2-2 Abba, Father

Jesus as the perfect man was a function both of His Father and mother. And so there was a psychological matrix for Jesus in which He lived and developed. Until relatively recently, there was very limited knowledge of the early stages of human development. Biographies tended to be long at the end, focusing on the achievements of a person, and short at the beginning. But now, biographers and psychologists are realizing that the traumas, triumphs and parental influence of childhood are crucial in a person's later personality and achievements. And so it is surely significant that the Biblical record gives so much attention to the babyhood and childhood of Jesus, telling us virtually nothing about the rest of His life until age 30. Mary's crucial role is thus tacitly recognized. Jesus was fully human. Of this there must never be any doubt. As such, He would have passed through all the stages of growth and socialization which we all do. We become what we are emotionally, intellectually, morally, not only by prolonged acts of sheer willfulness, but also simply by living through a sequence of biological, personal and interpersonal developments, beginning in the very first weeks of our lives. For Jesus to have been perfect says a huge amount about His mother. The Lord had an exceptional sense of self-identity, He knew who He was and clearly had a sense of mission from an early age. Because of this, He developed into a person about whom it was difficult to remain neutral; people had decided opinions either for or against Him. This sense of self-identity was surely developed in Him by Mary getting through to Him from a very early age that He was uniquely special, with a mission of ultimate consequence. Within the matrix of His upbringing, the child Jesus was of course immature and under so many less than perfect influences. The fact He was perfect indicates to me that a strong, independent will must have coursed through Him from the very beginning. It was the will that later matured to be able to say “I am [that I am]”, to send away huge crowds by the sheer force of His personality… And yet there is huge emphasis upon the fact that the will of Father and Son differed (Lk. 22:42; Jn. 5:30; 6:38; Heb. 10:7,9; Rom. 15:3). He had to submit perhaps the strongest of any human wills to that of the Father. And for this, I for one salute Him. 

The Lord Jesus was obviously male and not female. I recall the (friendly) argument I had with my wife in the first couple of years of our marriage, about whether men are multi-taskers. I conceded defeat. Men simply aren’t multi-taskers. We focus on one thing at a time. This raises for me the question of spiritual mindedness. What is it? I have at times emerged from half an hour’s work on, say, trying to fix a broken lock, or coding some HTML on a web page, feeling guilty that in that period, I’ve not consciously thought about spiritual things. My restless mind thinks of Jesus. As His skilled hands worked on a piece of furniture, or fixing a leaking roof, surely He too suffered from the same inability to have the male mind in two places at once? How, then, was He so one with the Father in daily life and thought? Perhaps as the only man to be fully in the image of God, He had both male and female elements in His psychology, and He had that feminine way of being able to have a mind in two places. But maybe His male example redefined spiritual mindedness, as simply having a deep inner consciousness focused upon the Father.

There must have been certain similarities of personality type between the Lord and His mother. Thus in Lk. 2:33 Mary " marvelled" , and the same word is used about Jesus in Mt. 8:10 and Mk. 6:6. The Lord at 12 years old displayed such piercing knowledge and spirituality, but it seems He returned to Nazareth and suppressed the expression of it (Lk. 2:51). This is why the villagers were so amazed when He stood up in the Nazareth synagogue and on the basis of Old Testament exposition, indirectly declared Himself the Messiah. He must have stored up so much knowledge and spirituality within Him, but hid it from the eyes of men. This was quite an achievement- to be perfect, and yet not to be noticed as somehow other-worldly. If we ask where He obtained this humility and ability from, it is clearly an inheritance from His dear mother, who stored up things in her heart and didn't reveal them to others, just quietly meditating over the years. It has been observed that it was unusual for the villagers to describe Jesus as " the son of Mary" (Mk. 6:3)- even if Joseph were dead, He would have been known as Jesus-ben-Joseph. It could well be that this was a reflection of their perception of how closely linked Jesus was to His mother.

Abba, Father

Whether or not Joseph died or left Mary by the time Jesus hit adolescence, the fact was that Joseph wasn't His real father. He was effectively fatherless in the earthly sense. As such, this would have set Him up in certain psychological matrices which had their effect on His personality. He could speak of His Heavenly Father in the shockingly unprecedented form of 'abba', daddy. He grew so close to His Heavenly Father because of the lack of an earthly one, and the inevitable stresses which there would have been between Him and Joseph. A strong, fatherly-type figure is a recurrent feature of the Lord's parables; clearly He was very focused upon His Heavenly Father. He could say with passionate truth: " No one knows a son except a father, and no one knows a father except a son" (Mt. 11:27; Lk. 10:22). Yet as a genuine human being, Jesus would have gone through some of the psychoses which any human being does when deprived of the physical presence of his or her true Father. Such an experience produces a major hole in the human psyche; yet if coped with successfully, " the hole in the psyche [of the fatherless child] becomes a window providing insights into the depths of being" (1). This is surely why so many geniuses have been fatherless children.  Yet there is a very strong tendency for such children to be fixated on their mothers, and to be generally ill at ease with fathers and father figures.  

Yet Jesus was clearly enough at home with His Heavenly Father, and most of His parables feature a strong fatherly figure in them. The tensions evident between Jesus and Mary show clearly enough that He wasn't fixated on her, either. Yet this explains the terrible tension there must have been within the Lord when He considered His mother; there would have been a natural desire to be as fixated upon her as she was upon Him. And yet He overcame this, whilst still loving her, in order to focus upon His Heavenly Father. This explains, to me at least, His unusual addressing of Mary as " woman" , and the final tragic scene of separation from her at the cross. Yet it had to be, for the sake of a true relationship with His Father; and, as with all aspects of the crucifixion sufferings, the essence of it had been going on throughout the Lord's life. Again we bow in admiration before the Lord; that He was no mere victim of background, but that every negative in His life [e.g. not having the physical presence of a father] He turned into a positive in progressing in His unique relationship with His invisible Heavenly Father. There is in Jn. 5:39 what C.H. Dodd has called ‘the parable of the apprentice’: “A son…does only what he sees his father doing: what father does, son does; for a father loves his son and shows him all his trade”(2). Now just imagine what that meant for the Lord Jesus, growing up with Joseph, who appeared to be His father, learning Joseph’s trade. Yet He knew that His true Father was God, and He was eagerly learning His trade.  

Assuming Joseph disappeared from the scene quite early on, Jesus would have had to take financial responsibility for the household, and would have become the emotional and spiritual head of the home. This would have played its part in maturing the Lord. His latent talents would have been brought out, His personal development accelerated. And yet Mary would have likely sought to cope with the loss of her husband by relying increasingly on her capable firstborn, Jesus, and becoming fixated on Him. This is the backdrop for the evident tension between them throughout the ministry, as the Lord struggles to be the person God intends Him to be, and not to be merely caught up in the hand-to-mouth existence as supporter of His mother and younger siblings. It has been observed by counselors that mothers in this situation become very blind to the needs of their sons on whom they have come to rely. Her sensitivity to who Jesus really was would have likely decreased; she would perhaps have seen Him merely as the clever, hard working, amazing solver of all the myriad daily problems the poor young widow faced. And so we too can be worn down by life into making the same mistakes Mary made in our relationship with the Lord. The wonder of who He is must never be lost upon us.  

Often when certain needs have to take priority, e.g. the need for a teenager to care for younger siblings and His mother, other needs are subsumed and the personality becomes skewed, the biological imperative pushes one on to physical maturity, yet unfulfilled emotional needs become stuck and remain at that stage of development. These needs keep coming back and are acted out, particularly at times of stress. Yet, there is no sign that our Lord was in any way an emotionally dysfunctional adult. He was the perfect human in every sense. He must have concentrated on His relationship with His Father to an extent that He could develop perfectly to the extent that His human problems didn't skew or damage His personality. And in this He sets us, hour by hour, the supreme pattern. 

Finding The Father

Almost all adopted children have a very strong desire to find their real parents if they are still alive, or find those that knew them if they are no longer around. The stories of the 'stolen generation' of  Aboriginal children forcibly removed from their parents prove this; their lives were consumed with trying to 'find' their parents in various ways. The Lord would have naturally turned His attention to 'finding' and getting to know His real Father from about the age of 3 or 5, forging a bond which is the biological imperative of all children, at this age. He would have been told by Mary that the true Father was not around, but could be 'found' in the book of His words- the Law and the Prophets. This knowledge would have given Him a strong desire to not only read the scriptures but to understand every single word of them, to mull over them to imagine what His Father was like and so on. He would have read the Torah avidly from beginning to end and back again, knowing they were the words, every single one of them, of His Heavenly Father. Through them and through prayer He got to 'know' and love His Father intimately because He is there in Scripture in all His completeness, nothing is hidden. For the word is God, and God is His word. Hence His 'abba' approach to the Father He came to know. The Lord had more understanding than all his teachers in the temple and synagogues, because he so meditated in the Father’s word all day (Ps. 119:99). He was the word made flesh; the Father’s word was always His mediation. 

The spirit that motivated Him was partly His own psychological need, His great desire that grew and grew, to know and love His real Father, His own dad. In this He was helped by the sure knowledge of His mother's love. And by the tradition that all Jewish boys learn to read and write from God's word, we can be sure that from an early age He filled Himself with Scripture. By the time He was 12, His insight into those Scriptures was phenomenal. He was utterly convinced and secure in the knowledge that God in heaven was His real Father and that these very words spoke of Him too...He could teach others to pray to the Father who really is in Heaven, with a credibility that came from so evidently having come to know for sure that His Father was truly there. I think this knowledge would have been utterly fantastic to have beheld, and the love between Father and Son...simply formidable. There is well attested evidence that there were several in 1st century Palestine who had memorized the entire Old Testament; and there is no doubt in my mind that the Lord had done so too.  

Jn. 5:19 gives a window into the Lord's self-perception here. He says that whatever He sees the Father / abba / daddy do, He does " in like manner" . It is the language of a young child mimicking their father. And He speaks of Himself as an adult behaving just like this. There was a child-likeness about Him in this sense. And the disciples seem to have noticed this- for no less than four times in Acts (Acts 3:13,26; 4:27,30) they refer to Jesus as the " holy child" of God. Their image of Jesus had something in it which reflected that child-likeness about Him which still stuck in their memories. And may we too " ceaseless...Abba, father, cry" . The haunting melody of that hymn well expresses the utter wonder of it all, as we too struggle to find our true Father. The spirit / attitude of the Son of God should be ours, in that we like Him cry " Abba, father" (Gal. 4:6; Rom. 8:15). His spirit / attitude to the Father should be ours; He stressed that His Father is our Father (Jn. 20:17). Jesus acted and 'was' for all the world as if He had had His natural Father with Him from the start of His life. This was how close the Father became to Jesus; the extent to which He successfully 'found' Him; to the point that the 'mere' invisibility of that Father was not a major issue or barrier in their relationship. And so it should be for us, in the life of believing in that which is unseen, and in them who are invisible to us. 

Another window into the Lord's self-perception is given in the record of His behaviour in the temple at age 12. Within the psychological matrix in which the young Jesus existed, as well as within the cultural norms of first century Palestine, it was rude for a 12 year old to retort to His mother: "Didn't you know I would be about my father's business?". It appears insolent towards Joseph too. But that statement, in the Lord's case, was not a sin, nor a typically precocious childish comment- although it would've been on the lips of any other 12 year old. Instead it reflects an abnormal degree of detachment from His mother and step-father, and a remarkable statement as to how much He was Himself, how mature and strong was His sense of identity as the uniquely begotten Son of God.

Another part of the psychological matrix would have been that by the time the Lord was 30, the younger siblings would have grown to self-sufficiency; the need for Him to stay in the home as provider was now past. The normal psychological pressure would have been for Him to start His own family and home. Yet instead, He channelled those energies into His true bride, the band of Palestinian peasants who were to slowly and falteringly come to love Him back and bring forth fruit to His glory. Much study has been done of the crisis many males go through around the age of 30, the desire to stop experimenting and settle down, to cease being cared for and instead seeking to build up something permanent, the sense that life is passing by...it has all been very well summed up by daniel Levinson in his study of the " age thirty transition" (3) .All this energy was released by the Lord into His three year ministry which changed human destiny, so intense and far reaching and successful was it. " I go to prepare a place for you...." is surely an allusion to the Palestinian tradition that the wife came to live with the new husband after a year and a day, whilst He 'prepared the place' for her. The cross was His purchase of us as His bride. The bridegroom was “taken away” from the wedding guests (Mk. 2:20)- the same word used in the LXX of Is. 53:8 for the ‘taking away’ of the Lord Jesus in His crucifixion death. But the groom is ‘taken away’ from the guests- because he is going off to marry his bride. The cross, in all its tears, blood and pain, was the Lord’s wedding to us.

Fatherless In Galilee

The fact that Jesus was humanly fatherless has been extensively commented upon by Andries van Aarde. He points out that: “Against the background of the marriage arrangements within the patriarchal mind-set of Israelites in the Second Temple period, a fatherless Jesus would have been without social identity. He would have been excluded from being called a child of Abraham, that is, a child of God. Access to the court of the Israelites in the temple, where mediators could facilitate forgiveness for sin, would have been denied to him. He would have been excluded from the privilege of being given a daughter in marriage” (4) . Behold the paradox. Because He was the Son of God, He was written off by Israel as not being a child of God; because He was the seed of Abraham, He was rubbished as not being a son of Abraham. We can now understand better how He could attract other social outcasts to Him; we have another window into the fact He never married; we appreciate more deeply the significance of His offering forgiveness and fellowship with God to those who were outside of the temple system. He could offer a new social identity to people on the basis that He knew what it was like to be without it. All this is confirmed in the Biblical record. This is why the Jews accused the Lord of being both not a “child of Abraham” and also illegitimate” (Jn. 8:42), a “sinner” (Jn. 9:16). And He was also called a “Samaritan” (Jn. 8:48). According to the Mishnah, “… they are the people of uncertain condition, with whom one may not marry: those of uncertain parentage, foundlings and Samaritans” (5). Refusing to declare Joseph as His father meant that the Lord would’ve been unable to marry, at least not any girl from a religious family.   

We can easily overlook the deep and awesome significance of calling our fellow believers “brother” and “sister”. As Paul so strongly stresses, the Lord Jesus created a new sense of family, of “social identity”. We can easily miss how radical this was in first century Palestine; just as we can miss it in our own context. In the Mediterranean world of the first century, families were supremely important. The head of the family exercised total control. For the Lord to teach that His followers should call no man on earth their father was extreme; and yet He said it and expected it (Mt. 23:9). Likewise His teaching about our having a Heavenly Father may appear quite painless to accept; but it was radical, demanding stuff in the first century. The family then was “the centrally located institution maintaining societal existence… it [was] the primary focus of personal loyalty and it [held] supreme sway over individual life” (6). “Our father, who is in Heaven” was a prayer hard to pray if one really accepted the full import of the words; every bit as much as it is today. The idea of belonging to another family, of which the invisible Lord Jesus in Heaven was the head, belonging to a new society of world-wide brothers and sisters, where the Lord from Heaven held “supreme sway over individual life”, was radical indeed. It took huge commitment and a deep faith in this invisible head of the new family to step out from ones existing family. And the call of Christ is no less radical today. The social circle at uni, the guys at work, our unbelieving  family members… now all take a radical second place to our precious family in Christ. And yet we so easily abuse or disregard the importance of our spiritual family; we too easily exclude them, won’t meet with them, can’t be bothered about them.  

Because the Lord was so excluded from society, He would have been so focused upon His Heavenly Father. And that would have been felt and perceived. Reflect how the Centurion muttered: “Truly this was the Son of God”. The Lord’s creation of a new family was radical then; and it’s just as radical today. In passing, the Lord must have been so tempted to say that Joseph was his father. It would’ve made things so much easier for Him. Just as we are tempted to sorely to effectively deny our Heavenly Father, and act like we’re just the same as this world. According to the rabbinic writing Qiddusin 4:2, a fatherless person must remain silent when asked “Where are you from”. And this is exactly what Jesus did when asked this very question in Jn. 19:9. This refusal to call Joseph His father cost Him His life. He refused to call Himself the son of Joseph. Indeed, E.P. Sanders makes the point that the fatherlessness of Jesus not only meant that He would not have been counted as a child of God or son of Abraham; because of these exclusions, He would have been put in the category of “a sinner” (7). If Joseph did indeed abandon Mary, she would have been classified as “a whore”, and Jesus would have been the “son of adultery”, putting Him in the same “sinner category”. In this we see a wonderful outworking of how God having a son resulted in that Son being counted as a sinner, even though He was not one. He was treated as “a sinner”, and thereby He came to know how we feel, who truly are sinners.  

The Struggle With Self-Doubt

The essence of the wilderness temptations appears to me to be connected with a tendency within Jesus towards self-doubt; to question whether He really was God’s Son. After all, everyone around Him thought He had a human father. Perhaps Mary’s mid-life collapse of faith involved her going quiet over the visit of the Angel and her strange son’s Divine begettal. Perhaps it all seemed as a dream to her, especially if Joseph was dead or not on the scene. Jesus was so human that it must have been unreal for Him to imagine that actually, His mother was the only woman to have become pregnant directly from God. And we all have the essence of this temptation; to wonder whether in fact we really are any different from the world around us, whether we have in any meaningful sense been born again, whether God actually sees us as His children; whether we will receive the salvation of God's children and eternal entrance into His family which is ours if we are now His children. To have those struggles isn’t sinful; for the Lord endured these temptations without sinning. Here, then, is the evidence that the wilderness temptations hinged around His own questioning of His Divine Sonship:
- The promise to receive ‘the Kingdoms of the world and their glory’ was framed in the language of Ps. 2:7,8 LXX. Here God proclaims His Son to the world, and invites His Son to ‘Ask of me, and I will give to you the nations of the earth for your inheritance, and the ends of the earth for your possession”. The Greek words used are similar to the words of ‘the devil’ to Jesus. Clearly the Lord was being tempted not only to misapply Scripture, but also to just check that He really was in fact God’s Son.
- “If you are the Son of God…” was the repeated temptation the Lord faced. Either, as I believe, the ‘devil’ refers to the ‘enemy’ of the Lord’s internal temptations; or, if we are to read the temptation records with reference to a literal person, then that person was unsure as to the identity of Jesus. This latter option is another nail in the coffin for the orthodox understanding of ‘the devil’ as a personal, omnipotent fallen Angel who set out to target Jesus.
- “If thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread” (Mt. 4:3) can also be translated: “Give the command to God, so that he will provide bread from these stones”(8). The idea is that if Jesus is God’s Son, then, God will do what Jesus asks Him. The temptation to jump off the temple was really the same thing- ‘If God’s really your father, then surely He’ll give you unlimited protection?’.
- The temptation to worship the devil, and then to receive all the Kingdoms of the world, was also self-doubt- that as God’s Son, the Kingdoms of this world belonged to Him in prospect there and then, and would be later given to Him, according to Psalm 2.
- The Jews expected Messiah to authenticate Himself by creating manna(9). The Pesiqta Rabbati 36/126a stated that “When the King Messiah reveals himself to proclaim salvation he will come and stand upon the roof of the temple”. The Lord Jesus was a Palestinian Jew, who would’ve been familiar with these ideas. His temptations therefore involved an element of doubt as to whether He, who had just opened His public ministry, was actually the Messiah after all. He was tempted to ‘prove it’ in terms which the Jews would’ve understood, rather than God’s terms.
- The temptations involved an element of doing visible miracles in order to prove that He was indeed God’s Son. Several times, the Lord stresses that experiencing miracles would not of itself prove to anyone that He is the Son of God. He taught this on the basis of having faced acute temptation in that very area.

These temptations to self-doubt recurred. We read that the devil left Jesus for a while, implying he / it returned to Jesus. If the devil refers to a literal person, then Scripture is silent as to this ever occurring. But once the devil is understood as the personal temptations of Jesus, then all becomes clearer. The essence of what He internally struggled with as He sat in the desert returned to Him. In fact whenever the Lord is described as being ‘tempted’ later in the Gospel records, it’s possible to understand those temptations not merely as ‘tests’, but as moral temptations which repeated the essence of the wilderness temptations:
- The Greek wording of ‘command that these stones be made bread’ recurs in Mt. 20:21, where a woman likewise asks Jesus to command, to utter a word of power, that would give her sons the best places in His Kingdom. Likewise in Lk. 9:54, where the Lord is asked to issue a ‘command’ for fire to come down against the Samaritans. Fire will only come from Heaven in the final judgment (Rev. 20:9). Again, the essence of the temptation was to try to prove that He was Son of God by forcing the Kingdom to come in His lifetime, to avoid the cross. Whereas it was His death and resurrection which actually declared Him to be the Son of God (Rom. 1:4)- not simply His miracles. For many men have done miracles, but this didn’t prove they were the begotten Son of God. And all this is what He faced in the wilderness.
- Another example of the ‘devil’ returning is to be found in the way that the Lord Jesus is described as being ‘tempted’ to provide a ‘sign’, a miracle to prove He is actually Son of God (Mt. 12:38-40; 16:1-4).
- The temptation to produce a miraculous sign to validate Himself was of course repeated as He hung on the cross (Mk. 15:27-32).

- The temptation of the Lord about the divorce and remarriage question was also a moral issue (Mt. 19:1-9). John the Baptist had lost his head for criticizing Herod's divorce and remarriage; and surely the intention of the question was to lead the Lord into making a statement which Herod would see as critical of his situation. The temptation for the Lord was perhaps to assert Himself as a King in opposition to Herod and thus proclaim His political Kingdom there and then. Likewise the 'temptation' whether to pay tax to Rome or not (Mk. 12:14). Refusing to pay tax to Rome was the classic issue raised by the Jewish revolutionaries- for the tax was seen as funding anti-Jewish and pagan functions and rituals. Again, the essence of the temptation, as in the wilderness, was to proclaim Himself as King of Israel and Son of God there and then, rather than wait for His death and resurrection to be the true declaration of that Sonship (Rom. 1:4).
- Peter tempts the Lord to consider that being Messiah didn’t mean that He had to suffer, and that He could start His Kingdom there and then (Mt. 16:21-23). Perhaps the way the Lord called Peter ‘satan’ at that point was an intentional reference back to the wilderness struggles with ‘satan’.



(1) Edward Edinger, Ego and Archetype (New York: Putnam, 1973) p. 132.

(2) C.H. Dodd, More New Testament Studies (Manchester: MUP, 1968) pp. 30-40.

(3) Daniel Levinson, The Seasons Of A Man's Life (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1978).

(4) Andries van Aarde, Fatherless In Galilee: Jesus as child of God (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press, 2001) p. 4. According to Talmudic writings like Yebamot 78b, Dt. 23:3 was interpretted as meaning that a fatherless man wasn’t allowed to enter the temple or marry a true Israelite. The reference to Jesus as  “son of Mary” (Mk. 6:3) rather than “son of Joseph” is, apparently, very unusual. It reflects the Lord’s lack of social identity in first century Israel; He had no father’s house to belong to. In passing, the jibe in Mt. 27:64 “the last deception shall be worse than the first” is likely a reference to Mary and Jesus claiming that He was the result of a virgin birth- this, as far as the Jews were concerned, was the “first deception”.

(5) Quoted in J.A. Montgomery, The Samaritans: The Earliest Jewish Sect (New York: KTAV, 1968) p. 181.

(6) Bruce Malina has written extensively about this. See his Christian Origins and Cultural Anthropology (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1986) and The New Testament World: Insights From Cultural Anthropology (Louisville, KY: Westminster / John Knox Press, 1993).

(7) E.P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus (New York: Allen Lane, 1993) p. 229.

(8) This translation is justified at length in J.B. Gibson, The Temptations Of Jesus In Early Christianity (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1995) p. 99.

(9) B. Gerhardsson, The Testing Of God’s Son (Lund: Gleerup, 1966) p. 44.



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