God as Father (Fred Zaspel)
The verbal images of God in the Bible, just as the various names given him, constitute a significant part of his self-revelation. When Scripture likens God to a lion or rock or shepherd or judge or King it tells us much about who God is and about our relationship to him. One of the most prominent metaphors is that of God as Father, a representation we find in reference to God repeatedly in the Old Testament as well as the New Testament, but especially so in the New. And this revelation of God as “Father” itself is unpacked in several dimensions. We’ll just highlight them here.
God as Father – Creator
First, God is Father in the sense of Creator. He is “the Father of Lights” (James 1:17), “the Father of Spirits” (Heb.12:9), “one God the Father from whom are all things” (1Cor.8:6), and in this sense all humanity is “his offspring” (Acts 17:25-26). With this come the accompanying connotations of his rights over all things, the dignity and honor and authority due a father, as well as his providential care for his creatures.
God the Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ
In referring to God and in praying, Jesus most commonly referred to God as his Father. We should at least understand this in Messianic terms. In his covenant with David God had promised that he would make David’s son his own son (2 Sam. 7:14). Although this has reference to the Davidic kingly line it ultimately refers to that “greater Davidic son,” the Messiah. This is reflected, for example, in Psalm 2:7, a Psalm that anticipates the enthronement of David’s greater Son — “You are my Son; today I have begotten you.” The “son of God” language of the Gospel of John reflects this also. “Son of God” is a Messianic title.
But when Jesus refers to God as his Father there is much more implied, and here we enter some of the deepest mysteries of the Christian faith. God as Father and Christ as his Son reflects an eternal relationship within the Godhead.
The implications of Jesus’ command to baptize “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” are enormous. There is one “name” in which disciples of Jesus are to be baptized. “The name” of course is God himself. And yet there are three who share that name — the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. There is distinction between them (the Father, the Son, and the Spirit), and yet these three unite in the single divine “name.” From this point onward Yahweh has been known by this name — the Father, the Son, and the Spirit.
So there is one God and yet three Persons. And the relationship between these two is that of Father and Son. The Father loves the Son, we are told (John 3:35; 5:20), and the Son loves the Father (Jn. 14:31). Here is the prototype and model of fatherhood and sonship (Eph. 3:14-15), and here we are given at least a glimpse of the eternal joy and contentedness of the Triune God — perfect love, perfectly expressed, perfectly received, perfectly requited, and perfectly enjoyed in perfect fellowship forever.
The apostle John, in turn, points to this eternal loving relationship of Father and Son as the measure of God’s love in the gospel. God so loved this sinful world that he gave even his own Son to the cross (Jn. 3:16). Surely, here is love (1Jn. 4:10).
God Our Father
On occasion in the Old Testament God is referred to as the Father of the nation Israel, generally in the sense that he “begat” and provides for them (Dt.32:6; Is.63:16; 64:8; Jer.3:4, 19; 31:9; Mal.1:6; 2:10). As we saw briefly above, the Old Testament also speaks of God as the Father of the Davidic King (2 Sam.7:14; 1 Chron.17:13; 22:10; 28:6; Ps.68:5; 89:26). And at various points father imagery is employed to describe God’s relationship to his people Israel (Ex.4:22–23; Dt.1:31; 8:5; 14:1; Ps.103:13; Jer.3:22; 31:20; Hos.11:1–4; Mal.3:17).
But to speak of God as Father in an individual sense, in terms of filial personal relationship, is something that does not come to the fore until the New Testament. This is a curious thing because, after all, God is Father-Creator and Father of the nation and the king. But of course a sense of filial relation was forfeited at the Fall, so that now men and women can be described as children of the devil (John 8:44)! Moreover, in Jewish prayers God was typically addressed by titles reflective of his majesty, glory, sovereignty, and so on. This of course is a good thing, but addressing God as “Father” just was not the practice.
Joachim Jeremias famously demonstrated that it was not until Jesus that we find an example of one addressing God as “Father” in prayer. This has been disputed, but we needn’t get into that discussion here. It is plain enough that in broad terms, at least, this was not the common practice. To address God as Father with the attending notions of paternal and filial affection and relation was a striking innovation in Jesus’ prayers. Here was the eternal Son speaking to his Father in terms of loving relation and personal endearment. And it must have seemed revolutionary for Jesus’ disciples when, having asked Jesus to teach them how to pray, Jesus instructed them to pray, “Our Father.” And to this day this marks Christian prayer universally.
Now Jesus did not level the field absolutely. The Father from whom the disciples were instructed to ask forgiveness was “your Father” (Mt. 6:14-15). But when Jesus spoke of his divine sonship he referred to “my Father” (Mt. 11:27). And when speaking of his return to heaven, he said that he was ascending “to my Father and to your Father, to my God and to your God” (Jn.20:17). This is “the only Son,” and his sonship is one that is unique and unshared.
And yet when our Lord teaches us to pray he does pass along this privilege. We are instructed to address God, now, as Father. And with that, surely, he means to convey a sense of filial trust, confidence, assurance, acceptance, love, and so on. And this we have only because we are in union with Christ, the Son par excellence. “You are all sons of God through faith in Jesus Christ” (Gal.3:26ff; cf. Jn.1:12). God is not “Father,” in this sense, to everyone. But joined to Christ, God is our Father, and we now also have the supreme privilege of knowing and addressing him as such (cf. 1Jn.3:1). Certainly, this is the very height of gospel privilege.
What does this mean for us? Just briefly here, the New Testament stresses wonderful themes such as acceptance and access. We have no need of human priests or even “sainted” mediators. We are God’s children and may boldly go to him with full assurance of acceptance. The related themes of provision, care, and protection were staples in Jesus’ teaching (Mt.6:8, 11, 25ff; 7:7-11; 10:28ff). Knowing that God is our Father ought to give us a deep sense of assurance of his heart of loving care for us. And the apostle Paul reasons gloriously that if we are sons of God, then we are heirs of God — indeed, we are joint-heirs with Christ (Rom.8:17), certain to inherit the glory that he has achieved on our behalf. And in fact the great climax of God’s redemptive work in us to date is that he has sent the “Spirit of adoption” to ensure that we sense our sonship and so now turn to heaven with “Father” instinctively on our lips.
Further, here we learn also what a father is supposed to be. Even if your earthly father was a failure, here you come to experience fatherly love in its ideal. Here is a Father who has committed himself to provide for us, his children, in exactly every way we need, and he has promised to direct our every step for our good and his glory. And although he is known as “righteous Father” and “Holy Father,” he is also known as the “Father of mercies” and “the eternal Father” who will always be for us and provide for us all that he has promised.
Fred Zaspel (Ph.D., Free University of Amsterdam) is pastor at the Reformed Baptist Church of Franconia, PA. He is also Professor of Systematic Theology at Calvary Baptist Seminary in Lansdale, PA. He is the author of The Theology of B.B. Warfield: A Systematic Summary and Warfield on the Christian Life: Living in Light of the Gospel.