When the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray, he began, “Our Father, who art in heaven.”  Many of Jesus’ sayings about the Father include the phrase “who is in heaven.” The linking of “Father” with “heaven” is such a consistent pattern in Jesus’ speech that Bible readers tend to gloss over the word  “heaven” as if it were simply part of the Father’s name. But if we want to understand what Jesus was trying to tell  his followers, we need to consider why he chose the wording that he did. Why did he stress that the Father was in heaven? What did he mean by “heaven,” anyway?

We all know what heaven means, don’t we? Heaven is the place where good people go when they die. That’s how it’s used in common speech. Did Jesus mean that? When he said the Father is in heaven, was he saying that He is in a distant world that we will never see until after we die, and then only if we are good?

Jesus did imply that people can go to a good place after death. But far more often, he spoke of something he called “the Kingdom of Heaven.” Some of his sayings hint enticingly at a Kingdom of Heaven that is here and now, accessible to anyone willing to look for it. Most striking is Luke 17: 20 – 21.

Being asked by the Pharisees when God’s Kingdom would come, he answered them, “God’s Kingdom doesn’t come with observation; neither will they say, ‘Look, here!’ or, ‘Look, there!’ for behold, God’s Kingdom is within you.” (or “in the midst of you.”)

There are other hints. Jesus compared the Kingdom of Heaven to a tiny mustard seed and to leaven hidden in bread dough—things which are present and active, but easily overlooked. He also used the analogy of a treasure hidden in a field—a secret discovery of such value that a man joyfully sold everything he owned and bought the field.

Jesus told Nicoldemus, “unless one is born anew, he cannot see the Kingdom of God.” (John 3:3) Readers tend to transpose these words into the future tense: “unless one is ‘born again’ (saved) he will not go to heaven after he dies.” But Jesus spoke in the present tense, describing Nicodemus’ blindness at that very moment. Jesus went on to say, “The wind blows where it wants to, and you hear its sound, but don’t know where it comes from and where it is going. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:8)

When all of Jesus’ sayings about the Kingdom of Heaven are pieced together, they depict a reality of overwhelming importance that is, for the moment, hidden by the distractions of the physical world. But when those distractions are removed (either by death or by the sudden end of the universe) the Kingdom will remain and be clearly seen. Although the Kingdom of Heaven is not presently obvious, it is not out of reach and, in fact, there is no better time to enter it than right now.

What, then, did Jesus mean when he stressed that the Father is “in heaven?” Maybe it was his way of saying, “Don’t be troubled by the things that happen to you. You have a source of security that is independent of this world; your own Father is not of this world, he can sustain you even if the universe crumbles.”

Two of the “your Father” sayings emphasize this message. Matthew 10: 28-31 says:

“Don’t be afraid of those who kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul. Rather, fear him who is able to destroy both soul and body in Gehenna. Aren’t two sparrows sold for a penny? Not one of them falls on the ground apart from your Father’s will, but the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Therefore don’t be afraid. You are of more value than many sparrows.”

Luke 12: 32-34 adds:

“Don’t be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom. Sell that which you have, and give gifts to the needy. Make for yourselves purses which don’t grow old, a treasure in the heavens that doesn’t fail, where no thief approaches, neither moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”

Notice that Jesus did not suggest giving alms in order to earn one’s way into the Kingdom. No! He said, “it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom. The gift is already assured. The Kingdom is already secure. Therefore, fear not! Sell and give! You no longer need to worry about possessions. Now that you are certain of the Kingdom, you can permit yourself the luxury of being generous.

In Matthew 7, verses 7 to 11, Jesus says:

“Ask, and it will be given you. Seek, and you will find. Knock, and it will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives. He who seeks finds. To him who knocks it will be opened. Or who is there among you, who, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone?  Or if he asks for a fish, who will give him a serpent? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!”

This saying seems to promise “good things” of a worldly nature, but a nearly identical quotation in the gospel of Luke ends with the words: “If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?” Luke 11:13.

What were the “good things” that Jesus valued so highly that he felt the need to reassure his followers that they need not fear to ask for them? Not, apparently, food or drink, but rather the spiritual gifts that, in Jesus view, were even more life-giving than physical nourishment.

To Jesus, the Kingdom of Heaven was real, it was immediate, and the opportunities it offered were incomparably more important than the animal-urge for physical survival.

One question remains about the Kingdom of Heaven. To whom is it the Father’s pleasure to give the Kingdom? Only to the original hearers of Jesus’ promise? To all believers? The answer is stated clearly in Matthew 7:21: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter into the Kingdom of Heaven; but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.”

We need to know more about the Father. We cannot do His will until we know what that will is. The sayings considered so far have shown that the Father loves us, knows our secret thoughts, and will not respond to insincerity. Furthermore, He inhabits a “Kingdom” that is hidden from physical eyes, yet is more real and enduring than the “reality” we take for granted. We cannot enter His Kingdom unless we do His will. but what is His will? What does He want from us?

The remaining “your Father” sayings shed a surprising light on this question.