51: How to Understand the Fear of the Lord
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The Fear of the Lord is …
We have shared in the past how we often find a fuller understanding of the Higher Christian Life in the small words of Scripture. Simple, often overlooked as unimportant words like “know” or the various Greek definitions of our single-use English word translated “love” give us insight into the heart of God that can bring great intimacy with Him. And this principle is also true of harsh words, unkind words that seem inconsistent with the love we experience from God. In particular, the command to “fear” God or the “fear of the Lord” can also open the door to the Higher Christian Life like no other word can.
Let me explain.
The Scriptures record over 300 times the importance of having a fear of God. And it reveals incredible promises to those who do fear Him and stern warnings to those who don’t (we will look at those promises in our next episode). But the word translated fear, in both the Hebrew and the Greek, leads us in two opposite directions. For in Scripture, the word fear has two meanings, one negative, and the other positive. Let’s look at a familiar example from Proverbs to illustrate this point.
“The fear (yirʾāh) of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding” – Proverbs 9:10.
In this verse, the Hebrew word for fear (yirʾāh) means just that, fear, as in dread, terror, or fright. But in context, being the fear of the Lord, the word also conveys a positive quality that acknowledges God’s good intentions and love for His people (Ex. 20:20). Therefore, fear (yirʾāh) can also translate as “respect, reverence, awe, and profound honor.” And it’s the intended audience of this verse that determines the meaning of the word.
There are always two audiences for Scripture, and especially for the phrase, the “fear of the Lord.” One, unbelievers who fear the judgment of God and await eternal separation from Him (Heb. 10:31). For them, fear means terror, dread, and fright (Deut. 2:25). And two, believers who have profound reverence for God and hold Him in absolute awe. For them, fear is a word describing the feeling one gets when in the presence of supreme greatness. It is a fear that comes with many promises that spring from having a deep and abiding respect for the Lord. And it is these promises that make experiencing the fear of the Lord so important for us today.
The Beginning of Wisdom
So fear translates as both dread and fright, as well as reverence and awe. And the context and audience of the passage determines the definition. But what does the fear of the Lord mean for the believer? What is the total scope of this phrase? What is it saying about God and the Higher Christian Life? And how can we learn to cultivate the fear of the Lord in our own lives?
To develop the fear of the Lord, we must come to recognize who He is and not limit Him to our own understanding. God is sovereign. He is our omnipotent (all-powerful), omniscient (all-knowing), and omnipresent (all-everywhere) God. As our sovereign God, there is nothing we can do, nor speak, think, or feel, that He is not fully aware of at all times. And as a just God, we will give an account to Him for everything we have done or thought or for every idle word spoken that does not bring Him glory (Matt. 12:36). This is an incredibly sobering thought.
When we get a glimpse of the reverence of God, it helps us take His Word and commands seriously. We see Him for who He is, and tremble at His power and glory in His mercy and grace. This realization that He is God and we are mere dust produces a humility and desire to surrender our lives to Him and helps move us along in our journey to the Higher Christian Life.
And since we know each of us will give an account of our lives to the Lord, and since we know He is fully aware of everything we speak, do, think, and desire— then the fear of the Lord is a continual awareness of these truths, 24/7, every moment of every day of our lives. We can therefore define the “fear of the Lord” as a continual, ever-present, awareness that we are in the presence of a holy, just, and righteous God, and that every motive, desire, word, thought, and action is open before Him to be judged by Him.
And there is nowhere to hide.
This is what it means to fear the Lord. To be always aware of His presence and to scrutinize the motives and actions of our lives to be pleasing to Him. We can summarize our response to the fear of the Lord as follows:
I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God – Romans 12:1-2.
But what of the promised blessings for living in the fear of the Lord? They are innumerable and beyond description. And next time, we will look at the blessings and promises that follow those who fear the Lord.
I think you’ll find them amazing. I certainly did.