In This Chapter
Righteous Father, the sinful world has not known you, but I have known you, and these have known that you sent me. And I have revealed your name to them, and I will reveal it in order that the love with which you loved me may be in them, and I may be in them.
–John 17: 25–26
And he [Jesus] said to them [Peter, James, and John], “My soul is very sorrowful, even to the point of death; stay here and watch. And proceeding a little way, he fell on the ground and prayed that if it were possible, the hour of suffering might pass away from him. And he said, “Abba, Father, all things are possible for you; take this cup of suffering away from me; yet not what I will, but what you will be done.”
–Mark 14: 34–36
A Quick Dip1
Father: The Greek word used here is pater, and it refers to the male parent who, in the patriarchal world of the biblical writers, was the sole provider and the respected, authoritative head of the family. It is important to understand that the survival of the family in ancient times rested upon the shoulders of the father. Legally, only the father of the family could own property. Therefore, everything — food, clothes, shelter — came from the father’s hand. Daughters were protected and cared for by their fathers until they were married. Sons worked alongside their fathers in the family business and did not own any property until they received their inheritance. Deprived of a father to care for them, widows and orphans became dependent upon the charity of others and many were plunged into poverty.
But those ancient fathers provided their families with more than physical necessities. Fathers were teachers, handing down practical skills and a trade to their sons. Fathers were also the spiritual heads of their households; they provided the sacrifices for worship and atonement, led the family prayers, and taught the precepts of Scripture to their families. A child seeking guidance and wisdom would turn to her father for help.2
Abba: This is the Aramaic word that is often translated as father and carries the same essential meaning found in the Greek word pater. Abba was the word used by Jesus’ community in everyday family life; it was the babbling word that the Hebrew child first used to call her father. In my opinion, Abba can best be translated in our language as “Dada” or “Daddy.”
Known: When John talks about knowing God in the Fourth Gospel, he is not referring to our possession of some cold, hard facts about God. On the contrary, knowing God comes from a personal encounter with God; knowledge of God must include possessing a personal relationship with God. Furthermore, it is important to understand that we obtain this knowledge, not from our own observation or speculation about God, but from God’s decision to actively divulge this knowledge to us. To say it another way: We cannot come to know God based on something that we attempt to discover for ourselves. Rather, we come to know God based on what God chooses to reveal to us. The knowledge — the revelation — always comes from God, and those who have received such knowledge have also received the opportunity to enter into a personal, intimate, eternal relationship with God.
Name: In Bible times — and in many places still today — the name of someone is considered to be more than just a label. The name is believed to contain the personality or the inner essence of a person or deity. In some mysterious way, to possess the name of someone is to possess a part of that person, including that person’s power and will.
- What name, title, or personal traits do you use when addressing God in prayer? What does this name reveal about your relationship with God?
- Why do you suppose Jesus called God “Abba“? In what ways is God like one of those ancient patriarchs?
- What do you know about God from your own personal experiences? Do you possess an intimate relationship with God? Does the name that you use for God in prayer reflect your personal knowledge, your intimate relationship?
What’s in a Name?
In the children’s fairytale, Cinderella races down the palace steps as the clock strikes midnight. In desperation, the prince rushes after her. He has fallen in love with this beautiful young woman, and if she slips away from him, he fears that he will not be able to find her again. Why not? Because he does not know her name.
In our society, names help us find one another. With a name and a phone book, you can find out where someone lives. With a name, a computer, and a few numbers, you can find out a whole lot more. Possessing a name gives us access to a great deal of personal information. However, in many ancient and modern cultures, possessing a person’s name carries even greater significance. A name is not just a label or an access code. A name is a revelation; the name contains the personality and inner nature of an individual. In the past, for example, North American Apache boys and girls were given new names when they came of age. Compared to their birth names, these new names were chosen to be more descriptive of their growing talents and personalities.3 There are many other similar examples. Every Navajo had two names: a vague name used in daily conversation and a “real” name that was kept secret and used only in times of danger or great need. Furthermore, if a fellow Navajo used another’s real name when asking for help, a special force was believed to be exerted, and the one asked was required to do everything in his or her power to assist the requester.4
Likewise in Bible times, the possession of someone’s name — especially a deity’s name — carried similar advantages. Genesis 32 tells us that after pinning an angel in a wrestling match, Jacob asks the angel to tell him his name. Jacob knows that if he can discover the angel’s name, he will have access to the angel’s power. The angel knows this, too, and refuses to reveal himself. Jacob limps away with a blessing, but not a name.
In Exodus 3, a voice from a burning bush tells Moses to return to Egypt and demand the release of the Hebrew slaves. Moses balks by asking, “When I go to the Israelites and tell them that their God has sent me, they will ask me, ‘What is his name?’ What should I tell them?” God replies, “I am who I am. Tell them ‘I AM’ sent you.” Moses and God both know that Moses will need God’s name and God’s power in order to obtain freedom for the Hebrews.
This name given to Moses (translated from the Hebrew word Yahweh) was a new revelation for God’s people. In an aside, it is interesting to note that the name Yahweh was — and still is — so revered by the Jewish people that it is rarely ever spoken. Instead, the Hebrew word for Lord is almost always substituted for Yahweh. But let us return to the main point. If a name is supposed to reveal something about who someone really is, then what does Yahweh reveal to us about God? After all, what does I AM really mean? Though scholars have discussed its possible significance for thousands of years, there is no clear understanding of what God meant when God revealed himself as I AM. It is a vague revelation, and I believe that God intended for it to be that way. Addressing God as I AM is like speaking to God in a mist or through a veil. Indeed, you may recall that in the Temple, God’s seat in the Holy of Holies was separated from the people by a heavy curtain. Direct access to God was rarely permitted, and then only to the high priest. In Old Testament times, the revelation of who God is — in both the name and in the worship place — was only partial. Much about God remained mysterious and hidden.
As we pointed out in “A Quick Dip,” it is important to understand that we human beings can know only as much about God as God chooses to reveal. Try as we may, we cannot find God unless God desires to be found. The revelation is always God’s choice, never ours. Therefore, the revelation of God’s name must be seen as a gift, a gift that was not fully conceded until the coming of Jesus Christ.
Knowing God’s Name
In the prayer quoted above from John 17, Jesus declares that he knows God. Remember, knowing means having personal knowledge about someone, knowledge that comes from an intimate relationship with that person or being. Jesus knows God because, as John states in his prologue (John 1:1–2), Jesus was in the beginning with God and Jesus was God. Nothing about God has ever been hidden from the Christ. Jesus’ knowledge of God is complete.
Furthermore, Jesus declares that not only does he know God, but that he has also made God’s name known to his disciples. In contrast to the burning bush episode, when the disciples — and we along with them — receive God’s name from Jesus, we can be assured that this name contains the full revelation of who God is. This name includes the revelation of God’s nature; it includes the revelation of his purpose; it includes the revelation of his power in our lives. So, what is this name which Jesus has made known to us? Well, if we examine all of Jesus’ recorded prayers and if we look at all of Jesus’ references to God in his daily teachings, then we discover that the predominant name Jesus uses when speaking to or about God is Father. In fact, Father is used as Jesus’ direct address to God in every prayer except one: his cry of abandonment from the cross (see Chapter 10).
God as Father
You may shrug your shoulders and say, “Father? The name Father doesn’t seem like an earth-shaking revelation to me.” And to those of us who grew up reciting the Lord’s Prayer, perhaps it does not. However, to the disciples and members of the early church, this revelation was paramount. You see, in all of the Old Testament, there are only about a dozen references to God as Father,5 and in each case the term is used as a metaphor: “Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter” (Isa 64:8). Here the prophet compares God to a father in the same way that he compares God to a potter. Jesus, however, uses Father as a form of direct address: “Righteous Father, the sinful world has not known you.” You see, Jesus never says, “Lord, you are like a father to me,” as the Old Testament writers did. Instead, Jesus calls God Father by name. God isn’t like a father, God is the Father. The difference in address is huge.
Jesus refers to God as Father over 175 times in the Gospels. Jesus directly addresses God as Father six times in John 17 alone. To the Jewish community and the early church, this was new. This was radical. And if we go back to the original language, it can become radical to us today.
The New Testament was originally composed in Greek — the international written language of the day. However, the people in Palestine — including Jesus — spoke Aramaic. So when the gospel writers set out to record the words of Jesus in the first century, they had to translate Jesus’ original Aramaic words into Greek. Nevertheless, in our passage from Mark 14 above, we find one Aramaic word preserved in its original form: Abba. I believe that Mark preserved the original language here because he knew that this tiny word was the key to understanding Jesus’ relationship with God. Paul and other writers in the early church also took pains to preserve Abba as a direct address to God in prayer.6 Elsewhere in the Gospels, however, Jesus’ Abba was translated into pater. Down through the centuries from Aramaic, to Greek, to Latin, and finally to English, we would have completely lost Abba if it were not for Mark and Paul. And to lose Abba would have been to lose the key, because neither pater nor father quite capture the full meaning of Abba.
Pater is much like our English word father. It is a formal word that can signify a close or distant relationship. Father denotes a biological connection, a begat. Most people in our society today do not call their fathers, “Father.” It sounds too formal. Abba, on the other hand, is a very informal word. It is much like dada or daddy in our society today. It is the babbling word a small toddler first uses to call her daddy. When Jesus calls out to God in the Garden, he cries, “Dada!” When Jesus teaches his disciples about God, he speaks to them about his Daddy.
Abba must have shocked the Jewish community as much as Daddy would shock the people in our pews today. Abba was an intensely intimate term that must have made devout religious people extremely uncomfortable. Abba was infantile babbling. Abba was a family word. To the Jews, remember, God was Yahweh, and that revered name could not even be spoken aloud. Yet here was Jesus traveling all over Palestine and calling God, “Daddy”!
A Loving Daddy
So, when Jesus calls God Abba, what does he mean? To those of us who are fortunate enough to have had loving fathers, we know Daddy as the one who provided food, shelter, and clothing for us. Daddy fixed our bike and bandaged our knees. Daddy played catch with us and comforted us when we had a bad dream. Likewise for Jesus, Daddy is the one who gives each of his children the gift of life and provides the beautiful earth for our home. Daddy raises up food from the ground, creates the materials for our shelter and clothes, and provides the sun’s rays and the fire’s blaze for our comfort and warmth. Daddy brings us wonderful gifts each day: a summer sunset, a colorful rainbow, a dazzling snowfall, a brilliant butterfly. Daddy brings healing when we are sick, comfort when we mourn, courage when we are afraid, strength when we feel weak, and assurance when we face death. If we will let him, Daddy will guide us safely through life’s darkest storms.
So you see, when Jesus calls God “Daddy,” he changes everything. Suddenly we no longer perceive God as a mysterious I AM hidden and inaccessible behind some religious veil; instead we discover that God is our Daddy — stooped down, smiling broadly, arms opened wide — who loves us without reservation and who wants to be by our side every moment of every day. Our relationship has completely changed. We are no longer Yahweh’s distant worshipers; we are now our Daddy’s beloved children.
And let us not overlook the fact that when Jesus grants the gift of God’s name to us, he gives us more than just this revelation. He also gives us access to our Daddy’s power. This is the undeniable truth: as our Daddy’s children, we have access to the power of our Daddy’s love — the power to heal the brokenness in our lives and in our world, the power to comfort those who are suffering and afflicted, the power to bring the hope of eternal life to those who are lost in darkness. If we understand this truth, then we can fully comprehend what an incredible revelation — what an incredible gift — the name Abba is to the whole world!
When Jesus prayed Abba, he showed us the kind of relationship that he wants us to have with God in our own prayer lives. Think again about your prayers. What name do you most often use when you address God? What does this name reveal about your relationship with God?
When I reflected on my own prayers, I found that I had never really paid attention to any of the names I used when I spoke to God. Sometimes I would pray God, sometimes Father, sometimes Lord, but these were just words mindlessly uttered. Not one of them pointed me toward a closer, more intimate relationship with God. So I began a search, a search for a name that would help me make a more personal connection. I began with Daddy. After praying “Daddy,” however, I found that this name did not provide the right connection for me. Perhaps because my biological father lives next door, the name Daddy always brings that human face to my mind. For others, the name Daddy might fail to create a positive connection for different reasons. For those whose fathers were absent or abusive, the name Daddy would stir up deeply negative feelings. This name would not point some people to the close relationship Jesus wants us to have with God.
There are many other titles, images, and names for God found in Scripture: King, Counselor, Teacher, Shepherd — to name a few. I considered each of these, but finally I asked God himself to give me a name that would define our relationship. It so happened that I was reading a story about a master and an apprentice at that time. I have a martial arts background and have always been interested in the ancient master/apprentice relationship. In olden days, the master and apprentice would not just train together; they lived, worked, worshiped, and studied together. The master would spend years teaching the student the secrets of his wisdom and power. Because of their constant contact, the master and apprentice forged a unique bond, a deeply intimate connection. It is a type of relationship for which I have always longed. As I pondered this ancient alliance, something stirred in my heart. I realized that this was the name which God had chosen for me to use in my prayers: Master. Suddenly, I had found my relationship.
It is difficult for me to describe what happened when I first prayed Master. Before, whenever I prayed God or Father — whenever I prayed without really thinking about the name I was calling on — my prayers felt like arrows shot into a mist. I knew that someone was out there, and sometimes I felt as though I had hit the target, but most of the time I was not sure. I could not see. I shot my arrows into this thick, gray fog and hoped that something good would happen as a result. However, the moment that God revealed himself to me as Master, the mist evaporated. I could clearly see my mark, the one for whom I was aiming: the Master I had always wanted — all-wise, all-powerful, all-loving. Moreover, I began to truly see myself as an apprentice: spending my days and nights at my Master’s side, absorbing his wisdom, experiencing his power, carrying out the tasks for which he prepares me. It was a totally new relationship for me. Before, I had always prayed to a God who was somewhere out there. Now, I just turn to the one who is beside of me and speak the name, “Master.” Immediately I can establish a direct line of sight with my goal; immediately I feel a close, intimate bond with God.
To you, Master may mean nothing, but with God’s help you can find the name that leads you to discover a deeply intimate relationship with God in your own prayer life. Jesus invites you to find the name that will stir your heart when you call out to God, to find the name that defines your relationship with God, to find the name that defines God’s purpose for your life, to find the name that fills you with a sense of God’s powerful presence every time you pray. It may seem hard to understand, but finding the name and the revelation that God has chosen to give you can change your prayers, it can change your relationship, it can change everything. The same way that everything changed for humanity when Jesus revealed to us the name Abba.
Chapter 2 Footnotes
1 The original Greek/Hebrew/Aramaic words referred to in this section are listed in the Appendix, found in the free PDF download.
2 G. Schrenk, G. Quell, TDNT 5:945-1022.
3 Thomas E. Mails, The People Called Apache (New York: BDD Illustrated Books, 1993), 75.
4 James A. Maxwell, ed., America’s Fascinating Indian Heritage (Pleasantville, N.Y.: The Reader’s Digest Association, 1978), 235-36.
5 Some examples: Ps 89:26, Isa 63:16, 64:8
6 Rom 8:15, Gal 4:6