Excerpt from Christ-Centered: The Evangelical Nature of Pentecostal Theology

Below is an excerpt chapter 5 of Dr. Robert Menzies’ newly published book, Christ-Centered: The Evangelical Nature of Pentecostal Theology (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2020).


My favorite noodle shop is housed in a small space below a tall building of apartments. The Muslim family that runs the shop hail from the city of Lanzhou and thus their shop is called, Lanzhou La Mian (or “Lanzhou ‘pulled’ noodles”). Not long ago I found myself alone in the shop with the patriarch of the family, Mr. Ma. So, I took this opportunity to speak to him about his relationship with God. I asked, “You believe in God, don’t you?” After his affirmative response, I replied, “I too believe in God.” Then I asked, “You often pray, don’t you?” Again, when he replied “yes,” I noted that I too often pray. Then I asked him, “What language do you use when you pray?” He answered, “Arabic.” I then asked, “What language do you speak at home with your family?” “Mandarin [Chinese],” he replied. “Do you ever pray in Mandarin?,” I asked. “Arabic,” was his only response. It was evident that for Mr. Ma and I suspect most, if not all, of the Muslims around the world, Arabic is the language of prayer, the language of heaven.

A few weeks later I found myself in one of Bangkok’s major airports. As I waited for my bag to emerge on the conveyor belt, I noticed two orthodox Jews. These two young men, roughly forty years of age, were standing nearby, also waiting for their bags. They were both dressed alike, in the traditional and distinctive black suit and white shirt of the orthodox Jews, complete with a hat partially covering a small box containing Hebrew Scriptures. Scriptures printed on leather strips were also wrapped around their arms. A prayer shawl with tassels hung low beneath their dark suitcoats. [1]

There was no mistaking who these men were and what they believed. I decided to seize this opportunity, so I walked over and began a conversation with the Jewish man nearest to me.

I began by asking the man, “Where are you from?” He looked at me and shrugged, as if to say “isn’t it obvious?,” and then replied: “We are from Israel.” I continued, “But where did your family live before moving to Israel?” He nodded and stated, with a look of understanding, “Russia.”

I then asked my newfound friend, “What language do you use when you pray?” His facial expressions again revealed his surprise. The answer to this question was even more obvious than the first. “Hebrew,” he declared. Clearly, this orthodox Jew felt that there was really only one language for prayer. His response reminded me of the intertestamental Jewish discussions concerning prayer and the language of heaven. There were essentially two perspectives. One group maintained that the language of heaven was an esoteric language, not known on earth. It was a special language, the language of God and his angels. Yet a second group insisted that God spoke Hebrew. This was the language of heaven and if one wanted his or her prayers to be heard, he or she must pray in Hebrew. This was the only language that God heard and understood. [2]

These two experiences reminded me of an important fact. Many people around the world believe that there is a special religious language, a special language for prayer. For Muslims, that language is Arabic. It is the language of their Scriptures and the language of prayer. For Jews, that special spiritual language is Hebrew. They both affirm that, if you want to pray to God and be heard, you must use this special language.

I am tremendously thankful that Jesus’ teaching on prayer is different. Jesus teaches his disciples to pray in their mother tongue, not in the special religious language of his Jewish contemporaries. This wonderful fact is filled with significance for us. It means that “in Christ” we can use our heart-language to speak with God and address him as “Father.” To this important topic we now turn.


The disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray (Luke 11:1). Jesus responds with the Lord’s prayer (Luke 11:2–4). Note how this amazing prayer begins with one, wonderful word, “Father.” The word, “Father,” is the English translation of the Greek, Πάτερ, found in Luke’s text. Yet in view of several key passages found elsewhere in the New Testament, it is almost certain that the original instruction on prayer that Jesus offered his disciples was uttered in Aramaic.

The first text that supports this judgment is found in Mark 14:35–36. Here, we find Jesus, on the night before his crucifixion, praying in Gethsemane. It is one of the most stressful, emotional moments in Jesus’ life. The text reads:

Going a little farther, he fell to the ground and prayed that if possible the hour might pass from him. “Abba, Father,” (Αββα ὁ πατήρ) he said, “everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.” (Mark 14:35–36)

This passage from Mark’s Gospel reveals that Jesus’ prayers were typically uttered in Aramaic and that he routinely used the term, Abba,   to address God the Father. This assessment is confirmed by two passages, close parallels, in the Pauline epistles (Rom 8:15–16 and Gal 4:6–7). Romans 8:15–16 reads:

The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father” (Αββα ὁ πατήρ). The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.

This same phrase, Αββα ὁ πατήρ, is echoed in Galatians 4:6. These two Pauline texts both highlight a beautiful truth: the Holy Spirit reveals to us that in Christ we have been “adopted” into God’s family. Thus, Paul declares, the Spirit enables us to cry out “Abba, Father” (Rom 8:15; Gal 4:6). This declaration raises an important question: What inspired Paul to describe our sense of “adoption,” our experience of “sonship,” in this way? What motivated Paul to speak of the Spirit moving us to cry, “Abba, Father?” In light of Mark 14:36 there can only be one answer: Jesus. It was Jesus’ prayers and his teaching on prayer (11:1–4; cf. Matt 6:9–13) that inspired Paul’s choice of words at this point.

All of these texts—the three occurrences of Abba in the New Testament—demonstrate two surprising and vitally important facts about Jesus’ prayer life and his instruction to his disciples regarding prayer. Both of these facts must have shocked and scandalized many of Jesus’ Jewish contemporaries. Yet, I would add, to us they come as an incredible gift.

First, following his own, personal practice (Mark 14:36), Jesus taught his disciples to pray in their mother tongue, Aramaic.[3] He did not follow Jewish custom and teach them to pray in the “religious” language of the Jewish people (Hebrew), the language of their Scriptures and their communal prayers.[4] Jesus broke from these conventions and encouraged his disciples to pray in their heart-language. In view of the fact that many rabbis considered Hebrew to be the language of heaven—and thus, by extension, the only language that God heard—this is, indeed, a striking turn of events.[5] It is a fact that, we shall argue, has dramatic ramifications for the Christian life.

Secondly, again, following his personal practice, Jesus taught his disciples to address God as “Father” (Abba) when they prayed. The significance of the term, Abba, has been hotly debated by scholars and theologians. However, this much appears to be clear. Abba was clearly a term of respect and could be used by a student addressing his teacher. Yet more commonly it was also used by a small child when calling out to his or her father. Kenneth Bailey, who served as a missionary in the Middle East for over forty years, describes discussing this term, Abba, with a group of Palestinian women. One exclaimed, “Abba is the first word we teach our children.”[6]

It must have shocked many of Jesus’ contemporaries when they heard him or his disciples address God as Abba. Although God is often described as being like a father in the Old Testament, nowhere is he there addressed directly as “Father.” If we expand our survey of the relevant Jewish literature beyond the Jewish Scriptures, we find that direct address in prayer as “Father” is exceedingly rare.[7] So, when Jesus taught his disciples to pray in Aramaic and to begin their prayers by addressing God as “Abba, Father,” he was defying tradition. Jesus rejected the widely-held belief that we must use a special “religious” language when communicating with or about God. Additionally, he called and enabled his disciples to enter into a filial relationship with God characterized by deep intimacy. This intimate, filial relationship, so beautifully illustrated in the parable of the Gracious Father (Luke 15:11–32), is powerfully expressed with one word: Abba.

This countercultural practice of Jesus, calling his disciples to pray   in their mother tongue and with the deeply intimate term, Abba, has significant implications for how we understand our own relationship with God, our relationship with other Christians, and our relationship with non-Christians. It calls us, first, to recognize God’s deep desire to enter into intimate relationship with us. This amazing relationship, as we have noted, is pictured throughout the New Testament, but perhaps nowhere more beautifully than in Jesus’ parable of the Gracious Father and Paul’s declaration in Romans 8:15–17.

The second implication flows naturally from the first. If, for those in Christ, God is our Father (Matt 6:9), then this means that we in the body of Christ are all brothers and sisters. We are family. This fact calls us to exercise patience and grace in our relationships with fellow believers in the church. As a friend from Yugoslavia of the former Soviet Union prior to its collapse wryly commented, “The Russians, they are our brothers. Do you know the difference between friends and brothers? You can choose your friends.” In the church, we are not allowed to pick and choose those with whom we will fellowship. No, this is God’s doing. He has brought us together and, although formerly we were “foreigners and aliens,” he has enabled us to become members of his household (Eph 2:19). So, we are called to treat one another as family, accepting, helping, and encouraging one another to grow and mature in Christ (Eph 4:11–16).

The third implication of Jesus’ unique perspective on prayer impacts our relationships with non-Christians. Jesus’ call for his disciples to pray in their mother tongue clarifies our task. It defines our mission. It calls us to recognize that everyone should have the opportunity to communicate with God in their own mother tongue. The intimacy of the Abba prayer, which is heightened and expressed through the use of the vernacular, the language of the heart, provides strong, experiential motivation, then, for Christians to engage in cross-cultural, incarnational mission. It compels us to take risks, to suffer hardship if necessary, and above all to bridge every cultural and linguistic barrier so that all might hear the gospel, come to know Christ, and thereby relate to God as “Father.”



Evangelicals the world over are known for their emphasis on the gospel, personal relationship with God in Christ, and involvement in missions. Jesus’ Abba prayer (Luke 11:1–4), I have argued, encapsulates each of these important distinctives. This beautiful prayer is a summary of Jesus’ “good news” and, by defying traditional Jewish conventions regarding the language and form of prayer, it calls us to enter into the deep communion with God that only Jesus makes possible. Furthermore, by challenging the notion of a special “religious language,” the Abba prayer provides a clear rationale and powerful motivation for engagement in cross-cultural missions. In short, Jesus’ Abba prayer in a concise and compelling way ties together the great themes of the Evangelical movement.

This fact is beautifully illustrated in the life and ministry of the great reformer, Martin Luther. Luther’s grasp of the gospel—at a time when the church had sadly lost sight of its message and power—transformed his  relationship with God. His new, intimate relationship with God, now understood to be accessible through faith in Christ, moved him to change the traditional patterns of prayer and worship in his day. Luther translated the Bible into German, the language of the people, and encouraged vernacular prayer and worship so that all people might have access to the gospel and, through it, relationship with God.

I have argued that this trajectory—which moves from reception of the gospel to intimate relationship with God, which in turn produces vernacular language prayer and culminates in a desire to take the gospel to the ends of the earth—is also found in the modern Pentecostal movement, yet in a fresh way. Like Luther and following Jesus, Pentecostals also challenge the limitations of “religious language.” Yet Pentecostals not only emphasize the use of our human mother tongues in prayer and worship, they also encourage the use of the divine mother tongue, an idiolect shared with the Spirit, in prayer and worship.  Glossolalic prayer for Pentecostals serves  as an ongoing reminder of their close, filial relationship to God in Christ. This intimate relationship with Christ also provides powerful motivation for bold, cross-cultural witness. Indeed, by interpreting Luke’s Pentecost narrative against the backdrop of Jesus’ Abba prayer, Pentecostals uniquely highlight the missiological significance of this prayer for Christians today.

End Notes

[1] The small, black leather boxes that contain texts from the Torah are worn on the head and thus called head tefillin (also known as phylacteries). The leather strips wrapped around the arms and hands are called hand tefillin. This form of clothing is based on a literal reading of Exod 13:9–10, 16; and Deut 6:8; 11:18. The prayer shawls with tassels, also known as tallit, are based on Num 15:38–40. Return to text

[2] Poirier, Tongues of Angels, see chapters 2 and 3 for texts supporting the Hebrew view and chapters 4 and 5 for texts voicing the esoteric view. Return to text

[3] Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, 95. Return to text

[4] As Bailey notes, “The Aramaic-speaking Jew in the first-century was accustomed to recite his prayers in Hebrew, not Aramaic” (Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, 95). Return to text

[5] Poirier, Tongues of Angels, 16: “b. Sabb. 12b:. . .and [did not] R. Yochanan say, ‘Everyone who petitions for his needs in Aramaic, the ministering angels will not attend to him, because the ministering angels do not understand Aramaic!’” I want to thank Russell Spittler for pointing me to this reference. See Spittler, “Review of John C. Poirier’s The Tongues of Angels,” 146–52. Return to text

[6] Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, 97. Return to text

[7] Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, 97. Return to text

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