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Phobos--Fear

K. S. Wiggins

 

Phobos is one of those important words of the New Testament that are frequently overlooked by the Bible stu­dent. Yet it is a word the usage of which depicts man's relationship to God, his fel­lows, the judgment, authority, death, and salvation.The usual translation of phobos is "fear," but it is a very neutral word and can describe that which is good or bad, depending on the context. In early Greek it always has the idea of fleeting terror­stricken—an idea that is certainly contained in the root of the word. The cor­responding verb phebomai means "to be affrighted, to flee." Phobos, therefore, ex­presses the protracted state of terror or alarm. Anyone possessed by phobos is thus in a state of alarm as a result of having been struck with the awesomeness of some­thing or someone.

There are two other words translated "fear" in the New Testament. Deilia, which denotes "cowardice"; and eulabeia, whose basic idea is "reverence." Phobos is so neutral a word that it is used to ex­press the ideas not only of its own root but also of deilia and eulabeia. It must be borne in mind, however, that no matter what meaning the context may demand that we attach to a Greek word, the root idea is almost always there. Let us examine critically some of the various meanings of phobos in so far as it expresses the ideas of deilia, eulabeia, and its own root meaning.

Phobos has the meaning of "cowardice" in Hebrews 2:15. Sinners are afraid of death because it terrorizes them. They are struck with the awesomeness of it and be­come cowards as a result. Here the root idea of phobos is evident together with the obvious idea of cowardice. Let us thank God that Christians need not fear death, for they have the perfect peace of a life in Christ.

In many cases where phobos is trans­lated "fear" in the Revised Version the force is that of eulabeia, "reverence." We read in Acts 9:31 that the Palestinian churches were "walking in the fear of the Lord." This undoubtedly means that the Chris­tians were living reverent lives. They had a reverential awe from being struck with the holiness of God. They realized they were living in the shadow of eternity, were al­ways conscious of the Almighty, and always remembered that they had to give an ac­count at the last day. Read Acts 5:11 and 19:17 and note that souls were saved as a result of this phobos being present in the church.

Perhaps this is the need of the Advent Church today. Perhaps we need to think seriously of this neglected principle of soul winning, for we can never fulfill our mis­sion until the church is "walking in the fear of the Lord." Except we possess this constant awareness of God we are no bet­ter than the heathen whom Paul condemns in Romans 3:18, because "there is no fear [phobos] of God before their eyes."

Let us examine phobos now in areas where it possesses the full force of a state of protracted alarm. In Acts and the Synoptic Gospels it describes the reaction of an individual who comes face to face with the divine power in action. Note the reaction of the exorcists at Ephesus (Acts 19:17); the disciples when they saw Jesus walking on the sea (Matt. 14:26); and the guards at the tomb when the heavenly messengers rolled away the stone (Matt. 28:4).

We are told to "fear God" (I Peter 2: 17). That is, live in a state resulting from having been struck with God! Why? Phobos exercises an antiseptic influence upon an individual's character and leads to a chaste life (1 Peter 3:2). It leads to a correct relationship to governmental au­thorities, for the Christian realizes that they are ordained of God (Rom. 13:7). It is the source of holiness (2 Cor. 7:1). It keeps Christians in a proper mutual rela­tionship and prompts respect one for the other (Eph. 5:21). It is connected with the godly sorrow that results in repentance (2 Cor. 7:11). It prompts an examination of one's spiritual life.

Phobos is also used in a bad sense in Romans 13:3. Paul characterizes it as the ungodly's emotion. He expressed the con­nection that a religion based on legalism reduces a man to a slave; and the dominant emotion of a slave is phohos (Rom. 8:15). A religion dominated by law is dominated by fear and is therefore inadequate, for the Christian religion is one of love.

Phobos is also used to express that which prevents a man from bearing witness. See John 7:13 where it is recorded that men did not follow Jesus, because of fear of the Jews. Other uses expressing this kind of fear may be found in John 19:38; 20:19; and 1 Peter 3:14.

This, then, is a great word and deserves study. Should the Christian be fearful? No, for he must never be a coward and lack the essential heroism of Christianity. Yes, for he must always possess that feeling of rev­erence in the presence of the Creator. The secret of great soul winning is plain—the church must walk "in the fear of the Lord."

 

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