Conduct yourselves with fear
1 Peter 1:17-19
And if you call on him as Father who judges impartially according to each one’s deeds, conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile, 18 knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, 19 but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot. ESV
So far we’ve covered the first 16 verses of 1 Peter chapter 1 so we’re now well into the second section of the letter which begins at verse 13. We’ve seen that in the first section, verses 1 to 12, Peter was particularly taken up with blessing God, rejoicing in the salvation He’s given through Jesus Christ and encouraging “scattered, elect sojourners” by reminding them of the blessings they have as believers in Christ. In the second section Peter moves on from the fact of salvation to the impact of that salvation. He’s showing how the fact of salvation should be worked out in practise in our lives and he does so by means of a series of imperatives or commands. We saw the first of those commands in verse 13 where he said: “set your hope fully on the grace to be given you when Jesus Christ is revealed”. We saw the second one in verse 15 where he said: “be holy in all your conduct”.
Today we’ll move on and see Peter’s third commandment of the Christian life. We find it in verse 17. Now, in the Greek text, the passage from verse 17 to verse 21 is actually one long sentence but it contains far too much wonderful material for us to cover in one go so we’ll just concentrate on verse 17 this morning. That verse says: “And if you call on him as Father who judges impartially according to each one’s deeds, conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile”.
The command we have in this verse is: “conduct yourselves with fear”.
Once again, that might seem to be quite a surprising imperative for Peter to be presenting. “Fear” is probably something that modern Christians don’t readily associate with the Christian life. As we noted earlier, the line in the first verse of the hymn “All creatures that on earth do dwell” was originally written as “Him serve with fear, His praise forth tell” and yet the Mission Praise version has changed that to “Him serve with mirth, His praise forth tell”. Similarly, in the hymn “My God how wonderful Thou art”, the line “O how I fear Thee living God with deepest, tenderest fears” has been changed in Mission Praise to “O how I love you living God who my heart’s longing hears”.
Why have those changes been made? It almost seems that modern Christians fear using the word “fear”! Is it because they think that the concept of fearing God to be unbiblical? Is it because it’s thought to be an archaic idea? Or is it simply because modern sensibilities find it a bit uncomfortable? It seems to me that it’s a great mistake to replace “fear” by “mirth” because the command in our text states “conduct yourselves with fear”. Clearly, there is an important place for fear in the Christian life. If you take the Word of God seriously, that cannot be questioned. The question we need to ask is “what is meant by fear in this context, how are we to understand this fear?”
We actually use the English word “fear” in quite number of different ways.
For instance, you might say “no fear” by which you would mean “no way; certainly not”. You might say something like “I fear that it might rain tomorrow” by which you would mean “I’m concerned about the possibility that it will rain”. I suppose the most common use of the word “fear” is what we might call “abject fear” – a deep dread of something. Such a fear can sometimes be quite irrational such as a fear of spiders. I have three sons. They’re all strapping big lads and they’re all afraid of moths. Just a glimpse of a moth fluttering is enough to send them dashing out of the room in fear! Such abject fear isn’t always irrational. There are certainly times when it is very well founded and we have every reason to be in such fear.
Is that the sort of “fear” that Peter is commanding here?
Some would say that it can’t possibly be that sort of “fear” and would suggest that it must rather refer to “reverent fear” – a deep, reverential respect. That’s what the NIV suggests because it renders that part of the verse as: “live your lives as strangers here in reverent fear”. They’ve added the word reverent to indicate the sort of fear they think Peter had in mind. Is that perhaps the sort of fear that Peter is commanding in this verse? Is the NIV right to translate it in that way or is it just pandering to modern sensibilities along with the Mission Praise revision of old hymns that mention fear of God?
Now, there is certainly a place for “abject fear”. Look for instance at Hebrews 10v30-31: “For we know him who said, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay.” And again, “The Lord will judge his people.” It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God”. Or consider the words of Jesus in Luke 12v4-5 where we read: “I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him!” Unrepentant sinners might not realise it or admit it but they have every reason to be in dread of God’s judgement.
Likewise, there is certainly a place for “reverent fear”. It’s surely right to view God with reverential respect because He is our God and creator and sustainer. However, I don’t think that Peter is actually commanding either “abject fear” or “reverent fear” in this verse. I say that because when we look at the whole verse, rather than just the command “conduct yourselves with fear” in isolation, we note that the verse begins by stating a condition and it finishes by specifying a context. We need to understand both the condition that’s stated and the context that’s specified if we are to rightly understand the fear that is commanded in the verse.
On each of the last two occasions I’ve had three points beginning with the letter “C”. I promise that it wasn’t intentional, but I have three points beginning with the letter “C” again today. One of those is “Command” because we have the clear command in this verse to: “conduct yourselves with fear”. But, as I’ve said, we need first to consider the condition that’s stated and the context that’s specified. So, the three points are Condition, Context and Command. Let us begin by looking at:
We see the condition right at the beginning of the verse where we read: “And if you call on him as Father who judges impartially according to each one’s deeds”. The NIV has: “Since you call on a Father” but “and if” is the correct translation. The word “and” connects this verse to the preceding verses and that little word “if” indicates a condition.
What had Peter been saying in the previous verses? Well, in verse 14 he’d referred to his readers as “obedient children” and in verse 15 he’d made it clear that they had been called to be children by one who is holy. In other words, they had been called into a family relationship with God Himself.
Now Peter is saying “if you call upon Him who called you as your Father you must follow the command to conduct yourselves with fear”. Now, by “call” here Peter means to “call upon for help” or to “appeal to”. We find exactly the same Greek word being used in Acts 25v11-12 where we read: “If then I am a wrongdoer and have committed anything for which I deserve to die, I do not seek to escape death. But if there is nothing to their charges against me, no one can give me up to them. I appeal to Caesar.” Then Festus, when he had conferred with his council, answered, “To Caesar you have appealed; to Caesar you shall go”.
Now, of course, that was in a secular context but you see the sense of the word. Paul was appealing to Caesar. He was calling on the power and authority of Caesar to help. So, as those who are children of God, because we have been called by Him, we in turn call upon Him as our Father for help. In the case of Paul it was a one off appeal for help but here in 1 Peter 1v17 the word “call” is in the present tense so it suggests a disposition of habitually and constantly calling to our Father for help. We see exactly the same pattern in 1 Corinthians 1v2 where we read: “To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours”.
You see, Paul was addressing those who had been “called to be saints” or called to be holy just as Peter had been saying. As a result of that they “call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ”. They call upon Him as their Lord – as the one who has the power and authority to provide all the help they need. Once again, the verb to call is in the present tense. So we see that the constant disposition of those called by God to be His children is to call upon Him as their Father and upon Jesus Christ.
Now, calling on God as our Father very much stems from what Peter had said about being called as His children. That’s a wonderful thing. We can call him “Abba, Father”. We’re secure in the knowledge that He loves us and cares for us. But, that doesn’t mean that we can be chummy with Him. We must never call on Him in a casual or flippant way. Remember that Peter had also emphasised the holiness of the one who has done the calling so he now goes on to tell us that the one we “call on as Father” is also the one “who judges impartially according to each one’s deeds”. The fact is that the one who is our Father is also our judge.
Notice from this:
Firstly, that He judges according to “deeds”. Peter’s previous command had been to “be holy in all your conduct” and now we see that all our conduct will be judged.
Secondly, notice that this judgement is “according each one’s deeds”. So believers in Christ, members of God’s family, are not exempt from being judged. He is the judge of everyone.
Thirdly, notice that our God and Father “judges impartially”. There’s no favouritism with Him. So, believers in Christ aren’t judged more leniently than anyone else.
On recognising that you might well conclude that we have every reason to be in “abject fear” and dread. After all, we continue to sin. Try as we may we consistently fail to “be holy in all our conduct”. Don’t we have every reason to be in fear of such judgement?
Well, before you reach that conclusion, look at Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 5v6-10 where we read: “So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil”.
Paul is fully aware that “we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ”. That includes him. Just as Peter has been saying, Paul is fully aware that he’ll be judged according to his deeds because he said that this judgement is “so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil”. But, there’s no hint of abject fear in what he says is there? He speaks of being “of good courage”. He says he’d rather “be away from the body and at home with the Lord”. It seems that knowing that he was going to be judged didn’t induce great fear in him. We see that the effect of knowing that he was going to be judged was simply to “make it our aim to please him”. It spurred him on to be holy in all his conduct.
Why did Paul not fear this judgement?
It certainly wasn’t because he thought he was sinless. Remember he said in 1 Timothy 1v15: “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost”. In Romans 7v19 he testified: “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing”. Paul’s lack of abject fear certainly wasn’t due to any confidence in his own goodness. He had no abject fear because, as he said in Romans 8v1: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus”. Yes, we’ll be judged but if we are in Christ we won’t be condemned. We don’t need to fear eternal punishment. In the words of Wesley’s hymn “And can it be” we can say “No condemnation now I dread, Jesus and all in Him is mine”. His goodness is ours. His righteousness is ours. His holiness is ours.
Look at Rev 20v12-15 where we read: “And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done. And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire”.
That’s a description of the judgement in the sort of symbolic language that is typical of the book of Revelation. You see, it’s those whose names are not written in the book of life who have reason for fear and dread because they will be thrown into the lake of fire. That’s saying that it is those who are not in Christ who have cause for abject fear because they will be condemned to eternal punishment. So, the all important question is are you in Christ? Have you come to faith in Him?
Peter’s readers had come to faith in Christ and they did “call on him as Father who judges impartially according to each one’s deeds” so, when Peter said to them “conduct yourselves with fear”, whatever he meant by “fear”, he can’t have meant abject fear.
Let’s now consider:
We see that the context is specified at the end of the verse. Having given the command to “conduct yourselves with fear”, Peter goes on to say that that is to be “throughout the time of your exile”.
What does he mean by that? Well, perhaps you’ll remember that Peter had addressed the letter to “those who are elect exiles”. At least, that’s how the ESV expressed it. I don’t actually think that “exile” is a particularly good translation of the Greek word there. The word “exile” suggests banishment. As we considered right at the beginning of the letter, that isn’t the condition of believers in Christ in this world. The NIV gives the address as “To God’s elect, strangers in the world” and it translated verse 17 as “Since you call on a Father who judges each man’s work impartially, live your lives as strangers here in reverent fear”. That also leaves a lot to be desired in various ways but the idea of “live your lives as strangers here” captures the sense much better than the idea of being in exile.
We find the same emphasis in 1 Peter 2v11 where the NIV has: “Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul”. Probably even better than the word “strangers” in these verses is the old fashioned word “sojourners”. The idea is of temporarily being somewhere other than where you really, ultimately belong. That’s a description of the Christian in this present, fallen, rebellious world.
So the sense here in verse 17 is “throughout the time of your sojourning”.
It’s referring to the time you spend in this present world away from the heavenly home in which, as a child of God, you really belong. It’s the time you spend in this world with all its trials and temptations. That’s the context in which we are to “conduct ourselves with fear”. Now, that context has a beginning and it has an end. It begins when we are born again into the family of God and come to faith in Christ. That’s when our nature changes and, though we are still physically in the world we are no longer of the world. That’s when we become: “aliens and strangers in the world”. That’s when we begin to be “sojourners”. But, we’re not going to be “sojourners” forever. Our time of sojourning will come to an end when we die or when Christ returns.
Paul says in Philippians 1v21-23: “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better”. Paul is saying that to die is “to depart” from this world in which we are currently sojourning and, instead, to “be with Christ” which he says is “far better”.
If, on the other hand, Christ should return before we die, once again, we will be with be with Him instead of continuing as sojourners. We read in 1 Thessalonians 4v15-18: “For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words”. You see, believers who are still alive when Jesus returns will “meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord”. So, whether we die or live until Christ returns, believers will no longer be sojourners in this world but will be with Him.
Now, given that the context for the command to “conduct yourselves with fear” is limited to our time as sojourners here in this present world, it seems to me that Peter cannot be referring to reverent fear because, surely, when we are no longer in this world but with the Lord, we will still revere Him as God. There will surely always be that sense of reverent fear.
We’ve already seen from the condition that Peter’s command can’t be to “conduct yourselves with abject fear” because the condition makes it clear that this is a fear for those who call upon God as their Father. Now we’ve seen from the context that Peter’s command here can’t be to “conduct yourselves with reverent fear” because it’s only for the time that we are sojourners on Earth. So, how are we to understand the “fear” that is to accompany our “conduct” throughout the time of our sojourning?
Let’s see if we can work that out by going on to consider:
The first thing to note is that, in saying “conduct yourselves with fear”, Peter doesn’t actually say that we are to fear anyone or anything in particular. The idea is rather that those who are God’s children should have some sense of fear. We should be characterised by some sort of fear.
The next thing to note is that the command is to “conduct yourselves with fear”.
Remember that the previous command that Peter had given was “you also be holy in all your conduct”. There, the noun “conduct” was being used to refer to what we do. Here in verse 17 we have the verb “to conduct” that relates to the noun “conduct”. So, if the noun “conduct” refers to what we do, the verb “to conduct” refers to the doing of it. So, our desire as God’s children is to be that the things that we do are to be holy. The way in which we do what we do is to be with a sense of fear. So the fear that Peter commands God’s children to have is associated with what they do.
What are we to fear in connection with what we do?
Surely we’re to fear doing things that are not holy. Why? Not because of fear of punishment but because we want to please our loving heavenly Father. We fear displeasing Him. We fear letting Him down. We quoted from 2 Corinthians 5 earlier and saw that Paul said that “we make it our aim to please him”. Why is that? It’s because He’s graciously adopted us into His family and made us His children. Consequently, we want to please our Father. Now, we know that the reality in this life is that we will keep on failing in that aim. We’re not yet perfect. We won’t be “holy in all our conduct”. Nonetheless, that aim is to be genuine and sincere. We must never excuse ourselves for failing. We must never condone our failure. We must never say to ourselves “that’s just the way it is for now so it doesn’t really matter”. If our aim to please Him is genuine, if that is our hearts desire, we will have a genuine fear of not pleasing Him.
I think we see the same idea in Philippians 2v12-13 where Paul said: “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure”.
Paul is speaking of working out your salvation.
That most definitely is not working to deserve your salvation. It’s referring to what you do, how you live and conduct yourself as a result of the salvation that you have already received. What is to be your aim in that working out of your salvation? It’s to be “for his good pleasure”. It’s to be holy conduct that will be pleasing to God. But notice that Paul also says that we are to work out our salvation “with fear and trembling”. You see, it’s what we do, our conduct that is to be “with fear and trembling”. Why? Because we desperately want to be living for His good pleasure.
In a healthy family setting, a child should not be in abject fear of its father. That would be unhealthy and dysfunctional. But, if they love and respect their father it’s perfectly right and healthy for them to fear displeasing him. So it is in our relationship with God if we are His children. We want to please Him. We fear not pleasing Him in the sense that we have strong desire to not displease Him.
Why are we to only fear in this way “throughout the time of our sojourning”?
It’s because after that we’ll be perfect. Then there will be no need to fear not pleasing our Father because everything about us and everything we do will be pleasing to Him. Why? The answer lies in 1 John 3v2: “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is”.
When Jesus comes again we will be like Him. Remember that God the Father said of Jesus “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased”. Well, when He comes again and we’re made like Him we’ll no longer need to fear displeasing our Father because we’ll be as pleasing to Him as Jesus is!
Dr. Steve Orr
Dr Orr has served the Body of Christ in the United Kingdom for many years and in various capacities (preaching, teaching, etc.,). Steve is a regular contributor to the pages of Christ My Covenant. His insights into the Word of God will serve you in your personal study of God’s Word. Learn of Christ!