When a forest fire rages out of control, sometimes firefighters must fight fire with fire. By burning the area around the fire, they leave nowhere for the fire to go. When it comes to the fear of man, we must fight fire with fire, by cultivating a healthy fear of God.
In Matthew 10:28, Jesus 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.” I am a pansy. There, I said it. I’m far too concerned with what people think of me over what God thinks of me. If you’re like me, you are regularly frustrated at how often your decisions in life are based more on the fear of man than the fear of God. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t care about sounding offensive in many situations. I’ve been cussed at, threatened, and insulted by non-believers for sharing the gospel with them and not lost one minute of sleep over it. But when it comes to people I am close with, I hold their opinions often too highly and care more about offending them than God. Why is this?
In this text, Jesus is preparing his disciples for the world’s hatred of them. He had just shared with them that persecution is to be the Christian’s constant companion in this sin-cursed and broken world, but now he tells them how they should respond emotionally to it. Jesus compares the true bite behind people’s bark with the bite behind the bark of His holy Word, and there is no comparison. People can kill the body (which is going to die anyway), but God can cast the soul into eternal, conscious torment in hell. To live with an unhealthy fear of people, however, is to live with an unhealthy fear of God. It makes perfect sense to fear the God to whom we all must give an account. It makes no sense whatsoever to fear people who cannot shake your soul’s security. Perhaps this is why Isaiah put it so rightly when he said, “Stop regarding man in whose nostrils is breath, for of what account is he?” (Isaiah 2:22).
But how do you know when you have crossed the line between Christian kindness and fear of man? How do you know when you’re living in the fear of man instead of the fear of God? I think the answer from our text is that anytime we’re okay with being silent about Christ for fear of what others may think of us, we’ve crossed that line. I’ve always heard it said that good Christian leaders have learned to develop a tough skin and a soft heart. On the one hand, we must so fear God that we’re not swayed by people’s opinions, while on the other hand, we must so love God’s image-bearers that we spend time getting to know them and doing the hard work it takes to reach them with the gospel.
But we must not forget that the source of all our God-fearing boldness stems not from us, but from Christ. Jesus’ deep reverence for his Father led him to endure the shame of the cross, despite the great cost. His willingness to be betrayed and deserted by his own disciples, rejected by the ones he came to save, and forsaken by his Father to endure our wrath is astounding. Yet Jesus embraced such a hard life to save us and now he calls us to fearless obedience to God from hearts full of reverence for him. The late Jerry Bridges has noted that the fear of God refers to reverential awe. Because we revere and stand in awe of the Lord God, we can overcome this unhealthy fear of man in our lives. After all, they can only kill us…and we’re invincible anyway!