The Fear of the Lord

“Come, O children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the Lord” (Ps. 34:11). Do you fear the Lord? “Why would I fear the Lord?” someone might say. “The Lord says that he is ‘a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin’ (Ex. 34:6-7). Why would I fear that?”

But don’t stop short: “forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation” (Ex. 34:7). You cross the Lord, and he will destroy you.

These verses in Exodus illustrate a common problem mankind has when it comes to God, and that is, mankind likes to take God in halves. For instance, other religions can only think of their gods with fear. They don’t have the Gospel, they don’t have Christ. They can only cringe before their god and try to appease it. We Christians have the Gospel, we have Christ with his grace and mercy and forgiveness. But in the corruption of our sinful flesh we often have the opposite problem, namely, we only think of the Lord as gracious.

Face it: you like to think of Jesus as the one who fed the five thousand, the one who carries the lost sheep on his shoulders, the one who takes up the little children in his arms and blesses them. You don’t like to think of Jesus as the one who fashions a whip of cords and drives the money-changers from the temple, who pours out their coins and overturns their tables. You don’t like to think of Jesus as the one who confronts you with your sins, the one who comes on the clouds of heaven to judge the earth, the one who casts people into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Yes, a common sin, even among Christians, is taking God by halves, trying to take him on our own terms. You want the promise of eternal life without hearing the threat of judgment. You want words of comfort without rebuke for sin. You want Easter Sunday without Good Friday. In short, you want a God who is like a warm blanket: you can cozy up with him when you need consolation, you can dry your eyes with him when you’re sad, you can hide under him when you’re scared. And otherwise, you can leave him lying there on the couch and go off and do your own thing. What’s the blanket going to do? Get angry? Smother you in your sleep?

But if we’re going to apply metaphors, how about this one: “Our God is a consuming fire” (Heb. 12:29). You don’t approach fire according to your whims, but according to its nature. Or in other words, you can’t have fire on your own terms. You can enjoy its light and its warmth, but you should fear what would happen to you if you stuck your hand into the fire. It’s not going to change its nature just because you feel like toying around with it. If you care about your hand, keep it out of the flame. If you value your life, do not sin against God.

Ah, but how often do you fear the divine consequences of sin? You fear the earthly consequences of sin. You fear getting fired from work, so you don’t steal from your employer. You fear punishment from your parents, so you obey them. You fear what people would say if you did this or that wrong, so you do right. You fear earthly things. But Jesus says, “I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him!” (Lk. 12:4-5).

Many were disobedient in the days of Noah, and the Lord destroyed them in a flood (Gen. 7). The inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah practiced sexual immorality, and the Lord consumed them with rain of sulphur and fire (Gen. 19:23-25). Uzzah reached out his hand and touched the ark of the Lord, and God struck him down (2 Sam. 6:6-7). Korah rebelled against the Lord, and the earth opened and swallowed him (Num. 16). The Israelites grumbled against the Lord in the wilderness, and he sent fiery serpents among them (Num. 21:4-9). Pharaoh refused to listen to the Word of the Lord, and he suffered great and grievous plagues (Ex. 7-14). Will you think of sin lightly? Will you live as if the Ten Commandments were a set of tips for a happy life, take them or leave them? Do you have a death wish?

“Come, O children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the Lord.” Come now, think of blood, and punishment greater than man can bear. Think of the wrath of God mixed in a cup and poured burning down the throat. Think of wounds and lashings, think of darkness and death. Think of Jesus Christ nailed to a cross. Yes, think of the crucifixion. When the Lord sees sin, he doesn’t say, “That’s ok, no problem, don’t worry about it.” When the Lord sees sin, his wrath is kindled and people die. The crucifixion teaches you to fear God’s wrath: “he will by no means clear the guilty.”

But far be it from us to take God by halves. It’s true, the death of Christ should keep us mindful of the fact that “our God is a consuming fire,” and should teach us to fear the Lord. But the death of Christ also proves that we have “a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin.” Jesus serves as a warning, lest we fail to take sin seriously. But even better, Jesus serves as the Savior.

Jesus loaded himself with the sins you have committed. By so doing he diverted divine wrath away from you and toward himself. The fury of the flood, of flaming hail, of fiery serpents fell from God in full and landed with devastating force on the innocent Son of God. “He was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed” (Is. 53:5). In the death of Jesus we see the truth of the words in 1 Thessalonians 5:9, “God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Jesus is no longer under wrath. The greatest testimony of this is the fact that he rose from the dead. He satisfied divine fury, and therefore you can rest secure, knowing that you are no longer under wrath, but under grace.

Should you still fear the Lord? Of course! His nature hasn’t changed, his Law hasn’t changed. In his mercy, he has covered your sins, but he has not given you license to sin, as it is written:

“For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses. How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has spurned the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace? For we know him who said, ‘Vengeance is mine; I will repay.’ And again, ‘The Lord will judge his people.’ It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb. 10:26-31, quoting Dt. 32:35, 36).

Now I don’t want you to think that I’m giving with one hand and taking with the other: “Here’s Jesus! Just kidding! You still get wrath.” No, that’s not it at all. The point is that we are saved by a gracious Lord, and we still fear the Lord. We have a whole God, not half a God.

This fear, though, does not mean that we live in constant terror as if we were not saved. The fear of the Lord means we fear what God will do to us if we rebel against him, if we purposefully set aside his commandments and follow the way of the world and the passions of the flesh. We fear what will happen if we treat Jesus like a permission slip that allows us to disregard Jesus’ own words.

This fear of the Lord is a very good thing. “The fear of the Lord is Zion’s treasure” (Is. 33:6). I suppose it would be useful to highlight the great benefits of the fear of the Lord, lest we think of it as something awful.

So how is the fear of the Lord a treasure? First, the fear of the Lord makes us give ear to the Word of the Lord. Consider the people in the Parable of the Great Banquet who asked to be excused from the feast (Lk. 14:15-24). They regarded God like a warm blanket who was there for them when they wanted him, and at the moment they didn’t want him, so they disregarded what he had to say. They had no fear of the Lord, so they never expected the master’s response: “Then the master of the house became angry… ‘I tell you, none of those men who were invited shall taste my banquet!’” (Lk. 14:21, 24). If exclusion from the banquet means hell, then when the invitation to the banquet comes, we’re all ears. We listen to the Word of the Lord. And when we do, we don’t hear all fire and brimstone, but a gracious call to the feast. This is good. The fear of the Lord is good.

Second, the fear of the Lord makes us take doctrine seriously. The Church’s teachings are not her words, nor the words of mere men, but the words of God himself. Pastors may relentlessly instill certain points, and insist that certain other teachings and practices are wrong. We examine all things according to the Word of the Lord, and we don’t take matters of doctrine lightly, or scoff when disputes irritate us.

We’re not dealing with trinkets. We’re not throwing the ball around in the backyard. We are handling God’s words, which are more precious than any treasure, and come with the worst consequences if we neglect them, twist them, ignore them, or refuse to take them seriously. Jesus pronounced “Woe!” on the scribes and Pharisees for their false teaching (which is to pronounce damnation; Mt. 23). Jesus slams the door of heaven in the faces of false prophets and those who have neglected the Word and tells them to go away (Mt. 7:21-23, 25:1-13).

Third, the fear of the Lord makes us turn away from evil. Remember Joseph the son of Jacob (Gen. 39). Joseph’s brothers had sold him as a slave, and an Egyptian man named Potiphar bought him. One day Potiphar’s wife tried to seduce Joseph, saying, “Lie with me.” And as tempting as it was to think of fleshly enjoyment and sinful passions, Joseph had the fear of the Lord. He said, “How can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?” (Gen. 39:9). You see, he wasn’t thinking of the beauty of Potiphar’s wife or the fact that he could probably commit adultery without being caught. He was thinking of the judgment of God. “Do I really want to purchase a moment of pleasure at the cost of eternity in hell?” The choice is obvious.

In the same way, the fear of the Lord can help you in the face of temptation. The devil, world, and flesh know how to make sins appear very desirable. Sins seem like they will be accompanied by happiness, pleasure, gratification, honor, riches, praise, and all manner of good things. The fear of the Lord opens your eyes to see what really accompanies sins: floods and plagues and fiery serpents and death.

In times of temptation, the tempter will try to make you fixate on a delusion of wonderful sin. Instead, remember Sodom and Gomorrah. Or think that the earth might open beneath you if you commit that sin. The fear of the Lord will preserve your life, as Solomon says, “The fear of the Lord is a fountain of life, that one may turn away from the snares of death” (Prov. 14:27).

Fourth, the fear of the Lord sends us running to Christ. There are times when, on account of the devil’s temptations and the weakness of the flesh, we do sin. When we sin we should feel as though dark clouds were gathering over our heads and at any moment a bolt of lightning from on high might strike us dead. Our only hope is the one who bore our guilt. We quickly pray, “Lord, have mercy! Forgive my sins for the sake of Christ! Make haste to save me!” And the Lord does save you. The skies clear, and the angel of death passes over because of the blood of the Lamb.

And finally, the fear of the Lord takes away fear of everything else. The Lord is a consuming fire, and when our refuge is Christ, then we can find comfort in the fact that the Lord directs his consuming fire at our enemies. For example, shall we fear death? The Lord has conquered death and has promised to raise us from the dead. Shall we fear men? What can they do? They did their worst against Christ and all their work was in vain. Shall we fear the devil, the world, sin, darkness? The Lord is our light and our salvation; whom shall we fear? The Lord is the stronghold of our life; of whom shall we be afraid? The only thing to fear is offending against the one who has rescued us from all other fears. And so the fear of the Lord sets our hearts at ease, as Solomon says, “The fear of the Lord leads to life, and whoever has it rests satisfied; he will not be visited by harm” (Prov. 19:23).

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