The word “fear” in English is generally the word we use when we are terrified. As a result, many readers of the Bible think it is appropriate to serve God because we are afraid of Him. But when the word fear is associated with God in the Bible, it has a much softer meaning. In the Old Testament, for example, the fear of God means to have reverence or awe for Him: it includes things like knowing God personally (Proverbs 9:10); doing His commandments (Psalm 111:10; Eccl 12:13) and avoiding evil (Proverbs 3:7 and 16:6). In the New Testament, it can mean awe and respectful excitement (Luke 7:16; Acts 2:43). The fear of God provides motivation for godly behavior (2 Cor. 7:1). It is parallel to the honor one would give to a king (1 Pet. 2:17) and the respect one would show toward a superior (1 Pet. 2:18).
In a recent book (Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, 2005), Eugene Peterson explains the ”Fear of the Lord” in this way: It is the comprehensive term in the Bible for the way we live the spiritual life, it has to do with our response to the way God is working in our lives, it has to do with our part of a walk with God. Fear of the Lord is what we do when we realize we are in the presence of God. People tend to respond to the presence of God in two ways. One is awed silence. Overwhelmed by the awareness of God’s presence we fall silent, all senses alert. The other response is to become noisy and celebrate God’s presence with great excitement. But too often the latter response is a subtle way to distract ourselves from the call and presence of God. Another response to the presence of God is to set up a code of conduct and apply ourselves to that. But this puts ourselves or someone else in charge of “knowing good and evil” in our lives and can distance us from the very God we are seeking to honor. Fear of God is not so much thinking about God or doing for God as it is living in reverence before God.
In modern terms, the fear of God means to take God seriously enough to enter into a relationship with Him, to follow His warnings to avoid evil, and to do His commandments, even the ones that may be inconvenient. It is a call to live and act as those who know that they will give account to God one day. According to Revelation 14:7, such a serious calling will be a part of the experience of God’s end-time people.