Keeping it practical: Learning to pray “Abba” to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ

This post was contributed by worship leader Mike Hale.

I’ve been reading The Forgotten Father, by Thomas Smail, who says we often forget about the Father in our life and worship, and become imprisoned in a “man-centered, need-dominated distortion of the gospel where Christ and his Spirit can be easily reduced to the source of our blessings and the satisfiers and servants of our needs.”

Smail says this distortion happens when we forget the Father and forget that the life of Jesus “was not dominated by the claims of men, but [rather was] surrendered to the claim of God.”
Thus we need full orientation to the whole Trinity, to Spirit and Son, but also to the Father to remind us that man’s chief end is not to have his soul saved or his body healed or even his church revived—but is to glorify God and enjoy him forever…[And when that’s the case] worship ceases to be simply religious entertainment or mutual edification and becomes God-centered praise, when in the power of the Spirit a man or a church are delivered from their own problems and are available to serve and suffer as God appoints.

That happens more and more as the shape of the Christian life in the Spirit becomes the same shape as the New Testament gospel and the life of the God that gave it, and as in the Spirit and through the Son we seek and find the Father. [John 14:8] “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.” (p. 28)
In chapter nine (Our Father and our Worship) Smail discusses “the Lord’s prayer,” and what is revealed about the Father in Jesus giving the disciples this prayer.
Abba….is prayer before it is theology…. When God is called Father in Paul and the synoptics, the context is most often prayer and worship, which is not surprising when we remember that the word Abba itself goes back to Gethsemane and the prayer life of Jesus that reached its climax there…. [We] now look at the Lord’s prayer.….to see what we can learn from the way in which Jesus invites us to approach and address his Father and ours. A few general points….

1. [Theologian, Jocahim Jeremias] argues convincingly that the version in Luke is likely to be nearer to the original than the one in Matthew. The Matthew form is most likely later liturgical expansion…. The original form of the prayer behind Luke 11:2-4 was most probably “Dear Father, your name be hallowed, your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. Forgive us our sins for we also forgive everyone who sins against us, and do not let us be handed over to the power of temptation.” Behind the Greek Pater there almost certainly lies an Aramaic Abba, which we have rendered Dear Father.

2. The Lord’s prayer is related to the Jewish liturgy and in fact stands in the main tradition of Jewish prayer. Its first two petitions are closely connected with an Aramaic prayer regularly used at the end of the synagogue sermon which also seeks the hallowing of God’s name and the coming of his kingdom. Jesus does not reject but takes up and enlivens the inherited liturgical forms of his people’s worship…. The prayer Jesus gave us, far from authorizing a dismissal of set liturgy, itself makes use of it and gives it new relevance and urgency in the light of the present approach of the kingdom and the king.

3. But [also] the Lord’s prayer is warm and familiar. Most daily Jewish prayers were in Hebrew, the special holy language of worship, but Jesus’ prayer is in Aramaic, the ordinary language of the people. He prays to Abba, a God too close to be appropriately addressed in the archaic language of long ago, because he is the living God of today, deeply involved with the contemporary life of his people…. [so Jesus] removes prayer from the liturgical sphere of sacred language and place it right in the midst of everyday life…. [so] the two traditions of liturgical and spontaneous prayer are reconciled at their source, and are shown to belong together rather than to be at loggerheads.

4. The Lord’s prayer is a particular prayer of the followers of Jesus. It was the custom for religious groups and fellowships to be identified by a distinctive form and rule of prayer. The group round John the Baptist had been so identified and the request of the disciples [Luke 11:1] was that Jesus would give them a form of prayer that would arise from and express what was essential in their life together (pp. 160-162).
Note: In lectures on prayer and worship given by James B. Torrance in ’97 (see last week’s posting for links to the recordings) J.B.T. mentions Thomas Smail [pictured left] as having been one of his most brilliant theology students. Smail’s The Forgotten Father was first published in 1980, and reprinted in 2001. Also see Smail’s Like Father, Like Son: the trinity imaged in our humanity (Eerdmans, 2006).

Next time we’ll look at the petitions Jesus taught in ‘the Lord’s prayer.’ As always your comments are most welcome.