READ : Luke 11:2
And he said to them: “When you pray, say: `Father, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come.’”
Luke 11:2 RSV
We’ve been thinking about the new way of praying that broke upon the world in the coming of Jesus and which He passed on to His followers. He always called God Abba, which means “Father.” And He encouraged His disciples to do the same. When they asked, “Lord, teach us to pray,” He responded, “Whenever you pray, say Father, say Abba.”
WHAT DID HE MEAN BY “ABBA”?
Now just what did that mean on the lips of Jesus? We’ve noticed that it was the language of the hearth, of the home. Abba was what a tiny Jewish child called her father, a familiar, affectionate, confident address. But what lay behind it in the mind and heart of Jesus? How did He really think about God?
We can gain the clearest sense of that, I think, from the prayers that Jesus actually prayed. Listen to this one from Matthew 11:25, “At that time Jesus declared, `I thank thee, Father, Lord of heaven and earth. . . .’”
The father to whom He prayed was Master of the universe, Creator and Ruler of all things. When He prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Abba, Father,” He said, “All things are possible to thee.” In other words, to Jesus the Father is all powerful. There is nothing too hard for Him. He prayed with such confidence because He knew that everything was ultimately in His Father’s hands.
In what we call His Great High Priestly Prayer in the Gospel According to John, chapter 17, Jesus prays, “Holy Father, keep them in thy name.” Did you hear that? “Holy Father.” Holy means “set apart.” God is transcendent and unique, far above His creation in majesty, totally separate from all that is evil. Again, Jesus uses the words “righteous Father” in His prayer. God is the just judge of all the earth who always does what is right. He is faithful to His promises and keeps His covenant. So to Jesus, the Father to whom He prayed was the holy One, the completely dependable One. The Father is not only great; He’s also utterly good.
Now we’re moving to the heart of it. Jesus says to this Father in the same high priestly prayer, “Father, I desire that they also, whom thou hast given me, may be with me where I am, to behold my glory which thou hast given me in thy love for me before the foundation of the world” (v. 24). Jesus knows that He is loved by this heavenly Father, and has always been loved. That’s the deepest conviction behind His child-like cry, “Abba, Father.”
And He wants His followers to know that God loves them in this same way. The love of God is the deepest reason behind Jesus’ coming. “God so loved the world,” John says, that is, the people in the world, “that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” Jesus comes as the gift of God’s love to share our life, to take upon Himself our sins, to die in our place so that we may be forgiven and have true life. Yes, so that we may become through faith in Him the children of this gracious Father. When Jesus says, “Whenever you pray, say: `Father,’” He isn’t simply telling us a word to use. He’s giving to all who believe in Him a new identity as the children of God. “As many as received him [that is, Jesus], to them he gave power to become the children of God” (John 1:11, KJV).
The Lord was always trying to assure His followers of God’s fatherly love for them. “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. . . .” (Luke 12:32). Again, “How much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:13). In other words, the Father is generous. He is kind. He is infinitely more caring toward His children than the best human parent could ever be.
But what if we’ve disobeyed Him? we wonder. What if we’ve turned away from Him? What if we’ve gone our own way and grieved His heart? That doesn’t change His love for you, says Jesus. God is like the Father in the parable of the prodigal son. When the lad in the far country begins to think again of the father’s house and trudges homeward ready to say, “Father, I’ve sinned against heaven and before you. I’m no more worthy to be called your son,” what does He find? The father comes running to meet him, throws his arms around him, welcomes him back home. “God,” says Jesus, “is a Father like that.”
WHEN IT’S DIFFICULT
But you say, “I can’t possibly call God Father. When I think of the kind of human father I had, I just can’t use that name for God.” I hear you. That’s an enormous difficulty for some people. Maybe you’ve never known a father. Maybe he deserted your family when you were very young. Maybe your father never showed you much affection. He was distant. Maybe he was cruel. Maybe he abused you in a way that’s forever branded on your memory. “Call God Father, you say? Never!”
You need a different human model, don’t you? Who was it who was most like a caring, compassionate parent for you? Was it your mother or a grandparent or a teacher, perhaps, a pastor, a coach? Who was it who was most like “abba” for your life? Think about that person and remember that God is like that, only much, much more.
But don’t give up too soon on this name Father. No one of us has had a perfect parent. We always have to realize that the best of fathers and mothers provide only a hint of what God is like. If you’re looking for a human life which fully reflects God’s father heart, you need to focus your attention on Jesus Himself. He said it, didn’t He? “He who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9).
Read in the Gospels how Jesus treated people, how He fed them, healed them, set them free, how He accepted and forgave. Read how He loved them so much that He offered Himself for them in the most marvelous expression of self-giving love the world has ever known. There, that’s a glimpse of Abba. That’s what God is like. You need to see the glory of God shining in the face of Jesus Christ. Then Abba will be transfigured in meaning for you. Then you can know that all we may have missed in our earthly parents is there for us in Him. Then you can draw near to Him with affection and joy, with freedom and confidence, like a child running to the arms of a loving father.
THE HEART TO FEEL AT HOME
But there’s something else to say about this, something profoundly hope-bringing to me. Maybe you’re listening a bit wistfully, saying to yourself, “It would be wonderful to feel that way about God, wonderful to be able to pray to Him as Abba. But I don’t know whether I ever can.”
If that’s the way you feel, I have some wonderful news for you. The same Jesus who invited His disciples to pray “Abba, Father” gave them more than advice. He later breathed into them His own Spirit so that they would be able to pray in that way. Listen to these marvelous words from Romans, chapter 8, beginning at v erse 14:
For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God, (they are children of God). For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the spirit of sonship [the spirit of adoption]. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God.
God, you see, has not only given you the standing, the status, of a child when you believe in Christ. He has also given you the heart of a child. I’m speaking right now to all of you listening who have believed in Jesus Christ. You have trusted Him as your Savior from sin. You’ve received Him by faith into your heart. In doing that, you have received the Holy Spirit. He has come to make your body the temple of the living God. And the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of adoption, the Spirit who gives you the deep confidence that you are a child of God.
So do you believe today that God loves you, that He gave Christ for you? That very conviction in your heart is the work of the Holy Spirit. Do you believe that God is a gracious father to you, loving you more than the best earthly parent ever loved his or her child? Thank God for that conviction. It’s the gift of the Holy Spirit. That is the Spirit spreading abroad in your heart a deep assurance, filling your being, as a perfume, with the blessed confidence that you belong to God and are loved by Him. And when, out of that confidence and joy you pray, “Father, dear Father, Abba,” it’s really your prayer, but it’s also the Spirit of God praying that with you and in you.
Never forget that, friends. One of the most marvelous things that the Spirit of God does in our lives is to assure us that we are children of God and to move us to call upon God as our loving Father. Paul puts it this way in another of his letters, Galatians 4:6: “And because you are sons [because you are children], God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!”
Now let me speak to those of you who have not yet received Jesus as your Savior. You haven’t yet felt this deep powerful conviction that you are loved by God and accepted as one of His children through faith in Christ. Well, that’s the gift, that’s the incomparable blessing that awaits you. None of us can gain this wonderful confidence by any strength or virtue of our own. Who of us would dare to assume or take for granted that God should care about us in that way? It’s only the gospel of Jesus Christ that brings us that assurance, telling us as it does how God loved us and sent His Son, how Christ died for us and rose again, how He offers forgiveness and new life to all who will believe. It’s when we take God at His Word, when we rest our confidence on this crucified and risen Jesus, that the miracle happens and we are born anew. The Holy Spirit comes into our hearts and lives, giving us this blessed assurance, “I am one of God’s beloved children. He is to me a marvelously loving and giving father.” Oh, what it means when that assurance fills our lives.
I sometimes tell the story of my granddaughter Anna’s birth. My son Jim was in the delivery room with Kathy when the baby was born. When Anna Christine came forth, arms extended as though to say “Hello, world,” she gave a sharp little cry. At that, I’m told, Kathy wept. Jim wept. Maybe the doctors and nurses did too, I don’t know. But there’s something marvelously moving about a baby’s first cry because it means life.
Have you ever thought about the fact that before a newborn can cry, she needs to get her lungs full of air? Before you can cry out, you need to breathe in. And before you can cry out from your heart this prayer, “Abba! Father!” with the confidence that you are God’s beloved child, you need to breathe in first His quickening Spirit. And that’s what happens to you when you believe in Jesus Christ. Remember how Jesus after His resurrection breathed on the disciples and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit”? That’s what happens when you trust Him today; when you receive Him by faith as your Lord and Savior, you receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
I’m talking about something now, friends, that goes far beyond learning a doctrine or mastering a religious technique. I’m talking about a new life that expresses itself in a new way of praying. I’m talking about something that happens in your heart when you have come to God through Jesus Christ. You know that you’ll never be a stranger again, never on the outside looking in. You’ve come home to the Father’s house and the Father’s heart. You are really at home with God when you come to know Him as your loving Father in Christ. May it be so for you.
Prayer: O God, may every person who is sharing this broadcast so trust in Jesus Christ, the beloved Son, that each may know that in Christ they are beloved children of a heavenly Father, will be able to cry “Abba,” will be able to feel truly and deeply at home. In the name of Jesus. Amen.