1st April 2001
We want to understand what it means that God is our father. In the Old Testament, this aspect of his character is not seen clearly, so that it was a revelation when Jesus taught his disciples to pray ``Our father''. But what exactly does it mean?
There are at least two facets to this:
We'll look more closely at these aspects in the next two sections.
This verse can be translated in two different ways, which carry much the same idea in rather different ways. The point here is not that God's fatherhood is explained by analogy with human fatherhood as though it were a shadow of the reality - quite the opposite! God's fatherhood is the reality, and the biological and social fatherhood that we're familiar with is a shadow of it. You might even say that human fatherhood was created as an analogy to help us understand God's fatherhood.
God demonstrates his mercy (not giving us the punishment that we deserve) by treating us not as the enemies that our sin has made us, but as servants. But there's more: he demonstrates his grace (giving us a reward that we don't deserve) by treating us as friends; and now, finally, as family members. We can trace this progression in the bible.
In our natural state, before Jesus' intervention, our sin made us God's enemies. That is, in choosing to sin, we made ourselves enemies of God. As C. S. Lewis often points out, every decision we make contributes in a small but real way towards making us creatures fir either for heaven or for hell; and in our natural state, those decisions move us away from God because ``without faith, it is impossible to please God'' (Hebrews 11:6)
Jesus here makes the analogy between us and servants; and not even particularly effective servants. The point here is that God owes us nothing and we owe him everything.
Here we see the transition from servanthood to friendship.
But what God has done for us is greater than moving us from the status of enemies to servants and then to friends. Ephesians 1:5 says ``He predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ''. (And yes, of course we can insert ``and daughters'' after the word ``sons'' here - the connotation of sonship here is the entitlement to an inheritance, rather than gender specification.)
John expands on this theme:
In Romans 8:15 (see below), the Greek has in the past been translated as ``spirit of adoption'' - for example, in the King James translation. Reliable sources, however, say that ``sonship'' is a better rendition: God's adoption is so complete and so seamless that we are indistinguishable from natural sons and daughters.
(Incidentally, notice that there seems to be a fifth element in this enemies / servants / friends / family progression - John says ``now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known''!)
Because God is both Jesus' father and ours, Jesus is our brother. The bible makes this explicit: ``Both the one who makes men holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers'' (Hebrews 2:11)
Next to the crucifixion and resurrection, the parable of the prodigal son must be the most familiar story on the bible, to the point where repetition has dulled its edge. If we can manage to hear it with fresh ears, it is one of the most affecting narratives anywhere in the bible:
After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
When he came to his senses, he said, ``How many of my father's hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.''
So he got up and went to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. The son said to him, ``Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.'' But the father said to his servants, ``Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let's have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.''
I know from experience that it's much easier to forgive my own children than other people's! More than that, it's an absolute joy to forgive my children, and whenever Danny does something wrong, I long for him to apologise because I so enjoy the forgiveness and reconciliation. God the father feels the same way about his children.
Discipline is not a particularly popular benefit, but it's a benefit nevertheless, ``because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything'' (James 1:3) And in Revelation 3:19, God says ``Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline''.
We are heirs to ``an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade'' - 1 Peter 1:3-4.
When we understand that God's love for us is so constant and unconditional that the very best earthly father's love is only a weak reflection of it, there is no reason for us ever to feel insecure over anything. Our salvation is safe in the hands of one who loves us absolutely passionately; and given that God loves us so passionately and unswervingly, ``how will he not also [...] graciously give us all things?'' (Romans 8:32)
For people whose earthly fathers were inadequate or absent, this sense of security does not always come easily - the analogy of God's fatherhood with human fatherhood does not help people whose human fathers did not give them security. Perhaps all we can say here is that God is better than the best of all human fathers, not just better than our own fathers. Remember, ``the Father, from whom all fatherhood in heaven and on earth derives its name'' is the real father.
The word `Abba'' is informal Aramaic for ``father'' (while the word translated ``father'' in the passage above is Greek.) The closest thing to a literal translation of ``Abba'' would be an affectionate term like ``daddy''.
If you're reading a paper copy of this document, the soft-copy can be found at www.miketaylor.org.uk/xian/basics/father.html.