Fear or Respect

If not understood, the Bible can seem like a book of riddles. For example, we know that Scripture tells us to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. It also tells us to “fear God” (1 Pet. 2:17). Then it also tells us that perfect love casts out fear (1 John 4:18-KJV). So if the love of God in us casts out our fear of God, how are we supposed to fear Him?

The key to understanding the above riddle is knowing the Greek word for fear and how it was used in the biblical world. The word is phobos, and it is the root of English words such as “phobia.” Like many words, phobos has more than one definition. The first is “fear, dread, terror.” The second is “reverence, respect” (Thayer’s Greek Lexicon).

How do we know which definition of “fear” applies in any given verse? It is usually very clear from reading the context which meaning of phobos applies. For example, when Jesus came to his disciples walking on the water in the midst of a storm, they had a strong reaction upon seeing him. “‘…It’s a ghost,’ they said, and cried out in fear” (Matt. 14:26b). In this case, it is easy to determine that “fear” means “terror.” Let’s examine another verse.

Acts 9:31 (Author’s translation)
So the church…walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the holy spirit, continued to grow in number.

In this case the word “fear” refers to reverence and respect, which showed itself as obedience to God’s commandments, and love among the Christians.

How did the one word, phobos, come to mean both fear and respect? The answer to that important question is that the respect and reverence we have for God is based upon an understanding that He will judge each person according to their works, and each will receive what he or she deserves. [1] There is such a thing as healthy fear, such as the fear one has in a dangerous situation. Thus in the phrase “fear God,” that is, respect God, there is an overtone of the healthy fear we should feel if we ignore our heavenly Father and do not give Him the respect and reverence He deserves.

God has done nothing but good for mankind, and He deserves our complete love and commitment. Let us love Him and give Him the “fear” (reverence and respect) that He so deserves. If we fear (respect) God now, we will not fear (be afraid) of the Judgment at all. In fact, we will look forward to it, because of the rewards that will be passed out.


[1] Chapter 6 in our book The Christian’s Hope: The Anchor of the Soul covers in much more detail The Judgment Seat of Christ and the rewards we will receive or lack thereof.

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  1. How do we work out our salvation with fear and trembling? Philpians 2:13

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