If you primarily think of God as your Father, and if you usually address God as Father when you pray, you have Jesus to thank. For prior to Jesus, no one — not in Judaism or in any other religious tradition — spoke of God or to God as Father in the personal ways Jesus did.
It’s true that Old Testament saints occasionally referred to God as Israel’s father (Deuteronomy 32:6; Psalm 103:13) and even less occasionally called him their Father when they prayed (Isaiah 63:16). But the fact that they rarely did so reveals that they didn’t relate to God primarily as a Father. Certainly not in the way Jesus did — which was also the way he taught all his followers to relate to God.
In all four Gospels, when Jesus speaks about God, he typically refers to him as his Father. And when the Gospel writers allow us to listen in on Jesus praying, we hear him addressing God as Father.
“If you usually address God as ‘Father’ when you pray, you have Jesus to thank.”
This wasn’t merely an endearing metaphor to Jesus. God as his Father was a fundamental relational reality to him. This is clear when, as we hear him pray in Gethsemane, he cries, “Abba, Father” (Mark 14:36). Abba was the most common term Aramaic speakers used when speaking to their earthly fathers — Jesus and his (half) siblings would have used it when addressing Joseph.
This familial way Jesus referred to God scandalized and outraged the Jewish leaders. They understood God as their Father the way a potter might be called the father of his clay creation (see Isaiah 64:8). But Jesus viewed God as his “Abba, Father” the way a child views the paternal parent who begot him. To the Jewish leaders, this led to blasphemy worthy of capital punishment, because “he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God” (John 5:18). Indeed, he was God’s own Son — a reality they tragically failed to discern.
And astoundingly, Jesus, the “only Son from the Father” (John 1:14), wanted all of his disciples, we who are not sons of God the way he is, to also relate to God as our “Abba, Father.” For when Jesus provided us a model or pattern for how to pray, what Christians down through the ages have called the Lord’s Prayer, the first thing he taught us was to address God as “our Father in heaven” (Matthew 6:9).
‘Our Father in Heaven’
In quoting Jesus here, Matthew remarkably uses the Greek word pater, the equivalent to Abba in Aramaic — the common, everyday term that everyone used for father. Pause and ponder just how astounding the phrase “our Father in heaven” is, considering the reality it represents: God as our heavenly Pater, Abba, Father.
Unless you were raised in a different religious tradition, addressing God as “our Father” probably doesn’t strike you as presumptuous or offensive. It probably sounds normal, something we take for granted, like calling our earthly paternal parent our father. If we have lost our wonder over calling God our Father, it’s time to recover it.
Keep in mind that observant Jews have always considered God’s covenant name, Yahweh (Exodus 3:14), to be so holy that they dare not speak it aloud. When they write it, they abbreviate it to YHWH, so as not to profane God’s holy name through unholy human lips or hands. Even in English, many will write “G–d” instead of “God.” They consider it no small thing to speak of or to the “Holy One of Israel” (Psalm 71:22).
“It is no small thing for us to have the right to call the Holy One of Israel our Father, and ourselves his children.”
Indeed, this One whom we call “Father” is the One before whom the four living creatures “day and night . . . never cease to say, ‘Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!’” (Revelation 4:8). He “is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see” (1 Timothy 6:15–16). For no mere human can see him and live (Exodus 33:20).
Even the only begotten Son — he who “in the beginning was . . . with God and . . . was God” (John 1:1), he who is the very “image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15), he whom God has “highly exalted” and on whom he “bestowed . . . the name that is above every other name” (Philippians 2:9) — this holy Son of God (Luke 1:35), who called God his “Abba, Father,” also addressed him as “Holy Father” (John 17:11).
What gives us — we “of unclean lips, [who] dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips” (Isaiah 6:5) — any right to call the Almighty “our Father”? Our holy Father himself and his holy Son, our Savior, give us this unfathomable privilege.
See What Kind of Love
It is good for our souls to pause and ponder the astounding fatherhood of God to us, especially if the reality has become too familiar, so we can see with fresh eyes the father-heart of God for us. That is what the Holy Spirit, through the apostle John, wants for us:
See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. (1 John 3:1)
And what kind of love has the Father given to us?
In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. (1 John 4:9–10)
The Father so loved us that he gave his only begotten Son, that through believing in him we should not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16). And the Son so greatly loved us that he willingly laid his life down for us (John 15:13) to become the propitiation for our sins.
To all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. (John 1:12–13)
It is no small thing for us to have the right to call the Holy One of Israel our Father, and ourselves his children. For at great cost,
the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ . . . has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. (Ephesians 1:3–6)
See with fresh eyes what kind of wonderful love the holy Father and the holy Son have given to us, that we should be called children of God.
‘Pray Then Like This’
This ocean of gracious love, this vast miracle of substitutionary atonement, this profound and mysterious gift of being both adopted by and born of God, is why when Jesus’s disciples asked him how they should pray to God, he began,
Pray then like this: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.” (Matthew 6:9)
God does not want us to relate to him as a mere subject relates to a king, or as a mere sheep relates to its shepherd. Fundamentally, he wants us to relate to him as a child relates to a loving, generous father who loves to give good gifts when his children ask him (Matthew 7:7–11). As Michael Reeves writes,
When a person deliberately and confidently calls the Almighty “Father,” it shows they have grasped something beautiful and fundamental about who God is and to what they have been saved. And how that wins our hearts back to him! For the fact that God the Father is happy and even delights to share his love for his Son and thus be known as our Father reveals just how gracious and kind he is. (Delighting in the Trinity, 76)
If you primarily think of God as your Father, and if you usually address God as Father when you pray, you have Jesus (and the Father) to thank — not only because he taught you to do so, but because he (and the Father) has given you the right to do so. And both Father and Son have provided you with the Holy Spirit — “the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’” (Romans 8:15). Make good use of this grace. For your Father in heaven delights in his children.