Concerning the Fear of Man, Part V: A Disharmony of the Gospels

Now that we’ve looked at the Fear of Man in Proverbs, I want to do the same through the Gospels, finding relevant passages and noting some basic interpretation of them.  We’ll dis-harmonize the Gospels and look only at Matthew in this post.

Matthew is bookended by two stories of what the Fear of Man can cause us to do: Herod in Matthew 2 and Pilate in Matthew 27.  In between are a number of relevant passages, but two dominant themes emerge.  The first theme that emerges is the example of the fear of man producing hypocrisy and false spirituality, which we see prominently in both chapters 6 and 23.  The second is that of the fear of man causing us to forsake our Christian duties, most particularly evangelism and preaching, as seen in Matthew 10:26-31.  Let us use this as a sort of outline.

You might not call this strictly a fear of man passage, but look at Matthew 2:1-18.  Look at the character of Herod.  Why does he end up killing every male child under two years old in Bethlehem?  For the sake of preserving his throne, preserving his security, against “He who has been born King of the Jews.”  Ultimately this gives an example of fearing what man can do to you (take your throne).  That is of course not the main point of the passage.  But use this as mental firepower in combating the fear of man in your life.  You may think, “What I’m doing’s not that bad.  I’m just concerned with maintaining my public image in a hypocritical way.”  But the same fear of man has driven people to much greater sins.  Your little sin may become a big sin.

The sermon on the mount, from its beginning with the Beatitudes through its end with the parable of the two builders, presents a way of life diametrically opposite one motivated by the fear of man, due to its utter dependence on and motivation by the fear of God.   Consider the memorable points of Matthew 5:21-48: God’s commands apply to our thought life; God demands our heart desires to be aligned with His will. This whole devotion to God is then intentionally contrasted with the “righteousness of the scribes and pharisees,” described in chapter 6.

Chapter 6 attacks the fear of man, guns blazing, from its opening:

Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven.

Briefly consider these two fragments: “Practicing your righteousness before men,” and, “To be noticed by them.”  Righteousness refers to the thing that gives a man (or at least is intended to give a man) a right standing before God.  For example, a Christian’s righteousness is Jesus Christ.  A pharisee’s righteousness is his works (cf. 5:20).  The pharisees did their works in front of men.  And they did so “to be noticed.”  Jesus tells us that the pharisees were motivated by the praise and honor they’d get from men, not by a love of goodness or a love of God or a love for others.  This is the key element of the fear of man from this chapter.  So let us look at this whole chapter a little more closely.  Let us outline it as follows:

  1. The Problem
  2. The Solution

Let’s use this as a rubric for how we talk about the Fear of Man in Matthew 6.

The problem is that the fear of man leads to a deficient and fake spirituality.  Jesus gives three examples of false spirituality as practiced by the pharisees for the sake of showmanship.

The first is charitable giving.  In the Proverbs section of this series, I already talked about how the fear of man (or at least an idolization of security) can prevent you from giving to the poor.  But at the same time, the fear of man can cause you to give to the poor, but for the wrong reasons.  Look at the picture in Matthew 6:2!  Jesus paints a picture of a pharisee blowing a trumpet as he gives some coins to a beggar in the streets, drawing as much attention to himself as he can, so that people will say, “Wow, look at that pharisee!  He’s so Godly and gives so much of his money to the poor!  I should be more like him!”  And what does Jesus say of these people?  “They have their reward in full.”  “[They] have no reward with your Father who is in heaven.”

As should have been clear from the examples in Matthew 5, God looks at the heart, not outward actions.  He sees the deeds the pharisees do, but he also sees their hearts and knows why they do it, that they do it to serve themselves by getting the praise of other men.  And that is not what God wants of us.

We see the same principle with fasting, a practice which is done in order to give ourselves a more focused time of prayer and communion with God.  The hypocrites of Jesus’ time perverted this practice into a means of gaining worldly applause.  They would intentionally forsake basic hygiene while fasting so that anyone could see they were fasting and conclude, “Wow, what a Godly person!”  Jesus tells us not to do this, so that our fasting would be in secret, motivated by a love for God, not man’s praise.

Probably the most egregious perversion is explained in verses 5-13.  The Jewish hypocrites of Jesus’ day perverted prayer, what is supposed to be a communion between the believer and His God, into a means of showing off before men and gaining applause.  This is the epitome of a fake and superficial spirituality.  It turns the purpose of prayer—worshipping God, expressing our dependence on Him, aligning our will with His—on its head, using prayer to glorify ourselves, let us get along well enough without God, and accomplish our own selfish will.

In verses 19-21, Jesus explains much of the heart issue behind pharisaical behavior.  The scribes and pharisees (and unfortunately many professing Christians today) valued earthly treasures, earthly security, earthly prosperity, more than the heavenly gifts and treasures that God could give them, more than the person of God, more than God’s glory, more than eternal blessings.  In essence, the fear of man is worldliness.

Moving away from the center of the chapter, we come to verses 22-23.  By analogy, Jesus argues that the false spirituality, the external religion, the superficial hypocrisy embraced by the scribes and pharisees, their so called “righteousness,” leaves their hearts completely and utterly dark.  “How great is that darkness!”

The last Jesus has to say about the problem is in verse 24.  He leaves his listeners with a choice: you can choose the fear of man, the external religion of the pharisees, the pursuit of earthly treasures and wealth, or you can choose to serve God.  It doesn’t get much clearer than that.

The remaining verses of the chapter happen to give us a solution to the problem.  While explaining that we need not worry, as God the Father will care for us, Jesus gives us the means of combatting the fear of man in our own hearts: complete dependence on God.  Once we recognize that God loves us and cares for us (v. 30), we know we can trust Him for everything we could need.  And once we can do that, we can forsake our pursuit of earthly wealth and security through pleasing men and fearing men.  This will motivate us to give to the poor, to pray, and to fast out of a true love for God.  This will allow our religion to be true, because religious practice must come from a true love for God Himself.

As Jesus moves on with His sermon in chapter 7, we see the same principles of heart religion as we do in chapter 5.  His closing parable (vv. 24-27) gives us a choice: either pursue God with all our hearts as Jesus has laid out, and be blessed and secure, or continue to cling to superficial religion and hypocrisy, continue to reject God, and be destroyed.  Let us soberly consider this for our own lives.

For many of us, particularly those of us who grew up in church as “good church kids” like myself, those who, like me, prided themselves on a familiarity and knowledge of Scripture, and have struggled with spiritual pride all our lives, superficial religion, doing things to be noticed by men, draws us in like light draws moths during the night.  In my flesh, I am forced to my own great pain and sorrow, like Paul in Romans 7, to struggle with this man pleasing body that desires the worldly benefits of superficial religion.  The Sermon on the Mount and the Gospel of Matthew have much encouragement and much exhortation for me, for you, for us.  Let us continually examine ourselves in it as in a mirror.  Let us remember the words from the most famous Irish hymn:

Riches I heed not, nor man’s empty praise:
Thou mine inheritance now and always,
Thou and thou only the first in my heart;
High King of Heaven, my treasure thou art.

I now move on to Matthew 10, after noting Matthew’s conversion, which is a cool and concise story.

Matthew 10 is interesting, partly because it describes a sort of Biblical short term missions trip.  Within it are some more general principles for the Christian life and mission, for example the promise of suffering and persecution in vv. 17-22, and that this follows from the following doctrines:

  • Satan hates Jesus
  • The world at large is under satan’s power
  • Christians are disciples of Jesus

The conclusion that the world will hate Christians is pretty simple.  In this context comes possibly the clearest New Testament passage regarding the fear of man (vv. 26-33):

Therefore do not fear them, for there is nothing concealed that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known.  What I tell you in the darkness, speak in the light; and what you hear whispered in your ear, proclaim upon the housetops.  Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.  Are not two sparrows sold for a cent?  And yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.  But the very hairs of your head are all numbered.  So do not fear; you are more valuable than many sparrows.

Therefore everyone who confesses Me before men, I will also confess him before My Father who is in heaven.  But whoever denies Me before men, I will also deny him before My Father who is in heaven.

What’s this about?  We should preach the Gospel, we should proclaim Christ crucified, regardless of what sufferings it may entail, regardless of what the world thinks of us, regardless of what the government will do to us, regardless of whatever man or devil will do to us.  And why?  Because they have no ultimate power over us.  Jesus has already set us free from the power of sin, from the kingdom of satan.  We have nothing to fear from them; we are already eternally secure in God.  Whatever they do to us, God is allowing them to do to us, for our ultimate benefit.  And these truths are attested to throughout Scripture, for example in this far from exhaustive list:

Job 1:1-12; Romans 1:16; 8:28; 8:38-391 Corinthians 1:18-31; 1 Peter 1:6-9; 2:20.

By this we should be encouraged and comforted.  We have God on our side; we have nothing to fear.  Who can be against us?

Jesus motivates us further in vv. 37-39.  Love for Christ, fear of the Lord, combats the fear of man.  We’re promised a cross, but we’re also promised life and blessing, eternity with Christ.  This is the essence of the Christian’s calling.  We don’t get to live easy lives by avoiding “awkward” evangelism and such.  This struggle is probably hardest in relational evangelism, which is something I find very difficult.  Once you’ve got a relationship going, transitioning to explaining the Gospel can be awkward and hard.  But that’s the fear of man, not the love of Christ, nor even a love for the individual I’m afraid to share the Gospel with.  Jesus calls us to more.

Moving on, note Matthew 13:22.  Given especially what we saw of the fear of man in Matthew 6, it is safe to say the fear of man can prevent us from closing with Christ and coming to Salvation.  That’s worth consideration during self-examination.

Matthew 14:6-12 has a sordid story of what the fear of man and idolization of security of a throne made Herod the Tetrarch do: behead John the Baptist.

Matthew 15:1-14 is a story of Jesus not fearing man.  First, he accuses the Jewish religious leaders of putting more weight on the words and traditions of men than the Word of God and His commandments.  In v. 12, His disciples ask, “Do You know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this statement?”  And Jesus doesn’t seem to care.  Sinners in sin who lead other sinners in ways of sin need to be confronted (vv. 13-14).

I pass over a number of tangentially related passages to come now to Matthew 23, which should be put alongside Matthew 6 in evaluating superficial religion.  In this famous chapter, Jesus condemns the pharisees, pronouncing seven or eight (depending on which Greek texts you choose to use) woes on the hypocrites.  The summary lies in vv. 5-7:

But they do all their deeds to be noticed by men; for they broaden their phylacteries and lengthen the tassels of their garments.  They love the place of honor at banquets and the chief seats in the synagogues, and respectful greetings in the market places, and being called Rabbi by men.

Here is Jesus’ enumeration of their crimes:

  1. They lead people astray from salvation (v. 13)
  2. They devour widows’ houses (v. 14 – possible textual discrepancies)
  3. They go at length to proselytize men to their hellish religion (v. 15)
  4. They prioritize earthly symbols over the God that sanctifies them (vv. 16-22)
  5. They prioritize detailed rituals over general principles of Godliness (vv. 23-24)
  6. They cleanse their outward actions and ignore their heart (vv. 25-26)
  7. They are outwardly Godly but ignore their inward sins (vv. 27-28)
  8. They consider themselves better than their murderous fathers, but are not (vv. 29-33)

This is the end result of the “righteousness of the scribes and pharisees” described in chapter 6, or the righteousness of their own establishment (Romans 10:2-3).  This is the end result of a religion motivated by pride and a fear of man rather than by a love for God.

But the temptation to this outward religion is strong.  I love to be given respect within my church and Bible study.  I love being known by a lot of people and being referred to as “Godly” and “mature” and “knowledgeable” and “wise.”  I love being considered the teacher or mature one in a group.  Many of this share this love with the ancient Pharisees.  And I don’t think that’s something I will ever be able to completely kill.  Pride is strong.  The fear of man is strong.  But consider its full effects as outlined by Jesus.  Consider what it leads to.  I must fight it; I must continue to try to humble myself and prevent this love of praise and fear of man from motivating my service and ministry and walk with God.  I must walk closely with God and love Him first and consider Him first in order to be useful and faithful to Him.  This outward religion will ravage and hinder the church; it’s a great danger that has already crippled churches in modern America.  Jesus calls us out and calls us to something better, something purer: a love for Him.

In case you had any doubt the Jewish leaders feared men, see Matthew 26:5.  Here it actually restrains them from evil, for a time.  The fear of man pervaded their thinking and actions.

I close with two sad stories of people fearing man and sinning greatly because of it.  The first is Peter in Matthew 26:69-75, denying Christ for fear of his life.  The second is Pilate, in Matthew 27:24-26, perverting all justice and condemning the perfect Son of God to die because of his fear of men.  Take them as a warning of how crippling, how dangerous, how destructive the fear of man actually is.  Use them in combatting the temptations of your own heart to act, not out of a love for God, but a love for self and avoiding trouble with other people.  With this we conclude our look at the Fear of Man in Matthew.  I hope you’ve been convicted as I’ve been convicted.  I apologize for the length of this post, but I hope that you are encouraged by God’s love for you (see the discussion on Matthew 10 and Romans 8) and Jesus’ warnings to act, not out of a fear of man, but a love and fear of Him.

Concerning the Fear of Man, Part V: A Disharmony of the Gospels

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