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Christians through the centuries have found encouragement and comfort in the New Testament term Abba. What does Abba mean in the Bible and why have believers found it inspirational? We’ll explore the answers below.
The word Abba occurs three times in the New Testament. It was first spoken by Jesus (Mark 14:36), and Paul used it twice (Romans 8:15; Galatians 4:6). While praying in the garden of Gethsemane, shortly before his death, Jesus said, “Abba, Father . . . everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will” (Mark 14:36).
The spoken language of Jews in Israel in Jesus’ day was Aramaic, and abba is an Aramaic word for father that indicates an intimate relationship. One way to render this term in English could be “Dad.” Although the Old Testament refers to God as a father in several passages, it was highly unusual for Jews to use the term of endearment Abba to refer to God. The term reveals Jesus’ close, personal relationship with God the Father, and following Jesus, Paul used it to represent believers’ relationship with the Father as well.
As noted, the Old Testament occasionally refers to God as a father (e.g., Deuteronomy 14:1; Hosea 11:1), but Jesus used the term frequently in the Gospels. Although God is in some sense the father of all mankind as our Creator, Scripture limits God’s familial relationship to those who commit themselves to him (John 1:12; 8:42).
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It’s also important to observe that Jesus’ use of Father for God and Son for himself points to the reality of the Trinity—that God consists of three Persons who share one being (the third Person being the Holy Spirit). The Trinity is a vital doctrine of Scripture that the church has defended for 2,000 years.
Returning to Paul, let’s look at the two passages containing Abba mentioned earlier.
“The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father’” (Romans 8:15).
“Because you are his sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, ‘Abba, Father’” (Galatians 4:6).
One of the ways the New Testament describes our reconciliation with God through Christ is adoption. Because of Adam and Eve’s disobedience in the Garden, we all enter the world as “children of wrath” (Ephesians 2:3). But through Christ’s sacrifice, we are adopted as children into God’s family and God becomes our heavenly Father. We also become heirs of the Father along with Christ (Romans 8:17)—an awesome privilege! As one commentator elaborates:
“Membership in God’s family brings privileges that boggle the mind. All God’s children are heirs of God. An heir, of course, eventually inherits his father’s estate. That is just what is meant here. All that the Father has is ours. We have not yet come into the possession and enjoyment of all of it, but nothing can prevent our doing so in the future. And we are joint heirs with Christ. When He returns to take the scepter of universal government, we will share with Him the title deeds to all the Father’s wealth.”
The Holy Spirit not only brings about our adoption into God’s family, but also assures us that we are God’s children. As Paul wrote in our Romans passage above, it is by the Spirit that “we cry, ‘Abba, Father’” (Romans 8:15). Indeed, “The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children” (Romans 8:16). When we face discouragement or doubt, the Spirit who indwells us will remind us that God is our Father and that we can rely on him.
Unfortunately, because of the brokenness that pervades our world due to alienation from God, many fathers (and mothers) inflict harm upon their children, and for them the term father has a thoroughly negative connotation. In other cases, fathers may be mostly or entirely absent. For those who face these circumstances, it will take extra effort to differentiate God the Father, who is completely good and loving, from earthly fathers who have failed. It may also help to meditate on verses that stress the Father’s love and goodness (Psalm 103:13; Isaiah 63:16; Matthew 6:26; Ephesians 4:4-6).
The great evangelist and preacher Dwight L. Moody said, “It makes all the difference in the world how we look upon God. Some people fear God, but when they understand that he is their Father, that fear is gone.” 1 Because of the Father’s great love and the Son’s great sacrifice, we can enter the Father’s presence and call him Abba, without fear and with full acceptance.
1. Elliot Ritzema and Elizabeth Vince, eds., 300 Quotations for Preachers from the Modern Church, Pastorum Series (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2013).
BIO: Christopher Reese (MDiv, ThM) (@clreese) is a freelance writer and editor-in-chief of The Worldview Bulletin. He is a general editor of the Dictionary of Christianity and Science (Zondervan, 2017) and Three Views on Christianity and Science (Zondervan, 2021). His articles have appeared in Christianity Today and he writes and edits for Christian ministries and publishers.
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