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“And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Matthew 10:28)

I tend to think that death is a worse-case scenario. When I think of the cost of following Jesus, I think in degrees. Low cost: hostility and social disrespect. Medium cost: financial loss or imprisonment. High cost: martyrdom and death.

But Jesus flips my evaluation of costs. People may — actually, will — become hostile. He tells us to expect it. We will be delivered over to courts, flogged, and betrayed. “You will be hated by all for my name’s sake,” Jesus says (Matthew 10:22). We may even be killed, but that’s not the worst that can happen.

The worst that can happen is that we lose soul and body in hell.

“The worst [the persecutors] can do does not match the worst God can do,” observes D. A. Carson). In other words, fear God more than those who hate us. Fear God more than death.

When a Roman proconsul threatened to kill Polycarp with beasts and fire, Polycarp responded, “The fire you threaten with burns for a time and is soon extinguished. There is a fire you know nothing about: the fire of the judgment to come, and of eternal punishment, the fire reserved for the ungodly. But why do you hesitate? Do what you want.” He feared God more than death.

We tend to minimize the fear of God, emphasizing instead our intimacy and his Fatherhood. But Scripture doesn’t minimize a holy fear of God, even though we enjoy close fellowship with him in Christ. When Ananias and Sapphira were struck down, “great fear came upon the whole church and upon all who heard of these things” (Acts 5:11). When Paul warned the Thessalonians against sexual immorality, he spoke of the Lord as an avenger (1 Thessalonians 4:6). “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ,” Paul warned (2 Corinthians 5:10). Fear, rightfully understood, is an appropriate response to God even as a believers.

What’s worse than death? God’s judgment if we deny him.

What’s worse than death? God’s judgment if we deny him.

But Jesus doesn’t end there. “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.” If we do face hostility or death for Jesus’ sake, we don’t need to fear what mere humans can do to us. “The God who can destroy in hell is also the God who cares for the smallest bird,” writes R.T. France. “Within his fatherly care, there is nothing to fear from human hostility.”

Jesus’ message is strangely freeing. We no longer have to worry about pleasing multiple audiences, nor do we need to control the outcomes. With single-minded resolve, we can focus on pleasing God alone, knowing that the worst anybody can do to us is kill us. Even then, God promises his care.

“Have no fear,” Jesus says three times in this passage. Or rather, have no fear of those opposed to Jesus and his followers; fear only God. There are worse fates than death.