When I was a child growing up in the South, I frequently heard people refer to one another as “God-fearing.” He’s a God-fearing man. She’s a God-fearing woman. They weren’t merely Christians. They were God-fearing Christians, and that was always meant to be a compliment.
What did people mean when they referred to someone as God-fearing? Well, they didn’t mean he or she was paralyzed by fear as though the person were trembling in the corner. It wasn’t a phobia of God. It wasn’t an irrational or crippling fear of God. Instead, they were referring to someone’s appropriate level of fear. Perhaps I should say an appropriate kind of fear. More often than not, what they meant by “God-fearing Christian” was someone who doesn’t merely call himself a Christian. He believes what he claims and lives according to what he believes. He isn’t a nominal Christian in name only. He sincerely fears God in the way Scripture defines a proper fear of God. In other words, his devotion to God is greater than his devotion to anything else in this world.
Whatever happened to the fear of God?
Today, we don’t hear that kind of language used too often, and I think it’s fallen out of favor for at least two reasons. First, talk of fearing God makes people uncomfortable. I remember when I was younger and would hear a preacher say something in a sermon about fearing God. I would immediately move to the edge of my seat. I wanted to hear him explain what that meant because it was a difficult concept for me to wrap my head around. I could understand loving God. I could even understand why some people had reason to fear God. But I was looking around the sanctuary at all of these Bible-believing, commandment-keeping Christians, thinking, Why should they fear God?
More than a few pastors and churches today have removed the fear of God for that very reason. If you want people to feel more comfortable, the fear of God is probably not a great subject to address. Generally speaking, contemporary Christendom prefers a more casual approach to God and religion. Today, God is less Sovereign Lord and more my buddy. Does anyone remember those bumper stickers that said, “Jesus is my homeboy”? It’s hard to imagine someone with such an irreverent bumper sticker truly having a proper fear of God.
The second reason I think we don’t hear much about fearing God anymore is that people don’t hear enough about God. Almost everyone knows a little something about God. If nothing else, they know he is merciful and loving, but that’s hardly the totality of God. God is merciful and loving, but he is also infinite, immutable, self-sufficient, omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, wise, just, good, holy, and glorious. Frankly, if we take any of those attributes away from him, he ceases to be God. Practically speaking, if we ignore any of those attributes, we lose our motivation to fear God. For instance, if God is loving but not necessarily holy, why should we fear him?
Always fear the Lord
In an effort to make people feel more comfortable with God, many have removed what should be the first response we have to God. Proverbs 1:7 says, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge.” Fearing God comes at the beginning. It is foundational to the Christian life. If we want true knowledge—that is, if we want to know about anything worth knowing—that knowledge begins with the fear of the LORD. We can learn science, math, language, and many other important subjects, but we can’t know about God himself or other spiritual matters apart from the fear of the LORD. It is the beginning of knowledge. Until we become God-fearing people, we don’t really know anything.
We can go further. Every step of the Christian life should be another step toward increasing reverence for God. Proverbs 23:17 says, “Always fear the LORD.” Fearing God is not an initiation into the Christian life which we leave behind. We don’t outgrow fearing God. Instead, we grow to fear him more. Consider Ecclesiastes 12:13. The author writes, “The conclusion of the matter is this: fear God and keep his commands, because this is for all humanity” (Ecc 12:13). Boil everything down, and what’s left? Fear God. It is the beginning. It is the conclusion. It is for every day in between. “Always fear the LORD.” Growing in grace is growing in godly fear. What did John Murray say? “The fear of the Lord is the soul of godliness.”
What does it mean to fear God?
What does it mean to fear God? It’s not the dread of God. It’s not a slave cowering in the corner because he’s afraid of his oppressive master. Godly fear is to stand in awe of God. It’s to feel a trembling in your soul at the thought of God. Imagine standing on a high cliff somewhere in the mountains. As you step to the edge and see how high you are, something about that experience takes your breath away. Suddenly, you feel very small and almost insecure. You’re overwhelmed by the immensity of the world around you, yet you’re captivated by its beauty.
That illustration isn’t perfect, but it gives you at least a sense of standing in awe of God. There’s a feeling of astonishment and amazement. We recognize how great God is and how small we are. To fear God is to be full of reverence for him. It is to be gripped by his greatness and glory. And like standing on the edge of that cliff, we must take him very seriously. Playing around on the edge of a cliff is a terrible idea. Treating God as trite or trivial is an even worse idea. That’s the opposite of fearing God. To be cavalier or too casual toward God is the opposite of the fear we ought to have. Instead, we should approach God soberly as we honor, obey, and worship him.
It disturbs me to hear how flippant people can be about God and spiritual matters. When I hear people make statements about God that are entirely void of reverence, I want to remind them that God holds our lives in the palm of his hand. Paul says, “In him we live and move and have our being” (Ac 17:28). In other words, God doesn’t have to take someone’s life. All he has to do is stop giving it. I can’t speak for anyone else, but that makes me feel pretty small. More importantly, I’m overwhelmed by the immensity of God. Here I am in the palm of his hand. How could I ever be flippant toward him?
When the apostle John came face-to-face with the unfiltered glory of Christ, he fell at his feet as though dead (Rev 1:17). When Isaiah saw the Lord seated on a high and lofty throne, his immediate response was to cry out, “Woe is me for I am ruined” (Isa 6:1, 5). According to Job chapter 1, the thing that set Job apart from everyone else—the characteristic that made him a man of complete integrity—was that he feared God (Job 1:1). The Bible is replete with examples of godly fear among godly men and women. In short, the biblical examples show that no one is merely a believer. They are God-fearing believers.
The fear of God in the New Testament
In case we’re tempted to think fearing God is exclusively Old Testament back when he rained fire from heaven, flooded the earth, and sent plagues upon his enemies, godly fear is godly fear. Again, the definition is not a dread of God or cowering in the corner. It is reverential awe in our hearts, and we see plenty of examples of this in the New Testament as well.
Immediately following the baptisms of 3,000 people in Acts chapter 2, we’re told these new Christians devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayer. And everyone was filled with awe (Ac 2:42, 43).
In Acts chapter 5, a great fear came on all in the church (Ac 5:5). Later in the same chapter, great fear came on the whole church (Ac 5:11). They personally witnessed the power of God working through Peter, and godly fear was the natural response. Listen to what the text says next:
Many signs and wonders were being done among the people through the hands of the apostles. They were all together in Solomon’s Colonnade. No one else dared to join them, but the people spoke well of them. Believers were added to the Lord in increasing numbers — multitudes of both men and women. (Acts 5:12-14)
Isn’t that curious? After seeing God’s power through signs and wonders performed by the apostles, we’re told, “No one else dared to join them” (Ac 5:12, 13). Yet, the very next verse says, “Believers were added to the Lord in increasing numbers” (Ac 5:14). Evidently, fear led some to stay away from the church and led others to join it. Regardless, they all had a measure of fear. They all respected God’s power and took it seriously. It motivated some to submit to his will and others to run away.
I’ll read one more example from the New Testament. Acts chapter 9 says, “So the church throughout all Judea, Galilee, and Samaria had peace and was strengthened. Living in the fear of the Lord and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers” (Ac 9:31). Over the years, there have been many church conferences designed to develop and discuss various growth strategies, but I’ve never heard of one that focused on the subject of fearing God. Perhaps they should. Living in the fear of the Lord, the early church increased in numbers.
Hebrews 12:28 says to New Testament believers, “Since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful. By it, we may serve God acceptably, with reverence and awe.” If nothing else, we should realize that fearing God is good. Proverbs says, “The fear of the LORD is a fountain of life” (Pr 14:27).
But godly fear is challenging to define. There’s a sense in which it’s either understood or not. Perhaps the best way for us to grasp this concept is to momentarily set aside the fear of God and focus instead on God himself. Again, when the attributes of God are missing—when we aren’t seeing the true God of the Bible—reverential awe (and all that godly fear encompasses) is also prone to be missing. So let’s consider the God of the Bible, starting with his greatness.
A great and awesome God
After Moses and the Israelites crossed the Red Sea on dry ground and watched Pharaoh’s army be swallowed up by the water behind them, Moses and the people began singing their praises to God in Exodus 15. They sang, “You overthrew your adversaries by your great majesty” (Ex 15:7).
Years ago, I read a book titled The Fury of God which left an impression on me. The author’s description of the flood in Noah’s day was especially compelling. Many of us have been reading these Bible stories since we were children, and though we believe them to be true, they feel almost fictional to us. This is a point Jerry Bridges makes in his book The Joy of Fearing God. He writes:
The narrative parts of the Old Testament often read like an adventure novel. Many of the stories really are high drama. … [They] can lull us into the attitude that what we’re reading is hardly more than good fiction. Reinforcing that tendency is the abundance in these stories of miraculous events that seem so unreal today. We don’t read in our newspapers of someone killing a thousand men with a donkey’s jawbone, as Samson did. We don’t hear about floating axeheads, or a family living for months on only a handful of flour and a little jug of oil. … Yet if the Bible is indeed God’s Word, we know these amazing stories are authentic accounts of real events happening to real people like you and me.
In The Fury of God, the author puts his readers on the ark with Noah as the flood comes. He’s forced to speculate to some degree, of course, but he writes what is probably an accurate account of the scene as it unfolded. Can you imagine the sights and sounds of that experience? If the rain itself wasn’t terrifying enough, imagine what it was like to be trapped in the ark and feel it begin to sway as the water rose. Did Noah hear booms of thunder? Did he hear people screaming from outside as they realized the ground was disappearing under the water? Were people banging on the ark to be let in?
We don’t know, but when we take a moment to put ourselves in those situations, to imagine what it was like for those “real people” in those “real events,” how can we not fear God? How can we not describe God as “a great and awesome God,” as Moses did? (Dt 7:21).
Psalm 96 says, “For the LORD is great and is highly praised; he is feared above all gods” (Ps 96:4). Psalm 104 says, “My soul, bless the LORD! LORD my God, you are very great; you are clothed with majesty and splendor” (Ps 104:1). Psalm 150 says, “Praise him for his powerful acts; praise him for his abundant greatness” (Ps 150:2). His greatness is so abundant, in fact, Psalm 145 says, “The LORD is great and is highly praised; his greatness is unsearchable” (Ps 145:3). That doesn’t mean we can’t know anything about his greatness. It means we can only begin to comprehend his infinite greatness.
Everything we can know about God points to his greatness. It’s on every page of Scripture, starting with the very first verse. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Ge 1:1). Mankind has created some very impressive things, but God created the universe. It’s been said that the four most important words of the Bible are the first four words of the Bible. “In the beginning God—“ If nothing else, those four words remind us that God is greater than all. He’s the origin and source of everything. It’s no wonder we can only begin to comprehend his greatness. We are merely his creations. His greatness is unsearchable to us (Ps 145:3).
God is greater than creation
If you have a Bible with you, go with me to Isaiah 40 and glance down at verse 12. You’ll notice Isaiah ascribes several human characteristics to God to illustrate God’s immense greatness in creation and history. He reminds us just how small we are by comparison.
Verse 12 says, “Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand?” (Isa 40:12). The implied answer is God alone. More than two-thirds of the earth is covered by water. Earlier this week, I read that if all of the earth’s water were poured on top of the United States, the land would be completely covered, and the water would be at least 107 miles deep. As a reference point, the distance between the ground and space is approximately sixty miles. The average depth of the oceans is less than three miles. God can hold all that water in the hollow of his hand. I can’t hold enough water in a single hand to quench my thirst.
Verse 12 continues, “Who has marked off the heavens with the span or breadth of his hand?” (Isa 40:12). A handbreadth is the distance between the tips of your thumb and pinky finger when they are spread apart. For me, a handbreadth is maybe seven or eight inches. For God, all of creation fits between his thumb and pinky finger. Not including the sun, the nearest star to earth is more than 26 trillion miles away, and that’s just the first star we’d come to. God can measure those 26 trillion miles and more with one hand.
I love this verse from the book of Job. Job says, “These are but the fringes of his ways” (Job 26:14). We could explore every square inch of the universe, and we’d still only reach the fringes.
Isaiah continues, “Who has gathered the dust of the earth in a measure or weighed the mountains on a balance and the hills on the scales?” (Isa 40:12). By now, you probably understand what this passage is telling us. God is great and awesome (Dt 7:21). No one compares with him. The boundless seas, infinitely vast heavens, majestic mountains that touch the sky— Not only are these things small and insignificant compared to God, but God spoke these things into existence from nothing.
God is greater than nations and rulers
As Isaiah 40 continues, verse 15 shows us that God is greater than all the nations on earth.
Look, the nations are like a drop in a bucket;
they are considered as a speck of dust on the scales;
he lifts up the islands like fine dust.
Lebanon’s cedars are not enough for fuel,
or its animals enough for a burnt offering.
All the nations are as nothing before him;
they are considered by him
as empty nothingness. (Isaiah 40:15-17)
All the nations, all of history’s greatest empires, all their citizens, all their power, and all their military might and weapons of war are like a drop in a bucket or fine dust to Yahweh (Isa 40:15). God is infinitely greater than natural creation, and he’s infinitely greater than anything humanity has produced.
According to verse 23, God is greater than princes and judges (Isa 40:23). He blows on them and they wither, and a whirlwind carries them away like stubble (Isa 40:24). As Proverbs says, “A king’s heart is like channeled water in the LORD’s hand: He directs it wherever he chooses” (Pr 21:1). Even when we consider the most powerful people on earth, they do not compare to the greatness of God. I like what Jerry Bridges says about it. He writes:
Think of the great rulers of history. Nebuchadnezzar, king of the Babylonian Empire, was driven insane in a moment and for seven years ate grass as cattle do, until God restored him. Alexander the Great conquered most of the known world, then died when he was only thirty-two. Napoleon and Hitler tried to conquer all of Europe, yet Napoleon died in exile and Hitler in a besieged bunker. Truly the most powerful rulers of all time have ultimately faded before the sovereign power of the One who rules history.
With whom will we compare God?
A complete exposition of Isaiah 40 would certainly be worth our time, but let’s skip ahead to the main point of this chapter. Look at verse 18. “With whom will you compare God?” (Isa 40:18). Verse 25 asks the question. And the answer is no one. There is no one who compares with God. There is nothing that compares with God. Jerry Bridges says:
Isaiah 40 reminds us that God is far, far greater than anything we can imagine. He is not limited to our most creative ideas. There can be no comparison between God—infinite, eternal, self-sufficient—and man, any man, for we are all only creatures, finite, limited, and mortal. If we’re to fear God, the infinitely vast distance between God and ourselves must ever be kept in mind. Isaiah 40 will help us keep this perspective.
The next time we’re standing on the edge of that cliff, awestruck by the glory of the sights and sounds, we should think back to Isaiah 40. God holds everything we see in the palm of his hand. His glory far exceeds the breathtaking glory of nature. As Psalm 19 says, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the expanse proclaims the work of his hands” (Ps 19:1). Of course, it does. He created it.
The people feared the Lord and believed
In the time remaining, let’s think back to Moses and the Israelites crossing the Red Sea. Jerry Bridges writes:
To appreciate their predicament, imagine being finally delivered from slavery in Egypt, only to see your former masters in hot pursuit and no way of escape. What emotions would surge through you as you faced this extreme danger—and later as you experienced miraculous deliverance?
Imagine seeing the Red Sea waters divided, opening a way for you and two million others to walk through on dry ground. You step down into the sea bottom with those walls of water towering above. Could they at any moment come crashing down?
At last you reach the far side, only to look back and see that the Egyptians have followed. Suddenly you watch those walls of water collapse; you witness an entire army drowning in the sea. In only a few hours you’ve experienced the highest degree of fear, apprehension, dismay, excitement, and overwhelming relief.
How did the Israelites respond? Exodus 14 says, “When Israel saw the great power that the LORD used against the Egyptians, the people feared the LORD and believed in him and in his servant Moses” (Ex 14:31). Fear was their response. It wasn’t the same kind of fear the Egyptians inevitably felt when the walls of water came crashing down, but it was fear. And it wasn’t the same fear the Israelites felt when they saw Pharaoh’s army behind them. Instead, they felt reverential awe as a result of witnessing God’s great power. They knew they were helpless to save themselves and saw just a sample of what Almighty God could do. Suddenly, they felt very small, and God appeared very big and very mighty.
It’s also worth noting that Israel not only feared the LORD at that moment, but they also believed in him (Ex 14:31). They saw him use his awesome power, not in a generic or universal way, but to save them. As Jerry Bridges says, “Power without love is terrifying. Love without power is pitiable. In God, the Jews saw both working together.” In other words, God didn’t merely display his power or merely express his love. Moved by love, he used his power for the good of his people, and his people responded with godly fear and trust.
Fear and trust go hand-in-hand. Psalm 33 says:
But look, the LORD keeps his eye on those who fear him—
those who depend on his faithful love
to rescue them from death
and to keep them alive in famine.
We wait for the LORD;
he is our help and shield.
For our hearts rejoice in him
because we trust in his holy name.
May your faithful love rest on us, LORD,
for we put our hope in you. (Psalm 33:18-22)
Earlier in the psalm, the author writes, “Let the whole earth fear the LORD; let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him.” (Ps 33:8).
Psalm 33 echoes Isaiah 40. The whole earth should fear the LORD because he is the Creator of all things and no human ruler or army could ever stand against him (Ps 33:8). Going further, Psalm 33 makes a direct connection between fearing God and trusting him. Those who fear him have every reason to trust him. And those who genuinely trust him also fear him. They stand in awe of his greatness and glory. They know what he can do. They know his power. They know he uses that power for the good of his people. The LORD keeps his eye on those who fear him (Ps 33:18).
Think of it this way. How could we put our trust in a God we cannot fear? If God isn’t sovereign and all-powerful, capable of creating worlds and performing the mighty miracles of the Bible, how could we believe all things work together for the good of those who love God? (Ro 8:28). A fear-worthy God is the only God we can trust. And if God is worth fearing, he is worth trusting.
In Numbers 11, God asked Moses, “Is the LORD’s arm weak?” (Nu 11:23). In Genesis 18, he asked Sarah, “Is anything impossible for the LORD?” (Ge 18:14). He says through Jeremiah, “Look, I am the LORD, the God over every creature. Is anything too difficult for me?” (Jer 32:27). The angel Gabriel said of him, “For nothing will be impossible with God” (Lk 1:37).
In summary, God is undeniably great. Therefore, we should stand in reverent awe of him. We should fear him. Our souls should tremble at the very thought of God. We should be astonished by him. We should worship him as we recognize how small we are and how big he is. We should be overwhelmed by his infinite perfection and glory. And because we fear him, we should trust him. If God is for us, who is against us? (Ro 8:31).