Matthew 10:28

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.

A good many people live in fear.

Are you one of them?

There are all kinds of fears that we confront in our everyday living.

I remember an article featured in Time magazine titled “Flying Scared.” It was an exposé of the phobias that many prominent people have when it comes to flying in airplanes. Conductor Andre Previn, actress Joanne Woodward, comedians Bob Newhart and Jackie Gleason and President Ronald Reagan were among some of the prominent personalities listed. Each of them were described as scared of flying. On one occasion, while in flight, Ronald Reagan was congratulated because he seemed to have overcome his fear. He immediately snapped back, “Overcome it! I’m holding this plane up in the air by sheer will power.” Some, like Jackie Gleason, would not even step on an airplane. The Biography Channel from time to time shows pictures of him and his entourage making their way across country by train because he refused to step on an airplane.

Fears of various sorts crowd in on us modern men and women.

Some of us fear financial failure, producing ulcers in our intense endeavor to anticipate the ups and downs of the stock market, to analyze the stability of our jobs and to predict the future value pattern of our real estate.

Some of us fear disease, becoming hypochondriacal as a result of the possible sicknesses which could afflict us or members of our family.
Some of us have a fear of other people, fear we might become unpopular, elbowed out to the fringes of the social set in which we run. Every high school student knows these fears. With all the positive contributions of fraternities and sororities, the core of such social clubs is the motivating fear of being on the outside of the “in group.” We live in a horror of possible ridicule, the terror of being despised or talked about. What ends to which we will go to avoid being socially ostracized.

Some of us fear the breakdown of moral values that threaten to destroy America from within. Some of us fear the breakdown of moral values that threaten to destroy America from without.

International terrorism, right now, holds us in its grip. That’s the intention of the terrorist! Osama bin Laden was quoted in the early days after 9/11 as saying this:

From the north to the south, from the east to the west, Americans are living in fear, and for this we thank God.

We fear war. Right now our world is paralyzed into inaction as we debate the pros and cons of war with Iraq.

You name it. We fear it. We fear earthquakes and floods. We fear not getting married and also getting married and not being able to make the marriage work. We fear not having children, and we fear the potential perils of raising children.

As we see, sometimes these very fears compete to the point that we don’t know which fear to fear the most. For many decades, one of my dear, dear friends was H. L. Surbeck, who practiced law in New York City. On several occasions, over those decades, he shared with me his financial musings about our national economy. He didn’t know what he should fear the most – inflation or deflation. He joked about the fact that since the late 1930s he had been predicting another depression. Yet he was not sure enough about it to totally avoid the stock market. So he split his investments right down the middle, putting some in the “sock” of savings to guard against deflation, and some of it he put into stocks so as to profit from the inflationary trend in our economy.

I could give in to the tendency to spend the whole morning listening to the many fears that are ours – some quite serious, some even a bit humorous, but all legitimate fears when we look at them from one vantage point.

Jesus Christ has a way of shifting our vantage point. He has a way of giving you and me a new perspective when it comes to fear.

Jesus Christ alerts us to the fact that there is only one valid fear.

He is frank to say that too often you and I fear the wrong things.

One day He was addressing His disciples, preparing them to go forth in the ministry of preaching and healing. These fellows were scared. This business of commitment to Jesus was brand new to them. They were recent converts. It was one thing to follow Jesus around, learning from Him, enjoying His fellowship. It was an entirely different matter to leave the security of close relationship with Him to share His claims with men and women quite opposed by cultural conditioning to His revolutionary message. They knew there would be opposition. Their fears were legitimate, perhaps more so than many of the fears you and I have today.

Jesus spoke crisply and authoritatively to them, calling them to a total reorganization of their fears. He wanted them then, and you and me now, to have just one main fear – the fear of God. Jesus said, “‘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'” (Matthew 10:28).

Jesus was inviting His followers then, and is inviting us today, to exchange our many fears for one great fear, the fear of God.

This reorganization of fear will totally revolutionize your outlook on life. This fear of God is revolutionary because it calls for a conversion experience, a decision in which you say “no” to that part of yourself, which is in spiritual rebellion, and says “yes” to God. This decision involves repentance for sin, faith in Jesus Christ, and the acceptance of the forgiveness that Jesus offers. This fear of God, when most fully experienced, will set you free to become born again – a new man, a new woman in Jesus Christ. Then there is a continual function of this fear of God that moves on past your conversion experience throughout the rest of your life. The fear of God will create a desire in you to be in the center of His will.

There is no punishment worse than the aloneness of infidelity and disobedience toward God. The fear of God can keep you from concealing your inner commitment, enabling you to take a stand and be a Christian six days a week, as well as on Sunday. The fear of God will give you a desire to be released from the dominance of Satan, for Jesus has said, “He who is not for me is against me.” The inverse is true. “He who is against me is not for me.” This is the only fear that you and I should have. It is the fear of God.

The writer of Proverbs puts it another way. He says that, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and discipline” (Proverbs 1:7).

You ask, “What is this fear? I don’t like the idea of fearing the Lord.”

This fear of God is different from some fears.

Remember the Broadway musical and movie titled Oliver, Lionel Bart’s masterful staging of the Charles Dickens’ novel, Oliver Twist? There was a rare relationship between two people in this movie which reminded me of the relationship between some people and God. Bill Sikes was a rugged, vile, uncouth, heavy-drinking criminal. Fagan and his gang of young pickpockets worked for him. He was feared by all, yet loved by one – the young woman named Nancy – who catered to his every wish and responded to his every whim. At one point, the story line drips with pathos as Bill Sikes gets angry with Nancy. He abusively knocks her to the floor and stomps out of their little flat. In response, Nancy finally pulls herself from the floor, beaten and bruised, to sing the touching love song that combines both love and fear. Perhaps you remember it, “As Long As He Needs Me.” It is her expression of faithfulness to Sikes, despite the cruel flaunting of his superiority over her. Finally, in his ultimate rage and wrath, Bill kills Nancy – this one who both feared and loved him to the end.

Unfortunately, a lot of people I know view God as a grown-up Bill Sikes, a violent, crotchety old man who alternates touches of tenderness with the fury of condescending violence. They see Him as one whose major purpose in existence is the destruction of our fun. The fear of God, contrary to this idea, is not the trembling of a Nancy before a desperate Bill Sikes. Instead, it is the awe and admiration of a little daughter, looking up into the eyes of her father, a father who loves her, who has presented her with a wonderful gift, a gift which is a token of his total concern for her ultimate welfare.

You see, the fear of God is not the fear motivated by terror, unless perhaps you are not in right relationship with Him. The fear of the Lord is something which continues all through our lives and is that which is far from negative. Instead, it is quite positive.

Rudolph Otto, in his book The Idea of the Holy writes about the “numinous.” It’s that sense of awe that each of us has when we confront the holy God. It’s that sense of supernatural mystery that lifts us up outside of our selves into the presence of the Creator Sustainer. It’s that creature feeling that is ours when we acknowledge the fact that we are dependent on the One who brought us into our very being. It’s that sense of smallness when we confront our place in the universe. It’s the feeling you get when you sit alone on the beach, looking out at the ocean. Or when, in the mountains, you observe the grandeur of God’s creation. Even if you don’t believe in God, there has to be in everyone a sense of the numinous, the awe, the vastness of all that there is.

This is part of the fear that you and I are called to have. We sense the awe, the greatness of God, the majesty of His creation.

But there is also a dimension of fear that involves the righteousness of God. It is that righteousness that shows us as we are, incapable of being the kind of people God created us to be. That is, we are incapable in our own strength. At this point, the fear of the Lord is a fear that is marked with terror. We tremble before Him, realizing our own unworthiness before His grandeur, purity and majesty. Yet there is a provision for you and me that transforms this trembling fear into the sense of peace.

Our fear of the Lord is not that of a dog, cowering before its master. It is the awe that you and I have seen so often in the eyes of our children or grandchildren when we return from a trip with a gift. It is the awe of the wonder of love that we see as God’s grace, which is backed by continuing, steadfast faithfulness. That’s the fear of the Lord. Jesus said, “‘Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, fear the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell'” (Matthew 10:28).

It is essential for us to understand that this fear of God that releases us from other fears is not a head-in-the-sand existence.

Commitment to Jesus Christ is costly. Becoming a disciple has its severe implications. Jesus promises trouble and persecution to everyone who takes Him seriously.

This was the case back then. The disciples that He sent out faced opposition. They faced ridicule. They faced death. The Christian life offers no way of avoiding the Cross. It is a life of exposure to the privilege of suffering for the right reason. As a result of the total commitment that the early Christians made, they were dragged before crowds of people and beaten. They were brought before the magistrates and were thrown in jail. In many cases, they gave up their lives as martyrs. Why? Their way of life threatened their society.

It is almost impossible to believe that they were accused of being cannibals. But they were. The communion service had not yet become a socially respectable religious rite. Word leaked out that these fanatics were eating flesh and drinking blood in this mysterious little service.

They were accused of being immoral because they had what they called “the love feast.” It was difficult for the secular mind of that day to realize that people could really, genuinely love one another across social, racial, political, gender and language barriers.

They were accused of being incendiary, for in their conversation they talked about the end of the world and the physical return of Jesus Christ.

They were accused of being disloyal, because they would not take an oath to the emperor as superior to God.

They were accused of tampering with family life, for when faith in Jesus Christ was expressed, often families were split down the middle.

The early Christians were accused of tampering with society. There were sixty million slaves in the Roman empire. Although the church did not set out to abolish slavery as an institution, it did treat the slaves as men and women equal to their masters. It is said that there was no Greek, no Jew, nor free, no bond. Slaves were welcome as full partners into the fellowship of the church.

The early Christians were accused of being destructive to the economy because the habits of this new band of men and women differed so greatly from the habits of the status quo. Remember in Ephesus the revolt of the silver craftsmen against the Christians. Their trade was threatened. They made idols of silver. Now along come these Christians who refuse to bow down before man-made idols. A major business enterprise of Ephesus was threatened. After all, people came from all over the Roman empire to engage in pagan worship at the Temple of Artemis. You can read about this in Acts 19.

Jesus called, then and now, for men and women to put their ultimate fear in God, alerting us to the fact that persecution and death, in some cases, would follow.

You see, this is no head-in-the-sand existence.

What is amazing about what Jesus had to say is this: When a person puts the fear of the Lord first, all these other fears we talked about fall by the wayside.

The church of Jesus flourishes. Even the blood of the martyrs ends up being the “seed of the church.” Too long we have tried to cushion ourselves and provide for ourselves lives of ease, only to find out that when the going gets real tough, at that time the Lord comes through in a way that we never let Him come through when the going was easy.

Too often we have allowed the Christian faith to become a sentimental, emotional trip. We forget the rigorous, realistic message of our Master. Some of us are willing to be called Christians as long as it is the popular thing. We are scared to death of standing up for God when it costs something. How true it is. Difficulty tests the measure of our faith.

Look back to the prison camps of World War II. Dr. David H. C. Reade, later pastor of the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City, was captured by the Nazis in Europe. In that concentration camp, he dug deeply into the Scriptures. He started a church inside the prison camp. He saw men, who hadn’t given much thought at all to God, come alive in their faith relationship with Jesus. At the same time, Dr. Ernest Gordon, later to become the Chaplain at Princeton University, had the same experience in Southeast Asia. He wrote books that tell about his experience with the Japanese in concentration camps.

Remember the Pueblo incident in North Korea? Some of our Navy men were captured and for many months incarcerated. Young men who hadn’t given any attention to spiritual matters previous to their capture, during those long months of captivity, came into a deep relationship with the Lord. The worship services on board ship had been abandoned because no more than two men ever showed up. Then during those eleven months of captivity, one of the crewmen reported, “All we had left was religion.” The Communists pressured them to deny any religious faith, but every effort to take away their faith in God only caused them to move in His direction. Every effort to subvert their faith only caused them to reaffirm it.

Despite the denial of Bibles, worship services and other religious exercises, the men worked up a list of the books of the Bible, managed to recall the words of Psalms 23, pieced together the Ten Commandments, and prayed openly. The day of their release the crew members asked for a worship service, and the next day every man attended a joint Protestant/Catholic Christmas Eve service.

Remember Bishop Festo Kivengere from Uganda? We had him preach at St. Andrew’s during the early days of my ministry here. He, with courage, stood in front of the diabolical leader, Idi Amin, prophetically accusing Amin of having killed the Bishop of Kampala. As a result, Festo Kivengere had to flee for his life.

We have had in this pulpit, Reverend Bernard Muindi, Moderator of the Church of East Africa – Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. As a classmate of mine at Princeton Seminary, he told me stories of persecution because of faith in Jesus Christ. Some years later, two of his elders were killed because they refused to take blood oaths to the tribe over Jesus in a resurgence of tribal oath-taking.

Frequent are the stories we hear of followers of Jesus persecuted for their faith by atheistic political regimes or Muslim terrorists.

It is not under persecution that the church fails. The time when the church takes its setbacks is when, culturally, it is respectable. The real commitment to Jesus faces a sneer. Because of this sneer, it is easy for some of us to slide along, never being counted as men and women who love Christ, never expressing forthrightly that our ultimate fear is the fear of God. The Christian life is not a head-in-the-sand existence, a sentimental kind of release from all the problems of life. It is a confrontation with life in its rawest, roughest form.

This fear I am talking about is the only fear that produces an ultimate peace.

While the fear of God is a costly business, it also provides the greatest possible reward, for it releases you and me from the fear of life and death. When your life is in the hands of God, your life is in the hands of the One who is in charge of both life and death. He is the One who determines the future. He is the One who conquers your present fear and frees you to dynamic living.

The Swiss psychiatrist, Paul Tournier, in his book titled The Whole Person in a Broken World, wrestled with the problem of a technocratic era and its impact upon the human psyche. He lamented that our present emphasis on science and our neglect of spiritual values and a personal relationship with Jesus Christ produces a deep uncertainty. You cannot separate spiritual and technological concerns without producing a world that is afraid. A world without God is a world ruled by fear. Fear produces two sets of reactions. One set of reactions is strong – the bravado, aggressiveness and injustice that marks our era. Another set of reactions is that which is weak – such as panic, cowardice and flight. It is only God’s grace that frees us from such tragic effects. Our era is an era of fear, intensified by the fact that we have lost sight of the one fear worth having, the awe of God, the sense of His majesty, His purity, His righteousness, His love, His compassion and what He has done for each of us.

There are three important observations that Jesus makes in today’s text.

Observation one: The body can be killed, but the soul lives on.

No matter how badly you are treated physically in this life, you have an eternal dimension. Your self, your individuality, is given to you in God’s creation. The true you lives on in spite of your outward circumstances.

I have a very close friend who has lost everything financially, yet he is one of the most gracious, peaceful individuals I know. Basically, that is not his temperament. It is only his faith in Jesus that has brought him through the agonizing experience of enormous financial loss and the malicious accusations of others quick to criticize without knowing the circumstances.

Observation two: God’s promise of ultimate care is the greatest promise you can ever receive.

Jesus illustrates this care by mentioning the sparrows that were often sold in the Middle Eastern marketplace. These birds were practically worthless. They were sold two for a farthing. They were so worthless that, if you bought four, a fifth one was usually thrown in for nothing. Jesus said that not even a sparrow falls to the ground without God’s knowledge of it. How much more, then, He cares for you. Jesus goes on to mention the fact that even the hairs of your head are numbered, showing God’s concentration on the most insignificant details.

Observation three: Jesus observed that God has a perfect plan for you when you have exposed yourself to Him.

This perfect plan involves both your life and your death. Each of us is going to die. We know this. All we do not know is the timing of our death.
Carl Jung, the Swiss psychoanalyst, observed that in his interviews with hundreds of people over a period of years, he never found one person over 35 years of age who had not been consciously or unconsciously terrorized by the fact of his own death or by religious matters. Catch that? Some of these are secular people. These are people many of whom have no faith in the Lord. As you probe into their inner psyche you find tremendous apprehension about death and a deep inner concern about religious matters, which are so often covered by the bravado of life and the unwillingness to face the facts of life and death. Walk through a secular bookstore into the sections labeled “self-help” or “spirituality.” You will find title after title dealing with the issues of life and death. Jesus assures us that death is just a doorway into eternal life if we are living in the dimension of a personal relationship with Him. The only tragic death is the death of one who has refused to receive Jesus.

Granted, we still remain puzzled by the untimely death of a baby, a young father, or the mass death of a family through accident or crime. We don’t understand that within the divine perspective this all fits into place, whether or not we understand it.

Have you faced up to this one fear worth having? Are you allowing this to be the dominant influence in your life, letting the other little fears go by the wayside? Jesus puts it straight to you, “‘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.'”

Jill Briscoe, a most insightful writer and speaker, reflecting on our post 9/11 fears of terrorism, wrote these words:

What we need to do is turn to the God of all comfort. He’s still on the throne. He hasn’t abdicated, he hasn’t moved an inch, he’s not on vacation, he hasn’t left town, he’s not lost his touch, he’s not traumatized by events on earth, he’s not in therapy, and he hasn’t retired. He’s fit and well. And he reigns supreme, the indisputable king of the universe. So what are we doing looking anywhere else? He’s not subnormal, and he’s not abnormal. He’s not old normal or new normal. He’s supernormal.

God is alive. God loves you. God is personally concerned for you. God became a man in the Person of Jesus Christ to die for you. He rose from the dead. He is alive today. He is interested in you. His arms are outstretched with the invitation to come to Him who loves you. His gift is a beautiful gift. Stand in awe before Him. Discover that which releases you to a newness of life you cannot manufacture for yourself.

All of your fears and neuroses cannot bring you the kind of peace that this One offers, who said, “‘Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid'” (John 14:27).

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