It is a common misconception that the portrayal of God is very different in the New Testament from the picture we see in the Old Testament. According to this view, the Hebrew Scriptures depict God as a transcendent Creator or stern Lawgiver, punishing the sins of his recalcitrant people.
He is the God who allowed hordes of Babylonians to invade Jerusalem, pillage and murder, and drag the remaining Israelites off to exile. Even in scenes that show God’s care for his people, he is depicted as delivering them from bondage in Egypt by drowning all the Egyptian forces in the Red Sea. Then, he gives them the Promised Land by allowing Joshua and his men to kill many of the Canaanites, its previous pagan inhabitants, beginning with Jericho.
All this is contrasted with the New Testament God, who is the God of mercy and love. This “other” God allowed his only Son to die for us so that we might accept him in faith and love and inherit the gift of eternal life.
A Father to Israel. While these interpretations have some truth to them, they are also shortsighted. Ancient times were indeed violent, and in war, many people are killed. If the ancient Israelites were successful, their success was attributed to God and his saving love for them; if they were not, as in the Babylonian invasion of Jerusalem and the following exile, then their defeat was seen as divine punishment. These texts intend to show the necessity of total fidelity of the Israelites to the Lord their God. The God of the Hebrew Scriptures is much more than an aloof creator, invincible warrior, or stern lawgiver. He is also a Father to his people, whom he cherishes as his beloved children. For example, even when Moses rebukes the people for their infidelity, he appeals to Israel’s special place in God’s heart: “Is this how you repay the Lord, so foolish and unwise a people? Is he not your father who begot you, the one who made and established you?” (Deuteronomy 32:6).
Similarly, in the Book of Jeremiah, God upbraids his people as a Father would speak to his children: “Even now do you not call me, ‘My father’? . . . Yet you do all the evil you can” (3:4, 5). Later, in an oracle prophesying Israel’s return from exile, Jeremiah pronounces another word from God: “With weeping they shall come, but with compassion I will guide them. . . For I am a father to Israel, Ephraim is my firstborn” (31:9). Finally, Psalm 68:6 speaks of God as the “Father of the fatherless, defender of widows.”
There were also times when the people addressed God as Father in their prayer: “Yet Lord, you are our father; we are the clay and you our potter: we are all the work of your hand” (Isaiah 64:7). “Your mercy hold not back! For you are our father” (63:15). “Have we not all one father? Has not one God created us?” (Malachi 2:10).
The Old Testament also shows God training Israel as a father raises his child: “So you must know in your heart that, even as a man disciplines his son, so the Lord, your God, disciplines you” (Deuteronomy 8:5). “As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him” (Psalm 103:13).
Our Heavenly Father. Though there are beautiful texts in the Old Testament about God as Father, they are not many compared with the New Testament—and especially the Gospels. For Jesus, the image of God as Father was paramount. He understood God to be a loving Father who is eager to forgive sins. He once told his disciples: “When you stand to pray, forgive anyone against whom you have a grievance, so that your heavenly Father may in turn forgive you” (Mark 11:25). Forgiveness is also the essential quality that Jesus called for when he taught us how to pray: “Our Father in heaven, . . . forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” (Matthew 6:9, 12). And in the parable of the prodigal son, Jesus highlights the father’s mercy toward his wayward boy, as well as his urging that his older son show the same forgiveness and love (Luke 15:11-32).
Besides signaling God’s readiness to forgive, the title “Father” in the New Testament also signifies God’s providential love. In Matthew 10:29-30, Jesus says, “Are not two sparrows sold for a small coin? Yet not one of them falls to the ground without your Father’s knowledge. Even all the hairs of your head are counted.” Jesus also promises that prayers made in his Father’s name are sure to be answered: “If two of you agree on earth about anything for which they are to pray, it shall be granted to them by my heavenly Father” (18:19). He even assures us, “Your heavenly Father knows that you need them all” (6:32). Clearly, Jesus showed us a God who loves us deeply and wants to make us his special people, children after his own heart.
“The Father and I Are One.” It isn’t just Jesus’ followers who should feel free to call God their Father. Jesus himself prayed to God as “Father.” On one occasion he said, “I give you praise, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned you have revealed them to the childlike” (Luke 10:21). Then, as if that prayer were not clear enough, he continued by talking about the intimate relationship he has with the Father: “All things have been handed over to me by my Father. No one knows who the Son is except the Father, and who the Father is except the Son and anyone to whom the Son wishes to reveal him” (10:22). One of the most powerful signs of Jesus’ relationship with his Father came at his baptism in the Jordan River and at his transfiguration. On both occasions, the Father himself announced Jesus to be his “beloved Son” (Matthew 3:17, Mark 9:7) and the “chosen Son” (Luke 9:35).
The Gospels were written in Greek, though Jesus had spoken in Aramaic and Hebrew. We do not know how often the word underlying the Greek word for “father,” patêr, was not just the Hebrew word Av, “father,” but the very special Aramaic title Abba or Papá. We do know that Mark 14:36 goes out of its way to give us the Aramaic term in Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane: “Abba, Father, all things are possible to you. Take this cup away from me, but not what I will but what you will.” By using this very special word in a setting in which he had surrendered so completely to God’s will, Jesus showed how closely united he was with his Father. Later, by taking up this new and daring way of addressing God in Romans 8:15 and Galatians 4:6, St. Paul showed that we can all experience a new level of intimacy with God through divine grace.
The transcendent greatness of Jesus is probably given its greatest expression in the Gospel of John. Not only does Jesus repeat Yahweh’s “I am” of Exodus 3:14 in John 8:58 (and earlier in 8:24, 28), but he also answers a group of Jews who want to know who he really is by saying, “The Father and I are one” (10:30). No wonder John begins his Gospel by saying, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (1:1). In like manner, Thomas, after being asked by the risen Lord to put his finger in the marks of the nails and of the lance, humbly says to Jesus, “My Lord and my God” (20:28).
May We All Be One. Clearly, Jesus is the divine Son of his heavenly Father. He is the Son of a God who has revealed himself throughout Scripture as our Father, the One who takes the place of an orphan’s dad, who leads his “firstborn” Israel out of bondage in Egypt and later rescues his sons and daughters from exile in Babylon.
It is as a good Father that God allows Israel to be chastised and disciplined when necessary, but who also has compassion on his children, on all those who love him with reverential fear. If the Old Testament emphasizes his closeness to the people—“What great nation is there that has gods so close to it as the Lord, our God, is to us whenever we call upon him?” (Deuteronomy 4:7)—how much more does the New Testament!
As Father, God runs to meet us as we turn to him in repentance. He has affectionately counted all the hairs on our head, and he knows what we need before we ask. By sending his Son to carry out the work of revelation and salvation, God promises, as Jesus prays, “that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me” (John 17:22-23).
For all these reasons and more, we can indeed pray with Jesus, “Our Father, . . . your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven” (Matthew 6:9, 10).
Contributing writer Fr. Wimmer is adjunct professor of theology at Georgetown University in Washington, DC.