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Occasional Letters: The Fatherhood of God

D Newell, Glasgow

One of the sure-fire ways to avoid the danger of drooping eyelids when we read God's Word is to have a pen handy, ready to underline and annotate. What we mark we remember. When I was a student someone kindly gave me a rather battered copy of Mrs Stephen Menzies' book, How to Mark your Bible. It is long out of print, but you may still find second-hand copies on the Amazon marketplace. It offers a reliable starting point for the young Christian who wishes to learn how best to add notes to a Bible. And because the book was written by a woman it is a reminder that serious Bible study should not be restricted to the males. The preface includes the following remarks:

"The study of God's Word was perhaps never more needed than at the present time…If we are to be strong, muscular Christians, growing up into Christ in all things, it can only be as our thirst is quickened, and our love deepened, for the constant and prayerful study of the Word of God".

To foster such diligent study, the writer provides hints for the intelligent marking of Scripture, using the method commonly known as "railways" (underlining a key word and then joining it across the page to other occurrences of the same or similar words). The beauty of this system is that it immediately catches the eye and encourages the mind to make Biblical connections.

Let's take an example from Matthew chapters 5 to 7, which constitutes what people have traditionally called "the sermon on the mount". This body of teaching was addressed to the Lord's disciples with a view to giving them guidance for living in the unique era of His earthly ministry, when Israel was being offered the messianic Kingdom as an imminent possibility. In this sense, the instruction is highly localized and focussed on a special time-period although, like all Scripture, it is of wider application, containing abiding principles for the people of God.

If my counting is correct, the word "Father", used of God, appears 17 times in the three chapters, qualified by four different possessive pronouns. If you underline and join them up, you'll find that the occurrences fall into the following groupings:

     • "your (heavenly) Father": second person plural (5.16,45,48; 6.1,8,14,15,26,32; 7.11)

     • "thy Father": second person singular (6.4,6,6,18,18)

     • "our Father": first person plural (6.9)

     • "my Father": first person singular (7.21).

By means of this language, the Lord Jesus encouraged His disciples to know that their God was the ideal Father, possessed of unfailing wisdom, unchallengeable power, and unfading love. But it is worth noting that each distinct phrase emphasizes a slightly different aspect of truth.

In referring to "your Father" the Lord Jesus was not using the term in the way it is used in the Old Testament of God's special relationship with Israel. Israel was indeed set apart from other people as God's "son" nation (Ex 4.22), and in that sense God was their Father (Is 63.16; 64.8). However, the Lord was not here addressing the nation as a whole but instructing His own disciples, for "seeing the multitudes, he went up into a mountain: and when he was set, his disciples came unto him: And he opened his mouth, and taught them" (Mt 5.1-2). To know God as "Father", then, is a privilege reserved for believers. It excludes both the unsaved and the animal kingdom for, though in His creatorial goodness God sustains the birds of the air, we are told that it is specifically "your heavenly Father [that] feedeth them" (Mt 6.26). Not, we notice, "their heavenly Father". Even in His gracious care for the lower creation God remains uniquely the Father of His redeemed. What a consolation this must have been to the disciples in their service for the Lord Jesus! They might be rejected as the ambassadors of a despised Messiah, yet they were infinitely precious to God. And the Saviour went even further: using the singular pronoun, He spoke of "thy Father". This is in the context of the individual believer engaging in prayer and acts of mercy towards the needy. Though such spiritual exercises are not to be publicly paraded for the praise of men, they are all appreciated by God. Not only is God the tender Father of His saved people in a corporate way, He is the all-knowing Father of each individual believer. I have yet to find Old Testament evidence of any saved Israelite speaking of or to God as his Father in this wonderfully personal manner, for only the coming of the incarnate Son could truly make God known in all the fullness of His Fatherhood. That's why the Lord Jesus affirms in prayer, "I have manifested thy name unto the men which thou gavest me out of the world" (Jn 17.6). God's name is His character in all its excellence – and that character is beautifully summed up in the previous verse by the word "Father".

Those are second person references. But what about first person pronouns? The broad template for prayer given the disciples begins with "Our Father". That plural pronoun unites all Christ's followers in corporate fellowship, witnessing to their oneness in salvation. That is why, when publicly addressing God, brethren employ the first person plural ("we/us") rather than the singular ("I/me") so as to embrace the whole gathered company in their praise and petitions. But we mustn't miss the fact that the first person plural "our Father" does not include the Saviour Himself, because the prayer specifically confesses failure ("our debts", 6.12), whereas "in him is no sin" (1 Jn 3.5). Therefore, having demonstrated that all saints enjoy, by grace, a family relationship with God which finds expression in the comforting noun "Father", the Lord concludes His sermon by foregrounding what was uniquely and essentially His by divine right. This He does by speaking of "my Father". Warning of the presence of fakes even in the circle of professing disciples, He indicates that in a coming day all pretence would be exposed: "Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven" (Mt 7.21). Note: "my Father". Yes, the disciples had a relationship with God which included the enjoyment of sonship, but the Lord Jesus was the Son in an absolute, eternal, unique sense. He spoke of God as "my Father" in a way that no mere creature ever could. This was one of the reasons the religious establishment hated Him: "But Jesus answered them, My Father worketh hitherto and I work. For this therefore the Jews sought the more to kill him, because he had not only violated the sabbath, but also said that God was his own Father, making himself equal with God" (Jn 5.17-18, JND). Even after the resurrection, announcing the blessedness of His finished work, the Lord carefully maintained His own distinctness: "go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God" (Jn 20.17). Not, we observe, "our Father, and our God". The Apostle John was so gripped by Christ's pre-eminence that he reserved the word "Son" for the Lord Jesus alone, preferring (with one exception, in Revelation 21.7) to call believers "children" of God (Jn 1.12; 1 Jn 3.1, RV). All God's people know Him as their Father, for by grace they are infinitely dear to Him; but in His resplendent, stand-alone glory there is only one eternal Son.

To be continued.


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