Abba: Intimacy or Cruciform Royalty?

“Abba, Father.”

It’s the cry that the Spirit of God generates in the hearts of believers–the cry we utter to God (Rom 8:15) , the cry the Spirit utters on our behalf (Gal 4:6).

The idea of a father-son relationship is often explained as language of familial intimacy. Jeremias famously argued that Abba is roughly equivalent to “daddy.” And Barr has, equally famously, entitled an article, “Abba Does Not Mean Daddy.”

And I do wonder if the idea of “intimacy” is really the right track for us to take. It strikes me as somewhat anachronistic. Yes, sons were highly valued; but the word “intimacy” strikes an emotional chord that I’m not sure would be the operative paradigm for ancient men’s delight in their sons.

Besides Romans and Galatians, the Abba, Father cry occurs one other place in the NT.

When Jesus is praying in the garden in Mark 14, he cries out, “Abba, Father! All things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me!”

“Christ in Gethsemane”, by Michael D. O’Brien

Jesus cries out to God as Abba not in a moment of warm intimacy, but in a moment of suffering, of turmoil, of distress.

More than this, however, he cries out to God as “Father” while he is entering upon his calling to cement his role as “Son of God” (= “Christ’ = “King”) by going to death on the cross.

Jesus’ baptism, an anticipation of his crucifixion, is when he hears that he is “son of God.” Peter’s confession is followed by a passion prediction, after which God tells the disciples, “This is my beloved son.” To be the beloved son of God is to be the Messiah who is appointed to rule the world on God’s behalf.

Yes, he is the beloved one. Yes, he is cherished by the Father.

And, this cry of “Abba, Father,” is the cry of the son who is on his way to a cruciform coronation. By way of the cross, Jesus will enter his glory.

Interestingly, in Romans 8 the cry “Abba, Father,” indicates that we are children of God–heirs of God’s glory, and fellow heirs with the Messiah, but only “if indeed we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.”

Like Mark, Paul also looks to the death and resurrection as the means by which Jesus enters into his Messianic vocation. In Rom 1:4 it is at the resurrection that Jesus is enthroned as son of God, the King of Israel–by the Spirit.

The same spirit that makes Jesus son of God by bringing him from death to resurrection life also makes us children of God by joining us to that dead and risen Christ, by renewing us after his image, by bringing us through suffering and into glory.

Indeed, for Paul as much as for Genesis, to be “image of God” is to be the son of God who rules the world on God’s behalf. But the means by which that image of the son is renewed in us, the means by which we attain to our own royal status, is the way of the cross.

And so, when the Spirit cries out “Abba, Father!” yes, it is a testimony to the fact that we are God’s beloved children. But we are those children as we play the role of suffering servant into which our elder brother Jesus was originally cast.

We cry “Abba! Father!” because we are those who are on the way of the cross, in need of deliverance and mercy.

We cry “Abba! Father!” as testimony from the Spirit who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead–testimony that our sonship will only be completed when we, too, are raised and renewed after pouring out our life for the good of the many.

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