Lectionary Calendar
Friday, April 12th, 2024
the Second Week after Easter
For 10¢ a day you can enjoy StudyLight.org ads
free while helping to build churches and support pastors in Uganda.
Click here to learn more!

Bible Dictionaries
Father, Fatherhood

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Search for…
Prev Entry
Father's House
Next Entry
Fatherhood of God
Resource Toolbox

FATHER, FATHERHOOD.—The one subject on which Jesus claimed to have unique and absolute knowledge was the Father (Matthew 11:27). Yet, in saying this, He evidently did not mean that He knew all that God knows. He confessed or implied that His knowledge was limited (e.g. Mark 13:32, Matthew 9:21-22); and the very fact that He looked up to God as His God is sufficient evidence that, by knowledge of the Father, He did not mean comprehension of the Infinite. The record of His life and teaching makes it plain that His unique knowledge of God was knowledge of the Divine character and purpose. This was the sphere in which He lived and moved and had His conscious being. This was the sphere of His revelation.

In setting forth Jesus’ conception of the Fatherhood of God, we shall consider (1) the use of the name ‘Father’; (2) the meaning of Fatherhood; (3) the Fatherhood of God in the Fourth Gospel; (4) the place of Fatherhood in the teaching of Jesus; and (5) Jesus’ conception of God compared with that of the OT and of His contemporaries.

1. Use of the name ‘Father’ by Jesus.—The first recorded sentence of Jesus (Luke 2:49), and that which was probably the last (Luke 23:46), both contain the name ‘Father.’ The boy of twelve felt an inward constraint to be engaged in the things of His Father, and twenty years later, expiring on the cross, it was into the hands of His Father that He commended His spirit. Throughout His ministry His use of this name is what we might expect from the scene which St. Luke records from His boyhood. ‘The child is father of the man.’ Whenever the personal relation between Him and God is involved, Jesus employs no name but ‘Father,’ if we except a single passage where He quotes from the 22nd Psalm (Mark 15:34). In each of the five prayers where the words of Jesus are given. He addresses God as ‘Father’ (Matthew 11:25-27; Matthew 26:39; Matthew 26:42, Luke 23:34; Luke 23:46); and in the longest of these, which includes only three verses, the name is repeated five times (Matthew 11:25-27). When speaking of God in the third person, Jesus refers to Him once as ‘the Great King’ (Matthew 5:35), and once as ‘Lord of the harvest’ (Matthew 9:38); but in almost every case He uses the name ‘God’ or the name ‘Father.’ He never employs such circumlocutions as ‘the Blessed One’ and ‘Holy One,’ and never uses abstract designations such as ‘Place,’ all of which were common in the synagogue. It is significant to compare with this usage that of Philo, whose commonest titles of God are abstract (e.g. τὸ ὄν, τὸ ὄντως ὄν, τὸ πρὸς ἀληθινὸν ὄν, ὁ ὤν—Drummond, Philo Judaeus, ii. 20). The name by which Jesus Himself addressed God was also the name which He put on the lips of His disciples. It was their privilege to share His communion with God (Matthew 6:9; Matthew 23:9).

2. The Meaning of Fatherhood.—What Jesus meant by the term ‘Father’ is to be learned both from His words and from His life. From His words we infer that He chose this term to describe the character of God. Thus He teaches that, as it is the very nature of a father to give good gifts to his children, so it is the very nature of God to give His good things to those who ask Him (Matthew 7:11, Luke 11:13). Earthly fathers, though evil, give to their children; much more will God give, who is absolutely and unchangeably good (Mark 10:18). He is ready to bestow the Kingdom of heaven upon the poor in spirit, and to give the vision of Himself to the pure in heart (Matthew 5:3; Matthew 5:8); that is to say, He gives the best He has to any who will receive it. And even upon those who will not receive the best, He bestows much; for He maketh His sun to rise on the evil, and sendeth rain on the unjust (Matthew 5:45). Jesus exhorts His hearers to have this spirit in order that they may become sons of the heavenly Father and share His perfection (Matthew 5:45; Matthew 5:48). Accordingly the term ‘Fatherhood’ describes what God is in Himself. It does not concern merely or chiefly His relation to men, but it declares His very spirit, that which lies behind all relationships.

The story of the Lost Son perfectly interprets Jesus’ conception of Fatherhood (Luke 15:11-32). The lost son does not stand for a lost Israelite merely, a fallen member of the theocratic people, but represents the sinner, whether Jew or Gentile. For, in the first place, the parable was spoken to justify Jesus’ reception of publicans (Luke 15:1-2), and publicans were rated as no better than Gentiles (Matthew 18:17); and, in the second place, the conclusion of Jesus in the parables of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin, which are manifestly parallel to that of the Lost Son, is perfectly general. He there declares that there is joy in heaven over one sinner who repents (Luke 15:7; Luke 15:10). Therefore, when Jesus, in the story of the Lost Son, says that the father watched and longed for his son’s return, and welcomed him at last with kisses and a joyful feast. He teaches that the Fatherhood of God is essential, and therefore a fact of universal significance. It is in keeping with this when Jesus, addressing the multitudes as well as His disciples, said to all who heard Him, ‘Call no man your father on earth: for one is your Father, who is in heaven’ (Matthew 23:1; Matthew 23:9). If we had more of the addresses of Jesus to the multitudes, we should probably have more instances of this same usage.

Again, the very life of Jesus shows what He meant by the Fatherhood of God, for He surely felt that the spirit of this Fatherhood was manifested through Him. He portrayed His own attitude towards the lost when He drew the picture of the father and his lost son. His brotherhood interpreted the spirit of the Divine Fatherhood. But the brotherhood of Jesus describes what He was. He did not simulate brotherliness. It was by the very necessity of His holy and loving will that He was the friend of sinners. It is impossible, therefore, to suppose that, in His thought, the Fatherhood of God was something less than essential, a figure setting forth His gracious relationship to certain favoured people. As His own love flowed out to men irrespective of all merely outward circumstances, and as He believed that He knew the Father and was in harmony with His will. He must have believed that God loves men irrespective of all outward circumstances; in other words, that His Fatherhood is essential, and hence of universal significance.

It is true that Jesus considered Himself sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, and that He confined His labours chiefly to them; but it is equally true that this was solely a matter of order. He told the Canaanitish woman that the children should be fed first (Mark 7:27), which plainly suggests that the gospel was for all, but that for some reason it was to be offered first to the Jews. Moreover, He granted the woman’s request, though He thus spoke; and in no case did He turn a Gentile away empty who came to Him for help. He healed a Samaritan leper (Luke 17:18), and the servant of a Gentile centurion (Matthew 8:13). There is no indication that they were less dear to Him than were the Jews.

We conclude, therefore, both from the words and the life of Jesus, that He called God our Father, not because God created us,—a view common in Philo,—or because He rules over us, or because of the covenant which He made with Abraham, but simply and only because He loves us. The abstract statement that ‘God is love’ (1 John 4:8) is a true interpretation of the word ‘Father’ as used by Jesus.

3. The Fatherhood of God in the Fourth Gospel.—The Fatherhood of God is more conspicuous in John than in the Synoptics, the word ‘Father’ occurring about 90 times as against 5 in Mark, 17 in Luke, and 45 in Matthew. Here also, as in the Synoptics, the word is found only on the lips of Jesus, with the exception of three passages where the author speaks from his own Christian point of view (John 1:18; John 8:27; John 13:3), and one passage in which he attributes his Christian usage to the Baptist (3:35).

The new feature of the subject in the Fourth Gospel is the emphasis laid on the universality of Fatherhood. Thus it is the world (κόσμος) which God is represented as loving up to the point of the highest sacrifice (John 3:16). It is all men whom Jesus will draw unto Himself (John 12:32). In offering life to a Samaritan, Jesus feels that He is accomplishing the Father’s will (John 4:10; John 4:34), and a visit of certain Greeks brought before His soul the vision of a great harvest for the Kingdom of God (John 12:20-24).

Still more noticeable, and more divergent from the earlier usage, is the employment of ‘Father’ in an absolute sense. The extent of this usage in John is not altogether clear. In the conversation with the Samaritan woman, Fatherhood is plainly universal: ‘The hour cometh and now is when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and truth: for such doth the Father seek to be his worshippers’; ‘Believe me, the hour cometh when neither in this mountain nor in Jerusalem shall ye worship the Father’ (John 4:21; John 4:23). Another passage which admits of no doubt is John 20:17 ‘I am not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brethren and say to them, I ascend to my Father and your Father, and my God and your God.’ It is quite clear that the word ‘Father’ in the first clause is unlimited; for, in the later clauses, He who is here called ‘the Father’ is called by Jesus ‘my Father and your Father.’ Two other cases of what appears to be the same use of the word are John 6:27; John 6:46.

In about one quarter of the passages where God is called ‘Father,’ He is so called in reference to Jesus, and the language is ‘my Father’ (e.g. John 2:16; John 5:17; John 6:32). Since, now, there are some passages in which the absolute sense of ‘Father’ is required, and since in the majority of the other passages, where the expression ‘the Father’ is used, there is nothing which requires us to adopt a limited idea of Fatherhood, it must be regarded as probable that the author always employed the word in an unlimited sense when he did not associate a personal pronoun with it. Thus the Fourth Gospel would place a very striking emphasis on the thought that the Fatherhood of God is essential and universal. Such emphasis on this point in the teaching of John was, of course, made natural by the missionary activity of the early Church, which had gone forward many years before the Fourth Gospel was composed.

The meaning of Fatherhood in the Fourth Gospel is the same as in the primitive tradition. It describes the character of God, and is expressed in love. It is perhaps probable that the author of the Fourth Gospel occasionally used the term ‘Father’ in a metaphysical sense (John 1:14; John 1:18), but he has put no words on the lips of Jesus which require to be taken metaphysically. He often represents Jesus as saying ‘my Father,’ but it is unquestionable that Jesus would have every man address God in just this way. He taught His disciples to say ‘our Father,’ which, of course, implies that each individual may say ‘my Father.’ When Jesus, to comfort His disciples, is represented as sending them the message, ‘I ascend unto my Father and your Father, and my God and your God’ (John 20:17), He does not separate Himself from them by claiming a unique relationship to the Father, even God, but rather joins Himself closely with them by the thought that one and the same Father is theirs and His alike, one God the God of both. The Fatherhood of God according to Jesus, even in the Fourth Gospel, is one and ethical, but His appreciation and appropriation of that Fatherhood are unique.

4. The Place of Fatherhood in the teaching of Jesus.—In accordance with the fact that the sole subject on which Jesus claimed to possess unique knowledge was the character of God, or, as we may now say, the Fatherhood of God, we find that this truth is central and determinative in all His teaching. His conception of the Kingdom of heaven was dependent on His conception of the character of God. The Kingdom which He wished to see come on earth was the Kingdom of the Father (Matthew 6:9), a Kingdom in which the will of the Father should be done. Therefore the conception of the Kingdom of heaven is not the fundamental thought of Jesus. Nor was His teaching determined by His sense of the imperfections of the Law. These imperfections He saw clearly, but not because of a critical analysis of the Law such as a philosophical student of history might make. He considered the Law from above, as one who possessed in Himself a higher standard, a more perfect knowledge of the Divine will. His work was, indeed, to fulfil the Law, and to establish the Kingdom of God on earth; but the inspiring and ruling thought in all His work was the truth of God’s Fatherhood. What He teaches of man’s relation to God is determined by this truth. It is gathered up in the thought of sonship. The lost son is to return to the Father. His life is to be one of filial service in the Father’s presence. And it is the goodness of the Father that draws him back.

The Fatherhood of God requires that the spirit of the religious life shall be love, out of which will be born perfect trust. It invites and draws man to communion with God, and determines the character of his devotion. What Jesus teaches of man’s relation to man is also determined by His consciousness of the character of God. His morality is purely religious. The ethical life of His disciples is to be controlled by the fact of their sonship to God. The standard of that life is the very quality which constitutes the perfection of God (Matthew 5:48). It is one and the same quality that makes Him the Father and makes man His son. Thus the entire teaching of Jesus is but the interpretation of the fact of God’s Fatherhood. This is the sun in His heaven which lights and warms the broad field of human life.

5. Jesus’ conception of God compared with that of the OT, and with views of His contemporaries.—The new revelation which Jesus gave of the character of God was put into a term which had long been applied to Him in Israel. The first of the great prerogatives of the Jewish people which are enumerated by St. Paul is the adoption (Romans 9:4), that is, the appointment of Israel to be in a peculiar sense God’s son. This thought was derived from the OT. God’s message to Pharaoh by Moses involved a paternal relation to Israel, for Moses was to say in God’s name, ‘Israel is my son, my first-born’ (Exodus 4:22). Again, Deuteronomy represents Moses as saying to the people, ‘As a man chasteneth his son, so the Lord thy God chasteneth thee’ (Deuteronomy 8:5; Deuteronomy 32:6); and the Lord says in Hosea that when Israel was a child He loved him and called His son out of Egypt (Hosea 11:1; Hosea 1:10). In these passages, and in a few more, God is thought of as a Father to the people of Israel as a whole; and He is the Father of Israel because He made them a nation and established them by His mighty power (Deuteronomy 32:6). So far His Fatherhood is wholly national. There are, however, other passages in which we have an individualizing of the thought of Fatherhood. Thus the Lord says of the theocratic descendant of David, ‘I will be his father, and he shall be my son’ (2 Samuel 7:14); and the Messianic king puts the decree of Jehovah concerning himself in these words, ‘Thou art my son; this day have I begotten thee’ (Psalms 2:7). There is also an individualizing of God’s Fatherhood with reference to other persons, for the Psalter calls Him the Father of the fatherless; and His pity for those who fear Him is like the pity of a father for his children (Psalms 68:5; Psalms 103:13). Yet in all these passages we see only the relation of God to His chosen people, or to a particular class among them, or to His chosen king. ‘Father’ is a word of relation, not yet a description of God’s very character. It marks an advance upon that conception of Fatherhood which is derived from the fact of creation, but it is still far removed from the view of Jesus. The OT gave to Jesus the name ‘Father’ for God, but He filled it with a new content.

When we come down from the OT to the time of Jesus, we find among the Jews a conception of God that is far more widely unlike that of the gospel, and which by contrast serves to bring out the thought of Jesus into strong relief. This Jewish conception of God was based on the traditional interpretation of the Law, not on the spiritual teaching of the Prophets. God was put further and further away; the conception of Him became increasingly abstract and transcendental.

Even as early as the translation of the OT into Greek (3rd cent. b.c.) this tendency towards a more abstract conception of God is manifest. The translators sought to remove the thought that God bad come into actual contact with men. They do not, with Exodus 15:3, call God a ‘man of war,’ but render the passage by ‘the Lord who makes war.’ Moses no longer goes up ‘to God in the mount,’ as the original reads (Exodus 19:3), but he goes up ‘to the mount of God.’ Moses and those with him did not see the God of Israel (Exodus 24:9-10), but they saw the place where He stood.

As in the Greek translation of the OT, so in the Targums of Onkelos and Jonathan (1st cent. b.c.) appears the tendency to safeguard the holiness of God by removing Him far from men. An illustration may be cited from Genesis 18:8. It is said there that the heavenly visitants ate of the repast which Abraham had provided, but Onkelos changes it to ‘it seemed to him as though they ate.’ Such was the method of the Targumists. With the removal of God far from men there came to be associated in the course of time an elaborate doctrine of angels—a natural it not necessary correlate of the transcendental conception of God.

But though the scribes removed God far from contact with man and the world, their conception of Him was unspiritual.

He is pictured in the Talmud of Jerusalem as a great Rabbi. He studies the Law three hours each day, and observes all its ordinances. He keeps the Sabbath. He makes vows, and on their accomplishment He is released by the heavenly Sanhedrin. He also fulfils the injunction to rise up before the hoary head (see Gfrörer, Das Jahrhundert des Heils, i. 276; Weber, Jud. Theol.2 [Note: designates the particular edition of the work referred] pp. 17, 18). Thus the external, ceremonial conception of religion at last took complete possession of the future world, and threw the mesh of its enslavement to the letter even around God Himself. The prophet’s spiritual conception of Jehovah was lost; the glow of lovingkindness which they beheld in His face faded out utterly, and there remained a Being who was called ‘the Holy one,’ interesting perhaps to the scribe, but whom no one could really love.

To this conception of God the revelation of His Fatherhood by Jesus formed an absolute contrast. The scribes put God in the seventh heaven; Jesus taught that He is near. The scribes held that He is intensely concerned with outward ordinances; Jesus taught that He is full of love, and cares only for the heart of man. To the scribal mind God was the God of scribes; to Jesus He was the Father of all men. The religious teachers of Jesus’ time fell very far below the prophetic conception of God; Jesus rose still further above it.

For the application of the term ‘father’ to Joseph, see artt. Birth of Christ and Joseph.

Literature.—The works on NT Theology by Holtzmann (H. J.), Beyschlag, Stevens, and Gould; Wendt, Die Lehre Jesu; Gilbert, The Revelation of Jesus; Bousset, Die Religion des Judenthums; B. Weiss, Die Religion des NT; Fairbairn, Christ in Mod. Theol. 440 ff.; Dale in Expositor, v. vii. [1898] 56, 150.

George H. Gilbert.

Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Father, Fatherhood'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​hdn/​f/father-fatherhood.html. 1906-1918.
adsFree icon
Ads FreeProfile