Gold Coast Bereans

Out of Ghana, West Africa; Christian hearts and critical minds seeking, speaking and writing the truth with love. This is a conversation of a group of friends, now living in the USA and the UK, who have known each other for more than 20 years.

Saturday, September 30, 2006

Discipleship and the Fear of God, Part I

In the next couple of weeks I will be posting a series of devotions shared with me by Annang, my dear brother in the Lord who lives in the United Kingdom. Coincidentally, I am reading the book DISCIPLESHIP by David Watson and I plan to share some thoughts from it at a later time.

The Role of Fear in Disciple-Making, by Annang

In Acts 5:1-16, Luke the writer takes pains on three occasions to stress that the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira resulted in an experience of great fear and dread upon all those who saw and heard of the events (Acts 5:5, 11 &13). It is as if to emphasize that his main point for recording the incident was to highlight the fear, indeed the great fear, that seized the people.

Was this fear a good thing? Did it play any role in the phenomenal growth of the early church? More pointedly, is fear necessary for discipleship today? If it is, what sort of fear is this? What are its characteristics, and how do we inculcate it in our churches? There are so many things people fear these days: fear of death, of diseases, of poverty, of accidents, of failing examinations, of infertilty, loneliness and even of the unknown. This kind of fear is often negative, irrational, destructive, unhelpful and demoralizing.

The Bible in many places emphasizes the devastating effects of this negative fear, both to our faith and our relationships with others. When the twelve spies went to survey the Promised Land on behalf of God’s people, it was their fear of the giant Anakims of the land that crippled them to the point that they felt like grasshoppers in their own eyes (Num 13:33 &14:9). The myths and superstitious stories about these giants crowded out their confidence in God’s Word and paralyzed their faith to the point of their rebelling against the Word of the living God and so they forfeited the rest that He had prepared for them in the land of plenty.

The Devil is often behind this type of destructive and paralyzing fear and uses it as a tool to enslave humanity (Heb 2:15). This is why Paul teaches in Rom 8:15 that at our conversion, we received the Spirit of sonship who liberates us from “the spirit that makes you a slave again to fear”. He therefore reminded Timothy, “God has not given us the spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind” (2 Tim 1:7 MKJV). John, in his first epistle, equally stresses that our redemption should be evidenced by love for God and the brethren. The presence of this love in our lives “casts out all fear” (1Jn 4:18). Love gives us the boldness and confidence that takes away the fear of eternal punishment.

There is however, another type of fear in the Bible; a fear that builds up, strengthens, fortifies and emboldens people. It is a constructive, enriching, character-building and edifying fear. Modern Christians tend to call this type of fear, not fear at all, but rather reverence, awe, wonder or even respect. Unfortunately because modern sensibilities have become dull, such words do not carry the full weight of the meaning of the biblical expression, “fear”. It is better therefore for our purposes to call it as the Bible calls it – fear.

The Bible in some places brings the two types of fear together in interesting ways. In Ex 20:20 for example, Moses tells the Israelites “Do not be afraid. God has come to test you, so that the fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning”. At the same time that Moses discourages them from the destructive fear that takes away boldness and confidence before God, he also
encourages them to cultivate a constructive fear that keeps them from sinning. The one fear is fuelled by guilt and leads to destruction; the other fear is fuelled by faith and confidence in God and leads to holiness and glory.

Isaiah similarly exhorted the frightened people of Israel who were about to be captured and taken into captivity by the Babylonians, “do not fear what they fear, and do not dread it. The LORD Almighty is the one you are to regard as holy, he is the one you are to fear, he is the one you are to dread” (Is 8:12-13). The Lord Jesus says a similar thing to His disciples: “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who
can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Mat 10:28). This fear Jesus talks about builds and shapes disciples for His Kingdom.

The writer of Hebrews calls it “godly fear” (Heb 12:28) because it is essentially the fear of God and the fear that flows from God. What then are the characteristics and the consequences of this godly fear and how do we cultivate it among the churches? What are the results of godly fear?
In the Ananias and Sapphira incident we notice that several benefits resulted from the great fear that seized the congregation.

Firstly there was the release of the power of God among them. Resulting from the great fear, “the apostles performed many miraculous signs and wonders among the people” (Acts 5:12). The power of God that was released was so intense that even Peter’s handkerchief and shadow became sources of healing for the sick. Somehow, and some may say paradoxically, the fear of God produces an intense dependence on and faith in Him to the point that His power is released without measure among His people. Where people really fear God, they tend to know His presence. And from His presence flows His transformative power among His people. On the other hand, where churches disregard and ignore His presence among them and cease to fear Him, His power is diminished and absent in their fellowship meetings.


Secondly, the fear that seized the early church resulted in the unity of the saints (Acts 5:12). If the incident had happened in some of today’s churches, it would most likely have resulted in uprisings, defections and divisions. Some in the congregation would have regarded the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira as harsh and cruel. Some would have even protested about Peter’s “highhanded” approach to a “small lie” by the couple. In an Old Testament example insimilar episode in Num 16, when a group of rebels died through divine discipline, the congregation of Israel complained and murmured against Moses saying, “You have killed the LORD's people”.

Here in Acts 5 however, the result was a sense of unity and loyalty to the fellowship. That is what happens when we share the same sense of constructive godly fear within the church. God
becomes the exalted and central focus in a fellowship in which He is feared. In a church where God is feared, people cease to think so highly of themselves but rather submit their egos to the exalted presence of God. Where churches are divided, they almost certainly have stopped fearing God and have rather made human beings the important limelight of their worship.

Thirdly, the fear resulted in a clear demarcation between believers and nonbelievers. “No one else dared join them, even though they were highly regarded by the people” (Acts 5:13). Society stopped regarding the fellowship just as they regarded the trade union, or the friendship association or the debating society. They begun to see that this was a different lot, among whom
God was at work and they held them in high esteem. One of the main problems with Christianity today is that there is no clear demarcation between believers and non-believers.

Michael Horton, in an article titled “Beyond Culture Wars” in the May-June edition of Modern Reformation 1993 noted with sadness how, “Evangelical Christians are as likely to embrace
lifestyles every bit as hedonistic, materialistic, self-centred, and sexually immoral as the world in general” [1993:3]. All subsequent studies have proved him right. George Barna’s 1999 survey into the state of evangelical Christianity in USA for example sadly found that more born again Christians divorced than non-Christians (26% against 22%). When he repeated a similar
survey in Aug 2001, 33% of born again Christians had been divorced, 90% of them divorcing after they had become Christians (See http://www.crossroad.to/charts/church-statistics.html).

Professing Christians often show crassness and profanity in attitude, language and behaviour which appears no different from the world we are supposed to convert. Sometimes we are even worse. Could it be that one of the major reasons for this lack of a clear distinction in character and morality between Christians and unbelievers today is the lack of the sense of fear that gripped the early church? Godly fear produces holiness that differentiates believers from unbelievers. You see, holiness is both attractive and repulsive. It repulses those who want to live in rebellion against God, and they will not dare to flippantly join believers as we now see everywhere. But holiness is also attractive to those unbelievers whom God has marked out for redemption, in whom He has planted the desire to encounter Him and so be saved.

Fourthly, this fear enriched the witness of the church. Acts 5:14 “more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number”. The church multiplied because there was something distinctive about the believers. People like to associate with others who have something different, constructive and purposeful to offer them. That is what we become when we are seized by godly fear. We tend to emphasize how the joy of believers attracts unbelievers to the faith, and that is true. The fear of God is an equally powerful force of attraction. Isn’t it time that we begun emphasizing this fear in our congregations?

In Part II, we will consider the characteristics of the fear that produces faithful disciples of Jesus Christ

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