The concepts of ‘service’, ‘worship’, and ‘fear’ are intertwining and overlapping in our Bibles. The Hebrew words, and also their New Testament Greek counterparts, behind our English translations often sit close to one another in the text, and the meanings behind the words themselves seem to intermingle.

For example, the purpose of God’s purchasing of a people for Himself in the Old Testament is encapsulated in His words to Moses: “Go to Pharaoh and say to him, ‘This is what the LORD says: “Let My people go, so that they may serve [Heb: abad] Me.”’”(1) The Hebrew word abad can also be translated as ‘worship’. The Hebrew word yare emphasises the thought of a sense of awe inspired by our God.(2) In the Old Testament we find the words ‘fear’, ‘revere’ or ‘worship’, for example, as Moses speaks to remind the people of Israel about their obligations to the Lord: “… now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you, but to fear [Heb: yare] the LORD your God, to walk in all His ways and love Him, and to serve [Heb: abad] the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul.”(3) These words are again side by side in verse 20 of the same chapter: “You shall fear the LORD your God; you shall serve Him.”

As Moses speaks to the people, the requirement to ‘fear the Lord’ comes first on the list. Why might that be? The service, or worship, of God must emerge from a particular posture of heart toward Him, as ones who have been redeemed. That posture of heart must be one of reverence and awe, based on an understanding of who God is – Moses helps us with this in the same passage in Deuteronomy 10: “to the LORD [YHWH] your God belong heaven and the highest heavens, the earth and all that is in it… the LORD [YHWH] your God is the God of gods and the Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God.”(4) We have reason to be in awe of God, as the non-contingent creator of all things, by whom, and from whom, and for whom, are all things.

The corporate worship of the Lord that was established in the Old Testament was associated with a priesthood operating in the service of God’s house. Sadly, there were times in the history of Israel when this service of God was carried out casually and callously, without the fear of the Lord. The consequences were dire. For example, Eli’s sons, Hophni and Phinehas, showed contempt for God and the sacrifices that were offered to Him.(5) They were more interested in filling their own bellies than with making sure that God got His portion. It is recorded that their sin was great,(6) and they ultimately died as a result.(7) Centuries later, a similar situation was highlighted by the prophet Malachi. Through him, God said that the priests had come to despise His name, treating the things of God with contempt.(8) The service of God, which represents the highest privilege and experience of humanity, had become tiresome and trivial to them.(9) How could it have been so? Where was the fear of the Lord? Its absence undermined their service completely.

It is in the context of priesthood service that we come to Hebrews 12, in New Testament words that are directly applicable to us, and where again the words translated as ‘serve’, ‘worship’, and ‘fear’ are intertwined: since we receive a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let’s show gratitude, by which we may offer to God an acceptable service with reverence and awe; for our God is a consuming fire.(10) Gratitude, reverence and awe are part of offering acceptable service to God. As set out above, they are the appropriate posture of heart from which acceptable service flows. The reminder is clear: our God is a consuming fire. The writer to the Hebrews is referencing Moses speaking to the people of Israel to warn against idolatry,(11) and to assure them that God will drive out their enemies from the promised land.(12) God is the same today – reverence and awe should fill us in recognition of His person and power, leading to the kind of service that is acceptable to Him.

The fear of the Lord is the foundation for our service. It was evident in the early days of the New Testament church and churches – and in fact was a reason for the blessing that they enjoyed as they served the Lord together: so the church throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria enjoyed peace, as it was being built up; and as it continued in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it kept increasing.(13)

References: (1) Ex. 8:1 (2) DJ Webster, What is the fear of the Lord? NT2023-01 (3) Deut. 10:12 (4) Deut. 10:14,17 (5) 1 Sam. 2:29 (6) 1 Sam. 2:17 (7) 1 Sam. 2:34; 4:11 (8) Mal. 1:6-7 (9) Mal. 1:13 (10) Heb. 12:28-29 (11) Deut. 4:23-25 (12) Deut. 9:3 (13) Acts 9:31

Stephen McCabe, Belfast, N.Ireland

Bible quotations from NASB (2020)