Of all the imperatives in the New Testament, it may well be that this one stands in the sharpest contrast to the voices that constantly bombard our consciousness. Economic, political, medical, social, and yes, even “religious” spokesmen, of every persuasion, assault their already apprehensive audiences with the same message: “Be afraid; be very afraid!”
Jesus, in contrast, as well as virtually all of the supernatural participants in his recorded history, consistently greets worried or startled people with a reassuring, “Fear not!” “Don’t be afraid!”
How have these encouraging words become so universally ignored among those who claim to represent him? Indeed, the students in my husband’s class at a “Christian” high school, some years ago, overwhelmingly gave “fear of the consequences” as the primary reason for their commitment to the Lord! and a fellow teacher at the same school who called himself an “evangelist” questioned the validity of my own conversion when I said that I had never been “afraid of meeting God”! This is not only tragic – it is a shameful misrepresentation of the one who commissioned us to spread his “good news”!
Even “before the beginning”, the heavenly messengers’ greetings to Zachariah, to Mary, and to Joseph, were the same: “Don’t be afraid!” Zachariah’s prophecy at the time of Johns birth referred to the joyous prospect of serving God “without fear”(Lk.1:70), safe from the harassment of enemies; and the announcement of Jesus’ birth to the frightened shepherds began with “Don’t be afraid! I am bringing you good news!”
Jesus’ ministry was frequently punctuated with the same phrase: admonishing his followers not to fear their persecutors (Mt.10:26,28, and Lk,12:4,7); reminding them of their great value in God’s sight (Mt.10:31, Lk.12:7); reassuring Jairus about his daughter (Mk.5:36, Lk.8:50); promising the gift of participation in his Kingdom (Lk.12:32); and in his final bequest to the disciples before his death, the legacy of his peace (Jn.14:27).
One outstanding event appears in Mt.14:25, Mk.6:48-50, and Jn.6:19-21. The scene is a ferocious storm on the Sea of Galilee. The disciples are terrified at the sight of Jesus walking toward them across the waves. His greeting combines two of his “trademark” statements: “Don’t be afraid – I AM!” (The next post will explore the latter part in greater detail. Here, I will simply remind you that “I AM” was God’s Burning Bush statement, a clear reminder of who Jesus is.) It is only after they recognized him and received him into the boat, that the storm was stilled.
Luke chose to highlight a different encounter on the lake (5:4-10), one that contemporary “evangelists” would do well to emulate. Overwhelmed by the huge catch of fish (quite an extravagant “thank you for the use of your boat”!), Peter reacted in the way many preachers expect (or demand) of their hearers: “Leave me, Lord! I’m a no-good sinner!” But far from pouncing on that “confession” and flogging him with it, (notice: that was Peter’s diagnosis, not the Lord’s!), Jesus replied in a way more in keeping with his character: “Don’t be afraid! (Don’t worry about it!) I have a job for you!” What a gracious welcome!
Matthew (17:7) records the same phrase addressed to the frightened disciples on the occasion of the Transfiguration. Matthew (28:5) and Mark (16:6) quote the messengers’ address to the women at the tomb after the Resurrection, and Matthew also has Jesus himself repeating the same thing.
Twice in the Acts narrative, in Corinth (Ac.18:9-10) Jesus’ appearance to Paul, and just before the shipwreck (27:24) a “messenger of God” delivered the same message, “Don’t be afraid!” seems to have been almost like an authentication that a message was indeed from the Lord. That is how John seems to have recognized that his visitor in Rv.1:17 was Jesus himself. (It was combined with “I AM” there, as well.)
Even in contexts where fear is a very normal reaction to the perceived peril of a situation, (e.g., the storm at sea, etc.) Jesus consistently seeks to allay, not to induce, their fears. There is only one context in which he does not do so: the situations where the religious rulers, scribes and Pharisees, Herod, and even Pilate, are represented as fearing either Jesus himself, or the crowds who followed him, as they pursued their nefarious plans.
We cannot, of course, neglect the handful of passages that refer to the “fear” of God. Unfortunately, ever since Aeschylus (5th century BC), the same word, phobeomai, has also been used to refer to the reverence or respect due to a deity, a government official, or even the master of a slave. This sense of the word also appears in Philo (1st century) and Plutarch (2nd.century AD), as well as the Septuagint. (cf. Bauer’s lexicon – see appendix.) The context usually makes clear the intent: some examples appear in Lk.1:50, 18:2-4, and 23:40; Acts 10 (referring to Cornelius); several sermons, and some of the epistles. “Those who fear [reverence] God” was a frequent reference to godly Gentiles. It is a gross distortion to represent these as advocating that one should be afraid of God!
The noun forms of “fear” deal primarily with either “respect”, or the normal human reaction to peril, with a couple of major exceptions. In Romans 8:15, Paul reminds his readers, “You all didn’t receive a spirit of slavery, (that would take you) into fear, but you received a spirit of being made (adopted as) sons!” , and in the same vein, Hebrews 2:14-15 affirms that through his death, Jesus once and for all destroyed the one who had the power of death, and rescued those who by fear of death, had been held in slavery all their lives.
As an old man, John sums up the faithful followers’ point of view at the end of his beautiful treatise on the love of God (I John 4:18-19): “Fear doesn’t exist in love; but a mature love throws out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who is afraid has not been made mature in love. We keep on loving because he loved us first.” At whatever level of maturity we find ourselves, this is the goal.
Faithful representation of the Lord Jesus will always seek to alleviate, never to instill fear. This poor world has more than enough fear already. An accurate presentation of “the Gospel” is the same today as it was to the terrified shepherds on the hillside so long ago: “Don’t be afraid! I am bringing you Good News!”
It is a message our world desperately needs! Proclaim it faithfully!