Can a man be at the same time a father and a son? Of course. If he couldn’t, the human race would quickly disappear.
But, what about Jesus?
Isn’t it blasphemous to call him father since he never married and sired children? And furthermore, doesn’t this confuse the members of the God-head, since he reveals himself as God-the-Son made flesh?
Can we call Jesus in any way a father?
The Old Testament book of Isaiah boldly walks in this direction and uses language that might at first glance make an uptight theologian blush. These references are not hidden in its most obscure parts, but are centre stage in the most beloved verses. First, the most famous Christmas verse of all.
1. Unto Us A Father Is Born (Isaiah 9:6)
The darkness of despair is broken by the dawning light of new birth. A child will be born and that light will be first seen in Galilee (Is. 9:1-2). This king, whom we now know refers to Jesus, will rule in David’s line (Is. 9:7). Amongst all the things said about this son, he will be called “Everlasting Father”.
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. (Is. 9:6)
When applied to Jesus, ‘Everlasting Father’ reminds me of the Patriarch Abraham. Even though he and his wife Sarah had no children, God changed his name from Abram (exalted father) to Abraham (father of many), ‘for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations’ (Gen. 17:5). With this one, fatherhood has been turned up even higher. He is the ‘Everlasting Father”.
But perhaps this is a very honorific title, an address of someone humbly coming before him. There are other examples of in the Old Testament.
- David calls the vengeful King Saul “my father” (1 Sam. 24:11; although Saul was his father-in-law).
- Elisha referred to Elijah as “my father, my father” (2 Ki. 2:12; cf. 13:14).
- Servants called Naaman the Syrian “my father” (2 Ki. 5:13).
Undoubtably there is an honorific element in the word father, but the analogy with Abraham is picked up later in Isaiah. This future king would in some way be the father of the nation.
2. From One, The Many (Isaiah 51:1-2)
So often, the key to understanding the future is remembering the past. The remnant rump of Israel dwindling in exile and judgment needed to recall God’s ways. Though now in their disobedience, Israel forsook peace ‘like a river’, ’righteousness like waves of the sea’, and offspring like grains of sand, could these be reversed (Is. 48:18-19)? They had to remember his track record, so they would not lose heart.
Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness, you who seek the LORD: look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug. Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you; for he was but one when I called him, that I might bless him and multiply him. (Is. 51:1-2)
Although their future now seemed cut off, the past would teach them. God has done the incredible before. He had brought the many from one.
To the broken hearted who were seeking God, they needed to remember ‘the rock from which [they] were hewn’ (Is 51:1). Would God bring about someone just as good, if not better, than Abraham? Would God again astonish his people, bringing from one, many?
3. The Seed Of The Suffering Servant (Isaiah 53:10)
If Isaiah 9 is the Christmas chapter, Isaiah 53 is its Good Friday and Easter chapter. Jesus comes as both the King born for us and the Suffering Servant who died for us. The son will be called ’Everlasting Father’ and the Suffering Servant will ’see his offspring’ (Is. 9:6; Is 53:5,10).
Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him; he has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the LORD shall prosper in his hand.
Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities. (Is. 53:10-11)
After suffering severe humiliation from people and holy affliction from God, the servant will have the joy of seeing his offspring. This is the same word sometimes translated ’seed’ that is at the centre of God’s promises to Abraham. When we are in Christ, we are his seed, his children, so to speak. After his suffering there is joy for this servant because there will be offspring for him. From the righteous one, many will be declared righteous.
4. Barren Jerusalem, Greater Abraham (Isaiah 54:1)
At Moore Theological College, I remember learning from our lecturer, Barry Webb, who wrote an excellent commentary on Isaiah, that the key to understanding all of Isaiah is: the transformation of Zion.
The Jerusalem that was (Is. 1) would be transferred into the Jerusalem that will be (Is. 2). The wicked violent city would become the glorious mountain of the Lord where nations would stream in peace to be taught by him. The whole book explores this theme.
One place this theme is seen most clearly is the sandwiching of prophecies about Zion around the suffering servant.
51-52: God will save Zion. But first she will drink the cup of God’s wrath. But soon, beautiful news of good tidings will be preached to her.
53: The suffering servant
54: Zion will again be highly populated, the ruined city will be made beautiful and she will have safety.
Remove the suffering servant chapter and the the prophecies of Zion flow beautifully. But remove the suffering servant chapter and you remove the way that Zion will be transformed.
He suffers so that she flourishes, or as the New Testament says: “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her … that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.” (Eph. 5:25-27).
Just as the Suffering Servant would delight to “see his offspring”, so too the barren city would rejoice in her fecundity.
“Sing, O barren one, who did not bear; break forth into singing and cry aloud, you who have not been in labor! For the children of the desolate one will be more than the children of her who is married,” says the LORD. (Is. 54:1)
The New Testament quotes this verse and makes explicit what is implicit (Gal. 4:21-31). Zion is like the barren Sarah, unexpectedly, unthinkably, unbelievably giving birth to a nation.
If Israel had to go back to the quarry from which it was formed, then perhaps we should understand that it’s the Everlasting Father who as Suffering Servant will see his people multiply and receive God’s blessing.
5. One More Allusion to Jesus being a father of sorts (Isaiah 9:6)
This brings us to one more verse that links Jesus to fatherhood in Isaiah. The prophet Isaiah, his disciples, and his own children are like the faithful remnant of Israel.
Bind up the testimony; seal the teaching among my disciples. I will wait for the LORD, who is hiding his face from the house of Jacob, and I will hope in him. Behold, I and the children whom the LORD has given me are signs and portents in Israel from the LORD of hosts, who dwells on Mount Zion. (Is. 8:16-18)
The New Testament describes Jesus in these family terms. Read carefully these words.
For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering. For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one source. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brothers, saying, “I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will sing your praise.” And again, “I will put my trust in him.” And again, “Behold, I and the children God has given me.” (Heb. 2: 10-13)
The words of the prophet himself prophetically point to what Christ himself would say about his disciples who would be his brothers and, in a sense, his children.
6. What then?
In no way do I want to build too much on this language of Isaiah. Jesus taught us to call God-the-Father, our Father (Matt. 5:9). He is nowhere addressed as “Father” in the New Testament. God-the-Son’s most fundamental identity is in relation to his Father and not to us. That is why we can can be called God’s children and brothers with Jesus Christ. Being “in Christ” means that we enjoy his relationship to his own Heavenly Father.
But, we must remember that Jesus does start a new family, a new people. The promise to Abraham was to his descendants, his seed. Christ is that seed and he is also the greater Abraham who will see his own seed. Here are some brief implications from what we have seen in Isaiah:
a. Appreciate the language which breaks out of our categories. While we must always be thinking theologically, we must also let the text of the Bible speak for itself. Rather than be defensive about why the Messiah might be called “Everlasting Father”, or ignore the verses about the Suffering Servant having offspring, we must listen to what God is actually saying. Maybe there is a deep truth that will be obscured if we won’t listen.
b. Appreciate the birth of Christ as the birth of our founding father. Greater than Governor Phillip for Australians, Mao Tse Tung for Communist Chinese, George Washington for Americans, or even Abraham himself for Jews, Jesus is the Everlasting Father, the great patriarch of his people. We now refer to the God and Father our Lord Jesus Christ rather than merely the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Christmas celebrates our even more fundamental founding father’s day.
c. Appreciate God’s ways: from the one comes the many. God formed the covenant people from the miraculous offspring of Abraham and Sarah. But they were just a shadow of the his miraculous creation of the new covenant people. From one came the many. So too with Jesus. As the New Israel, he would be the one greater than Abraham who would be the real focus of all God’s blessings, he and his family. All of us our children of the promise, citizens of the Jerusalem from above (Gal. 4:21-28).
d. Appreciate that the birth of Christ’s people came through suffering and led to joy. It was through the afflictions of the Suffering Servant that Jerusalem could be full of people and joy. Jesus spoke in this way of his own life and his expectation for all believers. “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit … If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also.” (John 12:24; cf 12:25-26) Because the New Abraham suffers, the New Sarah rejoices and so do her children. And this is also the example for us to follow. Suffering for the sake of others while holding out the gospel will lead to joy.
e. Appreciate the depth and width of being born again through Jesus. The word of Christ is that imperishable seed that gives us new life. When Christ calls his people to make disciples of all nations, individuals are born again, a new family is formed, a spiritual household is created out of the quarry of Christ (Matt. 28:19-20; 2 Peter 2:5). Those “in Christ”, therefore, are appropriately called Christians, his own people. Their ties to this heavenly family are stronger than their earthly loyalties. And from God’s perspective we are more a part of this family than our own. And so, Christ is indeed more Abraham (father of many) than Abraham.
f. Appreciate that the New Testament also thinks this way too. Once we’ve see this theme in Isaiah, we remember that the New Testament calls Jesus the Last Adam, and says that while all humanity is in Adam, Christians are in Christ (1 Cor. 15:45-49; 15:22; Rom. 5:14-21). As Church we can call him our husband. As a body, he is our head. But as a people, he is the underlying foundation of the people of God, what better name for him would there be than “Everlasting Father”?