In Matthew 14 Jesus comes to the disciples, walking on the sea. They were terrified when they saw Him, thinking that He was a ghost. Jesus responds to their fear by saying, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid..” (Matthew 14: 27b ESV) In this article we will consider the use of the word, fear/afraid, in the Bible.
The basic question for each believer is, shall we fear the things of the world or God or neither? The word fear is used many times in its substantive and verbal forms in the Gospel of Matthew. In Matthew 1: 20 the angel comes to Joseph and says to him, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” (Matthew 1: 20b ESV) Joseph was going to end marriage plans because of Mary’s pregnancy, for he did not want to put her to public shame. In a dream an angel told him not to fear taking Mary as his wife. He is also told that Mary is a virgin, the theotokos, the Christ bearer, that will save the people from their sins. Joseph feared the public repercussions of this apparent “illegitimate pregnancy,” for “being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.” (Matthew 1: 19b ESV) When he was instructed to return to Israel from Egypt, Joseph was afraid to go to Judea, but went to Galilee instead, because Archelaus was ruling in Judea in place of his deceased father, Herod. He must have thought that Archelaus was dangerous to the child as Herod was. Again circumstances caused fear in Joseph.
Jesus counsels the disciples not to fear those who would persecute them. He instructs them not to be afraid of those who can kill the body but not the soul, but fear those who can kill both body and soul in hell. (Matthew 10: 26ff) If God cares for the sparrow, will He not much more care for us who are “of more value than many sparrows?” (Matthew 10: 31 ESV) We should not be reluctant to acknowledge Christ, even when danger draws close (Matthew 10: 32). Our witness and defense should not be weakened or non-existent because of the hostility of others. This is a good reminder as we keep in mind our American culture whose opposition to Christianity increases. Though far from there yet, our culture is moving in a direction that looks more and more like the situation for Christians in the early centuries of the church, that is, the threat and reality of persecution. The word for fear/afraid indicates a trepidation that comes from the dangers we experience in life, mostly from other human beings, or fears about the future. Disciples of Christ are most especially susceptible to danger.
The word fear also refers to human reactions to encounters with God. In the prophet Isaiah, the word fear is used by God when he speaks to human beings. “Fear not, nor be afraid; have I not told you from of old and declared it? And you are my witnesses! Is there a God besides me? There is no Rock; I know not any.” (Isaiah 44: 8 ESV) Isaiah had the personal experience of encounter with God in the Temple in Jerusalem. His reaction was, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips, for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (Isaiah 6: 5 ESV) At the burning bush Moses had an encounter with God. The Lord said to Him, “‘I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.” (Exodus 3: 6 ESV) Another example is found in Matthew at the resurrection, where the angel tells the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified.” (Matthew 28: 5 b) In encounters with the divine, we are told not to fear. In Luke’s story of the Nativity of Christ, the messenger angel says in his announcements, “Do not be afraid.” To Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, “And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing at the right side of the altar of incense. And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him. But the angel said to him, ‘Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for you prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. (Luke 1: 13 ESV) and to Mary, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.” (Luke 1: 30 ESV) And to the shepherds, “And the angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear. And the angel said to them, ‘Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.'” (Luke 2: 9-11 ESV)
In the Scriptures the word, fear, is equivocal, that is ambiguous, having more than one meaning. Equivocal is the opposite of univocal, or unambiguous, having only one meaning. Fear is a reaction to immediate danger. In Psalm 55: 4-7, the composer writes: “My heart is in anguish within me; the terrors of death have fallen upon me. Fear and trembling come upon me, and horror overwhelms me. And I say, ‘Oh, that I had wings like a dove! I would fly away and be at rest; yes, I would wander far away; I would lodge in the wilderness; I would hurry to find a shelter from raging wind and tempest.” (ESV) The Psalmist describes the reason for his fear. “The cords of death encompassed me; the torrents of destruction assailed me; the cords of Sheol entangled me; the snares of death confronted me.” (Psalm 18: 4-5 ESV) Of all things, the prospect of death is feared the most. We are not to fear dangers or the divine presence, yet the Scriptures also call us to the fear of God. “You who fear the Lord, praise him!” (Psalm 22: 23 ESV) “You who fear the Lord, trust in the Lord! He is their help and their shield.” (Psalm 115: 11 ESV) Fear has to do with respect for the Lord. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.” (Proverbs 1: 7 ESV) Fear may come in an encounter with the Lord in HIs otherness and holiness. He would call us to put aside our fears and listen to Him. Fear is also a response to danger and threat. And, finally, fear describes a respect for the Lord. Context reveals the particular meaning.
We are to fear the Lord and have no other fears, something difficult to accomplish. We are to reverence HIm, listen to Him, and do His will, for He is the holy God that created and redeemed us. In our witness and defense of the faith we are to worship and serve Him above all other things including the gods of this world. We are to fear Him and nothing else. Such is the foundation of the work disciples are called to do in the world.
Michael G. Tavella
Day of Thanksgiving 2019