Calling God “Our Father”
A reader writes, “I am trying to ascertain when the big change occurred among God’s people that meant they could and should call Him their Father. We find it occasionally in the Old Testament prophets but when Jesus said pray like this, ‘Our Father,’ most commentators say that this was altogether novel. How did John, who also taught his disciples to pray, address God? I guess it was as Jehovah or Elohim but how could Christ treat His disciples as God’s adopted sons before His sacrifice and the outpouring of the Spirit? Or was He anticipating what would shortly happen?”
In my book, When You Pray, I suggested that only after our Lord came was it possible for God’s people (individually) to address God as their Father. Although I received many comments and questions on the material in that book, I am sure more questions were generated by that remark than any other part of it. I will try again to answer the question as clearly as I know how.
The questioner is correct when he asks, “Or was He anticipating what would shortly happen?” It is not strange that our Lord anticipated His suffering, death and resurrection. He also spoke many times to His disciples, and the multitudes that heard Him preach, of the blessings that would come to His people after He had completed His work on earth. One of those blessings, great and marvellous, was that now in their prayers they could call God their Father.
Before I say anything more, to me the real problem is not that the Old Testament saints could not individually call God their Father; the really perplexing problem was that they could pray at all! I know that the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, prayed but this was possible because they were, in a dim sort of way, prophets, priests and kings before these three offices were separated from each other. Later, when the three offices were separated in Israel, we read of occasions when men who held one of these three offices did pray. We even occasionally read of a saint praying—as in the case of Hannah, the wife of Elkanah and, eventually, the mother of Samuel. But even Hannah’s prayer was divinely inspired and it is similar in many ways to Mary’s prayer, when she learned that she was pregnant with Christ. Mary may even have had Hannah’s prayer in mind.
Ordinarily God’s people had to go to a priest or a prophet to learn the will of God. They had, frequently, to go to the temple with a sacrifice in order to worship God and pray to Him. It was also legitimate in those days of the shadows of good things to come to make use of the Urim and Thummim. It is true that many of the Psalms were prayers and were sung in the temple, but they were all inspired by God and penned by men whom He had chosen.
When John and Jesus preached, their very sermons presupposed that the people prayed but that the people themselves knew that their prayers were difficult, for the way into the inner sanctuary where God dwelt was blocked by the veil that separated the Most Holy Place from the rest of the temple. Now God’s people are called to enter boldly into His presence, for the way is opened through the cross of Christ (Heb. 10:1-25).
When our great High Priest came to earth to make the perfect sacrifice, and taught His disciples and the multitudes what marvellous blessings the saints would receive now that the perfect sacrifice was about to be made, Jesus tells His disciples (and us) that we may not only go directly to God, but also when we arrive at the foot of His throne of mercy and grace, led there by Christ, we may even, wonder of all wonders, call the eternal and infinitely blessed God, “Our Father!”
I must confess that for me there are times when I have to struggle to come to God in the faith that He is a father to us. It sometimes seems presumptuous. God is infinitely great. He makes the heavens His throne and the earth His footstool. He has created all things and upholds them by the word of His power. The distant galaxies, the tiny ant, the electron that spins around the nucleus of an atom—His hand moves them all. His holiness is a light too bright for even the seraphs, who cover their faces with their wings and cry, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory” (Isa. 6:3). Yet here I am, less than a speck of dust and a terrible sinner besides. His name I have blasphemed and cursed, and His infinite holiness I have trampled under my feet. And I am going to call Him “my Father”?
I have to read Hebrews 10 once again, for God calls me to Him with words of tender care. He tells me, “It is possible. I have given you My own Son, Jesus Christ the righteous, who will lead you, even trembling and awestruck, to Me. I will take you in My arms with an everlasting love and bring you home to live with Me forever.”
I cannot list here the many and wonderful blessings that we receive from our Father in heaven. Even in the Old Testament, the infinitely blessed God is compared to an earthly father: “Like as a father pitieth his children, so the Lord pitieth them that fear him” (Ps. 103:13). If you want to know something of what blessings are ours because Jehovah is our Father, read Psalm 103 in full. It will be good for you.
Remember, we can and must call God our Father because of the gift of His only begotten Son. He is the eternal Son, Himself “true God of true God,” as the Nicene Creed states, whom God gave in His everlasting love for us. God loves His Son with a great love, yet He gave Him to us because it is His eternal purpose to glorify His name through the creation of a new family, a family that reflects the riches of the Triune God who lives a family life in Himself. In that family, the Triune God is Father; Christ is our elder brother, who made the family of God possible for us; we are all children of God for Christ’s sake. Because He is the Son, believers are sons in Him. Because He cried out, “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:34), we can follow Him to God.
We hide behind Christ when we approach the throne of God and pray “for Jesus’ sake.” But we are told to come with boldness! We must not doubt. We may not be so artificially humble that we dare not come where our Father dwells. With unceasing songs of praise, we cast all out cares upon Him, for He cares for us. Prof. Hanko
Prof. Hanko’s When You Pray (hardback, 192 pp.) is available from the CPRC Bookstore for £14.30 (inc. P&P in the UK).