Picturing the Father

Picturing the Father

Picturing the Father.

“The main thing in prayer is really not that we present particular petitions, but that we enter into communion, into a personal relationship with the Father. If I do nothing else but say from the bottom of my heart, ‘Dear heavenly Father,’ the main thing has already happened. The happy gift of prayer consists in receiving the fellowship of the Father.” (Helmut Thielecke, The Prayer That Spans The World).

Abba: an Aramaic word that is a child’s affectionate term for father; a title that directly addresses the father in a familiar family setting, much like Dad or Papa; a word that assumes a profound personal relationship between child and father; a believer’s term of honor and intimacy that refers to God as Beloved Father. 

Can there be a deeper mystery than the boundless intimacy between God the Father and God the Son? “The secret of the whole world of humanity is the love between the Father and the Son. That is at the root of it all. Upon the love between the Son and the Father hangs the whole universe.” (George MacDonald, Knowing the Risen Lord.). Through His imbedded spiritual intuition, Jesus was profoundly aware of His Abba Father right from the start, of course. We know that at twelve years old in Jerusalem He knew He needed to be “in His Father’s house.” (Luke 2:49). And we know He received His Father’s blessing at His baptism, in which His Father embraced Him with the words, “You are my dearly loved Son, and you bring me great joy.” (Luke 3:22). When the disciples asked Jesus how to pray, He instructed them to start by addressing God as Father, a Greek translation of His Aramaic term Abba. (Matthew 6:9). And we can’t forget the poignancy of Jesus’ most desperate prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, when He addressed God as “Abba, Father,” asking Him to take away the cup of suffering from Him. Jesus closed His agonizing prayer with the heartfelt words of the obedient Son, “Yet I want your will to be done, not mine.” (Mark 14:36). We get strong hints like this of their uniquely intimate relationship all through the Gospels. Indeed, “No one knows the Son except the Father, just as no one knows the Father except the Son.” (Matt. 11:27). Only Jesus truly knows the Father’s motives, His intentions, His character, His reasoning, the mystery of His innermost Being. Jesus knows the Father, and their shared limitless love is somehow the engine of the world.

So when Jesus instructs His followers to boldly pray “Our Father,” what kind of Father was He thinking of? What image of Father did Jesus want to communicate? If Jesus wanted His description of the Father to match up with His experience of the Father, wouldn’t it help us if Jesus defined what He meant by Father? If Jesus wants to unpack the Father for us, it’s time to drop whatever we’re doing and take heed. True to form, Jesus did leave us His picture of the Father by building on the Hebrew Bible and then expanding on OT Scripture in His words in the Gospel.

Father God in the Hebrew Bible. The term Father is used about a dozen times in the OT in connection with God, but only through comparisons and God’s self-descriptions. God is never directly addressed as Father, person-to-Person. Father was not used as a title in personally addressing God. Biblical scholar Kenneth Bailey said, “To say ‘You care for us like a father,’ or even ‘You are a father,’ is one thing. But to say, ‘Good morning, Father’ is quite different.” In addressing God as Abba, Jesus seemed to be building on those pieces of Scripture that implied a tender, compassionate, approachable God the Father. Scriptures like these:

  1. Even to old age and gray hairs I am He. I am He who will sustain you. I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you.” (Isaiah 46:4).
  2. “You saw how the LORD your God cared for you all along the way as you traveled through the wilderness, just as a father cares for his child.” (Deut. 1:31).
  3. “When Israel was a child I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. It was I who taught Ephraim to walk, taking them by the arms. But they did not realize it was I who healed them. I led them with cords of human kindness, with ties of love; I lifted the yoke from their neck and bent down to feed them. How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, Israel? I can’t bear to even think such thoughts. My insides churn in protest. All my compassion is aroused. For I am God, and not human – the Holy One among you.” (Hosea 11:1-9, NIV and MSG).

The Old Testament clearly does not portray God the Father as simply cruel, indifferent, unforgiving, or overbearing. Jesus knew this truth intimately, and so He uses the words of the Hebrew Bible to help form His picture of His heavenly Father. Interestingly enough, Jesus expands on this in the context of a gospel story, a parable intended to teach a lesson to the Pharisees.

The Father in the Prodigal Story. It has been suggested that Jesus wanted to communicate the nature of His Father in this pivotal parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15. Jesus here shares His own experience with Abba Father. He in  effect defined the meaning and substance of the Father in this parable. In Jesus’ mind, this is what His Father looks like. He in fact is redefining the inaccurate picture of the Father as an overbearing ogre full of power and authority, who loves to punish and threaten, who at times is distant and indifferent and other times a cruel taskmaster. Jesus paints a picture of the Father that contrasts with all that, a Father as Abba, a kind and forgiving God who wants what’s best for each person, a Father who genuinely cares for each person in the human family with an eternal love, who desires an intimate personal relationship with His children. Doesn’t Jesus’ picture of the Father here make you want to be His child? Consider the actions and attitude of the father in this parable:

  1. A father who didn’t take offense when personally rejected by his son and asked to split his inheritance before the father even dies;
  2. A father who patiently endured humiliation at having his own son waste his inheritance;
  3. A father who responded with compassion when his wayward son returns home penniless;
  4. A father who was actively waiting for his son to return, on a continual lookout for his defeated son, a father who seemed poised to show mercy;
  5. A father who publically degraded himself by running, which fathers aren’t supposed to do, to meet his son;
  6. A father who physically embraced his wastral son, saving him from the eventual village gauntlet;
  7. A father who continued to pour out grace and compassion by repeatedly kissing his renegade son. This is a reversal of the typical scenario in which the repentant son is expected to kiss the father’s hands or feet;
  8. A father who restores the prodigal son to full family status, giving him the father’s feasting robe, the family signet ring, and a pair of sandals that would distinguish the son from hired servants;
  9. A father who threw a huge village feast with a fatted calf, feeding at least 100 people. Instead of rejection, the father threw a celebration;
  10. A father who would absorb another public insult by leaving his post as the host at the feast in order to search for his ungrateful elder son;
  11. A father who patiently accepts the elder son’s unwarranted insult and bitter attitude.

This is how the Son pictures the Father. Who wouldn’t join His family?

And to think that Jesus wants us to know the Father like He does. Jesus wants us to experience the Father’s love the way He does. Jesus wants us to know those aspects of His character, that He is filled with grace and compassion, forgiveness and patience. Jesus wants us to be the Father’s children. For that was the other half of Matthew 11:27, “But the Son is able to unveil the Father to anyone He chooses.” We can only know the Father if He is revealed. Thanks be to God, Jesus has clearly, through His life and death and resurrection, revealed God the Father to us and adopted us into His family. “Look with wonder at the depth of the Father’s marvelous love that He has lavished on us! He has called us and made us His very own beloved children!” (1 John 3:1, Passion Transl.).

One Reply to “Picturing the Father”

  1. How wonderful. I most definitely was taught the cruel taskmaster depiction of God.I am very grateful God did not leave me in that false reality but showed me the love you mention here.There is no other like it.Thanks Steve.*jane