God as Father: Seeing the same God in both Testaments

April 25, 2018

The first time I read the entire Bible I was struck by the different titles used of God between the Old and New Testaments. The Old Testament usually described God as “Lord,” whereas the New described him as “Father.” The difference seemed to affirm an old stereotype: In the Old Testament, God is a stern lawgiver prone to wrathful judgment; in the New, he’s a tender parent eager to forgive and save. I knew that the difference was false and that God is unchanging, but a casual survey of Scripture seemed to confirm the dichotomy.

A new perspective on the same God

Then, I read Isaiah 63:15-16: “Look down from heaven and see, from your lofty throne, holy and glorious. Where are your zeal and your might? Your tenderness and compassion are withheld from us. But you are our Father, though Abraham does not know us or Israel acknowledge us; you, LORD, are our Father, our Redeemer from of old is your name.”

After hundreds of pages of Old Testament history, law, and prophecy, this passage leapt out at me. It seemed like a new piece of revelation, a sudden change or addition to Scripture. I almost couldn’t believe it was in the Old Testament. It appeared to be wholly new in the context of God’s covenant with Israel.

Here was the God of Sinai, the God of the Law, the God of the temple and sacrifice, of Sodom and Gomorrah’s destruction, the God that willed the fall of Jerusalem, being described as a tender and compassionate Father to his people. It is as if Isaiah, recognizing the fearful wrath and majesty of the Almighty, was divinely inspired to describe a new way of relating to God, lest his people be too scared to approach him.

Progressive revelation and God as “Father”

Years later I learned the doctrine of progressive revelation. Wayne Grudem, in his Systematic Theology, writes, “At each stage in redemptive history, the things that God had revealed were for his people for that time, and they were to study, believe, and obey those things. With further progress in the history of redemption, more of God’s words were added, recording and interpreting that history.”

God is unchanging, but his revelation of himself happens over time. In times past, before the canon of Scripture was complete, God did not provide his people with all the revelation we have of him today. For example, before the Incarnation, God did not reveal the person of Jesus, the nature of the Trinity, the distinction between the first and second comings of the Messiah, or the exact means of the Atonement. Those pieces of revelation came later.  

I was right to notice that God is not frequently revealed as “Father” in the Old Testament (although there are a handful of other passages aside from Isaiah 63). That does not mean God was not Father to Israel, just that God did not desire to emphasize his role as Father early in his redemptive plan. Why not?  

Three purposes for “Father” passages

What does the Fatherhood of God add to our understanding of him that would make it fit more naturally within the redemptive-historical context of the New Testament rather than the Old?  What does the Fatherhood of God mean? The passages that describe God as Father in the Old Testament seem to serve three purposes.  

1. They emphasize God’s compassion and tenderness toward his people.  

Moses opens up the book of Deuteronomy (1:31) by reminding Israel of how God fought for them and delivered them from Egypt: “There you saw how the LORD your God carried you, as a father carries his son, all the way you went until you reached this place.” We read in Psalm 103:13-14, “As a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him; for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust.”

In Jeremiah 31:20, God asks, “‘Is not Ephraim my dear son, the child in whom I delight? Though I often speak against him, I still remember him. Therefore my heart yearns for him; I have great compassion for him,’ declares the LORD.” And in Malachi 3:17, God declares, “‘On the day when I act,’ says the LORD Almighty, ‘they will be my treasured possession. I will spare them, just as a father has compassion and spares his son who serves him.’”

2. They emphasize God’s authority and the rightfulness of his judgment against his disobedient children.

In Deuteronomy 14:1, while Moses is delivering the law to the nation of Israel, he declares, “You are the children of the LORD your God.” God continues, “Do not cut yourselves or shave the front of your heads for the dead, for you are a people holy to the LORD your God.” The connection between the law and the Fatherhood of God is this: Israel was to obey God and treat herself “holy to the LORD” because that is the obedience a child owes to his father.

The Prophets echo the theme of God’s authority and justice as pictured in his Fatherhood. Isaiah opens his book with a thundering denunciation in 1:2, “Hear me, you heavens! Listen, earth! For the LORD has spoken: ‘I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me.’” Similarly, in Malachi 1:6 we read, “'A son honors his father, and a slave his master. If I am a father, where is the honor due me? If I am a master, where is the respect due me?’ says the LORD Almighty.”

These two themes culminate and combine in a few powerful passages about God’s authority and tenderness, his justice and mercy, his wrath and his love together. Solomon writes in Proverbs 3:11-12, “My son, do not despise the LORD’s discipline, and do not resent his rebuke, because the LORD disciplines those he loves, as a father the son he delights in.” God’s judgment against his people’s sin is an expression of his love.  A father who simply ignores his son’s disobedience is not loving his son; he is raising a spoiled and wild boy. Furthermore, Isaiah acknowledges God’s fatherly authority yet appeals to his fatherly mercy in 63:15–17 and 64:7–9.

3. They point to the Messiah.

Passages in 2 Samuel 7, Psalms 2 and 89, and Isaiah 9 speak of God as Father, not of Israel, but of the ruler of Israel. God is Father to a particular individual, a descendent of King David who rules and saves God’s people. “And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever” (Isa. 9:6-7). The New Testament will shed more light on how the sonship of the Messiah relates to the sonship of Israel.

When collected together, these passages cover most of the Old Testament references to God as Father and his people as his children (See Exo. 4:22, Isa. 45:10-12, Hosea 1:9-11; 11:1-2, 10 for other passages). There are hardly two dozen fatherhood references in the entirety of the Old Testament (20 by my count) that only look like a large body of Scripture when you aren’t looking at the context in which they occur. By contrast, there are literally hundreds of fatherhood references in the New Testament, which is much shorter.

This, then, is the picture of his fatherhood that God wanted his people to have during that moment in redemptive history. As their father, he had special tender mercy for them, but he also expected honor and obedience from them. The people of God are welcomed to approach their God not only as creator, lawgiver, and judge, but as Father. By contrast to the other religions of the ancient world, the relationship was personal, not contractual; affectionate, not businesslike.

And so it is with us today. Through faith Christ, the Lawgiver and Judge becomes our Father and helps us to understand the mystery that the Old Testament was whispering all along.

Paul D. Miller

Paul D. Miller is a professor of the practice of international affairs at Georgetown University, a visiting professor with the American Enterprise Institute, and a research fellow with the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Read More by this Author