By / Apr 25

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.

By / Feb 11

Dan Darling asks Jason Duesing of Midwestern Seminary how training men and women for ministry and our approach to missions is different from decades past.

By / Jul 2

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act a landmark piece of civil rights legislation that outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Here are five facts about the Act:

1. On June 11, 1963 two black students, Vivian Malone Jones and James Hood, arrived at the campus of the University of Alabama with the intention to enroll.  Waiting for them was Governor George Wallace, who was accompanied by a group of Alabama state troopers. When Wallace blocked the entryway to proven the students from entering, U.S. Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach called upon the assistance of President John F. Kennedy who, later that same day, federalized the Alabama National Guard. One hundred guardsmen escorted Malone and Hood from their dorms to the university’s auditorium, where they registered as students.

Later that evening, Kennedy delivered a radio and television address on civil rights in which he called on Congress to act and "to make a commitment it has not fully made in this century to the proposition that race has no place in American life or law" and "to enact legislation giving all Americans the right to be served in facilities which are open to the public — hotels, restaurants, theaters, retail stores, and similar establishments."

2. On June 19 President Kennedy submitted his bill on civil right to Congress. The bill was referred first to the Judiciary Committee and then, in November 1963, to the Rules Committee. The chairman or the rules committee was Howard W. Smith, a Democrat and avid segregationist from Virginia. Smith indicated his intention to keep the legislation from coming to a vote on the House floor.

Later that month, President Kennedy was assassinated, but President Lyndon Johnson immediately began putting pressure on the Rules Committee to release the stalled legislation. Smith reluctantly allowed the bill to be sent to the full House on January 30, 1964. Although Rep. Smith was opposed to racial integration, he was a supporter of woman’s rights. Two days before the House vote, Smith offered an amendment to insert "sex" after the word "religion," sex as a protected class of Title VII of the Act.

3. The legislation passed the House on February 10, 1964 by a vote of 290–130. When the bill came before the full Senate for debate on March 30, 1964, the "Southern Bloc" of 18 senators (17 Democrats and one Republican) launched a filibuster to prevent its passage. Senate rules permit the tactic called filibuster which allows a senator, or series of senators, to speak for as long as they wish and on any topic they choose, unless "three-fifths of the Senators duly chosen and sworn" (usually 60 out of 100 senators) brings debate to a close by invoking cloture under Senate Rule XXII.

The filibuster by the Southern Bloc lasted for 54 days, during which no other Senate business could be conducted. Never in history had the Senate been able to muster enough votes to cut off a filibuster on a civil rights bill, but on June 19 the filibuster was broken and a version of the bill passed the Senate by a vote of 73–27.

4. The stated purpose of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is:

(1) To enforce the constitutional right to vote.

(2) To give U.S. District Courts jurisdiction to issues injunctions, requiring an individual to do or not do a specific action, to curtail discrimination in places of public accommodation.

(3) To authorize the U.S. Attorney General to institute lawsuits to protect constitutional rights in public facilities and public education.

(4) To extend the Commission on Civil Rights.

(5) To prevent discrimination in federally assisted programs.

(6) To established a Commission on Equal Employment Opportunity.

5. At the time, there were questions about whether the Act was even constitutional since it prevented discrimination by the private sector. Several lawsuits immediately challenged the new law. In December 1964, the Supreme Court ruled in the landmark case of Heart of Atlanta Motel Inc. v. United States that the U.S. Congress could use the power granted to it by the Constitution's Commerce Clause to force private businesses to abide by the Civil Rights Act of 1964. A related ruling, issued that same day, in Katzenbach v. McClung forbid racial discrimination in restaurants offering to serve interstate travelers or serving food that has moved in interstate commerce.

Other Articles in the 5 Facts Series:

Supreme Court’s contraceptive mandate decision • Fathers and Fathers Day • Euthanasia in Europe • Marriage in America • March for Life • Abortion in America • ‘War on Poverty’