Fear in the New Testament
by Stuart H
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Why study this?
I conducted this study primarily due to my own confusion, I say confusion because when I read the Bible I always struggle with the concept of Fearing God, not that God has the potential of being really scary. But my own heart just could not accept the thought of fear, this is an emotion that I never experience when I feel that God is with me, peace, love, grace, awe, so many emotions but fear is definitely not one of them. Yet I can appreciate and believe the ability and willingness of God to bring Wrath and Judgment on any of us, not to mention throwing us down to hell to spend eternity burning there. This all said, my heart does not convey fear of God. To this end and to try and understand my own confusion about this I decided to study the use of the English word “fear” in the Bible because I was convinced that something is missing in my understanding this.
Analyzing the Greek Strong’s!
As you may of may not know the New Testament was originally written in Greek, before moving on with this study you will need to understand the main difference between the Greek used in the Bible and English. The important significance in Greek that is relevant here is that Greek is a language that when you try to understand the meaning of the words used, you first have to try and understand what the writer is trying to convey. Basically what is the writer trying to say. This said, Greek has many idioms, nuances and emphases that need to be considered before the meaning is fully understood. Greek has many meaning for a single word based on the verbal tense and the how the words relate to each other. The Bible uses a term called strong to identify the Greek word used for each English word, the strong is a numeric sequence prefixed with a “G” for Greek, there are also strong’s used for the Hebrew translation within the Old Testament and these are prefixed with an “H”.
Fear – Dictionary Translation.
1. To be afraid or frightened of.
2. To be uneasy or apprehensive about: feared the test results.
3. To be in awe of; revere.
4. To consider probable; expect: I fear you are wrong. I fear I have bad news for you.
5. Archaic To feel fear within (oneself).
This really surprised me, when someone uses the word Fear we immediately feel more driven towards definitions 1 and 2. This is mainly were my own confusions are coming from. But I started this study so in the interest of clarity I will see it through.
Understanding ‘which is which’ or ‘what is what’.
So we have multiple Greek words used for a single English word which based on its dictionary definition has multiple meanings. A phrase my daughter uses to describe this conundrum comes to mind “Loosey Goosey”.. Talk about being confused on this entire subject. But let’s continue and try to make some meaningful sense of this.
The important part of this is to try and understand which of these “definitions” of the word fear applies to the Bible translations, it is amazing to me when you examine different languages, how limited English appears to be as a descriptive language. The word fear has basically multiple means which all mean completely different concepts from an emotional standpoint. For example, if I was in awe or reverence, I would say in awe or reverence, not in fear, but that’s my logic talking. Anyway back to this study.
So new we have an English word that implies different emotions, let’s look at what the Bible translation does for us. Basically as I said there are primarily 2 Greek words used, that have been translated into fear, these are phobeō and phobos, the former is a derivative of the later, so basically phobeō is derived from the word phobos. To get further into this we need to look at the Greek meaning of these words.
It's all Greek to me!
As I said previously to understand the Greek usage of a word you first need to try and evaluate what is the writer trying to say. As the Greek word can mean different things based on the context in which it is used. But let’s first look at the meanings and move on from there.
From phobos; to frighten, that is, (passively) to be alarmed; by analogy to be in awe of, that is, revere: - be (+ sore) afraid, fear (exceedingly), reverence.
From a primary φέβομαι phebomai (to be put in fear); alarm or fright: - be afraid, + exceedingly, fear, terror.
Ok armed with the meanings we should look at some of the usage of these words.
Mat 1:20 But while he thought on these things, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a dream, saying, Joseph, thou son of David, fear (phobeō) not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost.
In this verse we see that the word phobeō is the Greek from the original writing, so looking at the meanings available to us, I would suggest that Matthew intended the meaning to be alarmed, not the emotional concept of fear.
Consider another verse using this same Greek word.
Act 13:16 Then Paul stood up, and beckoning with his hand said, Men of Israel, and ye that fear (phobeō) God, give audience.
In this verse again looking at the possible meaning of the Greek word used I would posture that again the intent is not the traditional emotion of fear but I suspect Luke was intending the emotion of Awe or Reverence, not fear in terms of terrified.
We could go through all 93 instances of the Greek word (phobeō) but I think this makes the point, the next issue is what does the other Greek word (phobos) fit into the meaning of the verses. For example
Luk 1:65 And fear (phobos) came on all that dwelt round about them: and all these sayings were noised abroad throughout all the hill country of Judaea.
Here we see that the intend of the work (phobos) is intended to represent or instill the emotion of fear. So in this case we are truly talking about being terrified.
Another example of phobos:
1Co 1:3 And I was with you in weakness, and in fear (phobos) , and in much trembling.
Here again we see the word is used to represent being scared or terrified and I see no other usage we can imply here.
Where does this leave this study?
To summarize this study, We find that for the most part 2 different (but related) Greek words have been used, that were translated to the English word fear. What we do see as we examine the verses using these 2 different word is a clear pattern in the context in which each word is used. It appears that the reason for using these 2 different words is strategic within the implication of the meaning in the text. What I found is that the word phobeō appears to be used to describe either “awe”, “reverence” or “alarm”, where as the word phobos is used to represent the meaning “terrified”, “afraid” which is the emotion we feel closest to when we read or hear the word fear. Actually one thing that is self evident to me when examining the usage of these 2 Greek words is that phobeō is primarily used in connection with God, and in most cases that I found the verse implies “Awe” or “Reverence”. Whereas phobos is used when “Terrified” or “Frightened” is the emotion implied by the verse.
From the study of this I personally have gleamed some clarity in how the word of God wants us to interpret the Love and yes Fear of God, I believe even more strongly now that when the Bible says “Fear The Lord Your God”, this does not mean “Be Terrified Of The Lord Your God”, what it is telling us to do is “Be In Awe Of The Lord Your God”. Given my initial introduction to this study I believe that what I felt in my heart was correct. The confusion I felt may have been my own lack of understanding on the English dictionary definition of fear, but I still believe that our emotions and the impressions we get when reading the Word of God and how we apply those emotions to our beliefs are one of the most important aspect or reading the Bible and having a relationship with God.
In closing let me say that I am in no way a linguist or translator, yeah I know it’s pretty obvious from the commentary. All I can say is that I approach things in the way that I am most comfortable with and that is to apply logic and reason based upon facts. That is what I tried to do in this study and hope that some of you reading this gain some insight into what I found was a very absorbing study.
I thank you for taking the time to read this and pray that God gives us all the gift of understanding when read His Word.
I am now intrigued to do this same study on the Old Testament!
As a post script, Who Translated the Bible?
The primary person responsible was William Tydale during the early 1500's. The Bible was forbidden to be translated into anything but Latin during the time the Church at Rome ruled. However, Tyndale took the works of people like Wycliffe and others and finished a remarkable feat of translation into English while imprisoned in dark and devastating conditions. He was later burned at the stake for his disobedience that was classified as heresy and treason. However, his last prayer before his execution was answered just a few short years later. Tyndale prayed that the eyes of the King would be opened and that he would allow the Bible to be printed in English throughout England. Today the King James Bibles is said to be more than 85% Tyndale while much of our American language is classic Tyndale. Furthermore, without Tyndale, there would have been no Shakespeare, for he himself adored the language of William Tyndale.
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