The fear of the Lord is an important image central to biblical faith that is found all throughout Scripture. Unfortunately, it is far too often misunderstood and neglected. To modern, biblically illiterate ears, to fear the Lord means to be afraid of God because he might strike you dead with a bolt of lightning or ball of fire at any moment; it can be thought of as merely an “Old Testament” concept that results from God being a capricious curmudgeon.
While terror and dread are appropriate reactions for sinners before the God who is infinitely holy, powerful, omnipresent and righteous (cf. Isaiah 6:1-7), there is a difference between the fear of the Lord and terror of him (compare the response of the sailors in Jonah 1:9-10 with Jonah 1:16). For God’s people, fearing the Lord is a response of reverent awe, obedience, and trust in the Lord. A quick look at this concept from both the Old and New Testaments will help us unpack this weighty and wonderful image.
Fear of the Lord in the OT
One of the best places to look for a concise unpacking of this concept is found in the book of Deuteronomy: “And now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God ask of you but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to observe the Lord’s commands and decrees” (Deut. 10:12-13). Fearing the Lord is inextricably tied to loving, serving, and holding fast to the Lord in response to all the wonderful and gracious things he has done for us (Deut. 10:20; 1 Sam 12:24).
In the Psalms we see that fearing the Lord means to stand in awe of the living God (Ps. 33:8), to glorify him (Ps. 22:3), and to trust him wholeheartedly (Ps. 40:3). Those who fear the Lord receive his steadfast love (Ps. 103:17) and experience friendship with God (Ps 25:14)! In the book of Proverbs the fear of the Lord is a continual submission to God in humility and faith (Prov. 23:17) and consists of a hatred of evil and the desire to turn away from it (Prov. 8:13; 16:6). Fearing God is better than all earthly treasures (Prov. 15:16) and leads to greater love for and knowledge of God (Prov. 1:29; 2:5; 9:10; 15:33), confidence (Prov. 14:26), satisfaction, and protection (Prov. 19:23). It is safe to say that fearing the Lord is virtually synonymous for having saving faith in God and responding in obedience to him.
According to the prophet Isaiah, to fear the Lord is to acknowledge God for who he is and to act accordingly: “Do not call conspiracy all that this people calls conspiracy, and do not fear what they fear, nor be in dread. But the LORD of hosts, him you shall honor as holy. Let him be your fear and let him be your dread” (Isa. 8:12-13). When Isaiah prophecies about the coming Messianic King who would have the Spirit resting on him, the result is that “his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord” (Isaiah 11:2-3; cf. John 4:34). His greatest desire and satisfaction would be trusting and obeying the Lord. In other words, pleasing God and putting him first would not be a burden.
Fear of the Lord in the NT
But the fear of the Lord isn’t a concept exclusive to the Old Testament. In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus tells his followers that they should fear not the one who can destroy the body but rather God, who can destroy the body and soul (Matt. 10:28; Luke 12:5). In Acts we learn that “the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was being built up. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it multiplied” (Acts 9:31). When preaching to the Gentiles Peter says “I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:34-35). For the Apostle Paul, both Jews and Gentiles stand condemned before God, as sinners who do not fear God (Rom. 3:18, quoting Ps. 36:1), and the foundation of his ministry is fear of the Lord (2 Cor. 5:11).
In the later New Testament letters, fear of the Lord clearly becomes fear of Christ (Col. 3:22-24) and is the basis of Christian behavior (Eph. 5:21). In 1 Peter 3:14–15 the apostle alludes to Isaiah 8:13-14: ‘But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy.” Peter here identifies the Yahweh, the Lord of hosts, with Jesus Christ! The command given to Israel in Isaiah’s day is the same command given to the church today, but the person we fear is more clearly revealed to be the Lord Jesus Christ, who is one with the Father.
The Joy of Fearing the Lord
Understood biblically, then, the way we fear the Lord is by believing in Jesus Christ, acknowledging him as God, joyfully obeying him, and trusting him with our lives completely.
When we treat God as unimportant, indifferent, and helpless, or when we only pay attention to God on Sunday mornings, in some ritualistic manner, and disregard him the rest of the week, we will be prey to every new fear that comes along in life. But when our delight is in fearing the Lord, we will be controlled by an unspeakable and glorious joy. Why? Because when we fear the Lord, there is nothing else to fear! When we acknowledge God for who he is and regard him as holy, and when we trust his only begotten Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, we can face whatever the future holds with our heads held high. We will find ourselves characterized by a confidence a peace that isn’t controlled by circumstances. This is the secret to peace and joy and security in a world filled with worry.
As we seek to continuously be filled with the Spirit, may we find the fear of the Lord becoming our supreme desire and delight in life.
Mitch Bedzyk serves as a teacher and worship leader at Elmira Christian Center. He received his Master of Theological Studies from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and works in IT for the NY Office of Mental Health. He and his wife, Sarah, have two sons, Oliver and Micah, and are foster parents. In his spare time he enjoys reading, coffee, guitar, following the Bundesliga and MLS, and playing fantasy soccer. You can follow him @mitchbedzyk