The phrase “Abba! Father!” is unique and familiar to us. But what does it mean? And how is it used in Scripture? And how can our understanding of the phrase enrich our prayer life?
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It occurs only three times in Scripture, once by Jesus (Mark 14:36) in the Garden of Gethsemane, and twice by Paul (Rom 8:15, Gal 4:6). It’s a strange expression because it is a combination of two languages—Aramaic (Abba) and Greek (Father = o pater).
Moreover, it’s a pleonasm—a phrase with built-in redundancy (the opposite of an oxymoron). This circumstance occurs because the word “Abba” itself means Father. So it sounds like Jesus is saying, “Father, Father.”
(Pleonasms are rife in the Psalms. See Psalm 18:20-24 for example. Repetition is a rhetorical device used to reinforce a message. We often hear repetition in music and poetry. So it’s not surprising we find it in the Psalms, many of which we know were sung, and all of which are poetic).
Let’s look at how Scripture uses the expression “Abba! Father!” All three passages have some common elements:
- They reference personal prayer.
- They involve the Spirit of God.
- They contrast freedom from sin to slavery to sin.
- The concept of being God’s Son, or sons and daughters, is integral to the context.
Galatians 4:3-7 reads,
Like much of Galatians, this section contrasts being a slave to the law with freedom in Christ. Paul writes that God “sent forth” his Son to redeem those under the law. Redemption involves setting someone free and, in this case, being adopted by God as his sons and daughters (restoring to one’s original family). See also Ephesians 1:3-6.
The reference to personal prayer is more oblique in Galatians 4 than in Romans 8 and Mark 14, but I think it is implicitly in the phrase, “God has sent the spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’” The spirit of His Son is equivalent to the phrase “the spirit of Christ” in Romans 8:9 and 1 Peter 1:11 and to “Christ in you” (Col 1:27, Rom 8:10).
It is the spirit of obedience to God’s will that sets us free from a life enslaved to sin. When we pray earnestly and sincerely for God to work for his good pleasure with us, our hearts are crying out. It’s not a ritual, rote prayer, but one that may spring from a deep struggle with our weaknesses to ask God to help us rise above them and follow our Master.
Romans 8 elaborates on these themes:
Again, we find the same four elements in this passage that we found in Galatians 4: prayer, the Spirit of God, contrast to slavery, and becoming children of God by adoption. In this passage, Paul also compares the “spirit of slavery” with the “spirit of adoption,” demonstrating that the use of the word “spirit” here is primarily analogous with what we might call “mindset.”
a “spirit of slavery” leads to fear
Note Paul writes that a “spirit of slavery” leads to fear. If we regard our relation to God as being a slave compared to a child of God, then we may tend to regard God with fear. Respect and reverence (as one would hopefully have for a worthy human father) are distinct from anxiety and are entirely appropriate for us to express to our heavenly Father. But a child who fears his father cannot truly trust him and cannot be truly honest with him.
A child of God who has some understanding of God’s perfect love for them will recognize that “perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18) and will be able to express their innermost thoughts to God, drawing near to the throne of grace with reverent confidence, to receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need (Heb 10:16,19-22).
Furthermore, Paul wrote to Timothy, “God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.” (2 Tim 1:7). Thayer’s Greek lexicon translates the word for “fear” here as timidity, fearfulness, and cowardice. God expects us to “fear not, be of good courage” in our struggle against sin. Anything else is cowardice.
In contrast, by the spirit of adoption, we cry, “Abba! Father!” In other words, because of our relationship with God, we can approach God in prayer and use this title following Jesus’ instructions on how to pray: “Our Father.” Prayer to God, like our relationship with him, is not transactional. It is not “Please God, answer my prayers, and I will do this for you.” (See Exodus 24:3 for this kind of thinking).
It is more “I thank you, God, for being my Father. And as such, I place my complete trust in Your care. I offer up my love, concerns, desires, and hopes, knowing that you, in your wisdom and love, will answer me according to my needs.”
There’s a lot to unpack in this passage, but I think the essence is that there is a special intimacy with God when we pray with completely unfettered, open hearts and minds. From my own experience, it takes serious discipline and focus to pray with clear intention and without becoming distracted.
I’m guessing that for most of us, there are often moments when we cannot find the words we want, or we have an inner conflict regarding the purpose of our prayer. We then find ourselves surrendering to God’s care and presence, trusting He knows our needs even before we ask and that if we ask in inadequate ways, His grace is sufficient to compensate for our deficiencies.
This thought brings us to Mark 14:36. “Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.” The context is Jesus’ struggle with his human nature in the garden of Gethsemane. Again, the four common elements are present: Jesus is the Son of God, and his redemption is tied to his trusting obedience to his Father.
His grace is sufficient to compensate for our deficiencies.
He is engaged in earnest prayer, so serious that Luke wrote, “And being in agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground.” (Luke 22:44). And, further in Mark 14, we see a reference to the spirit, or mindset, of Christ: “Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Mark 14:38).
Jesus is the great example of how to pray with deep reverence, trust, focus, and intention. He is also a great example of how prayer can be challenging when we struggle to reconcile our desires with God’s desires. The very fact Jesus said, “Nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done” (Luke 22:42 KJV) is a powerful witness to the plight of the human condition: we struggle to conform to God’s way.
But why did Jesus use the phrase “Abba! Father!”? You will likely have heard that “Abba” means “Daddy.” With this translation, Jesus says, “Daddy, Father.” The usual exposition is that Jesus was praying to God like a little child. This idea is charming with pleasant connotations for all of us.
Perhaps we, too, can approach God our Father in prayer like a little child. But is it accurate? Several scholars propose alternative understandings. Murray Harris (1939-), a New Testament scholar who studied under F. F. Bruce, wrote this:
It is true that in the Jewish Talmud and other Jewish documents, we find statements such as “When a child experiences the taste of wheat (i.e., when it is weaned), it learns to say ’abbā and ’immā” (Berakot 40a in the Babylonian Talmud) (= our “dada” and “mama”).
However, even if the term abba began as a childish babbling sound (and this is far from clear), at the time of Jesus, it was a regular adult word meaning “Father” or “my Father” (as terms of address) or “the Father” or “my Father” (as terms of reference).
That is, abba was not a childish term of the nursery comparable to “Daddy.” It was a polite and serious term, yet also colloquial and familiar, regularly used by adult sons and daughters when addressing their father. Ideas of simplicity, intimacy, security and affection attach to this household word of childlike trust and obedience. So to bring out the sense of warm and trusting intimacy that belongs to the word, we could appropriately paraphrase it as “dear father.”
If Paul had wanted to convey the sense of “Daddy,” he could have used a Greek word he undoubtedly would have known–papas or pappas which means “papa” or “daddy,” a child’s word for “father.”2
Abba may be “childlike,” but not “childish.”
The key part here is that “Abba was a polite and serious term, regularly used by adult sons and daughters when addressing their fathers.” The term may be “childlike,” but not “childish.”
And consider this excerpt from a blog post by Chad Harrington:
- He was speaking in English and Hebrew in the same breath.
- That he was using an everyday experience for child training (Good for him!).
- The real meaning of Abba is not what I had been taught.
This understanding provides a beautiful texture to the story of the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus wasn’t just addressing God affectionately. He was using a term that, despite the intense personal spiritual struggle he was experiencing, reminded him of his complete, trusting, and courageous commitment to his Father: “Abba! Father!,” or “Father, I will obey you.”
Can we find that same courage, trust, and commitment to say “Abba! Father!” in our prayer life, with a sincere desire to obey him?
Saanich Ecclesia, BC
- All Scriptural citations are taken from the English Standard Version unless specifically noted.
- Excerpt from thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/justin-taylor/why-abba-does-not-mean-daddy/.
- Excerpt from himpublications.com/blog/meaning-abba/.