Preamble Readings: Luke 9:28-36 (NLT) Heb 5:7 (RSV) Mark 14:32-36; Mark 15:33-34 (ESV) Red Door CC 28.6.15
Speaking on the fear of God is more challenging than we might first imagine for fearing an Almighty God who is love cannot be like fearing threatening forces like sickness, poverty, people or death (1 John 4:8). Our understanding of the fear of the Lord is not helped when well meaning people tell us that fearing God is equivalent to an attitude of reverence.
Adding to possible confusion, if the true fear of God expels the fear of man why did Peter, who was “terrified” in the presence of the Lord on the mount of transfiguration, go on to deny his relationship with Jesus three times (Matt 17:6; Mark 9:6)?
To stay focussed on our experience or Peter’s will leave us in uncertainty.
Only in the sinless Jesus will we receive revelation about that pure fear which brings pleasure both to God and to man (Isa 11:3; Phil 2:12-13). But first of all it seems right that I share a bit about my personal story.
A few occasions of healthy fearful experiences come to mind; ones that are rational and shameless.
Once I was in the water fishing off Kangaroo Island when these fins started to break the surface all around us, it turned out they were large sting rays rather than sharks. Then there was the quite scary time when I was forced to confront and kill a tiger snake on a farmhouse front porch.
But the most terrible and unhealthy fears of my life happened before I came to Jesus.
In the middle of my time at university I was a wreck; at that stage my father had chronic heart failure from which he would soon die, so when I started to get pains in my chest I snuck myself off to a cardiologist who diagnosed a psychosomatic condition; when the skin on my face kept peeling off I went to a dermatologist who explained my problems in terms of stress and anxiety.
I was too afraid to tell these doctors, or anyone else, that I was suffering from a paranoia which made me feel unsafe around people anywhere other than the university and home. I could not walk down a public street. Then God intervened in my life.
The Lord found a way of putting a bible into my hands and as I read it I came under such a fear of hell, which let me state in the strongest possible terms, is NOT equivalent to the fear of God, that every day I would wake in terror lest that day I die and pass into eternal punishment (Matt 25:46).
That fear was so terrible I dared not share it with anyone lest they think I was going mad.
Hearing of a university Christian group on campus I resolved to go into their meeting and speak with them about finding God. I got as far as the door and it was like I was paralysed by an invisible force field of fear, I could not go forward I had to go backward. As later events would prove, that fear was definitely demonic (cf. Matt 8:28-29).
By the same time the next week my terror of hell was so overwhelming I had to get through that door to those Christians and the rest, as they say, is history. That’s my story, but what was Peter experiencing that day on the mount of transfiguration?
The Fear of Peter
Two past mighty men of God appeared in radiance; Moses, the great giver of the law and Elijah the miracle working prophet.
As men whose ministries were filled with the power and the glory of God we might anticipate their presence with the apostles would encourage them to walk in the true fear the Lord desires.
Hebrews actually tells us that when the glory of the Lord appeared on Mt Sinai, “Moses said, “I tremble with fear.”” (Heb 12:21). But whatever experience Moses had at Sinai we know through sin he failed to enter the Promised Land (Num 20:11-12).
Elijah had his own experience of the glory of the Lord at Sinai but he was only there because he feared death. (1 Ki 19:11-12; cf. 2 Ki 2:9-12). For when the wicked queen Jezebel heard how Elijah had killed the prophets of Baal; “Jezebel sent a message to Elijah saying; “May the gods strike me and even kill me if by this time tomorrow I have not killed you just as you killed them.”3 Elijah was afraid and fled for his life. ” (1 Ki 19:2-3).
How could Moses and Elijah who knew the power and glory of God in their ministries fail to finish well?
How was it possible for Peter and the other apostles sent out by Jesus to heal the sick, raise the dead and cast out demons all fall away when Jesus was taken off to die (Matt 10:8; 26:56).
Must the fear of man be greater than the fear of God?
Crucially, all these examples of mighty men of God falling away occur before the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. The presence and intensity of the glory of God and the fear which it inspires undergoes a radical transformation through the death and resurrection of Christ.
The Israelites in the wilderness saw the glory cloud by day and night, and rebelled, Solomon saw the glory fill the temple and he ended worshipping idols, Judas saw the glory of God when Lazarus was raised from the dead but went on to betray Jesus (Num 9:16;14:22-23;1 Ki 8:11; 11:4; John 11:40; 18:3).
Prior to the death and resurrection of Jesus and his gift of the Spirit the glory which appeared to people was outside of them, and the experience of an external power can only produce an external fear (John 14:17).
Let me explain what I mean.
When I was very young I had an unforgettable experience of being belted by my father so that I always feared his presence, not because I inwardly honoured him but because the physical consequences of disobedience could be severe. When the inhabitants of the earth cry out in Revelation ““v.16 Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, v.17 for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?”” (6:16-17) they see God’s glorious power only as a terrorising threat to their godless way of life.
At the time of the Transfiguration Peter had not yet been delivered from a fear fixated on the external consequences of following Jesus. Peter was yet to have a revelation of the sort of glory which creates a true fear of the Lord that establishes a deep inner, relationship with God and which intensifies our joy in him.
Thankfully there are two indicators in our Transfiguration passage pointing us to the intimate character of the true fear of God.
Firstly, “Moses and Elijah were speaking with Jesus about his exodus from this world, which was about to be fulfilled in Jerusalem” (9:31). This is a reference to Christ’s coming death and resurrection which would accomplish for humanity a dimension of deliverance from the fears of this world that the first exodus under Moses could never achieve.
The second revelation about the character of a Christ-centred fear of the Lord comes at the climax of our passage when the voice of the Father testifies, ““This is my Son, my Chosen One; listen to him!”” The intensely loving manner in which the Father speaks of Jesus imparts to us an understanding that God’s glory is not some mighty external power but the way in which the Father and Son honour and love each other (Luke 9:35 cf. John 1:14). To understand something of Jesus’ own fear of God however we must come down from the Mount of Transfiguration.
The Fear of Jesus
In deep anguish in the Garden of Gethsemane sweating drops like blood Jesus shared with his disciples, ““My soul is crushed with grief to the point of death.” (Matt 26:38; Luke 22:44).
Luther said of this terrible experience that
But we must never interpret Jesus’ experience in terms of our own. Since according to the author of Hebrews Jesus was “saved from death” because of his “godly fear” it cannot be the physical degradation, suffering and death of the cross that caused Christ to be so afraid in Gethsemane (Heb 5:7; 12:2).
The suffering and death that filled Jesus with holy fear in Gethsemane involved enduring for us the fullness of death about which God warned Adam in Eden, “in the day that you sin you shall surely die” (Gen 2:17).
Adam and Eve sinned because disregarding the glory of God they delighted in earthly things above delighting in the fear of the Lord (Neh 1:11; Isa 11:3; Rom 1:21-23). Their sin did not mean immediate physical extinction but it did mean the immediate loss of that marvellous, exciting, joy-filled quality of life God intended for us all, it meant the loss of sharing in the glory of God (Rom 3:23).
Losing the holy intimate knowledge of God as “Abba Father” human beings have become filled with a spirit that fears the loss of earthly pleasures (Luke 3:38; Rom 8:15). What we at the natural level call anxiety, guilt and shame is at a deeper spiritual level a sense of the loss of the glory of God. Fallen people have no awareness that their fears have anything to do with God’s glory, but the sinless Jesus knew the one thing that we truly need to fear is the loss of the glorious presence of his loving Father.
It was prophesied of the Messiah, “his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.” (Isa 11:3), but Jesus must endure for us the final torments of which Paul speaks so powerfully, “the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might,” (2 Thess 1:9 cf. Matt 10:28).
He who always lived in the pleasure of the Father because he delighted in fearing the Lord must because of his holy fear lose all his joy in the Lord. In the anguished cry from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”” we are witnessing a true Son’s infinitely perfect terror about losing intimacy with his Holy Father (Mark 15:34; John 17:11). This is the fear of the Lord which from Adam onwards should always have indwelt us, but never did. Moses, Elijah and Peter all in their own ways fell away from God because they lacked this holy fear, but in Jesus’ suffering for us in the dread darkness of Calvary the fear which God has always sought for his children has been perfected on our behalf. Christ has feared for us! This is an enormous relief.
I have quite a large file at home on the fear of man and the Fear of God but in recent years have added to it very little because I have been through a fundamental spiritual refocus. I can recall a dear mature sincere Christian leader in this city fearful about missing out on what God might want to do in his life and ministry.
In the end this sort of thinking led him into deep anxiety about his spiritual performance. Speaking personally I dare not try to measure my own fear of God lest I take my eyes off Jesus who has kept the faith and completed the race with a godly fear that was perfectly for me (Heb 12:2 cf. 1 Cor 1:30; 2 Tim 4:7-8).
Jesus did not stay dead. The fruit of the fear of the Lord which led Jesus to the cross is crowned with the uninterruptible joy he shares with the Father at his right hand in glory (Heb 12:2).
Whatever the cost, Jesus is so infinitely thankful for the fear of the Lord which directed the course of his life from beginning to end. He is immersed forever in the “good pleasure” of the Father (Phil 2:12-13). Jesus came to his first disciples in this joy (Luke 24:41).
Only once the shameful uselessness of their human fears had been exposed by their abandonment of Jesus at the cross could the disciples receive the deep spiritual truth of the secret of the fear of the Lord; “Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?”” (Luke 24:26).
Those who wisely fear God see that suffering is not the cost of glory but the means of sharing the glory of God. The fullness of the glory of God for which we were all created can only be imparted to us as we share in the power of Jesus’ death-and-resurrection, as we in Christ fear the loss of intimacy with God more than we fear the loss of any of the treasures of this world (Isa 43:6-7).
This inner secret of the fear of the Lord is hardly understood by the Western Church today.
Our Fear of Jesus
Years ago a friend was arrested by the Taliban in Afghanistan for evangelising the locals and imprisoned for 100 days. Her team were released only when the Americans stormed the country. In prison under conditions where death was a daily possibility the fear of the Lord and his holy presence were intensely real.
When she came back to Australia she had many opportunities to share here and in other nations.
With sadness she came to the conviction that during the years she had been abroad the glory of God had departed from the Church (1 Samuel 4 Ichabod).
Looking across Australia as a nation that once proudly proclaimed itself as “Christian” our immoralities, selfishness, and prayerlessness proclaim that the glory of the Lord has left us because in abandoning the fear of the Lord we have lost intimacy with our Father (Matt 5:14-16; 1 Cor 3:16; Eph 2:21-22).
The true Jesus of the Bible is scandalous to most of the Christian culture in this country for the Son is to be feared equally with the Father.
Paul tells us that we are to “submit to one another in the fear of Christ.” and when Acts speaks of the Early Church “walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it multiplied.” it is describing fearing Jesus (Acts 9:31; 2 Cor 5:11; Eph 5:21).
In the fear of Christ is to be found a secret to Church maturity that few want to know about today. I categorically declare that if Red Door lives as a body which fears Jesus as the Son of God who feared his Father so much that he went to the cross, you will be a church that grows in the likeness of Christ and all you do will be multiplied (Phil 2:13; Col 1:28).
When I was lecturing theology I sometime used to provoke those students who were infatuated with the spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians by teaching them that in the one church God was both healing and killing the Christians.
Here is what Paul says to the Corinthians on account of their misbehaviour at the Lord’s Supper; “anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died….when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world. (1 Cor 11:29-32).
This judging Lord is the same Jesus who said to the Christians in Thyatira following a sexually immoral prophetess, “v.22 Behold, I will throw her onto a sickbed, and those who commit adultery with her I will throw into great tribulation, unless they repent of her works, v.23 and I will strike her children dead.” (Rev 2:22-23). Where in this land will we find a church that believes in this Jesus and gives him the fear that is his due to the glory of God the Father??
In Jesus we meet “The LORD who kills and makes alive; who brings some down to the grave but raises others up.” he has this sovereign authority because he himself has been down to the grave and back for us (1 Sam 2:6). In the matter of the true inner nature of the fear of the Lord we are deeply deceived.
Adam and Eve sinned in Eden because they were deceived into thinking that they could lift up their humanity by committing the forbidden.
Instead of reaching the heights of heaven their sin filled their inner world with guilt and shame testifying that they were far lesser persons than God had called them to be. Suffering in the outer world and pain in the inner world is a sign that registers at the deepest level of the fallen human heart that we are not the image and glory of God we were destined to be.
It teaches us that it is precisely through submitting to the will of the Father in the things that men and women fear most, rejection, deprivation, weakness, death, that the glorious image of God is restored in us.
To quote the scriptures “in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” because nothing can “separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom 8:37, 39). “We can confidently say, “The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?” (Heb 13:6); man may deride you, demote you, abuse you and even decapitate you but he cannot take away from you “the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor 4:6).
Saint John testifies of a love that overcomes all mortal fears, “perfect love expels all fear. If we are afraid, it is for fear of punishment, and this shows that we have not fully experienced his perfect love.” (1 John 4:18)
The perfect love of God in Christ crucified-and-risen banishes all fearful thoughts that God is punishing me by my sufferings in this world and liberates me to see that submissive suffering is not the cost of glory but the way to glory.
We should fear God lest he allow us to remain in the state where “the glory has departed”.
Praise the Lord however for I believe that for an uncompromising Church these days are coming to an end.
Jesus prophesied, ““you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake….many will fall away…the love of many will grow cold…the one who endures…will be saved…and then the end will come”” (Matt 24:9ff.).
We my friends are in these days when even in the nation of Australia, a land so deliberately laid back and easy going, to be associated with the name of Jesus will bring hatred (John 15:18).
In such conditions as these the fear of the Lord which is the beginning of wisdom will thrive (Prov 9:10.) And through all this will be the most penetrating glory filled sense of joy (Neh 1:11; Isa 11:3; 33:6; Phil 2:12-13; 1 Pet 1:8).
In prayer with Donna the other morning I had the most categorical spiritual conviction.
Any church, any marriage, any family that walks together in the fear of the Lord cannot be divided (Ps 86:11; Jer 32:29).
This is the promise of the Spirit to each of you today.
There were two clouds on the Mount of Transfiguration, a cloud of glory and a cloud of fear.
The cloud of fear that surrounds ordinary human lives blinds men and women to the intimate presence of the glory of God; this had once been the case for Moses and Elijah and it was the case for Peter that day.
In Peter’s final letter however we meet a man facing his own exodus from this world as a man without fear, a mature disciple who knew that through suffering and death he would bring glory to God (John 21:18-19 ;2 Pet 1:14-18).
Peter had been brought to maturity in the fear of the Lord (cf. Phil 1:20).
I have a measure of assurance about this in my life too. How about you – have you asked for “the fear of the Lord which is the beginning of wisdom” and have you asked Jesus to share with you something of his holy fear and trembling in the Garden of Gethsemane (Prov 9:10; 1 Cor 2:3).
Be assured, if you do ask for such things you will sense God’s glory has made its home in you (Col 1:27. Cf. Luke 9:33).
Is there anything else that any human being made in the image of God revealed in Christ could ever truly desire (Col 1:15)?