Exodus 20:20 (HCSB)
20 Moses responded to the people, “Don’t be afraid, for God has come to test you, so that you will fear Him and will not sin.”
This short passage captures the Israelite’s initial response to the mighty, and ominous, presence of God. There is an obvious hesitation and cautiousness about approaching God on their part, as we read that they “trembled and stood at a distance.” There is a recognition of the righteousness of God, and their relative sinfulness. This is the source of Exodus 20:19, where they fear death if they were to be the direct recipients of God’s message, His words.
And then there is this seemingly paradoxical statement in Exodus 20:20. “Don’t be afraid,” but “fear Him.” How do those two coexist? Well, we can be sure that the word “fear” in scripture, when used to describe what our attitude towards God should be, does not mean the frightful, afraid, and trembling form of the word. Or I should say that it does not means solely that. I do think that scripture clearly conveys that as part of fearing God, but the greater part of our fearing attitude should be made up of a loving reverence for God, an awe of who He is, what He has done, is doing, and continues to do, and how He does it. And the difference is this: just being scared of God might result in obedience, but more likely it breeds a desire to escape, and a relationship of animosity, while a reverent love builds a loving, relying, obedience, with a touch of awareness of the just side of God that can, and does, mete out judgement. There is this middle ground, a line between the free-for-all Jesus, that we twist into a free love, do anything you want, it’s all good as long as it makes you happy or feel pleasure, and the fire and brimstone God that is watching for us to screw up just once so He can rain down on us. We should desire not to sin, just as Moses points out, but it should be due to our loving, reverent, relationship with God, not because of our terror of Him.
Lord, thank You first of all for loving us. I pray that we cling to that, as it is the foundation of our relationship with You. But I pray also that we do not lose sight of Your perfect power, might, and hatred of sin. These things alone can be terrifying, but in You they are perfectly mixed with Your grace, love, patience, and caring for us. Help us to fear in a Godly way, not pushing us away from You, but always drawing us closer. Amen.