Fear God – What Does This Mean?

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by David Tavender

One of our readers asks: “When the Bible tells us to fear God (e.g. 1 Peter 2:17), what exactly does it mean, and why?”

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The short answer to the question is that we are to revere God and honour Him, and live our lives accordingly, rather than be frightened of Him.

The original words which have most often been translated “fear” in our  English Bibles are the Greek words ‘phobeomai’ and ‘phobos’ (from which we get our word “phobia”, meaning a fear of something), and the Hebrew words yare’ and yirah. All of these Greek and Hebrew words can indicate fear as in “terror” or “fright”, but quite often a different shade is evident – that of reverence and awe. The context of the passage in question will usually determine which is meant. Let’s look at some examples of each usage.

Fright

Firstly, some examples of people who were frightened by God: In Genesis 3: 10, “Adam said ‘I heard Thy voice in the garden and I was afraid, because I was naked and I hid myself'”. In Exodus 23:27, the Lord promised to send a fear (terror) of Himself into the enemies before the Israelites on their journey.

Luke 8:3 5 -3 7 tells us that, after Jesus had healed a demon possessed man, “the whole multitude of the country of the Gadarenes round about besought Him to depart from them; for they were taken with great fear”.

Reverence

Now contrast those examples against the following. The pattern here is more one of reverence and honour of God, than of fright: Psalm 89:7 – “God is greatly to be feared in the assembly of the saints, and to be had in reverence of all them that are about him.”

In Luke 7:16, after the Lord Jesus raised the widow’s dead son, “there came a fear on all: and they glorified God, saying, that a great prophet is risen up among us; and, that God hath visited his people”. These are not the words of people who are frightened or terrorised. Rather, they glorified and revered God for the mighty act done amongst them that day.

After an incident involving another demon-possessed man, Acts 19:17,18 says “this was known to all the Jews and Greeks … and fear fell on them all, and the name of the Lord Jesus was magnified. And many that believed came and confessed and shewed their deeds.”

All of these references illustrate how the “fear” in these instances was really awe, reverence or respect for God, rather than a terror. See also Matthew 27:54 and Acts 2:43 for similar examples.

The Believer

Far from being frightened, the believer through Christ our mediator, has an access to God not previously afforded to those in Old Testament times. And we have this access, not in terror, but in an atmosphere of boldness and confidence. Consider the following: ” – – . Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have boldness and access with confidence by the faith of him.” (Ephesians 3:11,12); “Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace” (Hebrews 4:16); “Having … boldness to enter into the holiest by the blood of Jesus.” (Hebrews 10: 19).

Christians are often told to fear God in the practical sections of the various epistles, clearly illustrating that the fear, respect and honour of God is not only an instruction for non-believers, but that the Christian’s daily walk is to reflect the reverence he or she should have for God.

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