Abba Father: The Cry of God's Humble Children
There is no shortage of proposals put forth on the real meaning of "Abba" in the New Testament. Some have considered the term to mean little more than father, while others believe it renders a more intimate meaning, a sort of Aramaic form of "daddy". The exegetical task is formidable, with a mere 3 instances of the term found in the whole of the New Testament. Here's what we do know:
- In all three instances, the term ?ßßa is immediately followed by pat?? (pater, or father)
- It is derived from Aramaic, whereas pater is purely Greek
- Although similar in meaning, pater is not a direct translation of abba, which indicates there is additional significance in abba beyond just "father."
- Most importantly, in all three instances, the use of the word abba arises out of a humble and submissive heart. In Mark 14:36, Christ is submitting (with pain and turmoil) to the will of the Father for Him to suffer. In Romans 8:15, Paul explains how we as believers cry out to God in the context of fear and suffering. And in Galatians 4:6, Paul describes the believer's confession that he/she deserves nothing under the Law, but is made alive in Christ alone.
So, what does this tell us? The abba cry is indeed a cry! This is not the gentle coo of a son resting peacefully in his father's arms. This is the cry of a toddler getting his first shot at the doctor's office, screaming in pain and looking at his father who stands by watching. Innocent and ignorant of what is truly in his best interest, the child is confused and terrified.
How can he just stand there watching his child in pain? "Dad," the son cries out, "make it stop!" But he won't. Can this be love? "Can this really be what's best for me?" the toddler might ask (if a toddler could reason... bear with the analogy).
After all, isn't that what Christ Himself cried? "Abba, Father," he said, "everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me." How often do we cry that? We pray for things that we do not understand. Lord heal me. Lord find me a new job. Lord bring my loved ones to repentance and salvation. "Yet not what I will, but what you will" (Mark 14:36).
Are we much different? Just a few verses following the abba cry in Romans 8, Paul continues, "We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express" (Romans 8:26). Here we stand in the midst of a fallen world, enduring pain and suffering for God, all the while knowing (just as the toddler knew) that our Father is fully capable to make it all stop in an instant. "Abba! Help us! Oh, Lord, won't you make it all stop!"
But we already know the answer. "Do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening" (1 Peter 4:12). So what do we pray for in times like these? How do we groan to our Abba Father? I don't know. The Spirit knows.
This is the picture of the life we live as ambassadors of the sovereign King. We struggle to understand His power. We cannot begin to understand His will. Yet as Christ cried out to God, His sweat even turning to blood under great distress, He submitted Himself humbly to the will of the Father, and so must we.