What is the fear of God in a God-Fearer?

I recently heard a story about a large international company conducting job interviews in a remote area specific to one of their projects. When local interviewees were asked about their goals in life, some replied, “I want to be a God-fearing Christian.” Missionaries are active in the region and, as is often the case, the Christians there are open and uninhibited about their devotion to Christ. In the secular world, their response to the question seems oddly out-of-place for two reasons. First, those who are unfamiliar with Christian rhetoric most likely do not interpret this statement correctly. They may think, ‘this person wants to be afraid of God? What kind of goal is that?” Secondly, would you make that statement in a job interview? I hate to admit it but I doubt that I would.

God-fearer – the nuances of the term can make the meaning confusing. What exactly is this fear of God – in a God-fearer? No doubt it can mean terror or dread in the face of God’s wrath, but perhaps the best sense of the biblical idea of the fear of God is “a genuine faith expressed in, and animated by, a reverential awe.”[1] The fear of God inspires honor and praise from David (Psalm 22:23); it prolongs life (Proverbs 10:27) and is the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 9:10). Mary proclaims the generational effect of His mercies on those who fear Him (Luke 1:50); it is a source of joy (Psalm 2:11) and a fountain of life (Proverbs 14:27).  But most importantly, the fear of God can also lead one to salvation.

Remains of the Aqueduct leading to what was the beautiful city Caesarea on the Mediterranean, Israel. Photograph-Shirley Ralston, June, 2009

Probably the most well known story of a God-fearer in the scriptures is that of Cornelius in Acts 10. Cornelius was a Roman Centurion stationed in beautiful Caesarea. He was a leader of men (some scholars say as many as 6,000 soldiers were under his command); he was powerful, influential, and a devoutly religious God-fearer. What an unlikely combination. A Gentile soldier, a Roman, who prayed continually and gave alms, drawn to the monotheistic God of the Jews! Cornelius’ receptiveness to the natural revelation described in Romans 1:20 made him ripe for God to use him and ultimately he and his entire household were saved. He and Peter are participants in yet another double vision event (remember Ananias and Saul in Acts 9?). God gives them both visions that culminate in the revelation that salvation is also for the Gentiles. This episode hints at the explosion of faith that lay ahead because of the continued spread of the Gospel through The Way.

A turning point in the Jesus movement, Peter baptizes the Roman centurion Cornelius, the first non-Jewish Christian, in Jerusalem (Acts 10), as shown in one of five baptism scenes on a 12th-century baptismal font in St. Bartholomew’s Church in Liège, Belgium. Image: Jean-Pol Grandmont.
http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/biblical-topics/new-testament/the-origin-of-christianity/

In Acts 9 we learned about an ordinary man (Ananias) and a murdering religious zealot (Saul), who were both used by God to change the course of human history. In Acts 10 we learn about a powerful Roman soldier and an impulsive fisherman chosen to spread the Gospel to the world. They were all God-fearers, each responding to the awesomeness of the Almighty. It was the number one thing in all their lives and they didn’t care who knew. And today, there are guys interviewing for jobs in one of the most remote regions of the world whose goal in life is to be a God-fearing Christian! They are the spiritual bounty of the spread of the gospel to Judea, Samaria and the ends of the earth. Amazing!

Lord, show us how to hold you in such reverential awe that we are bold witnesses of your glory. Give us the courage to fear God, not man. Amen.


[1] Elwell, W. A., & Comfort, P. W. (2001). Tyndale Bible dictionary. Tyndale reference library (479–480). Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers.

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