Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid. [John 14:27 ESV]
There are many features of fears. At the top of the list is a fear of death. With the assurance of God’s grace and the unchangeableness of His nature Christians should never fear death. Yet, we are human, sinful, and for many Christians it is the process of dying not death itself which is terrifying. For the non-Christian death brings an unknown, or a refused to know, truth. All of the wishful thinking and fanciful imagining of life is dashed against the reality of God’s presence. Perhaps this is why those who are confronted by God while in this world are terrified by His presence. They face both judgment and death.
In Scripture the word “fear” is used in two ways. Those facing the dangerous known or unknown fear for their safety. It is the heart stopping, thought stopping, adrenaline rush to flee, freeze or fight that grips a person when they come face-to-face with ultimate danger. If they are unprepared, blind-sided by the danger it could kill them, either physically or spiritually. Most of the danger we face does not end in physical death. It may, however, end in spiritual death. God uses danger to show us our need for Him. Those who turn away from God, refusing to trust Him for their ultimate safety run away in their thinking and believing. It does not matter what the danger is which causes such fear. Either the person who rejects God freezes, refusing to see Him, flees from Him, or fights against Him, because of their fear of Him because they do not know Him.
Secondly, “fear” is used is of our attitude toward God. Not a fear which gives up or runs from or fights against Him but a fear which acknowledges His presence and power and authority when faced with personal sinfulness. It is the fear of God mentioned so often in the Old Testament. This fear is real fear, being afraid and terrified of God because we, made in His image, rebel against the Creator. It is fear which acknowledges the truth of our position before God and humbly seeks His mercy, knowing His righteousness and justice. It is a fear caused by disappointing someone who truly loves us, of realizing even slightly what our individual and corporate sin costs God and that nothing I do will repay His love for us. It is as deeply personal as a parent with a small, disobedient child who suddenly realizes, truly realizes, that they have done wrong. This fear of God is the devastation of our sinful practices, the undoing of our worldly position and the complete assurance of our place in God’s eternal love. Fear of God as reverence is unexplainable to those who do not fear Him.
Jesus’ disciples were confronted with dangerous situations and were, in our thinking, reasonably terrified. Twice they are in a boat in the middle of the raging Sea of Galilee where even the hardened, experienced fishermen of that Sea quaked with fear. Jesus was unafraid for He is the Creator and controls the wind and the waves, and even walked on the tumultuous water. Both times He rebuked His disciples for being afraid and not having faith. Three times He rebuked Peter for his lack of faith. In what object is their faith placed? The boat in danger of sinking? Those in the boat who cannot control it? Or, in the One who Created the wind, the water and waves, who stood with them unafraid, even slept during the storm?
Following one of these not-so-terrifying dangerous times on the lake Jesus takes three disciples up a mountain where He is transfigured, metamorphed, into His true self. Three of His disciples saw Jesus, Moses and Elijah, then heard God speak, and they were terrified.
“When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces and were terrified. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and have no fear.” And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only. [Matthew 17:6-8 ESV]
Jesus did not rebuke them for a lack of faith. Like Moses and Elijah, these three had been in the physical presence of unchangeable God, hidden from His face by the transcendence of Jesus glory. They heard God speak. It is only natural for sinful people to freeze in terror when in the presence of Holy God. They were accompanied by their Intercessor, the One who carried their sins on His shoulders, encompassing them in His grace and mercy so they would not be destroyed. They had better fear.
So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment. [James 2:12-13 ESV]
We fear God in honoring Him and in being terrified of Him. He is the One, the only One, who can have mercy on anyone. We fear He may withhold His mercy, terrified of the consequences of separation from Him. We honor Him when we recognize the reality of sin, realize its consequences, and allow ourselves to be drive toward Him while relinquishing control to Him.
Many do not fear God, instead placing their dread, accompanied by their honor and worship, in a figment of their imagination. They fear an idol, a piece of wood or hunk of metal or natural wonder. They fear losing the dead thing because of the control it has on their lives, bodies, traditions, and cultures. It is the familiar they fear losing. They fear the imagined consequences of rebelling against man-made or demon-made demands. Like the Israelites rebelling against God during the Exodus they would rather be enslaved to what they know, however horrible, than freed for what they don’t know. God’s promises mean nothing when He is not feared for who He is.
Yet, true knowledge of unchangeable God is close to all and all of the inherent ability, found in the image of God in them, of knowing Him both intellectually and intimately. Truth is even closer to those who can pick up and read Scripture. Truth is intimately close for those who have the Holy Spirit to open their minds and hearts to it. When seen through recreated eyes and revealed by the Holy Spirit truth devastates and undoes. Jesus tells us the truth will make you free. “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” [John 8:31-32 ESV]. He said this to those who believed His words. We are freed from sin only when we are drawn, tugged and pulled, relentlessly driven toward God’s mercy, toward God Himself.
To receive His mercy we must first be afraid. Fear of God burns away the desire to sin, exposing the raw nerves of the re-created spiritual self. Mercy covers the wounds made by fear, heightening the sensitivity of the spiritual nerves while healing those exposed by the fire. Instead of the rough, unfeeling calluses of the world, we have the smooth, spiritually sensitive skin of eternity. Let sin touch this new skin and it will recoil in pain and grief and fear. For the new, spiritual self cannot sin without plunging headfirst into mourning. God’s mercy allows us to share a little of the pain He feels as He confronts sin.
Was not Jesus’ sacrifice as a man, the morphe of a bondservant, the morphe of God, tortured to death? He bore our sin, every second immersed in agony, every moment feeling the wrath of a just God. Mercy is active love. In Christ’s sacrifice God actively loves us.
Fear God. He excuses no sin. Honor Him by accepting His gift of mercy. God, the righteous Judge has released us from the sentence of death. For those who fear God, sin needs to brings fear. For those who fear God, mercy needs to bring brings assurance, peace and perseverance. Before we can show mercy to others we must first embrace the full extent of His active love, mercy, for us.