Perhaps you’ve read that “Don’t be afraid” is in the Bible 365 times—once for every day of the year.
It isn’t true. It’s a nice Hallmark-worthy sentiment, but it isn’t Scripture. However, it is true that “Do not be afraid” occurs a hefty 70 times in Scripture—indeed more than any other command. That doesn’t include variations close to it—have courage, don’t be discouraged, fear not, don’t worry, etc.
For people who tend to think of God’s commands as cumbersome, restricting, or difficult, this might come as a revelation. God’s most common commands are positive ones.
Praise him. Be thankful. Rejoice. Remember.
Not exactly cumbersome.
We might recall the words of the long-winded Psalmist who told us: “The commands of the Lord are radiant.” (Psalm 19.8)
Where have we gotten this notion that they’re a burden?
Since God went a-calling in the garden asking Adam and Eve where they were hiding, we’ve been afraid. To be fair, there is reason.
We have failed him.
We have disappointed him.
We have chosen to run away from him.
We have caused his creation—of other humans and earth—utter destruction.
Yet his most common command is—“Don’t be afraid.”
What does it mean?
What doesn’t it mean?
It doesn’t mean “There is nothing scary out there. No worries. Hakuna Matata.” Let’s tell the truth—life is scary.
It doesn’t mean, if you have enough faith, all is rosy and cheery.
It doesn’t mean you don’t have enough faith if you worry.
It doesn’t mean that if you have fears, you’re a terrible Christian.
Let’s look at a few places God says it.
Exodus 14.13 But Moses told the people, “Don’t be afraid. Just stand still and watch the Lord rescue you today.” (Just as the Egyptian army descends, and God prepares to part the Red Sea. No worries, people. Just sit and chill. That raging army is not at all scary.)
Joshua 1.6 Be strong and courageous—Do not be afraid or discouraged. (Just before he is to lead the Hebrews into the promised land)
John 14.27 I am leaving you with a gift—peace of mind and heart. And the peace I give is a gift the world cannot give. So don’t be troubled or afraid. (Just before he goes to the cross and leaves them)
Luke 5.10 Jesus replied to Simon, “Don’t be afraid! From now on you’ll be fishing for people!” (As he begins to gather his disciples into a life-changing adventure)
Luke 1.30 “Don’t be afraid, Mary,” the angel told her, “for you have found favor with God!” (As she is asked to be part of the most dangerous undertaking ever imagined)
Luke 1.13 But the angel said, “Don’t be afraid, Zechariah! God has heard your prayer. Your wife, Elizabeth, will give you a son, and you are to name him John.” (John the Baptist, that is)
Matthew 28.5-6 Then the angel spoke to the women. “Don’t be afraid!” he said. “I know you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He isn’t here! He is risen from the dead.” (As the world is about to be turned upside down)
Can you see a pattern here?
God doesn’t tell people “fear not” when there is nothing to fear. He often says it when there is a great deal to fear! A lot of the time, ‘fear not’ is followed by something God is going to do in the person’s life that’s kind of terrifying.
In fact, during Advent, looking at what God says just before the Incarnation that brings God to earth is instructive. There’s a very familiar song with the words “don’t be afraid” uttered on the first Christmas. We don’t know it was really a song—Scripture simply says it was a great chorus. It’s a song quoted by the great theologian Linus VanPelt as the most important song ever.
Luke 2.8-15 That night there were shepherds staying in the fields nearby, guarding their flocks of sheep. Suddenly, an angel of the Lord appeared among them, and the radiance of the Lord’s glory surrounded them. They were terrified, but the angel reassured them. “Don’t be afraid!” he said. “I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people. The Savior—yes, the Messiah, the Lord—has been born today in Bethlehem, the city of David!
And you will recognize him by this sign: You will find a baby wrapped snugly in strips of cloth, lying in a manger.”
Suddenly, the angel was joined by a vast host of others—the armies of heaven—praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in highest heaven,
and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased.”
When the angels had returned to heaven, the shepherds said to each other, “Let’s go to Bethlehem! Let’s see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”
Angels’ one job is to be messengers of God almighty—used when God wants to tell humans something important. They possess all the glory and holiness and terror that entails.
The universal human reaction is fear, and justifiably so. Yet—the angels always say—don’t be afraid.
God’s first message when planning to enter the world is
—don’t be afraid.
What a first message. So many things God could have told us to prepare us for Jesus’ coming. Yet God chose those three words—don’t be afraid. It’s as if the Divine knows human nature well.
God knows perfection, all-encompassing holiness, is scary to us.
God knows people are afraid of what might happen when the Almighty shows up—in their lives and in the world.
Something usually does happen!
So God’s first words are so often—don’t be afraid.
The angels herald his entrance into this world with loving concern for God’s people. They speak to the shepherds of peace. They tell us not to be afraid of the God who comes with lovingkindness and mercy. They promise that God comes with a grace that knows we are deservedly frightened. Angels assure us his coming to us face to face is good news.
God comes with peace on earth and mercy mild. God and sinner, reconciled. Oh, those angels know.
The angels sing the finale.
They sing the song to end or begin, all songs.
They sing the last words before the Word is revealed.
They sing the good news to end, or begin, all good news.
We are so used to this angels’ song.
It’s on our Christmas cards and our playlists.
But what does it tell us about the Savior, and about us?
God is humble enough to come to earth and be helpless.
If the angels are sent to tell us the Savior is born—in a humble place, to humble people, for all people—that the God of the universe has put Jesus’ life in the hands of a girl who just grew up quickly herself—what does that mean?
It means God wants to be with us.
God wants to be with you.
God didn’t send a telegram or tweet his love out to the universe.
God with us.
That tells everything.
The angels tell the shepherds, “Don’t be afraid.” God is on the move. The Everlasting Father is about to do something scary—and so incredibly, beautifully merciful you will not comprehend it as long as you live. Don’t be afraid. Trust.
Then they tell the shepherds to go and see. Don’t fear to see what God is doing. Don’t be afraid to take part. Go and see. You will never be the same. That’s both scary and beautiful. Take in both. Don’t shy away from one and choose to embrace only the other. You’ll come away with neither. The angels’ message is the same to us as it was to the shepherds.
Don’t be afraid. Go and see.
Photo by Jill Richardson