T he word “religion” entered the English language in the thirteenth century, and was used at that time to refer to a life regulated by monastic vows. It was derived from a Latin word, religio, but what did religio mean? Scholars have been debating for centuries the etymology of religio. Some say that it was to do with binding oneself to God. Others say it originally meant anxiety, inhibition or a sense of duty in everyday life. Interestingly, religio does not exactly correspond to any Greek or Hebrew word, so when our English Bibles use the word “religion” or “religious” we must realise that it is rather a loose translation.
The Old Testament does not mention “religion” but often speaks of a faith-filled believer’s response to God as “the fear of the Lord” or “the fear of God”. This means standing in awe of God. To fear Him is to recognise His greatness, His power and authority, His supremacy over us, but also His holiness and His matchless purity. It is the reaction of Isaiah, who cried, “Woe is me” when he saw the Lord high and lifted up with the seraphim singing around Him, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory” (Isaiah 6:1-5 AV).
From the Old Testament we learn that anyone could be right with God on this basis. Job was not Jewish, yet he feared God and was praised by the Lord for this (Job 1:1,8). However, in the New Testament this changes dramatically ― the substitutionary death, atoning work and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ become pivotal for our faith.
Interestingly the “fear of the Lord” also occurs in the New Testament.
Then the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace and was strengthened. Living in the fear of the Lord and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers.
(Acts 9:31. See also 2 Corinthians 5:11; Revelation 14:7)
In faith, we should bow humbly before our all-holy, all-powerful and all-glorious God. We should recognise that He is not only a God of infinite goodness but also a God of justice and judgment. When His people do not fear and reverence Him, when they choose to live without Him or to live lives that contradict His laws, He will eventually act in righteous anger and bring punishment.
The fear of the Lord seems to be absent from much of the modern world. Many of us live in contexts where His Name is rarely heard except in jest or blasphemies and where His authority is denied. God is widely rejected and even those who own His Name often seem merely to pay Him lip service, rather than to follow Him wholeheartedly.
Understanding the times
As we seek to understand the times in which we live, let us remember that the Lord will come to fulfil His purposes for all humanity and for His people. God’s judgment upon the nations is certain, but let us remember that it will begin with the household of God, the Church (1 Peter 4:17).
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Psalm 111:10; Proverbs 9:10). True wisdom is to know the will and mind of God and to discern the spiritual realities of life that lie behind the physical. Jesus warned that before the end times and His return, many false teachers would arise. “Watch out that you are not deceived,” He said to His disciples (Luke 21:8). How much we need true wisdom from above in order to understand the times in which we live and to distinguish truth from falsehood. Let us ask God for the gift He gave to the men of the tribe of Issachar who “understood the times and knew what Israel should do” (1 Chronicles 12:32)
“Understanding the times” is the theme of this year’s Suffering Church Action and Awareness Week, 30 October – 6 November. Resources are in this magazine and available from barnabasaid.org/scaaw
Dr Patrick Sookhdeo