Father from Origin
Two different hands embrace the boy. The one hand is crudely sketched, obviously male. The other hand is drawn with fine lines, obviously female. Mercy is shown from a fatherly and a motherly hand. This is very clear in Rembrandt’s painting, “The Lost Son,” displayed for public viewing in St. Petersburg, and reproduced in a painting by Henri Nouwen in his book Eindelijk thuis (Finally Home). Is it right that God the Father would be drawn with feminine characteristics? Does that offer a wholesome correction to the accepted father image of God?
Failing Father image
“As a father shows compassion to his children, so the LORD shows compassion to those who fear him” (Ps 103:13). This verse gives joy to anyone who has had or still has a close bond with his or her father. It is a picture that elevates your thoughts. It brings many pictures to mind. What if this bond no longer exists or has never existed? Bad experiences with earthly fathers can make this psalm difficult to read. Those experiences can short circuit the picture. Many people struggle with authoritarian father images. They do not seek a father portraying steadfastness and security, but rather an alliance: a friend, a partner. Society has resoundingly denied authority and strength in its father image, and can so imagine whatever they choose. We are seemingly on the road to a fatherless society; where is the man who carves the roast at mealtime?
Voices arise that proclaim that God the Father shows a one-sided picture. They would prefer that the father image be transformed into a mother image. Why should we not speak about God as mother? Don’t words such as love, warmth, sympathy, security, pity and compassion relate much more strongly to that image? One supposes that these characteristics apply only to mothers. Look at it realistically and see that authoritarian and neglectful also apply to mothers. In a backlash, others propose to speak about God as neither father nor mother.
Aren’t we headed in the wrong direction when we project our father and mother images onto God? Especially in a time period in which emotional experience speaks so strongly, it is important to begin with God’s own revelation.
We cannot deny that God the Father speaks about himself in motherly imagery. He compares himself with a mother that comforts (Is 66:13). To illustrate how firm the bond is between God and his people, God uses this image: “Can a woman forget her nursing child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you” (Isa 49:15). David freely writes, “But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother, like a weaned child is my soul within me” (Ps 131:2).
By preference, God is described in masculine terms. He is never addressed as she. He never allows himself to be addressed as Mother. That does not preclude his allowing himself to be described with motherly traits. God is Father, but also in a tender manner! God arranges characteristics which we, thinking according to our own sexuality, categorize as male or female.
God as Father has nothing to do with sexual differentiation. God is neither man nor woman. He is superior. He has absolutely forbidden that any image should be made of him, either male or female (Deut 4:16-17). That is perfectly understandable against a background of religions where, beside a male god figure, a female goddess is also worshipped. Hasn’t the Roman Catholic Church also, in its worship of Mary, placed a veiled goddess beside God the Father? Doesn’t Mary serve as guarantor for the motherly elements? It happens that people seek compensation in the virgin mother for what has been lost in their faith in God. That applies to more than the Roman Catholic tradition. Every one-sided image of God demands correction. God’s Son brings us back to the Original. He has made God known to us (Jn 1:18).He clarifies the unique name of God, “And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven” (Mt 23:9). He is Father Creator, indescribably multifaceted.
That is not shocking. Wouldn’t the creator of both man and woman incorporate all fatherly and motherly characteristics? All good characteristics are in him. A child can ask, “Where does God come from? When was God born? ”He wasn’t. He is from eternity. He himself is the beginning, the Origin without origin, from which everything and everyone originates. All this is expressed in his name Father, which characterizes his being. Fatherhood is the being of God. He is Father from origin, absolutely original, fountain-head, source, in the fullest sense of the word.
Correspondingly, our fatherhood and motherhood originate with Him. Fathers and mothers receive their character traits from him (Eph 3:15).Character traits apply first to him, and then to us. All twisted and distorted father and mother images are faulty copies, ugly, sometimes abominable caricatures of the Father. Thanks be to God, there are also fathers and mothers who express a faint image of the Father in their fatherhood and motherhood.
The term Father occurs approximately 15 times in the Old Testament, as compared to 170 times in the New Testament. That is more than 10 times as many occurrences, although the Old Testament is about 10 times larger. We do have to be careful in counting words for the purpose of drawing conclusions from them. We should not count, but weigh. In addition, the Father image is promoted without the explicit use of the word “Father.” For example, in Hosea 11:1 Israel is referred to as “my son.” Calling upon God as Father occurs in very well-known texts such as the song of Moses, referred to as the national anthem of Israel. Deuteronomy 32:6b: “Is not he your father, who created you, who made you and established you?”
Thus, when Jesus uses the name Father, this is not new. No one was astonished that Jesus said “Father.” The Jews also appealed to this (“We have one Father – even God”), but the Jews took offense at the manner in which Jesus spoke about God the Father – so trusting, so intimate, so frank and open, as if he walked in and out of God’s residence, as if he himself came from God. Jesus spoke as if he had a relationship with God unlike anyone else, as if God was his own, personal Father. That gave offense. His manner of speaking about God as Father was without precedent. With God’s Son there was no pretense. It was real. That did not pass unnoticed.
It has been thought that the Lord Jesus was the first to teach people to say “Father” familiarly to God. That conclusion is reached through the use of the word “Abba,” an Aramean word. “Abba” in the colloquial language of those days would translate as “papa.” No one had ever dared to speak to God in such an intimate and trusting manner. It would have been disconcerting, dismaying, shocking. Research has pointed out that the word “Abba” was very acceptable for addressing a father, also for adults. Nevertheless, its use must have left a deep impression on men such as Peter who heard Jesus call it out (Mark 14:36). So much so that they left it untranslated, to retain the impression. It resounds in extreme anguish in Gethsemane: Abba! It is spoken with great depth of emotion. It is an audible witness of deep personal involvement, and at the same time, a surrender to him who has and maintains the leadership. It is intimate, relational, dependent and trusting. “Abba," from Jesus’ mouth, is a word in which a unique relationship is embedded.
Time and again, the Lord Jesus speaks from the basis of his relationship with his Father – indeed, a unique relationship. Jesus speaks out of an absolute intimacy with his Father. He is not just a son; He is the Son, he who is in the bosom of the Father. God the Father is the originator of Jesus himself. God out of God! He is of godly origin, from eternity, the fellowship of God and the Word (Jn 1). He is foremost Father of his Son, an unfathomable mystery. Through this bond the whole world has its being. He has made Him known (Jn 1:18). “No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.”
It remains noteworthy that Jesus never says, “Our father." The only exception is in the address of the prayer which he taught us. He continues to discriminate. He repeatedly says, “Your Father in heaven,” and (Jn 20:17), “I am ascending to my Father and your Father.” Hereby he emphasizes both the communal and the differentiation. His relationship with his Father is different from ours.
His Father sent him. His Father stands behind him. He shares everything with his Father. The Father and he are one. As is the Father, so is the Son. When I see Jesus, I see the Father (Jn 14:7). When I hear him, I hear his Father. When I desire to know something from God, I need only look to Jesus and listen to him. He made known the Father’s name as it was never previously known. He brought tremendous depth to the name Father. It is no exaggeration to maintain that this is a summary of all Jesus’ teaching.
Father from Origin
The Lord Jesus drew a wide circle when he said, “For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Mt 5:45). In connection with the Lord’s Prayer, John Calvin has brought into discussion the term “our,” believing it to encompass all people who live on earth, because we do not know what God has decided for each individual. He is the creator of all people. We were all children of one Father. Christ brings us back to our origin in the Father Creator.
No one is without a Father. You, individually, were chosen. Father placed you on earth.
When it is expressed in this manner, can everyone then not say Father? We are all children of one Father. I had a chance to read an emotional poem written by a Kurdish couple, practicing Islamism. They had lost a baby (again) a few hours after birth. Desperate with grief, they expressed the following: “We have a fledgling in the hand of God, hands which gave her a heart, a heart that was not given to beat for us, but nestled in the loving hands of the Father.”
Do you not hear grounded beliefs of origin here? They may also be detected in many other religions. In this they express an absolute dependence on their god and, simultaneously, respect and trust. (Here follows a clause from a Sumerian hymn: “King, gracious father, in whose hands reside the life of the whole earth.”)
God’s Son has made it very clear to us that we, conceived and born in sin, are not children of God anymore. “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (Jn 1:12)! We can never fully say “Father” separate from God’s Son. We can say it only as we are connected to him. Do you recall what the Lord Jesus said to those who consciously and intentionally said “Father” to God outside of himself? Even though they beat their chests while vouching we have God as Father!? Shockingly enough, “You are of your father the devil” (Jn 8:44).
No one is fully able to say “Father” except through the Son. This is expressed by Paul in his letters. The Spirit causes us to say “Abba! Father!” (Rom 8:15). The Spirit of Christ gives us the freedom to address God together with Christ as Abba, a word weighted with personal and intimate significance. The Jewish claim to have sole right to call God “Father” has been expanded with a more extensive claim. Every person may, in true faith, say, “Abba, our Father” (Gal 4:6). Heathens, formerly not God’s people, have come home to the house of Israel’s Father. We have strayed far from home, far from Father. Christ came to bring us back to our roots. He came to reconnect people to their Source.
Christ causes us to say “Father.” Although not new, this was innovative, having gained gigantically in depth. Christ has revealed the Father name in its original meaning. He lays this unique Father name on our lips. We receive godly permission to say “Abba” with Jesus. That privilege was dearly bought, since he himself would die for our estrangement. Whoever would approach God cannot avoid that Father name. God insists on his due honour. He does not leave this matter of proper address to him to the whims of his children! He wants to be addressed as Father.
We say “Father,” in fellowship with God’s Son, not as host to guest, but as child with him at his behest. He teaches us his language, his manner of speech, and we lip-read that. The Spirit works within us to make it our own and continues to teach us until we, with Christ, dare to say: Abba! Through faith alone, through a living bond with Christ, we may rightfully say it.
He has a different relationship with the Father than we do, but he causes us to share in it fully. We are not dealt with as less privileged children. He shares with us in his intimacy.
The Spirit of God makes that turn of speech our own and teaches us that from home. He witnesses with our spirit that we are children of God. Then conduct yourself as a child of God! Not as a slave (Gal 4:7). A slave is not free. He is on the payroll. A slave works to further his position and must earn or justify that position. He works to achieve a position which will, sooner or later, disappear. In our position as child, we can conduct ourselves as slaves. Then, no matter how loudly we insist that we are children, as Ishmael did, it does not make it true. A son does not have to earn or justify his position; he is a child in the household, a privileged position. That is the freedom of God’s children. That is not without commitment.
Father sees you as such. Child! He holds you responsible; therefore, do not withhold your life experience from him. Share everything with him; dare to present everything before his eyes. Look him straight in the eyes, as it were. He knew us from conception. As a mother lovingly holds her child in her arms, so our gracious God, our Father(!), surrounds us with his love because we are his. As a mother, he will wipe every tear from our eyes, seeing us through his Son.
This article was translated by Elizabeth DeWit.