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. Isaiah 9:6 (ESV)
We've explored Christ as our Prince of Peace, Wonderful Counselor, and Mighty God, as described in Isaiah's Christmas prophecy. I saved Everlasting Father for last, because it has special meaning to me and is one of the sweetest, most evocative portraits of the extravagant gift we have in Jesus.
Good Dads...and Not-So-Good
In my public writing, personal wrestling, and parenting my own kids, I often use the imagery of God as Father to help me better understand and describe God.
If you had a great dad, the idea of God as a papa is accessible and mostly positive--I think. For some of us, though, the imagery is a double-edged sword or worse, with the wounding edge more prominent.
My own dear real-life father--a charming, warm, brilliant man--had his own childhood injuries that showed up in destructive ways. It has taken a long time to understand and heal all that. I still sometimes wrestle with projecting some of my dad's more hurtful traits onto my Heavenly Father.
Sometimes, the Bible itself makes it way difficult not to imagine and utterly terrifying God, looming large and ready to smote us for the smallest infraction. Thank GOD that this version of God is disarmed in Christ. If we accept Jesus as the only possible atonement for our sins, we are no longer subject to God's wrath. Still, scripture tells us everything we need to know about God as the truly Perfect Father. We can also draw on our own human experience of good dads to understand our Divine Dad better.
If, like me, you get hung up on this scary God a lot, you can find great comfort, hope, and insight in the parable of the prodigal son to better understand God's character. The Bible is full of insight about God as Father, but I'm going to focus on what Jesus lovingly reveals, not only in coming to earth as a lowly baby, but in a few key qualities He highlights in the prodigal's dad:
Of all the terms Isaiah could use in this verse to describe God the Father, he chose "everlasting." A good dad is always there for us and is a steady and reliable presence to his kids. On the other hand, an erratic and unpredictable dad can cause a lot of pain.
Everlasting communicates permanence, unchanging both in presence and in character. God's character is consistent, unlike unpredictable humanity. Also, unlike human dads who can be absent due to work and play, mental health issues, substance abuse, garden-variety self-centeredness, or death, God is present 24/7.
Believing this and living as if it's true, is no doubt difficult, but has priceless value in this inconstant world and when faced with our own inconstancy.
The prodigal son's dad was constant, even though his son's behavior, presence, and devotion were not. How priceless to know our God's love toward us is unchanging, no matter how erratic we may be!
I think it's very striking that the prodigal's father's love shows up most vividly and lavishly later in the story, when the son is a remorseful train wreck, though we do see a hint at the beginning.
The account opens with the younger son asking his father for his inheritance in advance. All we know of the father at the onset is that he hands over his son's portion of the estate.
Jesus shares nothing about a discussion, warning, hesitation, or otherwise and the absence of that insight is itself telling.
The prodigal's dad gives his son what he wants, even though this may not be such a hot idea, underscoring free will. God allows us to choose, even knowing the consequences may be bad.
In fact, the son's choice does turns out to be lousy. He squanders the blessing of his inheritance on booze and broads, quickly leaving him penniless and humiliated, scraping for a living.
This is where Dad's love dazzles. Sobered by his lousy circumstances, the young man returns to his family home. He rehearses his apology beforehand, prepared to grovel for mercy and help, but he doesn't have to.
"But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him" (v.20).
How sweet, how comforting for a wretch like me! To know that my Perfect Papa is just waiting to welcome me home, and even rushes toward me while I'm still far away! Just sit with that image for a few.
I need that love and mercy so much!
The son does proceed with his humble apology but the father has already dispatched the servants to clothe his filthy, broken son in the father's best robe and ring, and to plan a lush celebration feast.
Dad wants to celebrate his lost child, now found. The phrasing even suggests the apology wasn't the catalyst for this joyfully generous welcome! This tells me our omniscient heavenly Father knows our when our heart is contrite and rejoices in our repentant return, apology aside. This dad is just happy his son is home safe and sound.
As a side note, the father is also loving to the bitter, self-righteousness older brother who complains about lil brother's warm welcome.
When his wayward son requests his inheritance, the prodigal's father is generous with his estate, seemingly without condition. Strikingly, he's most conspicuously generous when the son returns, humiliated by his own mistakes. Not only does he rush to warmly welcome his boy, but he swiftly provides His best cloak and shoes to cover his wretchedness, and even a ring, which is a symbol of status and belonging. He doesn't just offer his son a bologna sandwich. He orders his servants to prepare a choice meal of the prized fatted calf. How very precious a glimpse into our heavenly Father's amazing grace!
Merciful & Compassionate
Jesus' prodigal story doesn't end with punishment, a debriefing of the son's misspent money or youth, or a dressing down. In fact, it ends with a dressing up in dad's best duds and bling!
We don't know if father and son have a heart to heart or reckoning about those dark days of absence. Jesus omits all that. We just know that Dad embraces his son's return with delight. Dad also accepted his son's desire to get his money up front and leave home. And when his son returns, battered by his own sin, He rushes to greet him warmly, embracing him without a single word of reproach.
The account also helps us understand that sin is its own punishment. It's not the father who punished his kid. In turning away from the comfort of his father's loving and generous shelter, the kid punished himself! WOW. Let us remember that!
However, it's also good to note that Dad didn't shield the son from the consequences either. We could write a whole lot about that, too.
The prodigal's father certainly would have been justified in rejecting or punishing his son or even just leveling him with "I told you sos." He didn't. He was just ecstatic at his boy's homecoming. The boy had experienced the merciless world and his own sin, but his father extended not only forgiveness but grace! I love how the Good News Translation puts it:
The Lord's unfailing love and mercy still continue, Fresh as the morning, as sure as the sunrise. The Lord is all I have, and so in him I put my hope.
There is so much more we could say about God's paternal qualities, but what Jesus reveals (and omits) in this short, familiar parable is such...
What's more, we get all this and so much more through simple faith. This Christmas, I invite you to revisit the priceless, eternal gift we have in Christ! By simply believing, we are now children of God who can call Him Abba-Daddy. I hope you will read and really digest this rich passage in Galatians...
Children of God 23 The Law controlled us and kept us under its power until the time came when we would have faith. 24 In fact, the Law was to be our teacher until Christ came. Then we could have faith and be acceptable to God. 25 But once a person has learned to have faith, there is no more need to have the Law as a teacher. 26 All of you are God's children because of your faith in Christ Jesus. 27 And when you were baptized, it was as though you had put on Christ in the same way you put on new clothes. 28 Faith in Christ Jesus is what makes each of you equal with each other, whether you are a Jew or a Greek, a slave or a free person, a man or a woman. 29 So if you belong to Christ, you are now part of Abraham's family, and you will be given what God has promised. Galatians 3:23-29 (CEV)
What a gift we have in Jesus!
PRAYER: Abba-Daddy, Thank You for rushing to welcome, celebrate, and bless me when I return to You, injured by my own hands. Thank You for allowing me to be your beloved child because of faith in the Christ child. I Love You!
1) Take 15 minutes to write down the attributes of your human father, both positive and negative. Reflect on which attributes you've attributed to God which don't align with Jesus' portrait of the prodigal's daddy.
2)Take 15 minutes to vividly imagine yourself as the prodigal in each part of the story, including a familiar sin of your own. If you're artistic, draw a story board or write a story about all or part of the parable.
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