Fear and Its Alternatives
What do you think is the most common command in the Bible?
“Be holy”? “Sin no more”? “Love God”? “Love your neighbour”?
Those are all important commands. But apparently, if you count them up, the most commonly repeated command in the whole Bible is “don’t fear” or “do not be afraid” or “fear not.”
Does that surprise you?
Fear is a common experience to us all. We all know what fear is and what fear feels like. And yet don’t we also know that so very often our fear doesn’t work properly? What I mean by that is that we tend to fear certain things more than we should, and we don’t fear other things as much as we ought. Our fear often is like a smoke alarm that goes off when we’re cooking but stays silent as the house burns down.
And so, time and time again, the Bible shows us God coming to recalibrate our fear. Think of Abraham in Genesis 15. “After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision: ‘Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.’” (Genesis 15:1).
God had make big promises to Abraham, but none of them seemed to be happening on the timeline that Abraham expected. And as long as Abraham looked at his circumstances instead of God, he would have reason to be afraid. And so God tells him to look at God, not His circumstances, and to fear not. God’s presence and God's promises re-writes the story that fear tries to tell us.
Or think about Jesus’ twelve apostles. They’ve gone from just being told to follow of Jesus to now being told they’re getting sent out to do what Jesus has been doing. And, like we heard much of last week, they know it’s going to be really, really difficult.
“Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves” (Matthew 10:16). When you throw one wolf into a flock of sheep, they panic. Throw some sheep into a pack of wolves, and can you imagine the fear level?
Think of what else Jesus has told them. “They will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake” (Matthew 10:17-18). “Brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death, and you will be hated by all for my name’s sake” (Matthew 10:21-22).
These things will happen. And if you were standing there, hearing all of this—especially for the first time—and thinking just about these circumstances, it’s going to be easy for you to feel what? Afraid. Very afraid. Fear is going to be having a field day.
Three Reasons Not to Fear
Jesus knows this. And so, in verses 26-33, he begins to reassure his disciples against fear. Three times, in three different ways, He tells them not to fear. “So have no fear of them… and do not fear… fear not, therefore…” (Matthew 10:26, 28, 31). And what’s so good is that He doesn’t just give them bare commands. Jesus doesn’t just tells them not to fear; He tells them why not to fear. He gives them reasons—four reasons, actually. And even more than this, He tells them what they should be doing instead of fearing.
Isn’t that great? Fear is one of those things that, if you just try to stop it, you might not have much success. But if you know why you shouldn’t fear, and if you know what you should be doing instead of fearing, there’s a good path forward for you.
And as we’ll see here, Jesus gives His disciples the best reasons and the best way forward out of the path of crippling fear. And we’re going to consider each of these three pairings in turn.
1. Do not fear them, for all will be revealed (v. 26)
First, Jesus tells His disciples not to fear those who will persecute them, because all is going to be revealed. Verse 26: “So have no fear of them, for nothing is covered that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known” (Matthew 10:26).
In this verse, Jesus appears to be referring to the day of judgement. He’s spoken about the day of judgement up in verse 15, and He’s going to point to it again down in verse 32, and so the context suggests that this is what Jesus is referring to here.
There is a day when everything is going to come out. Every dirty back-room deal, every slanderous lie told behind someone’s back, every slimy politician’s act of cowardice, every hateful decision that caused pain to the people of God—it’s all going to come out into the open and be dealt with by God at the final judgement.
“For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil,” says Ecclesiastes 12:14. The Apostle Paul speaks about “that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus” (Romans 2:15–16). And in Matthew 12:36 Jesus told how “on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak” (Matthew 12:36).
It’s hard to watch wicked people persecute the people of God and just get away with it. It can look as if God’s enemies really have the upper hand. But Jesus tells us that this appearance is just an illusion. The day is coming when all of these dirty secrets will be brought out into the light and the truth will be seen and the people of God will be vindicated.
And sometimes, we don’t even need to wait until Judgement Day. Think about how the Bible reports on Pilate and Ciaphas and the various leaders who unjustly tried Jesus. Think about the background story we hear behind Paul’s trials in Acts. Think about Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, and how the truth behind the unjust persecution of the people of God has come out again and again and again.
Time and truth have a way of marching hand-in-hand, and sometimes the truth comes out even before Judgement Day. But certainly, on that day, everything will come out. The wicked of the earth simply will not get away with their wickedness forever. While, for the time being, they seem to hold the power and be able to control the narratives, that power is like a bubble that is going to pop.
And so, Jesus’ disciples are to “have no fear of them.. nothing is covered that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known” (Matthew 10:26).
Instead, speak the truth openly (v. 27)
Instead of fear, Jesus’ disciples are to keep on speaking the truth openly. Verse 27: “What I tell you in the dark, say in the light, and what you hear whispered, proclaim on the housetops” (Matthew 10:27). Don’t be shy of boldly proclaiming the truth. In the light of Judgement Day, keep on speaking openly. Don’t give in to fear, but keep on speaking the gospel.
And that’s our first set of a reason not to fear, paired with an encouragement of what to do instead.
2. Do not fear them, for they cannot touch your eternity (v. 28a)
Let’s move on to the second. In verse 28, we are told not to fear our persecutors because they can’t touch our eternity. “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul” (Matthew 10:28a).
Think of all of the persecution that Jesus has described up until this point. What’s the worst that any of that can result in? Dying.
Just dying. That’s the worst these people can do. They can kill your body. And that’s it. What they cannot do is kill your soul. These people have no ability, no power, no capacity to kill someone’s soul.
Just think about that for a bit. The real you—your soul—which will live on after your body dies, is untouchable by any human you meet today. They cannot kill the most important part of you. They cannot touch your eternity.
Death is not final. For all of those martyrs throughout history who were killed by the sword or thrown to the lions or burned at the stake—none of their lives truly ended in those moments. Rather, in a sense, their lives were just beginning. As the edge of a soldier’s sword or a lion’s teeth or a searing flame ended their physical life, and their heart stopped beating and their lungs stopped breathing and their body was destroyed, that was just the moment that the seed was pushed into the ground.
Their souls lived on in the presence of God. And one day, a day that gets sooner and sooner each day, their souls will be reunited with a resurrected body and their eternal life will keep going on for ever and ever.
So what did that death take from them? What of real importance was taken from them? In the scope of eternity, what really changed for them that day that their bodies were killed? Nothing.
And so, we should not fear those who kill the body but cannot—are unable to—kill our souls.
Instead, fear the Lord who can (v. 28b)
What are we do do instead of fearing them? We are to fear the Lord. That’s the implication of the second half of verse 28: “Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”
Some people might read that and think that it refers to Satan. The problem is that nowhere in the Bible do we see that Satan has power to destroy people in hell. And nowhere in the Bible do we see that we should be afraid of Satan.
But many times in the Bible we see that God has authority over body and soul and death and hell, and many times in the Bible we are told that we must fear Him.
This is a real challenge, right? We’re in a passage about not fearing. “Fear not” is the most common command in the Bible. And yet right here we are told to fear the Lord.
We just did a series in Proverbs this summer and heard that same truth again and again. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight” (Proverbs 9:10).
And we saw in Proverbs that this same tension between fearing and not fearing runs throughout the whole Bible. At Mount Sinai, “Moses said to the people, ‘Do not fear, for God has come to test you, that the fear of him may be before you, that you may not sin’” (Exodus 20:20).
And the best way to deal with this is not to do what some people have done, which is to explain away the fear of God and basically say it has nothing to do with fear at all. “It just means respect.” Or, like a book I read recently argued, “the fear of the Lord” just refers to a really strong joy in God that is so strong it makes us tremble.
That kind of trembling joy in God is certainly a good thing, and perhaps it’s a part of “the fear of the Lord,” but you can’t say that the fear of God is just a strong joy. Otherwise, passages like Matthew 10:28 end up making no sense.
In this verse, Jesus saying not to fear those who can destroy the body, but to fear Him who can destroy the soul, and the logic of this verse assumes that the word “fear” means the same thing in both halves of the verse.
And so instead of just wallpapering over these difficult verses, we should just take what the Bible says at face value. We must fear the Lord. Not because He’s a bad guy who is out to get us. That’s what Moses was saying to the people at Mount Sinai: “Don’t be afraid.” In other words, don’t run away from God—He’s not out to get you.
But He does want us to fear Him and that fear of Him is what keeps us from sinning. In other words, our healthy fear of God’s judgement keeps us from wandering away from Him.
And here in Matthew 10:28, we see that the fear of the Lord keeps us from fearing man. Let’s actually break down how this will work: Jesus’ disciples have been entrusted with the gospel and sent out to spread the message of the kingdom. And as they do that, they’re going to meet people who want them to stop. People who will even try to kill them to make them stop.
And if Jesus’ disciples are afraid of those people, and afraid of dying at the hands of those people, then they will cave in and stop preaching the gospel. They’ll stop being loyal to Jesus. They’ll turn their back on Jesus’ kingdom entirely.
And if they do that, then they are going to have to stand before God someday and give an answer for that. They’re going to have to answer to God for why they abandoned their mission and committed treason against their King. And they will have to face the judgement of God—the God who can cause both soul and body to be lost and ruined and destroyed in the place of eternal judgement.
And Jesus is telling them to think about that. Not just to think about that, but to fear that. And not even just to fear that but to fear Him who can do that—who can destroy both body and soul in hell.
Because if they fear the Lord who can destroy them in hell, then suddenly those human persecutors don’t look quite so scary anymore. The worst they can do is kill their bodies. And that’s not all that bad compared to hell.
So, fear man and face the judgement of God. Or, fear God, and all of a sudden men don’t seem quite so scary anymore. And this is why various authors have summed up the teaching of this passage by saying things like, “Those who fear God have nothing else to fear.” When we fear God properly, nothing is is fearsome by comparison.
So, “do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28).
3. Do not fear them, for you are valuable to God (v. 31)
We come now to the third reason not to fear, and this one begins with a bit of a preamble. Jesus begins in verse 29-30 by describing the sovereign care of God over all of His creation.
“Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father” (Matthew 10:29).
Sparrows being sold might seem like a funny idea to us, but in this part of the world at that time, they were sold in the market as cheap poultry. Seriously, poor people would go to the market, and for the smallest coin they had—a penny—they could get two sparrows, which they could take home and cook and get a little smidgen of meat off of it.
And yet—and yet— “not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father” (Matthew 10:29). This verse reminds us of God’s sovereign rule over all of His creation. He rules over the most insignificant creature.
Some people have taken this verse and emphasized that God sees what happens. Some of you might know that children’s song, “God sees the little sparrow fall, It meets His tender view; If God so loves the little birds, I know He loves me, too.” Now that’s true, but that’s not necessarily what this passage is teaching.
This passage is teaching that those birds don’t fall to the ground apart from God, period. In other words, He is in charge and in control of that event. We considered this a couple of years ago when we read Matthew 6:26, which says, “Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them” (Matthew 6:26).
And we asked, “I thought the birds feed themselves?” And the answer is, according to the Bible, that nothing in this world “just happens by itself.” Go read Psalm 104, which walks through all kinds of natural events, and says that God is the one behind all of that, making it happen, sovereignly ruling over it all.
This world is not just a ball that God kicked and it keeps rolling. This world continues to work, second-by-second, because God is ruling over every last detail. And so when a sparrow falls to the ground and dies, it does so as a part of His sovereign will.
And His sovereign will extends to even smaller details yet, things that we might think don’t even matter. “But even the hairs of your head are all numbered” (Matthew 10:30). God’s sovereignty extends even to the number of follicles on your scalp.
So, if God rules over creation at that level, we can trust Him. And that’s why Jesus says, in verse 31: “Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows” (Matthew 10:31).
What a comforting touch. He’s already referred to God as our Father in verse 29. And here we hear about the value that our Father places on us. We aren’t just mammals. We were made by Him in His image, and if we are among His redeemed people we find our ultimate value in the price paid for us at the cross. We are of more value than many sparrows.
And so we should take comfort in this. Do you notice how Jesus is rounding out the picture of the Heavenly Father that He gave us in verse 28? Yes, God is to be feared as the one who can cast us into Hell; but God is also to be trusted as the Father who values us greatly and sovereignly oversees every detail of our lives.
So as the disciples go out to spread the message of the kingdom, they aren’t walking out into a big, wide, scary world where anything can happen. They are walking out into God’s world, where every detail is a part of His sovereign plan. They themselves are valued by God, and so nobody can do anything to them that is not a part of God’s good and sovereign plan.
Instead, trust His sovereign hand (vv. 29-30)
So they don’t need to be afraid. Instead, what are they to do? While the answer isn’t spelled out, it’s pretty clearly assumed that Jesus wants us to trust God’s sovereign plan! Sparrows and hair follicles are in His plan, and so is what happens to us. So instead of fearing, we can trust.
Now we need to understand that’s not a guarantee that nothing difficult will ever happen to them. Not a sparrow falls to the ground apart from the Father, but the sparrows still do fall to the ground. God’s sovereign plan often includes difficulty. Like it did for Jesus Himself, who was “delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2:23).
Jesus is not saying that they won’t be hated and beaten and persecuted and even killed for His name’s sake. In fact, He’s told them that those things are going to happen (Matthew 10:17-22). The comfort is that those things are a part of the sovereign plan of God.
The comfort is in knowing that all these things happen by the will of God. The comfort is knowing “for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). It’s knowing that “neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38–39). It’s knowing that “this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Corinthians 4:17–18).
It’s knowing that “after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you” (1 Peter 5:10).
And so we can face the suffering with confident trust because we aren’t looking for our best life now. We can live with hardship now because we’re looking for our best life later when the kingdom comes in its fullness.
I hope you’ve notice how this whole passage is pointed in this direction. The first reason not to fear orients us towards Judgement Day where everything will come out. The second reason helps us see that death is not the worst that could happen to us, and that our response to people needs to be shaped by a healthy fear of God and His judgement. And this last reason points us in that same direction as we come to understand that dying does not mean the end of God’s wise and loving plans for our lives.
Summary: Choose Faithfulness to Jesus Over Fear of People (v. 32-33)
So, these three commands not to fear, these three reasons not to fear, and these three alternatives to fear all present us with a basic choice. It’s the same basic choice we saw in the beatitudes and all throughout the Sermon on the Mount. We can live for our best life now, and miss out on what’s really important, or we can be content with a difficult life now for the sake of eternal realities and an eternal reward.
And so it’s no surprise to see how Jesus sums up this whole section: “So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 10:32–33).
Faithfulness to Jesus in this life includes publicly acknowledging Jesus’ lordship. And that public faithfulness will be worth it, despite all of the difficulty it will bring, because it means that Jesus acknowledges us before His Father. It means, in essence, that He says to His Father, “They’re with me. They’re mine.”
But when we cave in to the pressure and disown Jesus here on earth, that means being disowned in Heaven. It means Jesus saying to His Father, in essence, “I don’t know these people. They don’t belong here.”
What would you rather have?
There’s not a whole lot more to say about this passage, but as we conclude here I want to make sure we don’t miss some very important truths that this passage, as a whole, shouts to us.
First, don’t miss that “heaven” is not just a nice extra that Jesus throws in to the Christian life. That’s how it sounds sometimes here in North America. “Jesus will fix up your life and make you feel really good, and, guess what, you get this great bonus called heaven after you die.”
What we’re seeing in this passage is that believing in Jesus will probably make our life quite a bit more difficult than it would be otherwise. But it’s worth it, because of eternity. So instead of seeing this life as the really important thing, with heaven as a nice bonus, it’s more like heaven is the really important thing, with a cushy life as something we’re willing to sacrifice.
Secondly, please know that none of these are just nice ideas. And this passage is not just for the twelve apostles. The realities Jesus talks about in this passage are for all of His disciples. And how long will it be here in Canada where we will need to make choices between fearing God and fearing people? Between deciding to disown Jesus or acknowledge Jesus despite great price?
It’s coming. It’s not hard to see how not only government policies but even public opinion is turning against the people of God. Have you noticed how many hit pieces CBC is putting out against Christian schools and churches and even people? They are working to make Christians look like the bad guys, and it’s probably going to work. We will be hated by all for His name’s sake.
What will you do when you need to choose between a career and your Christian convictions? Between your safety and your loyalty to Jesus? Between having friends and having your faith?
And yet, as I ask those questions, I wonder how many of those decisions are in front of us today. Don’t we all have the opportunities, in relationships with neighbours and friends and family, to acknowledge Jesus before other people?
And don’t we often avoid that because we’re scared? Scared of making things awkward? Scared of people not liking us?
And what’s going to change when the stakes are raised and things get really hard?
Here’s what I’m saying: now is the day to acknowledge Jesus before others. Now is the day to reject fear, to look to eternity, and to trust the sovereign care of God. Now is the day to choose faithfulness to Jesus over fear of people.
What does that look like for you? Who are the people in your workplaces, classrooms, neighbourhoods, friend groups, even families, whom you’re tempted to feel intimidated by? Whom you’re tempted to fear?
What will it look like for you to respond to the voice of Jesus: “So have no fear of them… and do not fear those who kill the body… fear not, therefore”?
Would you ask the Lord to help you trust His promises, believe His words, and set you free from fear?