Some people have come to the conclusion that the God of the Old Testament is a God of wrath and nothing more. Consequently they aren’t particularly interested in Him. They much prefer the “kinder, gentler” God of the New Testament, in the person of Jesus Christ. Most people do not want a God whom they must fear, and to suggest that we must fear God turns them off. It may, in fact, be more appealing to think of God as a kindly, old, grandfather type, who doesn’t care what we do because He loves us so much, but is this what the scriptures teach?
When we look at the scriptures, we discover that from Old Testament to New Testament we are taught to have a healthy respect for God. The word that is most often used to convey this idea is fear. In Prov. 1:7 the wise man said, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.” He repeated this theme in Prov. 9:10, and at the end of Ecclesiastes said, “The conclusion, when all has been heard is: fear God and keep His commandments, because this applies to every person.”
Part of the reason for our discomfort with the word “fear” as it applies to God is that we fail to recognize that it is used in scripture primarily in the sense of awe, reverence, and respect. When we “fear” God in this way, we give Him the honor and the regard that are due to Him because He is God. Inherent in such reverence and respect is obedience. We show our regard for God, our fear of Him, by doing what He commands us to do in every circumstance of life.
This “fear” has nothing to do with His wrath, or the potential for punishment at the time of judgment. It is all about treating Him as holy in everything we do, because He is God and this is the appropriate manner for us to to respond to Him. We typically show this kind of regard for anyone in authority, so how much more so should we do so for the creator God?
There is more to the story, however. The scriptures also use “fear” in its more common usage with reference to God. This is the aspect of God’s unchangeable nature that so many people want to ignore or reject, but any honest survey of the scriptures shows us that we cannot afford to do so. What may be surprising to many is that this aspect of God’s character is clearly taught in the New Testament as well as in the Old Testament.
In Mt. 10:28, as our Lord Jesus was speaking about discipleship, He said, “Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” This statement makes it clear that we have good reason to be fearful of God. At judgment, God will consign those whose names are not in the book of life to the lake of fire, which is the second death (Rev. 20:11-15).
In Heb. 10:31, the writer of Hebrews warned Christians who continue to willfully sin that it is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God. Those Christians who do so have a terrifying expectation of judgment (Heb. 10:26, 27) that is due to being separated from God by sin. Anyone in his right mind can see that we have every reason to fear God in this most basic sense, because God Himself has said He will not allow the guilty to go unpunished (Ex. 34:7).
The wise person will fear God with reverent obedience in life. All who do so will not have to fear Him when they stand before God’s throne in judgment.