What does it mean to fear the Lord? In today’s Christian culture, we don’t often mention the fear of God. Yet over 300 times in the Bible, we are called to fear the Lord. In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word for “fear” normally meant one of two things. First of all, there was the “terror-fear” of the Lord where people would quake in utter panic at the presence of the Lord.
In Genesis 3 after Adam and Eve disobeyed God by eating the forbidden fruit, they hide themselves in fear of the Lord. Moses in Exodus 3 would not approach the burning bush for fear of the Lord. This is the terror-fear of the Lord where sinners are confronted with their guilt and they are afraid to approach the living God.
Yet also in the Old Testament, the word for “fear” can also mean a reverent awe and submission to God which results in obedient worship. This can be characterized as the “worship-fear” of the Lord. This is illustrated in Psalm 33:8 which states, “Let all the earth fear the LORD; let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him!” Again, the Psalmist addresses the worship-fear of the Lord in Psalm 103:1: “For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him.”
As believers in Jesus Christ we do not relate to God with a terror-fear, but instead, we respond with a worship-fear.
We do not have to fear that God will annihilate us or pour out his anger upon us because He exhausted all of His righteous wrath against sin upon His one and only Son Jesus. While dying on the cross, Jesus absorbed the full wrath of God in our place as a Substitute so that we could be forgiven and accepted by God as our Father—not as Judge.
In the New Testament, we also see the importance of fearing the Lord as we grow in our faith to be more like Christ. Paul exhorts us with these words in 2 Corinthians 7:1: “Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God.”
I can think of no better person who experienced both the terror-fear and the worship-fear of God than the prophet Isaiah as recorded in the 6th chapter. Isaiah 6:1-8 reads: “In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for. And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here am I! Send me.”
The first thing Isaiah sees is the royal majesty of the sovereign God as He is seated on His throne in kingly splendor. We cannot even begin to properly fear the Lord until we have a healthy dose of His absolute sovereignty over all things. Secondly, Isaiah is confronted with the absolute holiness of God. He sees these flying creatures crying out with the three-fold description of the living God: “Holy, Holy, Holy is the LORD of hosts!” In this traumatic moment of terror, Isaiah falls to the ground and his life unravels before him. He acknowledges his guilt and confesses his sin and is acutely aware that he is about to be destroyed by this majestic sovereign King. He knows that he cannot be in the presence of a holy God and live, so this terror-fear overcomes him.
R.C. Sproul in his excellent book “The Holiness of God” has said this: “When the Bible calls God holy, it means primarily that God is transcendentally separate. He is so far above and beyond us that He seems almost totally foreign to us…God is too great for us; He is too awesome. He makes difficult demands on us. He is the Mysterious Stranger who threatens our security. In His presence, we quake and tremble. Meeting Him personally may be our greatest trauma.”
Yet in an act of ultimate grace and mercy, the Lord comes and provides atonement for His sin and announces the message of the gospel: “Your sins are atoned for!” This is a glorious picture of what Christ has done for us on the cross. In His death, burial, and resurrection, He has paid the penalty for our guilt and taken away our sin.
And after being touched by this amazing grace, Isaiah responds with worship-fear. He gladly and willingly obeys the call of God on his life to go and serve as a prophet to the nation of Israel. Instead of shrinking back in terror-fear, he stands in humble adoration of this great God and obeys with joy.
I pray that as a believer in Jesus Christ you will stand in awe of our sovereign God and respond to Him in worship-fear that leads to joyful obedience and humble adoration.