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THE FEAR OF GOD
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THE FEAR OF GOD
Based on Jonah 1:8-10
We live in a world where words are weapons. Someone said, "Words are weapons and we must wield them well if we would win." Much of the success of cons and cults is the direct result of their clever use of words. So many arguments are often based on a perverted manipulation of words, but we dare not, on that account, neglect our obligation to take words seriously and be precise and as accurate as possible. Words are important and their misuse can be dangerous. Like the man who thought words always mean the same thing. If he said he had good vision or that he had good sight, it would make no difference, for they mean the same thing. But then he realized it would be verbal suicide to say to his friend, "Your wife is a vision, and mine is a sight."
We want to look at the subject of fear. It is only a simple 4 letter word, but it can lead to confusion if we assume it always means the same thing. There are 14 Hebrew nouns and 2 different Greek nouns that are all translated into English by the word fear in the KJV. That means all of the distinction in the original must be gathered from the context, and this can sometimes be difficult to see. In II Tim. 1:7 Paul said to Timothy, "For God has not given us the spirit of fear, but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind." I wondered about that many times because I know Christians do have fear. Peter even tells Christians to
pass the time of their sojourning here in fear. In Acts 5:11 he says that great fear came upon all the church. Paul, the very man advising Timothy confessed to the Corinthians in I Cor. 2:3 that he was with them in weakness and in fear.
How do we reconcile these verses on the basis of the word fear? The only way is to go to the original Greek. We see then that the word fear in II Timothy is not phobos as it is in the rest of the verses. It is the word deidia, which means timidity. This resolves the contradiction. Does this mean that the average person will never be able to find the distinctions in words because they do not know Greek? Not at all. If you take the Berkeley Version you will find the word cowardice and not fear. The RSV and NIV have timidity. A person who will take advantage of other translations can find the different meanings of words. We cannot depend upon one translation alone. An accurate understanding of what God has revealed calls for the reading of a number of translations. Unless we convey the right meaning we do not convey the Word of God, but the misunderstanding of man.
A study of the fear of God is one that calls for care and accuracy. The word fear in relation to God can mean very opposite things. There is a fear of God which is terror at his might and wrath, and there is a fear of God which is reverence, or worship. There is still another which is knowledge and wisdom of God. The setting in these few verses of Jonah give us an opportunity to see two different kinds of fear in relation to God. First we see-
I. THE FEAR OF THE PAGANS.
Their first fears were the natural fears of men in a crisis. They feared less they should perish, as the captain says in verse 6. This fear was directly connection with their fear of God, or rather the gods, for they were ignorant of the true and only God. They knew that some god was angry and was punishing someone. They feared being caught in the middle where they would have to suffer for someone else's sin.
Many commentators point out here the social nature of sin. You cannot keep the consequences of evil limited to the offender. The drunken driver endangers all the innocent on the road. The peddlers of dope may sleep like Jonah while masses of their victims cry out in agony and fear. No husband, wife, or child can act disgraceful without the rest of the family suffering. These pagan sailors were far from innocent, I am sure, but the recognized that their guilt is not the cause of their danger. They were willing to cast lots to find the guilty one, and when it fell to Jonah they asked him in verse 8 to tell them on whose account this evil has come upon them.
The whole account reveals the nature of their fear of God. It was a fear of terror. God was not one you had fellowship with, but one you tried to please just because of his power to destroy you if you didn't. This is characteristic of paganism, but of perverted Christianity as well. Martin Luther suffered under a false concept of God for years. God was capricious and easily offended. He feared lest as a
priest he violate some sacred place, or mispronounce some magic formula. He lived with terror and fear for years until he discovered the biblical doctrine of justification by faith. He was trying to please God by merit, and he knew he was weak and unworthy. The result was that he lived in fear of God. He came to understand the grace of God in Christ and gained the peace of God. His pagan fears departed when he discovered the true nature of God.
The fear of the pagan sailors grew even worse when they heard what Jonah had done. They were exceedingly afraid, and their fear actually made more sense than Jonah's false sense of peace. They said in shocked amazement, "What is this you have done?" They had enough sense to recognize the folly of trying to flee from a God who made land and sea. Even a pagan can see that obedience is the only sensible thing when you serve a God like that. The folly and inconsistently of believers is a marvel to unbelievers. They look at our profession, and then our conduct, and they say, "What have you done?" Non-believers feel it is inexcusable for Christians to live as they do, and they are shocked when Christians do foolish things so contrary to their own beliefs.
One scoffer said that avowed skepticism cannot do a tenth of the damage to faith as the constant spectacle of Christians living a worldly life. It is a legitimate fear to associate with a believer who is fleeing away from God's will. In the light of Jonah's folly, these sailors had good reason to be afraid. It is a legitimate form of fear to associate with one in rebellion against God. Next let's look
II. THE FEAR OF THE PROPHET.
You would think that Jonah would have been fearful facing all their questions that they so rapidly fired at him, but he seems very calm after his nap. He explains that he is a Hebrew. This name is always used to distinguish Jews from Gentiles. It is used 33 times in the Old Testament, and always as opposed to Gentiles. Jonah felt superior to them, and he adds, "And I fear the Lord, the God of heaven." This certainly does not seem to fit the circumstances. Jonah is fleeing from God in open rebellion, and yet he says that he fears the Lord.
The word here is not the fear of terror. Jonah is not saying that he was afraid of God. That was one of his problems, for he would not be fleeing from God's will if he had a proper fear. He was like a spoiled child who had no fear of punishment. The word for fear here actually means reverence and worship. Jonah was simply telling them that he worshiped the God of heaven. Here we see the opposite danger of a false fear of God like that which Luther suffered. This other extreme is familiarity with God. Our culture is in this area of danger. Few people in America have an abnormal fear of God, but masses have a familiarity with Him.
God is sung about freely by popular singers, and God is made to be the buddy for everyone who puts their hand in
His. There is a Gospel without Christ; without atonement for sin, and a call to holiness. Like the true Gospel, it is all free, and it has lead masses of people to belief in God without any biblical connection. If it was only outside of the church it would be tragic enough, but this false sense of the fear of God is in the church as well. It was in ancient Israel also. In Isa. 29:13 we read, "And the Lord said, because this people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment of men learned by rote..." We note that the fear of God was only by memory work. Jesus quotes this passage in Matt. 15:9, "In vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men." It is possible for the very servants of God to fall into the snare of a superficial fear of God.
Jonah worshipped God, but did not have fear enough to flee from evil, and to crush disobedience in his heart. He did not fear God enough to give his all to reach a lost world. The tragedy is that Jonah is not an isolated case. Dr. Dale of England said, "Nobody is afraid of God anymore." We can expound our theology of God as creator of land and sea, and we can continue to worship Him, and still be careless about doing His will. Jonah never forsook his creed. He could quote it anywhere, and even on a storm tossed ship where death was facing everyone. But he did forsake an obedient relationship to the God of his creed. This is as evil and dangerous as the pagan fear of terror.
We need to combine these two concepts of fear in order
to have a truly biblical fear of God. We must have an awe and reverence at the majesty of God, and worship Him in the fear that allows for confidence and boldness in His presence. Yet we should beware of letting this lead to presumption, and check that danger by a real fear of the terror variety because of disobedience. We should be afraid to be careless about God's will. We should be afraid to neglect our opportunities to serve and witness. We should fear the judgment of God on those who seek first the pleasures of life and ignore the plan of God. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. Jonah's experience of learning the hard way is recorded so that we may avoid his folly.
Moody was a great evangelist who did not try to produce fear in men in order to get them to repent. He seldom preached on repentance. He found that men responded more to a positive message of love. He wrote, "Now, my friends, repentance is not fear. A great many people say I don't preach up the terror of religion. I don't want to-don't want to scare men into the kingdom of God. I don't believe in preaching that way........If I wanted to scare men into heaven I would just hold the terror of hell over their heads...But that's not the way to win men. They don't have any slaves in heaven. They are all sons, and they must accept salvation voluntarily. Terror never brought a man in yet."
There are many who use this method, however, and I have seen it. It does work as far as moving people, but it
does not necessarily get people into a right relationship to God. A. W. Tozer put it this way: "The current trick of frightening people into accepting Christ by threatening them with atom bombs and guided missiles is not scriptural, neither is it effective. By shooting off firecrackers in the face of a flock of goats you could conceivably succeed in herding them into a sheepfold, but all the natural fear in the world cannot make a sheep out of a goat."
Jonathan Edwards preached his famous sermon, Sinners In The Hands Of Angry God, and it won many. John Bunyan said, "No fear, no grace. Though there is not always grace where there is the fear of hell, yet to be sure there is no grace where there is no fear of God." We need to understand that there can be a healthy fear that does cause us to repent and turn to God. When we have a sense of awe at the holiness of God we will dread to displease Him. This healthy fear will cause us to avoid disobedience. Jonah could have used more of this spirit of fear. We all need to fear lest, like Jonah, we lose a proper fear. Some poet wrote,
"Fear not waves nor winds that bring
The unbridled hurricanes;
Fear not cold nor the sleet's sting.
Flaming heat nor leveling rain;
Fear not even fear itself,
Fear not pain.
Only fear the eye grown dull;
Only fear the heart grown bland
That applauds the beautiful
With condescending hand.
Only fear the green fields covered By the sand."
Jesus said we are not to fear those who kill the body, but we are to fear Him who can destroy both body and soul. The wise believer is one who will combine both a fear of the pagans, and the fear that God expected Jonah to have, but which he neglected, and that is a reverence for God that keeps you always on a path of obedience.
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