Fear of Christ? (Ephesians 5:21)

Is he scary?

Fear of Christ is a phrase found just once (Ephesians 5:21). It’s the generic word for fear (phobos). Many translations render it as “reverence” or “respect”, but that isn’t strong enough. In a kingdom perspective, fear of Christ displaces every fear.

Old Testament

In the ancient world, people were expected to fear God and the authorities. Untrustworthy was anyone who feared neither God nor rulers, for they could knife you in the back. Fear of the Lord was the source of social intelligence, while fools lacked respect for his instruction (Proverbs 1:7). The Lord’s wisdom was revealed in his Law (Torah). So, to fear the Lord your God meant to follow carefully all the words of this Torah (Deuteronomy 31:12).

On earth, the Davidic king represented God’s authority. In this chain of command, fearing the Lord (and living in his authority) implied fearing the king (and living in his authority). Note the contrast in Proverbs 24:21:
Fear the Lord and the king, my son,
and do not join with rebellious officials.

New Testament

In the NT, this theme is less prominent but still present. Fear of the Lord motivates obedience (2 Corinthians 5:11; 7:1), while having no fear of God means living in rebellion (Romans 3:18). Since God set authorities in place, giving fear to God implies giving fear to rulers — even those outside the Davidic lineage (Romans 13:7). Roman imperial power was God’s servant for your good, even though its sword was for killing (13:4), so doing the right thing was the best way to not fear the authority (13:3).

How much more, then, should we fear God’s anointed ruler (Christ) who restores God’s reign on earth (the kingdom of God). Jesus spoke of himself as the Son of Man when he spoke of his regal authority: his throne (Matthew 19:28; 25:31; 26:64), his judgement of all that is wrong (Matthew 19:28; John 5:27), and his restoration God’s reign (Matthew 16:28; 24:30; 26:64). Jesus was the human (son of man) who lived in right relationship with heaven, and therefore the human to whom God could entrust the kingdom again. Fear of the Lord therefore implies fear of Christ (his anointed).

Did people fear Jesus? (Gospels)

So how scary is Jesus? It’s quite a theme in the Gospels. Note what caused their fear:

  1. When the storm subsided at Jesus’ command, “In fear and amazement they asked one another, ‘Who is this? He commands even the winds and water, and they obey him’” (Luke 8:25).
  2. When Jesus freed the tortured soul among the tombs, the locals “asked him to depart from them, for they were seized with great fear” (Luke 8:37).
  3. When Peter saw the miraculous catch, he felt unworthy. “Then Jesus said to Simon, ‘Don’t be afraid’” (Luke 5:10).
  4. When Jesus raised the widow’s son at Nain, “Fear seized them all, and they glorified God” (Luke 7:16).
  5. When a woman was healed by touching Jesus’ robe, she “came in fear and trembling and fell down before him and told him the whole truth” (Mark 5:33).
  6. When Peter saw Jesus transfigured, “He did not know what to say, they were so frightened” (Mark 9:6).
  7. When Jesus led the final procession to Jerusalem, “those who followed were afraid” (Mark 10:32). They recalled Zechariah’s promise, “Do not be afraid, Daughter Zion; see your king is coming, seated on a donkey’s colt” (John 12:15).
  8. When Jesus spoke out against the temple leaders, they “began looking for a way to kill him, for they feared him, because the whole crowd was amazed at his teaching” (Mark 11:18).
  9. When angels told the women Jesus was alive, “they hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy” (Matthew 28:8). When the disciples saw Jesus, “they were startled and frightened” (Luke 24:37).

Did you see? Not a single case of being terrified of what Jesus might do to them, yet they were all full of fear at the authority Jesus carries. These people were accustomed to fearing Herod because Herod had imperial authority to subjugate them to himself and to kill them if they refused. But Jesus had greater authority over sickness and the natural world, over evil spirits and human rulers. Most frightening of all, he received power over death.

Anointed with power

Here’s the difference between Jesus’ authority and other authorities. Pilate was the highest ranking and most feared authority in Jerusalem. Behind him stood the armies of the Empire. Before him stood Jesus, accused of being the Son who carried God’s authority on earth. Who was afraid?

John 19 When Pilate heard this, he was even more afraid10 Pilate said, “Don’t you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?” (NIV)

Pilate’s fear revealed the source of his authority — his power to kill. This power fell when Jesus rose from the grave — the Christ, with all authority in heaven and on earth.

Christ’s power is terrifying! But he is not a terror. He is the restoration of the world — out of its fearful oppression, into the reign of God’s anointed. Christ’s fearfulness is not a sword; it’s a decree — a word from his mouth calms the storm, releases the slaves, restores the earth, defeats every enemy (even death).

Fear of Christ is not a threat; it’s a promise. It doesn’t petrify us into inaction or servitude; it stimulates us to spend our lives for the community of God’s appointed ruler.

Like shadows fleeing from the light, every other fear vanishes in the fear of Christ.

Author: Allen Browne

Seeking to understand Jesus in the terms he chose to describe himself: son of man (his identity), and kingdom of God (his mission). Riverview Church, Perth, Western Australia

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