The Fear of Man vs. the Fear of the Lord

Photo by Melanie Wasser on Unsplash

This post is adapted from a sermon from John 18:12-27.  If you’re interested in hearing more, feel free to follow my sermon podcast on Apple Podcasts, Anchor, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Breaker, PocketCasts, RadioRepublic, or other podcast apps.

I was listening to NPR recently and I heard a journalistic piece about a researcher who studies the physiology of lying. He examined the features of people that lie, how their biochemistry changes, how their brain changes, how their face gives off subtle but real cues that they are lying. But the piece got interesting when the journalist began asking the important questions. Not merely what happens when people lie, but why do people lie. Without pausing for a moment, the scientist said that people lie sometimes out of convenience, but usually out of timidity. It’s fear that drives most people to lie.

I want to begin this post by asking you a question: whom do you fear? Whom do you fear? This is a vital question for us to wrestle with because the one we fear is the one that controls us.

Proverbs chapter 1 and chapter 9 both tells us that the fear of the lord is the beginning of wisdom. Fearing the lord is the very starting point for the Christian life; indeed, you cannot be a Christian without some measure of fear of God. But Proverbs 29 warns us that the fear of man brings a snare, a trap. This is a trap that ensnares everyone at some point or another, and many have never escaped it.

Below we will see two different examples of fear of man: one from the religious leaders and one from Peter. But we will also see another fear: we will see Christ’s actions, and in them see someone who was completely secure in the fear of the Lord.

Let’s begin by reading John 18:12-27:

So the band of soldiers and their captain and the officers of the Jews arrested Jesus and bound him.  First they led him to Annas, for he was the father-in-law of Caiaphas, who was high priest that year.  It was Caiaphas who had advised the Jews that it would be expedient that one man should die for the people.

Simon Peter followed Jesus, and so did another disciple. Since that disciple was known to the high priest, he entered with Jesus into the courtyard of the high priest,  but Peter stood outside at the door. So the other disciple, who was known to the high priest, went out and spoke to the servant girl who kept watch at the door, and brought Peter in. The servant girl at the door said to Peter, “You also are not one of this man’s disciples, are you?” He said, “I am not.” Now the servants and officers had made a charcoal fire, because it was cold, and they were standing and warming themselves. Peter also was with them, standing and warming himself.

The high priest then questioned Jesus about his disciples and his teaching. Jesus answered him, “I have spoken openly to the world. I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all Jews come together. I have said nothing in secret.  Why do you ask me? Ask those who have heard me what I said to them; they know what I said.”  When he had said these things, one of the officers standing by struck Jesus with his hand, saying, “Is that how you answer the high priest?”  Jesus answered him, “If what I said is wrong, bear witness about the wrong; but if what I said is right, why do you strike me?”  Annas then sent him bound to Caiaphas the high priest.

Now Simon Peter was standing and warming himself. So they said to him, “You also are not one of his disciples, are you?” He denied it and said, “I am not.” One of the servants of the high priest, a relative of the man whose ear Peter had cut off, asked, “Did I not see you in the garden with him?”  Peter again denied it, and at once a rooster crowed.

Lets look first at Annas and Caiaphas’s Fear of Man.  In the first few verses we are told that an armed band of soldiers and guards binds Jesus and takes him to Annas’s house first, and then to his son-in-law, Caiaphas. History tells us that Annas was not a wholesome fellow. He was appointed the high priest in 6 AD, but was deposed in 15AD. However, even though he was deposed, he remained the dominant voice for many years over the Sanhedrin, which was the body of Jewish elders that ruled over each city. He was a clever manipulator to be the head of a machine like that, without having any actual power any more, and he was just that. Annas had 5 sons, one son-in-law, and a grandson follow him in the high-priesthood. Through these familial connections, Annas remained the man largely responsible for the actions of the leadership; Someone else might be the ranking officer, but Annas was always the man that must be consulted prior to executing decisions. Indeed, as one commentator put it, “you can imagine how, whenever a priest would come up with a plan or idea, and would broach it, another would immediately reply, ‘Have you cleared this with Annas?’” Annas was a man with lots of power, and much to lose.

Similarly, Caiaphas was a man with much power, since he was the reigning high priest at the time. He was appointed as high priest in 18 AD and would remain as such until he was deposed by the successor of Pontius Pilate in 36 AD. Historians of the time note that Caiaphas was a rude and sly manipulator, an opportunist, and was bent on having his way with or without fairness or justice. He was unafraid to shed innocent blood. Like crafty politicians of today, whatever Caiaphas craved he would make look as if it were the best thing for the people. Caiaphas was a master showman and hypocrite. For example, in the final trial, at the same moment when he was filled with inner gladness because he found what he considered to be a ground for Christ’s condemnation, he also tore his priestly robe as if overcome with profound sorrow. Such reveals the character of such a fiendish man: selfish, powerful, deceitful, and with much to lose.

Both Annas and Caiaphas were threatened by Christ and his ministry. They had a comfortable position. They liked their power. They liked their prestige. They liked being the ones calling the shots. But Christ came and preached the gospel of the kingdom, the gospel of humility, the gospel of submission, the gospel of justice and righteousness. In short, Christ proclaimed the gospel of the fear of the Lord, rather than fear of man. And these men didn’t like it. Their reputation was threatened. They were afraid of being exposed by Christ as the frauds that they were. They were afraid that their deeds would be shown to be truly dark because of the light of truth that Christ had been speaking.

Their fear of loss of position, and fear of losing reputation drove these men to violate several laws, and to sin. For example, consider just some of the ways that these “righteous men of God” violated their law and sinned against Christ: they arrested Christ without just cause and without proper evidence, both against their own laws. The arrest was made as the result of a bride, the blood money paid to Judas. These men sought to condemn a man to death on the same day of an arrest, which was unlawful. In most cases, Jewish law did not permit a sentence of death to be pronounced until the day after the accused had been convicted. They broke the law by conducting a life or death trial at night. They broke the law by striking Jesus during the trial. But none of these things mattered. It had been determined long before that night that Jesus must be put to death. Annas and Caiaphas and the whole Sanhedrin were afraid. They were afraid that they would be exposed, that they would lose their reputation, and that they would lose their position of power. They were afraid of what the Roman governor might think, and that the Roman authorities would pluck the them from their position of power and toss them out. Their fear of man and fear of loss drove them to violate their own laws, the laws that they were supposed to uphold and protect, and, more importantly, God’s laws.

But they aren’t alone in their fears. We too can be driven to sin because of our fear of man, our fear of what people think of us, or our fear of losing our reputation.

Fear of man can lead us to disobey God by not confessing our sins, because we are afraid that people might think less of us, that we’d lose our reputation. Think we are less holy, less righteous, less mature Christians. We know mentally that all people are sinners, but we still are deathly afraid that people might find out that we are actually sinful.

Fear of man can lead us to be harsh with our children when they misbehave. I’m not talking about a righteous concern for the souls of our children. I’m talking about when we are harsh towards our children because we are afraid of what other people might think. Parents might think to themselves, “I don’t want other people to consider me a bad parent, so you children better behave in public.” They’re afraid of losing status in the eyes of men. Do you see how the concern is twisted in on the parent? They are not concerned about their child’s honoring God’s law and flourishing in his grace. They are concerned that their reputation among other parents might suffer if the child acts out of line. That’s fear of man.

Fear of Man can be manifested when we have an inability to say no. We over-commit ourselves because we want to please everybody. We can’t stand the thought of somebody not liking us, or being mad at or disappointed in us. Other peoples’ opinion of us dominates us and controls us. That’s fear of man.

Maybe your fear is being exposed as an imposter, a hypocrite just like Caiaphas and Annas. Many very competent and intelligent people have this fear. They’re afraid of having to say the words “I Don’t know,” and they might even lie to make themselves seem smarter. They’re terrified that the world will see them as ignorant, unqualified. Do you see how silly that is? They are trying to act as if they are omniscient, all knowing, when only God knows all things. They are trying to take the place of God, and when they can’t do that, they fear other people instead.

The fear of man is a snare because man is a false god, but the fear of the Lord is safe because he really is God (Proverbs 29:25). The fear of man is a closely clinging sin that entangles our legs in the race of faith and we must lay it aside (Hebrews 12:1). How? How do we lay aside the weight of fear of man. With a little help from Author John Bloom, I want to give us three steps for battling our fear of man.

Confess your fear of man. As soon as you recognize fear of man, confess it as sin to God and repent. If possible, confess it to faithful friends who will help you fight it. Don’t just fight this battle alone. Confess the sin. Question your fear of man. What exactly are you afraid of and why? Do you really have good reason to fear, especially in light of Matthew 10:28, which says “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”? Articulating your fear often exposes it as the pathetic thing it is. Courageously confront your fear of man. Acts 5:29 says “We must obey God rather than men.” Obedience calls for courage. Courage is not the absence of the emotion of fear, but the resolve to obey despite what we feel. Exercise your trust in God by stepping out in obedience. Hear the word of the Lord in Deuteronomy 31:6, “Be strong and courageous. Do not fear or be in dread of them, for it is the Lord your God who goes with you. He will not leave you or forsake you.” Draw Near to God. Listen to his word. Meditate on him and his promises. See how Christ’s love for you casts out our fear. How we are secure in him. How nothing can stand between God and his people, how nothing is outside of his control, how nothing can remove his love from you. The bible teaches that God’s people are no longer motivated by a fear of terror, or a legal fear, fear of punishment, because the punishment has been taken away from us and placed on Christ. God’s people are now free to embrace a worshipful fear, a reverential awe motivated by love for him and the honor that is due to him.

Trusting God is safe; fearing man is not. God usually teaches us this through the hard lesson of obeying in spite of feeling afraid. For then we learn to trust God’s promises more than our perceptions, and we reach the place where “we can confidently say [with Hebrews 13:6], ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?’”.

We’ve seen the fear of Annas and Caiaphas, a fear of losing reputation and fear of losing a position of power. Now let’s look at Peter’s Fear of Man. Peter’s fear. Just before this text in John you can read about how Peter boldly snatched out his sword, and used it to strike the ear of Malchus, in order to try and defend Jesus. He’s also previously said that even if everyone one else deserted Jesus, he wouldn’t do that. Now, in our passage, we see this once bold and loyal disciple, terrified. His terror leads him to lie about a simple question from an inconsequential servant girl. He’s terrified that he might have to bear the same shame as Jesus. He’s terrified that he might get arrested and questioned. He’s terrified that he might even be condemned to death right beside Jesus. So he lies.

Peter’s fear of man leads him to lie. And not just one lie; multiple. Notice the progression in his lying. One lie leads to another, and then another. Unchecked Sin in general leads to more sin, but Lying is especially prolific. Lying leads to more lying. Puritan Matthew Henry: “Lying is a fruitful sin, and upon this account exceedingly sinful: one lie needs another to support it, and then another. It is a rule in the devil’s politics– to cover sin with sin, in order to escape detection.” We first slip up and say something untrue, then we need a little white lie to cover it up, and then another and another, and they grow in scope and the story gets more and more elaborate, until we are bound up by our lies and enslaved to a false narrative, all because we are afraid of being caught, afraid of being exposed, afraid of what other people might think of us, or afraid of the punishment that might befall us.

We have seen this pattern of fear and lying in the bible too. Abraham twice lied about his wife, even telling her to lie about her identity, in Genesis 12 and 20 because he was afraid that the Egyptians would kill him and take his beautiful wife. His fear drove him to break God’s law, and to tell his wife to do the same. Or later in 1 Samuel 15 that Shawn covered last week, Saul disobeys God, disregards the Prophet Samuel’s orders, and does not destroy everyone and everything of the Amalekites like he is supposed to. Samuel confronts him and asks, “Why then did you not obey the voice of the Lord? Why did you pounce on the spoil and do what was evil in the sight of the Lord?” And Saul says to Samuel, “I have obeyed the Lord. I have gone on the mission which the Lord sent me. I have brought Agag, the king of Amalek, and I Have devoted the Amalekites to destruction. But the people took the spoil, sheep and oxen, the best of the things devoted to destruction, to sacrifice to the Lord.” Did you catch that? I obeyed and went to battle, but the people, they disobeyed.

It sounds just like Adam in the garden. Adam knew that he had sinned, so he fashioned leaves to cover his shame, but God could see right through them. Then he fashioned a lie, a verbal cover for his shame: “That woman you gave me, she made me do it.” But just like the leaves, God could see right through the lie. And Saul, just like Adam, was afraid, he knew he had sinned, and tried to use a lie to cover up his sin. Samuel goes on to say to Saul that God had rejected him as king because he rejected the word of the Lord. Saul’s response to that rejection is important. Saul says to Samuel, “I have sinned, for I transgressed the commandment of the Lord and your words, because I feared the people and obeyed their voice.” I feared the people and obeyed their voice. Fear led Saul into sin. Imagine, the King was afraid of what his subjects might say. Fear of being unpopular, fear of losing reputation, of not being praised by men. Fear of losing his position of favor in the hearts of his subjects. Fear led him to break God’s law, and to lie to try and cover it up.

Our sinful fear can lead us to lie too. I had an experience as a parent that wonderfully illustrates this point; you parents in the room have probably had similar experiences. I came into the kitchen one day and found an open box of Oreos on the counter. There were crumbs were on the counter and on the floor. We had an obvious case of illicit breaking and entering into the snack stash. So I called in my son for questioning. He walked in, and had a noticeable ring of chocolate cookie residue around his lips and he had crumbs on his hands. So I asked him, “Son, did you get some cookies out without asking?” He looks me in the face, with his own face covered in Oreo evidence, and He responds that he did not. I ask him again, “are you sure you didn’t eat any Oreos?” He denies that he did. I ask him about the crumbs on his hands and the ring of chocolate around his mouth. He replies that he doesn’t know how those got there, but, he assured me, that it wasn’t from him eating Oreos.

Maybe you may not be as blatant as the child with crumbs on his hands, but you might be tempted to lie in other ways. When we’ve been caught in something, we can deceive ourselves into thinking that we can cover our tracks and hide our sin by covering it up. Maybe you’ve said little white lies. Or maybe you aren’t so crass as to say an actual lie, but you think you’re clever enough to omit certain truths and deceive by mis-direction and mis-leading. That’s still lying.

Our fear of man can tempt us to lie we to try to make ourselves look better in the eyes of other people. People ask us how we are doing and we don’t tell the truth about our struggles, about the sin that is dominating us, because we don’t want them to think that we are a sinner, that we struggle. We also try, just like Peter, to cover the shame that we feel with even more lies. We get caught in some sin, but deny it. We double down, trying to dig our way out of a hole by continuing in the charade, keeping the lies going and building an even more complex façade. But, just like Peter and just like Adam, God sees right through the fig leaves of deception that we use to try and cover our sin.

We are like Adam, naked and exposed before God. He has even more sure evidence of our lies than Oreo crumbs on our fingers. He sees right through to our heart. He knows all things, knows all truth, and knows us right to the very core of our beings. As we heard this morning, God sees right to our hearts. Our lives, and our lies, are exposed before him with even greater clarity than the text that sits before you. Perhaps you feel bound by some lies at this very moment, you feel stuck or even enslaved in a web of deceit, ashamed that you’ve been driven by fear into a charade of falsehood that grips you. Hear me: further lies will not save you. You must come to the truth, come to the light, come to the liberty that saves you not the deceptive lies that enslave you.

Christ offers to you forgiveness for your shame, forgiveness for your fear, forgiveness for your lies and deception. He offers to you a gift of peace with God, a gift of security rather than fear, a promise of safety. The good news for Peter, and for you, is that we don’t have to be dominated by fear, and that we are not disqualified as Christians because we have lied. Later in this book we will see Peter’s restoration. Even though Christ himself was abandoned by Peter, Peter isn’t abandoned by Christ. Christ forgives and restores Peter, and that same treatment is offered to you. Christ stands ready to forgive and restore you, if you would but come to him by faith. See his great love for you, see how he is never driven by fear and never used lies to try and protect himself. Indeed, Christ himself was condemned with lies so that you might be restored by the truth. He was crushed by those that feared man so that you would never have to live in fear of man. He was falsely accused so that you would never have to fear false accusation, and the eternal incarnate truth was put to death so that you might live in the truth and walk in the light. Come to Christ, receive his security so that you might not have to live in fear. Walk in the light of his truth, so that you might be set free from the slavery to darkness and deception.

We’ve seen how Annas and Caiaphas feared losing reputation and position. And we’ve seen how Peter was afraid of what people think, and then used lies to cover it up. Now let’s examine Christ’s fear. How did proper fear, fear of the Lord, lead Christ to act in this scene? How was his behavior different from Peters, and different from Annas and Caiaphas’?

Christ’s fear of the Lord freed him from the need to lie to protect himself. He didn’t act like Peter, or Saul, or Adam, because he completely trusted the Father to protect him, and to vindicate him of his false charges. Christ did not cling to his position and reputation, but willingly bore the reproach of the arrest and mistrial because he completely trusted the Father. This is the difference between Fear of the Lord vs fear of man. Will you trust the father and his word, or will you instead doubt, and believe lies? Will you believe that God is a strong tower and a place of refuge? Or will you believe that you must lie to protect yourself? Will you believe that God’s plan for you is good, or will you buck and fight to try and avoid any shame or poor reputation? It is in the fear of the Lord, not in any deceit or slander that we will find safety. It is in Godly fear that we will find protection from shame or reproach.

It was fear of man that led Joseph’s brothers to try and kill him, but it was the fear of God that protected Joseph, even when he was falsely accused by Potiphar’s wife and thrown in prison for years. It was Godly fear, not fear of man, that allowed Joshua and Caleb to be the only spies that gave a good report about the promised land, and about the Israelite’s ability to take it. It was godly fear, not fear of man, that freed Daniel from fear of the king and allowed him to boldly enter into both the furnace and lion’s den, rather than renounce his faith. It was Godly fear, not fear of man, that allowed the prophets to boldly proclaim God’s truth to kings that wanted to kill them.

Proverbs tells us that those who fear the Lord will fear nothing else, that the fear of the lord leads to a long life, that it is a secure fortress for the one who fears and for his or her children. That the fear of the lord is a fountain of life, that is brings honor, and that it should be praised when we see it. And you can have this fear, this fear of the Lord, this godly fear, which is the beginning of all wisdom. You see, narrative tonight is not the end of the story. God didn’t give up on Peter. Even though Christ was forsaken three times by Peter, Peter was forgiven, Peter was restored, and because of his forgiveness, Peter was emboldened by a Godly fear.

In Acts 4, Peter and John are before the council of religious leaders, the priests, the Sadducees, the captain of the temple guard. This group was Much of the same people that conducted the mistrial of Jesus, the same group that was driven by fear of man to crucify the son of Man. You’d expect that Peter would be even more afraid of these men, because he had seen his savior condemned, whipped, beaten, and crucified. But Peter didn’t cower in fear. Indeed, when he was told to quit teaching about Christ and his resurrection, Peter and John answered, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak what we have seen and heard.” Peter’s fear is replaced with courage and boldness. His slavery is replaced with liberty. His faith allowed his fear of man to be replaced with proper fear of the Lord. Because Christ was steadfast in his Godly fear, we too can be motivated by Godly fear. Just as peter was freed from the bondage of fear into the boldness of Godly fear, so too can we be freed from fear of man and released into Godly fear of the Lord.

But it is only through the work of Christ that we can taste this freedom. We must turn from our sin, and see Christ as our great champion. He is the one that bore the reproach of the father, so that we could be free from the reproach of the world. Christ willingly bore the shame of sin, so that we could be free from the fear of the shame of men. Christ bore the ultimate of false accusations, the sinless was accused of all sin, so that we might be free from fear of false accusations, and false condemnations. You see, in Christ, no matter what men may do to us, we have been freed from the possibility of condemnation before God. We have been declared fully righteous and forgiven before the father. Our eternal state is secure in Christ, so we need not fear what any man can do for us. No high priest can put us into hell. No Roman governor can remove from us the declaration of not guilty that we have in Christ. No trial can erase our status as God’s child. No shame or sin or reproach can cut us out of God’s inheritance.

And it’s only in that truth, that we’ve been declared righteous, adopted forever into God’s family, that we can overcome our fear of man. As I close, consider a few ways that God’s salvation frees us from fear of man:
Godly fear frees us from fear of man’s opinion. When we know that God loves us can we live with the disapproval of men, and be free from the slavery to people-pleasing. Godly fear frees us to evangelize. When we know that we’ve been adopted by God, forever in his household, we can overcome our fear of possibly losing a relationship, or being seen as foolish when we share the gospel with someone. Godly fear frees us from anxiety/fear about our physical needs. When we know that God is our father, and that he will provide for us all that we need, we don’t have to lie and cheat and steal to get the things that we want. We can be content in our Father’s good provision. Godly fear frees us from fear of shame, because we know that regardless of what people think of us, regardless of our reputation among men, our Father holds us in the highest regard, because he sees in us the perfections of his son.



You might also like...