Everlasting Father

In reading Isaiah 9, I’ve always snagged on this third name:  “Everlasting Father.”  For one thing, you’d think Isaiah’s contemporaries must have had trouble with that one, too.  A child is born to us, a son is given to us, and he will be called Everlasting Father.  Putting those two things together, the fatherhood of a child, seems odd.  If the people of Judah and Israel had been in the habit of using “Father” as a title for their kings, that would have been one thing—they would have been used to seeing that sort of name hung on baby boys—but that had never been the case.  God was described as the Father of his people, and he didn’t even share that title with David.  To have this baby called “Father” is unprecedented.  To have him called “Everlasting Father,” one who will be the Father of his people for eternity, is even more so.  This is a title which could only be given to God—and here God’s prophet is using it as a name for a human baby boy.

Now, this looks less strange to us, since we know “the rest of the story,” as Paul Harvey would say; we know how Isaiah’s prophecy was fulfilled.  But is Jesus ever called “Father” in the New Testament?  No—he’s the Son, Son of Man and Son of God.  If we were to call him “Father,” wouldn’t that make God the Father our grandfather?  But Jesus doesn’t teach us to pray, “Our Grandfather,” he tells us to pray, “Our Father,” to see God the Father as our Father as well as his.  So how does it make sense to call Jesus “Everlasting Father”?

To understand this, we need to hold fast to the first principle of biblical interpretation:  let Scripture interpret Scripture.  In particular, we need to learn from the great rabbis, such as Gamaliel who taught the Apostle Paul:  if you want to know how to understand a word, go see where it’s used elsewhere in Scripture.  So when the Old Testament calls God Father, what does it say?

In Psalm 68, we find this declaration:  “A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling.”  God cares for the helpless and protects the vulnerable.  Psalm 103 tells us, “As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lordshows compassion to those who fear him, for he knows how we were formed; he remembers that we are dust.”  God’s fatherhood is his compassionate care for his people.  Isaiah 63 says, “You are our Father, though Abraham doesn’t know us or Israel acknowledge us; you, Lord, are our Father—our Redeemer from of old is your name.”  God is faithful to his people, even when other people aren’t.

In chapter 64, Isaiah declares, “You, Lord, are our Father.  We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand.”  God has made us, and he is shaping us—he is in complete control.  Proverbs 3 admonishes us, “Don’t despise the Lord’s discipline, and don’t resent his rebuke, because the Lorddisciplines those he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights.”  Discipline and rebuke are also part of the fatherly love of God for his people.  Sometimes loving others requires rebuking them, calling them to account and telling them things they don’t want to hear.  For most folks, that doesn’t feel loving, and so it’s often avoided; God is faithful to do it, for our good.

Isaiah’s point, I think, is that the child will be a king whose reign will follow this pattern and show these qualities; he will govern in the perfect character of God, and he will do so eternally.  He will be perfectly and eternally faithful to his people, and he will provide true security—security that never ends.  There will be nothing that takes him by surprise and nothing that doesn’t serve his purposes.  He will rule his people in perfect love, with both the will and the power to bring about what is best for all, and in perfect justice, for he knows that rebuke and discipline are necessary parts of showing love.

To us a child is born, to us a son is given, and he will be our king; and in his reign we will see, perfectly, the fatherhood of God.  He is the king who can say, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. . . .  The words I say to you I do not speak on my own authority, but the Father who dwells in me does his works.  Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me.”

Note this well:  Jesus says this on the night of his betrayal.  He tells his disciples, “I am in the Father and the Father is in me,” and then he goes out to be arrested, interrogated, flogged within an inch of his life, and crucified—for their redemption and salvation, and for ours.  As the Old Testament scholar John Oswalt writes, “God’s fatherhood is such that it does not impose itself upon its children but rather sacrifices itself for them”; in that, more than anything else, we see the fatherhood of God in Jesus.

I think for most of us the greatest challenge of obedience to God is trust.  If we truly believed wholeheartedly that God knows what’s best for us, wants what’s best for us, has the power and wisdom to give us what’s best for us, and will be faithful to follow through and give us what’s best for us, then obeying God would be easy.  It would be easy even when he commanded us to do something difficult and painful, because we would believe without a doubt that obeying him would be best.  There aren’t many people who believe that with any consistency, however.

Much of that is pride on our parts—we want to believe that we know best.  We don’t want to be told we’re wrong, we don’t want to be told we need to change, we don’t want to be told to do anything that isn’t our own idea.  Some of the problem, however, is in our mental images of God.  Many of us have absorbed badly distorted ideas of God from our families, or from friends, or from other churches we’ve attended, or from the culture, and we carry those around in the backs of our minds.  We may unconsciously see God as stern, angry, unloving, and just looking for opportunities to smite us.  We may assume he’s self-absorbed and not really paying us much attention, because he’s just not all that interested in us.  Or we might believe, deep down, that God likes playing with us—that he’ll let us go to heaven in the end, but for right now, we’re here for his amusement, like mice to a cat.

Isaiah points us to a very different picture, and the gospels fill that picture out.  The prophet tells us we have a king who will rule over us as a loving, faithful, compassionate father.  The gospels show us that he allowed himself to be brutally killed in order to save us from the power of sin and death and give us new life.  We have a king we can trust, because his love for us is perfect and his faithfulness is everlasting—and his love and faithfulness are the essence of his rule.
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