I grew up with a serious fear of vampires. This was because one night sometime in early primary school, my mischievous (or culpably negligent) grandmother let me stay up and watch the classic 1922 silent horror film Nosferatu.
From that point on, open wardrobes, dark corners, and the long moon-cast shadows of my grandfather’s camellia bushes had my imagination working overtime. The turning point came a year or two later when, during a late night game of canasta with my grandmother (actually, she was definitely mischievous), the clock went past midnight. That was when my developing scientific mind clicked into gear. My reasoning went as follows:
Vampires come at midnight.
It is now ten minutes past midnight.
No vampire has made itself manifest.
Therefore… vampires do not exist!
I have no idea why I thought that vampires only turned up on the dot of midnight, but nevertheless, that night I overcame my irrational fear of the non-real thanks to some cool-headed rationality and a completely false premise.
There are two kinds of fear: rational and irrational. Irrational fear is like my fear of vampires. Nosferatu was a work of fiction. I had no reason to be afraid of vampires at midnight or any other time, yet despite their unreality I would sleep with the covers over my head and jump at shadows. The problem with irrational fear is that it makes you anxious when you have no reason to be, and causes you to take unnecessary and possibly harmful actions. But rational fear—such as the fear of being struck by lightning while you are holding a large golf umbrella on top of a hill during a thunderstorm—is good fear. It is the kind of fear that perceives reality correctly and should lead to the taking of appropriate action.
As we look over the Scriptures, both Old Testament and New, there seem to be three realities about God that should provoke rational fear: his majesty, his holiness, and his judgement.
Fearing the majestic God
Firstly, we fear the majestic God. As Christians we recognize that God is the sovereign ruler of all, the King of kings and Lord of lords, the creator and sustainer of everything. His rule is not that of an elected official who is subject to his people. His authority is not derived from that of another, like, say, the head of state. His majesty is a true majesty that goes far beyond any earthly comparison. God rules with truth, compassion and justice. He can’t be bullied, he can’t be manipulated against his will, he can’t be deceived or tricked. There is not a shred of weakness in God—not in his power, nor his character, nor his knowledge.
So Moses said this to the people of Israel as they were about to enter the Promised Land:
For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who is not partial and takes no bribe. He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing. Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt. You shall fear the LORD your God. You shall serve him and hold fast to him, and by his name you shall swear. He is your praise. He is your God, who has done for you these great and terrifying things that your eyes have seen. (Deut 10:17-21)
There’s something about being in the presence of true greatness that both attracts and terrifies, that entrances and intimidates. The reality of God’s magnificence is so overwhelming that when Ezekiel was given a vision of just the “appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD” enthroned in his majesty (Ezek 1:28), the prophet fell flat on his face in abject terror. God is terrifying in his majesty.
Do you think of God this way? It is astounding how easily we human beings can lose perspective. We can so easily be presumptuous with God, acting or speaking as if God has to prove himself to us; as if God has to justify his actions, and owes us an explanation for the decisions he makes and for the way he tells us we should live. In Job, God appears in a whirlwind and says:
“Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?
Dress for action like a man;
I will question you, and you make it known to me.
“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk,
or who laid its cornerstone,
when the morning stars sang together
and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” (Job 38:2-7)
We constantly need reminding that God is God and we are not. The God who calls you to follow him called the whole universe into being with the sheer power of his will. We can’t even control a sneeze! Our minds are too limited even to begin to imagine the reality of the awesome power of God; yet wisdom calls us to do so, as the Spirit exhorts us in Isaiah 40:
Do you not know? Do you not hear?
Has it not been told you from the beginning?
Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?
It is he who sits above the circle of the earth,
and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers;
who stretches out the heavens like a curtain,
and spreads them like a tent to dwell in;
who brings princes to nothing,
and makes the rulers of the earth as emptiness.
Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown,
scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth,
when he blows on them, and they wither,
and the tempest carries them off like stubble.
To whom then will you compare me,
that I should be like him? says the Holy One.
Lift up your eyes on high and see:
who created these?
He who brings out their host by number,
calling them all by name,
by the greatness of his might,
and because he is strong in power
not one is missing. (Isa 40:21-26)
To fear such a God is common sense. To not fear such a God is sheer idiocy! Yet at the same time, if you fear this fearsome God, those very aspects that strike awe in us are also reason for hope and comfort. Look at how Isaiah completes this passage from verse 27:
Why do you say, O Jacob,
and speak, O Israel,
“My way is hidden from the Lord,
and my right is disregarded by my God”?
Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
his understanding is unsearchable.
He gives power to the faint,
and to him who has no might he increases strength.
Even youths shall faint and be weary,
and young men shall fall exhausted;
but they who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength;
they shall mount up with wings like eagles;
they shall run and not be weary;
they shall walk and not faint. (Isa 40:27-31)
God uses the same power that sustains stars to sustain those he loves.
Fear the Holy God
The second thing about God that should elicit right and rational fear is his holiness.
God is not only the mighty ruler of all; he is also pure and righteous and holy. His holiness is at least as fearsome as his sovereign power.
God radiates such comprehensive moral purity, and such a powerful and absolute intolerance of sin, that when this reality is accurately perceived by a sinner, they cannot help but be overcome with terror. God’s moral distinction from us is dangerously stark, and powerfully intimidating.
There is probably no clearer picture of this than at Mount Sinai (Exod 19:10-24). Before the Lord appeared before Israel, the whole nation was to cleanse and purify itself in preparation. No-one was permitted even to touch the mountain on pain of death—not even the livestock! When the Lord eventually appeared before them in the cloud, there was thunder and lightning and fire and a trumpet blast. No-one was to approach or the Lord would break out against them. The whole scene was terrifying. In Exodus 20:18-19 we read of the people’s response:
Now when all the people saw the thunder and the flashes of lightning and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking, the people were afraid and trembled, and they stood far off and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die”. (Exod 20:18-19)
This is the fearsome, uncompromising holiness of God. But there’s a consequence to understanding this holiness: “Moses said to the people, ‘Do not fear, for God has come to test you, that the fear of him may be before you, that you may not sin’” (Exod 20:20). Moses tells the people not to be afraid… but to fear God! God’s fearsome holiness should not cause his people to flee in terror but spur them on to be holy themselves. Their fear should keep them from sinning. (Next issue, in the third article in this series, we’ll deal more with the concrete details of fearing God in our lives.)
The thing we need to realize is that God’s holiness is dangerous and fearsome. God is so holy that anything that is not holy cannot and will not survive his presence. Some of the most chilling accounts in the Bible are those where God deals with people who showed contempt for his holiness. I commend Numbers 16 as a case in point. God’s holiness is fearsome, and he will not let it be defiled.
Fear the God who will judge
The third fearsome thing about God is that he is the judge. God will hold us all to account. The concluding wisdom from the book of Ecclesiastes says:
The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. (Eccl 12:13)
For God will bring every deed into judgement, with every secret thing, whether good or evil. (Eccl 12:14)
God will judge every deed, both good and evil, every hidden thing:
[The Lord] will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. (1 Cor 4:5)
He will judge the lot! Not one thing will go unnoticed. Now there’s an intimidating thought!
What’s more, God will judge with perfect justice. No partiality, no bribes, no turning a blind eye, nothing swept under the carpet:
And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done. (Rev 20:12)
And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire. (Rev 20:15)
As Jesus said to his disciples in Matthew 10:28, “do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” That’s a chilling warning, is it not? Get your fear right! To be afraid of how people judge you and yet not fear God is like lying on a beach worrying about your tan while a tsunami approaches.
The fearsome Trinity
It is wise to fear God: God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. Sometimes people try to drive a wedge between Jesus and ‘the God of the Old Testament’, claiming that the Old Testament God is vengeful and scary while the New Testament Jesus is peaceful and loving. This does no justice to the love and patience God continually shows in the Old Testament, and forgets that it is God the Father who so loved the world he sent his only Son. But importantly, it is also a dangerously domestic view of Jesus and the Holy Spirit. If you don’t fear the Father, you don’t know him. If you don’t have a fearful respect for Jesus and the Holy Spirit then you don’t know them either.
The disciples didn’t make this mistake. They couldn’t. In Mark 4, they saw Jesus stand on the end of a boat in the midst of a tempest, and with a word command the wind and waves to cease. With a word. What was it like to witness this? Well, they were afraid during the storm, but they were terrified after Jesus stopped it!
Again and again in the Gospels, as Jesus displays the power of God, the disciples and the crowds are filled with fear and awe. In Mark 9, Jesus is transfigured before Peter, James, and John:
…his clothes became radiant, intensely white, as no-one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, and they were talking with Jesus. And Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” (Mark 9:3-5)
Peter fumbles around trying to find something appropriate to say: “Ahhh… let me, umm… get you all a tent…” It’s the best he can come up with. He is scared out of his wits! We read in verse 6 that “he did not know what to say, for they were terrified”. What we’re talking about here is an intense fright, enough to make your hair stand on end.
In that great apocalyptic vision of Jesus in Revelation 1 (and in the seven letters that follow in chapters 2-3) we see Jesus described in a way that emphasizes all three aspects of the fearsome God: his majesty, holiness and justice. Jesus is the Son of Man: the one who in Daniel 7 is given “dominion and glory and a kingdom” (Dan 7:14). He wears the golden sash of royalty. He is radiant with white hair and blinding white robes, emphasizing his holiness, and out of his mouth comes the sharp double-edged sword of his justice. And just like Ezekiel centuries beforehand, John is overwhelmed by his vision of Christ and falls to the ground as though dead. This astonishing vision of Jesus is revisited later in Revelation as Christ rides a white horse, waging war on the enemies of God and of his people, shown to be the one who will “tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty” (Rev 19:15).
And what of the Holy Spirit? We know of the Spirit’s holiness, but the Holy Spirit is also powerfully majestic. In Acts, when the disciples are filled with the Holy Spirit and are working miraculous signs and wonders in the Spirit’s power, what reaction do we see? Acts 2:43 tells us that everyone was filled with awe (the Greek word is phobos—fear—from which we get our word phobia).
Consider also the terrifying example of Ananias and Sapphira—the couple who try to hide the fact that they siphoned off some money they had pledged to the church. At the word of the apostle Peter, they are struck dead because they lied to the Holy Spirit (Acts 5:9-10). The Spirit judges the secret motives of the heart. The reaction of the church is unsurprising: “great fear came upon the whole church and upon all who heard of these things” (Acts 5:11). The Spirit is both our Helper (John 14:26) and our fearsome God.
God—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—is majestically powerful, dangerously holy, and the righteous judge of all things. He is not our equal. Familiarity must never lead to contempt. If you truly know God, you will fear him. Only a fool would not.
But the fear of God in Christ has a particular flavour to it. If we have turned to Christ, we are this fearsome God’s precious people, filled with every spiritual blessing. As we fear God we are driven towards him in worship and praise. Should not those who have been made heirs of the king delight in his majesty even as they stand in awe of it? Should not those who have been made holy by the blood of Jesus delight in the purity of God’s holiness, and the fact that one day they will be able to stand in his presence? And should not those who have been justified and had their guilt removed delight in God’s righteous judgements?
As 1 John 4:18 reminds us, perfect love drives out fear. Love drives out the irrational fear in Christians that the God who sent his Son to die for us would then turn and condemn us. But that doesn’t change who God is. God is loving, and God is also fearsome. He is who he is and is never anything less. Love the God you fear, and fear the God you love—therein lies the path of wisdom.