Dedicated to the devotional, exegetical and philosophical study of theological paradox in Conservative, Thoroughly Biblical, Historically Orthodox, Essentially Reformed theology . . . to the glory of God alone!

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

The Paradox of Fearing God

Justin Taylor recently posted a reflection on the differences and similarities in the responses of Mary and Zechariah when the angel appeared to each of them. He points out that both responded with fear and were immediately told to "fear not," and then he points out that in Mary's song the "fear of the Lord" is extolled, while in Zechariah's prophecy it is said that Israel was delivered in order that they might serve God "without fear." An interesting paradox.

Taylor explains the apparent contradiction with a quote from John Newton. See the post here.

A further thought on this: God's holiness is so powerful that He is able to sanctify attitudes and characteristics which we would normally account as undesirable or negative. Jealousy. Hatred. Anger. There is a good, godly version of each of them, and it is God's own version. The Bible is surprisingly candid about God's use of these characteristics; they are shockingly commonplace within its pages. He can use jealousy as an arm of benevolence, hatred as a vehicle for His grace, and anger as a catalyst of forgiveness. Similarly, our fear response can be man-centered and sinful or God-centered and holy. But unlike jealousy, hatred and anger, fear is a purely human characteristic. God does not have a sanctified version of fear. What could He ever fear, since there is none greater than Himself?

We, on the other hand, cannot live without fear. So God claims our fear for Himself.

Perhaps God tells us about His holy jealousy, hatred and anger to remind us that we are not His judges, and that it is not our prerogative to decide what is good and right for God. We will either glorify Him for all that He is, or we will condemn ourselves by trying to cross-examine Him under our warped, humanistic and sin-tainted ideas of justice and goodness.

God's Holy Jealousy
  • Exodus 34:14 for you shall worship no other god, for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God
  • Deuteronomy 4:24 For the LORD your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God.
  • I Corinthians 10:22 Shall we provoke the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than he?

Man-centered Jealousy Prohibited
  • Isaiah 11:13 The jealousy of Ephraim shall depart, and those who harass Judah shall be cut off; Ephraim shall not be jealous of Judah, and Judah shall not harass Ephraim.
  • Romans 13:13 Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy
  • Galatians 5:19-20 Now the works of the flesh are evident: . . . jealousy . . .

God-centered Jealousy Enjoined
  • Numbers 25:11 Phinehas the son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, has turned back my wrath from the people of Israel, in that he was jealous with my jealousy among them, so that I did not consume the people of Israel in my jealousy.
  • II Corinthians 11:2 For I feel a divine jealousy for you, since I betrothed you to one husband, to present you as a pure virgin to Christ.

God's Holy Hatred
  • Psalm 5:4-5 For you are not a God who delights in wickedness; evil may not dwell with you. The boastful shall not stand before your eyes; you hate all evildoers.
  • Romans 9:13 As it is written, "Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated."

Man-centered Hatred Prohibited
  • Leviticus 19:17 You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him. 
  • Matthew 5:43-44 You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you . . .

God-centered Hatred Enjoined
  • Psalm 119:113 I hate the double-minded, but I love your law.
  • Psalm 139:21-22 Do I not hate those who hate you, O LORD? And do I not loathe those who rise up against you? I hate them with complete hatred; I count them my enemies.
  • Luke 14:26 If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.

God's Holy Anger
  • Numbers 32:13 And the LORD's anger was kindled against Israel, and he made them wander in the wilderness forty years, until all the generation that had done evil in the sight of the LORD was gone.
  • Revelation 14:9-10 And another angel, a third, followed them, saying with a loud voice, "If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand, he also will drink the wine of God's wrath, poured full strength into the cup of his anger, and he will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb.

Man-centered Anger Prohibitied
  • II Chronicles 26:19 Then Uzziah was angry. Now he had a censer in his hand to burn incense, and when he became angry with the priests, leprosy broke out on his forehead in the presence of the priests in the house of the LORD, by the altar of incense. 
  • II Corinthians 12:20 For I fear that perhaps when I come I may find you not as I wish, and that you may find me not as you wish--that perhaps there may be quarreling, jealousy, anger, hostility, slander, gossip, conceit, and disorder.
  • Colossians 3:8 But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth.

God-centered Anger Enjoined
  • Psalm 4:4 Be angry, and do not sin; ponder in your own hearts on your beds, and be silent. Selah
  • Ephesians 4:26-27 Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil.

Man-centered Fear Prohibited
  • Proverbs 29:25 The fear of man lays a snare, but whoever trusts in the LORD is safe.
  • Isaiah 35:4 Say to those who have an anxious heart, "Be strong; fear not! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you."
  • I John 4:18 There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.
  • Romans 8:15 For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, "Abba! Father!"
  • Heberews 13:6 So we can confidently say, "The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?"

God-centered Fear Enjoined
  • Joshua 24:14 Now therefore fear the LORD and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness. Put away the gods that your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the LORD.
  • Proverbs 19:23 The fear of the LORD leads to life, and whoever has it rests satisfied; he will not be visited by harm.
  • Matthew 10:28 And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.
  • Romans 11:20 That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast through faith. So do not become proud, but fear.
  • I Corinthians 2:3 And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling . . .
  • Philippians 2:12 Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling . . .
  • I Peter 1:17 And if you call on him as Father who judges impartially according to each one's deeds, conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile
  • I Peter 2:17 Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.

Putting the pieces together, we might say that the reason Zechariah can say Israel serves God "without fear" is because the God-centered "fear of the Lord" swallows up every lesser fear. Thus, we are freed from the fears that could otherwise keep us from serving Him. We can never maintain this freedom apart from that one fear-slaying FEAR we must have in order to serve God worthily: the fear of Him. So, we must fear God in order that we may serve Him without fear! While lesser fears tend to multiply and paralyze us, the fear of the Lord sets us free.

The fear of the LORD is clean, enduring forever . . .
Psalm 19:9

Take a moment to think about the universal characteristics fear. It always directs and focuses our attention toward something or someone greater than ourselves (beyond our control), and it always influences and determines our actions in significant ways. These things are true whether we are facing a snarling dog, wrestling with a difficult school exam, dealing with a financial crisis, trying to hide something embarrassing, running from the law, or worshiping the living God. Above all else, fear is powerful motivation. The object of our fear will win the battle for our attention, appreciation, and action. In a very real sense, the thing we fear most is our God.


  1. Wow, I really like your general definition of fear: "It always directs and focuses our attention toward something or someone greater than ourselves (beyond our control), and it always influences and determines our actions in significant ways." Positive or negative, that is right on the money, and I think is very helpful in understanding the fear of the Lord. Good stuff!

  2. Great post. It was all one fast all full summation paradox by Revelation.


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