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