobia. He is different from us, not only because we’re mere creatures, but because we’re sinful. This is what is sometimes called the sublime. We experience small-scale intimations of the sublime in nature. Describing tornadoes and hurricanes, storm chasers alternate between being terrified by their devastating power and exhilarated by their majesty.
The same is true of massive fires and earthquakes or being tossed at sea in a storm. Survivors speak of “respect,” to be sure, but it’s always more than a sense of deference due. It is being gripped by a deep awe that makes you want to simultaneously get closer and run away.
Fear of God’s Glory
Whenever God revealed himself to people in Scripture, they were afraid. Be very skeptical if someone reports a vision of God and describes it as a casual conversation. In the Bible, God or his messenger has to say, “Do not be afraid” (and, for some, repeat it) because people are afraid, hiding their faces from the glory of the holy God. This fear is a disorienting experience, the recognition one has in sensing that he or she is not in charge. One can’t simply get back on the horse and ride confidently again in the saddle of emotional calm. Abram, Moses, Joshua, David, and the rest simply fell down in worship. While beholding a vision of God’s majesty, with even the mightiest heavenly creatures covering their faces and feet, Isaiah reports,
And one called to another and said:
“Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!”
And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” (Isa. 6:3–5)
Again, this fear is a species of xenophobia because there isn’t anyone like God. I’m not saying simply that we acknowledge him as unique, but that he is unique. God is not just a supreme being at the top of the ladder. He’s above the ladder he created.
I respect all sorts of people, but they don’t render me speechless in their presence. Yet one is simply dumbfounded at the absolute otherness of this Stranger. He does not reveal himself to scare us. When angels show up, they have to calm their listeners down and assure them that they come with good news. And that’s just the natural reaction to angelic servants. But the majesty of the One is overwhelming to all creatures—and Isaiah’s experience was only a vision, not a direct sight of God in his blinding glory. Isaiah may have thought he was as good as the next guy—until he saw God.
Fear of Jesus’s Power
A similar episode occurs in Matthew 8:23–27. Even when God clothes himself in our humanity to hide his blinding glory, his sublimity provokes fear. Jesus and his disciples are in a boat and a megastorm (seismos megas) suddenly arises. Terrified of imminent danger, the disciples wake an inexplicably sleeping Jesus:
“Save us, Lord; we are perishing!” And he said to them, “Why are you afraid, O you of little faith?” Then he rose and rebuked the winds and the sea, and there was a great calm. And the men marveled, saying, “What sort of man is this, that even winds and sea obey him?” (vv. 25–27)
“Marveled,” as most English translations have it, doesn’t quite capture the original: ethaumasan, from thamazô, which means “astonished out of one’s senses.” We find they similarly “marveled” in Mark’s account, but the Greek more accurately reads, “They feared (ephobethesan) with great fear (megan phobon)” (Mark 4:41).
The fury of the natural elements—the sublime in its most terrifying aspect—provoked the disciples to ask Jesus for salvation. Like the rest of us, they were afraid of an imminent natural threat. There may have been some hint of the sublime in this tempest, but it was mostly raw fright.
But in that moment when Jesus by sheer command brought the terrifying storm to an end, they were more afraid of Jesus than they had been of the storm. The full presence of the Sublime was too close to them. For a split second the disciples may have felt relief that Jesus was with them in the boat, but then they felt that disorienting awe. During the storm, they knew that he could save them from mortal danger—and he did. But then they felt a sense that he was the greater threat!
When Jesus brought the terrifying storm to an end, they were more afraid of Jesus than they had been of the storm.
In another boating episode, Jesus tells the disciples to throw over the net after a day of fishing failure. Now, this is Peter’s boat. On land Jesus might be respected as the wise rabbi, but now he is part of the crew and hardly in a position to give orders to the veteran captain.
Nevertheless, Jesus takes command—and when they pull the net back in, it’s so full they can hardly heave it into the boat. “But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, ‘Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord’” (Luke 5:8). As in Isaiah 6 and Matthew 8, Peter here has that sense of the Sublime—that awful beauty—that simultaneously repels and beckons. What’s so striking in these episodes is the fear that accompanies the words and deeds of Jesus even though his blinding majesty is hidden in our human flesh.
God is not our buddy, an indulgent grandfather, a life coach, or a golf partner. He is the sovereign Creator of heaven and earth, demanding an account from each of us for our sins—first of all against him, but also against our neighbors and the rest of the creation he has made.
And this is the real crisis confronting us. It’s this crisis that should make us all afraid: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (Rom. 1:18). Only against this backdrop can we be struck by the force of that precious title, “Friend of Sinners.”