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The Fear of God

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After finishing their meal of fish and potatoes and their dessert of marmalade roll, the tea was poured and everyone sat back in their chairs, anxiously awaiting an explanation from their new found friend. As Mr. Beaver drew deeply on his pipe to get the tobacco burning evenly, he eyed the four children gathered around his dinner table and thought for a moment before he began to speak. When the words finally started to come, it wasn’t long before the discussion turned to Aslan. “Oh yes! Tell us about Aslan!” said several voices at once. When Susan asked who Aslan was, Mr. Beaver sounded surprised. “Why, don’t you know? He’s the King. He’s the Lord of the whole wood…Don’t you know who is the King of Beasts? Aslan is a lion—the Lion, the great Lion.” When Lucy expressed concern about standing before a lion, Mrs. Beaver confirmed her fears. “If there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.”

It is at this point in C.S. Lewis’ famous Narnia series, that many writers and preachers over the last fifty years have lifted and used a most famous passage about the great lion Aslan. It is no secret that Lewis used Aslan as the Christ figure for his well-known fantasy books. Just as a lion is the “king of beasts,” so is Christ the “Kings of kings.” Lewis intentionally used a lion, because the Bible itself also refers to Jesus Christ as the “Lion of the tribe of Judah” (Revelation 5:5). The symbolism of portraying Christ as a lion communicates much in an economy of words. Lions are not only graceful and beautiful, they are powerful and dangerous. The sight of a lion conjures up awe and elegance, but hearing his roar is an instant reminder of the strength and authority that lies within. When Lucy hears Mrs. Beaver’s words of caution about Aslan, she asks a most pertinent question. “Then he isn’t safe?” Able to contain himself no longer, Mr. Beaver immediately interjects: “Safe? Don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.” Lewis wants his readers to know beyond the shadow of a doubt that what is true about Aslan, is equally true about Christ. He isn’t safe either, but He’s good. He’s the King of kings, I tell you.

The modern conception of God needs a heaping dose of Mr. Beaver theology. What Mr. Beaver knew about Aslan seems to be in very short supply in modern Christianity. We have forgotten that God is One to be feared, as well as One to be trusted. As God’s children, we are certainly as safe with the Lion as the whelps are with their own feline father, but it can never be forgotten that the Father is shockingly powerful and mighty. If God is ever referred to as being powerful and terrible in our own day, it is usually in the context of “I’m glad He’s on our team,” when the reality is that we are on His team. God graciously condescends to us; His wrath and fury have been tamed toward us because of the shed blood of Christ. If we ever take the safety of God for granted, it is only a short step before we begin to take the goodness of God for granted. God is safe because He is good, and we will do immeasurable harm to our own modern society by presenting them with the tame Lion, when we should be presenting them with the wild One.

It is no coincidence that when God reveals Himself to Moses He uses the object of a burning bush. Fire, like a lion, can be a dangerous thing. When Moses turned his attention to “the bush that was burning with fire, yet was not consumed” (Exodus 3:2), he was looking at a visible manifestation of the glory of God. This was no small campfire with a few crackling twigs, this was a “blazing fire” (NASB). Seeing the burning bush was not unlike seeing a lion in the wilderness. The fire represented a very real danger, yet Moses could not curb his curiosity to go and observe this wondrous thing for himself.  When he comes near and God calls his name, Moses replies: “Here I am.” But when the voice from the fire reveals His true identity—”the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Issac, and the God of Jacob”—Moses hides his face because he is “afraid to look at God” (3:6). For Moses, a talking fire is merely a curious thing, but the God of the patriarchs is One to be feared.

Many theological points can be drawn from this desert encounter. The Geneva Bible notes that “this signifieth that the Church is not consumed by the fire of affliction, because God is in the midst thereof.” John Calvin explains: “For when he is called ‘the God of Abraham’ or ‘the God of Israel’ when he is set in the Temple of Jerusalem ‘between the cherubim,’ these and like expressions do not bind him to one place or people. Rather, they are put forward merely for this purpose: to keep the thoughts of the pious upon that God who by his covenant that he has made with Israel has so represented himself that it is in no wise lawful to turn aside from such a pattern” (Institutes; II, 8, 15). It could also be pointed out that when God made covenant with Abraham, He also appeared as a “smoking oven and a flaming torch” (Genesis 15:17-18). This should remind us that “our God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:29). But most of all, we should be reminded that of all the things that God could have chosen to reveal Himself through, He chose fire. In other words, God chose an object that is not unlike Himself in that it can be both a blessing and a curse, a help and a hindrance. We should also be reminded of what comes beforeHebrews 12:29: “Therefore since we receive a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us show gratitude, by which we may offer to God an acceptable service with reverence and awe; for our God is a consuming fire.” Notice that even after we have been reconciled to God through the shed blood of Christ, after we have come to Mount Zion and the city of the living God (12:18-24), after we have received a kingdom that cannot be shaken, we are still commanded to show gratitude to God with respect and fear. God is not to be taken lightly by any of His creation.

This is not a popular message today. Very few churches will preach on the fear of God, and if they do, it is often for all the wrong reasons. When we meet God face to face, we will not need to manufacture a false sense of humility and respect. Like Moses, we will want to hide our faces, because it is a “terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb. 10:31). William Tyndale rightly described the final two chapters of Deuteronomy as:

Terrible chapters, and to be trembled at. A christian man’s heart might well bleed for sorrow at the reading of it, for fear of the wrath that is like to come upon us, according unto all the curses which thou there readest. For according unto these curses hath God dealt with all nations, after they were fallen into the abominations of blindness. [Chapter 29 has] a godly lesson in the end, that we should leave searching of God’s secrets, and give diligence to walk according to that he hath opened unto us. For the keeping of the commandments of God teacheth wisdom, as thou mayest see in the same chapter, where Moses saith, Keep the commandments, that ye may understand what ye ought to do. But to search God’s secrets blindeth a man; as it is well proved by the swarms of our sophisters, whose wise books are now, when we look in the scripture, found but full of foolishness. [1]

And this is the real lesson of the fear of God: “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; a good understanding have all those who do His commandments; His praise endures forever” (Psalm 111:10). We show God our respect and reverence (i.e. godly fear) by doing what He commands. This is why the fear of God is such a little-discussed topic in most churches: the fear of God demands a response from us. Jesus said if we love Him we will do what He commands (John 14:15). God is neither safe nor nice, but He is good. Moses covered his face in fear, yet responded in obedience by doing what God commanded him to do. Moses knew he could do no other, but he also knew that the very same God who revealed Himself in a blazing fire would be with him in all he would do from that day forward. When God was leading Israel through the wilderness in a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, Moses came to understand that obedience to this good God had no substitute.

Edward J. Young speaks of Exodus 3:5 (“Do not come near here; remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”) as a verse which “effectively disposes of the so-called ’scientific’ method, which assumes that man can approach the facts of the universe, including the Bible, with a neutral mind, and pronounce a just judgment upon them. It is time that we cease to call such a method scientific. It is not scientific, for it does not take into consideration all the facts, and the basic fact it overlooks is that of God and His relation to the world which He has created. Unless we first think rightly about God we shall be in basic error about everything else.” [2] Young understood that true knowledge must begin with the fear of the Lord. He also understood that men will often fear other men more than God. By their actions, they show that they really don’t believe Psalm 118:6—”The Lord is for me, I will not fear; what can man do to me?”

The Puritans knew what it meant to fear God, and their lives were a living testament to that fear. Although it can certainly be argued that much of later Puritanism tended toward legalism, it cannot be argued that it was always this way. Many of the second and third generation Puritans did inflict rules for the sake of rules, but their forefathers were not so. Fleeing what they believed to be a compromised (i.e.liberal) Church of England, the early Puritans practiced what they preached because they believed in what they preached. They perfected the art of “affective preaching,” which aimed to move the hearer both intellectually and emotionally.

We can catch the Puritan spirit on this point best by paying attention to the typical imagery that writers used when stating the theory. It was said of Richard Mather that he aimed “to shoot his arrows not over people’s heads but into their hearts and consciences.” Thomas Cartwright said, “As the fire stirred giveth more heat, so the Word, as it were, blown by preaching, flameth…in the hearers.” Baxter wrote, “If our words be not sharpened , and pierce not as nails, they will hardly be felt by stony hearts.” This imagery of active attack and physical contact with the recipient captures exactly the Puritan ideal of affective preaching. [3]

For as much as modern preaching tries to reach the emotions of its hearers, it seldom actually does this to any lasting degree. Unlike the Puritans, modern preachers have never been taught that affecting the emotions must begin in the mind. Today’s sermons barely register a notch on the emotional dial, because they never have any intellectual material undergirding them. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom for the simple reason that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of being human. We are conditioned all of our lives to fear man, but Jesus tells us to fear God instead. “Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28).  As E.J. Young rightly said, if we get this wrong, we will be wrong about every other thing.

In his helpful book, The Fear of God, Arnold Frank writes: “Omniscience, omnipresence, and omnipotence are not matters only for learned discussion but are matters  which are effectual to deliver God’s people from all fear of man and to an ever-increasing fear of God.” Frank goes to quote Puritan divine John Flavel, which seems to be the most appropriate way to bring this brief study to a close: “The only reason of our safety is this, that he who is the keeper of the lions, is also the shepherd of the sheep.” [4]

  1. The Works of William Tyndale, 2 Volumes (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, [1848] 2010), 1:444[]
  2. Edward J. Young, An Introduction to the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, [1964] 1989), 10.[]
  3. Leland Ryken, Worldly Saints: The Puritans as They Really Were (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan [1986] 1990), 103.[]
  4. Arnold L. Frank, The Fear of God: A Forgotten Doctrine (Ventura, CA: Nordskog Publishing, 2007), 113.[]

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