Gentle Jesus and the Fear of God

One day as Jesus was standing by the Lake of Gennesaret, with the people crowding around him and listening to the word of God, he saw at the water’s edge two boats, left there by the fishermen, who were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little from shore. Then he sat down and taught the people from the boat.
When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch.”
Simon answered, “Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything. But because you say so, I will let down the nets.”
When they had done so, they caught such a large number of fish that their nets began to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them, and they came and filled both boats so full that they began to sink.
—Luke 5:1-7, NIV

There weren’t any rocket scientists in the first century, but Peter didn’t need one to tell him that Jesus was someone special!

When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!” For he and all his companions were astonished at the catch of fish they had taken, and so were James and John, the sons of Zebedee, Simon’s partners.
—Luke 5:8-10, NIV

In my mind’s eye, I can just see him kneeling on the ground, shaking in terror, terrified at the power that Jesus wielded so casually.

One day, when I went on my usual three-mile walk with a friend, we saw a lovely cloud formation in the west: the clouds were puffy, and the sun shone through a hole in the clouds in a shaft of ethereal light that streamed to the ground somewhere ahead of us. It was breathtakingly beautiful!

I speculated jokingly that someone in Burke, Virginia (which lay a few miles ahead of us) was becoming an evangelist. My friend laughed and said that when he was a child and he saw cloud formations like that, he thought it meant that Jesus was under the beam of light, because of all of those pious Gentle-Jesus-Meek-And-Mild pictures, where Jesus, fresh from the beauty parlor with lovely locks of curly hair, was surrounded by little lambs and smiling children. In such pictures, the artist invariably has a beam of light shine down on Him from the sky.

Many people imagine that if they were in the presence of Jesus they would find Him well-coiffed, soft-spoken, and presiding over the world’s most orderly kindergarten class. They imagine that they would hear ethereal music in the background, but that Jesus would be delicate and frail and ever so painfully gentle. A beam of light would shine down on Him from above, and He’d smile knowingly as a white dove would land on His shoulder, just like with Snow White. I better stop describing this because any minute, pink and blue bunnies will start hopping off the page, and smurfs will take over the world!

However, no one in the Bible ever had that experience when they came face to face with God. We think that it’s only in the Old Testament that God comes on like a consuming fire, and overpowering strength, as an earthquake, a storm, or an advancing army. We think that God used fireworks on Moses and then retired them. We think that in the New Testament God comes to us with the gentle social propriety of an English country parson.

Alas, but it isn’t so. Peter didn’t think so. The Pharisees didn’t think so. The money changers in the Temple didn’t think so. The demoniac at Gadarenes didn’t think so. The Sanhedrin didn’t think so. The guards at the tomb didn’t think so. They all thought Jesus was a powerful man, and some thought Him dangerous.

I remember once when I took a trip to the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral. The rockets that shot up Mercury and Gemini were disappointingly dinky, and so were the launch pads and associated buildings. Those launch pads aren’t in use any more, so they’ve dolled them up for tourists—literally—they’ve put mannequins in the control rooms. The most impressive part is the absolutely huge scale of the Vehicle Assembly Building. It is so huge that if they turn off the air-conditioning, clouds form inside and it rains! That building, plus the monstrous vehicles that transport the rockets to the gargantuan launchpad, and the immense roadbed they ride over, are very impressive. They are so large you can barely comprehend the scale! On another occasion I flew towards Cape Canaveral in a private plane. As we approached the Kennedy Space Center, we could see the Vertical Assembly Building in the distance, looking terribly out of scale; as if giants had left their toys behind. The first thing you think of when you see these things is how big they are, and the second thing you think is how small you are, and suddenly you become aware of just how small and vulnerable you really are. It can be terrifying.

Well, that’s what it’s like to see God. God is so much larger than we are, and I don’t mean in terms of physical size. Do you remember when you were a child how terrifyingly huge adults were, even the nice ones that you loved? There you are, playing with your little friends, when all of a sudden the gigantic shadow of a Grown Up falls upon you! You look up to the towering figure who dwarfs even the worst playtime bully and it calls you by name in a Thundering Voice! Huge Arms descend to pick you up, and you burst into tears of terror! Of course, from an adult standpoint all that is happening is the nursery school aid is picking you up to return you to your parents.

Sometimes we receive the comfort of the Holy Spirit without seeing God; without seeing how big He is, how powerful He is, and so we do not see the contrast between Him and us. On other occasions, we really do see Him in His glory, and we are terrified. We recognize that He comes to us in love to help us, but it’s just that He’s so big, and we are so very small! It’s the disparity of scale that terrifies us! We share Peter’s reaction, we hold our arms up to shade our eyes from his blinding light, “Don’t come near me!” we scream, “I’m not worthy of you!”

It’s not an inappropriate gut reaction. I remember the presidential campaign in 1964, when it was Lyndon Johnson’s trademark to shake hands with ordinary people wherever he went. He was already president at the time; he had succeeded Kennedy after the assassination. Very often when he shook hands with people, they fainted and had to be carried out on stretchers. Why? Because they were little people who were suddenly approached by the President of the United States. They saw a huge contrast between his greatness and their own personal insignificance in world affairs, and they fainted.

So if God came to you in Jesus and stepped off the speaker’s platform to shake your hand, don’t you think you would react in much the same way?

This is why the New Testament writers speak of the fear of God in the same breath as they speak of the love of God. Even God’s love, because of its overwhelming scale, evokes a kind of terror when we see it in its proper perspective.

God is greater than we are. When we truly recognize Him, as Peter did, our first impression is how huge He is. Our second impression, following closely on the first, is how tiny and inadequate we are. Immediately we are seized with fear and a feeling of unworthiness, as Peter was.

Then God bows down to pick us up, as a loving Father does.

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