What Does Fatherhood Mean?

In his earthly ministry, Jesus used “Father” more than any other name for God.1 And God has been father since before the foundations of the world were laid—in the mystery of the Trinity, he has always been Father to the Son. Yet, too often we forget what being a father is, what fatherhood means.

Some have assumed that by using that term Jesus is helping us understand God, something we do not know, by comparing him to something we do know, namely, human fatherhood. God is not a literal father, of course; rather, he has certain remote similarities to fathers. But actually, the associations are reversed: God is the literal father. Earthly fathers have certain remote similarities to him. The essence of fatherhood is found in God, not in human beings. And an awareness of vocation goes further: God exercises his fatherhood, in part, by means of human fatherhood.

Our Heavenly Father

Scripture is clear that all earthly fatherhood finds its origin in our heavenly Father, but it also reveals more than that. When Jesus referred to his Father during his earthly ministry, “father” expressed his particular child-parent relationship, which he then extends to us. The word also captures an important aspect of who God is. Our God is not a distant creator or one who occasionally dabbles in history; he is a father.

Just as Ephesians 5 describes Christ’s connection with marriage, Ephesians 3:14–19 describes our Lord at work as a father:

For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. (Eph. 3:14–19)

From this Father “every family in heaven and on earth is named.” The word for “father” in the original Greek is pater; the word in this verse rendered here as “family” is patria. The two words are closely related. Greek scholar Marvin Vincent explains that “family” in our sense would be expressed in Greek as oikos, that is, “house.” (Compare the Reformation vocation of the “household.”) But patria means a set of individual families, all of whom have a common father. “Observe the play of the words,” comments Vincent, “which can scarcely be reproduced in English, pater, patria.” The verse is saying that from God the Father all lineages of fathers are named.2

What does our Lord do as our Father, according to this text? He grants according to his riches, strengthens with power, reaches even into our inner beings, and desires our eternal salvation through Christ. This is not a checklist, neither for him nor for human fathers, but it expresses the essence of loving service to children. When our Lord describes himself as a father, he does more than reward or chide or discipline. He even does more than teach. He who instituted family in the first place now draws us into his own family, where he reveals himself to us in love and generosity.

In the parable of the loving father and his two sons—also known as the prodigal son—Jesus talks about a father who has every right to be disappointed in his younger son (Luke 15:11–32). His son wants to leave his father and spend all his money and time in reckless living. This son valued money and pleasurable living over having a father. While the younger son was still a long way off, his father saw him. Recognizing him in spite of dirty clothing and extreme poverty, he was moved by compassion. Without another thought, he ran to, embraced, and kissed him. The father restored the prodigal to his former status and prestige as his son. In this parable God clearly connects fatherhood with his own abundant and unearned love and forgiveness.

He who instituted family in the first place now draws us into his own family, where he reveals himself to us in love and generosity.

When this same father learned that his older son was not rejoicing, he sought him and found him. He entreated him. He spoke graciously with him. He withheld nothing: “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours” (Luke 15:31). This father loved his two sons, in spite of pain, disrespect, and discontent, a picture of our heavenly Father with his generosity, patience, mercy, and tenderness. Our heavenly Father is constant. He does not leave us. He does not strike us down when we are angry or already defeated. He restores what is lost. This parable is very frank about how our heavenly Father sees and responds to us as our father.

God is not just our Maker—again, what we make is different from ourselves—but “when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Gal. 4:4–5). God becomes our father and fully incorporates us into his family: “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure” (1 John 3:1–3). That God is our father means that, as his children, we have a special status. Families—patria—are one flesh with the father. This will be manifested fully in eternity. “We shall be like him.”


  1. Nancy Leigh DeMoss, ed., Biblical Womanhood in the Home (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2002), 49.
  2. Marvin R. Vincent, “Ephesians 3:15,” Vincent’s Word Studies in the New Testament (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1985).
This article is adapted from Family Vocation: God’s Calling in Marriage, Parenting, and Childhood by Gene Edward Veith Jr. and Mary J. Moerbe.

Father’s Day

One of the most wonderful passages in all of Scripture occurs toward the end of Jesus’ life when He prayed for His disciples in the Gospel of Matthew. Jesus used the word Abba, which is the informal translation of “Father.” Essentially, Jesus was saying, “Daddy.” What do you think would happen if our churches started using Daddy or Papa in place of Our Father or Almighty God?

How would things be different if we started teaching “Daddy-God” as the correct term in Sunday School? What would church look like in 50 years?

The standard gifts for dads on Father’s Day seem to be ties or tools. Have you given these gifts to your dad? Imagine there is a tool belt of all the required tools that every dad should have. Look at the list and decide what each tool symbolizes a father’s role in your life. (Example: Sandpaper—smooths out the rough spots.)

  • Hammer
  • Screwdriver
  • Measuring tape
  • Duct tape
  • Level
  • Crescent wrench
  • Flashlight, batteries
  • Utility knife
  • Spare roll of duct tape

Can you think of others?

Writer C. McNair Wilson once said, “It wasn’t until I could look down on my father that I first looked up to him.” Is this true? How so?

  • What has your father taught you not by lesson but by example?
  • Where do you and your father most disagree?
  • What is your dad’s favorite song? What did he listen to when he was your age?
  • How did your dad ask your mom to marry him?
  • What is your dad’s favorite joke, the one he likes to tell and repeats again and again?
  • What stories have you heard about your dad when he was a kid that surprised you?
  • What stories has your dad told you about his parents?
  • What did your dad teach you about being an adult?
  • Name the best dad you’ve ever seen on television of movies.
  • What were your dad’s dreams when he was your age?
  • What is the biggest problem fathers face these days?
  • What do you think your father likes best about being a father?
  • What is the most frustrating part of his life?
  • Could you do what your dad does for a living?
  • Would you be more likely to trust a business with the phrase “and Sons” in the name?
  • When did you realize your dad wasn’t Superman?

Read Proverbs 4—yes, the whole chapter. Which of these sounds like something your dad would say? Rewrite it so it sounds like a dad-ism.

Read Psalms 103:13-14. Where sometimes it seems mom’s role is to nurture, dad is more of the molder, which takes time, talent, practice and sometimes learning from your mistakes. How has your dad molded you?

Spend some time getting to know the dad that your Heavenly Father has gifted you with this Father’s Day.


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