Summary: A lot of us go through life with a watered-down idea of what God's love is. We will look at two incidents from the Gospel of Luke in which someone met that love face to face to help us understand both His love and His holiness.
There is a saying that appears a few times in the Old Testament. Proverbs 9:10 puts it like this: "The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom". Other verses use slightly different wording, but they all declare the value of the "fear of the LORD". I was troubled by that as a child. I interpreted it, as many do, to mean that people should be so afraid of what God can do to us that we would never dare to do anything wrong. In fact I was terrified by Him, but I managed to do wrong things anyway. That's why it was such a relief to discover 1 John 4:8--"Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love". My relief was even greater when I read in verse 18 of that same chapter that "There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out all fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love." I must admit, though, that I was unable to reconcile the Scriptures in First John with the verses about the fear of the LORD that recur in both the Old and New Testaments, so I memorized the former and filed the latter. Certainly there is much more to the Biblical "fear of the LORD" than terror at his power; Psalm 130 proves that. Nevertheless, most Christians I know do what I did. We don't see how fear can coexist with the awareness of God's love, so we avoid talking about it for the most part. However, the Bible records some occasions when fear and the awareness of God's love did coexist. Luke 5:1-11 gives us one such incident.
By that point in Jesus' ministry, He had healed countless diseases and cast out countless demons. Great crowds had seen Him do these things, had many more had received the benefits, yet they had not recognized the presence of God through them. After all, there were several so-called holy men who claimed to use God's power to do wonders. People could think of Jesus as just one of that group if they wanted. Peter also had seen the Lord's miracles up close. Somehow, though, this miraculous catch of fish made him realize in some way that he was in the presence of God. We can wonder why. Was it because he knew much more about fish than he knew about diseases or demons that Jesus' power over fish struck him so forcefully? Was the routine of fishing by night and accompanying Jesus by day wearing him down? Had he been feeling pressure to keep his business afloat (pun intended), so that this miraculous catch answered his most immediate concerns? We don't know. We do know that he received a tremendous blessing that he knew only God could give. It is possible that at that moment Peter knew God's love for him better than he had ever known it before. Yet we know he was afraid because Jesus told him not to be. Why was he afraid?
He said,"Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord." In the presence of God's love, he was overwhelmed by his own sinfulness. We tend to think of love as ignoring faults in others. We expect someone who's "in love" to fill the air with praises of the loved one. If he/she lets drop any critical words, we wonder if he/she's really in love at all. In church circles we use words like "welcoming", "inviting", and "friendly" to describe what a loving church is like, not "critical" or "questioning". But Jesus did not have to tell Peter about his sins. To know, as Peter did, that the power that governs the movements of the animals has reached out a hand to you is to know that He is fundamentally not like you. His ways really are as high above our ways as the heavens are above the earth (Isaiah 55:9). To use an old religious term, He is holy. There is a lot of confusion about that word, but its basic meaning is simple. It means to be set apart, removed from the activities of worldly life. The fact that Jesus had given those fisherman a great gift did not make Him any less holy. Yes, God is Love. We, however, are not. That is exactly the difference that "sets Him apart" from us. It is the chasm that--APART FROM CHRIST--we cannot cross to have fellowship with Him. Confronted with God's holiness in Jesus, even a sincere, God-worshipping Jew like Peter knew that he did not belong with Him because he was sinful. Asking Jesus to depart was the only reasonable thing for him to do.
It's funny. Many of us have listened to a friend complain that their romantic relationship was "suffocating" them, that they needed some "room to breathe". Nevertheless, as Christians we have this fantasy that if people knew how much God loves them, they would rush to join the Church. Love pursues intimacy; it is not content for barriers to exist between lover and beloved. It only makes sense that God's perfect love pursures perfect intimacy. If there is a sound Biblical reason why such is not the case, I've yet to hear it. Anyone who has felt a twinge of panic because someone was trying to get too close in the name of love should understand why people are afraid of the loving God and why Peter would say "Depart from me . . ." to the Lord. But of course "Perfect love casts out all fear", and so Jesus had to be the One to say (v. 10), "Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men." Perfect love is His nature, not ours.