What does Fear Really Mean?
So Peter opened his mouth and said: "Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him."
RM: What does the word ‘fear’ mean in this verse? The Bible often uses this word to mean wanting someone’s approval. Like when the Bible challenges us not to give in to the “fear of man”(Proverbs 29:25). This doesn’t mean being afraid of people. It means being “awe inspired” by their approval. It means wanting someone’s approval and the Bible is challenging us not to care too much about our reputation and appearance. That's what the phrase “fear of man” means in the Bible. So then, for us to have a “fear” of God, would mean, instead, to have the feeling of wanting to be approved by God and wanting his affection and his love, his fatherly delight in us. This is what Galatians 4:4-7 and Romans 8:15 means when the Holy Spirit brings us to spiritual life and causes us to cry out, “Abba!” This is what the “fear of God” is referring to.
In this passage, Luke records Peter, as Peter is reflecting on all of the implications of God bringing salvation to this Gentile named, Cornelius. Peter is thinking of all the potential future, non-Jewish believers in far away places who will eventually come to salvation. And Peter is realizing in this moment, that anyone, in any non-Jewish country or foreign culture, no matter where or when, can still be just as close to God as any Old Testament Jew ever was, as long as he or she simply LOVES God. That’s what Peter is saying in these words. But he uses the word ‘fears’ God. Why does he use ‘fear’ when he essentially means ‘love’? How does ‘fear’ mean ‘love' and yet something slightly more specific? He uses it because the word ‘Love,’ by itself, can mean something possibly too casual or light for Peter’s meaning; while ‘fear’ clarifies that he means something far deeper, more deeply needed, and more life giving for a person.
So the word ‘fear’, in a sense, means love, but it also carries all of this other meaning of deep dependency as well. So Peter is saying to us in this verse that anyone who wants God’s affection, as your ultimate desire of life, can know that you are in a right and legitimate relationship with God. However, we also know, because of the supporting teaching of the rest of the Bible, that Grace is the only way to truly have this.
The Bible teaches us that without an understanding of Grace, our naturally sinful, “orphan” spirits will always operate in a self-reliant way, to secure happiness in this life. And the human soul has no ability to escape this self-reliant tendency. That is, it doesn’t until God, from the outside, breaks in with this concept of Grace. Every human conscience innately has no way for the human soul to securely trust in God’s approval and affection. We all have a conscience. And, deep down, that conscience knows what our true standing is before a holy God. We simply can’t, naturally, achieve a security strong enough to trust that we have God’s approval. That is, not until we come to see the nuts and bolts of Grace, meaning the basis of God’s free gift of all that Jesus did which now counts for us, without any achievement or deserving on our part, and we see this from the authority of the Bible itself.
Naturally speaking, the human soul has no way to be secure enough to be certain of God’s love. The only basis than can achieve this, is on the basis of this free Grace from God’s own initiative. This he achieved by becoming one of us in order to die the death we should have and live the life we should have. When this basis of Grace finally becomes clear and dawns on us, it resolves this natural, human fear (in the bad sense) of God and sets us free in our psyche to finally relax, securely, and know with certainty that God delights in us and cherishes us. This...and this alone...is what enables us to enjoy God’s affection, without any fear, at the deepest level, which finally satisfies the soul as it was intended. Until Grace brakes in to our psyche and secures us, no true ‘fear’ (in the good sense) of God, in the sense that Peter is referring to, is possible. Hence, the desperate need for humble, local, ordinary people to act as missionaries and share these concepts with the rest of us, so that we can come to know God's love, which produces such a great love FOR God inside of us.
The world needs quiet, normal, humble people to share and explain this hard-to-believe grace from God, with those who have not yet found it. This is what Peter had in view as he reassured these Gentile believers of God’s acceptance and his hope that others would come to know God’s fatherly approval, a beautiful desire the Bible calls 'fear', in the good sense of this word. Amen.
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Rev. Rusty Mosley