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Monday, July 30, 2012

Divinity of Jesus: The Difference between Christian and Muslim Views


            The ocean is a big place.  We had a chance, as a family, to go to the beach earlier this summer.  For a second time in my life I was humbled by having to ask a fellow swimmer to help me out of a riptide.  It was pretty close to shore but it caught me.  Most people don’t like to need help and I felt especially small considering this wasn’t a place with w0rld-class surfing waves. 

            The ocean can do that – make one feel small.  In ancient times, the ocean was a place of industry; fishermen could make good money.  The ocean was the pathway to exploration.  What’s out there?  The ocean was the highway to commerce and the means by which people encountered one another.  Dominant armadas could enable empires to rule the world.

            The ocean was a also a source of mystery and fear.  What creatures lurk beneath the black depths?  How deep does it go?  There were no satellites, no light houses, no GPS, and no coast guard.  The ocean was seen as a place of danger and death. 

            When we were at the ocean and I was raucously riding the waves but also trying to stay close enough to the shore so I could handle any riptides, we looked out, far out to sea.  We watched fishing boats.  We tried to sight dolphins.  We think we saw one.  But the most amazing thing was a man, guy.  He was way, way out there, swimming for all his might.  He’s wasn’t swimming in.  He was swimming parallel to the shore.  I thought, who is this guy?  If he got a cramp or if he became complete exhausted, he was dead because he was so far out, no one could get to him.  In fact, it’s unlikely anyone would see him unless they were looking hard.  He must be a serious triathlete who does the iron-man competition. 

            As amazing as his stamina and strength are in swimming, even he is small next to the expanse of the ocean.  It is beautiful, breathtaking, and awe-inspiring.  And the ocean declares that Jesus is God. 

            Why is this declaration so important?  And why is it so important to do more than just say, “Jesus is God?”

            I write a blog and occasionally I write on the way Islam and Christianity co-exist in the world.  Sometimes this coexistence is a violent collision.  Sometimes it is a warm friendship.  In my writings I make it clear that I see the two faiths as fundamentally contradictory.  They cannot both be true because Isalm sees Jesus as a prophet.  To be sure, Muslims believe in most of the miracles reported in the New Testament.  Muslims revere Jesus.  Muslims love Jesus.

            However, Christians worship Jesus.  This is anathema to Isalm.  To say something is anathema is to say it is so detestably untrue it calls for damnation.  Muslims feel it is damnable to call Jesus ‘God’ because this is a direct assault on monotheism.  God alone is God, and in their view, to say that Jesus is God is to have a second God.

            Christians are as fiercely monotheistic as Muslims or Jews for that matter.  We believe there is one God.  And this one God exists in three forms and three manifestations and the three have a relationship with each other within the Godhead.  Father God, Son Jesus, Holy Spirit – one God; God is three in one.  It is utterly against Islam to say Jesus is God.  It is utterly essential to Christianity that we acknowledge Jesus as fully human and fully God. 

            The two religions can co-exist.  We can and should befriend Muslims.  We can and must love Muslims.  That love includes respecting their commitment to their faith.  Respect means if we want to invite a Muslim to consider Jesus, it has to be that, an invitation.  If he’s not interested, we still love him and respect him and honor him as a friend even when we’re completely convinced that he’s wrong about Jesus. 

            Along these lines Muslim readers have commented on my blog writings.  There is no way Jesus could be God, they say.  One reader linked me to a Muslim talk-show.  It’s a setting that skews younger, is hip, cool and the host had a guest who was a Christian pastor but then converted to Islam.  He was giving 10 reasons why Jesus could not be God.

            We can stop right here and just say, “Who cares.”  We think Jesus is God and he doesn’t so we think he is wrong.  There.  Now can we all just get on with our lives?  We can, sure, but if we take that kind of a shrug-of-the shoulder approach, then our faith is not a reasoned faith.  It is not a thought-out faith.  It is one we inherit, one we accept because it was given from people we trust, and it is one based on our emotions.  Our emotions tell us we are sinners who need Jesus; people we trust – authors of scripture, pastors, youth pastors, Sunday school teachers – tell us Jesus forgives us and we need Him.  And so by trust and by emotion we are Christ-followers. 

            That is all good and nothing I am saying negates that or detracts from it.  What I offer this morning adds to that emotional confession born out of a faith community and relationships with Christians and relationship with the Holy Spirit.  We are to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind.  To Love God with the mind, I think includes a reasoned defense or explanation of why we believe what we believe to be true.  And this is where the ocean and Jesus’s demonstration in Mark’s gospel comes into the conversation.

            The ex-Muslim turned youth pastor gives 10 reasons why Jesus never says he is God.  We might say, “Oh yes he does say it.  He says, ‘the father and I are one,’ in John 10:30.”  Be careful with that response.  Remember, this Muslim was a Christian.  He knows many of the references on which we base our belief that Jesus is God.  He looks at that and says, ‘wait a minute.   That means Jesus and God are united, one in purpose, not one in being.  In those terms, God and I are also one because I am united with God.’  He makes this point pretty clearly.  His articulation is not good but his arguments have logic.  Many of the standard verses we use to show that Jesus is God are well-known to Muslims and they have a ready refutation. 

            The host of the talk show says, “If Jesus was really God, why doesn’t he say, ‘I am God?’”  A few years, this very question troubled me, and I went searching for that verse, and it’s not in there.  It’s not in John’s gospel, the primary source for Jesus’ “I am” statements.  It is not in the other gospels.  Why doesn’t Jesus say, “I am God”?

            We need to be able to answer that.  The world is shrinking.  It’s not just in college towns and big cities.  Across America people are setting up homes, people who do not have a Protestant or Catholic worldview.  We can stay isolated, stick to spending time with people who think like us and talk like us.  But if we do that, we dare not call ourselves Christ-followers.  He calls us beyond our familiar circles and once we step out of our comfort zones and into conversations and friendships with people who see the world total differently, we have to be prepared to say why we think what we think.  “Jesus is God.” 

            Why do we think so?  Did he say that?  Not in those words. 

            The statement would have been absurd to the ears of the first century Jew Palestine.  So instead of saying, “I am God,” Jesus said things only God can say.  Jesus did things only God will do.  And Jesus received things only God can receive.  In this way, there was no mistake.  Everyone around him understood him to be claiming to be God; otherwise, they would not have killed him. 

            I am thankful for David Garland’s commentary on Mark’s Gospel.  Before reading it, I always thought the place to look for declarations of Jesus’ divinity was the Gospel of John.

            In Mark 6, Jesus is rejected by his old neighbors in his home town of Nazareth.  Herod, the Jewish King, a puppet of Rome, imprisons and executes John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin and the prophet whose preaching and practice of baptism paved the way for Jesus’ ministry.  On a remote hillside, Jesus feeds 5000 people by miraculously multiplying one person’s lunch. 

            Then he does something very human.  He sends the disciples off on their boat out into the Sea of Galilee.  And in isolation, he prays.  Human beings pray to God.  Jesus was exceptional as a human being and he was 100% human.  His wisdom was supreme; his prayer life incredible; and his love perfect.

            While he was praying, the disciples were out to sea and straining against the wind.  This is different than what we read in Mark 4.  There the windstorm was so fierce, it kicked up the waves to the point that the boat was swamped and in real danger of sinking.  In that situation, Jesus commanded the storm to be silent and it obeyed.  That account illustrates the same truth this one does, but the circumstances are different.  There Jesus was in the boat and the disciples were about to die.  Here in Mark 6, the disciples are not going to die, but they’re also not making progress.  They’re straining at the oars against the power of the mighty sea and the uncontrollable wind.  As he’s praying, he sees them.  This must have been a vision.  Still, this is a human thing.  Peter, Paul and many others had visions while praying.  The clincher is what Jesus does next.

            Alone on the land, praying, in a vision, Jesus sees the disciples as they row at night, and he walks on the sea.  Who does that?  Who just walks across the water?  Jews in the first century would have had a ready answer that they would have accepted without question.  Thinking back to their scripture, they would remember the prophet Habakkuk.  “Was your wrath against the rivers, O Lord?  Or your anger against the rivers or your rage against the sea?  … You trampled the sea with your horses” (Habakkuk 3:8a-b, 15a).

            They would remember the book of Job where God says to Job, “Who shut for the doors of the sea? … Have you entered the springs of the sea or walked in the recesses of the deep” (Job 38:8a, 16).  Who?  God.  God walks on the sea.  People were terrified of the unseen depths, but God walks in the recesses of the deep at His pleasure.  At His pleasure, he shuts the sea as you or I would shut a door.

            The disciples and later, Mark’s first readers would remember Psalm 107.  “They saw the deeds of the Lord, his wondrous works in the deep.  For he commanded and raised the stormy wind, which lifted up the waves of the sea.  … He made the storm be still and the waves of the sea were hushed” (107:24-24, 29).  Ancient Israelites spoke in scripture; “it was written;” “as the prophets said;” “Moses wrote.”  This is how they conveyed ideas and understood the world.  So, in these terms, Jesus made very clear statements and some of his statements came through actions.

            Note the end of Mark 6, verse 48.  Jesus is walking on the water and it says he intended to pass them by.  He didn’t.  They were terrified and he got into the boat to calm them.  They had not been terrified by the wind.  They strained against but did not fear it.  But a man walking on the water sent them into heart-thumping panic and Jesus came to them.  But his intention was to pass by.  Why?

            Moses, the greatest of prophets wanted to see God.  God set Moses in the cleft of a rock, and passed by and Moses saw God’s backside glory.  Elijah, the great prophet in the book of 1st Kings, the one who never died but was just taken up to Heaven in a Chariot of Fire, got so depressed in his fear he was suicidal.  Again, God set him in a cave, and in silence passed by him.  Who are the Old Testament two prophets who join Jesus on the mount of transfiguration in Mark 9?  Moses and Elijah. 

            The disciples out on the sea were not in trouble in the sense of needing Jesus to save them from imminent death.  He didn’t need to walk on water to save them.  He walked on the water so they could see that God was passing by again.  The final verse of this section says their hearts were hardened.  Shortly after this, James, John, and Peter, would come with Jesus to a mountain top where Moses and Elijah visited from the Heavenly beyond to watch God pass by. 

            When Moses asks God’s name in Exodus 3, God says, “I am.”  That is God’s self-identification.  In Greek, that phrase is rendered “ego emi.”  Ego emi” from Greek to English can be rendered, “It is I,” or “It is me,” or “I am.”  Knowing this, it is pretty clear in John’s Gospel that Jesus is saying “I am” to indicate that he is the same God who visited Moses and named himself “I am.”  I never paid attention to “I am” statements from Jesus in the other Gospels.  But, here, on the sea, a place of dread and terror, the disciples see what sailors fear most, a phantasm, a ghostly creature come to take then to death.

            To their fear, Jesus says, “Take heart, Ego emi, it is I, I am.”  In Mark’s symbolic world, no clearer declaration can be made.  Mark’s gospel shouts that Jesus is God in human flesh, to be followed and worshiped.  To hear Jesus say, “I am God,” you have to turn to Revelation 1:17.  At the end of the verse he says, “I am the alpha and the omega, the first and the last, the living one.”  That is a direct reference to God in apocalyptic language, and Jesus makes that reference to himself.

            Some skeptics won’t be satisfied by such evidence and that’s just the nature of things.  Muslim friends will believe Jesus walked on the water and say it didn’t mean he was God.  Jewish friends will deny that it really happened.  Modernists and naturalists will say it could not have happened and thus it is just a legend.  When Mark wrote it, he did not believe he was writing a legend.  He believed he was describing how Jesus demonstrated for his disciple who he was and is. 

            This is who we worship and follow.  This is the Lord, the master of our lives.  We are in service to Him for eternity.  This is our creator, redeemer, protector, defender, and savior, the one who forgives us of all sin, and makes us new each day.  All that we are depends on who He is.  And thus we submit ourselves to Him completely.


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