Issues in the church
Jesus gave His disciples the example of using a child's language.
Tabletalk Magazine, June 2002
First-time parents may secretly believe that the spouse has it wrong. The father may be sure his little angel's first word was "dada." The mother, who is in the best position to know, clearly heard "mamma." Following Mary's example, she may keep this memory in her heart.
Baby talk can be recognized easily. "Mamma" and "papa" are both in Webster's, identified as "baby talk."
The Aramaic word abba, or "father," was no longer just baby talk by the time of Jesus, but it was colloquial, not used in literature. The Greek poet Homer spoke of "Father Zeus, who rules over gods and mortal men." But he used "father" in terms of kingly power. Similarly, in the Old Testament, God the King is called "Father" in relation to His people. When the Israelites were slaves in Egypt, Moses confronted Pharaoh with God's demand: " 'Let My son go that he may serve Me' " (Ex. 4:23). The Israelites saw God's might in the fiery cloud by which the Lord led them out of Egypt through the path He made in the sea. Later, the song of Moses celebrated the redeeming power of God as Creator and Ruler: " 'Is He not your Father, who bought you? Has He not made you and established you?' " (Deut. 32:6b).
Moses does not speak our language when he calls God "Father" as a royal title of creative power. Decades of sitcoms have lampooned fathers as well-meaning nincompoops. And feminists deride paternal authority.
But Jesus prayed, " 'I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth ...' " (Matt. 11:25). And we pray, "Our Father which art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name" (Matt. 6:9, KJV). Jesus taught us to pray to the Father as the sovereign King.
In the anguish of Gethsemane, however, Jesus called His Father by the child's word: " 'Abba, Father' " (Mark 14:36). His use of so intimate a term showed a consciousness that fills us with awe. Jesus knew His almighty Father as only a Son could. Indeed, as the Father's eternal Son, He not only was with God, He was God (John 1:1). He could speak of the deeds of His Father and the words of His Father because He had been with the Father. Only He knew the Father, and only the Father knew Him (Matt. 11:27).
The people would not have addressed God in this way. At the time of Christ, most Jews did not dare to use even God's revealed name, Yahweh, the "I AM" God, sovereign in His saving power and grace. That is why, when Jesus came, devout believers blessed the Highest, the Lord God of Israel, and extolled His mercy in sending the Dawn from on high (Luke 1:78).
When Jesus taught on the mountain in Galilee, He gave the Lord's Prayer to the disciples who gathered to Him. Jesus taught them, too, to say, "Our Father." The address that He used He gave to them to use. They could call upon the Father in the name of Jesus.
The disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane knew that Jesus in His agony had called upon His Father as "Abba," the intimate name used by a child. The apostle Paul teaches us that the Spirit of adoption makes us God's children, so that we cry out, "Abba, Father." Jesus thanked the Father that He had hidden these things from the wise and prudent and revealed them to babies, the little ones the Father had given Him. God chose the weak, the lowly, even small children. When His disciples asked Jesus who was the greatest in the kingdom of heaven, Jesus said, " 'Unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven' " (Matt. 18:3).
Jesus gave His disciples the example of using a child's language in addressing their Father in heaven. Through Jesus, the Son of God, they could address the Father as He did, and call Him "Abba." In that word we claim the ear of the Father in the name of His Son. Only Jesus Himself could put that name on our lips.
Paul marvels that the Lord loves wicked enemies and redeems them so that they may cry, "Abba!" All who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. As children they have an inheritance. The portion given to the Israelites who entered the land becomes a symbol for the inheritance of eternal life. The bond of our sonship is the gift of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit assures our sonship by His presence in our midst and in our hearts. The Spirit bears witness with our spirits that we are indeed the children of God. He delivers us from bondage to sin and Satan. Children of God are not slaves, but have the freedom of sons.
Christ has triumphed over the power of sin and death. Because He died for us and rose again, we have died to sin and gained liberty in His resurrection life. Now we are free to fulfill the law of God. We walk with Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit.
Our heavenly Father answers our call of "Abba, Father!" The Spirit of Christ is the Spirit of adoption, of sonship. When Abraham was taking Isaac up Mount Moriah to offer him back to God, Isaac said, " 'My father!' " Abraham answered, " 'Here I am, my son.' " This was the customary address of a son and the answer of a father. The Spirit of God now moves us to say, "Abba, my Father!" The Lord answers, "Here I am, my son" or "Here I am, my daughter."
Take the word that Jesus puts on your lips. He listens for the word He used Himself: "Abba, Father!"
Dr. Edmund P. Clowney is a former president of Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, Pa.
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