Monday, October 15, 2012

Fear

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Sometimes the Bible relies heavily on words whose meaning has shifted dramatically in our language. For instance: "Our God is a jealous God."

We attach a highly negative connotation to the word jealous because our cultural context for the word brings up images of jilted lovers, striking out in petulant anger. Hence our image of a "jealous God" may be one who is mad, spiteful and and vindictive because he isn't getting 100% of our attention.

However, a much more accurate perspective on the word might be conjured up by the image of a mother walking beside her toddler down a busy street. With cars whizzing carelessly by just scant feet away, that mother is going to be very vigilant that her child does not dart out into the street. She is going to be jealous for her toddler. We wouldn't normally use the word "jealous" in this context, because its use in our language has shifted away from that. But that's really a much more accurate portrayal of how and why God is jealous for us. He loves us and longs to see us happy and fulfilled. He knows that the further we stray from His ways, the more likely we are to encounter danger and be crushed. He is jealous for us.

Another word frequently misunderstood in Scripture is the word "fear." In Deuteronomy 6 Moses is giving the Israelites the low-down on God's expectations for them. Verse 13 says: "Fear the Lord your God, serve him only, and take your oaths in his name." If that sounds familiar, it's because this is the verse Christ quoted to Satan when tempted in the wilderness (Luke 4):
The devil led him up to a high place and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And he said to him, “I will give you all their authority and splendor; it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to. If you worship me, it will all be yours.”Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.’”
Note that Jesus replaced the word "fear" with "worship."

Not that Jesus shied from using the word "fear." In Matthew 10:28 He advises us: "Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell" I used to think this verse meant that I should tiptoe carefully around God lest I make Him mad and get whacked for it. But the truth is that my sin has already given God all the justification He needs to destroy both my body and my soul in hell. True biblical fear is realizing that God loves me so much that He died so that I wouldn't have to go to hell and be destroyed! A God who would (and did) do that for me is awesomely, scarily, inconceivably merciful. That kind of mercy is way beyond human experience. I tremble and fear when I think about it.

An appropriate response would therefore be gratitude and worship. I find in Luke 17 a fascinating analogy for what God has done for us, and how we have responded:
12 As He [Jesus] entered a village, ten leprous men who stood at a distance met Him 13 and they raised their voices, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” 14 When He saw them, He said to them, "Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they were going, they were cleansed. 15 Now one of them, when he saw that he had been healed, turned back, glorifying God with a loud voice, 16 and he fell on his face at His feet, giving thanks to Him. And he was a Samaritan. 17 Then Jesus answered and said, “Were there not ten cleansed? But the nine—where are they? 18 Was no one found who returned to give glory to God, except this foreigner?” 19 And He said to him, “Stand up and go; your faith has made you well.”
I think the 10 leprous men represent all of us who have come to the end of our ropes and have cried out to God to help us. We're all diseased and leprous, and sick with sin. Christ's response? He heals them all with a word.

(And lest we think this was "easy" for Him, Scripture reveals the behind-the-scenes truth: "The punishment that brought us peace was upon him; and by his wounds we are healed." Isaiah 53:5)

So I think these 10 healed lepers represent forgiven Christendom. And nine of the 10 skip merrily on their way without so much as a thank-you. No gratitude, no praise, no worship. Just one returns to fall at the master's feet and worship. Just one thanks God for paying the price!

So what does Jesus say to this one? "Stand up and go, your faith has made you well." Wait a minute ... weren't all 10 healed? Yes, they were. Weren't all 10 therefore "well?" No, just the one who exhibited the faith to worship God could truly be pronounced "well." So obviously, therefore, there is more to being "well" than simply being forgiven of our sin. In order to be truly well, we must be more than forgiven: We must demonstrate the faith to worship God.

Now, back to "fear." (Forgive me, I am trying to weave some disparate strands into a tapestry.) We are told to fear God and worship Him. When we see the worship experiences of certain people in Scripture, "fear" is probably an accurate descriptor. In Isaiah 6, the prophet is struck dumb in the presence of God, realizing that any word out of his mouth rings there as an obscenity before a holy God. ("Woe is me: I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips!")

The prophet Ezekiel, in chapters 1 and 2 of his book, falls down on his face "like a dead man" when confronted with the approach of the Holy God. The Apostle John does the exact same kind of faceplant in Revelation 1.

What is God's response to this display of fear? In Isaiah 6 he takes a coal from the altar and applies it to Isaiah's lips. Suddenly Isaiah is purified and can speak boldly. In Ezekiel, it says the Holy Spirit "lifted him to his feet." Similarly, in Revelation 1 John reports that Christ put His right hand on him and said: "Do not be afraid!"

So, the conclusion is: We are to fear God ... but not to be afraid! In fact, over and over again, He reassures us: "Do not be afraid! Stand!"

Our basis for standing is obviously not any merit of our own. We are cleansed lepers. We can stand because we have been cleansed.

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