The Apostles' Creed: God the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth
When we speak of God as our Father, it is immediately plain that we are expressing a belief that is unique to the Judeo-Christian tradition. Of course, to the extent that other religious or philosophical systems maintain that the world owes its allegiance to some kind of deity, in a very general or implied sense the deity could be thought of as fatherly because of its presumed involvement in bringing the world into being. Nevertheless, referring to the deity as a father is not the way such a god is viewed. And, moreover, when the Bible speaks of God as Father it means something more than a simple denoting of the source of the world's origins; indeed, it is establishing a unique relationship that is absent anywhere else. The right to claim to have God as one's Father is dependent upon one's union with Jesus Christ.
When Christians think of the fatherhood of God, their minds most likely go at once to the Trinity, and from there to the many New Testament passages that refer to God as the Father, along with the connecting belief in God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. And while any proper discussion of God needs to faithfully reflect upon and articulate such Trinitarian theology, when considering God as our Father it is necessary to lay a thorough foundation from the Old Testament, since that, after all, is where the theme originates. From there, then, we can go on to attempt to discover how the New Testament explains the fatherhood of God.
In the Old Testament, God is referred to as a father approximately fourteen times (e.g., Deut. 32:6b; Isa. 63:16; 64:8; Jer. 3:19; Mal. 1:6). The important point to note is that God is considered a father to the nation of Israel as a whole, rather than as a father to individuals, seen in the observation that God is not addressed as "Father" in individual prayers. In other words, the emphasis is on the corporate sonship of Israel, with God as the father of the nation, since he gave them life, as it were, when he brought them into existence through his covenant with Abraham.
In the coming of Jesus Christ, the Old Testament conception of the fatherhood of God is taken to a unique and unexpected level. Jesus knows that his relationship with God as Father is different from the Old Testament corporate relationship between God and Israel. Thus, he can speak of God as "my Father" (Matt. 11:27; Luke 2:49; John 2:16; 5:43; 8:19; 14:2), or even "abba," a term of endearment which would not have been considered an appropriate address for God (Mark 14:36).
This special relationship between the divine Son and his Father has astounding significance for the people of God. For while Jesus does make a distinction between his relationship with God as his Father and the disciples' relationship with God as their Father (Matt. 5:16, 44-45; Luke 12:30), at times he does seem to pull the two relationships together, even if ideas other than fatherhood are used to do it (John 14:20, 23; 17:20-23). Hence, there is established an intimacy with God the Father because of the work of salvation that Jesus accomplished for all whom the Father gave to him (John 17:2). Christ, then, becomes the decisive factor for determining whether one can claim to belong to God at all, regardless of religious pedigree (John 8:45-47).
The union that exists between God the Father, Jesus the Son, and Christians, as seen in John's account of the upper room discourse, is also seen in the New Testament letters. It is because we are united with Christ in his death and resurrection that God becomes our Father through adoption (Rom. 8:15; Gal. 4:5). We are therefore considered brothers and co-heirs of Christ, inheritors of all the covenant blessings of the family of God.
And with such privileges come responsibilities and obligations. Adoption indicates a new identification and loyalty. An adopted child is known by and patterned after his new family; and because one's new father is God, he is to behave increasingly like God. This is why Peter can instruct his readers as he does in I Peter 1: "As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, 'You shall be holy, for I am holy'" (vv. 14-16). Similarly, Peter can go on to tell his readers in chapter 2 that "you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God's people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy" (vv. 9-10).
Michael D. Roberts is the Alliance editor of ThinkandActBiblically.org. He holds a DTh in New Testament from the University of South Africa.