Fear of God: Sin

Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, 'Where are you?'

He answered, 'I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.' (Gen 3:8–10)

In the first part of our study we looked at scriptures taken mainly from the New Testament; in this second part we are going to look at scriptures taken mainly from the Old Testament.

Adam's fear

Our opening text contains the first reference to the fear of God in the Bible. Why was Adam afraid of God? He was afraid of him because he was naked. He'd been naked since he was created and hadn't been afraid, so what was different?

Adam's fear of God was nothing to do with his physical nakedness. He was afraid of God now because he'd become spiritually naked. The Bible uses nakedness to symbolize sin (Rev 16:15), whereas righteousness is a covering, or garment, that we wear (Job 29:14a; Rev 19:8).

When Noah drank wine and became drunk he lay uncovered (naked) in his tent (Gen 9:20–1). Drunkenness is sin (1Co 6:9–10) and his nakedness symbolized his sin. That is why Jesus, who bore our sins on the cross (1Pe 2:24), was crucified naked.

Shem and Japheth didn't want to look at their father's nakedness (sinfulness) so they covered him with a garment (Gen 9:23). That was a prophetic act showing that one day God would cover man's sinfulness with his Son's righteousness (Isa 61:10; 1Co 1:30).

Shame is the feeling of humiliation that comes from the consciousness of having done wrong. Prior to sinning Adam had been naked but had felt no shame (Gen 2:25) because he'd been clothed with righteousness (righteousness is doing what is right in the sight of God – 1Jo 3:7). Now that his righteousness was gone, he felt spiritually naked and ashamed before God.

The tree that Adam ate from was the tree of the knowledge (awareness) of good and evil (Gen 2:17a). When he ate from it, not only did he sin, but he became aware of his sin (Gen 3:6–7). That is why everyone is born with a sinful nature and a conscience (the awareness of right and wrong). We inherit both of them from Adam.

We saw in the first part of our study that the fear of God comes from the fear of punishment (1Jo 4:18). Adam knew he'd disobeyed God—he'd eaten from the tree he was told not to eat from. Now he was afraid of the punishment that would follow (Gen 2:17b) and the God who would implement it.

Moral uprightness

The next reference to the fear of God is found in Gen 20:11:

Abraham replied, 'I said to myself, "There is surely no fear of God in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife."'

Abraham told the people of the area in which he was living that Sarah, his wife, was his sister for fear that Abimelek, who was king of the area, would kill him and take her for himself. Abimelek didn't do that, but the principle Abraham stated was true—that if people don't fear God they are more likely to do evil.

The rocketing crime rate, gross immorality and general lawlessness in society at the moment, shows how few people fear God today.

The next reference is found in Gen 22:12:

'Do not lay a hand on the boy,' he said, 'Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.'

The angel of the Lord told Abraham that he'd proved how much he feared God by doing what he'd been told to do (he was about to sacrifice his son Isaac on an altar – Gen 22:2). So we have two consequences of fearing God revealed in the early chapters of the Bible:

The next scripture to look at is Exo 18:21:

'But select capable men from all the people—men who fear God, trustworthy men who hate dishonest gain—and appoint them as officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens.'

Moses' father-in-law advised him to select capable men who feared God—trustworthy men who hated dishonest gain. They were to be appointed as officials over the people to lighten his workload. What can we learn from this? That people who fear God are more likely to be trustworthy and upright. They want to do what is right because they fear God.

Neh 7:2 teaches the same principle:

I put in charge of Jerusalem my brother Hanani, along with Hananiah the commander of the citadel, because he was a man of integrity and feared God more than most men do.

The two stated attributes of Hananiah—the fact that he feared God and was a man of integrity—are linked. Hananiah's moral uprightness was influenced by his fear of God. A true fear of God will always have a positive moral effect on a person's life and conduct. Exo 20:18–20 illustrates this:

See and fear

When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance and said to Moses, 'Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not let God speak to us or we will die.'

Moses said to the people, 'Do not be afraid. God has come to test you, so that the fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning.'

When God descended on Mount Sinai to give his law to Israel, he did so with thunder, lightning, smoke, fire and a loud trumpet blast. 'Don't be afraid,' said Moses, 'this is happening to make you fear God.' That sounds contradictory, so what did he mean?

Moses was saying that there was no need for them to be afraid because they were not in imminent danger. God was demonstrating his power to his people so they would fear him in the future and keep the laws he would give them.

He gave a similar warning in the New Testament when he struck down Ananias and Sapphira for lying to the Holy Spirit. We are told that great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about those events (Act 5:1–11).

The church met with the God of the Old Testament that day, who had opened the ground and swallowed up Korah, Dathan and Abiram when they sinned against him (Num 16:25–34). I'm sure no lies were told in the church for a long time after that.

Despite what Christians may think, God is no more tolerant of sin today than he was in the Old Testament; he doesn't change (Mal 3:6). It's just that now we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins (1Jo 2:1–2).

Reverential fear

The Hebrew words translated 'afraid', 'fear' and 'feared' in the scriptures we've looked at so far mean to be frightened, terrified, or to fear in the sense of revering someone. They all describe a person's fear of God. If we revere someone we greatly respect them, and if we greatly respect them we are more likely to obey them.

I think most Christians fear God in that way. Jesus said that we are to be afraid (Greek fearful, afraid, terrified) of the One who has authority to throw us into hell (Luk 12:5), and such fear does stop us from sinning. But our reverence for God and our love for him also makes us want to obey him (2Co 7:1).

Insight from Isaiah

We learn most of what we know about Jesus from the Gospels, but Isaiah contains some revealing truths about our Lord.

A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit. The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of might, the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord—and he will delight in the fear of the Lord. (Isa 11:1–3a)

The final verse of that passage tells us that Jesus (the Branch) will delight in the fear of the Lord. The Hebrew word translated 'delight' means, literally, to delight in the odour of something. Jesus delights in those who fear God; they are a sweet aroma to him.

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom… (Pro 9:10a)

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge… (Pro 1:7a)

The Hebrew word translated 'fear' in both of those verses means to reverence someone, and the Hebrew word translated 'beginning' means the first as to place, time, order, or rank. That means that to fear and reverence God is the first thing we should do. It's the key to all spiritual wisdom and to the knowledge of God.

Holy fear

Isaiah said that the Spirit of the Lord is the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord (Isa 11:2). The Holy Spirit brings the knowledge of God and the fear of God to people—a holy fear (Heb 11:7) based on the truth about God and ourselves: that God is holy, we are sinners, and we need a Saviour.

Only Christians can fear God in the way prescribed by Scripture because we alone have the Spirit of God to give us that fear.

Michael Graham
January 2005
Revised January 2021

Scripture quotations taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version (Anglicised edition). Copyright © 1979, 1984, 2011 by Biblica (formerly International Bible Society). Used by permission of Hodder & Stoughton Publishers, an Hachette UK company. All rights reserved.

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