Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Fear God - 1 Peter 1:17-19

Audio available here (click to stream, right-click to download) or on our podcast on iTunes.

When I was a kid one of my favorite games was Simon Says. You remember that game, where one person calls out commands like, “Simon says raise your right hand,” and all the children raise their right hands. Simon didn’t mince words. If Simon said raise your right hand, and you did anything other than raising your right hand, you were out. And if the leader said, “Raise your left hand,” without saying “Simon says,” and you did it anyway, you were out. Simon means what he says and he says what he means. And we all know to take Simon both seriously and literally in that game.

In the New Testament we meet this fellow named Simon who is also called Peter. And this Simon has written two letters in our Bible. And in these letters, there are a lot of things that Simon says for us to do. Of course, what Simon says is also what the Holy Spirit is saying through Simon’s letter, because all Scripture is inspired by God, and is the very Word of God. So it is more important for us to realize that these commands come from God, and come through the hand of Peter. Now, suppose we are playing a game of Simon Says. And suppose Simon says to raise your right hand. Everyone knows what he means right? And suppose we Simon says to put your right hand down. We’re all clear, right? Now suppose Simon says, “Fear God.” At this point, we begin to huddle up and whisper, “Fear God? Well surely Simon doesn’t mean fear God, with a real, literal kind of fear. He must mean something else.” Friends, Simon doesn’t mince words. He says what he means and he means what he says. And Simon says, or rather, the Lord says through Simon, that we are to conduct ourselves in fear during the time of our pilgrimage.

We will often hear or read that this word fear does not mean to fear God in a literal sense, but that it means to stand in awe of God, or to revere and respect God’s authority. I would agree that the command to fear God contains all of those elements, but that it also means what it says – we are to fear God. The Greek word that Peter uses here in verse 17 is the same word used elsewhere in the New Testament to describe the fear of God. It is a word you will recognize from its derivatives in English today: phobos. You know what it means to have a phobia. While some of our English translations have sought to soften the blow of this word, we have perhaps become too comfortably immune to the concept of the fear of God. While we affirm that the fear of God will evoke a sense of awe and reverent worship, we should not exclude the very real and literal sense of living with a godly fear of divine discipline for our sin.

Some would suggest that fear was the appropriate response to the God revealed in the Old Testament, while faith and love are the more fitting response to the God of the New Testament. We might quote verses such as Romans 8:15 which says, “For 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!’.” We are also aware of 1 John 4:18, which says, “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.” We may also quote 2 Timothy 1:7, “For God has not given us a spirit of timidity (or fear), but of power and love and discipline.” And quoting these verses, we may feel justified to reject the notion that we still need to have fear of God under the New Covenant.

But two responses to those verses are in order. First, by examining the context of those passages, we will understand that they do not mean to disregard the fear of the Lord. Romans 8:15 and 1 John 4:18 have to do with the fear of final condemnation at the last judgment. The true Christian doesn’t need to fear being cast into hell because their sins have been atoned for by the blood of Christ. But this does not eliminate the need to fear violating the holiness of God. Hell is not God’s only means of discipline. Hell is for those who resist all other forms of divine discipline. And 2 Timothy 1:7 has more to do with being cowards in the face of others than with the fear of the Lord, so it really has nothing to do with the discussion.

Second, one of God’s key attributes is His unchangeable nature, or His immutability. God did not change between the final pages of Malachi and the first pages of Matthew. If He was to be feared then, He is still to be feared now. The attributes that evoked fear in the hearts of the Old Testament believers have not become vestigial in the person of God. His holiness, His justice, His wrath, and other terror-evoking attributes are still part of His perfect divine nature. The fuller revelation we have of God as a result of the coming of Christ, the completion of the New Testament, and the presence of the Holy Spirit, should give us a sharper focus into these attributes and make us more aware of the need to fear Him.

The New Testament is filled with exhortations and examples of people fearing the Lord, including this one in our text today. Throughout Christian history, there have been periods of time when one attribute of God was emphasized more than others, or one act of spiritual discipline was more in focus than others. In the Middle Ages, it seems that the wrath and justice of God were so emphasized over other divine attributes that many Christians saw no room for the grace of God. They rightly understood the need to fear Him, but they did not comprehend how much He loved them. A correction needed to be made, but perhaps we have overcorrected. Today, it seems that the grace and love of God are so emphasized, to the near-exclusion of His other attributes, that many Christians know little of the holiness, the justice, and the wrath of God. They rightly understand that they are loved, and blessed, and that they receive from God beyond what they deserve, but they do not understand that there is still a need to live with a healthy sense of fear for Him. What is needed in our day is a balanced understanding of what it means to live under God’s grace and love, while at the same time recognizing that we also live under His holiness and justice. So we respond to Him with faith, love, trust, hope, and yes, with fear.

This fear is not a fear of final condemnation for the Christian. Romans 8:1 is clear that there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. And this fear is not a paranoia, a distrust, or a dread of God that would drive us away from Him. Rather, the more we know Him, the closer we draw to Him, the more we fear falling away from Him, and the more this righteous fear begins to transform our lives in holiness. The 17th Century Presbyterian pastor Robert Lieghton wrote:

It is superfluous to insist on a definition of this passion of fear with the countless distinctions that philosophers and theologians have made. The fear that is commended here is, undoubtedly, a holy fear of offending God. This is not merely made up of assured hope of salvation along with faith, love, and spiritual joy, but is their inseparable companion. All divine graces are linked together, and they grow or die together. The more a Christian believes and loves and rejoices in God, the more reluctant he is to displease God. This fear is the right way to live—running away from sin and from temptations to sin, and resisting all temptation when it attacks. This is a guard for the soul that keeps a lookout for all enemies and anything that may disturb the soul. Thus inner peace is preserved, the assurance of faith and hope is unmolested, and joy remains untouched. But all this is in danger when a proper fear disappears, for then some great sin or other easily breaks in, puts everything into confusion, and makes it seem as if these graces do not exist.

So, now, having explained at some length what this fear of the Lord is, let us get into the text to discover why Simon Says (Simon Peter, that is), that our pilgrimage through this life is to be characterized by a fear of the Lord.

I. We fear the Lord because He is an impartial Judge (v17)

Imagine you find yourself in court being sued by another party for some offense. How would you feel if you were to discover that the judge in this case was the father of the person suing you? You would surely feel like you were not going to get a fair hearing, and if you lost the case you would likely say it was because the judge was not impartial. Now the other party wouldn’t complain about it one bit … he rather likes the idea that his father is judging the case and showing preferential treatment. So, when it comes to giving an account for how we live our lives, we may often think that we have an inroad that will help us. “Don’t worry, I know the judge; he’s my Father.” That may be how things work in some human courts, but not in God’s Courtroom. He may be our Heavenly Father, but still He is an impartial judge.

It is a wonderful truth that in spite of our sins, God has adopted us as His sons and daughters through our faith in Jesus Christ. We have been brought into His family. But this does not mean that we are now exempt from His divine discipline. Rather, it means that we should expect divine discipline. We should not expect that He will turn a blind eye toward our sin because He is our Father. Rather, because He is our Father, He will all the more discipline us. In our home, I am the disciplinarian. When my children disobey, I discipline them. And discipline is not necessarily equal to punishment. Punishment involves getting even; discipline involves getting better. It has to do with teaching and correcting. Sometimes I get frustrated when we are in a crowd and someone else’s child is misbehaving and they do not discipline their child. But it isn’t my job to discipline their child. It is my job to discipline my children. That comes with being their father.

The Bible tells us that God does not forsake the discipline of His children either. Hebrews 12 quotes Proverbs 3 in reminding us to “not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord … for those whom the Lord loves He disciplines.” The writer of Hebrews goes on to say there, “God deals with you as sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline? But if you are without discipline … then you are illegitimate children and not sons.” And then he says, “We had earthy fathers to discipline us, and we respected them; shall we not much rather be subject to the Father of spirits, and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but He disciplines us for our good, so that we may share His holiness.”
That enlightening passage tells us that we should expect discipline from God, and that receiving it is the verification that we belong to Him as sons and daughters. But His discipline is not capricious. Unlike our earthy fathers, who disciplined us “as seemed best to them,” God’s discipline is “for our good,” and that good is that we may share in His holiness. So we must not think that just because we have an intimate relationship with God as our Father that we have a license to live any way we may desire. God will judge our conduct impartially, and will enact discipline when necessary to conform us according to His holiness. As Wayne Grudem writes, “Membership in God’s family, great privilege though it is, must not lead to the presumption that disobedience will pass unnoticed or undisciplined.” Rather, because He is our Father and our unjust judge, we must expect that He will both notice and discipline us when we sin. He will not tolerate in us, His children, that which He does not tolerate among His enemies.

Remember that it was to Christians that the Apostle Paul wrote in Romans 14:12 that “each one of us will give an account of himself to God.” It was to Christians that Paul gave the warning in 1 Corinthians 3 about the day when all of our deeds will be examined and tested by God. On that day, he said that some of our deeds will be found to be wood, hay, and straw, and will be consumed with fire, while other deeds will be found to be gold, silver, and precious stones, refined by that fire. So some, he says, will suffer loss on that day. All of life that was not lived for the glory of God will be burned up. But as a reassurance that the true believer in Christ will not face eternal condemnation in hell, Paul says, “but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire” (1 Cor 3:15).

Because God is an impartial judge, He will discipline us and hold us accountable for what we say and do as members of His family. And for this reason, a godly sense of fear in our lives becomes a strong motivation for holy living.

II. We fear the Lord because He has redeemed us from sin at a great cost. (vv18-19)

The primary exhortation in this text is to conduct yourselves in fear during the time of your stay. This is qualified by two conditions. The first is the one we’ve already mentioned, “If you addres as Father the One who impartially judges according to each one’s work.” The second condition is in verses 18-19. We conduct ourselves in a righteous fear of the Lord, knowing that we have been redeemed at a great cost.

The language of redemption speaks of purchasing something. The wording that Peter uses here was often used to describe the release of a person from slavery through the payment of a price for freedom. And this is one way of describing what God has done for us through the person and work of Jesus Christ. We were born into slavery—slavery to sin. We inherited from our forefathers, Peter says, a futile way of life. Futile in this sense means “worthless, or meaningless.” We were born with an inclination to live for the satisfaction of our own desires. But our desires are warped by the sin nature we inherited, so that living for our desires runs contrary to living a life that pleases God. We are enslaved to sin from birth.

God has redeemed us from this way of living. He paid a purchase price, as it were, for our release from this slavery. But this payment was not made with perishable things. Often times, we collect food for area ministries, and we ask you to bring nonperishable items for those collections. We know that something perishable is something that will rot, decay, or spoil over time. So, when we think of perishable things, we think of milk, or bread, or meat. But Peter is thinking of something as perishable that we would tend to think of as imperishable. Peter is talking about silver and gold being perishable. Silver and gold, he says in effect, will rot, decay, and spoil eventually. Indeed, everything on this earth is going to at some point, if not before, then certainly in that day when Peter says in 2 Peter 3:10 that the elements will be destroyed with intense heat, and the earth and its works will be burned up. On that day, even the most precious things that we think will last forever, things like gold and silver, will melt away. And if our redemption was accomplished by these means, it would vanish as well.

But Peter says that our redemption price was paid with something imperishable, something that will stand for all eternity. We were purchased, not with silver or gold, but with blood. And this is no ordinary blood. It is precious blood. It is a unique and special kind of blood. It is not the blood of a lamb, but it is as of a lamb unblemished and spotless. In the sacrificial system of the Old Testament, lambs and other animals were slaughtered as an offering for sin. This sacrifice depicted the penalty for sin being carried out upon an innocent substitute who bore the death and shed the blood on behalf of the guilty party. How many gallons of blood were shed in that way over the centuries? It is inestimable! But all those sacrifices were pointing the people forward to a day when a perfect sacrifice, a very unordinary sacrifice, a PRECIOUS sacrifice would occur. There would come a day when Jesus Christ would become the substitute for sinners and receive in Himself the penalty of our sins. His blood, His precious blood, was shed for us as He died in our place. This blood became the payment price for our redemption from slavery to sin.

It is interesting that there is a repetition of similar words in verses 17 and 18. In verse 17, the Greek word translated here as “conduct yourselves” is the verb form of the noun that is translated as “way of life” in verse 18. The word that is used refers to the whole direction of one’s life. Peter intends to say here that the whole direction of our lives was at one time moving according to the sinful patterns we all inherited from our forefathers. But because of the redemption that God has accomplished for us through the shed blood of Jesus, we have been loosed from the chains that bound us to that way of living. Now, the whole direction of our life is moving according to a reverent fear of this God who saved us. Formerly, we were living in rebellion against Him. Now we live under His Lordship. He has set us free from sin, so that, what?, we might continue to sin? No, He redeemed us out of that way of living, so that now we might be free to live in victory over sin, that now we might be free to live in obedience to Him, that now we might be free to live for His glory in His holiness. So to live with no fear of God at all in our lives is to treat lightly and to casually disregard this precious blood that was shed for us. Karen Jobes writes, “To continue to live in one’s useless former ways is implicitly to deny the value of Christ’s death.”

The shedding of Christ’s blood removes many fears. We who are in Christ no longer need to fear eternal condemnation, we need not fear death, we need not fear hell at all. If you are born-again through faith in Christ, life in this fallen world is as close to hell as you will ever get. But there is still the fear of the Lord that motivates us to live in the freedom and the holiness that He has redeemed us for. To live otherwise is to look upon this shed blood of Christ that God has called precious, and to say, “Hmm, that’s no big deal.” Oh no friends, this is a HUGE deal! In God’s holy justice, He would have every right to allow us to perish eternally, but in His holy and gracious love, He has redeemed us for Himself. He became one of us in the person of Christ, to live the life we cannot live for us, and to die the death that we deserve for us. He has conquered every power on earth that causes us to fear – sin, death, Satan, the grave, and hell. How then can we not have an even greater fear toward Him, who now holds us in His hand?

In Mark 4, we read a familiar story about the disciples being caught in a storm on the Sea of Galilee. Jesus was sound asleep, and the panicking disciples awakened him, saying “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” In their fear of the storm, they lost sight of the immensity of the love and care of Christ for them. But Jesus awoke, and rebuked the storm, saying, “Hush, be still!” and the sea became perfectly calm. But interestingly, Mark says that it was at this point that “they became very much afraid.” They understood what true fear is when they beheld the power and the glory of God in the person of Christ. If the storm was terrifying to them, how then shall they respond to One who is more powerful than the storm? Awe? Yes. Reverence? Yes. Worship? Yes. But these things are all part of a larger thing going on in our hearts and minds when we truly behold Christ for who He is. It is a holy fear of the Lord, knowing that this God, whom we can call Father, is also the one to whom we will give account and the one who has accomplished our redemption.

Here’s a simple little test you can use for self-examination in regard to our fear of the Lord. I want you right now to imagine, please don’t say it out loud, just imagine, your most secret sin. I don’t mean something you did 10 years ago, I mean present-tense, what is the one thing in your life right now that you are most ashamed of. Now, which causes more fear in your heart – the possibility that your best friend might find out about it, or the reality that God already knows about it? If it is the possibility that another person will discover it, then we have a greater fear of men than of God. It is time to change that. The secret things in our lives can be covered up to the eyes of men for a long time. But they are never hidden to God. And that reality, combined with the knowledge that He is a Father who disciplines His children, He is a judge who is impartial, and He is a Redeemer who paid a great price to set us free from sin, can only rightly be met with a righteous sense of the fear of the Lord.

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