When many days had passed, the Jews plotted to kill him, 24 but their plot became known to Saul. They were watching the gates day and night in order to kill him,25 but his disciples took him by night and let him down through an opening in the wall, lowering him in a basket.
26 And when he had come to Jerusalem, he attempted to join the disciples. And they were all afraid of him, for they did not believe that he was a disciple. 27 But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles and declared to them how on the road he had seen the Lord, who spoke to him, and how at Damascus he had preached boldly in the name of Jesus.28 So he went in and out among them at Jerusalem, preaching boldly in the name of the Lord. 29 And he spoke and disputed against the Hellenists. But they were seeking to kill him. 30 And when the brothers learned this, they brought him down to Caesarea and sent him off to Tarsus.
31 So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was being built up. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it multiplied. – Acts 9:23-31
I have a very special afghan blanket that I received as a Christmas gift some years ago. It has the words of the Lord’s Prayer woven into it, and I find that blanket to be very comforting – especially when I’m not feeling well, or in some way needing comfort. I love the Lord’s Prayer in and of itself. I believe that Jesus’ words there embody a full and rich breadth of our relationship with God and one another, and form a deep foundation for prayer in general. When, furthermore, I am needing the extra comfort of God’s mercy, love, and help, I find it so very calming literally to “wrap myself in the Lord’s Prayer.”
That thought was triggered by the interesting phrase in Acts 9:31, “…in the comfort of the Holy Spirit…” the church multiplied. Interesting: the comfort of the Holy Spirit is connected to the multiplication of the church on this occasion.
Certainly that is in part true due to the terrible and dramatically-close encounter of the followers of Jesus in Damascus who had been threatened by Saul and those who wanted to put an end to the church. If their chief persecutor was now neutralized (to say the very least), they could enjoy a time of peace and no longer cower under threat of Saul and his ilk.
Notice, however, that this comfort of the Holy Spirit is shaped and held along with the fear of God. It reminds me of Martin Luther’s explanation to the Ten Commandments, in which he explains the first commandment in the simple but powerful words, “We should fear, love, and trust in God above all things.” Then he begins each succeeding commandment’s explanation with the words, “We should fear and love God so that…”
Comfort that is not held in check by the fear of God is a formula for an impotent and eviscerated, form of faith that has little need for the true comfort of God. For in that mode, the only need for comfort is that of returning to our comfort zones, not for God’s abiding presence, courage, comfort, strength, and enlightening in the midst of the messiness and challenges of life lived outside our comfort zones for the sake of those who do not know Christ, or simply to be in the world but not of it.
Fear-less Christianity is Cozy Religion to which God has not called any of us. God’s comfort is most comforting to those who fear God and seek to follow Jesus every day of their lives. The comfort may come in a confidence in the face of persecution, or the ever-present need for God’s mercy and forgiveness. In the fear of God we may also say, “Thanks be to God for his enduring grace, comforting presence, and for people like Saul who spent his life bringing the message of Good News in Jesus to more and more people.