Knowing God as Abba
By Dr. Paul Knudtson
Jesus said, “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.” – Mark 14:36
“And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’” – Galatians 4:6
“Abba” is the word for “father” in Jesus’s native language, Aramaic. As Jesus faces the biggest trial of his life—his imminent death by crucifixion—he does so by praying to God in the garden of Gethsemane, addressing God as “Abba” or “Father.” By his example Jesus teaches us here to meet our trials with prayer. Jesus instructs his disciples, “Keep awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial” (Mark 14:38). This statement is similar to the petition of the Lord’s Prayer which says, “do not bring us to the time of trial” (or, “lead us not into temptation” – Matthew 6:13). The Greek term used here, peirasmos, can be translated either as “trial” or as “temptation.” As Mark (together with Matthew and Luke) tell us, Jesus’s public ministry begins with a forty day period of testing (Mark 1:12-13). Matthew (4:1-11) and Luke (4:1-13) tell us that Jesus met those trials filled with the Holy Spirit (Luke 4:1) and fortified by the word of God (Deuteronomy). As on other occasions, now in Gethsemane he faces his greatest test by praying, addressing God as “Abba, Father.” It is Jesus’s intimate relationship with God as indicated by such language that helps him face this terrifying challenge. Hebrews describes this moment in Jesus’s life: “Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission” (5:7).
Though scripture bears witness that Jesus Christ was God (examples: John 1:1-2; 20:28; Hebrews 1:8), it also testifies that Jesus was a human being, a man (see, for example: 1 Timothy 2:5). As a man, Jesus was born, grew and increased in knowledge (Luke 2:52; Hebrews 5:8), faced various trials and hardships, and ultimately suffered and died. Hebrews says that “in every respect (he) has been tested as we are, yet without sin” (4:15). The gospel story of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane the night before he was crucified (Mark 14:32-42) instructs us about how to meet the trials in our lives as well. Jesus stayed awake and prayed. And he prayed to God as to One with whom he enjoyed great intimacy, the intimacy of a father and son.
Humanly speaking, Jesus learned to address God as “Father” because he had first been addressed by God as, “Son.” At his baptism, the voice from heaven (God) addresses Jesus directly, saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11). Not only is Jesus God’s Son, he is “the Beloved” (or, God’s “beloved Son”). Jesus begins his public ministry filled with the Spirit (Mark 1:10; Matthew 3:16; Luke 3:22) and assured that God his Father loves him, and is well pleased with him.
Israel’s kings ideally enjoy a close relationship with God that is described in terms of the relationship between a father and son. “He shall cry to me, ‘You are my Father, my God’” (Psalm 89:26). God will say to the king, “You are my son” (Psalm 2:7). More than previous rulers, Israel’s future king, the Messiah, would be God’s Son. When the New Testament calls Jesus God’s Son, it means that Jesus is the Messiah, but with the connotation that he is more than a merely human king, that he is even God in human flesh (see John 5:18; 1:14).
Jesus’s address to God as “Father” in Gethsemane is one of the few places in the passion narrative where we see the presence of the Trinity. The New Testament’s language of Father and Son for God and Jesus is Trinitarian language. We have seen the full three persons of the Trinity at Jesus’s baptism, with references to the heavenly voice (the Father), the Holy Spirit coming upon Jesus, and Jesus addressed as the “Son.” In Gethsemane (as in many other texts) we learn of the relationship of Jesus with God in the Father-Son language of prayer (that is, the relationship between God the Father and Jesus Christ the Son). Father and Son share the language of intimacy, the language of love. God the Father loves Jesus the Son, and Jesus the Son loves God the Father. The many references in the gospels to Jesus at prayer (especially prominent in Luke: 3:21; 5:16; 6:12; 9:18, 28, 29; 11:1; 22:32, 41) speak about the ongoing relationship of love that Jesus enjoyed with God the Father.
When the disciples ask Jesus to teach them to pray, he does so by giving them “the Lord’s Prayer,” a prayer that begins with the word, “Father” (Luke 11:2), or the words, “Our Father” (Matthew 6:9). In other words, Jesus teaches his disciples—and us—to pray to God in the same way that he prayed, by enjoying an intimate relationship with God that allows us to also address God as “Abba, Father.”
In the Small Catechism, Martin Luther begins the explanation of the Lord’s Prayer by saying, “With these words God wants to entice us, so that we come to believe he is truly our Father and we are truly his children, in order that we may ask him boldly and with confidence, just as loving children ask their loving father.”
Meditation: How would you describe your prayer life? What does Jesus want to teach you about prayer? How may prayer help one to face the trials of life? Jesus faced the greatest challenge of his life praying to the One he knew as “Father.” How does the knowledge that we are God’s beloved children help us to pray?
Prayer: Dear God, may we come to know you through your Son Jesus Christ in such a way that we enjoy the knowledge that we also have become your beloved children and that you hear us when we pray and invite us to address you as “our Father,” knowing too that you can save us from the time of trial so that nothing will ever separate us from your love. Amen
“Abba, Father We Adore Thee”
By Robert Stephen Hawker
Abba, Father! we adore Thee, humbly now our homage pay;
’Tis Thy children’s bliss to know Thee, none but children “Abba” say.
This high honor we inherit, thy free gift through Jesus’ blood;
God the Spirit, with our spirit, witnesses we’re children of God.
Thine own purpose gave us being, when in Christ, in that vast plan,
Thou in Christ didst choose Thy people e’en before the world began.
Oh, what love Thou, Father, bore us! Oh, how precious in Thy sight!
When to Thine own Son Thou gav’st us, to Thy Son, Thy soul’s delight.
Though our nature’s fall in Adam shut us wholly out from God,
Thine eternal counsel brought us, nearer still, through Jesus’ blood;
For in Him we found redemption, grace and glory in Thy Son;
O the height and depth of mercy!
Christ and His redeemed are one.