God is our Father not only in that he is our Creator but that he is also our Redeemer; this is what distinguishes the Christian’s relationship to God and what allows us to relate to him as Father.
In the Old Testament, God is the Father of Israel (and Israel is his son) in the context of God forgiving and redeeming Israel. While the Jews of Jesus’s day were hesitant to call God their Father (and angry at Jesus for doing so), Jesus claimed God as his Father and taught his followers to do the same. God is the Father and is also the Son, whom the Father sent to carry out his plan of redemption. What distinguishes the Son from the Father is not the quality of his being, which is just as divine as the Father’s is, but the functioning of their relationship, according to which the Son had come into the world to do the Father’s will. We relate to God as Father, therefore, through Jesus the Son, sharing in his sonship through the adoption we receive through Christ’s redeeming work for us.
Christians today take it for granted that God is our Father, but few people stop to think what this name really means. We know that Jesus taught his disciples to pray “Our Father” and that the Aramaic word Abba (“Father”) is one of the few that Jesus used and that it has remained untranslated in our New Testament. Nowadays, hardly anybody finds this strange and many people are surprised to discover that the Jews of Jesus’s day, and even his own disciples, were puzzled by his teaching. This is because the deeper meaning and the wider implications of the term “Father” are largely unknown today. So widespread and generally accepted has the name become that we no longer question it, and so we often fail to realize how important it is for our understanding of God.
Pre-Christian Understandings of God as Father
Jesus caused a reaction when he talked about God as his Father, but did he invent that idea? Were there no precedents in Judaism (or perhaps even among pagans) for his teaching? Jesus’s assertion that God was his Father first occurred in a debate about the Sabbath day of rest. Jesus claimed that it was proper for him to perform healings on the Sabbath because, in his words: “My Father is working until now, and I am working” (John 5:17). In other words, although God rested on the seventh day from his work of creation, his work of preservation and ultimately of redemption was still ongoing. Moreover, Jesus associated his own ministry with that continuing work of the Father, raising the question of their relationship in a way that antagonized his fellow Jews. As the Gospel records:
That was why the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God (John 5:18).
Was the reaction of the Jews justified? The Old Testament seldom uses the word Father as a description of God, but there are at least two important texts in which it does so. Both of them are found towards the end of Isaiah and occur in the context of sin and repentance. The first one reads like this:
You are our Father, though Abraham does not know us and Israel does not acknowledge us; you, O Lord, are our Father, our Redeemer from old is your name (Isa. 63:16–17).
The second reads:
O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. Be not so terribly angry, O Lord, and remember not iniquity forever (Isa. 64:8–9).
At first sight it might appear that Isaiah was calling God Father because he was Israel’s Creator, but matters are not as simple as that. God was the Creator of every human being, not just of Israel, but he had not established a covenant relationship with everyone. It is clear from the way that Isaiah addressed him that he regarded Israel’s connection to God as something special, and different from what could be said about the entire human race. For him to call God Father was to acknowledge a particular relationship with him. In these verses, God is addressed as Father, not because he is Israel’s Creator, but because he is its Redeemer, which reveals the nature of the special relationship that God has with his chosen people.
The covenant context of God’s fatherhood is also expressed in other Old Testament texts, although the word “Father” is not specifically mentioned. Consider, for example, the words of Moses:
You are the sons of the Lord your God … For you are a people holy to the Lord your God, and the Lord has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth (Deut. 14:1–2).
Something analogous appears in Psalm 103:
As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him (Ps. 103:13).
Similarly, in Jeremiah we find the following:
Is Ephraim my dear son? Is he my darling child? For as often as I speak against him, I do remember him still. Therefore my heart yearns for him; I will surely have mercy on him, declares the Lord (Jer. 31:20).
In each of these cases, the underlying theme is that God is the Father of Israel. He has chosen the Israelites as his children, and because he has done so, he will redeem them in spite of their sinfulness. His fatherhood is expressed in that covenant context and would make no sense apart from it. Jesus brought this dimension out when he challenged the Jewish assumption that they were the children of Abraham, just as he was. He acknowledged their claim in a way but went on to say that in fact, both he and they were doing the work of their spiritual fathers, who were not the same. Jesus was doing the work of God his Father, but his Jewish opponents were doing the work of the devil, whom Jesus said was their true father—not Abraham. This so angered the Jews that they were moved to cry out that “God is our Father,” a recognition of the very thing that they were criticizing Jesus for saying but a claim to which the Old Testament bears witness (John 8:37–59). So, although it did not come naturally to the Jews, when provoked in this way, they were prepared to admit that God was their Father in the covenantal sense.
Non-Jewish peoples were quite different from this. Often they were prepared to recognize the existence of a divine Father figure, as we see from the name Jupiter (“Father Jove”), but it was not always clear what that meant. For some, their father god was a creator, but for others, and especially for Platonists in New Testament times, the Father was a hidden deity who dwelt above the heavens and had no direct contact with material things. Instead, he had a mind that produced thoughts and ideas, one of which was the Creator (Demiurge), who made the world. The reason for this distinction was that the Platonists knew that the world is imperfect, and so it could not have been made by the Father directly. In the early church, there were people whom we call Gnostics, who took over this way of thinking. They believed that Jesus Christ was the Son of the hidden Father, whom he had sent in order to redeem the world from the work of the (inferior) Creator. No Christian could accept that idea, however, because the Biblical revelation makes it clear that the Creator and the Redeemer are the same God. The God of the Bible is the Creator of all human beings, but the Father only of those whom he intends to redeem, and it was in his Son Jesus Christ that he revealed this purpose to those whom he had chosen for salvation.
Jesus and His Father
Christians call God their Father because that is what Jesus taught his disciples to do. He did this not in order to emphasize that God was their Creator (though of course he was) but because he was their Redeemer. Jesus had a unique relationship with God the Father that he wanted to share with his followers. During his time on earth, he was quite clear about this. “He who has seen me has seen the Father,” he said (John 14:9). “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30). There were some in the early Church who interpreted verses like these to mean that Jesus was himself the Father, merely appearing on earth in disguise. That view cannot be accepted, however, because on many other occasions Jesus either spoke to his Father or referred to him in ways that make it clear that the Father is a different person. This is particularly obvious in his words on the cross. When he said: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34) and “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46) there is no doubt that he was not talking to himself.
At the same time, it is also clear from the New Testament that Jesus had the authority of the Father to say and do the things recorded of him in the Gospels, and that what he did was the work of God. A good example of this occurs in Mark’s Gospel, when Jesus demonstrated to a skeptical audience that he had the power to forgive sins, a prerogative that belongs to God alone (Mark 2:6–12). His critics were therefore right to say that in calling himself the Son, Jesus was making himself equal to God, because Father and Son share the same nature. What distinguishes the Son from the Father is not the quality of his being, which is just as divine as the Father’s is, but the functioning of their relationship, according to which the Son had come into the world to do the Father’s will.
Jesus revealed that the Father had decided to redeem the world, not by himself but through his Son. The New Testament never explains why the Father and the Son are related to each other in this way. All that we can say is that both of them are eternally present in the Trinity, but why one of them is the Father and the other is his Son is a mystery hidden from our eyes (John 1:1–3) What we do know is that it was the Father’s plan to save his chosen people and that the Son voluntarily agreed to become a man in order to carry out the Father’s intentions (Phil. 2:5–8). The sins of human beings had to be paid for, not because the Father is vindictive but because his human children matter to him. What we do is important, and if our acts are wrong he cannot simply ignore them. The price of rebellion against God is death because God is the source of life, and so to be cut off from him is to be cut off from life itself. Spiritually dead people have no power to pay the price for their sins—only a sinless person can do that. That is why the Son of God became a man. He suffered and died, not just for our sake but also for the Father’s, because the Father’s justice was satisfied by his atoning death. The Father acknowledged this by raising him from the dead and taking him back into heaven, where he has placed him at his right hand as the ruler and judge of the world (Acts 2:32–33; Phil. 2:9–11; 1 Cor. 15:20–28).
The Father and Us
Father and Son remain distinct persons, but they work together for the salvation of those who have been chosen. The Father is revealed to us as the principle of the Godhead, the one who plans the work of salvation and who sends the Son in order to carry it out. The Son pleads for us in the presence of the Father and the Father forgives us because of the Son’s intercession on our behalf. We are encouraged to pray to the Father and enabled to do so because the Son has united us to him in his death and resurrection (Gal. 2:20). By this act, Jesus has associated us with himself as his siblings. The difference is that he is the divine and sinless Son of the Father by nature, whereas we are sinners who have been adopted by him. Jesus himself said as much when he told Mary Magdalene, after his resurrection, to go to his disciples, whom he now called his brothers, and tell them what was about to happen:
Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God” (John 20:17).
By nature we are not children of God. As his creatures, we have nothing in common with his divine being, but by the indwelling presence of his Holy Spirit, we have been integrated into the life of the Trinity. It is because of this presence of the Spirit in us that we are able to approach the Father and have a relationship with him. As Paul wrote to the Galatians:
Because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying “Abba, Father!” So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God (Gal. 4:6–7).
In practical terms, the relationship that the Son has given us with God the Father is analogous to his own. In the Son, we have become heirs of the Father’s kingdom, co-rulers with him and even judges of the angels (1 Cor. 6:3). This high calling comes with a price tag, for just as the Son glorified his Father while on earth, so we too are called to glorify him (John 17:1–26). We cannot do this in our own strength, but only in and through the relationship that the Father has entered into with us, through the Son and the Holy Spirit. Just as everything they do is done in relation to the Father, so everything that we are called to do must also be done in the context of obedience to his will. It is to the Father that we pray, through the Son and in the Spirit, because that is the pattern of our relationship to God that he has revealed to us. We pray to the Father because our Creator is also our Redeemer, and it is in that redeeming love that we know him.
- A. T. Robertson, The Teaching of Jesus concerning God the Father
- Christopher J. H. Wright, Knowing God the Father through the Old Testament
- Gerald Bray, God has Spoken
- Lehman Strauss, The First Person. Devotional Studies on God the Father
- Millard Erickson, God the Father Almighty. A Contemporary Exploration of the Divine Attributes
- Thomas Smail, The Forgotten Father