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Patrick Henry Reardon on Why We Can Be Brothers & Sisters in Christ
hortly after he assumed office earlier this year, the newly elected governor of Alabama created a considerable stir when he mounted a Baptist pulpit and declared, “If you have been adopted in God’s family like I have, and like you have if you’re a Christian and if you’re saved, and the Holy Spirit lives within you just like the Holy Spirit lives within me, then you know what that makes? It makes you and me brothers. And it makes you and me brother and sister.”
The ensuing comments on this declaration were predictable. For example, did it mean, asked his political opponents, that the governor of Alabama would favor Christian citizens of Alabama over non-Christian citizens of that great state? Would Jews, Muslims, and atheists receive equal protection and enjoy equal concern from the governor’s staff and administration? Since the makeup of Alabama’s population is roughly 107 percent Christian, these questions certainly appeared legitimate.
The dust from the controversy seems largely to have settled now. The governor’s office issued the appropriate explanations. His staff quickly researched the archives to find the politically correct clarifications. The more liberal religious leaders decried the governor’s narrow-mindedness. Apologies were offered to those offended. And so forth.
Perhaps it is now safe to suggest that the governor of Alabama was trying to make a theologically valid point. There were better ways to make the point, to be sure, and an elected political figure is the absolutely last person who should make it. But the point itself is important.
Customary for Jews
Let me see if I can say it better: God has only one Son. The Holy Spirit enables the rest of us to become children of God by our identification with this one Son, in whom we become brothers and sisters to one another. We pass no judgment on anyone else’s conscience, but the Christian faith obliges us to declare that this one Son is the sole mediator between God and man, and in his name alone is eternal salvation. This is the doctrine that defines Christian existence.
We learned this doctrine from Jesus, who spoke on the subject in several places and at some length. It is not hard to trace the development of this thesis in the Gospels.
In Jewish worship, it was customary to address God as “Father.” Abinu, Malkinu“Our Father, our King”has always been a standard praise formula in the synagogue. It is not surprising, therefore, that we find this form of address in the teaching of Jesus, even as we find it in his own prayer (Matt. 11:2526; 26:39,42; Mark 14:36; Luke 22:42; 23:34,46; John 11:41; 17:1,5,11,21,24,25).
When, in his sermons to the people, Jesus spoke of God as their Father, the ascription contained nothing to which his adversaries could object. No Pharisee would complain at being told, “Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them” (Matt. 6:26). Nor would the declaration, “Your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things” (6:32), give offense to the high priest. The Jewish leadership recognized these ideas from the teaching of the Torah and the prophets.
Unique to Jesus
It was quite another matter, however, when they listened to a Galilean carpenter who declared, “I am one who bears witness of myself, and the Father who sent me bears witness of me” (John 8:18). How could they endure to hear, “I do nothing of myself; but as my Father taught me, I speak these things”? (8:28).
In those instances in Holy Scripture where Jesus speaks to God as Father, the prayer reveals an intimacy with God for which inherited Judaism provides no real parallel. The term “Father” expresses the uniqueness of his relationship with God. For example,
I thank You, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and prudent and revealed them to babes. Even so, Father, for so it seemed good in your sight. All things have been delivered to me by my Father, and no one knows who the Son is except the Father, and who the Father is except the Son, and the one to whom the Son wills to reveal him. (Luke 10:2122)
All along, Jesus’ enemies had complained of what they saw as his casual attitude toward the Lawespecially the Sabbathbut this talk of God as his Father went much further: “Therefore the Jews sought all the more to kill him, because he not only broke the Sabbath, but also said that God was his Father, making himself equal with God” (John 5:18). Let’s give Jesus’ enemies credit for getting this much right: “We have a Law, and according to the Law he ought to die, because he made himself the Son of God” (19:7).
Thus, when Jesus spoke of God as “my Father,” the expression was not a metaphorical reference; he was not saying, “God treats me like a father treats his son.” “My Father” was not an external ascription that could be re-phrased into some other intelligible form. The semantic force of “my Father,” from the lips of Jesus, was unique, personal, and utterly literal. “Father” was no figure of speech. The name “Father” expressed, rather, who Jesus was in relationship to God. This man, Jesus of Nazareth, inwardly knew the Fatherby being one with himin a way not otherwise available to human beings.
Indeed, no one could know Jesus as he was known by this Father: “All things have been delivered to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father” (Matt. 11:27).
The Gift of Jesus
The astounding gift of Jesus to his disciples was the invitation to partake of his own intimacy with the Father. When he proclaimed, “Nor does anyone know the Father except the Son,” he went on to add, “and the one to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” This offer to share his relationship to the Father was the immediate context for Jesus’ summons: “Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28).
Matthew’s version of the Lord’s Prayer conveys this unique sense of relationship with the Father, the relationship that Jesus shares with believers. The “our” of “Our Father” forbids us to separate this prayer from Jesus’ revelation of his Father to believers. To be a “child of God” means to partake of Jesus’ relationship to the Father. Thus, the “our” includes the believer’s union with Jesus in this common prayer to the Father. This was the summons given at the glorification of Jesus, when he spoke of “my Father and your Father, and my God and your God” (John 20:17).
Patrick Henry Reardon is pastor of All Saints Antiochian Orthodox Church in Chicago, Illinois. He is the author of Christ in the Psalms, Christ in His Saints, and The Trial of Job (all from Conciliar Press). He is a senior editor of Touchstone.