Living in the Fear of God

1 Peter 1:17-21

October 24, 2004 | Ray Pritchard

After a six-week break, we are returning to our study of I Peter. I want to begin by reminding you that Peter wrote this letter to believers scattered across ancient Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). Widely separated and facing persecution, Peter encourages them to stand fast in the grace of God in spite of their trials. He begins his letter (1:3-12) with a stirring reminder of what God has done for them. Having caused them to be born again, God has given them an inheritance in heaven that they can never lose. The fiery trials cannot take it away. In the future they will see Jesus face to face. Even now they enjoy salvation that the prophets searched for and the angels stand on tiptoe to understand. Peter’s whole point is that God loves us so much that he has saved us and promised us an eternal inheritance. Nothing that happens to us on earth can cause God to break his promises to us.


In light of that magnificent salvation, Peter gives his readers three commands:

Be holy (vv. 13-16).

Fear God (vv. 17-21).

Love one another deeply (vv. 22-25).

In my last message on I Peter, we covered the first command, today we’ll look at the second, and next Sunday we’ll talk about the third one. It occurred to me that if we were making this list, our order might differ from Peter’s. We would probably list them this way:

Love one another.

Be holy.

Fear God.

Love one another would come first because that’s a command we all understand and like. Be holy comes second because we know it is important. Fearing God comes last because we don’t know what it means, and we don’t like the sound of it. Fear God? That’s such a negative concept. It brings to mind a picture of cringing before an angry deity who is waiting to zap us with another lightning bolt. I am keenly aware that in preaching about the fear of God, I am swimming against the tide of modern culture. Even in the church, this is not a popular topic. We would rather hear about love any day. In light of that, let me drop a thought into your mind as we begin this sermon together. We cannot grow spiritually if we only pay attention to those commands of Scripture that we personally like. If we want to grow as Christians, we must pay special attention to those biblical teachings that pull us out of our comfort zone. If we only listen to what we like, we’ll stay the way we are. If we embrace the challenging parts of God’s Word, then we can grow.

Our text begins with these words: “Since you call on a Father who judges each man’s work impartially, live your lives as strangers here in reverent fear” (v. 17). The word translated “fear” is the Greek word phobos, from which we get the English word “phobia,” an irrational fear. That’s not what Peter has in mind. In order to understand what he means, we need to go back to the Old Testament where the “fear of the Lord” is a major theme. Here are a few verses from Proverbs that help us flesh out the meaning:

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (1:7).

“To fear of the Lord is to hate evil” (8:13).

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (9:10).

“He who fears the Lord has a secure fortress, and for his children it will be a refuge” (14:26).

“The fear of the Lord is a fountain of life, turning a man from the snares of death” (14:27).

“Better a little with the fear of the Lord, than great wealth with turmoil” (15:16).

“Through the fear of the Lord a man avoids evil” (16:6b).

“Humility and the fear of the Lord bring wealth, honor and life” (22:4).

We can summarize these verses in two statements:

A) The fear of the Lord is the key to long life, wisdom, prosperity, knowledge, happiness.

B) The fear of the Lord is the single most important quality a father can hand down to his children.

Two other Old Testament verses help us understand what the fear of the Lord is:

1) It is an attitude of the heart. “Oh, that their hearts would be inclined to fear me and keep all my commands always, so that it might go well with them and their children forever!” (Deuteronomy 5:29).

2) It is a choice. “Since they hated knowledge and did not choose to fear the Lord” (Proverbs 1:29).

Love Plus Respect

The fear of the Lord combines the two qualities of love plus respect. It is “loving respect” and “respectful love.” To fear someone in this sense is to love them and respect them at the same time. We can see this more clearly if we state it in the negative. Where there is no respect, there is no love. When I preached this sermon, I repeated that statement several times, and then asked the congregation to say it with me.

Where there is no respect, there is no love.

That applies to all human relationships. Where there is no respect inside a marriage, there is no love either. Where there is no respect in a family, there is no love either. Young ladies, remember this when a young man asks you out. No matter what he says, if he does not respect you, he does not love you. Love and respect go hand in hand.

So how does this apply to our relationship with God? Here is my definition of the fear of the Lord. It is the choice I make to obey God because I love him and want to please him. The fear of the Lord is an ongoing attitude of my heart that causes me to choose over and over again to obey God even when it might be easier to do something else. I make that choice because I love God and want to please him. The fear of the Lord is not cringing fear, which is respect without love. And it is not irreverent flippancy, which is love without respect. Respect plus love equals the fear of the Lord.

This principle becomes clear in my mind when I think of my own father. Though he could be strict at times, I never doubted that he loved me. I rarely heard him say the words “I love you” because men of his generation often did not show their feelings. But it never occurred to me to think that he didn’t love me. At the same time, I never forgot he was my father and I was his son. I would have died before I called him “my old man.” If he had any faults, I wouldn’t talk about them here. Like most boys, I wanted to be like my dad and to please him. I looked up to him. I wanted to hear him say, “Son, I’m proud of you.” I loved him and called him dad. But I knew I would have to answer to him.

Seen in that light, the fear of the Lord is not the opposite of love. It’s what real love is all about. A healthy sense of fear can be a positive motivation for doing right. This sort of loving respect is the basis of our relationship with God. When I choose to fear the Lord, I am choosing out of respect and love to do the things that please him. All that I do in my life comes back to this principle. The fear of the Lord is thus the most positive attitude you can have toward God.

Angry Christians and the Election

As I prepared this sermon, I came across a message by Ray Ortlund, Jr. that contains this quote from a Puritan pastor: “The worst anger in all the world is nothing compared with God’s tiniest displeasure.” Pastor Ortlund then adds this application:

If the whole world rages at you, you’ll get over it. If you antagonize God, you have a problem. Christians do not fear what the world fears—political upheaval, for example. Christians don’t panic when other people do. (“Should We Live in Fear?” August 12, 2001)

I thought about his words in light of the upcoming national election on November 2. Many people on both sides are angry and uptight. It’s not only Christians who are angry, but I know a lot of angry Christians. Let me rephrase that. I know lots of Christians who get angry very easily when talking about the election, especially if they are talking to someone who disagrees with them. I know. It has happened to me several times lately. What does this anger that lies just below the surface mean? I think it means that we don’t fear God very much. If we feared God as we should, we would not lose our temper when talking (or arguing) about the election next Tuesday. If we truly feared God, we would not so desperately fear what might happen if “our man” doesn’t win. There is such a thing as righteous anger. But the line between righteous and unrighteous anger can be pretty thin. And a tight election can push us over the line before we know it. We must do our part and then remember that this election rests in the hands of Almighty God. Fear God and cast your vote. If you feel yourself getting angry, do a quick heart check and ask, “Do I really fear God as I should?”

Peter offers three reasons why we ought to fear God. These reasons are really motives for godly living. We ought to take God seriously because these three things are true.

I. Life is short.

In verse 17 Peter reminds his readers that they are “strangers” on the earth. It’s the same word he used in verse 1. Some translations say “aliens” or “sojourners.” It is reminiscent of the Old Testament terminology for the people of God during their “sojourn” in Egypt. No one lives forever. We are born, we live 30 or 40 or 50 or 60 years. If we are strong and healthy and blessed by God, we may live to be 80 or even 90. Some people live to be 100. But it doesn’t matter how long you live because eventually everyone dies. We’re all terminal. The only difference is, some of us know it, and the rest of us act like we’re going to be here forever. This week a man came to me with tears in his eyes. He said he had gotten up at 5:00 a.m. to start writing his funeral plans. Although he is a relatively young man, because of some physical issues, he knows he may not live a normal lifespan. “I think God may take me home soon,” he said. So he wants to be ready if he should die in the next few weeks or months. Some people think that is odd behavior, but I don’t. We should all live with the day of our death placarded before us. If you live each day as if it might be your last, one day you will be right. Moses prayed, “Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12). And James 4:14 says, “What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.” That’s all life is—a bit of breath on a cold windowpane. I remember as a boy trying to write my name in the vapor before it disappeared. Just three letters—RAY—but usually I couldn’t do it fast enough.

What should we fear? Fear that you will waste your life on things that don’t really matter. Fear that you live for 50 or 80 or 100 years only to discover that you spent your brief life on trivialities that vanish before your eyes. Fear that you will be so preoccupied that when God calls, you won’t hear his voice.

Only one life, ’twill soon be past,

Only what’s done for Christ will last.

Gladys Aylward served as a missionary to China for many years. She had remarkable success sharing the gospel in western China. In 1940, she led 100 orphans across the mountains to protect them from the approaching Japanese army. Before her death in 1970, she looked back over her life and came to this conclusion:

I wasn’t God’s first choice for what I’ve done in China I don’t know who it was It must have been a man a well-educated man I don’t know what happened. Perhaps he died. Perhaps he wasn’t willing and God looked down saw Gladys Aylward And God said, “Well, she’s willing.”

Sometimes the difference between greatness and a wasted life is simply a willing heart. Life is short. Fear God. Fear being so busy with triviality that you are not willing to answer God’s call.

There is a second reason we are to fear God

II. He is our judge.

Verse 17 reminds us that we call on a Father who judges impartially. To call God our Father is a comfort. To say that he is our judge isn’t quite so comforting. Note the present tense. God is judging you and me at this very moment. And because he is God, he judges impartially. The word means without a mask. When God judges, he sees right through the little masks we put on to make ourselves look better to others. God isn’t fooled. And he judges us according to our works. That concept troubles some people. “Aren’t we saved by faith?” Yes, we are. We are saved by faith, but we are judged by our works. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that since you are saved by faith, your life doesn’t matter. During the last presidential debates, one of the candidates reminded us that faith without works is dead. He was quoting James 2:26. It was a good quote, and rightly used. Without faith it is impossible to please God (Hebrews 11:6), and the faith that pleases God will always produce a life of good works. As Christians, our works will be judged, not to determine our eternal destiny, but to determine our rewards in heaven. The sad part about that is that some people will discover in that day that they wasted their life on earth. Because they built with “wood, hay and stubble,” they will see their life burn up before them. Others will discover that because they built with “gold, silver and precious stones,” their life will stand the test of God’s fiery gaze at the Judgment Seat of Christ (see I Corinthians 3:11-15). No Christian will escape the searching gaze of the Lord Jesus Christ. All roads lead to the Judgment Seat of Christ.

What should we fear? We should fear living as though we don’t believe in God at all. When we give in to anger, rage, malice, greed or lust, we are living as if we don’t believe in God. When we turn to pornography to satisfy our lust, when we let hurtful words fly out of our mouth, when we defraud each other, when we seek revenge, when we lie about one another, when we forget the hurting people around us while hoarding up treasure for ourselves, when we have to be Number One and win every argument, every game, every competition, when we cannot lose gracefully and with dignity, we are living as if we don’t believe in God. When we complain about how persecuted we are, when we moan about how hard we have it, when we gossip about how easy someone else has it, we are living as if we don’t believe in God. At that moment, we are practical atheists even though we may go to church every Sunday.

In thinking about this principle, the words of a children’s song came to mind:

Oh, be careful little hands what you do.

Oh, be careful little hands what you do.

For the Father up above is looking down in love.

Oh, be careful little hands what you do.

Oh, be careful little feet where you go.

Oh, be careful little feet where you go.

For the Father up above is looking down in love.

Oh, be careful little feet where you go.

Oh, be careful little lips what you say.

Oh, be careful little lips what you say.

For the Father up above is looking down in love.

Oh, be careful little lips what you say.

Oh, be careful little eyes what you see.

Oh, be careful little eyes what you see.

For the Father up above is looking down in love.

Oh, be careful little eyes what you see.

Oh, be careful little ears what you hear.

Oh, be careful little ears what you hear.

For the Father up above is looking down in love.

Oh, be careful little ears what you hear.

I say this now to every person who reads my words. That song is for you. Pay attention to its message.

Be careful with your hands.

Be careful with your feet.

Be careful with your lips.

Be careful with your eyes.

Be careful with your ears.

Fear God! He is your judge.

III. The blood of Jesus is so precious.

When Peter says, “You were redeemed” in verse 18, he uses a word that means to set free by the payment of a price. The term comes from the slave markets of the first century. When Jesus died on the cross, his blood paid the price to set us free from the slave market of sin. Of all the words that believers give to Jesus Christ, none is more precious than the name Redeemer. We use other names more often, such as Lord and Savior. But no word touches the heart like the name Redeemer. It reminds us of what it cost him to save us from our sin. Redeemer is the name of Christ on the cross. We remember not only that he gave us salvation, but also that he paid a mighty price for it.

Jesus’ blood is more precious than money because money could never redeem us from sin (v. 18). No matter how much silver and gold we paid, we could never pay for even one of our sins. When I preached this on Sunday, I held up some dollar bills from my wallet and showed them to the congregation. I said that most people think that money is the most important thing in the world, but it doesn’t matter how much money you have when it comes to having your sins forgiven. I could have more money than Bill Gates and I still couldn’t forgive even one of my sins. Here’s what I noticed in all three services. As long as I held the money up, people couldn’t take their eyes off it. They looked at the money while they listened to me. Maybe they thought I was going to throw it on the floor. Finally I said, “I’m going to have to put this money away so I can finish my sermon.” That illustrates the incredible hold that money has on all of us. When I see a wad of bills, I can’t take my eyes off it either. That’s the way we’re wired. Money matters. But not when it comes to forgiving your sins. That’s Peter’s point. The blood of Jesus is far more precious than all the money in the world. His blood is like the blood of the Passover lamb, without spot or blemish. When the death angel saw the blood of the lamb applied to the doorposts in Egypt, he passed over that house and the firstborn was spared. In the same way, when the precious blood of Jesus is applied to your heart by faith, God’s judgment will “pass over” your life, and instead of being destroyed in hell, you will be spared. No amount of money could ever do that. Only the blood of Jesus could deliver us from hell, forgive our sins, and open heaven to us.

That “Damned” Church Sign

This week I happened to see a sermon fragment on this text by Joseph Parker, a London pastor who was a contemporary of Charles Spurgeon in the late 1800s. Speaking of the word “precious,” he said something like this: “An extreme condition demands an extreme remedy. Until you see that you are doomed and damned apart from Jesus Christ, you will never truly count his blood as precious in your sight.” I was struck by the word “damned.” That’s a harsh word to modern ears even though it is entirely biblical. We speak of being “condemned” nowadays, but not of being “damned.” The word sounds odd and ominous to our ears. That fact came home to me with great force this week when I read the Wednesday Journal, one of our local Oak Park newspapers. A woman wrote in to complain about a Scripture verse on the sign in front of Trinity Lutheran Church on Ridgeland Avenue in Oak Park. After listing the service times, the sign included the last part of Mark 16:16, “He That Believeth Not Shall Be Damned.” The woman was incensed that in a tolerant, socially liberal community like Oak Park, a church would put such a negative, divisive message on its sign. So she called the pastor to complain and to ask why he would put that message on his church sign. “Because it’s in the Bible,” he explained. That made things worse, not better, as far as the letter writer was concerned. He even told her that she and her family would be damned if they did not trust Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Can you imagine that? The woman was shocked. Shocked! She was further put off by the fact that the pastor didn’t apologize for offending her, and that he believes what the verse says is actually true. At the end of her letter, the woman asked what is “morally appropriate” to put on church signs in Oak Park. Then she asked for other religious leaders to write in with a comment. I should add that the Wednesday Journal included a picture of the church sign (the letter and picture appear on page 35 of the October 20, 2004 issue) with the letter. Since I am a “religious leader,” I decided to write a letter in response. I said I thought it would be wonderful if every church in Oak Park publicly stated its true beliefs so that we all know where everyone stands. A few weeks ago, we put up a banner for the “God Speaks Today” series. The Unity Temple put up a banner expressing a different point of view. The First United Church puts up banners. I congratulated our brothers and sisters at Trinity Lutheran Church for boldly proclaiming God’s truth. As for what is “morally appropriate” to put on a church sign, I can’t think of anything more “morally appropriate” than the Word of God.

Let me add one or two other thoughts and we will move on.

As shocking as it is to see the word “damned” on a church sign, it will be far more shocking to actually be damned.

As troubling as it may be to think of the fires of hell, it will be far worse to enter those fires for eternity.

As sad as it may be to speak of being condemned by God, it will be far worse to suffer eternal condemnation.

The sign may shock us, but a good shock may be just what we need to attend to our eternal souls. We will all live forever somewhere. Heaven and hell are the only two ultimate destinations. Better to be shocked now if that will prevent us from being shocked later.

In that light we can understand the words of Joseph Parker much better. To the degree that we remember that we were doomed and damned apart from Jesus, to that same degree will we count his blood as precious. If the blood of Jesus is not precious to you, either you are not saved or you have forgotten how hopelessly lost you were. A good memory of your past will help you love Jesus and count his blood as precious to you.

When I survey the wondrous cross,

On which the Prince of Glory died.

My richest gain, I count but loss,

And pour contempt on all my pride.

Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast,

Save in the death of Christ my God.

All the vain things that charm me most,

I sacrifice them to his blood.

Planned Before Creation

How far is God willing to go in order to save us? Verses 20-21 answer that question for us: “He was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake. Through him you believe in God, who raised him from the dead and glorified him, and so your faith and hope are in God.” First, God planned our salvation before he created the world. Some people think that when Adam and Eve sinned, God said, “Oops! I didn’t see that coming,” as if the coming of Christ was an afterthought in God’s plan. The opposite is true. Before the universe was created, God knew that he was going to create Adam and Eve. He knew they were going to sin and bring ruin and destruction to the world. And in the councils of eternity, the Father said the Son, “You must go to the earth to save them from their sins.” Redemption was on God’s heart long before sin entered the world. As Spurgeon said, while the universe lay in the mind of God like a forest of oaks in the cup of an acorn, God purposed to send his Son. Second, he revealed his plan of salvation when Jesus came to the world. Peter uses the term “these last days.” For thousands of years, people waited for him to come. Generations lived and died. Fathers told their sons, “He’s coming. The Messiah is coming.” But we who live in the biblical last days are privileged to experience what the ancients only wondered about. What started before the world was formed now has been manifest in the death of Christ!

Third, he applied his plan of salvation to us. Verse 21 says “you believe in God” and “your faith and hope are in God.” What a privilege we have. Through Jesus Christ we have a relationship with God. We know him personally and intimately. What an astonishing thing to say. Can anyone truly say, “I know God” and not be boasting? Yes. If we are not astonished by that, it’s because we take it too much for granted.

God planned our salvation from first to last. He planned it, revealed it, and applied it to us so that our faith and hope are in God alone. He did it this way so that he alone gets the glory. Please understand this truth. Let it soak into your heart.

We didn’t vote on Jesus. He’s not running for the office of Savior. God chose his Son to be our Savior. Jesus won our redemption at the cost of his precious blood.

So now we come to the end of the message. I started out talking about living in the fear of God. Maybe you think I’ve gotten off track. But I don’t think so. All the practical things about how we should live are tied directly to what we believe about God and his Son. And the more firmly we believe them, the more likely we are to take God seriously. If you want the whole message in one sentence, here it is: Holy living is motivated by a godly fear that does not take lightly what was purchased at so great a cost.

Here is the whole passage, plainly stated:

We are here so briefly Fear God!

We are judged so completely Fear God!

We are loved so deeply Fear God!

I close with the words of C. T. Studd, veteran missionary, “If Christ be God and died for me, then no sacrifice is too great for me to make for him.” Amen.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?