The Most Common Fear In The Bible

I love horror movies. My wife … not so much.

When my wife was elementary school age, her brother was assigned to take her to the movie theater to see cute little orphan Annie singing about the sun coming out tomorrow. Instead, her brother took her to see Poltergeist … Because taking your little sister to see a movie about demonic attacks on children is a fantastic idea. To this day, my wife is deathly afraid of horror movies. She also goes full out Jean-Claude Van Damme on any spider that dares infiltrate the house, but that’s another phobia altogether.

When I was a kid, my fear was the monster that I was convinced was hiding in the closet. Every night when I went to my bedroom, I’d burrow down under the covers and hide … Because certainly a thin layer of sheets would shield me from a slobbering, buck-ugly, child-kidnapping beast. Today, I no longer crouch in fear of imaginary creatures … Instead, I’m pant-wettingly afraid of climbing extension ladders.

Before you start chortling too hard at my fear of ladders, may I point out that you’ve certainly got your own fears too? Just watching the evening news is enough to induce any number of phobias, ranging from train derailments to suicidal airline pilots to ebola. In 2014, Chapman University conducted a large-scale study on personal fears, determining that the top five personal fears that Americans have are: (1) Walking alone at night; (2) Identity theft; (3) Internet security; (4) Mass shootings; and (5) Public speaking. The same survey determined that 8.9% of Americans are scared of zombies … 7.6% are scared of clowns … 7.3% are scared of ghosts. And many of our fears today are driven by – you guessed – television shows. Thanks The Walking Dead.

But there’s one fear that every single person throughout history has shared in common: The fear of people.

When we speak of the term “fear,” we typically think about nightmarish creatures and blinding anxieties that make us shudder and break out in a cold sweat … Like something out of Poltergeist or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre … Like zombies, clowns, ghosts and cannibals (oh my!). The fear of people is far more subtle and insidious. Simply put, the fear of people really means worshiping people instead of God. If we allow people to control us … If we functionally “need” other people … If we constantly compare ourselves to others … If we crave the respect of other people, we are actually worshiping them. In professional circles, this fear is rationalized as “self esteem” or “co-dependency.” In High School, our guidance counselors label this fear as “peer pressure,” and we unwittingly believe that we grow out of that pressure when someone hands us a diploma. Instead, that fear in adulthood simply takes other guileful faces that are often socially acceptable: Demanding respect … Professional jealousy … Habitual anger … White lies to protect our image … Hiding in our homes while cuddling up with a Snuggie, Papa Johns and Netflix while hoping the whole world fades away. The narcissism of social media only exacerbates our fear of people as we’re constantly checking our smart phones for the number of Facebook “likes” and Twitter “re-tweets” on our accounts. The fear of people is the monster with a million heads. Before you know it, you’re throwing a metal folding chair after hearing the results of a paternity test on the Maury show.

The most common fear observed in the Bible is the fear of people. Although God exhorts His people to fear the One who spoke the world into existence and parted the Red Sea, His people always seem to cower like a cornered rabbit before mere lowly people. In fact, the most of the Old Testament patriarchs and prophets gave in to the fear of people in one form or another:

  • After the cold-blooded murder of his brother, Cain was more afraid of the judgment of people than God (Genesis 4).
  • When Abraham sojourned in another country, he passed off his wife as his sister for fear that people would kill him to take his wife (Genesis 12:10-20). Abraham did this twice and somehow remained un-divorced afterwards (Genesis 20).
  • Lot was afraid of his nightmarish sodomy-obsessed neighbors and offered up his own daughters to be raped, molested and deflowered (Genesis 19).
  • Isaac repeated the fearful mistake of his father, Abraham, by passing off his wife as his sister (Genesis 26).
  • Jacob twice tricked his brother Esau and fled in fear of Esau’s death threats (Genesis 27). Then Jacob flees his uncle Laban’s household for fear of Laban taking Jacob’s wives back (Genesis 31:31). When Jacob returned to his homeland years later, he was still in deathly fear of his brother (Genesis 32:11).

And that’s just the book of Genesis, folks. Most of the patriarchs and prophets – particularly Moses and Elijah – had moments where the fear of people brought them crumbling to their knees. The conflict of whether to fear God or men might be the most common conflict of the Bible.

Just like the patriarchs and prophets, the church and its leadership is no stranger to falsely (and often unwittingly)fearing people instead of God. In terms of pastoral ministry (or any church member’s personal ministry), the fear of people can be a crippling issue that takes a variety of forms in the church:

  • When no one is willing to dethrone the reigning dictatorial church bully …
  • When exceptionally talented or extremely generous church members remain un-confronted over spectacular sins (“What would we do without them?”) …
  • When churches won’t kill sacred cows of church programs …
  • When “not making waves” is loved more than Biblical convictions …
  • When “it’s always been done that way” is the church’s central core value …

As a pastor, I’m guilty of committing all of these sins in one form or another … And likely much more. One common pastoral joke hits the “fear of people” nail on the head: “My church would be a great place to work if it weren’t for all the people.”

In my Seminary’s Pastoral Ministry class, I was assigned to read Ed Welch’s book on the “fear of people” entitled When People Are Big And God is Small. Frankly, I skimmed through the book, thinking “I’m not afraid of people … This book is going to be fairly worthless to me.” After all, I’d come out of working in the local government, which essentially consisted of listening to folks complain 24 / 7. Nope … no fear of people here.

I wished I’d paid more attention.

Case in point: During the course of my ministry, I’ve come to hate Mothers’ Day. Not that I hate mamas … I hate all of the complaining. Around Mothers’ Day every year, the blogosphere and church pews turn into a virtual complaint-fest about who is being insensitive to whom. The childless and the single complain that Mothers’ Day is disrespectful to them, and churches should be more compassionate. Those whose mothers are deceased wax sentimental about the difficult feelings of the day. The “restless and Reformed” crowd complain that Mothers’ Day isn’t Christ-centered and shouldn’t be celebrated at all. So how does a pastor respond to all of these competing voices? Last year, I tried to be sensitive to the childless and the single in my church, and didn’t make much ado about Mothers’ Day … Which led to a truckload of extremely nasty complaints from most of the moms and grandmoms. Even more painful, several families actually left the church as a result. So I dreaded what to do for Mothers Day this year. Certainly my decision was going to torque off somebody.

After prayer and deliberation, I came to the following simple and satisfying conclusion about Mothers Day: Who cares what people think?!? Be more concerned about honoring God than people. As long as I honor God and stay faithful to His calling, the complaints don’t matter. Keep in mind, I’m not trying to say that churches should be intentionally insensitive to the plight of the motherless and the childless … I’m saying that honoring God is more important than what people think … Or how much people complain … Or whether someone gossips about the pastor … Or even whether someone else quits the church as a result. If I’m basing my decision-making on how much people complain, I’m shepherding Christ’s church totally wrong.

Unfortunately, the pastor’s problem with the “fear of people” doesn’t just end with the conviction of church leadership: Our churches have been Petri dishes breeding the “fear of people.” In pastoral circles, we know this phenomenon by another name: Consumerism. Many of our church cultures have grown into grotesque Frankensteins, where members are trained that they are the ones calling the shots. He who complains loudest typically gets their way. And if church members don’t “get their way,” they’ll hold the church hostage by withholding their offerings or their attendance. Or they’ll just jump ship to other church where leadership will cow-tow to their megalomania. Whether by passive aggressiveness or by just plain old aggressiveness, many churches are drowning slowly under the weight of the fear of people.

I recently found some encouragement on the subject of the fear of people while doing sermon prep in the book of Jeremiah. When God called the prophet Jeremiah to prophecy to the nation of Judah, Jeremiah’s initial response was: “Behold, I do not know how to speak, for I am only a youth” (Jeremiah 1:6). Jeremiah politely declined God’s request: “Deuces! I’m out!” But God’s response to Jeremiah is fascinating. You see, Jeremiah isn’t really concerned with his public speaking prowess or his age … He’s afraid of how people will react. So God sees Jeremiah’s heart and responds directly to his fear: “Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you” (Jeremiah 1:8). After this moment, Jeremiah would go on to speak on God’s behalf to the nation of Judah for 40 years. The messages that God laid on Jeremiah to preach were bold, counter-cultural, condemning and devastating. No one listened or repented. Jeremiah was rejected by friends, neighbors and family (Jeremiah 12:6, 20:10, 26:8). False teachers laughed off his message (Jeremiah 28:1-17). He was held captive in prisons and cisterns (Jeremiah 37-38). Often, Jeremiah was incredibly depressed with only God to lean on. Every time Jeremiah doubted, God responded with the same comforting words from His initial calling: “I am with you to save you and deliver you” (Jeremiah 15:20).

Through Jeremiah’s life and ministry, God’s encouragement to pastoral ministry is thus: If God called us, He won’t abandon us. And nothing can separate us from the deliverance and hope that we find in Christ. No matter how hard the soil or how thorny the ground, God has called us to work His field for a purpose. We might face a situation similar to Jeremiah or (a more modern example) William Carey, where we have scant few real tangible evidences of “progress.” But as long as we are faithful to His calling, we can trust that He won’t abandon us where He sent us.

Ultimately, we must learn to fear God more than people. When Jesus sends out His disciples in Matthew 10:28, He speaks to them about the fear of people: “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.” As we are similarly sent out to serve in Christ’s kingdom, we might face the occasional mean and persnickety church member who seems to have perpetually woken up on the wrong side of the bed. Or the deacon who seems to think you’re total nincompoop, who can’t do anything right. Or the incessant complainers that make us want to cover our ears and sing “la-la-la-la-la-la.” Or the self-righteous critics who manipulatively dance like Salome to have our figurative heads on a platter. At the end of the day (literally), we don’t answer to any of them. We find ourselves accountable to the One who called us out of darkness and into His glorious light. No matter what people think, our Father in Heaven loves us and hold incomparably more power and majesty than any mustache twirling enemy.

So find hope friends: If our God is for us, who can be against us?

Yes, even deacons.

 

* This post leans heavily on Ed Welch’s awesome book When People Are Big And God Is Small. I highly recommend that you pick up a copy.

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613: Do Christians Need To Follow The Old Testament Law?

chainsDo you eat bacon?

I love bacon. I have the collection of bacon t-shirts to prove it. After my heart attack, I wore a bacon t-shirt to my cardiologist appointment as an open protest.

So as a Bible-believing Evangelical, why do I bother to eat bacon when Leviticus 11:4, 7 commands: “Nevertheless these you shall not eat . . . the swine, though it divides the hoof, having cloven hooves, yet does not chew the cud, is unclean to you.” It would appear that the Bible says no to sweet swine meat. So I am consigned to an eternity in fiery condemnation for willfully violating the Old Testament commands? I mean – I’m not going to stop eating bacon regardless of my cardiologist’s absurd musings.

Everyday, Christians seem to ignore a bushel of blatant Old Testament commands:

When is the last time that you stoned an adulterer? Consider Leviticus 20:10.

Why are you wearing clothes with mixed fibers? See Deuteronomy 22:11.

Have you sat where a menstruating woman has previously sat? If you’re adhering to Leviticus 15:20, you probably shouldn’t.

For many casual Christians, this topic is often a hugely confusing stumbling block to meaningfully interacting with the Bible. For many atheists and agnostics, Christians’ ignorance of the Law represents a log-filled eye of hypocrisy. If Christians are nutty enough to take the Bible literally as THE Word of God, then it seems to be highly hypocritical for Christians to virtually ignore the seemingly archaic Levitical laws. Aren’t Christians just picking and choosing what seems good and practical to obey and sweeping the embarrassing stuff under the carpet?

Back in 2007, Esquire Magazine writer A.J. Jacobs embarked on a year-long journey to be obedient to every single command in the Bible. As a self-described agnostic Jew, Jacobs approached the challenge with fairly unbiased eyes. In the best-seller that he wrote based on this experience (The Year of Living Biblically), Jacobs concludes the following about the Bible’s commands: “The year showed me beyond a doubt that everyone practices cafeteria religion… But the important lesson was this: there’s nothing wrong with choosing. Cafeterias aren’t bad per se… the key is in choosing the right dishes. You need to pick the nurturing ones (compassion), the healthy ones (love thy neighbor), not the bitter ones.” Jacobs comes to the same conclusion that many uninitiated to Christianity believe: Christians pick and choose.

But the widely held notion that Christians pick and choose betrays an ignorance of the New Testament. Christ and the apostles have given us a framework for the interpretation of the Old Testament, and Christians cling to that framework. The New Testament is largely a commentary on how to interpret the Old Testament.

When we speak of the capital “L” “Law” as the New Testament speaks, we are referring to the revelation God gave to and the covenant God made through the prophet Moses (Matthew 5:17; Luke 24:44). As part of that covenant, the prescriptions and prohibitions that God gave to the Moses and the Exodus generation of Israelites are recorded in the books of Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers. Deuteronomy represents a second giving (or reinforcement) of these covenant requirements as given to a new generation of Israelites. Although the New Testament refers to “Law” in the singular, the “Law” is technically comprised of 613 unique commands that God gave to the Israelites to follow. The commands of the Law represent the terms and conditions of the special covenant (think: contractual) relationship between God and His chosen people, the Israelites. These commands range from the famous (10 Commandments) to the infamous (the aforementioned Leviticus 20:13).

Fast forwarding thousands of years to New Testament times, the Law was so revered that an exhaustive system of oral laws had been developed by fanatical rabbis and zealous Pharisees to protect and “build a hedge around” the Law. In essence, more man-made commands and principles were created to bubble wrap the ones that God had already given. The protecting God’s commands had become an OCD-like obsession. According to Jesus, the Pharisees apparently went to incredulous extremes, such as tithing (or giving 10%) of their spice racks and straining gnats out of their drinks (Matthew 23).

Now, 613 is a huge number of commands. Add thousands more oral laws to protect the original 613 commands. I can hardly remember to take my blood pressure meds in the morning, so I’m pretty sure that I’d be a colossal failure at remembering (much less breaking) all 613 commands. Except for the one about not boiling a goat in its mother’s milk (Deuteronomy 14:21). Pretty sure I don’t have the butchering expertise (or the milk from a goat’s baby momma) to carry that one out.

After the resurrection of Christ, the debate over the Law was THE most controversial argument that dominated the life of the apostolic church. Through the persecution of the church, Christianity quickly began to spread from majority Jewish Jerusalem to non-Jewish (a/k/a Gentile) regions, such as the Samaria (Acts 8:27), Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch (Acts 11:19). Then, missionaries were sent forth from the Antioch church to intentionally spread the Gospel message of Jesus northward to Galatia (modern day Turkey). As Christianity spread like wildfire, a faction of Christians – called the “circumcision party” (think: political party and not fiesta) – also grew, arguing that all Christians – including Gentiles – must be circumcised and follow the Law to be saved (Acts 15:1). After all, God’s covenant people had been getting circumcised, following dietary laws, practicing religious festivals and all of the 613 commands of the Law for thousands of years. It’s always been done that way.

In light of brewing controversy in the church body, the leadership of the church came together to settle the controversy at what is called the “Apostolic Council,” recorded in Acts 15. Among the opponents of the circumcision party were some unlikely advocates. A converted Pharisee turned missionary named Paul recounted to the Council about the miraculous work that God had been doing amongst the Gentiles (Acts 15:12). In addition, the Jewish apostle Peter made critical arguments opposing the circumcision party:

Brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith. Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will. – Acts 15:7-11

At the core of Peter’s argument lies the sovereignty of God. By the time of the Apostolic Council, God has already done a miraculous work amongst the Gentiles, and has given the Holy Spirit as evidence of that work. And none of these Gentiles are faithfully adhering to the Law. So do the gathered apostles challenge or tweak what God is already doing by telling him: “Hey God! You’re saving people all the wrong way! They’ve got to follow the Law first, right?!?” If God is saving Gentiles apart from following the Law, certainly man has no place in telling God that He’s wrong. God is God after all. In addition, Peter questions the need to burden Gentile Christians with 613 commands that Jews have never been able to follow. The prophetic books of the Old Testament are “Exhibit A” that Israel could not obey the Law as God’s covenant people.

In essence, Peter argues two of the central themes of the New Testament: (a) No one has ever perfectly complied with the Law; and (b) All believers – both Jew and Gentile – are saved by God’s grace and not by the impossible task of obedience to the Law. The Law was given to Israel and Believers are now under Christ’s “new covenant” of grace and love. The corpus of the New Testament reiterates these points over and over:

  • For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. – Romans 3:20
  • For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace. – Romans 6:14
  • Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God. – Romans 7:4
  • There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. – Romans 8:1-2
  • For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes. – Romans 10:4
  • Yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified. – Galatians 2:16
  • For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. – Galatians 2:19
  • But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. – Galatians 5:18
  • For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, – Ephesians 2:8

So does that mean that Christians just should ignore the 1st five books of the Bible? In Read The Bible For Life, Old Testament scholar J. Daniel Hayes answers that question this way:

As the New Testament makes clear, we should acknowledge that we are no longer under the Mosaic Covenant. Therefore, although the books of Exodus through Deuteronomy are still Scripture (God’s powerful, inerrant and infallible Word to us, to which we are to respond in obedience), they are no longer law for us. If someone breaks one of the laws today, they are no longer punished by the community as they were in ancient Israel. Thus we should read and apply the Old Testament legal material not as direct law but in a similar manner to how we would read the Old Testament narratives (stories) that contain the law. We need to understand the principles in the passages we are reading. What do they teach us about God? What do they teach us about human nature? What guidelines do we find here that can help us live for the Lord in the world today?***

Too many of the finger-waggling and mocking militant atheist crowd try to brand Christians as hypocrites by – quite correctly – pointing out that Christians don’t follow the Old Testament Law. Thank you, Captain Obvious … Of course we don’t. Following the Law is a fruitless exercise. No one has ever perfectly complied with the Law. No has ever earned favor with God by following the Law. Christ has set believers free from the burden of attempting to please God through the Law. That’s the central theme of the New Testament.

Perhaps here’s a better question for those same hate-fueled atheists: Do you think that you could be fully obedient all 613 commands of the Law?

Or better yet: If the 613 commands are God’s measuring stick of what it means to be “good,” how could anyone possibly please God by their actions?

That’s why we need God’s grace and forgiveness. In spite of our abject inability to please God or follow His commands, He still loves us with a furious and boundless love (Romans 5:8). He forgives our failures, our fake-outs, our rebellions and our sins. He adopts weak, broken and repentant people as his beloved children with a glorious eternal inheritance. Because of God’s forgiveness expressed on the cross of Christ, a great exchange takes place between what we deserve for our rebellion and the gracious treasure of forgiveness that we receive from God. The grace of God through the work of Christ and the empowerment of the Spirit enables and empowers us to love and become obedient to God.

For the believer, God’s 613 commands should remind us of the thousands of reasons and ways that God has forgiven us. The capital “L” Law should remind the believer that we are now under a new law of Christ’s love. The number 613 should drive us to our knees in thankfulness that God is merciful, gracious and forgiving. The number 613 is the ghostly reminder of a prison cell that we no longer call home. The number 613 point us to the one Savior sent to us free.

Praise God because the number 613 no longer has any power over me.

*** George Guthrie’s Read The Bible For Life is a fantastic introductory book to the interpretation of the Bible, and I highly recommend it for any level of experience with Christianity.