Seeing God From a New Perspective

Learning more about the Bible and its Hebraic cultural setting is always helpful for understanding the text. Even more than that, some concepts can make an enormous difference in our relationship with God. In my own journey, one of the ideas that has changed me most is the Hebraic picture of God.

Because our Western cultural heritage has its roots in Greek philosophy, the Greek concept of God sometimes overshadows the biblical picture of God. The ancient Greeks’ dualistic worldview influenced their understanding of God, and still influences us today.

Dualism is the belief that physical reality is worthless and evil; goodness and perfection is found only in the spiritual world. The ancient Greeks believed that if the supreme god is perfect, this god must be beyond the heavens, uninvolved in the material world in any way. We inherit from them the idea that God is far away and uninterested in humanity, who may have created the universe but has no involvement in it now.

Sometimes we hear that idea from Christians, even though the Bible shows God was intimately involved in the life of Israel, walked on earth as Christ, and is still present now in the Holy Spirit. We also inherit from the Greeks the dualistic idea that our lives on earth are of no consequence, and we should only care about the life to come. In contrast, the Hebraic picture is that salvation is a redemption of our life here on earth that extends into eternity.1

In the second century AD, dualism gave rise to the heresy of Marcion. Marcion believed that Christians should reject the God of the Old Testament as an evil, violent, lesser God than Christ, who came to teach about the true supreme God. After all, the God of the Old Testament had created the corrupt material world, so must be evil too. Marcion wanted to remove the entire Old Testament from the canon, and much of the New Testament besides Luke and Paul. He considered the Old Testament to be inferior to the New, its Jewish God angry and unloving. Marcion focused only on teaching about Christ devoid of his Jewish context. Although the church denounced him as a heretic, the philosophy behind his ideas still influences our church culture today.

Our Loving Father?

Personally, I used to embrace much of Marcion’s thinking, but that has changed as I’ve learned more about the Bible’s message in its Hebraic setting, and how the Jews understand God. Years ago, I would have agreed intellectually that God the Father is wise, loving and merciful; but the way I read the Bible, especially the Old Testament, betrayed the fact that in my heart I didn’t believe it.

Didn’t God choose a nation of complainers, burden them with meaningless regulations, and punish them harshly for their sins? This really had a negative effect on my desire to learn about God or grow closer to him. I knew that Christians were supposed to dedicate their lives to serving God, but was pretty unexcited about that idea. If I did, God would probably call me to some job I hated or make me abandon people I loved. Wasn’t that the kind of harsh thing he did to the Jews? Even though I believed that Jesus was God too, that did not placate my negative feelings toward his Father, and my love and trust in this God was minimal.

In some churches I still get a sense that they share this lack of love for their heavenly Father that I used to have. I suspect it when a church prays only to Jesus, or sing songs praising Christ exclusively. Or when people talk longingly about seeing Jesus in Heaven, but never mention our loving Father, the one that Jesus came to bring glory (John 17:4). I also suspect it when every sermon comes from the New Testament and ignores nearly 80% of the scriptures, the only part Jesus studied.

In some circles there is even a tendency to accuse God the Father of evil, even though it would be unthinkable with Jesus. When reading the story of Abraham being called to sacrifice Isaac, some will say, “I think God is a child abuser!”2 But when Jesus initially turned down the Gentile woman who asked him to heal her child (Mark 7:26), it’s assumed that his motives are good even if we don’t understand them.

Isn’t this a strange kind of schizophrenia that allows us to speak lovingly of Jesus and angrily of his father, and yet worship them as one God? Knowing that Jesus is the very likeness of his Father should answer any doubt we have about the goodness of our Father in Heaven.

A Challenge from the Jews

The thing that really challenged me to rethink my picture of God was to read from the Jews themselves about how they related to God. I admit, I was curious how this people who had only known God’s “bad side” in the Old Testament would relate to him.

It came as an utter surprise to me to hear the love that Jews have for God the Father in the prayers they have used for centuries. Much of Jewish prayer is filled with an attitude of praise, blessing God for the most minute gifts that he has given.3 One traditional hymn from the 3rd to 5th century AD goes:

Every living soul shall bless your name, O God!
All created things will give you glory and thanksgiving!
Eternally you are God, and no one can stand before you.
Who but you offers freedom and help,
nourishes us and redeems us, sustains us and saves us,
and at all times views with unfailing compassion our sorrows and distress?
There is no one but you!4

I remember being amazed that the Jews who only knew the God that I didn’t like would describe him in such loving terms. Why did these people see God’s mercy and kindness where I didn’t?

I think it is because they come to the Hebrew Scriptures with an understanding that is less obscured by a foreign worldview. Westerners want theology laid out in a systematic way, with clear creeds and statements of truth. Instead, we find stories, rules, and long lists of names. It is foreign to us, so we preach and study mainly out of the New Testament, and only dabble with the rest of scripture.

For thousands of years, the Jews (including Jesus) have revered this text and memorized it, meditated on it and applied it to their daily lives. They have found some excellent answers for many of the hardest questions I’ve had, because they dwell in the Scriptures as natives.

The Command to Wear Tassels

A case in point is the commandment to wear tassels with a strand of blue thread (Numbers 15:37-39).5 I used to think this was a truly pointless regulation and I was glad to be free from silly, oppressive laws like this. When I opened the Jewish commentaries, I saw that they asked a far better question than I did — what good purpose did a loving God have in giving this law?

They pointed out that this was a very meaningful command because in ancient cultures, tassels were a sign of nobility and priesthood. It was like God was telling his people to wear a royal robe each day to show that they were his treasured possession, a nation of priests. What I had seen as legalistic foolishness, they saw as a great gift from God.

Jewish scholars had a good response for laws that do not have any clear function. They would ask, “Why did God give us this command to obey?” and answer, “To show our love and trust for God, whose purposes are beyond fathoming.” What a better attitude than my own!

God is Present and Sovereign

Another thing I learned from Judaism is a sense of God’s participation in this world, and sovereignty over everything. The Greeks believed that the supreme God was uninvolved in this world, and the Western view of God tends to view him this way too. We assume God is not interested in our computer problems, how our job is going, or whether we are overweight, but only in “spiritual” things. Or we assume that only after we die will we have any interaction with him.

Westerners also view him as a judge we will meet for the first time after we die, rather than a loving Father who seeks a relationship with us to heal our lives in this world. The difference in the Jewish attitude shows in their pattern of prayer, which continually praises God as the source of every good thing in life through short prayers throughout the day. It is difficult to not feel that God’s love surrounds us when we repeat dozens of these prayers each day.6

Another dualistic attitude in Christianity is the assumption that God only works through the miraculous, and that human advances are not under his control. For instance, some feel it is unspiritual to seek medical help, and that only prayer for healing is God’s will. In Judaism, however, a prayer is said before taking medicine which praises God for giving man wisdom to discover this blessing, and then asks him to work through it to heal them.

They see God’s presence in what we see as our own accomplishment. Rather than assuming human effort is an affront to God, they assume God is sovereign over what humans achieve too. Many with treatable mental illness have suffered too long because they felt they just needed to be more “spiritual.” How much better it is to assume that the Lord uses human beings to care for us!

The Lord our God, the Lord is One

Even though the Jewish people lack the critical knowledge of our Lord Jesus, through their scriptures they have found amazing wisdom about the goodness of our Heavenly Father. When I read the Bible from their viewpoint, I now find that the whole thing, from Genesis to Revelation, becomes good news of God’s love, not just the last part.

More importantly, my love and trust for this God has greatly increased as I have started to see him as the passionate, loving God that rescued his people from Egypt rather than the cold, distant, intellectual God of the Greeks. The more I study from this perspective, the more God the Father and his wonderful Son Jesus seem to be one and the same.


1 See “Salvation in This Life” and “Eternal Life, Here and Now.”
2 See “Offended by God.”
3 For more information, see “The Richness of Jewish Prayer.”
4 From Praying with the Jewish Tradition, by Elias Kopciowski, ©1997, Eerdmans.
5 See “Wearing our Tassels So They Show.”
6 See the references in note 2.

Note: A good source for further reading is Our Father Abraham by Marvin Wilson ©1989, Eerdmans. See especially chapters 8 & 9, which describes Marcionism and explains the Hebraic world view.

Photos: Attributed to Cima da Conegliano [Public domain], Ben White on UnsplashBlake Campbell on Unsplash

Does God Want Us To Fear Him?

by Lois Tverberg

Understanding the extended meanings of Hebrew words often corrects our misunderstandings of the Bible and explains things that seem to not make sense. Sometimes they can even change our attitude toward God! This is what happens when we understand the broader meaning of the word “fear,” yirah, in Hebrew, and especially in the context of the “Fear of God,” a common expression throughout the Bible.

The idea that we should “fear the Lord” is found hundreds of times in the Old Testament. To many people this is a source of anxiety, and may make us not want to read about the God who appeared to require fright and dread among his people.

It may surprise people to know that even in the New Testament, the “fear of God” is often found. The Gentiles who worship the God of the Jews are called “God-fearers” and the early church was said to be built up in the “fear of the Lord” (Acts 9:31). Paul even speaks of the “fear of Christ” in Ephesians 5:21.

This is because the “fear of the LORD” was an extremely rich idea that goes far beyond our literal understanding, and is wonderfully positive in application. By understanding the Hebrew meaning of “fear,” and the rich Jewish thinking about the “Fear of the Lord,” we can shed great new light on this issue.

The key to understanding the Hebraic idea of “fear” is to know that like many Hebrew words, it has a much broader sense of meaning than we have in English. To us, “fear” is always negative: it is the opposite of trust, with synonyms of fright, dread and terror.

In Hebrew, it encompasses a wide range of meanings from negative (dread, terror) to positive (worship, reverence) and from mild (respect) to strong (awe). In fact, every time we read “revere” or “reverence,” it comes from the Hebrew word yirah, literally, to fear. When fear is in reference to God, it can be either negative or positive. The enemies of God are terrified by him, but those who know him revere and worship Him, all meanings of the word yirah.

How Should We “Fear the Lord”?

Many Christians understand “the Fear of the LORD” as the fear of the punishment that God could give us for our deeds. It is true that everyone should realize that they will stand at the judgment after they die, but a Christian who knows his sins have been forgiven should not have this kind of fear of God anymore: although many still do.

People who have been steeped in this kind of “punishment mindset” have a very hard time loving God. This is what John speaks against when he says, “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves punishment, and the one who fears is not perfected in love.” (1 John 4:18).

Interestingly, in rabbinic thought, fearing God’s punishment is also understood to be an incomplete and inferior understanding of the term Yirat Adonai, “Fear of the Lord.”1 At its core is self-centeredness: what will happen to me because of God’s knowledge of my deeds?

Knowing the broader implications of the word “fear” in Hebrew, the rabbis came to a different conclusion, that the best understanding of the term Yirat Adonai is of having awe and reverence for God that motivates us to do His will.

This helps many passages make sense and show why the “Fear of the Lord” is so highly praised in the Bible:

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding. (Prov. 9:10)

In the fear of the LORD there is strong confidence, and his children will have refuge. The fear of the LORD is a fountain of life, that one may avoid the snares of death. (Prov. 14:26-27)

The “fear of the Lord” in these passages is a reverence for God that allows us to grow in intimate knowledge of Him. It teaches us how to live, and reassures us of God’s power and guidance. It gives us a reverence of God’s will that keeps us from getting caught in sins that will destroy our relationships and lives.

A Sense of God’s Presence

One aspect of Yirat Adonai that the Jewish people have focused on is the idea that we should be constantly aware of the presence of God. Over the top of Torah closets in many synagogues is the phrase “Know Before Whom You Stand,” reminding the congregation that an infinitely powerful God is close at hand.

People sometimes tell stories of how on the death bed of a family member, they had a strong sense of the presence of God, and have felt great reassurance from it, bringing a sense of awe for him at that time. Or in worship, there is no greater thrill than to feel spine-tingling awe at the grandeur of God.

In this sense, to “fear” God is to be filled with awe, and it is one of the most profound experiences of our lives, spiritually. We can see why the “fear of the LORD” as an awesome sense of his presence around us is really the essence of our life of faith.2

In some areas of Christianity, there is a lack of thinking of God as present with us now. God is spoken of in abstract terms, as if he is a theory rather than a being, and we sound live like we don’t expect to have any interaction with him until we die.

This is partly because of our Greek heritage, which focused on the spiritual world as being utterly apart from the material world. While our culture may have taught us that, the biblical witness is that God’s Spirit is very much present in the world with us now.

There is an enormous difference between study of the Bible that has Yirat Adonai, reverence for God, and a purely intellectual approach. The emphasis on reverence for God in Judaism is illustrated by a famous quote from Abraham Heschel that says that while Greeks (Europeans and Americans) study to comprehend, Jews study to revere. Higher education in biblical studies in Western countries tends to be entirely intellectual, and Christians who take academic Bible classes often find them dry.

What they are looking for is God’s voice speaking through the scriptures, and to find it they need Yirat Adonai. The rabbis had an excellent saying: that a scholar who does not have Yirat Adonai is like a man who owns a treasure chest and has the inner keys but not the outer keys.3 He has a treasure but can’t get at it. To study the Bible without reverence is a dry enterprise that will never unlock its true meaning.

Our Moral Foundation

Another thing Yirat Adonai gives us is an inner moral foundation. When we know God knows our thoughts, we are compelled to act not just for what other people think, but for what God thinks. This is what Paul refers to in Col. 3:22 when he says “Slaves, in all things obey those who are your masters on earth, not with external service, as those who merely please men, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord.” Reverence of God gives us an inward sincerity, because we don’t do things just for external appearances, but to please God who knows our heart.

One humorous old rabbinic story illustrates this point:

A great rabbi once caught a ride on a horse-drawn wagon, and as the wagon passed a field full of ripe produce, the driver stopped and said, “I’m going to get us some vegetables from that field. Call out if you see anyone coming.” As the driver was picking vegetables, the rabbi cried out, “We’re seen! We’re seen!” The frightened man ran back to the wagon, and looked and saw no one nearby. He said, “Why did you call out like that when there was nobody watching?” The rabbi pointed toward heaven and said, “God was watching. God is always watching.”4

An awareness of God’s presence will motivate us to obey him. We may still think of it as a fear of punishment, but it does not have to be this way in believers. When we have reverence for someone, we feel terrible to know we’ve disappointed them.

In times of my life when I’ve worked for someone whom I greatly respected, their praise for my work has been critical to me. Or, when we love someone, we earnestly want their approval on our lives. Indeed, the “fear of Christ” that Paul talks about should really be a sense of Christ’s majesty, and a longing to please him. When we know he is always with us, it causes us to try to live as the disciple he wants us to be.

Yirat Adonai – What God desires most

Amazingly, God says that what he truly desires is that we “fear Him”:

Now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require from you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all His ways and love Him, and to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul… (Deut 10:12)

In this passage, the first words are to fear God, and they are equivalent with the rest of the passage — to fear God is to revere him, which will cause us to walk in his ways and serve him with all our being. Properly understood, there is no greater desire that we should have than to have a “fear of the LORD,” an awesome sense of God’s presence in our lives that will transform us into the people that he wants us to be.


1 From “Fear of YHWH and Hebrew Spirituality” a lecture by Dwight Pryor, president of the Center for Judaic-Christian Studies. This was from the monthly Haverim audio tape series, October 2003. These tapes are a very rich resource — see to sign up.

2 In an effort to constantly have a sense of God’s care for us, the Jews from Jesus’ day up until the present have had a wonderful tradition of uttering prayers to “bless the Lord” many times a day to remind themselves that He is the source of every good thing. When I’ve tried this in my own life, sensing God’s immediacy becomes unavoidable. For more, see “The Richness of Jewish Prayer.”

3 From the Talmud, Tractate Shabbat 31b. See the article “Fear of God” at

4 As quoted by Joseph Telushkin in The Book of Jewish Values, p 10. Copyright 2000, Bell Tower. ISBN 0-609-60330-2. (This is an outstanding book on practical ethics and how we should live: a favorite of mine.)

Photos: Sonya [CC BY-SA 2.0], Mélody P on UnsplashJoshua Earle on UnsplashZac Durant on Unsplash