When we ponder the divine claims of Christ the one we often pay no mind to is the usage of the name “Abba, Father” for God by Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. Could this name give us a profound insight into Jesus’ mission and identity?
And he said, Abba, Father, all things are possible unto thee; take away this cup from me: nevertheless not what I will, but what thou wilt. (Mark 14:36)
The term “Abba, Father” may not appear to be one of the most compelling claims to divinity made by Jesus at first glance. It’s not said in response to a question from the disciples or from a challenge from His enemies. It’s a title uttered by Jesus in a desperate and agonizing prayer before His arrest. Yet, this unassuming title may give us more insight into Jesus’ identity and mission than we think.
Where does the term “abba” originate from? The truth is we have no evidence of this Aramaic word being directed towards God by Jews before the time of Jesus. The focal study of this title was by a German theologian named Joachim Jeremias. In his 1971 work, New Testament Theology, Jeremias noted that abba was “the chatter of a small child. . . . a children’s word, used in everyday talk.” he went further on to say that it was “disrespectful, indeed unthinkable to the sensibilities of Jesus’ contemporaries to address God with this familiar word” and notes that the word only came to mean father when addressed to humans (p. 67). In his article, The Central Message of the New Testament (link 1 below), Jeremias explains that,
“This is without analogy in Jewish prayers of the first millennium AD. Nowhere in the literature of the prayers of ancient Judaism—an immense treasure all too little
explored—is this invocation of God as Abba to be found, neither in the liturgical nor in the informal prayers.”
Jeremias then goes on to note that the title implied a similar usage to that of a child as it bore a resemblance to papa and daddy. However, critical scholarship debunked the theory shortly after with a number of sound arguments and Jeremias eventually recanted the theory (link 2 below). Even so, the truth remains that by using the familiar title in prayer Jesus revealed that He had a uniquely intimate relationship with God. A familiarity and intimacy that wasn’t available to anyone else before. A divine communion between Father and Son.
The significance for us is that this relationship is the very thing Jesus came to create and offer to us. A relationship no longer defined by our performance or by how well we follow the law by but His performance and how He fulfiled the law. A relationship where we, too, can cry “Abba, Father.” As Paul states in Romans 8:15,
For ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father.