A Word for Today: Fear (Gk. Phobos)


phbaytron - Terror
phobos - Fear
Phoebe - Phoebe

The Oxford English Dictionary (Second Edition 1989) defines the word ‘fear’ as ‘the emotion of pain or uneasiness caused by the sense of impending danger’, and these traits are vividly described by the prophet Habakkuk as he contemplated the impending judgement of God, ‘When I heard, my belly trembled; my lips quivered at the voice: rottenness entered into my bones, and I trembled in myself, that I might rest in the day of trouble’, 3. 16.

We often view the prophets as remarkable individuals, yet, as James reminds us about the prophet Elijah, he ‘was a human being, even as we are’, 5. 17 NIV. Fear is therefore a natural characteristic of human beings as we engage with the world around us. It also reflects our weakness, and this vulnerability enables God to act through us as He demonstrates His intrinsic power, 2 Cor. 12. 9.1 We see this exemplified in the lives of individuals such as Abraham as he experienced human fear before God, Gen. 15. 1, and of Belshazzar, as he saw the part of the hand as it wrote upon the wall, ‘his face turned pale and he was so frightened that his knees knocked together and his legs gave way’, Dan. 5. 6 NIV.

There are many other examples of individuals in the Bible who had this sense of terror when they were either confronted by God or human beings. In the post-diluvian period, every living creature also shares in this experience of fear as they are hunted down by man for food, Gen. 9. 2. What these examples illustrate, however, is that the word ‘fear’(phobos) is used in the Bible in a general way either for good, as in Acts chapter 9 verse 31 and Ephesians chapter 6 verse 5, or in a bad or evil way, as in Romans chapter 8 verse 15 and in 1 John chapter 4 verse 18, but there are several other synonyms that occur in both the Septuagint (LXX) and the Greek New Testament, which help clarify the word ‘fear’.

The noun deilia occurs in the Septuagint (LXX) in Leviticus chapter 26 verse 36 to describe the fear or cowardice that would consume the former inhabitants of the land as they are persecuted by their captors, and which ultimately leads to their destruction.

Similarly, in Psalm 55 verse 5, the Psalmist is overwhelmed by the terrors of death. This sense of cowardice is also applicable to the use of the word in the New Testament. In 2 Timothy chapter 1 verse 7, Paul encourages his young helper by stating that God did not give us ‘the spirit of fear’. The Greek word used here for ‘fear’ is not phobos, but the noun deilia, because the word literally means ‘cowardice’, and although this word only occurs here in the whole of the New Testament, it is never used in a good sense elsewhere.2 The connected adjective deilos, has the similar meaning of being afraid or cowardly.3 Although the second synonym eulabeia can, on occasions, mean fear or anxiety, it usually refers to a pious fear or reverence especially towards God. Trench observes, ‘phobos is a middle term, capable of a good interpretation, capable of an evil, and lying indifferently between the two’.4

In the New Testament the verb phobeomai meaning ‘to fear’ occurs over ninety times and has a combination of meanings depending on the context. In John chapter 9 verse 22, the parents of the blind man feared the Jewish authorities. Likewise, the temple guards ‘feared the people’ in case they were stoned by them for their previous action, Acts 5. 26, cp. Matt. 21. 26. Conversely, when Paul appears before the Sanhedrin and there is great dissension among the Pharisees and Sadducees over the question of resurrection etc., the Roman tribune fears that Paul’s life is in danger so rescues him from the ensuing melee. By far the most important use of the word ‘fear’ in the Bible is in the sense of awe and reverence when one encounters God Himself. In Mary’s song, she expresses this in terms of the mercy of God being placed upon all those who reverence Him, Luke 1. 50.5 Peter states that fearing God is a basic commandment for a believer, 1 Pet. 2. 17. Not only is reverence shown to God Himself, but also to our Lord Jesus Christ. Men stood in awe of Him when He performed miracles, e.g., Matt. 9. 8; Mark 5. 15, and of the things that He said, Mark 9. 32; John 19. 8.6

The greatest fear of humanity is death, Heb. 2. 15, yet we as believers can ‘fear not’ because the Saviour has drawn the sting of death and triumphed at Calvary, 1 Cor. 15. 57.

For further reading/study


  • ‘Fear and Fear Not’ in Harold K. Moulton, The Challenge of the Concordance, Attic Press, 1977, pp. 213-216.


  • phobeo, phobeomai, phobos, in Geoffrey W. Bromley, The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Abridged in One volume), Eerdmans, 1985, pp. 1272-1277.



When Paul first preached at Corinth he did so ‘in weakness, and in fear, and in much trembling’, 1 Cor. 2. 3, which should be an encouragement to all preachers!


I. H. Marshall writes concerning deilia in this context, ‘It is the opposite of faith (Spicq. 709) and the weakness most to be avoided in time of war (TLNT I, 300-2). The fear is that of public witness due to a sense of shame or fear of suffering (cf. Heb. 10.32-39)’, The Pastoral Epistles, T. & T. Clarke, 2004, pg. 699.


Matt. 8. 26; Mark 4. 40; Rev. 21. 8.


R. C. Trench, Synonyms of the New Testament, Eerdmans, 1950, pg. 33.


Alfred Plummer writes, ‘“Fearing God” is the O.T. description of piety’, St Luke (ICC), T. & T. Clarke, pg. 32.


Ephesians chapter 5 verse 33 refers to a wife reverencing her husband, but this is by way of respect, not awe!


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