Before You Call God “Father”
February 2, 2020
If you have your Bibles, you’ll want to open them to Luke chapter 11. We’re going to get into Christ’s most basic instruction, here, on how to pray, which puts us into the first set of petitions, which have to do with God and his interests. So this addresses God as “Father.” We’re going to make a connection to what we learned in our conference weekend, that the answer to our mortality is God. The reason for no anxiety is God. The reason we gather together in corporate fellowship to celebrate our unity in Jesus Christ is God. So what we’re going to talk about this morning is going to go back to that consistent theme that the answer for everything in our lives, and what explains our entire existence and our identity—what gives us all hope, all joy, what focuses our hearts in worship, gives us perspective on absolutely everything—is who our God is and what he’s like. You’re going to see that as we begin reading the Lord’s Prayer—more accurately, as we’ve said, the Disciples’ Prayer. This is the prayer that the Lord taught his disciples to pray, and so this is how he teaches us to pray. And Luke sets it up for us this way—Luke chapter 11:1
*Now Jesus was praying in a certain place, and when he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray as John taught his disciples.” And he said to them, “When you pray, say, ‘Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our sins for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us. And lead us not into temptation.’”*
So Jesus begins this teaching on prayer with a most basic, fundamental instruction. It is simple, it is concise—but make no mistake—it is also immensely deep. We are not going to be in a hurry to rush through this instruction on prayer. We’re going to take a slow roll and consider all that is necessary for us to get the impact of this text. He starts with this foundational teaching on prayer, he starts saying, “When you pray.” And grammatically, there, the word “when” introduces what’s called a temporal clause, so it puts the emphasis the occasion of our praying. So it’s “Whenever you pray,” “On whatever occasion you pray,” and then the verb “say” is a command—a present tense command. So the kind of action is continuous; it’s habitual. “Whenever you pray—this is to be a repeated action—say this. Be saying this.” So regularly, repeated, habitually—“be saying these words whenever you are praying.”
Notice that the very first word in the prayer, which Jesus commands us to say whenever we’re praying, is a word of intimate filial address. Jesus commands us to call God “Father.” Jesus commands us to call God “Father.” Now, I cannot read your minds, but I can read your body language, and I can see that that last sentence did not shock you or disturb you. It didn’t shock your sensibilities. You’re not calling for my resignation or anything more violent than that, and I know that because I just said, “Jesus commands us to call God ‘Father,’” and I did not hear from you an audible gasp. That sentence didn’t take the air out of the room. Many of us think very little of what it means to call God “Father”—what that means, what the significance of that really is. Those of us who grew up in Christian homes—probably most of us grew up in a nominally Christian culture—the Lord’s Prayer is something that we have been taught from childhood—which is a good thing. But we grow up thinking that it’s no big thing to address God as “Father.” So when we hear a sentence like “Jesus commands us to call God ‘Father,’” we’re not shocked. We don’t think anything of it. We’re not offended. Quite the contrary, some—if they think about it at even a superficial level—get this sentimental feeling about that. Some take it too far. They look for an emotional uplift in their psyche, and they go ever further and say, “We need to call him ‘Daddy.’”
That’s not how Jesus’ first century audience heard that sentence. Jesus’ first disciples—the Apostles, the earliest Christians as well as the spiritual children of that first generation of believers—there was no sentimentality, I can guarantee you, about the Lord’s Prayer. Instead, there was a debt of gratitude. There was a sober-minded humility, a sense of awe and wonder. Jewish recipients of Christ’s words, here, had all be instructed since childhood in the law of Moses. Every Sabbath at the synagogue, they hear readings from the Law. They heard expositions from the Law and the Prophets. They heard sermons every single week. Listen—they never heard Moses—ever—or any of the prophets call God “Father” in a personal, intimate way like this. None of the godly kings like David or Solomon—none of the great and holy men of Israel’s history, like Enoch, Job, or Daniel—none of them addressed God in such familiar terms. No one addressed God so personally, calling God “Father” in prayer. To them that would have seemed irreverent.
Now they had known about the fatherhood of God, but that was God’s fatherhood over Israel as a nation. Just as a father is the progenitor of the family that comes from his loins, and thus he feels an innate sense of duty to provide for them, he feels a pride in protecting them because they are his progeny; so also the God of Israel was the progenitor, the provider, the protector of the nation of Israel. You dare not touch “the apple of his eye”—Israel. Of more than 500, actually nearly 600, uses of the word “Father” in the Old Testament, most of them refer to fatherhood in a human sense. “So-and-so was the father of so-and-so, and he lived so many years, and he died, and then he was the father of so-and-so, and he lived so many years, and then he died,” and on and on it goes, right? Lots of uses of “father” like that. Only a handful of the 500-600 uses refer to God as “Father” or allude to him acting in a fatherly way, like caring for orphans and widows as a father might, replacing the father that they’d lost, discipling his children, like a father does, showing compassion for those who fear him. In fact, I may have missed some references, but I found just 15 instances of 500-600 where God is “Father,” and they refer to God as father of the nation, or use “Father” as a metaphor to picture, illustrate how God acts like a father. In fact, God’s fatherly care becomes a basis for indicting the nation of Israel, who abandoned God’s fatherly love and care. Malachi 1:6 says, “A son honors his father, and a servant his master, so if then I am a father, where is my honor? If I am a master, where is my fear?”
When God is addressed in prayer, the petitioner in the Old Testament does not address him as “Father,” but usually addresses him by the divine name. He calls him what he is: God. Listen to Isaiah addressing God as “LORD,” which we understand means “Yahweh.” If it’s capital “L” and small “ord,” that’s “Adonai,” generally, which means “lord, master.” Here Isaiah addresses God as “Yahweh,” and he asks God to show mercy to the nation. He appeals to God’s sense of fatherly compassion and mercy for Israel. In Isaiah 63:15-16, it says,
*Look down from heaven and see, from your holy and beautiful habitation. Where are your zeal and your might? The stirring of your inner parts and your compassion are held back from me. For you are our Father, though Abraham does not know us, and Israel does not acknowledge us; you, O Lord, are our Father, our Redeemer from of old is your name.*
And later on in that same prayer, spanning into chapter 64:8-9, Isaiah returns to that same theme of fatherhood in that same appeal for mercy. He says,
*But now, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. Be not so terribly angry, O Lord, and remember not iniquity forever. Behold, please look, we are all your people.”*
We don’t often hear people praying like that, do we, today?—such depth in understanding who God is in his essence, in his acts—references to God’s attributes, like omniscience and omnipotence, justice, wrath, mercy, sovereignty. All those themes are quite foreign to the prayers prayed by so many—sadly—so many professing Christians today. And sadly in many allegedly evangelical pulpits, contemporary seeker-sensitive church leaders seem to display and express no sensitivity whatsoever to the holiness of God, whose name they confess with their lips, but their hearts seem to be very far from him. Confessing personal sin, acknowledging our own iniquity, acknowledging the appropriateness of divine justice, of holy wrath—such strange talk makes modern church-goers feel uncomfortable. Prerogatives of divine sovereignty—that’s quite foreign in this democracy of ours. So instinctively, we today tend to turn down the volume on language like that.
There has been a trajectory for centuries now that has only accelerated in these modern times to treat such themes as Isaiah prayed about quite naturally in his prayer as off-limits, as that which ought not to be spoken of in public. Even among many who profess to be Christians, they seem squeamish—they seem ashamed, really—to talk to people about matters of sin and righteousness, to proclaim divine justice, holy wrath—and all the while thinking nothing of the fact that they continually call God “Father.” The massive shift in our time is to make God far too familiar, to de-fang him, to de-throne him, to domesticate him.
C. S. Lewis identified this shift—this modern shift—in his well known allegory “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.” He had Mr. Beaver, a character you may remember from reading the story, telling young Susan about Aslan. He said, “‘Aslan is a lion—the lion, the great lion.’ ‘Oh,’ said Susan. ‘I thought he was a man. Is he quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.’ ‘“Safe”?’ said Mr. Beaver. ‘Who said anything about “safe”? Of course he ain’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the king, I tell you.’” Hmm. How far we’ve drifted. Listen—God is always good. He is never safe. He is not safe for the irreverent. He is not safe for those who trifle with him, who—if I could put it this way—take his name in vain, treating it meaninglessly. Listen—and beware. Tread very carefully, here, because what God said in the Ten Commandments remains in force today. Exodus 20:7: “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.”
Many who profess Christ today have become accustomed and quite comfortable to this very sin—taking God’s name in vain. Now, they may have very clean language, and they don’t link the word “God” along with a string of profanity. But when someone claims God is his God, and when he calls this God “Father,” but does not live in obedience to that holy Father, that verbal profession means nothing—that is to say, he is taking God’s name in vain, as a meaningless word, just a noun. That is what it means to take God’s name in vain, most fundamentally, not just to say “OMG!” That’s a very superficial treatment of that sin. Peter reminds all of us—1 Peter 1:17—that “if you call on him as ‘Father,’ who judges impartially according to each one’s deeds”—listen to this—“conduct yourselves in fear throughout the time of your exile, knowing that you are ransomed with the precious blood of Christ.” Beloved, we must—as a people—return to a fear of the Lord by understanding more about this God that we call “Father,” understanding this Father with whom we have to do.
We can probably trace the challenges in this collective cultural superficiality toward God in the Western world all the way back to that tectonic cultural shift called the Enlightenment, also known as the Age of Reason. It emerged in Europe as an intellectual, philosophical movement of humanism. And what that movement was about was being intoxicated with humanity, intoxicated with human reason, human potential. So the Enlightenment impulse was toward elevating man in his use of unaided human reason to discover and conquer the known world and thus to liberate the individual. That is where liberalism as an ideology comes from. Elevating man, then, had a proportionally inverse effect on people’s attitudes toward God. It eroded respect and reverence and fear for him. And the more we have enthroned man, the more we have de-throned God. In his book “God in the Wasteland,” David Wells writes about the significance of the challenge we face in recovering a sense of awe and reverence in how we think about and speak about God. Dr. Wells writes this:
*It is one of the defining marks of our time that God is now weightless. I do not mean by this that he is ethereal, but rather than he has become unimportant. He rests upon the world so inconsequentially as not to be noticeable. He has lost his saliency for human life. Those who assure the pollsters of their belief in God’s existence may nonetheless consider him less interesting than television, his commands less authoritative than their appetites for affluence and influence, his judgment no more awe-inspiring than the evening news, and his truth less compelling than the advertisers sweet fog of flattery and lies. That is weightlessness. It is a condition we’ve assigned him after having nudged him out to the periphery of our secularized life.*
So listen—before we address God as “Father,” which Jesus does, in fact, command us to do, we need to recover a sense of awe about God. We need to get a sense of the gravity of the divine essence. We need to feel the weight of his presence, as it were, all of it contained in the name of God.
Now for Jesus’ Jewish audience, who heard those words for the first time, this encouragement for them to address God as “Father” and to address him as “Father” in a personal, individual way—that actually struck their ears—though it’s not true—as somewhat irreverent. It’s not that they were correct about that, but it was one of the benefits of their Old Testament theological framework, which helped them to see the meaning and the significance of Jesus’ teaching them to address God as “Father,” and it’s in a way that’s really foreign to us. We, on the other hand, have become far too casual. The holy name of God, as Wells said, falls far too inconsequentially upon the church. And so if we can begin to comprehend the sense of fear of the Lord, a sense of the reverence of God, we will then—and really only then—start to appreciate what it means when Jesus most graciously, lovingly commands us, “When you pray, be saying this repeatedly, continually, habitually ‘Father.’” “Father.”
This is why we’re going to begin looking at Jesus’ teaching on prayer with the first petition: “Hallowed be your name.” And then we’ll back into what it means to address him as “Father.” As we get into the first petition—and even before—calling God “Father,” in order to apprehend and appreciate the significance of that, we need to understand three points of vital theological significance. We need to understand, first of all, the significance of a name. What is the significance of that word “name”? A symbol that’s placed upon somebody—a name. What is the significance of that. Number two: We need to understand of the significance of God’s name in particular—what the meaning is. Third: What it means to “hallow” God’s name. And then we can understand the significance of addressing God in Christ as “Father.” So you think we’re going to make it through all that today? Me either. In fact, I predict we’re going to make it through the first two points by God’s grace, okay?
So look at Luke 11:2: “When you pray, say ‘Father, hallowed be your name.’” And the first question to ask, here, is what is in a name? And by “name” I mean not simply a noun, but a proper noun—the proper name of an entity, of a person. Our names—Robert, George, James, Cynthia, Margaret, Kathy with a “K,” or Cathy with a “C”—we all have names, right?—and unless we take the time to trace the etymology of our name, we’re not really going to discover the origin and the meaning of a name. That’s not exactly how it was in the ancient world. Names then were invested with seemingly more significance. A lot of times we name our babies what is esthetically pleasing. We want to avoid any psychological embarrassment, so we don’t call them “Beaufort” or things like that. We want to call them “John.” We think of significances like that. Sometimes it’s a biblical name, sometimes it’s esthetically pleasing—it sounds good. Unless all of our friends are using that same name—then we don’t want that name. We want one that is unique, something that makes them stand out.
Naming in the ancient world was a little bit different in naming children. Leon Morris writes this: “The name in antiquity stood for far more than it does with us. It summed up a person’s character—all that was known or revealed about him.” Hmm. A person’s whole character summarized in a name. If we as parents were thinking like that about our children—I think that’s why the Jews would name their children on the day of circumcision—eight days after birth, to give them time to think. Ancient parents named children to signify something, or in the hopes of some quality of character signified by that name would then shape that child’s life, that he would live up to the name. Some names signified some quality or strength of beauty or something like that in the natural world. “Terah” means “a wild goat.” It’s not talking of “goatishness,” but strength of a goat. “Tamar”—palm tree. “Tabitha”—a gazelle—beautiful, delicate strength—strength under control. Some names commemorated a significant event, which could be a really bad thing, as in the case of Ichabod. Ichabod—named when the glory of God departed from Israel—literally means “no glory.” Imagine growing up with that little name—hard for that kid growing up. Either he got really shy and withdrew, or he got really tough with a name like Ichabod. God told Isaiah to name his son “Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz.” That’s a mouthful—long on a name tag at Best Buy. It means “swift to the spoil,” “speedy to the plunder.” That’s pretty cool! But it commemorated the Assyrian invasion—not so cool.
A name signified something about the character of a person, attempted to capture the essence of a person, was something to commemorate an event. Some parents named their children at birth with a view to the future, to express hope about how their child would turn out. Sometimes God named the child before the child was born to point to the child’s use in his plan, so when bringing Christ into the world—we all understand this—what does it say? “You shall call his name”—what?—“Jesus.” Why? Because the Hebrew verb “yeshua” means “save,” “deliver.” “He will save his people from their sins.” That’s why they called his name Jesus. Every time we utter the name of Jesus, we’re acknowledging his saving qualities. He’s our salvation. Sometimes God changed a name. A child was born, was named—and then God changed his name to align that child in his character, his future more fully with his purposes. So he changes Abram’s name—Abram means “exalted father”—to Abraham, meaning “exalted father of many.” Jacob means “grasping at the heel” with connotations of being a deceptive person, which is how Jacob had been. God said, though, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel for you have striven with God and men and prevailed.” That came to characterize his life.
The very first one to name something—who was that? God, right? It goes all the way back in history to God calling the light “day” and the darkness “night.” He calls the expanse above “heaven,” and he called the dry land “earth,” and he called the gathered waters “seas.” And so God also named man, calling him “man,” which became the name that the first man was known by, and it’s the proper name “Adam.” And then God handed over the privilege of naming things to the man—gave it to Adam—Genesis 2:19: “Now out of the ground the Lord God had formed every beast of the field and bird of the heavens and brought them to the man to see what he would call them. And whatever the man would call every living creature, that was its name.” From what we can discern, since Adam also gave a name to the wife that God brought him, as Merrill Unger says, “From the impression the animals made upon Adam, he assigns names to them.”
Remember, this is pre-Fall. He has no sin. He is the pinnacle of God’s creation. He’s intelligent, he’s creative. There’s nothing hindering or hampering his creativity, the strength of his reasoning, and his observations. So when he named something, it captured the essence of that thing. He named all the animals God brought to him, naming them according to what they are, capturing their essence, signifying the essence in the name by which he designated that creature. We get a glimpse of insight into the naming process when God brought to Adam the woman. He named animals all day and did not see anything that corresponded to himself—nothing among all the animal kingdom—birds in the heavens, fish in the sea—nothing that corresponded to him, created in the image of God. Nothing equal to him. So when Adam saw this newly created Eve, he said, “Ahhh!” The Hebrew says that. It gives that sense in the translation. “This now!” “This now is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh! She shall be called ‘woman’”—that is, an “ishsha”—“because she was taken out of a man”—“ish.” The name that Adam gave this creature—one like him, created in the image of God—commemorated how God brought her into being, how God fashioned his own rib—the first surgery performed in Scripture, right there, Genesis chapter 2—fashioned that rib into a partner. I believe it was Augustine who said, “He didn’t pull the bone from the foot so that Adam would step on her, or from the head, that Eve would rule over him, but from the rib, signifying the partnership, signifying the closeness, the intimacy.” As we might say in different parlance, “bringing her in underneath the armor.” Husbands, that’s what we do with our wives, right? Bring that tender wife that God has given us under the armor, close to us. This one is an “ishshah,” so that last “ahhh”—sounds like a breath, like the verb “hayah” because it’s to indicate that life from him, life from the “ish” is an “ishshah,” a woman. She was taken out of an “ish”—out of a man. This is a brief survey about the significance of a name, the significance of naming. Someone’s name commemorates something important, captures the essence, signifies the character. What is the essence of the thing? Let’s put that in a name.
So that leads us to the second question: What is in God’s name? What it is in the name of God? When we turn to God and to his name, we’re asking the importance of what signifies his essence. What captures or signifies the character of God? It is—as many pious Jews said—“the Name.” It is a name that all the Old Testament saints rejoiced in, exemplified by David in Psalm 8:1: “O Yahweh, our Adonai”—“O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth.” So when David speaks of the name of God, he is talking about God’s essence. He’s talking about the nature of God’s being as God. How do we know that? Because the very first word is the very name of God—“Yahweh.” “O LORD our Lord” is literally “O Yahweh, our Adonai”—“Adonai” meaning “Lord, master, sovereign, ruler. “Yahweh” is the proper name of God.
To see the explanation of this—where this originates—let’s go back to Exodus chapter 3. I know many of you who have been following us in the daily Bible reading plan. It is so enriching! I don’t know how many people have been coming to me and saying, “Thank you for doing that because this is revolutionized my life, my marriage, my family—just by reading Scripture every day together.” Why? Because God’s Word has life in it. So we read through Exodus chapter 3. The setting here, as you know, is the wilderness of Midian, and this is the occasion of the calling of Moses. God chose Moses to lead his people out of Egypt—out from under the iron fist of Pharaoh, delivering them from the bondage of slavery and bringing them into the land that God promised to Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. So in many ways, as you read, Moses was really the most unlikely of leaders. He was born a slave. That’s not promising. But then destined to die by the edict of Pharaoh, and he narrowly escaped death, remarkably rescued and raised by Pharaoh’s daughter. So then it looks like maybe there’s a promising start. He’s going to be raised in the palace—raised in privilege, wealth, strength, power. He’s a member of Pharaoh’s household. But the older he got—probably to Pharaoh’s chagrin—he developed a conscience. He thought it might be wrong to be a Jew hiding out in Egypt’s stronghold. So he found more and more occasion to identify with his people. And maybe using the wealth of Egypt, he might bring deliverance to his people, using his strength and wealth and influence and prominence. He might be able to use that leverage for the rescuing of his people—get them out from underneath those Egyptian task-masters.
Well, listen—that wasn’t enough, right? God did not want any of the credit for delivering or rescuing Egypt to belong to Egypt or to a man named Moses, or to anybody else but God. Remember how Moses—sympathizing with his people’s plight—rather impulsively murdered an Egyptian and hid his body in the sand? Evidently, killing someone didn’t exactly engender the trust he sought from his fellow Hebrews. They rejected him—rejected his attempt to do justice in his isolated and short-sighted deliverance. And then, when the matter became known to Pharaoh, Moses took off. So much for his strength, right. So much for his resolve. He fled from Egypt, went to live in Midian. In Midian Moses met the priest of Midian, a significant man named Reuel, called Jethro as well. Moses married Jethro’s daughter, tended Jethro’s flocks. After Moses had lived in Midian for 40 years almost like a Bedouin shepherd, God called “time” on his people’s suffering. And God visited Moses in the Midian wilderness, in that burning bush.
Let’s pick up the story in verse 10 of Exodus chapter 3. God said to Moses,
*“Come, I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring my people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt.” But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?” He said, “But I will be with you, and this shall be the sign for you, that I have sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall serve God on this mountain.”*
So by this time Moses has aged somewhat—forty years in the desert—he’s now about 80 years old. He’s a shadow of his former impetuous, younger self. He’s no longer interested in taking charge, delivering Hebrews, murdering Egyptians. The desert has really withered away all his impetuousness and his drive and his resolve. And he comes across several times—as we just saw here—as rather insecure. He’s got a heightened sensitivity to his own weaknesses. He’s not altogether wrong about that. It says in verse 11, “Who am I?” That’s not a faux humility. He has really come to have an honest self-assessment. He’s correct in seeing that he has no reason in himself for self-confidence, no reason in himself to believe that he is anything, that he can deliver Israel from Egypt. He’s tried that; he’s failed. The deserts of Midian have a way of humbling a man, revealing what he’s made of. So when he protests in the next chapter—chapter 4:1: “What if they don’t believe me or listen to my voice?” Or in chapter 4 verse 10: “I’m not eloquent either in the past or since you’ve spoken to your servant. I’m slow of speech and tongue.” Even when his insecurity goes too far in verse 13 of chapter 4—he actually sins against God, refusing to submit to this call. “O, my Lord, please send somebody else!” But God said, “No. I’m not going to send somebody else. Forty years in the desert has done what I intended it to do to you.”
As Moses would learn, deliverance from Israel does not depend upon Moses. As great as we want to make him in “The Ten Commandments” and Charleton Heston and all the rest, deliverance from Egypt was not because of Moses. The Exodus depends upon God. And it will happen because God is God, and that is what Moses is about to learn—to see where the source of his confidence is going to come from, to see where his assurance is grounded. Look at Exodus 3:13: “ Then Moses said to God, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” Now that’s like all of us. You know, we ask questions in public that a “friend” has, but it’s really our own question. It’s kind of like this, here. “What if they ask me what is his name, what shall I tell them?” What’s Moses asking? “Help me to understand!” Right? But listen—don’t make the mistake of thinking that God is about to give him the “secret code name,” like, “Shhh! It’s Yahweh…” So that after hearing that secret code name, he comes to the people and says, “Hey, come on, gather around.” They say, “Okay, yeah. What’s his name?” [Whispering] “Yahweh.” “All right! Come on in! You’re our leader!” It’s not like that. Trust Moses, follow him as their leader, march triumphantly out of Egypt with the secret code name. No. Moses is asking this question because he wants to know what assurance he can find for himself and what assurance he can give to the people so that they will be assured and follow. What confidence can they find in God? That is, what is it in the name of God—the name of this God, the one who is calling and sending Moses—what is it pertaining to his particular character, what is it about his specific attributes—that will provide assurance to the people of Israel?
We miss the significance unless we slow down a bit and reflect on what it meant to be enslaved in Egypt. We’ve grown up—thank the Lord!—in a country where we have freedom, where we’re not enslaved. I mean, some jobs kind of seem like slavery, but they’re not because what can we do about that job if we don’t like that job? We can quit that job and go get another job. We’re not owned by our bosses. We’ve got to work a little bit to put ourselves into their minds, here. Egypt is a superpower of that day. It is the “evil empire.” It is the “Death Star.” It is the dominant force of the civilized world with all the weapons and power and authority. They were an industrial giant. They were technologically advance, militarily superior, culturally relevant—everyone wanted Egyptian stuff. So you want to talk about in Egypt the practice of systemic injustice? Here it is. Economic oppression, unfair housing practices, population control of a people to enslave and oppress them—yeah, here it is. Population control through abortion. Enforced infanticide. That’s Egypt. That’s how they oppressed the Hebrews, held them down in order to enslave them. And they were totally open about that. They were unapologetic and proud about that. But of all people—Egyptians and—get this—Israelites, too, believed it was because of the pantheon of Egyptian deities that favored Pharaoh and gave him his power. They worship Hapi, the god of the Nile, source of the water, which meant source of life itself for them. Isis, goddess of the Nile. Khnum, guardian of the Nile. They worshipped Ra and Horus, sun gods. Nut, a sky goddess; Set, the god of the storms. They worshipped Osiris, god of crops and fertility; Sunu, a god who protected them from pestilence and plague. They worshipped Hecate, goddess of birth, Apis, fertility god, Hothor, a fertility goddess. They worshipped Min, god of reproduction. Isis protected their children at childbirth. Sekhmet was the goddess who protected them from disease, and if they failed to placate her, at some point they appealed to Isis again, who would heal their diseases.
So it was a world that was dictated to them by the arbitrary whims of gods and goddesses—all of them delusions from the demonic world, right?—all of them demonic lies shrouding the land in pagan superstition and spiritual darkness—but the Egyptians were deluded into believing they had the spiritual world by the tail. Egyptians believed they were reaping the rewards of pleasing the gods and the goddesses, and so did Israel. So did Israel. So by this time, after 400 years, immersed in Egypt and Egyptian idolatry, they, too, came to practice and embrace false religion, idolatry, pagan superstition. So it was mentally really, really hard to be enculturated and saturated in this kind of thinking and for these Israelite slaves to break free from that idolatry, from their own superstitions. They were utterly powerless to do so. They’d come to believe the lie that the God of their fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob had no power or authority in Egypt. He was for “up there,” “back there,” not “down here,” not in Egypt.
So when Moses asked God, “What shall I say to them about your name, about your attributes?”, he is asking about God’s ability to deliver. He’s asking for some anchor of assurance, to give the people some modicum of hope, some ray of light that will shine through to lift their hearts, namely this: that the God who sent him to announce Israel’s deliverance, that he really can conquer all the deities Israel had come to fear. So verse 14, God answers. Look what he says: “God said to Moses, ‘I AM WHO I AM.’ And he said, ‘Say this to the people of Israel [and you listen carefully, too, Moses]: “I AM has sent me to you.”’”
God declares his name to Moses. It’s a name that uses the Hebrew verb of “being,” which is “hayah.” So what God said sounds something like this in the Hebrew, which I’ll slaughter because I’m not Jewish, I’m not Hebrew, but it says, “ ′eh-yeh ′ā-šer ′eh-yeh.” Our translation renders it “I AM WHO I AM.” More to the point, it’s “I AM THAT I AM.” What does that mean—“I AM THAT I AM”? To declare his name using a verb of being means God is being itself. He’s saying, “I am existence. I am being.” Why? Because he’s saying, “It is in my nature to exist.” Listen—humanity does not depend on me or you. We’re just instantiations of humanity, right?—individual evidences of humanity. But if I die, humanity does not go away—and neither do you. If you die, humanity does not cease to exist. Now if God dies—no more deity. It is his essence to exist. It is his essence to be. That’s what he’s saying here. To be and to exist is his essence. His essence is to exist. Divinity depends on his existence. Existence depends on divinity. So, therefore, what he’s saying is, “I am life itself. I am life.” Jesus said it this way: “The Father has life in himself. So the name “God”—Yahweh—the Hebrew verb of being means God is existence, God is life—being, therefore, the source and the giver of life, existence, and being. He is life itself. God is, as the philosophers and theologians say, pure act—as in it is in God’s being to exist. So since he is absolute being, since he is absolutely existence itself, he is absolutely independent of all other things. He has no need. When he gives, he does not deplete himself. He is. He is absolute existence, he is self-existent, independent. He is utterly without need.
The theological term that summarizes the doctrine I’m talking about is the word “aseity.” It captures the idea that God exists. As Louis Berkhof puts it, “God exists by the necessity of his own being, and therefore necessarily. Necessarily, God exists.” Several truths follow from this doctrine. It’s all packed into “I AM.” God is eternal. He’s without beginning or end. He’s outside time. He exists beyond the limitations of time. God is eternal. God is also infinite. That is to say, he is not finite. He’s outside of space. He exists beyond the limitations of space, limitations of the physical, material world. God is eternal; God is infinite. The fact that he is infinite and eternal necessarily infers and means that God is spirit. God is by nature of his being spiritual—non-corporeal, without a body. He is immaterial; he is pure spirit. Jesus said that—John 4:24: “God is spirit,” speaking of God’s essence.
Obviously, this means God is not like us. He is different. We’re creatures; he’s our Creator. We’re humanity; he is deity. He’s the only deity. And we exist in the time-space world that he has created for us. We live within the limitations and the boundaries of the time-space world that he designed. That’s his purpose for us. And it is in him that we “live and move and have our being.” We are mutable. That doesn’t mean “able to be silenced.” It means changing. We are mutable; we are changing creatures. That is captured right there in “we live and move.” So the movement from one place to another means we change. We go from this space to that space; we move, and we have our being. We have our being in God—in him. Because God has life in himself, he’s the source of our life, he’s the source of our world. But he, himself, is independent of that world, independent of need. He is completely self-existence; he is completely self-sufficient. This is a fundamental truth about the nature of God—Acts 17:24: “The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.” Again, Berkhof says it well when he writes, “He is the self-existent God. He is not only independent in himself. He also causes everything to depend on him.”
We all depend on him. We’re created that way. We’re designed to be dependent upon him. So if you’re trying to live an independent, autonomous life, you’re living completely outside of your design. You might as well go out to your car in the parking lot—this is the same kind of folly—and fill your tank with water and try to drive your car that way. It wasn’t designed to run on water! And so when you try to live outside the Maker’s design, you will not drive anywhere. Your life will be vanity and futility and hopelessness. He causes everything to depend on him. Why? Because he’s all goodness itself. God is not only our Creator, he’s our sustainer. He cares for us. He’s the one who’s self-existent and independent. He has life in himself, and that means, beloved, that he never, ever, ever, ever changes. He is immutable. That’s the proper term to assign to him and not to us. He is immutable. He’s eternal, infinite, and therefore unchanging. Immutable.
All of that that I’ve said so far—and so much more besides—is contained in that one name, the name Yahweh. So Yahweh, to Moses, he intended to demonstrate his faithfulness—that a promise he made 400 years prior is going to come to pass, and nothing is going to stop it. Humanly speaking, all the odds and all the power of the earth were stacked against him. God’s going to do it. He’s strong, and he will deliver. He is faithful. He is going to rip Israel out of the grip of Egypt, and Egypt will be destroyed in trying to hold on. In spite of Pharaoh’s hardness of heart, in spite of Egypt’s power, unhindered by Moses’ inadequacies, and really even unhampered by Israel’s hesitancy to believe, and really its sustained unbelief—God doesn’t care about that. He’s going to do it. He’s going to overcome small-minded doubt. He’s going to overcome unwarranted fears. He’s going to completely overwhelm the pantheon of Egypt—Isis, Osiris, Ra, Sekhmet—all it sounds really dark and foreboding, but it’s really just…air, right? It’s nothing. All these gods and goddesses—what is that but make-believe? Because as he said through the prophet Isaiah—as we read earlier, Isaiah 45—he said this four times in Isaiah 45: “I am Yahweh, and there is no other.” There is no god or goddess—nothing. “I am Yahweh, and there is no other. Besides me, there is no god.” That’s what God wants Moses to anchor his confidence in. That’s what he wants Israel to anchor their confidence in.
So now, with that in mind, turn ahead from the book of Exodus to the book of Deuteronomy chapter 6. It’s for good reason that Gary Oedy preached to us out of that beloved chapter—Deuteronomy chapter 6—and did such a fantastic job. We see how seminal this teaching is, how basic and foundational this teaching is. By the time we get to Deuteronomy, we’ve already escaped Egypt, okay? Yahweh delivered Israel from Egypt, just as he said, from the iron grip of the greatest superpower on earth. But before he sent them in to make that redemption complete, to take possession of the land of Canaan, sealing and fulfilling his promise to Abraham, Moses taught Israel a creed. He taught them a propositional statement of faith. We know this creed as the “Shema” of Israel. It takes its name from the firs word of that creed—“shema”—which is the imperative form of the Hebrew verb “shama,” which means “to hear, to listen.” So it’s a command to hear, to listen.
So before entering into the Promised Land and in order to seal the faith of Israel, and embolden them, encourage their hearts, strengthen their resolve in the face, really, of a number of ferocious Canaanite peoples and face them in battle; Moses wanted to stop, here, anchor their hearts in God’s unchanging nature and character with the words of this creed. Look at Deuteronomy 6:1:
*“Now this is the commandment—the statutes and the rules—that the Lord your God commanded me to teach you, that you may do them in the land to which you are going over, to possess it, that you may fear the Lord your God, you and your son and your son’s son, by keeping [How do you fear him? By keeping, by doing, by obeying] all his statutes and his commandments, which I command you, all the days of your life [That is, “Don’t stop obeying.”], and that your days may be long. Hear therefore, O Israel, and be careful to do them, that it may go well with you, and that you may multiply greatly, as the Lord, the God of your fathers, has promised you, in a land flowing with milk and honey.”*
What’s the basis for saying, “I want you to obey, I want you to do this, and I want you do it consistently and faithfully for your entire life”? Is it to grind their nose into some unpleasant form of existence called “obedience to Yahweh”? No. It’s so that they can enjoy this land, this gift, so they can enjoy worshipping Yahweh, who gave it to them, so that their hearts can be filled with gratitude and joy. “So be careful to do them, Israel, so that it will go well with.” That’s good! God is wise, and following him is going to lead to goodness and wisdom. “Oh, Moses, you’re a legalist. You’re a legalist. That’s the root of Pharisaism, right?” What blasphemy to say that, right?
Look at the creed—verse 4: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.” That is the heart and center of the Jewish confession of faith. And that is what separates true worship from all false worship. That’s what separates the God of Israel from all other false gods. “šə-ma’ yiś-rā-’êl; Yah-weh ’ĕ-lō-hê-nū Yah-weh ’e-ḥāḏ.” “Hear, O Israel, Yahweh is our God; Yahweh is one.” Obviously, that’s an affirmation of strict monotheism. One god—there is one and only one God. It’s clear from Isaiah 45 and many other portions of Scripture. God is one. But that is not just a unity of singularity—that is, numerical oneness of God or the divine essence. That is true—it’s at least that. But more essentially, this about what we call the “simplicity of God,” or we might say the “indivisibility fo God.” He is not divided up into parts.
We do not have time to unpack all that we mean by “divine simplicity” this morning, but I am about to say a few things that I know for some of you—and perhaps for many of you—will make your head spin. I’m not saying any of this to make your head spin. I’m not saying any of this to bewilder you. But rather, I want to help you to appreciate the incomprehensibility of the God we have come to know through Christ. I want you to see the inscrutable depths of this God that we are told—commanded—to call “Father.” As a pastor, I want my preaching to be as clear as it possibly can be because I want you to understand. I want it to be accessible, easily understood by every single one of you. But what I’m about to get into defies that because I’m talking about the very essence of God. He is beyond our limitations, so it makes sense that he’s beyond our full comprehension and understanding. What I’m about to say dives into the inscrutable depths of divine essence, and I’m afraid there’s just no easy way to say this. But all that to say that you need to hear it anyway. It’s not just like medicine that your mom makes you take, and it’s sour and everything. As you think about this, you are going to rejoice in this because before you call God “Father,” you need to appreciate who God is in his essence, which is what Israel confessed when they called God “Yahweh.”
When we talk about divine simplicity, we don’t mean to say that God is simple. That’s the deceptive thing about the word “simplicity”—divine “simplicity.” It’s not about God being simple or easy to understand or in any way elementary. Rather, divine simplicity refers to God’s—as I said—indivisible essence. That is, God cannot be divided into parts. Another way to say it is that God is not a composite being. He’s not joined together, composed of parts. I’m not talking about physical and material parts, like atoms. I’m talking about even immaterial parts. As creatures we are composite beings. We’re made up of parts. We consist of composite attributes. At the very least, we are composed of material parts and immaterial parts, right? Without a body—not human. Without a spirit—not human. Both body and spirit are required to make us what we are. We depend upon God, who is the divine composer of our parts. That is, he knit us together in the womb, to use David’s language—Psalm 139. We depend upon God, the composer of the parts, to make us what we are.
God is not like us. He’s radically different from us in that regard. He is simple being; that is, not composite. He’s not made up of parts. He’s not composed of even, we might say, attributes as theologians use the word “attributes” or “perfections.” Individually, those attributes are not God in and of themselves—so in other words, we go to our systematic theology books and make a list of all attributes of God, the incommunicable and the communicable attributes—the holiness, love, justice, omniscience, omnipotence and all the rest of those list attributes. We don’t take all of those, add them together—“this plus this plus this plus this”—that’s God. Why not? Because to say that God is composed of parts—that he’s composed and knit together of attributes would deny what we’ve earlier said about divine aseity—the independency and self-sufficiency of God. Because if God is composed of parts or attributes, then God is dependent upon the parts, and he needs all those parts to exist as he does. But he does not because he’s not composed of parts. If God is composed of parts or attributes, then God is dependent upon a composer of the parts to make him to be what he is—that is, to put those parts together so that he comes forth as God. He needs something outside of himself to put the parts together—all the attributes.
And we just said, that’s not true. If God is composed of parts, he depends upon what is not God in order to be God. Stephen Charnock put it this way: “If God had distinct parts, then he would depend upon them. Not only that, but if God had parts, then God would be dependent upon the composer of the parts to be all that he is.” So as Charnock says, “The effect would be those distinct parts, and so he would not be absolute, entirely the first being.” But we know that that’s not true. Not only would parts be put before him, but the composer of the parts would be put before him. That means that if God were composed of parts, then we would be wrong to worship God. We should be worshipping the composer of the parts of God, instead—whoever that might be. We know that’s not true because there is no composer of the parts because God is not composed of parts, and there is no one prior to God—Isaiah 45: “I am Yahweh, and there is no other.” Isaiah 44:6: “I am the first.” God is the first; therefore nothing is before him. Nothing precedes him—no composer of the parts who takes the parts and puts them together to make him all that he is. God is not the sum of his attributes—eternal plus infinite plus spiritual plus love plus holiness, etc. Rather, we confess that all that is in God is God. All that is in God is God. Or God is all of his attributes.
Now let’s come up for air. Let your brain cool off for a few minutes. Let’s see the impact of this. I’m guessing that—like me—you didn’t know the “Shema” of Israel contained all of that. One creed—and all that stuff comes out. And I didn’t even tell you the half of it. But it does come out of that—necessarily, all of that and more comes out of that creed. And I want you to appreciate, apprehend—even if you struggle to comprehend it—I want you to appreciate that even though we struggle to understand this, when Moses taught Israel to confess, “Hear, O Israel, Yahweh is our God. Yahweh is one,” he taught his people a creed of the greatest theological depth, one that provided an unshakable bedrock of assurance. And that creed rests on the name of God revealed to Moses back in the desert of Midian: “I AM THAT I AM. Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’”
So beloved, before you call God “Father,” learn to appreciate what it means to confess the name of God—not only to learn what it means for the name of God to be “hallowed,” but also so we can appreciate gift we’ve received—to address God as “Father.”
Things we’ve learned over this conference weekend—how God overcomes our mortality—can you see that, now? He’s the giver of all life. He’s the source of all existence, the source of being. Of course, he overcomes our mortality! He’s the source of all being. It is his being to exist. Why would we doubt that—that he can give us life from the dead? When we learn that God is good, and that he cares for us such that we ought never have anxiety—to have anxiety is an indication of our lack of faith, our distrust. It’s actually a very deep and profound sin. Well, we can see now that God, by the definition of his essence, is unchanging. He’s the source and the sustainer of all of our life, and he does not change. He seems to rejoice in overcoming great odds to care for his people. He will always faithful because, by virtue of his essence, God is immutable. He never changes. He is pure spirit. He is eternal and infinite, and nothing bounds his power. He’s the bedrock of our faith.
So when we pray “Father, hallowed be your name,” we’re compelled to do so because of the depth of the understanding that defies the superficiality of this age. Oh, beloved, may it never be true of us that among us God’s name is inconsequential, that he is “weightless” to us, that he lives at the periphery of our existence. No, no, no! “In him we live and move and have our being.” Upon him we stand. In him we live. In him we have all hope. Bow with me in prayer.
Our Father, you are God. You are Yahweh. You are life itself. You exist. You are. It is by definition divinity to exist. And we’re so grateful for that being the fountain of every other truth. We thank you that you are the source of all being, and you are the sustainer of all that you have created. But most particularly, that you—through Christ—command us to come and call you “Father,” that you’ve adopted us into your family by faith in Jesus Christ, that for all those who look upon Christ and see in him the satisfaction of your wrath against our sin by his death upon the Cross, that we see in Christ the perfection of righteousness, and that by faith in him we know that you will impute or reckon his righteousness to us, that you’ll treat us like you treat him—call us “beloved” because we are united by faith to him, and we are therefore your beloved. Oh, God, we thank you so much for who you are, and that we have the privilege of calling your “Father.” Help us to understand that in deeper and deeper ways as the weeks and months and years go by, that we may bring all glory and praise and worship to you. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.