WORSHIPING GOD WITHOUT FEAR
Fear God and give him glory, for the hour of his judgment has come; and worship him who made heaven and earth, the sea and the fountains of water.”
This is the call of the first of the three angels in Revelation 14 (see verses 6–12). He is pictured as “flying in midheaven, with an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who dwell on earth, to every nation and tribe and tongue and people.”
This gospel is the everlasting Good News that God is not the kind of person Satan has made him out to be—arbitrary, unforgiving, and severe. He is, instead, the loving heavenly Father Jesus came to reveal. Though awesome in his majesty and power, he is infinitely gracious toward all his people, especially his unruly children on this earth.
How could the angel bearing such good news speak also of fear and judgment? Would our loving Father call on his children to worship him with fear?
John taught that when a man comes to know and accept the truth about God, he no longer is afraid. He even anticipates the day of judgment without fear! Here are just a few sentences from John’s description of what this truth and light can do to the person who chooses to believe:
“See how much the Father has loved us! His love is so great that we are called God’s children—and so, in fact, we are.”
“Whoever loves is a child of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. And God showed his love for us by sending his only Son into the world, so that we might have life through him.”
“God is love, and whoever lives in love lives in union with God and God lives in union with him. Love is made perfect in us in order that we may have courage on the Judgment Day; and we will have it because our life in this world is the same as Christ’s. There is no fear in love; perfect love drives out all fear. So then, love has not been made perfect in anyone who is afraid, because fear has to do with punishment” (1 John 3:1; 4:7–9, 16–18, gnt).
Why, then, does the first angel call on us to fear God?
On many occasions in the Bible the word fear does not mean “terror,” but rather “reverence” or “respect.” Usually the intended meaning is indicated by the context.
In the twenty-third Psalm, David sings of his freedom from fear now that the Lord is his Shepherd. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: For thou art with me” (Psalm 23:4, kjv). Here David is apparently using the word fear to mean “fright” or “anxiety.” The Good News Translation renders this favorite verse, “Even if I go through the deepest darkness, I will not be afraid, Lord, for you are with me.”
The same word translated “fear” is used in Psalm 128. “Blessed is every one who fears the Lord, who walks in his ways! You shall eat the fruit of the labor of your hands; you shall be happy, and it shall be well with you” (verses 1, 2). Here the word clearly means “reverence,” for it could hardly be said that frightened people are happy! The Good News Translation interprets the same passage: “Happy is the person who has reverence for the Lord.”
It is in this same sense that Solomon taught that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 9:10). That is to say, “To be wise you must first have reverence for the Lord” (gnt).
God has much to teach us. But unless we are willing to stand reverently and quietly in his presence, we cannot hear him speak. Every teacher knows that unless there is respect and order in the room, very little learning can take place.
Early in the Biblical record God came down on Mount Sinai to speak to his people. The whole mountain shook at the presence of the Lord. There was thunder and lightning, fire and smoke, and the sound of a very loud trumpet. And God said to Moses, “Keep the people back. If anyone even touches the mountain, he must die. Whether man or beast, he must be stoned or shot. Let a boundary be set around the mountain. If anyone breaks through, I shall consume him!” (see Exodus 19:10–25).
The people were terrified. “They trembled with fear and stood a long way off. They said to Moses, ‘If you speak to us, we will listen; but we are afraid that if God speaks to us, we will die’” (Exodus 20:18, 19, gnt).
But Moses reassured the people that there was no need to be afraid. Moses knew the truth about God. Though he always approached him with deepest reverence and awe, he was not afraid. The people used to stand in their tent doors and watch Moses go in to meet God in the Tabernacle. And there the Lord would speak to Moses “face to face, as a man speaks to his friend” (Exodus 33:11).
Think how fearlessly but reverently Moses replied to God’s offer to abandon Israel and make a great nation of him instead (see Numbers 14:11–19).
All the way from Egypt to Sinai the people had grumbled and complained, forgetting the miraculous deliverance at the Red Sea and God’s generous provision of water and food. How could God gain the attention of such people and hold it long enough to reveal more of the truth about himself?
Should he speak softly to the people, in a “still small voice,” as he would speak years later to Elijah at the mouth of the cave (1 Kings 19:12)? Should he sit and weep over Israel as he would centuries later, sitting on another mountain and crying over his people in Jerusalem? (See Luke 19:41–44; 13:34.)
Only a dramatic display of his majesty and power could command the reverence of that restless multitude in the wilderness. But what a risk God would thereby run of being misunderstood as a fearsome deity, just as Satan claimed him to be! Would this not be playing right into the hands of his enemy in the great controversy?
But it was either run this risk or lose contact with his people. And the Lord is not willing to let his people perish, uninstructed and unwarned. He is willing to run the risk of being temporarily feared, even hated, rather than lose touch with his children.
Parents and teachers should be well able to understand this risk. Imagine yourself a grade-school teacher known for dignity and poise. In all your years of teaching you have never found it necessary to raise your voice to your young pupils. But now the principal has just urgently informed you at the door that the building is on fire and you must direct the children to leave the room as quickly as they can.
You turn and quietly announce that the building is on fire. But the room is very noisy following the excitement of recess. No one notices you standing there in front. Out of love for your roomful of children, would you be willing to shout? Still failing to gain their attention, would you care enough to climb on the desk, even throw an eraser or two? The children might finally notice this extraordinary sight—their gentle teacher apparently angry for the first time, shouting and gesturing as they have never seen her before! They would slip stunned into their seats, perhaps frightened at what they saw.
“Now, children, please don’t go home and tell your parents that I was angry with you,” you might say. “I was simply trying to get your attention. You see, children, the building is on fire, and I don’t want any of you to be hurt. So let’s line up quickly and march out through that door.”
Which shows greater love? To refuse to raise one’s voice lest the children be made afraid? Or to run the risk of being feared and thought undignified in order to save the children in your care?
The Bible is a record of the risks God has been willing to run of being thus misunderstood, of the lengths to which he has been willing to go to keep in touch with his people, to stoop and meet them where they are, to speak a language they can respect and understand.
He runs this same risk every time he disciplines his people. “For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth” (Hebrews 12:6, kjv). The translation “chasteneth” suggests only the idea of punishment. But the Greek word is not limited to this. It means to “educate,” “train,” “correct,” “discipline,” all of which may call for occasional punishment, but always for the purpose of instruction.
This explanation of the loving purpose of God’s discipline Solomon included in his collection of proverbs.
My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline
or be weary of his reproof,
for the Lord reproves him whom he loves,
as a father the son in whom he delights.
—Proverbs 3:11, 12
Hebrews 12:5–11 cites this Old Testament proverb and then urges God’s children not to overlook the encouraging meaning.
And have you forgotten the exhortation which addresses you
‘My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor
lose courage when you are punished by him.
For the Lord disciplines him whom he loves,
and chastises every son whom he receives.’
It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers to discipline us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time at their pleasure, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant; later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.
I realize now how much my own parents ran this risk of being misunderstood every time they meted out some much-needed discipline. The usual place for the administration of punishment was in the front entrance hall of our two-story home in England. On one wall stood a tall piece of furniture with a mirror, places for hats and umbrellas, and a drawer in the middle for gloves. In the drawer were two leather straps. In imagination I can still hear the rattling of the handle on that drawer and the rustling of the straps as Mother made her selection. Then we would proceed together toward the stairs.
After Mother was seated and the culprit had assumed the appropriate posture, it was her custom to discuss the nature and seriousness of the misdemeanor committed, all to the rhythmical swinging of the strap. The more serious the crime, the longer it took Mother to discuss it!
I cannot recall ever having thought while in that painful position, “How kind and loving of my mother to discipline me like this! How gracious she is to run the risk of being misunderstood or perhaps of causing me to hate her and obey her out of fear!” On the contrary, I seem to recall very different feelings at the time.
But when it was all over, we had to sit on the bottom stair and reflect on the experience for a while. And before we could run out and play again, we always had to find Mother where she was, and there would be hugging and kissing and reassurance that things would be better from now on.
Sometimes repentance was a little slow in coming. I can remember climbing to a higher stair so that I could look out through the stained-glass windows at the flowers around the lawn. But it was hard to stay angry for long or to go on feeling afraid. For Mother never seemed to lose her temper. We knew there was nothing she wouldn’t do for us children and no limit to her willingness to listen to all we had to tell. She seemed so proud of our successes and so understanding when we failed.
Soon after Mother died I visited that bottom stair again for the first time in thirty-nine years. The stained-glass windows were still there, but the stair seemed a bit lower when I sat on it this time. Somehow I couldn’t remember the pain and embarrassment at all. But I hope I shall never lose the meaning of those sessions with Mother at the bottom stair. She had helped us learn an essential truth about God. Not that we understood it right away. Mother was willing to wait. And if we had grown up fearing and hating her for those times of discipline and punishment, it would have broken her heart. But she cared enough about us to be willing to run that risk.
The message of Scripture is that we can trust God to care enough about his people to be willing to run this same risk. It is true that if we insist on going our own way, God will eventually let us go. But he does not give us up easily. He persuades; he warns; he disciplines. He would much rather speak to us quietly as he finally could to Elijah. But if we cannot hear the still small voice, he will speak through earthquake, wind, and fire.
Sometimes, at very critical moments, it has been necessary for God to use extreme measures to gain our attention and respect. On such occasions our reluctant reverence has been largely the result of fear. But God has thereby gained another opportunity to speak, to warn us again before we are hopelessly out of reach, to win some of us back to trust—and to find that there really is no need to be afraid.
Jesus said that he wants us all to be his friends (John 15:14, 15). Could this also be true of the Father? Does God regard us warmly, even respectfully, as if we were not only his children but his friends?
Philip asked Jesus about this one day: “‘Show us the Father, Lord, and we shall be satisfied.’
“‘Have I been such a long time with you,’ returned Jesus, ‘without your really knowing me, Philip?’” (John 14:8, 9, Phillips).
But the disciples were not asking about Jesus. They loved him. They welcomed his invitation to be his friends. They felt surprisingly comfortable in the presence of the One they worshiped as God’s Son.
What they wanted to know was the truth about the God who had thundered on Mount Sinai, who had drowned the world in the Flood, who had destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah; the God who had consumed Nadab and Abihu and opened the earth to swallow up rebellious Korah, Dathan, and Abiram, who had ordered the stoning of Achan and had rained fire down from heaven on Mount Carmel.
“Jesus, could the Father be like you?”
And the Lord replied, “The man who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?” (verses 9, 10, Phillips).
The Father is just as gracious and loving as the Son. He is just as understanding and willing to forgive. This is why Jesus could tell his disciples that when he returned to heaven it would not be necessary for him to beg the Father to do good things for them. “I need make no promise to plead to the Father for you, for the Father himself loves you” (John 16:26, 27, Phillips).
“And as for those distressing stories of discipline and death,” Jesus might have continued, “you must not take them to mean that the Father is less merciful than I am. It was I who led Israel through the wilderness. The instructions to Moses were mine.”
Paul understood this when he wrote, using the familiar Biblical symbol of the rock, “They all drank from the supernatural rock that accompanied their travels—and that rock was Christ” (1 Corinthians 10:4, neb).
Some find it difficult to worship God as both infinite creator and gentle friend. When the fear is gone, when there is no display of majesty and power, reverence seems to fade away.
So long as Jesus miraculously fed the crowds, healed the sick, and raised the dead, the people were ready to worship him and crown him king. But when he answered his enemies with such gentleness, when he treated sinners with such patience and respect, when he explained that his kingdom would not be set up by force, when on Calvary he humbly submitted to such abuse, most of his followers either left or scoffed at his claim to be the Son of God.
Judas was one of those who mistook graciousness for weakness. When Jesus knelt to wash the disciples’ feet, Judas despised him for his humility. The god Judas could respect would never degrade himself in such a manner.
Which inspires you to greater reverence and worship: the terrifying manifestation of God’s power on Mount Sinai or the picture of the great Creator quietly weeping on the Mount of Olives?
Which stirs you more: the fire on Mount Carmel or the still small voice at the mouth of the cave?
Perhaps you still need the terrors of Sinai, the wind, the earthquake, and the fire. If so, God may provide them for you. For he cares enough to meet us where we are and speak in ways we can understand.
But if we have moved on from Sinai to the Mount of Olives, and nothing stirs us more than the beauty and quiet authority of truth; if the story of Sinai and the story of Olivet have led us to see God as both majestic king and gracious friend, then we have learned how to worship God with reverence but without fear.
If we have allowed God to reveal himself through all the various stories and teachings of Scripture, if we have learned to view the Bible as a whole and relate all its parts to the one central theme—the everlasting Good News about our gracious and trustworthy God—then we are ready to read some of the most fearsome words in all the sixty-six books, the message of the third angel of Revelation 14:
“And another angel, a third, followed them, saying with a loud voice, ‘If any one worships the beast and its image, and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand, he also shall drink the wine of God’s wrath poured unmixed into the cup of his anger, and he shall be tormented with fire and sulphur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up for ever and ever; and they have no rest, day or night, these worshipers of the beast and its image, and whoever receives the mark of its name’” (verses 9–11).
God must hate having to speak to us like this. But Jesus joins with his Father in sending us this message (see Revelation 1:1; 22:16). The One who said “Blessed are the meek” must have an urgent reason for warning us in such fearsome words.
The Bible has prepared us to understand the symbolic terms. The beast and its image have already been mentioned as representing God’s enemies in the great controversy, and the mark as the badge of loyalty to Satan’s side (see Revelation 13). The fire that lasts “for ever” has already been compared to the burning of a field of stubble (Malachi 4:1); it is like the “eternal fire” that totally consumed Sodom and Gomorrah many centuries ago (Jude 7). And lest the fearsomeness of the warning should lead us to doubt the gracious purposes of God, he sends the first and second angels with messages that prepare us for the third.
The first angel reminds of the everlasting truth. He calls on all men everywhere to make up their minds about God. Do we find the weight of evidence a sufficient basis for our faith? Can we trust and worship the One who created the whole vast universe?
The second angel reminds us of the falsity and deception of God’s enemies. Every system based on Satan’s lies is fallen in corruption and defeat.
Then the third angel warns of consequence. It is not God’s will that any should perish. Nothing is plainer in all Scripture! But if we prefer Satan’s lies to the truth, if we persist in rejecting God’s every effort to save and heal, there is nothing else he can do but sadly give us up and hand us over to the awful consequence of our own rebellious choice. This is what it means to experience God’s wrath unmixed with mercy at the end. And if we are not healed and ready to live in his presence again, the life-giving glory of him who is love will consume all that is out of harmony when he comes.
God would do anything to spare us from this final destruction. Think of what he has already done! But what can he do with those who are not moved by the persuasive appeals of the still small voice? What can he do with those who are not stirred by the messages of the prophets through the years—not even by the sad story of Hosea? How can he awaken those who are deaf even to the thunders of Sinai? How can he reach those who are not even touched by what happened on Calvary nor warned by the nature of Christ’s death of how terrible is the ultimate consequence of sin?
Our heavenly Father is about to witness the loss of vast numbers of his children. For one last time he raises his voice. He—the gracious One, the One who would so much rather speak to us gently of the truth—raises his voice in one last awesome warning and appeal: “If you are bent on leaving me, I must let you go! But when I give you up, you will be destroyed!”
The devil would have us misunderstand this message as the words of an angry God, hardly one to be loved. But this terrible warning only serves to confirm the everlasting Good News. You could trust the God we worship to send these three final messages to the world. In these last days before the end he would not leave his children unenlightened and unwarned.
And behind the fearsome wording of the third angel’s message stands the God of Hosea crying, “Why will you die? How can I give you up! How can I let you go!”
A God such as this we can worship without fear.