To live in Holy fear means to live as the child of God our Father, accepting personal accountability in light of His impartial judgement to be experienced at the judgment seat of Christ.
We have begun a series of studies that I’ve entitled, In Pursuit of Holiness.
In our last study, we defined holiness according to the meaning of hagios – the Greek word for holy – which simply means separate or different.
We use that word in phrases like holy matrimony to refer to marriage as that distinctive relationship; it isn’t a perfect relationship, involving perfect people; it is simply different from any other relationship; husbands and wives are uniquely separated from everyone else unto each other, in that relationship.
You’ll see on the cover of a Bible – or in the flyleaf – the words, Holy Bible – it includes the word Bible, or biblios – the Greek word for book – but it’s a holy book; which means that it is different from any other book on the planet.
As believers we happen to be holy. We didn’t get that after reading the Bible through in a year, or attending church every Sunday unless you were sick, or when you came to church, you sat here on the front row – although in my opinion, you’re pretty special.
Every Christian happens to be holy and we happen to be commanded to act like it. In other words, demonstrate to your world, not that you’re sinless, but that you are indeed separated unto God – that you belong, uniquely, to Him.
Peter will write in chapter 2 that we are (already, by the way) a holy nation – and then he’ll add – for we are a people of God’s own possession (1 Peter 2:9).
Now, let’s admit it. Even the word, “holiness” sounds a little farfetched. It even sounds like it doesn’t belong in the normal day-in and day-out world.
Holiness belongs to stained glass windows – and organ music –and long prayers. To talk to someone about becoming a holy person sounds like you’re asking them to start fasting, or to retreat to some monastery where people can’t mess things up; or to take a vow of silence or join some austere group of people who never do anything fun or entertaining.
Nothing could be further from the truth. One author put it so well when he wrote, “Holiness is the everyday [living]; holiness is the regular business of every Christian. Holiness evidences itself in the decisions we make and things we do, hour by hour, day by day.”i And that definition fits perfectly with Peter’s perspective in his letter written to believers living in the First Century.
Let me invite you to turn there once again. In chapter 1 and verse 16, Peter repeats the Old Testament command to be holy – keep in mind, he isn’t commanding the Christian to start some pilgrimage toward holy perfection; he isn’t calling believers to leave their world but to engage their world with a demonstration of the gospel in living color.
And that demonstration will actually involve the simplest decisions and everyday conversations, throughout the most ordinary lifestyles, day in and day out.
This happens to be biblical holiness. Once you clear away the religious myths and misconceptions, holiness – our separateness unto God – happens to be who we are – and it also happens to be how we act.
Now, in the next verse, Peter corrects not only the idea of true holiness, he adds another thought that immediately conjures up misconceptions and myths – and we’ll need to clear it up.
It’s something we’ll call in our study today, holy fear; holy fear.
Notice verse 17. If you address as Father the One who impartially judges according to each one’s work, conduct yourselves in fear during the time of your stay on earth.
How’s that for a favorite thought to memorize. I’ve never seen this one on a coffee mug – conduct yourselves in fear. That’s a great motto.
Well, Peter evidently thought so. But what did he mean? Does the believer have reason to fear – and if so, why?
Let me break this verse down into three defining qualities of holy fear – and in the process we’re going to visit the judgment seat of Christ.
The first defining quality of holy fear is remembering your incredible privilege
Notice again just the opening few words – If you address as Father, the one who judges you . . .
So right off the bat, keep in mind that Peter is not writing this concept of holy fear to unbelievers – who have many reasons to fear God; Peter is he’s writing to Christians – to those who truly call God their Father.
In fact, in the original construction, the word “if” is an assumed condition so that you can understand Peter to be writing, If, and since you do indeed address Him as Father . . . ii
In fact, here in this text, Peter moves forward the word Father to a point of emphasis – you could translate it, “Since as Father you are addressing Him.” iii
In other words, Peter is highlighting the intimate, family relationship between you, the believer, and this awesome eternal God . . . who happens to be your Father, by faith in His Son, Jesus Christ.
But . . . we’re supposed to fear God our Father?
Think of it this way; suppose you’re driving down the interstate on I40 toward the airport – you have to catch a plane – it’s 65 miles an hour. And cars are poking along - can you believe it – at 65 miles an hour . . . you’re weaving in and out of them, trying to get through the blockade, wondering what in the world is wrong with these people.
I’m not speaking from experience . . . I’ve seen the way you drive. But then you see it – up ahead – a Highway Patrol car, driving in the right hand lane . . . no wonder everyone is dutifully, conspicuously driving behind him – he’s doing 65 miles an hour; and if he slows down to 60, everyone else does too.
They are driving in fear . . . and it isn’t right . . . I mean, it’s a good idea . . . and listen, there is no family relationship out there.
That’s not exactly Peter’s idea of fearing God.
Fearing God, in a Biblical context is more like getting your driver’s license and driving home and your father is driving behind you.
Yes, you’re driving in fear of your father – but not because he wants to catch you at doing something wrong, but because you want to show him you can do it right – you want to show him that you can drive well.
He’s your father . . . and you want to make Him proud of your demonstration of all you’ve learned.
That’s the idea here . . . so before Peter mentions anything about judgment – or evaluation – he emphasizes that the judge just so happens to be your Father – and that changes everything.
Holy fear begins with remembering your incredible privilege.
Secondly, holy fear is accepting personal accountability
Notice next, [You’re addressing as] Father, the One who impartially judges according to each one’s work.
Paul described this moment of judgment for the believers to the Corinthians when he wrote, For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:10).
What is this place – the Judgment Seat. The original word is bematos, or bema. The original word typically referred to “a step.” Like the step you have on your front porch.iv
Later on, the word came to refer to a raised platform that was accessed by steps. Some Bema’s were in the open air . . . some were in palaces or political offices.
What’s happening? Why are we going to stand before our Triune God who is both our Father and our Redeemer? What’s going to happen to us?
Let me begin by telling you what isn’t going to happen at the Judgment Seat of Christ.
First, it isn’t a place where your eternal destiny is decided and finalized.
The Bible makes it very clear that every single human being will one day stand before God.
For those who don’t belong to Christ – they will have an appointment with God called The Great White Throne.
John the Apostle is given a vision of that final and terrifying judgment in Revelation chapter 20 – that awful event where every unbeliever will be shown their guilt –
- their suppression of the truth of a Creator God;
- their defiant resistance to their conscience and the law of God written on their heart;
- for many of them, their refusal to accept the gospel of Christ as presented to them by another believer, or perhaps some piece of literature, or perhaps even a Bible that they opened one night in a hotel room and then shut back into the drawer with distaste and unbelief.
God will be the Judge and the Book of Revelation informs us that all who stand there will be given a guilty verdict and cast into an eternal hell – and John writes – and the smoke of their torment will rise forever and ever (Revelation 14:11 and chapter 19:3).
So the Great White Throne Judgment is for unbelievers only. But there is another judgment – called the Judgement Seat of Christ. And this one is for believers only.
In fact, if you’re standing there one day, it will be defining proof of our eternal safety and salvation.
The only people standing at the Bema are believers.
So the Bema Seat isn’t an intersection – with God deciding who goes to Heaven and who is going to Hell.
It isn’t an intersection. That eternal destiny is already settled.
And if we understand the biblical doctrine of atonement and the cross-work of Christ we can settle the proper view of the Bema Seat – this future judgment for believers.
The Bible tells us that sin was judged in Christ on the cross, and because we stand in Christ who was already judged, we will never be judged for our sins (1 Peter 2:24). Isaiah the prophet said that the coming Messiah would bear the iniquity of us all (Isaiah 53:6).
So Paul can now write these staggering words to the believer – Therefore, there is now no condemnation to them who are in Christ (Romans 8:1).
I often tell people to turn to Romans 8:1 and circle the word “now”. There is now no condemnation. Paul didn’t say, “I sure hope there won’t be any condemnation later . . . in the future . . . when I die and stand before Him. No . . . now!
Your eternal destiny has been determined – and even at this very moment – you are eternally freed from condemnation.
- So – the Bema seat is not a place where your eternal destiny is decided and finalized.
Secondly, it is not a place where your earthly sins are displayed and forgiven.
You will stand there at the Bema Seat, not to be forgiven, but because you are forgiven.
There’s no DVD of your sins that God’s going to put on a big screen. In fact, the writer of Hebrews wrote with confidence, God chooses to remember our transgression no more (Hebrews 8:12).
But wait, does God forget anything? No. But God is evidently choosing to not hold to our account – not bring to memory, as it were – to effectively erase from the record Books . . . He has acid washed your record – not because He’s afraid somebody’s going to find them – but because He’s already forgiven all of them.
In other words, God chooses to forget; He chooses to recall them, no longer.
Micah the prophet said of God, You will cast their sins into the depths of the sea (Micah 7:19).
The record of your sin has been buried in the deep blue sea and God has effectively promised that He will never dredge that sea and bring up your sin.
Listen to what God says about your security in His forgiveness – Paul writes, And when you were dead in your transgressions . . . He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions. (not some, by the way, but all of them) Having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees – that is, the record of sin – which was against us and which was hostile to us; and He has taken [that record] out of the way, having nailed it to the cross (Colossians 2:13-14)
Listen, this is why we need to rethink the Bema Seat. This is why Paul can write to the believers living in Corinth about this coming Judgment seat and end his discussion by saying that we will all end up praising God (I Corinthians 4:5). Praising God – at the Bema seat!
Why? Because the Bema is not a place where our future is decided or forgiveness is determined – that has already been decided and determined.
And as God one day evaluates our service for Him, how absolutely thrilled we will be for His forgiveness and grace.
We are secure . . . forever. We are no longer condemned – at this very moment!
So, if the judgment Peter is talking about here isn’t about our eternal destiny being finalized or our sins being forgiven, then what is this event about?
In short, this is a personal one-on-one encounter with the Living Lord, your Chief Shepherd, your Redeemer, where He will not judge your position in Him, but your priorities for Him.
You are there because you are His bride . . . now, what kind of bride have you been. You’re there because He’s your Father . . . so, what kind of child have you been?
Holy fear is accepting personal accountability for behaving as His child – for living as a bride-to-be in light of your Bridegroom’s imminent appearing and coming for the church.
And Peter encourages his readers by telling them that when He judges, notice verse 17 again, His evaluation will be impartial.
I think he’s making that point simply because the judicial system in his day was plagued with bribes. Judges were often partial to those who could pay them off. The courts favored the rich and well- connected. The more status a person had in the community, the more likely the verdict would go in their favor.v
Unfortunately, that doesn’t just happen in the 1st century, does it? It happens in every century.
There is perhaps no greater tragedy than injustice seated on a bench or corruption in a courtroom.
Peter is reassuring these believers who were being mistreated in the courtroom and culture of their generation – he knew they were ever-so-slowly being pushed out of having any rights to jobs, to owning land and houses and property, of having the right to worship the Lord.
Christianity was slowly becoming illegal in the Roman Empire.
Peter says, “Your Father is an impartial judge” . . . His courtroom is just. In fact, the word Peter uses for impartial means, literally – who does not receive face.vi
In other words, He’s not impressed with appearances – He doesn’t care about status . . . he doesn’t play favorites . . . He can’t be bought off by the well-connected!
His courtroom is holiness and His judgments are right and true.
In fact, throughout the New Testament, we’re given several images to describe the righteousness and perfection of the Bema seat.
One image is that of a smelting furnace
In I Corinthians Paul describes this encounter between the believer and the Lord as he writes; Now if any man builds upon the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each man’s work will become evident; for the day will show it, because it is to be revealed with fire; and the fire itself will test the quality of each man’s work. 14. If any man’s work which he has built upon it remains, he shall receive a reward. 15. If any man’s work is burned up, he shall suffer loss; but he himself shall be saved, yet so as through fire (I Corinthians 3:12-15)
The fire mentioned here is used elsewhere in scripture as the symbol of deity – Our God – Hebrews 12:29 records – is a consuming fire. Fire is a reference to the holiness of God.vii
By the way, this is not a reference to some place of purgatory where we go to have our guilt burned away over time.
This is a reference to that moment when the believer stands before God and has their life evaluated by means of the fiery purity and holy evaluation of God.
Evidently there will be those who have nothing left – nothing as it were, but ashes – nothing but their salvation.
The Apostle John warns the believer in this regard as he writes See to it that you do not forfeit your full reward.” (2 John 1:8)
You can’t forfeit your salvation – that is eternally secure. But you can forfeit the fullness of your reward by disobedience.
So, here’s the encouragement in light of the coming evaluation; build your life – all the way to the tape – with the right materials – valuable intentions and godly motives and Christ-honoring desires to glorify Him even in the mundane things of life –
- from washing dishes to
- cutting the grass
- to setting up chairs
- to making coffee
- to teaching a class
- to serving on a committee
- to singing in the choir
- to praying for the ministry of the gospel
- to serving in another culture
- and to cleaning up after everyone else goes home.
God will judge the motive of the heart and reward that which is commendable. Which might sound negative; but the positive flip side of that truth is that nothing in life is too small or worthless or trivial or meaningless if it is done for God’s pleasure and approval. Everything in life is potentially rewardable!
Secondly, Paul also describes the Judgment Seat as an awards ceremony
Those raised platforms in the First Century also served as the place where the judges in athletic contests were seated.
During the Olympic Games, the Bema was the place where the victorious athletes would stand to receive their laurel wreaths made of leaves; for them it was the crowning moment of a lifetime of dedication and sacrifice.
Paul speaks with this perspective as he writes, I have fought a good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith; in the future there is laid up for me a crown – a stephanos – literally, the laurel wreath of a victorious athlete – there is laid up for me – there is waiting for me a laurel wreath of righteousness which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day! (2 Timothy 4:8)
Paul’s excited about it . . . it’s as if he can’t wait until the Bema seat. And maybe you’re thinking,
“Yea, but no wonder he can’t wait – this is the great Apostle Paul, for heaven’s sake.”
But wait a second. Paul wasn’t perfect either. In fact, Paul was saved just like you were – a sinner, by grace through faith in Christ alone. He was entirely fallen, with a sin nature he battled and fought and failed and succeeded just like you. Just read sometime his testimony in Romans chapter 7.
In fact, the older Paul got, the more aware he became of his sinfulness.
- At the beginning of his ministry he commented that he was the least of the Apostles (1 Corinthians 15:9). In other words, line up those men, and I’m in last place.
- Later on he wrote, I am the least of all the saints (Ephesians 3:8). In other words, line up all the Christians on the planet and I’m in last place.
- Finally, before his martyrdom, Paul wrote to Timothy, Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief (1 Timothy 1:15).
Sounds like Paul was going in the wrong direction; no, he was actually gaining ground.
And he couldn’t wait until the Bema seat. He couldn’t wait for the joy of that encounter, which should tell us something about our view of that encounter. Paul can’t wait.
Here’s the proper picture. Just watch the Olympic winners when they mount that simple, small platform – which goes back to the raised platform of the first century Bema – just watch their faces and the tears in their eyes as their national anthem is played – look at their joy and their patriotic, honorable pride.
Paul and all the other Romans had undoubtedly seen the victorious athletes step up to the Bema and receive their crown – and Paul said, “I’m going to be there one day – only this Bema will be the Bema of Living Lord.”
The Judgment Seat is like a smelting furnace; it is like an awards ceremony; and finally – it is like a performance review
Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may be recompensed – paid back – for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad. You could translate that, “whether profitable or unprofitable.” (2 Corinthians 5:10)
At the Bema seat, it is not sin that is judged – it is service. And again, the common response in the believer’s mind is, “Well, it’s not going to be that great for me, because I never did anything all that great.” What fruit do I have worthy of getting all that excited about?!
Some guy in our church sent me this story some time ago – I guess he thought it was funny.
It had something to do with rewards in heaven being related to the impact and influence we had on people while on earth. The more, the better.
A minister died and was waiting in line at the Pearly Gates. Ahead of him was a scruffy looking guy – beat up jacket, worn out jeans. He finally reaches Peter who asks him, “Let’s see, now who are you so that I might assign your position in the Kingdom (please overlook all the theological errors in this story). The guy kind of smirks and says, “Well, I’m Joe Baxter, taxi-driver from New York
City.” Peter looks at his list and then smiled and said, “Oh, you're Joe the taxi driver; well here, take this silk robe and golden staff and enter the Kingdom of Heaven for your great assignment.”
The taxi-driver sauntered into heaven with his robe and solid gold staff – but now it was the minister’s turn. Peter asks, “And who might you be?” He says, “I am Pastor Joe Martin, in ministry for more than 50 years, I might add.” Peter looked and looked at his list and then said, “Oh, so you’re Pastor Martin; well here’s your cotton robe and wooden staff . . . you can go on in.”
The minister said, “Now wait a minute; that man ahead of me was a taxi-driver, and he got a silk robe and golden staff – I get a cotton robe and a lousy wooden stick!” Peter said, “It’s all about the results: while you preached, people slept – while he drove, people prayed!”
I didn’t think that was funny either. But I saw two people wake up.
Listen, we’re not going to give an account as to how great our service was, we’re going to give an account as to how God-pleasing – God-serving – God-directed – God-aware – God-glorifying our service was.
The subject of that encounter with Christ will not be sin – we don’t fear that – for sin has already been judged and forgotten; the subject of our encounter will not be sin, it will be service to God.
- First, holy fear begins with remembering your incredible privilege – Your judge is your Father;
- Secondly, holy fear is accepting personal accountability
Third, holy fear is refusing to act like spoiled children
Refusing to act like spoiled children.
Notice, Peter writes next, [God] impartially judges according to each one’s work – not notice - conduct yourselves in fear during the time of your stay (your exile – your brief pilgrimage) on earth .
Conduct yourselves in fear – one author paraphrased it – create a way of life marked by reverent behavior.viii
That’s really just another way of saying, as children of your Heavenly Father – behave!
You’re going to see your Father at any moment! When my three brothers and I were growing up, our missionary parents often had to go to some meeting in the afternoon.
One afternoon, we were told they had to be away at a meeting for a while – and while they were gone – no television at all.
As soon as they left, little missionary kids turned on the TV. It was in the living room – the picture was black and white – and fuzzy all over; we had to turn the channels with a pair of plyers; but there were only three channels, so it wasn’t a big deal. I remember now that TV had those big glass tubes in the back panel that just glowed as they heated up. That television had been given to us – by people who evidently didn’t have a pair of plyers . . . we didn’t care.
With that our parents drove away. Now our parents never told us what time exactly they were coming back – it was sort of like the rapture. It could happen at any moment. Even in my childhood, I was a dispensationalist.
So as time went along that afternoon, we propped our little brother up on the windowsill in the dining room so he could see over the bushes and all the way down to the end of the street where our parent’s car would turn. And when it did, he hollered and hopped down . . . we had about 45 seconds to scatter.
As soon as they walked in the front door, our mother hollered out, “Did you boys watch TV?” We came into the living room and said, “No.” She walked over and felt the back of the TV – it was so hot back there you could’ve fried an egg.
And my brother’s got what they deserved. Hey, I had spent the afternoon memorizing scripture . . . on my knees . . . they didn’t believe me either.
There is a healthy respect when you realize there is a coming accountability.
- Solomon wrote, Blessed is the man who always fears the Lord (Proverbs 28:14).
- The writer of Hebrews said that holy fear, Noah built an ark (Hebrews 11:7).
- Hebrews 12 tells us that the sight of God was so frightful and awesome that Moses was full of fear and trembling (Hebrews 12:21).
When the church was birthed and the Spirit of God displayed His power through signs and wonders, we’re told that they were in awe (Acts 2:43); same word Peter uses here in this text, translated fear.
One Puritan author wrote that Peter was describing a holy fear of offending God; born out of love and joy, the believer is all the more reluctant to displease God.ix
And listen, the child of God who gains the most in life is the one who lives with the sense of accountability now . . . now – not just later.
Holy fear is the attitude of someone who is always aware they are in the presence of God.x
It isn’t just that Mom and Dad are coming around the corner. It isn’t just that Jesus might come back at any moment, so watch out!
Fear in the mind of Peter is that reverential submission to the Lord’s word and will in the anticipation of having our lives reviewed – now . . . and then on that day, not to discover sin, but to deliver rewards for each child of God, for every thought and prayer and plan and act of submission and obedience and reverence – those who lived with a sense of holy fear.
So . . . there you are one day, beloved, at the Bema Seat of God – you will not be able to stop the tears until He wipes them away – and I can’t be sure, but that’s when I think He will; for you will be more aware than ever of how you should have and could have served Him.
But you will not be able to hold back your joyful praise either – for whatever you did in obedience and humility and submission and reverence for the sake of God’s pleasure and glory will be seen by you as so clearly the result of His grace and His presence and His Spirit and His power in your heart and through your life.
So that when He rewards you with that laurel wreath, what will you do? We’re told in Revelation chapter 4 – that you and I will bow and place that wreath at our Savior’s feet, saying with all the redeemed hosts of heaven, “Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honor and power; for You created all things.
As if to say, “And you created us – and anything good in and through us – you created that as well.”
So to You belong all power and honor and glory – both now and forever, Amen.
- Adapted from Charles R. Swindoll, The Tale of the Tardy Oxcart (Word Publishing, 1998), p. 268
- Guy N. Woods, New Testament Commentaries: I & II Peter (Gospel Advocate, 1991), p. 42
- Adapted from D. Edmond Hiebert, 1 Peter (BMH Books, 1984), p. 98
- W.E. Vine, Vines Expository Dictionary of Old & New Testament Words (Nelson, 1997), p. 612
- Duane F. Watson & Terrance Callan, Paideia Commentaries on the New Testament: First and Second Peter (Baker, 2012), p. 34
- Woods, p. 43
- Roy L. Laurin, First Corinthians: Where Life Matures (Kregel, 1987), p. 79
- Daniel M. Doriani, 1 Peter (P & R Publishing, 2014), p. 47
- Robert Leighton & Griffith Thomas, 1, 2 Peter (Crossway Books, 1999), p. 59
- William Barclay, The Letters of James and Peter (Westminster, 1976), p. 188