The fear of God is not a craven, crawling thing. In this passage, the fear of God is a driving motive force for evangelism, and evangelism is a proclamation of the good news, not the declaration of dreadful news. The fear of God therefore needs to be something that we understand as powerful and attractive.
“Knowing therefore the terror of the Lord, we persuade men; but we are made manifest unto God; and I trust also are made manifest in your consciences. For we commend not ourselves again unto you, but give you occasion to glory on our behalf, that ye may have somewhat to answer them which glory in appearance, and not in heart. For whether we be beside ourselves, it is to God: or whether we be sober, it is for your cause” (2 Cor. 5:11–13).
SUMMARY OF THE TEXT
In the light of this judgment, in light of the fact that every man will stand before the judgment seat of Christ, we know what it is to fear the Lord. Precisely because we know “the terror” of the Lord, we seek to persuade men (v. 11). Persuade them of what? Persuade them to consider their true condition. A human life without true, complete, utter, and entire accountability has not yet been lived, and never will be. It is madness not to factor this in to how we live our lives. This is something Paul does coram Deo, in the manifest sight of God, and Paul trusts that it is manifest enough to be obvious to the consciences of the Corinthians also. The reason Paul is writing about this here is not to brag to the Corinthians, but rather to give them an opportunity to brag about him. They needed the material so that they could answer the false teachers at Corinth—identified by Paul here as those who glory in appearances, and not in heart (v. 12). Paul acknowledges that some will think he is crazy, while others will call him sober-minded. He divides it up this way. If we are out of our minds, it is for God. If we are calm and judicious, it is for you Corinthians (v. 13).
TESTIMONY AND APPEARANCES
We should begin by acknowledging that there is a sense in which believers ought to care about our testimony and reputation. Elders should have a good reputation with outsiders (1 Tim. 3:7). A good name is greatly to be valued (Prov. 22:1). Because we live lives of integrity, those who slander us should be ashamed of themselves (1 Pet. 2:15).
But at the same time, Jesus tells us that when all men speak well of us, we should consider that as a real danger sign (Luke 6:26). That is how they speak of false teachers, and in our passage, Paul tells us that false teachers cultivate and pursue such appearances (v. 12). This is their currency. They care about appearances, which is not the same as caring about testimony. Caring about testimony is caring about the truth, and caring about appearances is caring about the lie.
So test your hearts in this. Would you rather be truthful and thought a liar, or a liar and thought a truthteller? Would you rather be courageous and thought a coward, or a coward who is thought to be courageous? Would you rather be honest and thought to be dishonest, or dishonest and thought to be honest? The answer will reveal whether you are standing before God or men.
Knowing therefore the terror (phobos) of the Lord, we seek to persuade men. I began by saying that the fear of God is not a craven thing. This is not a religion for lickspittles. Although the same word (fear) is used, there is a vast difference between the flinching that wants to avoid a blow and the awe that swallows you up when you consider that the paving stones in God’s palaces contain numberless galaxies. Perfect love casts out the first kind of fear (1 John 4:18), and perfect love ushers in the second kind (Ps. 8). What is man, that you are mindful of him?
This is why Paul can tell the Philippians to work out their salvation with fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12). But working out our salvation includes rejoicing constantly (Phil. 4:4). Rejoice with fear and trembling.
This is what the kings of the earth are commanded to learn. “Serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice with trembling” (Psalm 2:11).
And when Moses and Aaron were dedicating the tabernacle, the fire of God flared out from the glory of God and consumed the burnt offering.
“And there came a fire out from before the Lord, and consumed upon the altar the burnt offering and the fat: which when all the people saw, they shouted, and fell on their faces” (Lev. 9:24).
But these were not religious feelies. The fire of God devoured Nadab and Abihu in the next verses (Lev. 10:2), and so God instituted a law for priests against drinking on the job (Lev. 10:9). And yet the people fell on their faces, shouting and jubilant in their terror.
JOY UNSPEAKABLE AND FULL OF GLORY
And this is what the Scriptures point us to, constantly. Paul wants us to have the “spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of him.” He wants us to have the “eyes of our understanding enlightened” so that we might “know what is the hope of our calling,” not to mention the “riches of the glory of his inheritance in the saints.” And what else? The “exceeding greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his mighty power” (Eph. 1:17–19).
He also prays that we might be “able to comprehend with all saints what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height,” and more than that, to “know the love of Christ, which passes knowledge,” and he wants us to be “filled with the fulness of God.” He wants us to ask and think that, and then to commit it all to the one who can do “exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that worketh in us” (Eph. 3:18–20). He wants us to grasp the ungraspable, and to know the unknowable, and to be filled with the infinite. And then he wants us to be hungry for more than that.
“Whom having not seen, ye love; in whom, though now ye see him not, yet believing, ye rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory:” (1 Peter 1:8).
This is the reality that will make evangelism potent. Knowing what it is to fear the Lord, we seek to persuade men. As we reflect Christ, we point the way to Christ. And as we witness to Him, we pray for the fire to fall.