Luke 12:1-7 (AD 29)
The Bible contains a number of conundrums. Some, like today’s ‘Fear/Don’t fear’ involve living with the tension between apparently irreconcilable concepts. We need to embrace the tension between those concepts where God presents us with both, and not be tempted to throw one away in favour of the other.
What do you think when you read these words of Jesus to his own disciples:
“Fear him, who…has [the] authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him…Don’t be afraid; you are worth many sparrows” (v.5-7).
Jesus had just pronounced some woes on the Pharisees and other religious leaders. He said – among other things – that they “negelect[ed] justice and the love of God…love the most important seats in the synagogue …load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and…will not lift one finger to help them…have taken away the key to knowledge…have not entered, and…have hindered those who were entering” (Luke 11:42-53).
They were already plotting to have Jesus killed, and after this they “began to oppose him fiercely” (11:53). It didn’t take great incite to realise that the visceral, murderous hatred they felt for Jesus was VERY bad news for the physical health of all Jesus’ followers, and the disciples were understandably very nervous about it.
Today’s reading (which starts, “Meanwhile”) segues directly from that. The religious leaders could kill you, but don’t be afraid of them; be afraid of God, who can do way worse than that: cast you into hell.
So, was Jesus threatening the disciples with death? No. The wider context of the Bible says that we are to know we are saved, rather than merely being optimistic about it (e.g. 1 John 5:13).
And the immediate context of the passage is of Jesus reassuring, not threatening them (e.g. v.11).
So there’s a reassurance, there’s a contrast between the disciples’ fate and that of the Pharisees…and yet he still said the disciples should “fear” God. With more straightforward language Jesus could have said that the Pharisees should be afraid, but the disciples should be reassured, if that’s all he meant, but he didn’t mean that. He meant that they – and you – should be reassured AND afraid.
Growing up, I was afraid of my Dad. I knew that I couldn’t mess with him, and that his punishment would hurt. But I also knew that he was just, that he loved me, and that he only wanted what was best for me. And when I was in unfamiliar or intimidating places I felt secure knowing that he was with me, because I figured other people wouldn’t mess with him either. Walking through Dad-hood myself, I have tried to be worthy of respectful fear, but equally or more to be even-tempered and constantly giving the kind of love and compassion that meant my kids would want to be around me and trusted my love for them. Of course, it didn’t and doesn’t always work out like that, but that’s what I was aiming for.
I am afraid of God because he has a power and vastness I can’t comprehend, and has the power and authority to send me to hell. This is a useful fear because it reminds me not to be blasé or complacent about his mercy to me. It gives me cause to praise him because of his awesome power and relentless justice.
But at the same time I am also completely reassured by God’s love for me and I feel totally safe with him. I know for a fact that he is actively preparing a place for me – with Him – in heaven. The closer I am to God the safer I feel, because I know that he loves me and only wants what’s best for me.
It’s tempting to run from the idea of God being holy and punishing sin because we can’t reconcile it with our ideas about his love. Or we prefer a distant relationship with a holy God because the love part doesn’t seem to fit with our ideas of holiness (ref: the Pharisees). But your safety and security is bound up equally in God’s holiness as in his love. He is both of those things, we need to him to be both those things, and only by clinging on to God’s holiness and his love do we have access to the joy, safety and comfort that can be ours.