When Scripture says that God dwells in “unapproachable light” (1 Tim. 6:16) it means that God’s characteristics of infinity, power, eternity, etc., are beyond the creature’s ability to take in. We cannot approach the light of His glorious character because it is infinitely and eternally beyond anything we are or will ever be. We fear Him for the same reason that we praise Him. We fear Him because of who He is in His infinite, eternal power and majesty.
The fullness of the glory of God is His alone; it is for His eyes only. It cannot be seen by mortal man. So great and majestic and transcendent is this glory that if it were revealed to us in its fullness it would immediately snuff out our finite and creaturely existence.
How, then, can we know God if the fullness of His character and glory cannot be seen by us? We know God the way Moses knew God. We know God as He reveals that glory to us, on our level, in a way that will not overwhelm and destroy us. We know God because, as Calvin reminds us, He has “stooped” to our level to make Himself known. He “stooped” to the request of Moses by letting Moses see His back (Ex. 33:23). He “stooped” in the Old Testament as He spoke to our fathers by the prophets, at many times and in many ways. Climactically, He “stooped” when He spoke to us by His Son, who Himself is like us, even as He remains the very radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of His nature (Heb. 1:1–3).
But herein lies “the rub” for many. The “stooping” of God — what we call in theology God’s covenantal condescension — can sometimes lull us into thinking that God is just like us. This, unfortunately, became the mindset of many in Israel (Ps. 50:21). Because God extends His glorious grace to us by coming down to our level, we might begin to convince ourselves that the condescended revelation of God to us is all that there is to God. We might think that it is no trouble for us to view the full glory and character of God. We might fool ourselves into thinking that the unapproachable Light can, as a matter of fact, be seen and grasped by us all. We might act as though God is not to be feared after all.
But, as with a total eclipse, this “veiling” of the fullness of God’s infinite and eternal character in His divine stoop to us in no way minimizes the power of that character. Though God graciously veils the fullness of His glory in His revelation to us, He is, and always remains, the God whose very character could destroy us with one glimpse. That is part and parcel of what it means for God to be God. The “eclipse” of God’s glory in the condescended revelation of that glory should never cause us to think we are able to see God in His fullness. We see God, only because He has condescended to our level. But even as condescended, He continues to dwell in unapproachable light. The unapproachable light of God’s glory, though “eclipsed” in His revelation, is ever-present in that revelation and its power is never diminished. It is that light — the full effulgence of His glory — that should always cause us rightly to fear Him.
Christians need not fear God because they fear eternal punishment; Christ has taken that fear away. We need not fear God because we fear He will go back on His promises, or will, in the end, not accept us. Christians fear God, in the first place, because we recognize that the radiance of His infinite, eternal and majestic character would, simply by its majesty, stamp us out of existence. We fear God because we know that if we were to see Him in all His glory, we would be no more. And then we approach Him with reverence and awe because we know that such an approach “fearfully” acknowledges the One who is, in His condescension, revealed to us, but who also infinitely, eternally and immutably continues to shine with a brightness that no human could endure. God is to be feared because of who He is in the fullness of His majestic being.