Peter gives four commands to the young Church in the midst of the Roman empire. First Peter 2:17 says, “Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honour the emperor.” Taken together, these commands are a mini-theology of engagement that tells us how best to be the Church in a post-Christian era.
In the first two posts of this series, I suggested the first command directs us outward to the world, and the second inward toward those in the Church. The third command, “fear God,” then, obviously directs us upward in our relationship to God.
Before we get too far, it might be helpful to have a short refresher on what the biblical authors mean by the concept “the fear of God.” Like love, the fear of God is a major biblical theme with many facets, but let me point to just two relevant Old Testament verses.
In Leviticus 27:17, we read: “Do not take advantage of each other, but fear your God.” And the author of Ecclesiastes ends his thoughts by insisting, “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind” (Ecclesiastes 12:13).
You’ve probably heard at one time or another that the fear of God is about having reverence for God, and not about being afraid of God. I understand the sentiment, but frankly, that really isn’t the way the Bible speaks of the fear of God. That’s because we’ve taken the fear of God and internalized it primarily in terms of an attitude or frame of mind.
However, by giving the “fear of God” more of a psychological spin, we may actually miss the very concrete, externalized way the Bible describes how we recognize someone fears God. The Old Testament verses I mentioned don’t speak to an attitude or internal disposition, but to the outworking of our actions. The first text powerfully juxtaposes the fear of God with the command not to take advantage of others; the second verse pairs obedience to God’s commands with the fear of God. Fearing God, then, means both acting properly to others and doing what God commands us to do.
Let’s return to Peter’s text.
One thing I’ve wondered about is about is why Peter lists fear of God third in the list of commands. It seems odd, doesn’t? It’s as if Peter is saying, “Listen, if you are really going to be the Church, you need to respect everyone, love one another and, oh yeah, fear God, too.” I don’t intend to be flippant, but doesn’t it seem strange that Peter leaves the fear of God to the third point, rather than the first?
Peter’s reasoning only makes sense when we’ve internalized the fear of God. On the contrary, fearing God was no afterthought for Peter. Rather, he wants us to understand that fearing God doesn’t take place in a vacuum; it is not a timeless or abstract thing that has nothing to do with our environment or surroundings. The fear of God is enacted in a particular time, place, and context. We always live before a watching world, and we always do so together as the Church, the family of faith. And beyond that, we always do this in our particular place in time and history. Once we understand this, I think we can really begin properly to live out the fear of God.
Peter was calling Christians to respect others and love the family of faith in the particular context of the Roman Empire in the first century. Christianity was not dominant in the early days of the Church when Peter wrote. Christians were often under threat of persecution, and they had no public social safety net. Sometimes, there were demands to worship the emperor just to get basic services. This was the era in which early Christians were called to live.
For us, living in twenty-first century Canada, we need to learn to fear God in the midst of a materialistic, hedonistic, liberal, secular democracy. Yes, there was a time when the Church had a greater prestige and influence in Canadian society, but that is no longer the time in which we live. That means the fear of God for Christians a generation or two ago worked itself out in different ways than what we are called to do today.
I’m a historical theologian by training. I’ve often argued we can learn from how our forefathers and foremothers of the faith lived in fear of God in their context. That’s why we study Christian history. But whatever historical lessons we might learn or even whatever lessons we can learn from today’s global Church living in their own unique contexts, we will not be held accountable for replicating what others did or do in their context. We will be held accountable for how we feared God in our time and in our place.
In order to understand what it means to live in the fear of God today, we need to humbly ask God in prayer to give us spiritual discernment, and also to do the hard intellectual study and thinking required to better understand the particular issues current in our society. Fear of God is not blind to our context but is exercised with our wide-open eyes, listening ears, and ready-to-help hands. Fearing God is not a perpetual state of mind but a prayerful, persistent and demanding outworking of good teaching and practice within a particular locale.
It almost gives us intellectual whiplash to think how quickly the social, political and legal climate in Canada has changed in the last 20 years. From legalized same-sex marriage, to cultural and legal normalization of other non-traditional sexual practices, to legalization (and now expansion) of medically assisted death and euthanasia, to the unparalleled online access to any and every form of evil one could imagine, we have our work cut out for us. We cannot assume that how the Church feared God even 20 years ago is the same as what God asks of us today.
Peter gives us one more clue as to what it means to fear God. In verse 16, he says, “Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God.” Here is the crucial point: To truly fear God is to live in the freedom he has given us—freedom to serve him, freedom to proclaim him, freedom live for him.
Or to put it into a rule of thumb: The more we freely live and serve in fear of God, the less we live in fear and bondage to those around us.
Here we have to allow the Spirit to search our hearts and souls. To what extent has the Church allowed our fear of other things to erode our fear of God? What are we so afraid of? Is it what others will think of us? Are we afraid of the government or of being sued or losing our charitable tax status? Are we afraid of losing health, wealth or status? What are you afraid of? We can fill in the blanks as the Spirit leads us in answering that important question.
It’s unfortunate that fearing God has not been a more dominant theme in our preaching and teaching and personal devotion. The more we focus on other things that we fear, the less we will focus on the right and proper ways to fear our God.
Franklin D. Roosevelt once said, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” Which, when you really think about it, is simply not true. What we need to fear, Peter insists, is that after seeking safety and comfort for ourselves, we fail to fear the God in whose name we live and move and have our being.
[Editor’s Note: This blog is part three of a four-part series. When they are available, the subsequent parts will be accessible here.]
David Guretzki is Executive Vice President of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada.
*The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of McMaster Divinity College or the Centre for Post-Christendom Studies.*