“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.’ 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.”—Exodus 20:18-20
Is it true that the fear of God is simply an Old Testament teaching that disappeared with the coming of Christ? Is it safer to sin under grace than it was under law?
The decisive answer is no. The fear of the Lord is also repeatedly commanded in the New Testament. For example, in Acts 9 the early church “grew in numbers, living in the fear of the Lord” (Acts 9:31). Peter says that we should live our lives before God with “reverent fear” (1 Peter 1:17).
God’s holiness demands our respect and fear. And, yes, that fear includes being afraid of God.
When God appeared on Mount Sinai, the people were terrified, so Moses made this interesting statement, “Do not fear, for God has come to test you, that the fear of him may be before you, that you may not sin” (Exodus 20:20).
Follow this carefully: on the one hand, the people were not to tremble in fear, nevertheless, God had come to reveal Himself so that they would fear Him and keep His commandments. So, on the one hand they were not to fear God; on the other hand they were to fear Him as a deterrent to sin.
How do we explain this apparent contradiction?
One writer points out that God was, in effect, saying that the Israelites should not fear God as slaves fear their masters, but rather, they were to fear Him as sons. The fear of a slave is to cower; slaves want to run away from their masters. But “son fear” is something different, it motivates us to seek and please God.
So, think of it this way. Moses, who feared God as a son fears his father, went straight up into the mountain to pursue God more intensely. His fear of the Lord motivated him to holiness, as was also true of the Apostle Paul (2 Corinthians 7:1). Jesus Himself took delight in the fear of the Lord (Isaiah 11:2-3). “Slave fear” that drives us away from God is wrong; “son fear” that drives us toward God is right and proper.
We should fear God because we know that our sin displeases Him. If we love God, we will not want to incur His displeasure. And when we offend Him by grieving the Holy Spirit, we should fear that our love of sin is greater than our love of God.
The path to destruction begins when we no longer fear God—for then we will not fear sin, but we’ll think that we can control the consequences. Many a life has been wrecked on such deceptions.
Let us pray that we might fear the Lord as His sons and daughters. Let us ask Him to give us a vision of His holiness and justice that makes us “tremble at His Word” as the prophet Isaiah admonishes us to do (Isaiah 66:5). Let us pray that we might “Serve the LORD with fear, and rejoice with trembling” (Psalm 2:11).
Let Us Pray
Father, I pray that You might enable me to have such a grand vision of You that I might fear You, that I might tremble in Your presence. Help me to see that You’re not merely a Redeemer but also a Judge; not merely a God of love, but also of holiness. Help me to fear sin, not just because of its consequences, but also because it grieves Your heart. As your son/daughter, I pray that I might “Serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice with trembling” as we’re admonished to do.
What I pray for myself, I also pray for _____ and ask that they might fear You just as a son or daughter fears a Father who both loves and disciplines—a Father who extends mercy but also judges. Above all, may they fear You because they love You and seek to please You through Jesus Christ. May the fear of the Lord keep them from sin, and in turn, the grace of the Lord keep them walking in obedience.
In Jesus’ name, Amen.