Many Christians address God using the term “heavenly Father” which the Lord often used in the Gospels. If such an address is correct, why is this term absent from the Epistles?
The terms “heavenly Father”, “Father in heaven”, and “Father of heaven” are not only never found anywhere in the Epistles, but they are also absent from the entire NT, apart from the Synoptic Gospels. Furthermore, whilst Mark uses such terms just twice, and Luke only once, Matthew employs them some 20 times! Thus this presentation of the Father in heaven is dominant only in Matthew’s gospel. Not only this, but when Matthew speaks of the kingdom, he uses a term which no other NT writer uses: “the kingdom of the heavens”. Further, while the words heaven, heavens, and heavenly occur 293 times in the NT, 81 of these are in Matthew. Matthew speaks more of heaven than any other NT book, and more than all the other Gospels put together. Why?
Matthew’s gospel is directed at the Jew, God’s earthly people. The fact that Matthew uses the term heavenly Father so often indicates that it has a peculiar applicability to them. Why? Israel could rightly claim two things: The first was that as a nation, God was their Father, (see Is. 63: 16; Jer. 31: 9; Mal. 1: 6), yet individual Israelites never knew God as their Father personally, (1 Chron. 17: 13 is an exception). The second was the presence of God on earth dwelling in the midst of His people, (see 2 Sam. 7 1-17), even though the heaven of heavens could not contain Him, (1 Kings 8: 27). However, when Christ came into the world there was no ark in the temple, and the glory had long since departed. Hence after the captivity, God is said to be the “God of heaven” or “God in heaven”, particularly in Ezra, Nehemiah and Daniel where these terms occur about twice as many times as in the rest of the OT put together. Thus the presentation of God as the God of heaven is stressed after Israel was taken away captive, and broken up as a nation.
The kingdom offered to the Jews when the Lord came is presented in Matthew as “the kingdom of the heavens”, showing that the seat of authority would no longer be on earth, but in heaven. It would thus be at a distance - in heaven, not near as it should have been, on earth.
The Father was only to be known as in the heavens, though He was now to be known individually as Father, (e.g. Matt. 6). Thus Matthew’s aim is to focus the minds of the believing remnant of the nation, on heaven and not on earth. However this thought of the Father in heaven and the believer on earth again speaks of distance.
Now when the King came to His people He outwardly identified Himself with that believing remnant in every possible way. He did so in being baptised. Yet only in Matthew’s account do we read of the Lord saying suffer it now; for thus it becometh us to fulfill all righteousness, (see Matt. 3: 15). In Matthew the Lord not only speaks to the disciples of your heavenly Father etc but He speaks of my heavenly Father and of my Father who is in the heavens, again taking the same place outwardly as the believing remnant. Yet while to all external appearances the Lord took such a place, there was in reality no distance between the Father and the Son. Thus of some 20 recorded examples, six in Matthew, of the Lord using the name of Father in prayer He never once uses the terms heavenly Father or Father in heaven on such occasions. That would imply distance.
Now we must realise that when the Lord speaks to the disciples of the Father in heaven, He does not speak to them as Christians, but as Jewish disciples. Stressing the fact of the Father being in heaven necessarily gives the idea of distance between them and the Father: He is in heaven and they are on earth. Christianity knows no such thought. Why? Because the distance has gone and we have been reconciled to God, through the death of His Son, (Rom. 5: 10). It follows that not only must such reconciliation be unknown in the OT, but it could not be known when the Lord Jesus was here on earth prior to His death. Before that death, while the Jew was outwardly “nigh”, and the Gentile “afar off”, (Eph. 2: 13, 17), nonetheless both needed reconciliation. In reality both were “enemies”, (Rom. 5: 10), and “alienated”, (Col. 1: 21). Even though the Jews were externally nigh, the Lord had to say of them that “This people honour me with their lips, but their heart is far away from me”, (Matt. 15: 8). That alienation was only removed in the death of Christ. He died that both Jew and Gentile might be brought to God, (1 Pet. 3: 18) and the distance removed. If I am in the good of that reconciliation, I cannot intelligently use expressions such as “Father in heaven” that bring back the thought of distance. It may be that those that do so have not realised the full extent of the work of Christ in reconciliation. For myself, I think that the root of this and many other matters lies in the fact that many take their Christianity from the Gospels, rather than from the Epistles.