Why call God “Father”?

Why does Jesus invite us to call God our Father?

Jesus’ favourite word of God isn’t YHWH. It’s Father. That’s new. Why?

Only rarely do you find the Father metaphor in the Old Testament, e.g. Moses asked Israel, “Is not he your father, who created you, who made you and established you?” (Deuteronomy 32:6).

Israel’s king could be called God’s son, i.e. the prince on earth who represented the divine sovereign’s authority. David received this promise about his son:

2 Samuel 7:14 (ESV)
I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son. When he commits iniquity, I will discipline him with the rod of men, with the stripes of the sons of men.

The coronation of a son of David included this proclamation, preserved in Psalm 2:

Psalm 2:6-8 (NIV)
“I [YHWH] have installed my king on Zion, my holy mountain.”
I [the king] will proclaim the Lord’s decree:
He said to me, “You are my son; today I have become your father.
Ask me, and I will make the nations your inheritance.”

These words were spoken over YHWH’s anointed ruler. The word anointed in Psalm 2:2 is mā·šîaḥ (Messiah) in Hebrew, christos (Christ) in the Septuagint.  This is the context in which Jesus is called Christ (anointed king), i.e. the son of God (the earthly prince who represents the heavenly king).

At Jesus’ trial, the high priest asked, “Are you the Christ, the son of the Blessed one?” (Mark 14:53). He was not asking, “Are you the Messiah and the second person of the trinity?” for the high priest had no concept of a trinity. His two statements — anointed one, and son of the heavenly sovereign — meant the same thing, as they do in Psalm 2.

The same is true of Peter’s declaration in Matthew 16:16: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” The Christ (anointed ruler) means the same as son of the living God (Davidic king representing heaven’s rule on earth). Neither Mark nor Luke believed Peter had said two different things: they both report Peter’s statement as a single phrase — “the Christ” in Mark 8:29; “the Christ of God” in Luke 9:20. The disciples did not comprehend Jesus’ divinity until after he rose from the dead (John 20:28).

In the Gospels, then, Jesus is the anointed descendant of King David, the son chosen to represent heaven’s rule on earth (the kingdom of heaven).

As proclaimed in Psalm 2 (above), he is invited to call on the heavenly king as Father. Specifically, he is invited to ask the Father that the nations will back down from their threatening posture and recognize the son’s divinely appointed kingship.

That’s why Jesus keeps referring to his “father in the heavens.” But then Jesus takes this to a whole new level. As king of the kingdom, Jesus represents the glory of his father in the heavens among his people. But unlike the rulers of this world who differentiate themselves with glory above their people, King Jesus invites his people into his regal role. He invites them to reflect the glory of “your Father in the heavens” (Matthew 5:16).

He invites his people to participate in the regal status of his kingship, “so you may be sons of your Father in the heavens” (5:45). To fulfil his regal role, his people must love their enemies as perfectly as “your Father in the heavens” (5:48).

This is astounding! The Son who represents on earth the reign of his Father in the heavens invites his people to participate in the glory and commission of his kingship. The king shares his kingship with his people, inviting us to approach the divine sovereign in his name, with his authority, as the Son does, calling him Father.

How do we approach the heavenly sovereign as Father? Authentically (6:1). Unostentatiously (6:4, 6). Trustingly (6:8).

Our authority to approach the God of the heavens as Father is our participation in Jesus, his elect Son. It is because the Son invites his kingdom into his own regal relationship with his Father, we approach the cosmic ruler as “Our Father!” (6:9)

Do you see how this revolutionizes our prayer life? In Psalm 2, the king was invited to approach the heavenly sovereign as Father, asking for the nations as his inheritance. The Son invites us into this relationship, with the same petition, “Our Father in the heavens, … Your kingdom come on earth as it is in the heavens.” (6:9-10).

We approach God as our Father because our king gave us his authority, his name. We approach God as our Father, because we’re in the Son. The kingdom people are alive with the life of the Son.


What others are saying

Michael J. Wilkins, Matthew, NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004), 215–216:

The title “Father” is used in Matthew here [5:16] for the first time, introducing the special relationship that exists between God and Jesus’ disciples. Jesus has been declared to be the beloved Son (3:17), and now those who have received the kingdom light are children of the heavenly Father as well (cf. John 1:7–13).

Adela Yarbro Collins and John J. Collins, King and Messiah as Son of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008), 22:

The main implication of the declaration that the king was son of God is the implication that he is empowered to act as God’s surrogate on earth.

Aída Besançon Spencer, “Father-Ruler: The Meaning of the Metaphor ‘Father’ for God in the Bible” in Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 39:3 (1996), 442:

When we call God “Father” today, do we communicate that God has the power of a ruler in a monarchy and the intimacy, love and care of a father or mother? What would be a dynamic equivalent today? Ruler-heir would be a nonsexist way to say “father-son.” But how many ruler-heirs do we all know?

Scott W. Hahn, Covenant and Communion: The Biblical Theology of Pope Benedict XVI (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2009), 127:

In his detailed treatment in Jesus of Nazareth, he [Pope Benedict] notes that the christological title of Son reflects a long development of thought in the Old Testament. In the covenant, Israel is regarded as God’s “firstborn son” (Exod. 4:22). By the time of the Davidic kingdom, the king was “personified” as God’s firstborn son. The application of the title to Jesus in the apostolic preaching reflects hopes expressed later in the Old Testament for a Davidic son, “the king who was to come.” The New Testament understands Jesus as that long-awaited “true king of the world.”

[previous: Should Christians use the divine name?]

[next: KINGDOM SUMMARY: Matthew 1–10]

Author: Allen Browne

Seeking to understand Jesus in the terms he chose to describe himself: son of man (his identity), and kingdom of God (his mission). Riverview Church, Perth, Western Australia

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