Jesus frequently pointed to God’s place as our Father to emphasize the idea that God cares for us—but that imagery meant something different to his first-century hearers than it does to our so-called “progressive” 21st-century culture.

In today’s American culture, the father is important, yes, but often optional in terms of societal necessity. Today a man may become a father physically, yet as a matter of convenience can easily decline to participate in a child’s life (and often he does). Not so in ancient Jewish culture. Fatherhood was not an optional thing, both for the father and for his family. It was an expected part of life, unbreakable obligation and a proud privilege for any man. In fact, the more children who called a man “father,” the better! (Psalm 127:3-5)

The father in Jesus’ time exercised near complete authority over his children—even in matters of life and death. At the same time, the father was expected to provide for every physical need for his children (Proverbs 6:6; 1 Timothy 5:8), to provide for the child’s spiritual growth (Genesis 12:8; Exodus 12:3), to provide a meaningful education and proper, loving discipline (Proverbs 22:6; Deuteronomy 6:7-9), to defend their rights in court (Deuteronomy 22:13-19) and much more. Basically, the father was obligated to provide everything the child needed to grow up and become a successful, productive, happy, and holy person in ancient Israel. Notice that this was not an optional part of fatherhood! It was required, and any man who openly neglected the obligations of fatherhood would have been despised and rebuked by society.

It’s within this strict cultural context that Jesus emphasizes God’s self-imposed obligation as a Father in relation to his believers: “If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7:11). .

 

Works Cited:

[ZP2, 504-505; RBD, 374-375]

 

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