“Fear God and give glory to Him, for the hour of His judgment has come; and worship Him who made heaven and earth, the sea and springs of water.” Revelation 14:7 NKJV
Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness in the day of judgment; because as He is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves torment. But he who fears has not been made perfect in love. 1 John 4:17-18 NKJV
The first angel John writes about tells us to fear God because of the judgment. Later, though, the same John writes that perfect love removes fear during the judgment. So, are we supposed to fear, or not to fear? I believe a healthy understanding of Exodus 20:18-21 helps us reconcile these two passages, and helps us learn how to fear God without being afraid of Him.
“Now all the people witnessed the thunderings, the lightning flashes, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they trembled and stood afar off. Then they said to Moses, ‘You speak with us, and we will hear; but let not God speak with us, lest we die.'”
“And Moses said to the people, ‘Do not fear; for God has come to test you, and that His fear may be before you, so that you may not sin.” Exodus 20:18-21 NKJV
In this passage Moses tells the people not to fear and then turns around and tells them to fear. What is up with that? Verse 18 tells us they are afraid or in terror of the presence of God. Moses did not want them to be afraid of God. He did not want us to be terrorized by God’s presence. God does not want us to be afraid of Him. He wants us to find love and security in His presence.
And when the disciples saw Him walking on the sea, they were troubled, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out for fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, “Be of good cheer! It is I; do not be afraid.” Matthew 14:26-27 NKJV
Here the disciples are afraid of the presence of Jesus because they didn’t know that to think or what to expect. They did not know what was going on and it frightened them. Quickly Jesus let them know that He was there to comfort and cheer them, not to terrorize them.
In Exodus 20:18 the people were terrorized by the presence of God because they did not know what to think or expect or how to react. Moses told them not to fear, meaning don’t be afraid. But then, in Exodus 20:20, he tells them to fear God. However this time Moses is talking about a different kind of fear which actually means respect. A police officer does not make me afraid, but I do have respect for his position and what he is capable of. His power and capabilities are actually what make me feel secure instead of afraid. If I am on the right side of the law, I respect what the officer is capable of, and that makes me feel secure. If I am on the wrong side of the law, I am now afraid because of what I know the police officer can do. If I know him well, and am on good terms with the officer, I have great respect for his power and resources, and my respect and appreciation is what makes me feel safe and secure instead of afraid. When Moses told the people, in Exodus 20:20, “Do not fear; for God has come to test you, and that His fear may be before you, so that you may not sin,” He was telling them that their being in awe of His power, and respecting that power, would keep them from sin. Perhaps the Easy-to-Read Version will help us understand better what Moses was saying.
Then Moses said to them, “Don’t be afraid! God has come to test you. He wants you to respect him so that you will not sin.” Exodus 20:20 ERV
When Moses told the people not to fear, he was telling them not to be afraid. When he was telling the people to fear, he was telling them to be respectful. Likewise, when Jesus was telling the disciples not to fear, He was telling them not to be afraid. When the angel in Revelation 14:7 tells us to fear, it means to be respectful.
If we fear God by being in awe of Him, and respect His love and saving power, then we do not have to fear God by being afraid of Him. Perfect love, being in total awe of God’s love and power, keeps us from being afraid of the judgment.