The Father of Israel
God is rarely referred to as Father in the Old Testament. When he is, it is usually in the sense that he is the Father of the nation of Israel (e.g., Deut 32:6), a term that primarily conveys a sense of authority. As the Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament explains,
In the Israelite family, the father has almost unlimited authority. He is master of the house; the children are taught to honor and fear him (Mal. 1:6). He controls the other members of the family as a potter controls his clay (Isa. 64:7). Yet "he is not an isolated despot, but the centre from which strength and will emanate through the whole of the sphere which belongs to him and to which he belongs. . . . To the Israelite the name of father always spells authority."
God is also compared to a father to explain some of the characteristic ways he acts toward his people, such as his compassion, his discipline, and his care for the weak and powerless:
- As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him (Ps. 103:13).
- The Lord reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights (Prov. 3:12).
- Father of the fatherless and protector of widows is God in his holy habitation (Ps. 68:5).
However, in the Old Testament God is not usually referred to as the father of individual people, and Jews did not address him as "Father." That is why when Jesus arrived, the intimacy with which he addressed God was so striking.
The Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ
Jesus' frequent references to God as "Father" were unheard of in his context. "Father" was his favorite way of addressing God. We see Jesus using this word for God 65 times in the Synoptic Gospels and more than 100 times in the Gospel of John, in stark comparison to the 15 times the term is used for God in the whole Old Testament.
The specific word Jesus used was Abba, the Aramaic word "Father." It's a word that small children could use when they addressed their fathers, though older children and adults used it as well (so it should be translated "Father," not "Daddy"). Addressing God as Abba conveys a level of intimacy with God that had not been claimed by anyone before Jesus: only a natural-born child would use this form of address. Jesus' use of Abba was striking enough that several times the biblical writers include the original Aramaic along with the translated Greek word pater, "Father."
Jesus' relationship to God as Father is unique. To Jesus, unlike anyone else, God is "my Father." Yet he taught his disciples (and us) to address God as "our Father" (Matt. 6:9). This is because through faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus on our behalf, we are adopted by God into his family. God becomes our loving Father because we are united with Jesus Christ and receive the same family privileges and blessings that Jesus has as the faithful Son.
Because of our adoption into the family of God, we now have complete access to our Father. Hebrews 4:14-16 says,
Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
We share intimacy with the Father through our incorporation into Christ, and by the Holy Spirit indwelling us. Because of our relationship with the Son and the Holy Spirit we can come to God in prayer and dependence at any time. His arms are always open to us.
Paul writes in Romans: "You did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoptions as sons, by whom we cry, Abba! Father!" The imagery of adoption means that believers are not naturally children of God, but become children of God because of Christ. Following Jesus' example in the Lord's Prayer, we address our Father as "Abba" to show us two things: our intimate relationship to God as his children and security with God based on his promises to us. As Martin Luther preached, the little word "Abba" surpasses all eloquence and combats the cruel teaching that we should feel uncertain concerning our status with God.
Abba summarizes the message on every page of Scripture: that God is merciful, loving, and patient; that he is faithful and true, and that he keeps his promises. All the promises of God were fulfilled in the gift of his only Son, so that "whoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life."
Human fatherhood is modeled on the fatherhood of God. As Paul writes, "every fatherhood in heaven and on earth" is named after God the Father (Eph. 3:14-15). What are some of the characteristics of a father described in Scripture?
- Gentleness and Compassion
As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him (Ps. 103:13).
- Wisdom & instruction
Hear, O sons, a father's instruction, and be attentive, that you may gain insight, for I give you good precepts; do not forsake my teaching (Prov. 4:1-2).
For the Lord reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights (Prov. 3:12).
Jesus answered him, "If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him (John 14:23).
For the Father himself loves you, because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God (John 16:27).
See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are (1 John 3:1).
- Exhortation and Encouragement
You are witnesses, and God also, how holy and righteous and blameless was our conduct toward you believers. For you know how, like a father with his children, we exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you to walk in a manner worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory (1 Thess. 2:10-12).
The Lord watches over the sojourners; he upholds the widow and the fatherless, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin (Psalm 146:9).
Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him! (Matt. 7:7-11)
Being a father is a high calling, a way to image our loving heavenly Father who loves and cares for his children better than any earthly father can hope to. Those of us who are fathers should feel the gravity of this calling. When we fail to love like our heavenly Father, let's keep repenting and trusting in Jesus, who's adopted us into the family of God the Father.