Days that changed the world

April 12th ‘is the day that everything changes for humanity’. So said the head of the US-based Space Foundation, marking the 60th anniversary of the first flight into space by Yuri Gagarin in 1961. It was then the ‘Cold War’, and the atheist propaganda machine of the USSR announced that Gagarin had said, “I went up in space and looked and looked, but I didn’t see God.” Although he almost certainly never uttered these words, taking them at face value it must surely be naive in the extreme for someone on the very edge of space for only 180 minutes to make such a sweeping statement. More recent space probes now enable us to view the amazing formation and death of stars in galaxies millions of light years away in a steadily expanding universe. The heavens declare the glory of God, wrote King David, perhaps remembering his shepherding days, gazing awestruck at the starry host above him; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.(1) These words have stood the test of time and still strike earthbound mortals with awe, even in our sceptical world. Yes, God speaks!

Just seven years later the American crew of Apollo 8 orbited another heavenly body for the first time, returning with an astounding picture of ‘earth rise’ – God’s beautiful planet peeping over the lunar surface. From space, they read the first ten verses of Genesis chapter 1, setting the record straight: In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth … then God said…

All this was and is heading one way – humanity reaching up to the heavens, exploring the merest edges of the majesty of God’s creation. But the Bible urges us to grasp the mind-blowing enormity of what took place in the opposite direction – God the Creator reaching down to this sin-stained world in the person of His Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.(2) So, more wonderful than His eloquent creation, God has spoken – is speaking – finally and definitively in His Son.(3) By any measure, the 30 years or so of Christ’s life and death and His glorious resurrection were the days that everything really changed for humanity.

The personhood of God – different perspectives

Most of the world’s religions are polytheistic, worshiping many gods. Of the two other monotheistic faiths, Islam has by far the greater number of adherents. It is obvious that there are major differences between Islam’s perspective and God’s unique revelation of Himself through His Word, the Bible, and through the living Word, the Lord Jesus Christ. Briefly considering Islam first,(4) the uniqueness of the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ becomes clear in the following areas, among many others.

1. Islam is a strictly monotheistic religion. Inside the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, a beautiful gem of an Islamic shrine crowning the ancient Jewish Temple mount, there is an inscription declaring ‘God is only One God. Far be it removed from His transcendent majesty that He should have a son.’ Compiled during the early 7th century AD, the Islamic Qu’ran clearly shows strong Judaic and Christian influences. Jesus appears more frequently than anyone else in the entire book, in terms mirroring some of the Gospel accounts. Nine verses (surahs) refer to Him as ‘Messiah’; one says: ‘The Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary, was no more than a messenger of Allah…. So believe in Allah and His messengers, and do not say “Three”; desist – it is better for you! Allah is one God.’(5) It goes without saying that this is completely at odds with the Bible’s portrayal of the divine Son of God. “Before Abraham was, I AM”,(6) He said, applying to Himself the holy name of the eternal Jehovah. Prophetically, the psalmist writes: to the Son He says: Your throne, O God, is forever and ever.(7) Islam cannot comprehend the concept of the divine, only-begotten Son of God, and still less the miracle of God incarnate here on earth. ‘God is great’ is a sentiment with which all Christians would agree, but the Islamic understanding of God is not the same as ours – willing, in His Son, to become human expressly to die in weakness and apparent defeat.

2. A consequence of this fiercely monotheistic framework is that the god of Islam is depicted as a remote and austere figure. Described as ‘merciful and compassionate’,(8) he certainly demands high standards of such qualities from his adherents, but there is little evidence that these qualities translate into a caring relationship with individuals here on earth. By contrast, the Bible consistently depicts God as a God of love, manifesting that love to humanity in both Testaments – a fierce, deep, passionate, personal love.(9) He is merciful and compassionate, yes, but God is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, making us alive together with Christ.(10) Our God is a dynamic, relational Being whose mercy derives from His love and grace. Love is meaningless if there is nobody to love, and therein lies the crucial difference between the solitary Islamic god and the God of the Bible, who is love.(11) A previous article in this series examined the truth of the Trinity; by God’s grace, the mutually dynamic, inexhaustible and complete love which there subsists, floods out to sweep the earthbound believer into its realm of joy and peace.(12)

3. Finally, there is the issue of sin. The god of the Qu’ran presents the way to him in paradise as acting justly, doing good, avoiding committing blatant wrongs and, if necessary, fighting for him – a religion of works.(13) Jehovah’s way is to fix the problem of sin once and for all, so there is no condemnation(14) because He made His sinless Son to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.(15)

Turning to the Jewish concept of God, we are on more common ground. Judaism, like Christianity, reveres the Old Testament revelation of God as almighty and omniscient, holy and just yet also loving, forgiving and merciful. The key difference, of course, is not dissimilar to the monotheistic Islamic stance – “Hear, O Israel: the LORD our God, the LORD is one!”(16) What really scandalised the Jewish authorities was Jesus’ claim to be the I AM, one with the Father. “We are not stoning you for any good work,” they replied, “but for blasphemy, because you, a mere man, claim to be God.”(17) As Christians, we must respect the Jewish religion as Paul did,(18) but in all the many shades of Judaism there is little evidence of a concept of personal salvation in this world or the next. As Paul also said, there is a veil in Judaism, preventing its adherents from perceiving the glory of God in the person of Christ(19) who brings personal salvation here and now at immense cost to Himself.(20) Consequently, the Jewish idea of God continues to emphasise obedience to the Law (Torah) as the way to God.

Transcendent yet immanent

So, essentially, it all comes back to how we answer that ancient question posed by God incarnate Himself: “What do you think about the Christ? Whose Son is He?”(21) Christianity is the only world religion/faith to reveal the uniqueness of a God who was ‘here’ – God in Christ present on earth, in all things … made like his brothers(22) and yet is also ‘there’ – exalted to the right hand of His heavenly Father.(23) We love to trace the humanity of the Son as He moved among people 2000 years ago, but when we read that: by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible,(24) our frame of reference shifts radically to embrace the transcendent – a God who stands apart from and above the universe He created. We cannot even count the stars in each galaxy, never mind the number of galaxies. Our farthest space probes reveal only the mere edges of His ways,(25) but God knows about the stars – He calls them all by name.(26) Referring to Christ, we are told that: You, LORD, in the beginning laid the foundation of the earth, and the heavens are the work of Your hands.(27) These same ‘hands that flung stars into space’ were ‘to cruel nails surrendered’. Transcendent and immanent – ‘This is our God, the Servant King’.(28)

On the night of His betrayal, the Lord Jesus told the astonished disciples: “I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you”;(29) He was true to His promise. In the person of the Holy Spirit, the mighty triune God of the universe dwells within each believer. “I am in My Father, and you in Me and I in you.”(30) One meaning of ‘immanent’ is ‘indwelling’– what a privilege and a joy!

References: (1) Ps. 19:1 NIV (2) John 3:16 (3) Heb. 1:1-2 (4) Quotations from and about the Qur’an in this article are taken from websites such as ‘The Religion of Islam’ (IslamReligion.com) (5) Qu’ran Surah 4, verse 171 (6) John 8:58 (7) Ps. 45:6, interpreted as a description of the majesty of the Son of God in Heb.1:8 (8) Qu’ran Surah 1 verse 1 (9) See, for example, Ps. 103:13-14; Jer. 31:3; Rom. 5:8; 1 John 4: 9-11 (10) Eph. 2:4-5 (11) 1 John 4:8 (12) See Rom. 5:5; Eph. 3:17-19 (13) Qu’ran Surah 23 verses 102-103, Surah 9 verse 29 (14) Rom. 8:1-4 (15) 2 Cor. 5:21 (16) The Shema of Israel, Deut. 6:4. ‘One’ in this verse is the word ‘echad’, meaning ‘unity, not ‘singularity’ (17) John 10:33 NIV (18) Rom. 3:1-2 (19) 2 Cor. 3:14-18 (20) Gal. 2:20 (21) Mat. 22:42 (22) Heb. 2:17 NASB20 (23) Acts 2:33 (24) Col. 1:16 (25) Job 26:14 (26) Ps. 147:4 (27) Heb. 1:10 (28) Graham Kendrick, ‘The Servant King’ (29) John 14:18 (30) John 14:20

David Viles, Hayes, England

Bible quotations from NKJV unless stated otherwise