I’ve been combing through the book of Acts lately trying to understand what made the early church such a dynamic movement. This isn’t the first time I’ve done it, nor will it be the last. It’s a bit of an obsession with me. You’ll have to deal with it.
A few days ago I stumbled across something that I had missed in other translations. Acts 2 describes the coming of the Holy Spirit in the upper room and the message Peter preached in an attempt to explain it. When Peter finishes declaring the Gospel, many, many people come to Christ and the first church is born. This infant church begins practicing what I’ve taught as the four essentials of church for a long time (devotion to the Gospel, fellowship, eating together, and prayer).
What gripped me, though, was the next verse. It wasn’t the description of what the church did–it was the description of what the church had. Here’s what Luke records:
And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles.
What struck me as I read it was the translation of the word “awe.” I’m used to that word being translated as “fear.” Whenever the word is translated as fear in relationship to God, we often understand it as “the fear of the Lord,” which Scripture over and over again defines as a healthy spiritual reality, despite what modern teachers tell us. Here in the English Standard Version, the translators chose the word “awe.” I like this translation because I think it clearly states what Luke is trying to describe. In those early days, everyone was in awe of what God was doing.
As I started to dig into this word, I found that it was translated from the Greek word “phobos” which is where we get the word phobia from. This word is used across the New Testament to describe two seemingly different realities. One is the fear of something that is dreadful, but the other is a fear of God that spurs Christians to grow in proper relationship to Christ. So while I don’t doubt that fear is a proper translation, as I’ve thought about “awe” as it’s translated in Acts 2, I’m wondering if awe might be a closer English word to what Luke was trying to describe.
Why else would the New Testament say the following:
- So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was being built up. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it multiplied. (Acts 9:31)
- Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade others… (2 Corinthians 5:11)
- Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God.
- …submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ. (Ephesians 5:21)
- …work out your own salvation with fear and trembling… (Philippians 2:12)
- And if you call on him as Father who judges impartially according to each one’s deeds, conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile… (1 Peter 1:17)
Now go back and look at each of these passages and in the place of fear, replace it with awe. It’s not that fear is the wrong word, so much as it doesn’t touch the depths of fascination and respect that our English understanding of fear communicates. Imagine the church multiplying because it walks in the awe of God, persuading others about the reality of Christ because our hearts are awestruck by who He is, purifying ourselves because we’re so caught up in awe of God. Imagine a body of believers who conduct their lives in awe throughout their time on Earth…that is so awestruck by what God is doing in other believers that they submit to the Christ they see in each other! Living in the awe of God has a powerful influence on the way we live our lives.
I still believe that the church needs to return to the practices of Acts 2:42, but I’m starting to wonder if the church doesn’t desperately need to recover the “awe of God.” What if instead of just repeating the practices of the early church, we did them out of the awe of God and what He is doing?
Now awe is a funny thing. We can’t produce it in ourselves. God produces awe of Himself in the human heart, but we can learn to walk in it. We can hunger after the kind of experiences the early church had. We can seek to encounter the same Christ that worked miracles among the early church. We can lay aside our lesser fascinations and begin to fix our hearts again on the one we are supposed to live in awe of–Jesus. As we do, awe will grow. We’ll encounter Him more. As we encounter Him, our awe will grow.
When we have this awe of God glowing white hot in our hearts, it’s terribly easy to declare the goodness of Jesus and stand against persecution. Others will see it and turn to the Lord as well, especially as God shows up in the midst of those circumstances. In some crazy sort of way, as we experience the awe of God in our hearts, it whets the appetites of those around us and quickly others become hungry to encounter Jesus.
Friends, I’m writing today to encourage you to get an awe of God. If you’ve lost it, if you’ve never had it, or if you just want more of it, go back to God and ask Him for it. He will give you more awe if you ask.
Who knows? It may even be the start of a church planting movement like we see in the book of Acts.
English word “awful” used to mean “inspiring reverential wonder or fear.” That has since evolved to the awful “very bad or unpleasant.”
The meaning of “phobos” has also undergone a perceptual change, where today it most often refers to an emotion, more closely matching the more abstract word, “fear”. Yet from the koine Greek of Jesus’ day, phobos describes a “withdrawingness” or outright fleeing [ref:BibleHub] [also, εμφοβος: withdrawing-within; εκφοβος: withdrawing-outwardly].
It seems difficult for us to grab hold onto how withdrawing-from God (or, fearing God) can be a good thing [Matthew 28:8; Acts 2:43; II Corinthians 5:10-11..], or, can be a not so good thing [Matthew 14:26-27; Luke 2:9.10..]. Also with trembling, as “fear and trembling” or, “awe and trembling”?
AMP, NASB, NIV and others also have “awe” at Acts 2:43 and some elsewhere. Still, I “wonder” if possibly what they did experienced together was not just a sense of awe, but also of reaching to their acts? What all were they withdrawing from, and why?