Jesus' Awareness of His Unique Relationship to the Father

Author: Pope John Paul II

In his General Audience on Wednesday, 1 July 1987, the Holy Father reflects on Jesus' use of the term Abba in addressing the Father.

Jesus' self-revelation as the Son of God is given a unique expression in the term Abba, Father. Abba is an Aramaic word which is preserved in the Greek text of Mark's Gospel (14:36). It appears precisely when Jesus addressed his Father. Even though this word can be translated into every language, yet on the lips of Jesus of Nazareth one can better understand its unique meaning.

Abba expresses not only the traditional praise of God, "I bless you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth" (cf. Mt 11:25), but as used by Jesus it also indicates his awareness of the unique and exclusive relationship that exists between the Father and himself. It expresses the same reality to which Jesus alludes in such a simple and yet extraordinary way in the words preserved for us in the Gospels of Matthew (11:27) and Luke (10:22): "No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and any one to whom the Son chooses to reveal him." In other words, the term Abba not only manifests the mystery of the reciprocal bond between Father and Son, but summarizes in a certain way the whole truth about God's intimate life in the depths of the Trinity, that mutual knowledge of Father and Son which gives rise to the spiration of eternal Love.

The word Abba is taken from the vocabulary of family life and speaks of the personal communion between father and son, between the son who loves the father and is in turn loved by him. When Jesus used this word to speak of God, his hearers must have wondered and even been scandalized. An Israelite would not have used it even in prayer. Only one who regarded himself as Son of God in the proper sense of the word could have spoken thus of him and to him as Father--Abba, or my Father, Daddy, Papa!

1. A prophecy fulfilled in messianic times

A text of Jeremiah speaks of God wanting to be called Father, "I thought you would call me, 'My Father'" (Jer 3:19). It is as it were a prophecy that would be fulfilled in messianic times. It was fulfilled and surpassed by Jesus of Nazareth in speaking of himself in relation to the Father as he who "knows the Father," making use of the filial expression Abba. He constantly speaks of the Father, and invokes the Father as one having the right to address him simply with the name Abba--my Father.

All this was noted by the evangelists. Particularly in Mark's Gospel we read that during the prayer in Gethsemane Jesus exclaimed, "Abba, Father, all things are possible to you; remove this cup from me; yet not what I will, but what you will" (Mk 14:36). The parallel passage in Matthew reads, "my Father," that is, Abba, even though the Aramaic word is not literally quoted (cf. Mt 26:39-42). Even when the Gospel text says only "Father" (as in Lk 22:42, and also in another context, in Jn 12:27), the essential meaning is identical.

Jesus got his hearers to understand that when he used the word "God," and particularly the term "Father," he meant "Abba--my Father." Thus even in his youth when he was barely twelve years old, he said to his parents who had sought him for three days, "Did you not know that I had to be in my Father's house?" (Lk 2:49). At the end of his life, in the priestly prayer which concludes his mission, he insists in asking God, "Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you" (Jn 17:1). "Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me" (Jn 17:11). "O righteous Father, the world has not known you, but I have known you" (Jn 17:25). Already in foretelling the end of the world, in the parable of the last judgment, he appears as the one who proclaims, "Come, O blessed of my Father" (Mt 25:34). Later, on the cross, his last words were "Father, into your hands I commend my spirit" (Lk 23:46). Finally, after the resurrection he told the disciples, "And behold, I send the promise of my Father upon you" (Lk 24:49).

Jesus Christ, who "knows the Father" so profoundly, came "to manifest his name to the men whom the Father had given him." (cf. Jn 17:6). An important moment of this revelation of the Father is the reply which he gave to his disciples when they asked him, "Teach us to pray" (cf. Lk 11:1). He then dictated to them the prayer which begins with the words "our Father" (Mt 6:9-13) or "Father" (Lk 11:2-4). Through the revelation of this prayer the disciples discover their special participation in the divine sonship, of which the Apostle John will say in the prologue of his Gospel, "To all who received him (that is, to all who received the Word who became flesh), Jesus gave power to become children of God" (Jn 1:12). Rightly therefore, according to his own instruction, do they pray, "Our Father."

Jesus however always drew a distinction between "my Father" and "your Father." Again, after the resurrection he said to Mary Magdalene, "Go to my brethren and say to them, I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God" (Jn 20:17). Moreover, it is to be noted that in no passage of the Gospel do we read that Jesus recommended his disciples to pray with the word Abba. That term refers exclusively to his personal relation of sonship with the Father. At the same time, however, the Abba of Jesus is in reality he who is also "our Father," as is clear from the prayer taught to his disciples. He is so by our participation or, better still, by our adoption, as the theologians teach following St. Paul who wrote to the Galatians: "God sent forth his that we might receive adoption as sons" [1] .

In this sense we are to understand the subsequent words of St. Paul in his Letter to the Galatians: "Because we are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, saying, 'Abba, Father!'" (Gal 4:6), and also what he wrote in his Letter to the Romans: "You did not receive a spirit of slavery...but a spirit of adoption through which we cry out, 'Abba, Father!'" (Rom 8:15). When therefore as adoptive sons (adopted in Christ--"sons in the Son," says St. Paul--cf. Rom 8:29) we cry out to God "Father," "our Father," these words refer to the same God, to whom Jesus said with incomparable intimacy " Father."

[1]   Gal 4:4-5; cf. Summa Theol., III. q. 23, aa. 1, 2