I don’t like spiders and snakes. Cockroaches I can deal with. Things that are going to bite me, I’m less happy. One could even say I’m afraid of spiders and snakes. The only snake that’s happily in my house is a green door stop with a red felt tongue and eyes stuck on from when we told the creation story at Kids Church. Fear of snakes and spiders is the normal way that the term fear is used.
That’s one of the reasons why fear of the Lord is confusing. Welch redefines fear by making it a spectrum rather than a specific response. terror > dread > trembling > astonishment > awe > reverence > devotion > trust > worship. All these are fear of the Lord, according to Welch. Fear of God as angry Judge is on the same scale as fear of God as loving Father.
Fear of the Lord is a pervasive category in Scripture. It is the beginning of wisdom. It is required of the Israelites at Mount Sinai. All the earth is the fear the Lord. It covers lots and lots of things. But I’m not yet ready to subsume trust and worship under the banner of fear. Fear of the Lord may lead to devotion, trust and worship, this would be an excellent outcome. But that things occur together doesn’t make them the same.
Welch’s explanations are OT heavy. In Hebrews 12, the writer contrasts the experience of Christians with that of Israel. In verse 21 he says Moses was terrified at Sinai. Verse 22 comes in with a ‘how much more’ kind of statement, ‘But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem…’ Receiving promises in heaven is more fearsome than receiving promises on earth. It leads to worship in verse 28-29, ‘Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our “God is a consuming fire”.’
Fear is an element of knowing Christ as your mediator. This fear is not the same as worship but prompts perseverance, trust and worship. I think Welch is pushing me towards helpful and good responses to God but I don’t always agree with all the language he uses to do it.
Welch also makes holiness a huge category. “Holiness is not one of many attributes of God. It is his essential nature and seen in all his qualities.” God has holy love, holy justice, holy beauty. Holiness is separateness. Holiness is set apartness. Welch equates God’s holiness with God’s transcendence. He’s the high and lofty one. He’s incomprehensible. He’s different and distant from us. God is holy, holy, holy. But God is close to us. That’s what makes his holiness so terrifying. The Holy God is our creator and sustainer and redeemer and perfecter. He is the Holy One in our midst. Which is why Leviticus goes on and on and on with so many details for the Israelites. When the Holy ferocious Lord is your next door neighbour you need to be on your toes. God’s holiness is essential to who he is. It’s commanded of his people. It’s also something we learn.
Welch takes us on a guided tour of God’s holiness: creation, the patriarchs, exodus, the law, wisdom, prophets, final judgment. He finishes, as he must, with Jesus. In Him the Holy One of God is God with us. Those with eyes to see are amazed, astonished, terrified. The disciples fear for their lives in a storm. They fear even more the one who commands the wind and waves with a word. The inhabitants of the Gerasenes banished the possessed man to live among the dead. When he was clothed and in his right mind, they were afraid of the one at whose feet he sat. High on a mountain there’s a flash of blinding white like lightning. He’s transfigured. His friends are frightened. It’s scary to meet Jesus, to know him as he truly is. Every one failed. Every one fled in fear. No sinner could do what God planned for his own glory from all eternity. No one faced the cross but Jesus.
The good news is the risen Lord says, ‘Fear not’. His life, death and resurrection bring peace, peace with God, sanctification. We are holy in Christ. He sets us apart as his own. He welcomes us as his forgiven children. He is still the Holy One. He is the Holy One who chooses to love you.
Learn to fear the Lord. Come and meet your very, very, very Big God.