Our Heavenly Father has made a path for us that makes him far more reachable than we ever thought possible.
The word ‘Abba’ is used just three times in the NT Documents. In Mark’s Gospel we find it in 14:36, where Jesus is praying desperately with his disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane just minutes before his betrayal and the Cross. The decisive hour is about to happen and it doesn’t sound like a good idea to him at all. So Jesus takes one more look at the horrific ordeal before him, and in the travail of his soul, addresses God the Father in his native Aramaic tongue as always, but using especially the word “Abba”, which Mark transliterated for us into the Greek Text with the letters Αββα, which would be spelled for Aramaic readers as אַבָּא, and for Hebrew readers as אָבִי. He said, “Abba, Father, all things are possible unto thee; take away this cup from me: nevertheless not that I wilt but what thou wilt.” This is the back story of Jesus’ use of Abba, which is more than just a title or a proper name, and which surprisingly, Jesus used for our instruction even in this extreme moment.
Take one more look at this. The intensity of this context for Jesus, the betrayal, the suffering, the scattering of his disciples all greatly affected his every word. He knows he’s as good as dead going into this. The extreme cost! His appeal is to Abba, which goes all the way back to his earthly beginning, to that primary flashback of being cherished, not only by Joseph but by his heavenly Papa, when, like every child knows, he is most vulnerable, least, lost, little, last, and dead if not for the tender regard of Daddy (and certainly Momma). Three times he asks for it all to be taken away. The answer? Abba would not spare let his Son, but didn’t need to speak one word about it; Jesus resolved to drink this cup. And according to the ancient and holy pattern, grace would work through suffering and death so that resurrection could be possible. Salvation works only through death and resurrection, for Jesus and for us, who follow him into his death so we can know his power to raise us. This is how Abba works, and the operatives of his grace are in being little and lost, betrayed and dead. (To better understand this cf. Robert Farrar Capon, The Parables of Grace [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Pub. House, 1988, p. 110]).
Though the word Abba was strongly used in secular Judaism, in the family unit, it was almost never used of God (cf. Gerhard Kittle, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol. I [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Pub. House, 1964, p. 5-6]). Perhaps to refer to God as Abba would have been seen as too familiar, even disrespectful, which was in fact, exactly how the Jews felt about it in Jesus’ time. For example, when Jesus explained why the impotent man was healed, saying, “My Father is working until now and I am working” (John 5:17), they sought to kill him because. . . “he said also that God was his Father, making himself equal with God” (v.18). Certainly God was uniquely Jesus’ Father (cf. John 3:16), but our Lord invites us into this same relationship with his Father, to Abba, not just here in Mark 14:36, but probably in all cases when addressing God, e.g. “Our Father which art in heaven” (Matt. 6:9).
For the young children, ‘Abba’ or Daddy, was to be the God-ordained man who was entrusted with this cherished name. He was hallowed and sacred to their childhood, which was to be a lasting feeling, even into old age. So Abba is the intimate name, not only a formal title. It is the affectionate name, not only the legal one. It is the honorable name, not a slang one (like ‘old man’). All this should be carried forward to apply to God our heavenly Father, who is the very essence of perfection in fathering.
Interestingly, Paul the Apostle does carry Abba forward in two places. In Romans 8:15-17 he wrote about our sonship with God:
“For ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father. The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God: And if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ”.
Actually it’s the Holy Spirit that carries God as Abba forward for us, who inspires us to call him Abba too. It’s a familial term: because we are the children of God, we’re family, and heirs of inestimable gain because we’re written in his will. Paul put it this way in Gal. 4:6-7:
“And because ye are sons, God hath sent forth the Spirit of his Son into your hearts, crying, Abba, Father. Wherefore, thou art no more a servant, but a son; and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ.”
When we throw ourselves on the mercies of God, as Jesus did in Gethsemane, it is to Abba that the Spirit leads us. And because we cry out his name, we know we are sons, and that we are heirs of God. The same intimate relationship Jesus proclaimed with his Father is appropriated for us by Christ and the Cross when he gave to us God’s name Abba. The conclusion of the matter: Abba is a revelation about a relationship that blows fear away and gives us a future as sons. That God would freely give to us his intimate, affectionate, and sacred name is almost beyond belief. And if we believe that God is Abba, his name is a sign to us like young children, where God involves his passions into our extreme desolations.
Let me close by trying to illustrate this. Recently I was conversing with an auto parts man I know (I’m an auto mechanic) who is from Peru. I was going over Gal. 4:6 with him – that ‘God has sent forth the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, Abba, Father.’ I was telling him how much hope there was for him because of Abba. He said he was used to reading the Bible in Spanish. I asked him, ‘What do you think the Spanish word is for Abba?’ He thought for a moment and said, ‘Probably Papa.’ I could just see the lights going on in his heart. I simply said, ‘Hope it’s a good day.’ But the notable thing was that a heavenly heritage was imparted to him that day by the Holy Spirit right then and there.
Again, my little granddaughter recently visited us with her family from Alaska. Connie is almost two. She calls her other grandfather Gram’pa, but for me she chose Papi, which she invented. I can’t explain how great that makes me feel, that I could so enjoy that trust with her. I think God prizes such child-like faith himself. So here’s the deal: let your heart recapture that earliest trust in what a father should be, and let your faith in God soar. ‘And Lord, thanks ever so much for giving us your holy and awesome name, Heavenly Papa’ (or if You prefer, Daddy).