The Father and the Son

What sort of Father?

Some of us might find it hard to think of God as Father.  It holds too many negative connotations.  For some, it will bring them face to face with their own failings and inadequacies as dads and as men.  You know that you have been the absent or impatient dad.  Then there are the stereotypes that our culture conjures up and associates with anything masculine: lad culture, incomplete projects, inability to multitask etc.

Sadly, for many, the word “father” stirs up painful memories, reminders from a past that we have tried to bury deep down and forget about; a dad that was distant or absent, a father who set high and harsh standards that we never could live up to.  Worse still, too many associate the word “dad” with emotional, physical and sexual abuse.

Perhaps we would rather not think of God as “Father” at all. 

Could we instead worship a mother goddess or better still depersonalise God and take away the gender connotations simply referring to the members of the Trinity by functions (Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer)? There are in fact a number of dangers with going down this route, but the key thing here is this: it is for God to reveal who he is, not for us to define him. You see, when we try to define God, we end up getting things the wrong way round.  We describe God as a father and think “God is a bit like my daddy.”  Now this may mean we associate him with the good things: the dad who mended my toys, took me walking in the hills and brought home delicious sweets, or it may mean that we associate God with those negative things.  The point is that, either way, we have limited God and fashioned him in our own image.  It is not that God is a bit like my dad; it’s that my dad at his best was meant to be a bit like the Heavenly Father.

So God chooses to reveal himself as Father.  As Robert Letham comments,

The name Father in not merely a simile (as if God is simply like a father) or even a metaphor (an unusual use of language drawing attention to aspects of God’s nature in surprising terms), but rather a definite personal name.  In contrast, the term mother, when used in reference to God, in the OT, is a simile, but never a metaphor and it is completely absent in the NT.  Father is the proper name for God and does not merely describe what he is like.”[1]

With this in mind, we will want to find out more about how the Bible portrays God as Father.  In so doing, we discover that this is not a randomly selected title for God in the New Testament, but an image built up throughout the whole of Scripture. It is however, an idea that takes time to build.  As Letham puts it, “While the distinctive covenant name of God YHWH, occurs nearly seven thousand times in the OT, God calls himself ‘Father’ only just over twenty times.”[2]

The Father of Israel

Perhaps one of the most moving references to God’s Fatherhood in the Old Testament is Hosea 11 where God says: “When Israel was a child I loved him, and out of Egypt I have called my son.”(Hosea 11:1)   Here we see that God speaks as the father of the nation of Israel.  In a moving poem, Hosea retells the history of Israel in terms of this Father – Son relationship.  The Son is called out of Egypt (reminding us of the Exodus), he is “taught to walk” (11:3), healed (11:3) and “led with chords of human kindness” (11:4).  God takes Israel “by their arms (11:3), lifts “yoke from their neck” (11:4) and feeds them 911:4).  This is a tender and compassionate father.

However, Israel are forgetful; they turn to idols instead of the living God and risk further exile.  Despite all this, the fatherly nature of God means that he cannot give them up and hand them over to judgement for ever (11:8).  No, this father’s “compassion is aroused.”  Fatherhood speaks of faithful love.  Letham says, “The name Father usually refers to the covenantal relationship of Yahweh to Israel (Ex 4:22-23; Hosea 11:1)”[3]

Note the other reference mentioned by Letham takes us back to the Exodus, to the very point where God acts to deliver Israel from slavery.  There God tells Moses

Then say to Pharaoh, “This is what Lord says: Israel is my firstborn son, and I told you, ‘let my son go, so that he may worship me.’ But you refused to let him go; so I will kill your firstborn son.” (Exodus 4:22-23).

God is telling Moses about the judgement which will come upon Egypt because of how the Israelites had been cruelly treated and kept as slaves.  Moses is to tell Pharaoh to let the people leave Egypt, but Pharaoh will refuse, resulting in a succession of horrific plagues. The last plague will be the death of all the first born sons, including the heir to the throne.  Again, we see something of the father’s love for his son: a love that awakens jealously and anger against those who seek to harm and hurt the loved son.

So Israel is designated as God’s first born son: something that will have implications for our understanding of Jesus as God’s Son.  Later, in the Old Testament, we see that the title Son of God is applied to the Kings of Israel. In effect, the Kings, Saul, David, Solomon and so on act as the representative of Israel; when they are wise and good, Israel prospers: when they sin, Israel falls into sin and judgement comes.  Psalm 2 is regarded as a royal Psalm written for the Kings of Israel.  It says

He said to me “You are my Son.  Today I have become your Father.  Ask of me and I will make the nations your inheritance, the ends of the earth your possession. You will rule them with an iron sceptre; you will dash them to pieces like pottery.” (Psalm 2:7b-9)

Something bigger going on

Israel is presented as God’s Son in the Old Testament, but if you read Luke’s Gospel, then you will find a little surprise tucked away in the genealogy at the end of Luke 3. The genealogy starts with Jesus in 3:23 and traces his ancestry back through David (3:31), Judah (3:33), Jacob, Isaac and Abraham (3:34) and then back to Adam (3:38) and there we have it: Adam was “the Son of God.”

Being the Son of God is linked not just to a specific people group here, but to the human race.  It captures the sense that we have our origins in God and that we are made in his image.  We are sons by creation.

Even bigger still

Then we get to Jesus, the one that the whole of Scripture is pointing towards (c.f. Romans 1:2-4). At the start of the Gospels, we find Jesus coming to be baptised in the River Jordan by his cousin, John.  As he is baptised, something amazing happens:

As Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the spirit descending on him like a dove.  And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son. With you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:10-11).

God the Father speaks and describes Jesus as His Son and declares his pleasure in him.  This distinguishes Jesus out from the others coming to be baptised by John; they need to be baptised to mark their repentance from sin, but there is no fault found in Jesus. God is happy with him; He delights in him.

God’s Words here echo the declaration of son-ship in Psalm 2, but also Isaiah 42:1 where God’s servant is described as “my chosen one in whom I take delight.”  They also carry echoes of Genesis 22:2 where Abraham is told to take “your son, your only son whom you love” and sacrifice him.[4]

Later on in the New Testament, Paul describes Jesus as the firstborn. He is the firstborn over all creation (Colossians 1:15) and the firstborn from the dead (Colossians 1:18).

Jesus then is the “one and only Son” that God sent out of love for the World (John 3:16).  Now, we can’t help reflecting on the way that this title Son which is applied to Jesus has been first used to describe humanity in general and Israel in particular.  Jesus then takes on the kingly role of representing Israel, just as Israel was meant to represent humanity.  Jesus is a new Adam.  Jesus as son of God represents us: here is a hint of his substitutionary role. His son-ship reflects his full humanity.

Similar but different

But we would be mistaken to simply see Jesus as an even greater example of the human kings that represented Israel.  No, there is something even greater still going on.  John 3:16 describes Jesus as God’s “one and only son.” There is something unique about him, something that marks him out as a son in a way that is not applicable to Adam, Israel, King David or any of us.

Some Bible versions translate “one and only” as “begotten” and this is the sense that is captured in a number of the creeds: he was “begotten not made.”  This is a true father/ son relationship.  Jesus is not part of creation, nor is he adopted into God’s family.  He is the Son by nature.

This son-ship is eternal.  Adam becomes a son when he is created, Israel becomes a son when called to be God’s people, kings like David become “sons” when they ascend to the throne.  Jesus always has been, always is, always will be God’s Son.  John 1:1, using the title “The Word” to describe Jesus, tells us that, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.”

This is the point that Jesus makes in John 5:26: “For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son to have life in himself.” The phrase “life in himself” refers to self-existence. God does not owe his existence to anyone or anything else: he is self-sufficient.  Only God has this quality and John tells us that both the Father and Son have this quality.  In other words, Jesus is equal with God (John 5:18).

This was, of course, to become a bone of contention during the early stages of church history as people like Arius and Athanasius battled over the status and identity of Jesus.  We will have a look at that in a bit more detail later. The two key things to note at the moment are, firstly, the unique role and status that Jesus has here which distinguishes him from all creatures. He is not just an exalted angel and certainly more than an ordinary man (c.f. Hebrews 1-2). John 1:1 identifies this Son as being God himself. Secondly, because Jesus is described as “The Word of God” in john 1:1 and “the image of the invisible God” in Colossians 1:15, he is the one who reveals to us what it is like. It is exactly because we see in Jesus God revealed as “Son” that we can know God as “Father” too (John 14:6-9.)

The obedient Son

We have mentioned previously that this relationship of Father to Son is one based on love.  This love is characterised by the generosity of a loving father who gives to his Son good gifts.  Psalm 2, which is now applied to Christ, portrays the Father as giving his son an inheritance, namely lordship and rule over the nations.  In John 6:39, we see that we are the inheritance given to Jesus the Son.   We also see that God will give Christ victory over His cosmic enemies so that they are put under his feet, becoming his footstool (1 Corinthians 15:27).

Jesus’ love for the father is marked out as sonly obedience. He is the one:

Who being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant being made in human likeness.  And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death –even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:4-8)

This is the Son who, when everything is under his reign and rule, will himself submit to the Father (1 Corinthians 15:28).

Father and Son working together

In John’s Gospel, the father-Son relationship is used to give us a sense of the unity of nature and purpose of the Trinity.  First of all, Jesus declares that he and his Father are one.  They are equal in nature.  This is seen by the Jews as blasphemy and they want to stone him.

Secondly, Jesus tells us that together they share in the work of redemption.

The Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees the Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does.  (John 5:19).

This is sometimes referred to as “Inseparable Operation.”  It means that the members of the Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, work completely together.  We cannot divide up their work.  It is not that the Father creates, the Son redeems and the Holy Spirit sustains (hence one of the reasons why we cannot define the members of the Trinity by function).  They don’t each take responsibility for a different step in the process.

Of course, each person of the trinity brings his own part to bear. As Frame comments:

This is not to say that the three play identical roles in these events.  The Father, not the Son, sent Jesus into the World to redeem his people; the Son, not the Father or the Spirit became incarnate to die on the cross for our sins.[5]

However, the Father, Son and Spirit are all involved in creation, the Incarnation, the Atonement together. This is also sometimes talked to in terms of “perichoresis” or the “mutual indwelling of the persons of the Trinity (John 10:38) so that wherever one of the persons of the Trinity is present, all are present. [6]

Frame notes that there is mutuality of love and of glory between the three persons of the Trinity.  The Father and Son seek each other’s glory. “To see Jesus is to see the Father (John 14:9) for he and the Father are one (10:30).”[7]

All that we have said explicitly here about the Father and the Son should also be said implicitly about the Spirit, so that “no text says precisely that the Father or the Son glorifies the Spirit, but the Father and the Son do honour the Spirit in his particular work.”[8] Thus, just as the Father delights in the Son, so Jesus delights in the fact that the Spirit will come and do even greater works (John 14:12).[9]

Implications

We will want to stop and draw breath at this point.  The revelation of God as Father through the revelation of God as Son is so exciting and wonderful.  This is the basis for saying that God is love.  The Father and Son eternally love each other. Moreover, the Trinity gives us an insight into how loving relationship are meant to work.  There is a reciprocated generosity[10] and there is a proper sense of exclusivity and jealously that should be there is all family relationships, one that values the uniqueness of the relationship without becoming inward looking, controlling and destructive.  We also note that relationships can be both equal in nature whilst being unequal in role.  The Son is equal with the Father and yet willingly submits to him.  This has fascinating implications for our understanding of family, church and work life too.

We will come back to some of these practical implications in more detail later, but first of all, we need to explore the Doctrine of the Trinity a little further.

[1] Letham, The Holy Trinity, 36.

[2] Letham, The Holy Trinity, 27.

[3] Letham, The Holy Trinity, 27.

[4] On the Old Testament references and inferences see, RT France, The Gospel of Mark (New International Greek Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids MI. Eerdmans, 2002), 80.

[5] John Frame, Doctrine of God,694.

[6] See John Frame, Doctrine of God, 693-694.

[7] John Frame, Doctrine of God, 694.

[8] John Frame, Doctrine of God, 695.

[9] John Frame, Doctrine of God, 695.

[10] See Letham, The Holy Trinity, 35.

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