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The relationship we have with God is intended to also be reflected in the relationship we have with our earthly fathers. In Deuteronomy 6:1-3, Moses commanded the people to observe God’s commandment, statutes, and judgments wholeheartedly. He makes it clear to the people that the positive consequence for obedience is that your days may be prolonged, and that it might be well with you. This phrase “that your days might be prolonged” was not unfamiliar to the people of Israel. They had already heard it before at Mount Sinai, where God gave Moses the Ten Commandments. The fifth commandment God gave the people of Israel says honor your father and your mother, that your days may be prolonged in the land which the Lord your God gives you (Exodus 20:12). The relationship we have with our earthly father is intended to reflect the one we have with our heavenly Father. God bestows upon fathers the moral authority to stand in His place to instruct children to be self-governing, to learn to love their neighbor as they love themselves. To train children thusly is then given as a direct instruction. Deuteronomy 6-8 explains what it is a good earthly father must do: 1) train up his children in God’s ways, 2) remind them of God’s goodness, and 3) discipline them when they stray from Him.
As part of their responsibilities, the Israelites were to love the LORD and train up their children in His ways (Deuteronomy 4:9; 6:4-7). Not only did the individual Israelite need to constantly reflect on God’s laws, he needed to pass the knowledge to his descendants as well. In other words, the knowledge of God should flow from a father’s private heart to his own family in the home. As Moses said, “You shall teach them diligently to your sons and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up.”
The piling up of these pairs of contrasting verbs together is a literary device known as “merism,” the combination of two contrasting words to refer to an entirety. This tells us that this teaching to children was not meant to be a one-time or once-per-week activity. Rather, it was to be done continuously. As such, Moses asked the Israelites to talk about these words all the time, regardless of the location or time of day.
One of the lessons the children needed to learn was Israel’s redemptive story; that is, how God rescued them from Egypt, from the hand of Pharaoh. Moses anticipates that the children will ask questions:, “When your son asks you in time to come, saying, ‘What do the testimonies and the statutes and the judgments mean which the LORD our God commanded you?’” When the children ask questions, God wants fathers to give a compelling answer – an answer that reminds children of their history, and transmits the values inherent in the obligations of the covenant God has made with us. Rather than being distant, God gives fathers the powerful and freeing opportunity to admit to their children how they needed God to deliver them from bondage, so that they can know the goodness of God and live accordingly.
This principle confronts us with a pattern in the way God’s teaching should properly be done. The knowledge of God is supposed to go from a father’s private heart to his family in the home, before it finally reaches the public (the community) and its governance, including its system of justice. Such a pattern, when applied diligently, creates a people dealing with one another in a loving and mutually beneficial manner.
However, because of our sinful nature, children are not naturally inclined to hear their father’s direction. Moses said that the LORD disciplines Israel when they did not hear him, just as a man disciplines his son. A good father trains his son to go into the world and be both loving and successful. In order to equip him, the father ensures the son goes through difficulties while under his protection, that he might be equipped to endure greater difficulties when he is on his own. He takes into account the limited resources his son possesses.
As a parent, the human father thus seeks to improve his child’s wisdom, resources and knowledge by training him in the ways he should go. In the same way, God allowed Israel, and now allows us, to go through a learning process in order to give positive moral lessons to them. Discipline is never fun. But it is invaluable. The excellent coach disciplines their team so they will rise to the challenge at the end of the game. God disciplines his children in the same way, so they can gain the skills needed to trust Him and possess the land in a manner that brings them blessing.
Ultimately, good fathers on earth play a key role in helping their children draw nearer to God, their heavenly Father. In training up their children in the way of the Lord, a good earthly father sets his children on the path to becoming sanctified, useful to the Master, prepared for every good work. In recounting stories of God’s goodness, he reminds his children why they should seek to live their life as fruitful members of the family of God. In disciplining their children, a good father brings his children back to obedience to the commands of God, so that they can enjoy fellowship with Him. This picture is what God is constantly doing for us: giving us instruction in his Scripture for training in righteousness (2 Tim. 3:16), reminding us of his goodness, and disciplining us when we stray from Him, to the end that we live a fruitful life as obedient children and eventually inherit a heavenly reward.
One of the most powerful truths for Christians is summed up by Paul in Romans 8:14-16. He writes that all who are led by the spirit of God are sons of God. In submitting to God, we have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, like we had when we were enslaved to sin. This new life we receive when we put our faith in Jesus’ death and resurrection does not result in fear; it really is like being adopted into a family. So much so that Paul declares [we] have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, “Abba! Father!” Rather than living in fear, we can call out to God as our Father because we are children of God. When we encounter wicked and evil things, the Lord is faithful to establish [us] and guard [us] against the evil one (2 Thessalonians 3: 2-3). Just like a good father, God is seeking to protect us and encourage us in doing what is good.