By the time you read this, you may already have seen “the handshake”—the one between President Donald Trump and the newly elected President of France, Emmanuel Macron. If it was not so pathetic, it would be funny.
Two world leaders behaved like big time wrestlers. Knuckles turned white, lips were tightly pursed, and poorly-veiled grimaces were displayed as they tried to outdo each other. CNN characterised it as “a white knuckle handshake that looked more like an arm wrestle.” Shame on Mr Trump for his attempt at one up-manship—and shame on Mr Macron for responding in kind. When asked about the handshake Mr Macron responded that it was “a moment of truth” that demonstrated he would not make even small concessions to the US President. I guess that neither he nor Mr Trump have read Ephesians 5—particularly v. 21. I would surmise that neither one of them knows what it means to live “in the fear of Christ” (ESV).
Sadly, white-knuckled diplomacy is the reason for international conflict and the resulting oceans of blood which have been shed in endless wars. White-knuckled resolve continues to destroy marriage after marriage. White-knuckled rebellion continues to wreak havoc between children and parents and parents and children.
Many reading this can probably testify of miserable experiences in the work place because of white-knuckled resistance from employers, and others can share stories of ugly, white-knuckled rebellion of employees. White-knuckled stubbornness continues to split, and even kill, local churches. My brothers and sisters, these things ought not to be!
As the apostle Paul shows in Ephesians 5, Spirit-filled Christians learn to loosen their grip on their rights. And as they do so, relationships in the church, the home and the workplace are improved. Because of a selfless submissive resolve, relationships are made healthy.
In v. 21, and in what follows, Paul reveals the miraculous way in which Christians are to live. And there is nothing white-knuckled about it. Rather, it is all about a willingness to give up one’s rights; to give up one’s agenda for a higher agenda—that of the Lord Jesus Christ. It is a miraculous, and therefore a beautiful life. Holiness is always in fashion in the kingdom of God.
The antidote to white-knuckled living is provided in this passage, as Paul fleshes out what it means, and what it looks like, to be filled with the Spirit. Simply put, to avoid white knuckled-living we need to see the Lord Jesus in the whiteness of His glory (see Revelation 1:9–14). In other words, we need to live out a proper fear/reverence of Christ. This is what we will focus on in this study, for it has everything to do with whether we will be white-knuckled in our church relationships, in marriage, in our parental relationships, and in the workplace.
This is possible only by being filled with the Holy Spirit.
What It Means to Be Filled with the Holy Spirit
We must remind ourselves from the outset of what it means to be filled by the Spirit—and what it doesn’t mean. It is important that we not be confused about this.
There are four necessary works of the Spirit upon which being filled with the Spirit are predicated. Without these one can never be filled with the Spirit. But these important works are not synonymous with being filled with the Spirit.
First, we must be miraculously birthed by the Spirit. We are born again “not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy … through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5). John 3 is a lengthier explanation of the work of the Spirit in regeneration.
Second, having been born again, we must miraculously believe by the Spirit. John said that belief is the evidence that we have been born again (1 John 5:1). Those whom the Sprit miraculously regenerates He miraculously enables to believe.
Third, we must be miraculously baptised by the Spirit. “For by one Spirit we were all baptised into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free—and have all been made to drink into one Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:13). Baptism by the Spirit identifies us as God’s people by identifying us with God’s church.
Fourth, we must be miraculously embodied by the Spirit. Your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost (1 Corinthians 6:19) once you have been born again and have been brought to believe.
All of this enables us to miraculously behave by the Spirit. This Spirit-driven behaviour is what it means to be filled with the Spirit. It is about a choice—the choice of whom or what will control us.
What Being Filled with the Spirit Produces
As we saw in our previous study, the Holy Spirit empowers us for worship; He energises us for obedience. Specifically, Paul tells us that when we are filled with the Spirit we will edify with our speech (v. 19a), exhort with our singing (v. 19b), express our satisfaction (v. 20), and exercise our submission (v. 21). The result of this is that we exemplify our Saviour, for to behave in this way is to behave like the Lord Jesus Christ (see John 13; Philippians 2).
But Paul mentions one other thing in v. 21 that the Holy Spirit does in the life of the Christian: fear/reverence for Christ. In other words, the Holy Spirit helps us to do the otherwise impossible—mutual submission—by empowering us with the fear of Jesus Christ. He delivers us from the destructive default response of white-knuckled living.
We don’t usually think of fear in conjunction with our relationship with Jesus Christ. But that is our problem. Apart from biblical fear, we resort to self-serving, self-righteous, self-reliant, self-justifying living.
What It Means to Fear Jesus Christ
The NKJV translates the last clause of v. 21 as “the fear of God.” The ESV probably follows the more accurate manuscript and translates it as “the fear of Christ.” We often talk about the fear of God, but less so about the fear of Christ. But that is exactly what Paul speaks about here. So, what does it mean to fear Jesus Christ?
It means to see Him as He is and to see you as you are. It means to respond to Him as your Master. It means to live so as to please Him. It means to pursue a relationship with Him. It means to be impressed with Him.
In The Road to Sparta, Dean Karnazes speaks of the ways in which the Greeks feared the Persians. “The Greeks feared and revered the Persians, both for their fighting prowess and for certain elements of their culture. Young Persian men were purportedly taught three basic skills in life: to ride a horse, to shoot a bow, and to tell the truth.” Greek fear for Persians combined dread and respect—dread because of Persian fighting prowess, and respect for cultural elements. In similar fashion, the biblical fear of Christ includes both dread and reverence. One helpful illustration of this is found in the opening verses of Luke 5:
So it was, as the multitude pressed about Him to hear the word of God, that He stood by the Lake of Gennesaret, and saw two boats standing by the lake; but the fishermen had gone from them and were washing their nets. Then He got into one of the boats, which was Simon’s, and asked him to put out a little from the land. And He sat down and taught the multitudes from the boat. When He had stopped speaking, He said to Simon, “Launch out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.” But Simon answered and said to Him, “Master, we have toiled all night and caught nothing; nevertheless at Your word I will let down the net.” And when they had done this, they caught a great number of fish, and their net was breaking. So they signalled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both the boats, so that they began to sink. When Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!” For he and all who were with him were astonished at the catch of fish which they had taken; and so also were James and John, the sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. And Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid. From now on you will catch men.” So when they had brought their boats to land, they forsook all and followed Him.
Notice that Peter first responded with dread: He was so afraid that he pleaded with Jesus to depart from him. But the Lord drew reverence from this dread. He urged Peter to not be afraid—to not be filled with dread—but He called the fishermen to follow him. Out of reverence, they forsook all they had and followed him. The dread and respect that they experienced led to obedience.
A proper fear of Christ always leads to obedience. Conversely, it produces in us a reluctance to disappoint him.
The Bible provides us with ample reason to fear Christ.
First, we should fear Christ because He is God. Isaiah was filled with fear when he saw the Lord (Isaiah 6), and John experienced similar fear when he had a vision of Christ in the opening chapter of Revelation. The Lord Jesus appeared to him, declaring Himself to be “the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End” (v. 8). John writes, “When I saw Him, I fell at His feet as dead” (v. 17). Once again, Jesus lifted John up and encouraged him not to be afraid (v. 17ff). If we fear God, we must fear Christ, because Christ is God.
Second, we should fear Christ because those who knew Him feared Him. In Matthew 14:26, the disciples saw Jesus walking on the water “and they cried out for fear.” When Jesus calmed the storm on the Sea of Galilee, the disciples “feared exceedingly” (Mark 4:41). In Luke 7:11–17, Jesus interrupted a funeral procession in Nain by raising a widow’s son. When the bystanders saw the miracle, “fear came upon all” (v. 16).
Third, we should fear Jesus because the early church feared Him. Acts 2:43 says of the early church that “fear came upon every soul.” Acts 9:31 tells us that the early believers walked “in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit.” Acts 19:17 says that, in Ephesus, when the gospel was made known, “fear fell on them all, and the name of the Lord Jesus was magnified.”
Fourth, we should fear Christ because Scripture reveals that He is our Judge. Second Corinthians 5 makes this point abundantly clear.
Therefore we make it our aim, whether present or absent, to be well pleasing to Him. For we must all appear before the judgement seat of Christ, that each one may receive the things done in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad. Knowing, therefore, the terror of the Lord, we persuade men; but we are well known to God, and I also trust are well known in your consciences.
(2 Corinthians 5:9–11)
Fifth, we should fear Christ because those who are wise fear him. Psalm 2 exults in the victory of the Son through the resurrection and concludes with this word of exhortation to the reader: “Kiss the Son lest he be angry and you perish in the way when his wrath is kindled but a little. Blessed are all those who put their trust in him” (v. 12). In New Testament parables, those who are wise often fear the consequences of unfaithfulness and unpreparedness for the Lord (see, for example, Matthew 25:1–13).
Sixth, we should fear Christ because those who have seen Him in His glory feared Him. Again, Isaiah 6 and Revelation 1 make this point clear.
Seventh, we should fear Christ because of all that He bestows on those who do. He produces in us, says Andrew Davis, “a terror that protects us and delight that allures us.”
In short, we should fear Christ because we are commanded to fear Him! We are to “cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God” (2 Corinthians 7:1). Again, hear Paul to the Colossians: “And whatever you do, do it heartily, as to the Lord and not to men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance; for you serve the Lord Christ. But he who does wrong will be repaid for what he has done, and there is no partiality” (3:23–25).
If we are filled with the Spirit, we will take Jesus far more seriously than we often do. And when we do, we will obey His command to submit to one another. This will work itself out in all our relationships. Wives will submit to their husbands “as to the Lord” (5:22). Husbands will submissively love their wives “as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her” (5:25). Children will submissively obey their parents “in the Lord” (6:1). Fathers will submissively raise their children “in the training and admonition of the Lord” (6:4). Employees will obediently submit to their employers “as to Christ” (6:5), and employers will fairly treat their employees in the sight of their “Master … in heaven” (6:9).
If we fear Christ, we will submit and follow Him—in submitting. We will willingly and happily submit to Him, even as He willingly and happily submitted to His Father.
What is the Result of Fearing Him?
If we fear Christ, we will live lives of faithful obedience. As we have already seen, marriage relationships, family relationships, and work relationships will change. Believers will obey in all of these areas as they submit to Christ. This obedience, as in the verses that follow our text, will be Christ-centred. Submission to Christ will produced submission to others. As John Murray succinctly observed, “The fear of the Lord is the soul of godliness.”
Our problem is that we far too often call Him, “Lord, Lord,” but we do not do what He says (Luke 6:46). We are far too self-focused. We ask for things that we want and need, but we do not obey as we ought.
My daughter recently told me of a prayer that one of my grandchildren prayed. At three years old, this child prayed, “Dear God, thank you for the Bible. Please let my brother not get hidings. Please let it be Christmas. Thank you. Bye.”
That is often how we pray. We would do well to remember that there is more to the Christian life than “Christmas and goodbye”—things like cross-bearing, and making it “Christmas” for others.
How can you fear Christ but leave Him out of your schedule? How can you fear Christ and but shun the very church for which He sacrificed? How can you fear Christ and continue to not gather, to not grow, to not serve? In other words, how can you fear Christ and yet set your own agenda and reject His? Who really is the “chairman” of your life?
Faithfulness from fear produces a life of fruitfulness. Instead of white-knuckled responses to your spouse, there will be mutual submission. Spirit-filled wives will not set conditions for submission to their husbands. Spirit-filled wives will not set conditions for loving their wives. Spirit-filled husbands will also not lord it over their wives, but will lovingly lead them. When knuckles whiten in marriages, the grimness of the countenance becomes obvious, and the marriage is seen to be very natural rather than supernatural. The mutual submission that Christ commands becomes nonexistent.
In homes where believers are filled with the Spirit, there will be no more white-knuckled responses in parent/child relationships, because parents will submit to Christ and children will submit to their parents because they are submitting to Christ. There will be no more white-knuckled and harsh words from parents. White-knuckled and harsh leadership of parents who will not humble themselves before the Lord will be a thing of the past. There will be no more white-knuckled refusal to acknowledge wrong and ask for forgiveness. For their part, Spirit-filled children will not display a white-knuckled defiance and disrespect of their parents. There will be a kind and respectful mutual relationship between parents and children.
The same principle can be applied when believers in the workplace are filled with the Spirit. White-knuckled belligerence between workers and employers and vice-versa will be a thing of the past, because employers will submit to their Master in heaven and this will create an environment where employees feel more secure in submitting to those they respect.
We should perhaps note that, while 6:5–9 certainly applies to the modern workplace, in New Testament times, slaves were considered to be a part of the home. There is a sense, therefore, in which Paul is describing the change wrought in an ancient home. Reverence for Christ goes a long way to making a home heaven on earth in contrast to mutual white-knuckledness, thereby making a home hell on earth. Such irreverent behaviour is characteristic of knuckleheads!
But coming back to the context of the congregation gathered to worship, if each submits to one another, there will be no more white-knuckled stubbornness when the church is called upon to gather with one another, to pray with one another, and to minister with and to one another. There will be no more white-knuckled refusal to greet, to forgive, to give, to forbear, to be patient, or to serve one another. The reason for this is because Christ’s agenda for the church will trump our own agenda within the church.
How We Can Grow in our Fear of Jesus Christ
The way that we grow in our fear of Jesus Christ is by focusing on Him. When my son-in-law was recently in South Africa on furlough, I was blessed to see the way that he dealt with his children. One of his children has a tendency to virtually hyperventilate when he gets riled up about something. Whenever that happened, my son-in-law would grab him by the shoulders, look him in the face, and tell him, “Focus on me!” As the child looked at his father, he would gradually calm down and breathing would return to normal.
Really, this is what we need in our walk with Christ. We need to focus on Him. We need to look at Him. And for this, we need the ministry of the Holy Spirit. Jesus made it clear that the Holy Spirit was being sent to point God’s people to Him. Paul urges us as he writes to the Corinthians to keep our focus fixed firmly on Christ.
But if the ministry of death, written and engraved on stones, was glorious, so that the children of Israel could not look steadily at the face of Moses because of the glory of his countenance, which glory was passing away, how will the ministry of the Spirit not be more glorious? For if the ministry of condemnation had glory, the ministry of righteousness exceeds much more in glory. For even what was made glorious had no glory in this respect, because of the glory that excels. For if what is passing away was glorious, what remains is much more glorious. Therefore, since we have such hope, we use great boldness of speech—unlike Moses, who put a veil over his face so that the children of Israel could not look steadily at the end of what was passing away. But their minds were blinded. For until this day the same veil remains unlifted in the reading of the Old Testament, because the veil is taken away in Christ. But even to this day, when Moses is read, a veil lies on their heart. Nevertheless when one turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. Now the Lord is the Spirit; and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord.
(2 Corinthians 3:7–18)
We need to maintain this focus on the Lord if we will live in the fear of Christ. Consider John on the Isle of Patmos. One wonders how he felt when he found himself exiled there. John was the one who requested, through his mother, an exalted place at the right hand of Jesus. He wanted to be treated well; exile for the sake of his faith certainly not what he expected. And yet he found himself in solitary confinement in a Roman prison colony.
But then John found himself “in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day” (Revelation 1:10). And what did the Spirit show him in order to help him maintain his hope in a hopeless situation? What did the Spirit show him in order to let him submit to God’s will? He showed him Jesus Christ.
John heard the voice of Jesus (1:1–11). He then saw a vision of Jesus (1:12–16). He was then pointed to the victory of Jesus (1:17–20). It was as if Jesus was grabbing John by the shoulders and saying, “Look at Me!” John would eventually return to his ministry when he was released from Patmos. But in order to maintain hope and carry out a faithful ministry, he needed to focus on Jesus. That would enable him to submit, and to therefore obey in a spirit of humility.
Will you repent of white-knuckled one-upmanship? Will you rather look to the white radiance of our holy Saviour and submit yourself one to another in the fear of Christ?
When I was in the United States for the celebration of my in-laws’ sixtieth wedding anniversary, I was talking to a man from my home church, who taught me Sunday school many years ago. He was telling me that, one Sunday, some fifty years ago, he was in church, literally grabbing the pew in front of him, knuckles white. My father saw him, and walked over to ask if he could help him. He told me how my father led him to Christ, and he has spent the last fifty years letting go of the things that once caused him white knuckles and faithfully serving Christ.
Will you do the same today?