Is the Primary Meaning of the Word “Fear” in the Bible “Reverence”? Absolutely Not!

In minimizing the effect of the phrase, “the fear of the Lord” (Prov.1:7; 9:10), many have said “fear” in the Bible (“yirah” in Hebrew and “phobeo” in Greek) simply means “reverence” (i.e. deep respect). Unfortunately, what they don’t tell you is that it is only partial truth! They also don’t tell you that the Hebrew word “yirah” means fear, exceeding fear and dreadfulness 100% of the time. And its root word “yare” means fear, afraid and dreadful 99% of the time, that means, it is to be understood as reverence only 1% of the time. Likewise, the Greek word “phobeo” in Mt.10:28 and its root word “phobos” are used 87% of the time as fear or terrifying fear. Again, reverence is rarely its meaning.

What does this mean to us then to fear God (which is what Christians are to do)? While God is indeed our friend, comforter, lover of our souls, gracious Father, good good Father, etc., we must not neglect the fact that He is holy, righteous and to be feared! That means on a daily basis that before I consider sinning against God in any way, whether it is not doing what I’m supposed to do (such as obeying God to serve Him and His people, proclaiming the gospel and making disciples) or doing what I’m not supposed to do (such as indulging in sinful desires, material things and all kinds of worldliness), I must not only tell myself not to sin because He loves me and I love Him, but ALSO to tell myself I must not sin against God because He is to be feared! As Jesus said in Mt.10:28, “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” Yes, we should fear deliberate continuous sinning that leads to eternal death (Heb.10:26,27) – and that is not a bad motivation not to sin, really. (This is not unlike our fear of fines, penalties and jail-time for committing crimes.) As Christians, we must not only love God but fear Him too. And as the author of Prov.1 wisely said, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.” – Prov.1:7. Additional note: With the many worship songs written by so many world-class Christian songwriters today, when was the last time you heard or sang a new song about the fear of the Lord?

To add a story to highlight what fear of the Lord meant to a mentor of mine (Sister Esther) back in the 80s. We were at a church prayer meeting praying for an important outreach event. At the end of the meeting, someone suggested synchronized prayer at 10pm every night from wherever we were until the day of the outreach. Everyone agreed readily and passionately, but suddenly Sister Esther spoke up in Mandarin (she’s mainly Mandarin speaking though she spoke English too). She said she could pray every night at 10pm except for Monday (if I remember correctly) because she had a weekly meeting on Mondays and won’t be home till after 10pm (she preferred to pray when she got home properly and for a prolonged period of time instead of a short prayer in the bus), thus she was unable to commit to 10pm synchronized prayer for Monday night, and she said, “我不敢“, which means “I dare not”. So we all said ok and agreed to change Mondays nights to 10.30pm instead. Then, Sister Esther smiled and said ok. I have never forgotten what I felt in my heart and the expression on Sister Esther’s face when she said, “我不敢”. I felt a strong sense of awe, fear of God and terror, while it was disturbing yet it wasn’t disturbing in a bad way, but made me feel like I want to be holy because God is holy. Sister Esther had unwittingly demonstrated what the fear of the Lord meant to all of us in that room. Holiness filled that room.