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." (Shemot / Exodus 20:20; ESV)
Some time ago I did a TorahBytes message on this same verse. At that time I explained how there was a difference between being scared of God and having what we might call a healthy fear of him. When we respect him for who he is, then we don't have to be afraid of him. While that is true, I see now that I downplayed what an appropriate fear of God actually is.
In this week's Torah portion, which includes the giving of the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai, we read how the people were warned not to get too close to God lest they perish. A serious warning indeed! Not following God's directive would result in death. The consolation of Moses that I quoted at the beginning in no way contradicts this dire warning. Stepping out of bounds regarding God is perilous. Understanding the balance of not being afraid with the need to fear God includes gaining a real grasp on the magnitude of God's power.
This is in contrast to how God is often depicted today. Somehow the master of the universe and judge of the whole world has become the sugar daddy of the religion of extreme tolerance. To say "God loves you" has come to mean that God accepts you regardless of your behavior - a very different thing from the one who commanded strict lifestyle standards through Moses.
There are people who claim to believe the Bible, who say that God has changed since Mt. Sinai. Those were his angry days, but not now. Under the New Covenant they say, he has calmed down. Now he is a kinder, gentler, and accepting god. Strange though that Yeshua said some things that sound very similar to what Moses said in our Torah portion:
And 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. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows. 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 10:28-33; ESV)"Don't fear, but fear" - just like Moses. The fact is that God is very scary. He is the greatest power in the universe. The power of a nuclear bomb is nothing compared to the infinite power of God. Yet we tend to treat him so lightly. That we can call God, "Father" should overwhelm us. But instead we treat him like someone whom we can manipulate to suit our fancies. The Creator of the Universe is not to be trifled with. Rather, as he demonstrated through Moses, he is to be obeyed, and obeyed on his terms alone.
The real difference between the Old and New Covenants is that God has provided the way to be fully restored to right relationship with him. Through faith in the Messiah's sacrifice we are made fit to draw near to this awesome God. We should not be afraid to approach him, but never on our terms. Just like at Sinai, God still requires that we approach him on his terms alone. To neglect that is to put ourselves at risk of eternal consequences. As both the Old and New Covenant writings attest, "our God is a consuming fire" (Hebrews 12:29; ESV, compare Devarim / Deuteronomy 4:24).