When Jesus referred to “God” as “Father” it was not a new revelation. Many of his Jewish forefathers and foremothers had done so before him. However, the New Testament writers indicate that Jesus’ way of relating to God as “Father” expressed a new and deeper intimacy with God. This expressed intimacy impressed some of his Jewish peers and angered others (Mark 14:36; John 5:17–18). Jesus’ use of “Abba” was so intimate that both Mark and Paul chose to leave it untranslated at points. Paul also indicates that through Jesus, God is extending this offer of intimacy to the rest of us humans as well—whether Jewish or Greek, slave or free, male and female (Gal 3:25–4:6; Rom 8:15).
It isn’t just intimacy with God that Jesus is expressing in his use of “Abba.” It is also his recognition of God’s authority over his life. As many scholars point out, the designation “Father” in the cultures of the ancient world did not automatically focus on intimacy and tenderness. It designated a role with ultimate family authority. This role was often exercised without the gift of much time or intimacy.
Although Jesus’s use of “Father” never moves away from fully recognizing the ultimate authority that God has over God’s human family, it does always include intimacy. In both words and actions, Jesus demonstrates that the God who is Father is the ultimate authority in his own life–and ours as well–is a God who deeply cares about us.
Having grown up in the Southern part of the USA, I grew up experiencing the use of “Papa” (the Southern English close equivalent to the Aramaic “Abba” and Hebrew “Ab”) as a title meant to convey authority, but hopefully intimacy as well. I understand the word “Baba” in India functions much the same way.
Two passages clearly illustrate this breathtaking combination of intimacy and authority in Jesus’ relationship with “God” as his Father–and ours.
Though “Abba” is not used in either Matthew or Luke’s Greek version of Jesus’s model prayer that we have labelled “The Lord’s Prayer” or the “Our Father,” the prayer clearly views the relationship Jesus has with God, and is calling us to share, as both intimate and authoritative. “Our Father” is authoritative, and we are called to pursue his “will” on earth just as it is done in the heavens. “Our Father” wants an intimate relationship that includes providing for us, forgiving us, and protecting us from evil (Matt 6:9-15).
Jesus demonstrated his own trust in the Father’s authority and intimacy in his prayers just prior to being arrested. “Abba, Father,” Jesus said to God, “Everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will” (Mark 14:36). This level of intimacy and freedom in the relationship between Jesus and God who is his “Abba” is breath-taking. Equally breath-taking is the level of authority Jesus is willing to grant to his “Abba” in this high-risk situation.
No wonder several writers of the New Testament saw “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus the Messiah” as the newly appropriate name for the God of Israel who is the God of all nations.