Trembling on Holy Ground: Jesus, Forgiveness, and the Fear of the Lord

But perceiving their thoughts, Jesus said, “Why are you thinking evil things in your hearts? For which is easier: to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’? But so you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—then He told the paralytic, “Get up, pick up your mat, and go home.” And he got up and went home.

When the crowds saw this, they were awestruck and gave glory to God who had given such authority to men. (Matthew 9:4-8)

Many an English translation gives us “awestruck” in Matthew 9:8 — awestruck, marvelled, filled with awe.

The Greek simply gives us phobeo, from the root of phobia; as the English Standard Version renders it, “they were afraid.”

Jesus evoked and provoked many reactions from the people of his day, but among the most visceral and profound is this: They saw him forgive, they saw him heal, and they were afraid.

This response did not come about because the acts of healing and forgiving threatened them or brought them into danger. Quite the opposite. Rather, they were afraid because they recognized they were in the presence of something holy.

They saw the transcendent action of God, knew themselves to be small and human, and trembled.

“Take Off Your Shoes, Moses”

In our culture, I don’t think we are well acquainted with this kind of fear. We abandoned transcendence a long time ago and make a habit of dissecting that which is holy with a microscope (or a dictionary). We are a little too overfamiliar with grace.

The history of Israel and God is a history of encounters with the supernatural and the wholly “other.” Profound and beautiful, these encounters were also terrifying.

Witness Moses, tending his father-in-law’s sheep when he came to “Horeb, the mountain of God”:

Then the Angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire within a bush. As Moses looked, he saw that the bush was on fire but was not consumed. So Moses thought: I must go over and look at this remarkable sight. Why isn’t the bush burning up?

When the Lord saw that he had gone over to look, God called out to him from the bush, “Moses, Moses!”

“Here I am,” he answered.

“Do not come closer,” He said. “Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” Then He continued, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”

Moses hid his face because he was afraid to look at God. (Exodus 3:1-6)

The paradox facing Moses also faces us: this God is holy but drawing near; burning in the bush but not consuming it. In his presence are earthquakes and thunder and fire, and yet he is calling us to come close.

Terrible Grace

Exodian fear of the Lord is easy to understand.

Israel initially got to know their God and his power as they watched him bring judgment on Egypt through a series of plagues, part the Red Sea and wipe out an army with a single blow, and appear to them in dark clouds and fire.

When God spoke to them, the ground shook and lightning flashed.

Of course they were afraid.

It’s less easy to understand why the people of Jesus’ day feared when they saw him forgive and then heal a paralyzed man.

For all that we can translate it “awe” or “reverence” or “wonder,” phobos means fear; it’s the same word translated “terror,” or used of wanting to run away.

And yet … shouldn’t love make us tremble?

Shouldn’t grace make us afraid?

I have stood safe behind walls and windows and felt a kind of holy fear as a storm swept in, battering the house and making it shake.

I have stood at the feet of mountains and felt the fear and the weight of the unknown and mysterious and wild.

I have watched the ocean crash and been chilled and delighted by the sight of its power, though I know it is no threat to me while I remain respectful and positioned in a place that is safe.

And I have known the love of other human beings — autonomous, splendid human beings, beautiful in their freedom and their depth, people who choose to love me for no real reason other than they want to.

And that makes me afraid too.

In Jesus’ act of forgiveness on God’s behalf, in his reanimating the muscles of a paralyzed man, the glory of God was seen.

Most literally the word “glory” means “weight”; to see the glory of the Lord is to see his essence — which is love — and feel the weight of it.

If we don’t fear the Lord, perhaps it’s because we don’t really see what’s in front of us. We don’t feel the weight of his glory. We don’t recognize the terror of grace and the wonder of love.

“Take Courage, Child”

Wonderfully, in the New Testament fear of God is always connected to a clear vision of his grace.

2 Corinthians 7:1 is typical. Paul has just finished quoting God’s promises of welcome, acceptance, and forgiveness from the Old Testament:

I will be a Father to you,
and you will be sons and daughters to Me,
says the Lord Almighty. (2 Corinthians 6:18)

But the “therefore” is not an injunction to cozy up comfortably to grace and make ourselves lazy about it. Rather:

Therefore, having these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God. (NKJV)

Before Jesus healed the paralytic, he said to him, “Take courage, son.” He released him into the greatest paradox of all: that we find courage when we fear God; that fear of the Lord releases us from every other fear because it clarifies and crystallizes what truly matters.

It is fear of the Lord that reminds us where our worth is found. We find meaning in the eyes of a jealous God who desires our worship and our whole hearts, and we find safety in his unconditional love.

Make no mistake:

The love of God is unconditional, and it is safe.

But that doesn’t mean it is not wild.

And if we will worship, it is good that we learn to fear.


I would love to hear from you. Scroll down to leave a comment below!

This is Part 114 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.

By the way, I cowrote a book on living free from fear that talks a lot about the fear of the Lord. You can still get it for free from Amazon, but not for much longer … we have nearly reached our goal of giving away 10,000 free copies. Get yours here: Fearless: Free in Christ in an Age of Anxiety.


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Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash







2 responses to “Trembling on Holy Ground: Jesus, Forgiveness, and the Fear of the Lord”

  1. Elizabeth Zacharias Avatar
    Elizabeth Zacharias

    This was timely. I was reminded today of a time when I was looking up all the scriptures on the fear of the Lord. Thinking that I should developing back into when I received your blog.

  2. Jacqueline Wallace Avatar

    “It is fear of the Lord that reminds us where our worth is found. We find meaning in the eyes of a jealous God who desires our worship and our whole hearts, and we find safety in his unconditional love.”
    I love this, Rachel. I may print it out and pin it where I can see it. I’m often troubled by things I hear these days about our worth, that we are worthy before the Lord because of his love for us, etc. It feels like we put ourselves a bit higher than the God who made us and gave himself for our salvation. God is not beholden to us. We are to him! We must be careful of how we express these things. Only in the context of the fear of the Lord and the love of God, as you have pointed out, can we find our worth, our identity in Christ. The only way we can be raised up is to bow down. Thanks for a great lesson!

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