Is there a deeper meaning to Father’s Day? The holiday wasn’t made permanent until 1972 because Americans feared that celebrating fathers would also be commercialized as a “second Christmas.” But fatherhood is not just a central aspect of well-being, it also says something vitally important about the person who made the universe.
In Romans 8, Paul the Apostle writes, “For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs.”
The theme of adoption is central to Christianity, and through adoption sinful men and women can call the God who made the world “father,” and not just the generic word “father,” but a word denoting closeness.
“Abba” is an Aramaic word which means more than “father.” It was an intimate word, often translated “daddy.” Only sons and daughters could refer to the head of the household using this word — servants or slaves were not allowed to do so.
Paul uses the word twice, once in Romans 8 and once in Galatians 4, and both times he emphasizes that each Christian is “no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.” (In ancient Roman and Israelite law, daughters would not inherit property in the same way as sons. Paul is not being misogynist here, and he is clear that women too become “sons” in receiving the inheritance of God.)
In Christian theology, God’s fatherhood is the supreme revelation of His character. Not only is Jesus Christ the only Son of God, but those who believe in Jesus become God’s children as well, born “not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:13).
God first revealed Himself to Abraham, and then to the Jewish people. He showed Himself as the Holy One, and to this day Jews do not even speak His name.
Unlike the other religions in Mesopotamia, the Hebrews presented their God as the actual creator behind everything, not just the one who ordered creation. This Creator God was so far above His creation that when He chose a people, they had to be holy, and when He dwelt in the Ark of the Covenant, any man who touched the Ark would be instantly struck dead (2 Samuel 6:7).
For Jesus to call Himself the Son of God was blasphemy, and He was killed for it. But He died to offer that very sonship to others, and rose again to prove His promise.
Jesus effected a change in the very nature of humanity. After God had created Adam and Eve, He charged them with ruling the world and subduing it (Genesis 1:28). Again unlike the other gods of Mesopotamia, Yahweh made humans to rule, not to be His slaves. But when they rebelled, He cursed them and made creation rebel against them.
Through Jesus, God offers men and women that promise once again, but this time as children of God.
What does all this have to do with Father’s Day? God’s love is miraculous and high — too awesome for humans to imagine. But the love of a father makes God’s care and forgiveness concrete.
Thankfully, Jesus gave Christians a parable of God’s fatherhood, and in the context of the time, it is mind-blowing.
Most people call it the “Parable of the Prodigal Son,” and it appears in Luke 15:11-32. The story is familiar — almost too familiar perhaps — but it reveals deep truths about God’s love when understood as Jesus’ hearers would have understood it.
A man had two sons, and his younger son asked the father to divide the inheritance between him and his brother. Immediately, this would have horrified Jesus’ audience: the son was saying he wished his father would die! He should be disgraced, disowned, even killed for such behavior.
But the father honors the request, and the son leaves. While in a foreign land, the son squanders his wealth, becomes poor, ends up feeding pigs, and even longs for the food they eat — a dehumanizing position for a Jew, for whom pigs are an unclean animal. He decides to return home, and ask his father to take him on as a servant.
As the son is still a long way off, his father runs to him. Jesus’ hearers would be astonished at this. In the Jewish culture at that time, it was considered disgraceful for an elderly man to run, because he would have to tuck his robe into his belt, exposing his legs — and likely a bit more.
The father is so joyful to see his son, he willingly embraces public disgrace and humiliation in order to welcome him home. And this for the son who wished him dead!
But the father isn’t finished. Before the son can finish giving his rehearsed speech, asking to be made a servant in his father’s household, the father orders an immediate legal restoration for his son, and a celebration to be held in his honor. He puts a signet ring on his hand, giving him authority.
So what does this parable say about God? That He is loving, and that is an understatement. God welcomes the repentant with open arms, a kiss, and a signet ring of authority. He disgraces Himself in running to adopt His lost children.
This is the fatherhood of God, and it captures the gospel neatly. Human beings were made in God’s image, they rejected Him, but He sacrificed everything for them to restore them to His family.
Fathers are tremendously important, as each one of them is a model of God for their children. C.S. Lewis once wrote of his mentor, George MacDonald, that “an almost perfect relationship with his father was the root of all his wisdom. From his own father, he said, he first learned that Fatherhood must be at the core of the universe.”
A Christian has two great confessional cries: “Jesus is Lord” (Romans 10:9), and “Abba Father.” The first is a proclamation of Jesus Christ to our neighbor, the second is a confession of ourselves to God, saying who we are to Him and who He is to us.
The great promise of Christianity is God, not as creator of the universe, not as law-giver from on high, not even as Supreme Judge of the World (as the Declaration of Independence calls Him). The great promise is that God is our loving father.
Many people have horrible experiences of fatherhood, and no earthly daddy is as loving as Jesus portrays His Father to be. It is important for Christians to understand that countless people are separated from God’s love by mistreatment from their fathers, and we must do our best to model His love and restore the broken images of God.
But Father’s Day is a celebration, and Christians have the greatest reason of all to celebrate. We should thank our fathers for how they have imaged God’s love to us, and cultivate a spirit of joyful acceptance toward the loving Father we have in Heaven.