Our English word “fear” translates several Hebrew and Greek words. The most common word in the Old Testament used to express fear is yir’ ah. It means “fear” or “terror” (Isa. 7:25; Jonah 1:10, 16 ). The Greek word most often used in the New Testament to express fear is phobos, from which we get our English word “phobia.” It is translated into the English words, “fear,” “dread,” and “terror” (Mat. 28:4; Luke 21:26 ).
Our natural “emotion” or “feeling” of alarm is triggered by our expectation of imminent or immediate danger, pain, or disaster. Thus, this natural emotion of fear is caused and appears in our normal day to day conduct and relationships of life.
We see this natural “feeling” in an animal’s fear of man (Gen. 9:2 ), our fear of animals (Amos 3:8 ); our fear of one another (Gen. 26:7 ), and one nations fear of other nations (2 Sam. 10:19 ). We are afraid of wars (Exo. 14:10 ), of our enemies (Deu. 2:4 ), and of being subjugated to others (Deu. 7:18; 28:10). We are afraid of physical death (Gen. 32:11 ), of all kinds of disaster (Zep. 3:15-16 ), of sudden panic (Pro. 3:25 ), of being overtaken by all kinds of trouble (Job 6:21 ), and of the unknown (Gen. 19:30 ). Fear can reflect our own limitations of life—perceived or real (Ecc. 12:5 ), as well as the unforeseen consequences of ours or others actions (1 Sam. 3:15).
Also, we learn that the word “fear” is used to describe the high regard young people owe to the elderly (Job 32:6 ), the honor children are to have in their conduct toward their parents (Lev. 19:3), the respect people are to have toward their masters (1 Peter 2:18 ), and anyone in a position of responsibility (Rom. 13:7 ). Fear is also used in the sense of our concern for others (2 Cor. 11:3) as well as a wife’s respect for her husband (1 Peter 3:2 ).
In the Old and New Testaments religious fear is mankind’s response to God upon realizing they are in His presence in some way or another and to one degree or another. It is the fear that surges to the surface of their being because of their great awe and reverence of Deity. In the Old Testament, when God appears to a person, the person experiences the reality of God’s holiness. This revelation of God’s being points to the tremendous distinction between humans and God. It states one of the characteristics of Deity that man’s finite mind cannot begin to grasp—that men are drawn to and driven away from Him at the same time. There is that about the divine holiness that causes mankind to be overwhelmed with a great sense of awe and fear. Thus, we see people’s responses to being in the presence of God by falling down prostrate before and/or kneeling in reverence and worship, in confessing their sins, and seeking to know and do His will (Isa. 6:1; Rev. 1:10-17).
However, when we know that we are living in sin (Jam. 4:17; 1 John 3:4) and that God will punish us for our sins in an eternal hell (Rom. 3:23; 6:23; Rev. 21:8; Gal. 5:19-21) “when the Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven with his mighty angels, in flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ: Who shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power” (2 The. 1:8, 9), “for our God is a consuming fire” (Heb. 12:29), then we can and ought to be “extremely frightened” and stand in horror at the thought of our eternal disaster. This sense of estrangement from God and guilt that comes as the consequence of people’s sins produces in the heart of a sinner the fear of the Day of the Lord because they will appear before the judgment bar of Christ (Joel 2:1; 2 Cor. 5:10). Thus, there is a haunting fear, an intense dread, and of abject horror at the thought of what lies waiting just beyond death’s door in eternity as the consequence of a person dying with one’s sins unforgiven. Adam and Eve were afraid after their act of disobedience to God (Gen. 3:10 ). When Abimelech violated God’s will by taking Abraham’s wife, Sarah, to be his wife, he was afraid of God when he realized what he had done (Gen. 20:8-9 ).
Because of God’s majesty, His power, His works, His transcendence, and His holiness, He is a “great and terrible God” (Neh. 1:15 ) and “fearful in praises, doing wonders” (Exo. 15:11 ). His name is “fearful” (Deu. 28:58 ) and “terrible” (Psa. 99:3 ).
In the Old and New Testaments the fear of God comes on persons when they experience God in some kind of visible manifestation (Exo. 20:18 ), such as dreams (Gen. 28:17 ), invisible form (Exo. 3:6 ), visions (Acts 9:3-8) and in His great work in unfolding in His scheme of redemption for the salvation of man (Isaiah 41:5). When man soberly considers God’s work, His power, majesty, and holiness, fear on his part is a natural response. The close consideration of the same, demands from man acknowledgment. One’s fear of God in such cases is not the dread that comes out of fear of punishment, but is the reverential regard, the awe, and amazement that comes out of recognition and submission to Deity. It is the revelation of God’s will to which those who believe in Him submit in obedience to His commandments. Truly, it is “the faith that obeys”—and only an obedient faith—that saves the sinner from the consequences of his sins against God (Rom. 6:17, 18; Heb. 5:9; Jam. 2:24, 26; Acts 22:16; Gal. 3:26, 27; 1 Peter 3:21).
God’s relationship with Israel was through the covenant known as the Law of Moses (Deu. 5:1-5). The relationship that came out of the covenant changed Israel’s attitude from a sense of terror toward God to one of respect and reverence in which faith was predominate. This fear or reverential awe is seen in the worship of Israel. The Israelites were instructed and exhorted to “serve the Lord with fear” (Psa. 2:11 ). Thus, fear of God in the Israelites served to protect them from taking God for granted. And, to the faithful Israelites, it caused them to understand mankind’s response to God in order for them to be pleasing to Him is always that of complete obedience.
Moses had instructed them, “And now, Israel, what doth the Lord thy God require of thee, but to fear the Lord thy God, to walk in all his ways, and to love him, and to serve the Lord thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul, to keep the commandments of the Lord and his statutes, which I command thee this day for thy good?” (Deu. 10:12-13; compare Deu. 6:24-25; 10:20; 13:4 ). Later in the Old Testament we read, “Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man. For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil” (Ecc. 12:13, 14). Clearly, proper fear can be learned and is essential to living a life well pleasing to God (Deu. 17:19). This was a part of the life of all Israelites who loved God and were faithful to Him. This fear demanded particular conduct on the part of every Israelite. The judges and all Israel’s kings were to conduct themselves out of fear of the Lord (Exo. 18:21; 2 Sam. 23:3). This is the case because fear is the beginning of wisdom and therefore directs one to and keeps one in the pathway of light, righteousness, and life (Pro. 1:7; 9:10; 15:33).
When God declares to mankind in matters religious to “fear not,” He is inviting one to exercise faith (belief, trust, confidence) in Him based on His Word (Rom. 10:17). When proceeding from one person to another without religious association, “fear not” expresses comfort, reassurance, and encouragement (Gen. 50:21; Ruth 3:11; Psa. 49:16). God invites the faithful not to be afraid of Him (Genesis 15:1; Genesis 26:24; also see Daniel 10:12 ,Daniel 10:12,10:19; Luke 1:13;1:30). God used Moses and Joshua as mediators between Him and man to invite people to trust in Him and thereby alleviate their fears of Him (Moses, Deu. 31:6; Joshua, Jos. 10:25 ). The final and greatest mediator, of which there is no greater, “between God and men, [is] the man Jesus Christ” (1 Tim. 2:5). Of Christ it is written, “But now hath he obtained a more excellent ministry, by how much also he is the mediator of a better covenant, which was established upon better promises” (Heb. 8:6).
Freedom from fear comes as individuals trust in the God who protects (Psa. 23:4 ) and helps them (Isa. 54:14 ). The New Testament teaches that perfect love casts out fear (1 John 4:18 ). Christians are no longer slaves of fear, “For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind” (2 Tim. 1:7 ).
To be a “God-fearer” is to be faithful to God by obeying His commandments (Job 1:1; Psa. 25:14; 33:18 ). To be a “God-fearer” is to be blessed by God (Psa. 112:1; 34:9; 111:5).
Although there is a greater emphasis on God’s love in the New Testament, the principle of fear is not diminished in the Gospel message or in the life of the Christian. The inspired apostle Paul admonished Christians to work out their own salvation “with fear and trembling” (Phi. 2:12 ). The church of the New Testament grew numerically as they lived “in the fear of the Lord” (Acts 9:31 ).
Godly fear on the part of Christians is closely related to the love of God. In a cursory reading of the New Testament the church is presented as standing in awe and fear in the presence of a holy God, for fear is “the whole duty of man” (Ecc. 12:13 ). We may correctly conclude that where there is little or no fear of God on the part of people there is little to no keeping of God’s commandments.
Paul described certain ones to the church in Rome by his quotation of Psalms 14:1-3 (Also see Psa. 53:1-3; 53:1-6; 14:1-7). In so doing, the apostle vividly describes their attitude and conduct toward God.
As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one: There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God. They are all gone out of the way, they are together become unprofitable; there is none that doeth good, no, not one. Their throat is an open sepulchre; with their tongues they have used deceit; the poison of asps is under their lips: Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness: Their feet are swift to shed blood: Destruction and misery are in their ways: And the way of peace have they not known (Rom. 3:11-17).
Notice verse 18, “There is no fear of God before their eyes” (Rom. 3:18). Herein is the underlying cause for their attitude and actions listed in verses 11-17. As it was then, so it is today. “The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun” (Ecc. 1:9).
--David P. Brown, Editor