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Fear is a much bigger part of our lives than most of us like to admit. In Great Britain, where I live, it is commonly said that people decide how to vote not on which party they like most but which they fear least. There is much in life to be afraid of, and Christians, of course, are not exempt. Like everyone else, we fear our children getting sick; we fear the loss of our loved ones; we fear being unable to pay our bills or provide for our families. And we Christians have things to fear that others do not. Persecution is a real and, for many of us, growing reality. Our children may be taken away; we may lose our jobs for refusing to compromise; our reputations may be ruined. Jesus tells us to expect all these and more: flogging, family betrayal, and death, among others (Matt. 10:16–25).
And then He tells us to have no fear of these things (v. 26). But surprisingly, He does not call us to fearlessness. Rather, the answer to fear is fear. Specifically, the answer to all fear is to fear God, for those who fear God have nothing to fear.
First, those who fear God have nothing to fear from man. “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (v. 28). God is, straightforwardly, far more terrifying than anything that might threaten us here on earth. He has a power that nothing else has: the power to destroy our souls. So, we should be far more afraid of him than of anything else.
Now, there is a sense in which a greater fear does drive out lesser fears. Who is afraid of a bee sting when he’s aboard a ship that is floundering in a storm? By the same logic the fear of God should hugely shrink our fear of men. But it’s not obvious how that alone helps us. I may fear bee stings, but I would still choose one over a shipwreck. Trading a lesser fear for a greater fear doesn’t in itself seem like a great exchange.
That is why Jesus’ next words are so important: “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father” (v. 29). God alone has the power to destroy the soul. For exactly that reason, when He chooses not to exercise that power, nothing else can really harm us. Not that our bodies, which things on earth can harm, are not part of who we are (far from it), but rather, the damage that can be done to our bodies is temporary. The soul that God does not destroy in the eternal, conscious punishment of hell will, at Christ’s return, have its once-destroyed body restored to it by resurrection. We need not fear a bruise which will soon clear up. Even the most drastic persecution causes no more than a temporary bruise to the Christian. Christ’s resurrection has guaranteed that.
But, we may ask, why then does Jesus tell us to fear God? Because second, those who fear God have nothing to fear from God.
It’s often said that when the Bible speaks of fearing God, it means something different to the normal meaning of fear. That isn’t entirely right. Imagine saying that to Ezekiel, Isaiah, Daniel, Samson’s father, the Israelites who saw Korah’s rebellion, or Moses. Confronted with the Lord’s consuming fire, they were stricken with fear. The same is true in the New Testament of Peter at the lakeside, the disciples on Easter Sunday, and John on the island of Patmos. Fear of the Lord is certainly fear, a deep internal response to the realization that our well-being is in danger. More than that, we realize that we are in the presence of the One who is infinitely greater than us and quite capable of eternally punishing us in hell. Far from being a non-fear, the fear of the Lord is the greatest of all fears.
And yet, in a glorious paradox, having told us to fear God, Jesus says to His followers: “fear not.” So which is it? Fear or no fear?
The answer is in verse 32: “So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven.” Those who fear God as they should, do so because they know two things. They know that God’s holiness, majesty, glory, and power are infinitely greater than anything on earth. Thus, fear of God includes reverent awe, which all creatures must show before their Creator. And they know that, since they are sinners, they richly deserve His wrath. Thus, fear of God includes the awful knowledge of what, of ourselves, we deserve. His power to cast into hell is matched by His perfect justice in whom He casts there; and His perfect justice in whom He casts there is matched by our total deserving of exactly that. That is why we must fear God. He can cast us into hell, and He should cast us into hell.
And so, those who truly fear God do the only thing they can: they flee to the Lord Jesus Christ. He was sent from the Father to call us to come to Him to be saved from the coming wrath. Those who do, He will “acknowledge” before His Father. That is, He will name them as His. For He has carried their judgment of hell upon His own shoulders, and in doing so He has lifted it off them. God sent His Son so that those who fear Him will find that, far from being eternally condemned, they are eternally safe.
When we know that, then we really can have no fear. Not of God’s judgment, for He has saved us; nor of men, for they cannot harm us. Those who do not fear God have much to fear, in this life and the next, but those who fear God, sheltering in Jesus Christ, have truly nothing to fear.