American culture is full of fear. Although our country is profoundly polarized, the fact of fear and its driving and entrenching power unites us. The objects of our fears differ: We may be most afraid of the proliferation of gross injustice or of the government infringing on our personal liberties. We may fear persecution or the loss of the church’s witness through compromising political allegiances. Many of us fear losing our income or, worse, losing a loved one to the pandemic or police brutality. Masks, unmasked people, the coronavirus, vaccines, becoming a hashtag, tornadoes, hurricanes, break-ins, elections—all these things spark fear for different people. We are afraid.
Into this fear, the Lord speaks a word of hope and peace again and again through Scripture: Do not be afraid! In Luke 1:74, Zechariah prophesied that Jesus’ coming meant that God’s people would be able to serve him “without fear.” And yet Scripture also commands and calls us to fear the Lord and casts that fear in a positive light, with Isaiah even calling it the Messiah’s “delight” (11:3). What are we to make of this?
Michael Reeves addresses this question with competence and clarity in his latest book, Rejoice and Tremble: The Surprising Good News of the Fear of the Lord. Reeves, who teaches at the UK’s Union School of Theology, is perhaps best known for his 2012 volume Delighting in the Trinity, which provides a much-needed introduction to the doctrine of the Trinity in accessible and even playful language. Rejoice and Tremble follows in that vein by reappropriating the wisdom of the historic church, grounded in Scripture, to explain the meaning and value of an oft-misunderstood or neglected tenet of the Christian faith.
Two kinds of fear
The key, as Reeves explains, is that there are different types of fear. One is the “sinful fear” exhibited by unbelievers that apprehends God only as Creator and trembles at the thought of his power. This kind of fear leads to terror before God, much like the multitudes in Revelation who beg the mountains to fall on them so that they might be hidden from his wrath (6:16).
The other kind of fear Reeves calls “right fear,” also traditionally known as “filial fear.” This kind of fear, Reeves argues, actually has nothing to do with being afraid. Rather, it is a love that trembles because its object, the Lord, is overwhelmingly and incomparably beautiful, holy, and glorious.
This description may remind some readers of Delighting in the Trinity, which is appropriate, since Reeves rightly identifies the Trinity as the source and logic of all faithful Christian faith and practice. In Rejoice and Tremble, Reeves explains that there are two different sources of knowledge of God. Each way of knowing leads to a different identification of God and, consequently, a different relationship to God—or, in other words, a different kind of fear. Those who know God only through creation have a sinful fear of God because they apprehend his power without an understanding of his character. In contrast, those who know God through Jesus Christ the Son have a right or filial fear because they know God as their loving Father. They tremble before the Lord not in dread or terror but in wonder-filled love.
Since Reeves argues that “right fear” actually excludes being afraid, the question naturally arises: Why call it fear? Wouldn’t awe or reverence be more apt? To this challenge, Reeves submits evidence concerning the term’s intended meaning, the precedent of Scripture’s original Hebrew language, and the weight of church tradition. His explanation highlights the intensity and passion he believes is missing from our concept of fearing God. Fear has a physicality and emotional potency to it that other words lack.
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Source: Christianity Today