How do I connect with a God who is the Creator of the universe? Should I relate to Him as my buddy? Should I treat Him as my go-to guy? Interestingly, when the Bible tells us how to relate to God, one phrase appears over and over: “Fear God.” What does that really mean?
Of all the rooms in my grandparent’s third-story apartment, I remember best the living room, mainly because of a picture that hung on the wall. Actually, I don’t remember the picture itself, just the words written across it. They read: “Fear God and give Him glory.”
One day we visited our grandparents, and I asked, “Dad, what does it mean to fear God?” I can still hear myself asking that question. I don’t know why it has stuck in my memory, because I don’t really remember when and how I learned most biblical concepts. But I do remember this one. Perhaps because it was such an intriguing subject to a kid who had been taught that God is love. Why fear Him?
My dad told me that “fearing God” doesn’t mean to be scared of God, and to tremble or cower before Him in fear. Instead, it means to hold Him in high regard and respect Him. Other descriptors would be to be in awe of Him and to treat Him with reverence. Throughout Scripture, whenever God reveals Himself or sends His angel, people fall to the ground in fear. Each time, they are told, “Do not fear.” Clearly God doesn’t want us to be afraid of Him. Rather, when we are told to “fear God,” we look at a loving, holy, and powerful God who wants us to know Him.
One story has especially puzzled me when it comes to the concept of the “fear of God.” The story is found in Exodus 19 and 20. It appears that in this story God does want Israel to fear Him, to be scared, and to tremble before Him. If so, why?
Three months had passed since the Israelites had left Egypt and had arrived in the Wilderness of Sinai. When they settled at the foot of the mountain, God sent a message to the people through Moses: “If you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be a special treasure to Me above all people. . . . And you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex. 19:5, 6).1
Is it possible that Moses understood that true holiness can only come from being in the presence of God?
The people answered God: “All that the Lord has spoken we will do” (verse 8).
God knew that their pledge was just a promise they made in the “heat of the moment.” It wasn’t a wholehearted commitment, as evidenced by the golden calf episode a short time later. With Moses not being around, they started worshipping a golden idol. Thankfully, however, God never gives up on His people. It was time for God to do something they hadn’t seen before; time for them to experience more of who God really is.
God told Moses to consecrate the people, because on the third day He would meet them at the mountain. God wanted Israel to sense the importance of this moment. Israel had to wash up and refrain from any sexual activity. To add to the sacredness of the encounter with God, Moses also built a barrier under God’s instructions to prevent anyone from coming up the mountain and irreverently “gaze at the Lord.” Apparently, some in the camp of the Israelites had little respect toward God or anything godly.
The long-awaited day finally arrived. On the third day, God came down to meet His people. The mountain was noisy. It was covered in smoke and a thick cloud while thunder and lightning struck over and over as if to tear the mountain apart. Then the trumpet started to blow. The shofar started softly, then grew steadily in intensity. The noise was deafening, and the whole mountain shook. The people, who stood close to the mountain, were terrified. They trembled in fear.
Then everything went quiet, and God spoke. Israel heard God speak as He shared the Ten Commandments. The people had been brought close to the mountain when God came down, but we are told that by the end the people “stood afar off.” They had retreated because of the terrifying encounter.
Ellen White describes the scene: “The awful power of God’s utterances seemed more than their trembling hearts could bear. For as God’s great rule of right was presented before them, they realized, as never before, the offensive character of sin, and their own guilt in the sight of a holy God. They shrank away from the mountain in fear and awe.”2
Following this experience, the Israelites approached Moses, pleading with him to speak to God by himself, then relate to them what God had said. They didn’t want to go through the same experience again. They didn’t want to hear God or meet Him again, because His presence was terrifying. The story ends with Moses telling the people “Do not fear.” Then he continued: “For God has come to test you, and that His fear may be before you, so that you may not sin” (Ex. 20:20).
Reading this story made me wonder about God’s purpose in presenting Himself in such a powerful way—and doing so in order that they may not sin. What was God trying to accomplish by allowing the Israelites to experience fear and trepidation? Perhaps God was acting like a father who sees his little 2-year-old boy about to wander across a busy street. In that moment he’s not going to speak softly. He will shout: “Stop! Don’t move!” God used this powerful experience as a way of getting Israel’s attention.
God demonstrates His power and His holiness. He desires for His people to pay attention to how they live—and “not sin.” He wants His people to be holy.
I vividly remember the time one of my friends called me “Ellen White”—and it was not meant as a compliment. Unfortunately, today holiness is frowned upon, even mocked. Being holy means being separate, set apart. It doesn’t mean that we are perfect, but that instead we choose God, act in a way that glorifies Him, and when we mess up we turn to Him for forgiveness and transformation. In fact, we can’t make ourselves holy. We can be holy only because God’s presence in our lives makes us holy.
Intriguingly, there's one part of the story I have passed over every time I read it. The passage ends with the following description: “The people stood afar off, but Moses drew near the thick darkness where God was” (Ex. 20:21). I had never paid attention to the contrast this verse presents. Hebrews 12:21 informs us that during this experience Moses himself exclaimed, “I am trembling with fear” (NIV). His experience was no different than the rest of the assembly. They all trembled because they were in awe of a holy God and their own sinfulness was stark in their minds as God presented the law. Yet the experience of God’s holy presence being manifested drew Moses to God even more. Unfortunately, the people had the opposite reaction and instead went away from God.
Is it possible that Moses understood that true holiness comes only from being in the presence of God? That’s what God was really telling them. Spend time with Me! I will make you holy when you walk with Me. He was trying to get their attention so they would desire to be with Him.
This story teaches us that to fear God is a lifestyle. “To fear God” means to cultivate God’s presence in our everyday life, to make our decisions in respect to Him and His law. It corresponds to loving and obeying God. There is nothing extraordinary or magic in the phrase. It simply means to enjoy His presence constantly, and be aware that He is here to help as a caring father watches over his child. We can admire, relate to, and follow such a God.
When God says “Fear Me,” He wants us to draw near to Him so He can work in us. Has God been trying to get our attention lately? He wants to make us holy by His presence. How will we respond?
Andrea Jakobsons serves as an associate pastor at Spencerville Adventist Church in Maryland.