What do we fear? Terrorist attacks? The rise of radical Islamism? Danger? Crime? Failure? Rejection? Change? Loss? The future? The unknown? Uncertainty? Being alone? Unemployment? The rising cost of living? Economic recession? Climate change? Immigration? Pain? Death? Dentists? Public speaking? Heights? Snakes?
Fear can help us respond to a dangerous situation, but constant fear is debilitating. This can lead to anxiety, which is prevalent today.
The fear (reverence and respect) of God is a feeling of awe and praise of a small creature before their immense Creator. This type of fear is unusual today.
Let’s look at what the Bible says about these types of fear. We’ll see that through the Holy Spirit, Christians can be courageous when others are fearful. Although we shouldn’t be afraid, healthy fears help us live godly lives and we need to reverence and respect God and Christ as our Lord.
There are at least 10 Greek words that are used in the New Testament to describe “fear”. The two most common ones are:
phobeo (Strongs #5399) is a verb which means either to fear and be afraid, or to reverence.
phobos (Strongs #5401) is a noun which means either fear, or reverence and respect for authority.
In this study we looked at the 81 occurrences of all the 10 Greek words for “fear” in the books of the Bible written to the early church; Acts to Revelation inclusive (see the references in the next four sections). These occurrences were grouped according to whether they were about fear or about reverence/respect. We begin by looking at the fears of unbelievers.
Fears of unbelievers
Sometimes the first-century Jewish and Roman authorities were afraid. The captain of the temple guard and his officers didn’t use force to recapture the apostles because they feared that the people, who highly regarded the apostles, would stone them (Acts 5:26). The magistrates were afraid when they heard that Paul and Silas were Roman citizens because they had been beaten publicly without a trial (Acts 16:38). Likewise, the Roman commander in Jerusalem was afraid when he found out that Paul was a Roman citizen because he had put him in chains (Acts 22:29). Later because he was afraid that Paul would be torn to pieces by the crowd, the commander had Paul taken to the barracks (Acts 23:10).
When Paul was a prisoner he was sent to Italy by ship. A storm with hurricane force winds struck when they were near Crete and the ship was driven towards Malta for 14 days. During the storm, the sailors were afraid the ship would run aground, and near Malta they feared the ship would be dashed against the rocks (Acts 27:17, 29).
People are afraid when they face punishment. When we do wrong we are afraid of those in authority because we will be punished (Rom. 13:4). Those living under the law feared God’s judgment, but believers don’t live in this fear (Rom. 8:15). When a Philippian jailer thought all his prisoners had escaped after an earthquake, he was about to kill himself. After Paul reassured him that all the prisoners were still there, the jailor was convicted of his sinfulness and he fell trembling before Paul and Silas and asked what to do to be saved from going to hell (Acts 16:29).
Unbelievers will be afraid when they face God at the Great White Throne to be judged because their names are not in the book of life. The degree of their punishment will be according to the evil deeds they have done. When Paul spoke about the judgment to come, Felix was afraid (Acts 24:25). An apostate is someone who professed to be a Christian and attended a local church, but abandons the Christian faith. The Bible says they will be fearful when they face God’s judgment (Heb. 10:27, 31). Unbelievers (whose destiny is hell, not heaven) are described as being cowards because, unlike the overcomer, they are afraid to believe that Jesus is the Son of God (Rev. 21:7-8).
People of the earth will be afraid after God’s future judgments. When two of God’s witnesses are resurrected after being martyred, those who see them will be afraid (Rev. 11:11, 13). After the two witnesses ascend to heaven, there will be a severe earthquake and the survivors will be afraid. When Babylon falls, the kings of the earth and the merchants will be afraid (Rev. 18:10, 15).
Finally, people are afraid of dying. The Bible says this fear is like slavery (Heb. 2:15).
These are mainly examples of fearing danger, punishment, and death. They may be called protective fear where people respond to protect themselves. This is a healthy kind of fear. In the case of chronic fear, people are too anxious and doubtful to respond appropriately. This is an unhealthy kind of fear, which keeps us from doing things we should do. It is an anxiety which can lead to depression and mental illness (such as phobias, which are persistent fears of objects or situations).
Next we look at the fears of those who trusted in God.
Fears of believers
People are afraid when they see a demonstration of God’s power. Moses trembled with fear at the burning bush and was greatly afraid at the sight at Mount Sinai (Acts 7:32; Heb. 12:21). Cornelius was afraid when an angel spoke to him (Acts 10:4). And people were afraid when they heard how Ananias and Sapphira died (Acts 5:5, 11).
Christians should fear sin and its consequences. We should be afraid that some people haven’t yet accepted God’s plan of salvation and so they aren’t going to heaven (Heb. 4:1). If an elder sins in such a way as to harm the testimony of the church they are to be rebuked publicly so the others may fear falling into sin (1 Tim. 5:20). When responding to victims of apostasy, we should fear being trapped by the allure of sin (Jude 1:23).
Paul was afraid about the effectiveness of his preaching and teaching ministry. He was humble when he visited Corinth as he came in weakness with great fear and trembling (1 Cor. 2:3). Paul was afraid that the Corinthians may be deceived by false teachers and that if he visits them, they will be disorderly (2 Cor. 11:3; 12:20). At Macedonia, he was harassed by internal fears because he was hoping that Titus would give him news about the church in Corinth (2 Cor. 7:5-7). This was alleviated when Titus told him about the Corinthians’ sorrow and their longing to see Paul. Also, Paul was afraid he had wasted his efforts in Galatia because they were following Jewish practices (Gal 4:11).
Sometimes the apostles were told to not be afraid. At Antioch, Peter separated himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of bullies in the circumcision group (Gal 2:12). But he stopped this after he was rebuked by Paul. When he was on the island of Patmos, John fell at His feet when he saw Christ, but was told to not be afraid (Rev 1:17). After Paul was converted he escaped Damascus (as the Jews planned to kill him) and went to Jerusalem. When he tried to join the disciples, they were afraid of him because they didn’t believe that he was a disciple (Acts 9:26-27). But they accepted Paul after Barnabas told them about Paul’s conversion and preaching.
These are mainly examples of fearing God’s power, sin and its consequences, pride, and that one’s preaching and teaching may not be effective. These are healthy fears as they are associated with godly living.
Courage is the opposite of fear; it’s the ability to face danger without fear. Next we look when those who trusted in God demonstrated courage instead of fear.
Moses’ parents weren’t afraid of the kings edict to drown every Hebrew boy that is born and Moses didn’t fear Pharaoh’s anger (Heb. 11:23, 27). The Psalmist wasn’t afraid when he was in trouble because the Lord was with him (Heb. 13:6).
The early Christians were to be courageous when they faced persecution. They were not to fear threats or be frightened when persecuted and not retaliate, but endure it patiently and be kind to their persecutors (1 Pt. 3:14). The church in Smyrna was told not to be afraid of persecution and to be faithful even to the point of death (Rev 2:10). All this is possible because the Holy Spirit makes believers courageous and not timid; “For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid (fearful), but gives us power, love and self-discipline (2 Tim. 1:7NIV).
One night the Lord spoke to Paul in a vision and told him to not be afraid because “I am with you” and no one would harm him and there were many people in Corinth who would follow the Lord (Acts 18:9). During the storm, an angel told Paul to not be afraid of shipwreck because he would stand trial before Caesar (Acts 27:24). Also, Paul told the Romans, if you do what’s right, then there is no need to fear those who are in authority (Rom 13:3).
As marriage thrives in a climate of love, honor and respect, there is no place for fear in a healthy marriage. Peter said wives shouldn’t be terrified of their husbands (except for cases of domestic violence, which isn’t acceptable) (1 Pt. 3:6).
Christians don’t fear death because it brings them closer their Savior. In fact, Jesus frees believers from the fear of death (Heb. 2:15).
Christians don’t fear God’s judgment because Jesus has paid the penalty. John wrote, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love” (1 Jn. 4:18). Christ’s death on our behalf is the “perfect love” that “drives out fear” of God’s judgment.
These are examples of courage and not fearing authorities, trouble, threats, persecution, harm, danger, death, your husband, and God’s judgment. This courage is healthy because it is associated with godly living.
The second meaning of “fear” in Scripture is to indicate reverence and respect for authority.
Godly men who lived in Old Testament times had an attitude of reverence and respect for God. For example, after being warned by God of the coming judgment, in holy fear (reverence and respect) Noah built an ark to save his family (Heb. 11:7).
People were filled with awe at the miracles done by the apostles when the church was formed at Jerusalem (Acts 2:43). Although they were mainly Jews, it soon became evident that there were Gentiles who also had an attitude of reverence and respect for God. Cornelius and his family were devout and God-fearing (Acts 10:2, 22). They believed in one God and the moral and ethical teachings of the Jews. Likewise, there were Gentiles in Pisidian Antioch who reverenced and respected the Lord (Acts 13:16, 26). When Peter realized that God accepted Gentiles, he said God accepts those who respect Him and do what is right (Acts 10:35). When someone lives up to the revelation they have received about the Lord, He makes sure that they hear the gospel and so has the opportunity to be saved.
Gentiles shouldn’t be proud that there are more of them in God’s family today than Jews, but they should respect God (Rom 11:20).
After the people in Ephesus realized that Paul’s miracles were greater than the false exorcists, they were also filled with a deep sense of awe and the Lord’s name was honored (Acts 19:17).
Believers are commanded to give respect and honor to those owed respect and honor (Rom 13:7). This includes revering and respecting God and worshiping Him with reverence and awe (2 Cor. 7:1; 1 Pt. 2:17; Heb. 12:28; 1 Pt. 1:17). This is opposite to unbelievers, who don’t revere or respect God (Rom 3:18). There is a reward for those who revere God (Rev. 11:18). When believers respected the Lord, the early church grew (Acts 9:31). So although they didn’t fear persecution, they revered Christ as Lord (1 Pt. 3:14, 15).
Paul respected the Lord as He is the one to whom Christians are accountable when they are rewarded at the judgement seat of Christ (2 Cor. 5:10-11). Similarly, we should fear displeasing the Lord. Jesus is another example for us; He prayed with reverent submission (Heb. 5:7).
The Corinthians respected the Lord and they received Titus “with fear and trembling”, which means with a sense of reverence before the Lord (2 Cor. 7:11, 15). Paul urged the Philippians to work on deliverance from their contentions “with fear and trembling”, which means with a sense of reverence before the Lord (Phil. 2:12-13).
In the gospel of the coming kingdom, people are told to respect God and worship Him, not a man (Rev 14:7). At that time, God’s judgments on the earth will show that He is a God of holiness (Rev. 15:4). They will cause all nations to revere, glorify, and worship Him.
Slaves, children, and wives are to submit to their masters, parents and husbands out of reverence to Christ (Eph. 5:21). As already mentioned, respect is part of a healthy marriage. While the husband is to love his wife, the wife is to respect her husband (Eph. 5:33). Wives should also be morally pure, which springs from reverence toward the Lord (of course this principle applies to husbands as well) (1 Pt. 3:2).
Slaves should respect and obey their masters (no only when they are watching or to earn their favour) with sincerity and with reverence to the Lord (Eph. 6:5; Col 3:22; 1 Pt. 2:18). Similarly, as God’s slaves/servants, our attitude towards Him should be one of reverence and respect (Rev. 19:5).
These are examples of reverence and respect for God, who warns of coming judgment, who enabled the apostles and their delegates to do miracles, and who we wish to please as our Lord. They may be called respectful fear, which is a healthy fear associated with godly living. This reverence leads to slaves, children, and wives submitting to their masters, parents and husbands.
Lessons for us
From these Scriptures we see that if we obey the law, there is no need to fear punishment from authorities. But do we fear danger or death? If we have no external resources to help us, it is natural to fear these possibilities. But through faith in Christ, these fears can be replaced with courage, security, protection and peace when we realize that Christ is with us (Acts 18:9-10; Heb. 13:6). Prayer is helpful in overcoming all types of fear (Phil. 4:6-7; 1 Pt. 5:7). Then we can practice protective fear without lapsing into chronic fear.
As Christians, do we fear God’s power, sin and its consequences, pride, displeasing the Lord, or that our service and ministry may not be effective? These are healthy fears that help us live godly lives.
The apostles were courageous when they faced the Sanhedrin (Acts 4:13; 5:29). This courage came from the Holy Spirit (Acts 4:8; 2 Tim. 1:7). After Paul’s trial before the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem, he was told by the Lord to have courage because he would also stand before Caesar in Rome (Acts 23:11). Christians are commanded to be courageous against dangers and difficulties, including false teachers (1 Cor. 16:13). Do we have courage instead of fear when we face authorities, trouble, threats, persecution, harm, danger, death, or God’s judgment? This courage comes from the Holy Spirit who empowers believers for godly living.
Do we go against the tide in a world where one’s rights are given priority over one’s responsibilities? Do we reverence and respect God and Christ as our Lord? Then we can practice respectful fear. Do we respect His message for us in the Bible? Do we respect our employer, parents, spouse and our church elders?
Less respect of God leads to more trust in humanity, which leads to more anxiety and chronic fear. It also leads to less respect for authority in families, schools, and society. When parents don’t respect God, children don’t respect parents. When teachers don’t respect God, students don’t respect teachers. When our leaders don’t respect God, people don’t respect the police, the judiciary or the government.
Let’s bring all our fears to the Lord in prayer so we can exercise protective fear when we are aware of danger and not lapse into chronic fear based on assumed dangers. And most important of all, let’s be aware of God and Christ so we can practice respectful fear until it is part of our character.
Through the Holy Spirit, Christians can be courageous when others are fearful. Although we shouldn’t be afraid, healthy fears help us live godly lives and we need to reverence and respect God and Christ as our Lord.
Written, February 2015
Also see: How to overcome fear
“Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people” (Luke 2:10NIV)
Don’t worry, He’s returning
News stories on the internet, radio, TV and newspapers often arouse our fears of impending danger, trouble and evil. They seem to feed on the fact that we all experience anxiety and worry. For example, we can be worried or alarmed about: unemployment, money, relationships, loneliness, security, crime, terrorism, illness, aging, climate change, technological change, cultural change, moral change, our circumstances, our choices, the future, or the unknown.
About 2,000 years ago, Mary lived in Nazareth, a village about 115 km north of Jerusalem, which was more than two days of travel. She was far from the capital city of Israel. One day God sent an angel to visit her: “The angel went to her and said, ‘Greetings, you who are highly favored! God is with you.’ Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be” (Lk. 1:28-29TNIV).
Mary would have been surprised by the angel Gabriel, because she had never seen an angel before. Six months earlier the priest Zechariah was “startled and gripped with fear” when the same angel appeared in the temple in Jerusalem (Lk. 1:11-13). If an old Jewish priest was terrified by the angel, then it is understandable that a young woman would also be terrified by the appearance of the same angel. Being alone with an angel could be scary.
Mary was worried about what the angel’s message meant. She would have known that God used angels to proclaim important messages. Was it bad news? She would have also known that angels can be God’s agents of judgement. Was she feeling guilty? As this was a circumstance that she had no control over, she may have felt helpless.
Then she was told, “Don’t be afraid”. Why? Because she had found favor with God and would have a son named Jesus. “He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High” (Lk. 1:30-33). God had chosen her to be the mother of the long-awaited Jewish Messiah, who would establish the kingdom of God on earth. This was a radical change in her life, because a baby changes everything, particularly the first-born. Nevertheless, her fears and anxieties were allayed and replaced with joy which she expressed in a song of praise for all that God had done (Lk. 1:46-55).
The Shepherd’s Anxiety
Nine months later the shepherds at Bethlehem had a similar experience: “they were terrified” when an angel appeared to them and God’s glory blazed around them like a supernatural search light (Lk. 2:9)! An angel appearing in the countryside during the night with a bright light would be scary. This was totally outside their experience. What was going to happen next? Were their lives in danger?
They were given the same reassurance as Mary, when the angel said, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people” (Lk. 2:10NIV). Mary’s promised baby had been born and they were told how to find Him. After seeing the baby Jesus for themselves, they also praised God “for all they had heard and seen” (Lk. 2:20).
The Disciples’ Anxiety
According to the Bible, the baby Jesus grew up to be a man who was the unique Son of God who came to take our judgement. After Jesus told His disciples that He was about to die and return to heaven, they were “filled with grief” and wept and mourned and felt abandoned (Jn. 16:6, 20TNIV). After all, they would be without the leader that they had followed for at least three years. But like Mary and the shepherds, they were told, “Do not be afraid” (Jn. 14:1, 27bNIV).
Three reasons were given for not being afraid of their new circumstances. First, they were assured of a home in heaven if they trusted Christ – because Jesus was the only way there. Jesus said, “Trust in God, trust also in Me” and “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one can come to God the Father except through me” (Jn. 14:1b, 6). That’s why the shepherds were told that the baby was a Savior; one who could rescue them. Faith in Christ is necessary for eternal life which is the ultimate cure for our anxieties and worries.Second, Jesus would return and take them to be with Him; He said “I will come back and take you to be with Me” (Jn. 14:3, 28). Although He was going away, they could look forward to a reunion with Him. Third, in the meantime the Holy Spirit would always be within them – the Holy Spirit “will be with you forever” (Jn. 14:16). They would not be like orphans (Jn. 14:15-21, 25-27). This was like having Jesus with them all the time, not just sometime!
So, they had a Savior who was going to take them to heaven and God the Holy Spirit was always going to be with them. Like Mary and the shepherds, Jesus said that their grief would be turned into lasting joy (Jn. 16:20-23). The illustration He used was how a mother’s pain turns to joy after the birth of her baby.
The First Advent
At Christmas we remember the unique birth of the Lord Jesus Christ who was both divine and human. This was His first advent. He was sent to earth by God to die for us in order to enable us to be reconciled with God. The Bible says that God so loved the people of the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life (Jn. 3:16). After His death, Jesus was buried and He rose back to life three days later.
Those who accept His free gift have peace with God and an inheritance of eternal life. We must receive what Christ has done for us before God will give us eternal life. However, those who don’t accept the gift face God’s judgment of eternal punishment; that’s what the word “perish” means in John 3:16 above.
The Second Advent
Forty days after His resurrection, Jesus ascended back to heaven by disappearing in a cloud. Then the eleven apostles were told, “This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen Him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11NIV). So, Jesus is going to return to the earth. This will be His second advent.
At Christmas we look back to the first coming of Christ and look ahead to the second coming of Christ. In His first coming He suffered and died; in His second coming He will conquer and reign. In His first coming He came as a baby and a suffering servant ((Isa. 52:13-53:12); in His second coming He will be a conquering king ( Rev. 19:16). That’s when He will be the king of the Jews. In His first coming He came to be a Savior; in His second coming He will be a Judge. The first is characterised by a cross and the second by a crown.
Did you know that all of God’s creation looks forward to the Lord’s coming reign over the earth? When the Lord returns to set up His kingdom, the creation will be released from the affects of humanity’s rebellion and re-created to be “very good” like it was in the beginning. The Garden of Eden will be restored (Acts 3:21). There will be harmony between all of God’s creatures. This is when, “The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat” (Isa. 11:6-9TNIV).
All the wrongs will be made right. All evil will be judged. Satan will be bound and unable to deceive people (Rev. 20:1-3) . All environmental problems will be solved. There will be justice and no wars. That’s when believers will be blessed materially as they rule with the Lord. In the meantime, they are already spiritually part of this new creation. Those who believe that the Savior died for them don’t have to worry, because Jesus is returning.
Between the advents
What can we learn from this as we live between the two advents of Jesus Christ? Mary and the shepherds faced supernatural circumstances and the disciples faced the loss of their Master and closest companion. We may not face supernatural circumstances, but at times we all face difficult circumstances and the loss of those who are near and dear to us. Like them, there are circumstances that we have no control over. Like them, we can experience anxiety, fear and worry, which can lead to panic and depression. But in their case, God’s solution led to joy.
Do not be afraid!
Remember the message, “Do not be afraid”. The reasons given to the disciples also apply to us. If we have trusted Jesus as our Savior our fears can be changed to joy and we can look forward to eternal life instead of eternal judgement. If we have not , then we will face Him as our judge. If we are true believers, the Holy Spirit is in us all the time. This transforms our lives. As believers we can look ahead to the second advent when the Lord Jesus will come and rule over a restored creation.
Another way to remove anxiety and fear is to “rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those that mourn” (Rom. 12:15). This involves sharing the feelings and the emotions of the good times and the bad times. This means listening to what life is like for others and validating their feelings. This means helping them realise that they are not alone. This means praying with them. This means talking about God and what He has done and what He has promised. These encouraging activities can help us get through all circumstances. He’s always with us and He’s always on our side, no matter how bad it gets. Believers are never alone; they have both spiritual and human resources to draw on.
So, don’t worry, Christ has been here once and He’s coming again to fulfill all of God’s promises.
Published, December 2011