What Should We Truly Fear?

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Fear is a powerful force.
I have done things of which I am not proud out of fear. I have done things that were good from the same motivation.
The Bible speaks often about fear.
Fear God. Don’t fear anything else. Simplified, perhaps, but that is about the sum of it.
Yet we are also told that in Christ, we do not need to fear God. We are instructed to come boldly before His throne. We are told that perfect love casts out fear. How are these reconciled?
Fear the Lord thy God
Come boldly
It is certainly true that God tells us to fear nothing but Him. We are told that we will have trouble in this world but that we can take heart because Jesus has overcome the world.
Jesus tells His disciples not to fear those who can harm only the body but to fear only the One who can destroy both body and soul in hell.
He had, however, just been speaking about the Pharisees who had the power to cast them out of the temple which, for a first century Jew, was about the worst thing imaginable. The temple was an integral part of who they were. If they were cast out, not even their family would be allowed to associate with them. They became untouchables.
Jesus reassures His followers, though. He tells them that the Pharisees truly are not to be feared and that to be cast from the temple is not the worst thing imaginable. He warns them that the worst thing would be for God to cast your soul into hell.
Frightening words.
Then come comforting words, as Jesus is wont to do.
He then reassures them that if you trust in God you don’t have to fear the worst (being cast into hell) because God cares even for the tiny sparrows and you are worth so more than a sparrow to God.
So fear God. But don’t fear God.
Clear, yes?
I find clarification in the writings by John, one of Jesus’ disciples. He was there when Jesus spoke of fearing God rather than one who can harm only the body. Perhaps he was thinking of that moment when he wrote about fear in one of his letters.
John, speaking to those who have confessed that Jesus is Lord, says that there is no fear in love. He says that fear has to do with punishment, which has no place in those who are in Christ. Matthew Henry, in his commentary, speaks of this kind of fear as a dread arising from feelings of guilt. And perfect love drives out dread.
Perhaps it is a bit like our feelings about fire.
We all treat fire with caution and care when it is contained in our fireplace or firepit, but perhaps do not fear it. We have a healthy respect for it when checked by the confines of the fireplace, but I venture to guess that if a raging wildfire were headed straight for us with no way to escape, we would feel just a smidge of fear.
Perhaps fire truly is a good example in its limited way. If we follow the rules of caring for fire, it is beautiful and bestows many benefits upon us but if we disobey those rules it can consume us.
In the same way, if we obey God, if we accept His gift of Jesus’ blood covering us, we need not worry about punishment from God, and in that sense we do not need to fear Him. We should, however, still have fear in the sense of reverence and awe of what He could do if He were to choose, what He will do to those who reject Him.
So if we are in Christ, we do not have to be afraid of anything at all: nothing in this world, because Christ has overcome the world, and not of God, for we are in Christ who has taken on Himself the punishment for our sins.
So let us fear God out of awe and reverence rather than out of dread, for He is, in Scripture’s own words, a consuming fire.
Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire. ~ Hebrews 12.28-29

Art credits: Creation of the Sun and Moon by Michelangelo; Christ in the House of Martha and Mary by Jan Vermeer

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