CLAIM: Peter writes, “Conduct yourselves in fear during the time of your stay on earth” (1 Pet. 1:17). Yet other passages urge us not to fear God: “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves punishment, and the one who fears is not perfected in love” (1 Jn. 4:18). Which is true?
RESPONSE: The Greek word for “fear” (phobos) is the root from which we get our modern term “phobia” or “phobic.” This implies that the term refers to “terror” or “angst” or “being scared.” Yet the NT uses this term in a variety of ways, and it has a wide semantic range:
Being scared. The disciples were afraid of Jesus walking on water (Mt. 14:26). The guards were scared of angels as Jesus’ tomb (Mt. 28:4). Zecharias was afraid when he saw the angel Gabriel (Lk. 1:12). Men will be “fainting from fear” during the Tribulation (Lk. 21:26). People were afraid of the religious leaders (Jn. 7:13; cf. 19:38; 20:19). The people felt fear at the judgment of Ananias and Sappira (Acts 5:5, 11). Evildoers should fear the justice of the law enforcement (Rom. 13:3). When Paul came to Corinth, he was filled with fear and “much trembling” (1 Cor. 2:3). Paul was surrounded by “conflicts without, [and] fears within” (2 Cor. 7:5). During church discipline, people will become “fearful of sinning” (1 Tim. 5:20). People have a fear of death before meeting Christ, but not after (Heb. 2:15). Believers can have fear of intimidation or persecution (1 Pet. 3:14). Non-Christians will fear God’s judgment at the end of the Tribulation (Rev. 18:10, 15).
Astonishment. The disciples were afraid when Jesus calmed the storm—even though they were out of physical danger (Mk. 4:41). The people were afraid when Zacharias was healed (Lk. 1:65). When Jesus healed the paralytic, the people were “all struck with astonishment… and they were all filled with fear” (Lk. 5:26). The people were filled with fear when Jesus exorcised the evil spirits from the Gerasenes (Lk. 8:37). The people at the end of history will be filled with fear at the resurrection of the two prophets (Rev. 11:11).
Awe or wonder. When the disciples first saw all of the miraculous events of Pentecost, Luke records, “Everyone kept feeling a sense of awe (phobos); and many wonders and signs were taking place through the apostles” (Acts 2:43). Paul writes that we persuade men out of the “fear of the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:11).
Respect. Peter equates fear with “respect” (1 Pet. 2:18) or being “respectful” (1 Pet. 3:2).
Fear accompanied by peaceful virtues. The women left the tomb of Christ with fear, but also “with great joy” (Mt. 28:8). They were filled with fear after Jesus raised a man from the dead, and the people “began glorifying God” (Lk. 7:16). The disciples were “going on in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 9:31). After the failed exorcism of the seven sons of Sceva, “Fear fell upon them all and the name of the Lord Jesus was being magnified” (Acts 19:17). We are to have “mercy with fear” (Jude 23). Peter connects fear with having a “good (phobos) conscience” (1 Pet. 3:16).
We shouldn’t fear God. Paul writes, “You have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, ‘Abba! Father!’” (Rom. 8:15). John writes, “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves punishment, and the one who fears is not perfected in love” (1 Jn. 4:18).
The fear of God helps us grow spiritually. Paul writes, “Having these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all defilement of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God” (2 Cor. 7:1). Note that our fear of God here is based on our security in his promises. Fear of God is the key to sacrificial love (Eph. 5:21) and spiritual growth (Phil. 2:12).
Based on the wide usages of “fear” (phobos) in the NT, we should be careful to use reductionistic definitions for this word. It can sometimes refer to being scared, but other times it refers to astonishment, awe, reverence, or wonder. This is why BDAG defines “fear” as either “an intimidating entity” or as “reverence or respect.” To fear the Lord means to hold him in his proper place in respect to our lives and situation. We choose to place him in his rightful ranking in our lives as we choose to “fear” Him.