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Because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father.” Galatians 4.6.

It is clear from this verse and from Romans 8.15 — “For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father'” — that, in the early days of the church, the cry of prayer heard in Christian congregations right across the empire was this strange mixture of Aramaic and Greek, “Abba ho pater“. But so unusual is this way of addressing God that it must surely not have originated in the early church but in the prayers of Jesus himself; and, indeed, Mark’s gospel bears that out. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Mark tells us, Jesus fell to his knees and prayed. “‘Abba, Father,’ he said, ‘everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will'” (Mark 14.6). Did Jesus always call the Father “Abba”? The evidence from the Greek is that he did. Without getting too technical, the unusual form of the Greek word pater used in the “Our father” of the Lord’s prayer points to the underlying use of Abba there too, and there are other instances where the same unusual form of pater is found.

But even if Jesus did consistently address God as Abba and teach his followers to do the same, what is so special about it? Well, first, there is not a single example of anyone else ever addressing God as Abba in the whole of Jewish literature. And for good reason. As one Jewish source puts it: “When a child experiences the taste of wheat [ie, when it first moves onto solid food], it learns to say ‘abba and ‘imma [ie, they are its first words]”. And those words are “daddy” and “mummy”. Now admittedly, by the time of Jesus, those two words were used even by grown-up children as a way of addressing their earthly parents, but even so one can see how shocking it would seem to hear the Almighty God being addressed with a child’s intimate word for his dad.

But that, of course, was the perfect expression of Jesus’ relationship with Almighty God. “This is my son, whom I love,” said God at Jesus’ baptism (Matthew 3.17).”This is my son, whom I have chosen,” said God from the cloud on the Mount of Transfiguration (Luke 9.35). And that is who Jesus knew himself to be. He knew that he was the One and Only. He knew that he was the beloved Son of the Most High God. And he knew that he alone had a perfect right to call God “Abba” because that, for him, was who God was.

But the wonderful, shocking thing is this. He didn’t keep his sonship for himself. He told his followers. “When you pray, say ‘Abba father'” (the Aramaic behind Luke 11.2). In other words … “If you share my life, you share my sonship.” And with the coming of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost, that glorious sharing became a reality for all who belong to Jesus, including me. Today, in me, as I turn to the Father in prayer, the Spirit of Jesus once again cries “Abba” and ushers me into the very presence of One who says, “Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found” (Luke 15.22-24). Hallelujah!

Abba Father, let me be
Yours and Yours alone.
May my will for ever be
evermore Your own.
Never let my heart grow cold,
never let me go.
Abba Father, let me be
Yours and Yours alone.

© Dave Bilbrough

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