Dr. Michael Reeves is president and professor of theology at Union School of Theology in Oxford, England. He is author of several books, including Rejoicing in Christ. He is the featured teacher for the Ligonier teaching series The English Reformation and the Puritans.
Our Scripture reading is from Proverbs 1: 1–7:
“The proverbs of Solomon, son of David, king of Israel:
To know wisdom and instruction,
to understand words of insight,
to receive instruction in wise dealing,
in righteousness, justice, and equity;
to give prudence to the simple,
knowledge and discretion to the youth—
Let the wise hear and increase in learning,
and the one who understands obtain guidance,
to understand a proverb and a saying,
the words of the wise and their riddles.
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge;
fools despise wisdom and instruction.”
Our Almighty Father, we lift ourselves up to you now. We place ourselves under your holy Word and ask that you would make us wise. We ask that you would fill us with a right fear of you that we might glorify you in our lives, and in the name of Jesus we ask it. Amen.
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge. Those are words that should make everyone here sit up because being a student, spending time gathering knowledge, this is what you are about here. And Solomon tells us the only correct, the only possible foundation for growth in true knowledge is the fear of the Lord. Knowledge begins, he’s saying, not actually in learning a body of information, not in the acquiring various skills, though those are good things, but in the fear of the Lord. The fear of God is the foundation upon which proper knowledge is built. And the fear of the Lord, it should be of the essence of your time as a student and in your life after you’ve graduated. For in Christian life, quite simply, however it is you might go on to serve the Lord and his people, the fear of the Lord will make the difference between life-giving Christ-like ministries and hollow devilish ministries.
Now fear of God is a much misunderstood, much maligned, much ignored doctrine. People quickly rush to 1 John 4:18, “There is no fear in love. Perfect love casts out fear.” The fear has to do with punishment and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. And John writes that because clearly there is such a thing as a wrong and ungodly sort of fear. Indeed, there is an ungodly fear of God that we can have. Clearly, there is a fear that is bad. Zachariah, Father of John the Baptist, prophesied in Luke 1 that Jesus’ salvation will mean that we are being delivered from the hand of our enemies might serve him without fear, in holiness, in righteousness before him all our days.
So, there is a fear the Lord does not wish us to have. That ungodly fear is the sort of thing you see in the Israelites at Mount Sinai, do you remember? The Lord speaks, and the people shrink back in the fear. Or Adam who was afraid because he was naked, he’s afraid, he fears and so he hides. That is not the sort of fear the Bible urges on believers. That is the sort of fear rebels have, fearing their sin will be exposed. An ungodly fear of God drives you away from God. And it’s over peace that goes together with doubt and grumbling. It is the source of faithlessness. It is the source of spiritual weakness. Have you ever noticed how fear and doubt are sometimes connected in Scripture? Revelation 21, “As for the cowardly and faithless, their lot will be in the lake that burns.” It is wrong fears that so often strangle Christian lives. Fear of men, fear of what might happen, not thinking of the Lord’s providential, fatherly care. Wrong fear of God, wrong fears strangle Christian lives. And John Bunyan, the author of Pilgrim’s Progress, he wrote a little treatise on the fear of God which is a wonderful work, and he once asked some great pastoral questions to expose some sort of ungodly fear. He asked the reader, “Do you, Reader, have fears that make you question whether there was ever a work of grace in your soul? Do these fears weaken your heart in prayer? Do these fears keep you away from laying hold of the promise of salvation by Jesus Christ? Do these fears tend to harden your heart; make you desperate? Do these fears make you sometimes think it is vain for me anymore to wait upon the Lord?” And then he says, “If you answer yes, ‘I do have some of these fears’”, he says, “Well, poor Christian, I’m glad you’ve answered so plainly, but I pray you, look back on your answer. How much of God do you think is in these things, how much of his Spirit, how much of the grace of his Word? None at all. It cannot be that these things are the true and natural workings of the Spirit of God. These are not the Spirit’s doings, dost thou not see the very poor of the devil in these fears? No, let’s have none of that fear that makes us drawback.”
The fear of the Lord that is the beginning of wisdom, the fear that Isaiah, can I say it like that? You know what I’m talking about, that’s the correct way to say it by the way. Isaiah 33 calls the Lord’s treasure, completely unlike the devilish fear that causes us to draw back, this right and godly fear draws us to God. If you can, would you come with to look at Jeremiah 32? Jeremiah 32 verse 38, see this right, godly fear. Jeremiah 32:38, “And they shall be my people and I will be their God. I will give them one heart and one way, that they may fear me forever, for their own good and the good of their children after them. I will make with them an everlasting covenant, that I will not turn away from doing good to them. And I will put the fear of me in their hearts, that they may not turn from me.” The fear of God that the Spirit brings, draws us to, keeps us with God. And in case you’re thinking this fear here is just being afraid of punishment, in case you wonder. No, no, look on a few verses on, Jeremiah 33 verse 8, “I will cleanse them from all the guilt of their sin against me, and I will forgive all the guilt of their sin and rebellion against me. And this city shall be to me a name of joy, a praise and a glory before all the nations of the earth who shall hear of all the good that I do for them. They shall fear and tremble because of all the good and all the prosperity I provide for it.”
And this is exactly how it was for Jacob at Bethel too. Do you remember the dream of the stairway to heaven? And the Lord makes not one threat. He reels off a catalog of blessing. “I’m with you, I’ll keep you wherever you go, I will not leave you,” he says. And we read that Jacob awoke from his sleep and he feared. Of that catalog of blessing, he feared and said, “How awesome is this place?” That is the fear we’re made for. Not a fear of punishment. A fear that makes us run away. The sort of fear that means being overwhelmed, staggered at the holiness and greatness and glory and kindness of God. It’s the sort of fear that makes us say, “I can go nowhere else and no one else have I encountered anything so marvelous.” And it is when you have that fear then you enter into the joy of your master. Because, once again, Isaiah 11, the description of the Messiah, the Christ, the Spirit who’s on him. Isaiah 11 verse 2, “And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. And his…” hear the word, “… his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.” This is Christ’s delight and pleasure. The pleasure the saints are drawn into.
And to get something of a visual image of this, I think of Charles Spurgeon, who was completely unlike the young Martin Luther, who was terrified by lighting. Charles Spurgeon once said, “I love the lightnings, God’s thunder is my delight.” He said, “Men are by nature afraid of the heavens, the superstitious dread the signs in the sky and even the bravest spirit is sometimes made to tremble when the firmament is ablaze with lightning and the pealing thunder seems to make the vast concave on heaven tremble and reverberate but…” said Spurgeon. And I was brought up three miles from where he was brought up. I know these skies, broad, broad open skies in the East of England. I know what he’s talking about. He said, “I always feel ashamed to keep indoors when the thunder shakes the solid earth and the lightning flash like arrows from the sky, for then God is abroad. And I love to walk out in some wide place and look up and mark the opening gates of heaven as the lightning reveals far beyond and enables me to gaze into the unseen. I like to hear my heavenly Father’s voice in the thunder.” That’s the fear of the Lord. He’s not just scared, he’s not just impressed, he hears his Father’s majestic voice and thinks how tremendous is my Father who has brought me to himself.
John Bunyan summarized it, this understanding of the fear of God like this, he said, “No faith, no fear of God. Devil’s faith, devil’s fear. Saint’s faith, saint’s fear.” Godly fear flows from a sense of the love and kindness of God to the soul. Where there is no sense of hope of the kindness and mercy of God by Jesus Christ, there can be none of this fear but rather wroth and despair, which produces a fear that is devilish. But godly fear flows from a sense of hope of mercy from God by Jesus Christ. Indeed, nothing can lay a stronger obligation upon the heart to fear God then a sense of or hope in mercy. This begets true tenderness of heart. This truly endears the affections to God and in this true tenderness, softness, and endearedness of attraction and affection to God lies the very essence of the fear of the Lord.
And so, the fear of the Lord in Proverbs is in a sense another way of speaking of the right love for God. In Scripture, we’re called to love God, but the thing is we can mistake that word love. Thinking it means just the same as other loves, but the nature of a love is defined by its object. To give you an example, I’m going to say three statements which are all true, but they may jar a little as I say them. I love and have affection for my Labrador, I mean that. I love and have affection for my wife, I mean that, but I hope those two statements jarred slightly. I love and have affection for my God. I mean all three statements, but they sit ever so slightly uncomfortably next to each other because you’re all thinking, “I really hope you mean slightly different things by each one.” In each, the love is quite different because the object is different. A love for God is not right if it is not a fear-filled love. If it does not know him in all his perfections, his holiness, his majesty, his goodness, his compassion, and his meekness. If you know God properly, you’ll be lost in wonder. The fear of God is the right overwhelmed response to God’s full-orbed revelation of himself. It is not merely one-side of our reaction to God. It is not that we have a love for God that is tempered or balanced out by our fear of him. All our response to God is fear-filled. We have a fear-filled love for him. It shapes what sort of love we have for God. You could also say the fear of the Lord is Christian joy defined, because this fear we’ve seen in Isaiah 11, this fear is a pleasure to Christ and a pleasure to believers. Since it is about enjoying his fearful glory.
So, Nehemiah could pray, “O Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prays of your servants, to the pray of your servants who delight to fear your name.” Like our love for God, our joy in God is a different sort of joy we find– as to what we find in other things because he is different. He is different, higher, more tremendous than those other things that bring me pleasure. So, yes, the fear of the Lord is all about the enjoyment of God. To glorify God and enjoy him forever, yes, that’s about the fear of the Lord. The enjoyment of God is a unique and wonder-filled, sometimes tear-filled, trembling enjoyment. And this fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge. It’s the beginning of knowledge because fear of the Lord proves true knowledge of the Lord. Because you just do not know the Lord if you do not have this fearful delight, this happy and enraptured, weak-kneed fear of God.
And the fear of the Lord is not just connected to knowledge of God. It’s also connected to knowledge of ourselves because in his august light we know ourselves more deeply. In his divine and holy light, we are exposed, exposed as mere creatures, and exposed as wicked sinners. And that self-knowledge that comes in the fear of God is so necessary for any who will serve Christ’s Church. Your responsibility or leadership of any sort has a strong tendency to distort your self-perception and you might want to chew on why that is. Leadership does distort your self-perceptions, so we need the light of the knowledge of the glory of God to show us not only who God is so that we might know him but also show us what we really are and not what we or the world would suppose us to be.
Now that exposure before God is exactly what the unbeliever doesn’t want. He doesn’t want his sinfulness exposed, but believers, we want our sin blasted away. We enjoy opposing the darkness and so we find today sweet pain to sit in the light of God’s revelation and find ourselves exposed. Spurgeon put it like this, he said, “I do not know, Beloved, when I am more truly happy than when I am weeping over sin at the foot of the cross.” Does that make sense to you? You see, God’s grace and kindness to you at the cross and it makes you weep for your own wickedness. And yet, they are sweet tears, because you’re enjoying his grace and hating your sin all at the same time. It’s how Bunyan put it, he said, “If God comes to visit you with forgiveness of sin, that visit will remove the guilt, but it will increase the sense of your filth. You will feel your dirtiness more and the sense of this, that God has forgiven a filthy sinner will make thee both rejoice and tremble.”, and he writes, “Oh, the blessed confusion that will then cover thy face.”
Dear students, this is the fear that will keep you from getting puffed up as you grow in knowledge, this is the fear that will stir you to want God, to want to know him more. This is the fear that is the beginning of wisdom and you need this fear to steer you through life, alright? Because, I hope you know, talents will not help you steer through life. You can be talented as anything and be useless, dangerous to the Church. Without the fear of God steering your abilities all your abilities are a liability. Only this wonderful fear of God can set your trajectory and set you right. And you know, that’s an encouragement for those of us who feel daunted by the talents of others. Because it is the fear of God that is the beginning of wisdom it is not talent that God blesses so much as the fear of God. Psalm 115 verse 13, “He will bless those who fear the Lord, both the small and the great.” And when you graduate, when you serve the Church it is this fear that will give you the strength with humility that you need.
For the fear of God is the only fear that imparts humble strength. Would you turn with me to one more Scripture? Isaiah chapter 8 verse 12, “Do not call conspiracy all that this people calls conspiracy, and do not fear what they fear, nor be in dread. But the Lord of hosts, him you shall honor as holy. Let him be your fear and let him be your dread.” Now, there’s a verse for Christians who might fear man and fail to have the strength to pursue what is right. For when the Lord is your fear, you will find the strength to pursue an unpopular, but righteous cause. And at the same time, the fear of the Lord will keep you humble and preserve you from being overbearing as you pursue that cause. This is why in 1 Peter 3, “Gentleness and fear” or “Respect” are twinned. You see, the thing is, everyone here, we all temperamentally lean one way or another. Some of us, and you hopefully know who you are, are wired to be bulldozers. You’re strong but you’re not naturally gentle. Others are more naturally like jelly’s – sweet, soft, eager to please, go along with the crowd, and never stand up for anything. That’s a natural tendency and the fear of the Lord corrects and beautifies both. And nothing else provides the gentle strength the Christian needs, only the person who delights in the fear of the Lord is a Christ-like Christian. And that one like Christ will be both lamb-like and lion-like.
And you know Church History proves how the Spirit can mold such men. Take John Calvin, Charles Spurgeon for instance. Both men confessed their natural inclinations to be timid and fearful but as they grew in the fear of God, they became lamb-like, humble, gentle, and lions in the cause of the gospel. So, oh for you and for your generation to be known for this joyous fear, this awestruck, wondering, and trembling enjoyment of our magnificent Lord and Savior. Because then we’ll be closer to that day when all the Nations learn to fear his name. And when we sing the song of the lamb from Revelation saying, “Great and amazing are your deeds, O Lord God the Almighty, just and true are your ways, oh King of the nations. Who will not fear, O Lord, and glorify your name? For you alone are holy, all nations will come and worship you.”
Let’s pray. Oh, mighty Lord, we ask would you make us delight to fear your name, to rejoice with trembling? Humble us to find a gentle strength in you and for you through fearing you more than we fear anything else. In Christ’s glorious name we pray. Amen.
Transcripts are lightly edited.