The first sentence of this quarter’s Sabbath School lesson also captures the most important point about Jesus’ teaching about God the Father: “Jesus delighted to speak of God as the Father.” We as Christians today can’t really recapture how shocking this must have been to His audiences. All our knowledge of Jesus and of Christianity is grounded in our confidence in His claim to have been the Son of God, so much so that we cannot, no matter how hard we try, recapture the original mindset of the Judeans of Jesus’ time.
Let’s try, however, to put ourselves in their shoes. What distinguished the Israelites from the surrounding nations was monotheism. According to Moses, in his final, Deuteronomical address to the Twelve Tribes, the greatest commandment (Deut. 6:1) was grounded on the oneness of God:
“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.” (Deut. 6:4)
The monopolistic love for God that He enjoins on the Israelites is linked here with, and founded on, His monotheistic nature.
The doctrine of the God has surely spawned more heresies than any other – probably every possible permutation of the relationship of the three members of the Godhead to each other has been affirmed and maintained by some group, somewhere, some time. And it is the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity that has been more confusing to Christians than any other aspect of the Godhead – there is little doubt that across history it has been more heresiastic than any other single aspect of Christian doctrine.
The Trinity is, let’s be clear, foundational to the Christian faith. Sadly, Adventists replicated in our first half century many of the anti-Trinitarian heresies of the first five centuries of Christianity and in consequence we have never mined the rich vein of Trinitarian theology as have, for example, the Episcopalians and Eastern Orthodox. Nevertheless, in recent years Adventist theologians such as Jerry Moon and Woodrow Whidden have emphasized how our understanding of salvation, as well as of the character of God, are founded on a proper interpretation of the Godhead.
However, my point here is that if Adventists, after over 1800 years of Christian history could find the concept of a “son of God” hard to understand, it can help us imagine how our first-century Jewish forebears must have been troubled by Jesus Christ’s breathtaking claim that God was His father! Either God must have impregnated a human woman (which was the sort of thing pagan deities did all the time but had no precedent in Israelite sacred literature) or, even worse, Jesus was (as it appeared) asserting not only that He was divine, but also that Israel’s God, “The Lord Our God” was not one, since deity was at least dual, a Father and a Son (that the Godhead was actually polyvalent was not, of course, clearly indicated by Christ until His final earthly command that baptisms of His followers should be “in the name of the Father and of the Son and the Holy Spirit”).
For “scribes and Pharisees” the affirmation that God was Christ’s father would have been a terrible blasphemy. However, it wouldn’t have just been pious Jews who would have reeled in shock at Jesus’ impious assertion, since the single nature of God was fundamental to the Jewish religion. Furthermore, even though there was a widespread belief in a coming “Messiah”, it’s easy to forget that this simply meant “anointed one” – my point is that Old Testament prophecy did not make it clear that the anointed one would be, himself, divine. He would, it was foretold, be a savior of the people, but this seems to have been widely understood as meaning a redeemer from Roman tyranny. It is striking that when Jesus “asked His disciples, saying to them, ‘Who do men say that I am?’ . . . they answered, some say ‘John the Baptist; but some say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets.’” It is true that Peter then boldly affirms “You are the Christ”, i.e., “You are the anointed one”, the Messiah – which implies that the Messiah was supposed to be separate from a returned Elijah or resurrected prophet. Even so, this story (found in Mark 8:27-29) reveals that there was confusion in first-century Palestine about just who and what the anointed one would be. We have to forget our awareness that the Messiah would be divine. Christ’s contemporaries had no such knowledge.
Instead, Jesus simply states, and then repeats, over and over, that His father was in heaven; that His father was holy; and ultimately that His father was God. As the lesson points out, “Father was not a new name for God”, for in at least five scriptures in the Hebrew Bible, God is presented as “our Father”. However, this contrasts with the estimated 6,800 times that God is referred to as YHWH. So for most Israelites, in characterizing God as paternal, Jesus was not only making a remarkable (possibly appalling) claim, He was also presenting God in a new perspective. In part, of course, Jesus was shedding new light on the nature of God – in avowing that “I and My Father are one” (John 10:30), Jesus makes clear that the Lord is indeed one. Our understanding of monotheism needed to be revised, but the ancient rejection of polytheism was affirmed and underscored. But in addition, Jesus was saying something profound about the divine character.
After all, if Jesus was both man and God, and was in an intimate, loving relationship with His heavenly father, what does that say to us about our relationship with God? Jesus wept over Jerusalem because it had rejected the divine desire “to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings”. Here God is presented in maternal as well as paternal terms. Thus, Jesus in His language depicts God as more than the stern, austere creator and judge so often portrayed in the Old Testament. Instead, He is a loving parent to human beings – both to His fully-human and fully-divine son, Jesus. But also to every other human child, who enters into relationship with the triune God through baptism.
Jesus’ teaching about His heavenly Father is vital to Christianity. First, it tells us that Jesus was not just an earthly deliverer – the anointed one was also God. Second, it tells us that God is our loving parent. It is precisely because “we have a great High Priest . . . Jesus the Son of God,” that we can, as the author of Hebrews says, “hold fast our confession” and “come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” God is our judge but He is also our propitiatory sacrifice and He is our Father who loves us. We need have no fear in approaching Him.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/6091