Which God?

Title: Which God?

Text: John 1:1-2, 14; 4:22-24; Philippians 2:8, Romans 11:25-26

Time: February 8th, 2013

 

A couple of weeks ago I talked about the different ways people think about God. Some people think of God as non-existent; these are atheists. Some people think there are many gods; these are polytheists. And some people think of God as One; these are monotheists. I also noted that with the coming of Christianity, the pagan citizens of the Roman Empire were ready to embrace monotheism because of the failure of their “gods” to make sense anymore. They would have embraced Judaism except that it was a religion so tied to a particular people and culture that it presented problems for anyone thinking about converting to it – you’d have to practically renounce your own cultural identity and become  Jew and embrace a Jewish cultural identity. And that was extremely difficult. But with Jesus Christ and Christianity one could embrace monotheism without all the Jewish cultural baggage. So that’s what many pagans did within the Roman Empire. The Greco-Roman world was primed and ready for Christianity’s monotheism because the better Greek and Roman philosophers had already come to an essentially monotheistic conclusion. For example, Plato and Aristotle, the two greatest of Greek philosophers, taught a kind of monotheism, although highly abstract. Nevertheless, their philosophical metaphysical systems laid the groundwork for the Greco-Roman world to embrace the monotheism of Christianity after the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. But someone might ask, “Why talk only about Christianity as a monotheistic religion? Why not talk about Judaism, and also Islam? These both teach the doctrine of one God also.” This question especially has importance today as we see the world of Islam striving to be the world leader in religious influence. While Judaism always has been and still is a religious influence, although not nearly as strong as Islam today. What are the differences between Christian, Jewish and Islamic thinking about God? Which is most correct? Or are they all basically the same in their understanding of God? Once we see the errors of atheism; once see realize that there must be a God, then we must decide whether God is many or one. But we’ve already analyzed polytheism, or the belief in many gods, and we’ve found that eventually, over time, the human mind begins to sift and sort the various and diverse ideas of the gods into more or less a hierarchical order, the greatest to the least. This is what the Greeks and the Romans eventually did. For example, for the Greeks, Zeus was looked upon as the lead god; for the Romans, Jupiter. Then, once a great god is acknowledged, it’s only a hop, skip and a jump to begin to pray and worship primarily this great god. Eventually, this one god is seen as the God. We can see why the Greeks and Romans were ready for Christianity when it came along. That doesn’t mean that all polytheism goes this way, but it shows a natural progression. But once we arrive at One God we must step back and ask, “Which One God?” Because there are three major contenders today – Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

 

First, what’s wrong with the God of Judaism? John 1:1-2, 14, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. . . . The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” This verse from the New Testament of the Bible highlights the great omission that Judaism suffers from – disbelieve in the appearance of God in Jesus Christ. From a theological standpoint there is nothing wrong with the Jews’ concept of God. It’s the very same concept of God shared by Christians. Everything the Old Testament of the Bible says about God, what the Jews believe about God, Christians also believe. The big difference is that Jews stop short of acknowledging that God visited planet earth in Jesus Christ, while Christians affirm it. The Jews were waiting for the Messiah, but they didn’t understand, nor did they believe, that the Messiah would be much more than a great leader like Moses or David. They figured the Messiah would be a hero, but merely a human figure. They couldn’t conceive that God Almighty would himself come in the human form to save people from their sins. So what the Jewish understanding of God lacks is the further revelation of God in Jesus Christ. It’s not that the Jews are wrong in anything about God; they are only incomplete. It’s as if God is who he revealed himself to be in the Old Testament, something the Jews accept. But then he advanced our understanding of himself and revealed more of himself in the New Testament in the person of Jesus Christ. In other words, we know more about God in the New Testament then we learned in the Old Testament. He’s the same God, but he’s different also because we see him differently in the likeness of Jesus Christ. For example, we understand now that God is more complex than simply a simple unity of one. According to the Old Testament, something the Jews take as God’s Word, there are passages such as found in Genesis 1:26, “Let us make man in our own image, after our likeness” – revealing a complexity to God that traditional Judaism fails to acknowledge. Also, the very name of God used often in the Old Testament, Elohim, is literally in the plural, although it is translated as singular. This again, is a clue to the complexity of God that only Christianity acknowledges, all the while affirming that God is One. So in answering the question, “What’s wrong with the Jewish understanding of God?” The answer is that it’s incomplete. Only by taking into account the additional revelation generally found in the New Testament, and specifically the revelation in Jesus Christ, can Jews understand all of God.

 

Second, what’s wrong with the God of Islam? John 4:22-24, “You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshippers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshippers must worship in spirit and in truth.” Here Jesus is talking to a Samaritan woman about a proper understanding of God. Now the Samaritans were very close to the orthodox Jews in their concept of God. I don’t know if you realize it, but Samaritans were the historical result of the conquest of the land of Israel by Assyria and Babylonia. When the Jews were exiled into these foreign lands during a very difficult time in their history, when they were defeated by foreign armies, some of the Jews were permitted to stay in the promised land, although under enemy occupation. Over time, these Jews intermarried and mixed with the foreigners brought in to resettle the land, and the product of this mixture was the Samaritans. They still had a belief in One God, but they departed from the orthodox Jews in excluding all but the first five books of the Old Testament, and also in some other ways. Once the orthodox Jews were permitted to enter again into the land of Israel, they never did get along with the Samaritans, who were then considered half-breed semi-pagans. Their religion was considered by Jews corrupted by paganism, which in part is true, although they were in many ways nearly identical to orthodox Jews in most things. Now Jesus speaks to the Samaritan woman and makes it very clear to her that the orthodox Jews have it right as far as their understanding of God, and that the Samaritans are wrong. Again, we must remember that the Samaritans were not all wrong about God; just wherever they disagreed with the Jews they were wrong. And that’s basically how we must see the Muslims. They aren’t all wrong in their understanding of God, or as they call him, Allah. Islam borrows mostly from Judaism and also borrows from Christianity some too. Unfortunately that’s not all it does, because it adds some of its own to its concept of God – and that’s where the error creeps in. If the Jewish concept of God is somewhat distant because of its lack of recognition of the Incarnation in Jesus Christ, then Islam’s concept of God is even more distant. The personality of Islam’s God, Allah, is very remote. He is expressed almost exclusively as an all-powerful Will. Submission to Allah is supreme. Although Muslim’s talk about “Allah the merciful,” there’s very little revelation of Allah to back it up. Islam lacks an understanding of the love of God that both Judaism, but especially Christianity expresses. So it short, what’s wrong with the God of Islam? Simply put, he lacks compassion, and expresses more strength than love. This is a great distortion in the true understanding of God.

 

Third, what’s right with the Christian understanding of God? Philippians 2:6, 8, “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped. . . . And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross.” Christianity reveals the human face of God. Both Judaism, and especially Islam, lack this human face of God in their understanding of God. In the Old Testament there are hints and clues that God is love, but nothing like we see in the New Testament where God is willing to leave heaven and get his hands dirty in order to save humanity from its dilemma of sin. Islam has nothing of God dirtying himself in order to save mankind. In Islam, God stands aloof; but in Christianity, God identifies with all of us in his humanity on earth. What separates Christianity’s understanding of God from both Judaism and Islam is the Incarnation. Without the Incarnation, God is still “out there,” aloof from mankind, distant, a holy other. Yes, there is this aspect of God, and it’s a true description of God. But it’s not the only aspect of God. He’s also near to us, in fact, willing to dwell with us on earth and die for our sins on the cross for us. So Christianity teaches a God who is both transcendent (distant and “out there”) and also immanent (up close and personal). Now the reason why Christianity’s understanding of God is superior to any other God concept is that it balances perfectly the different aspects of God. The reason why the other concepts of God, such as Judaism and Islam, are inferior is because they don’t balance the totally of God in expressing him. And the place where they all fail is in respect to the Incarnation. If only Judaism would embrace their Messiah in Jesus Christ, then they’d be on board; they would have a full and complete picture of God. If Islam would embrace the Incarnation instead of stubbornly denying it, they’d be complete. They already have most of an accurate understanding of God in place, having borrowed mostly from the Jews and some from the Christians in forming their own understanding of God. If they would only recognize the Incarnation in Jesus Christ, then they’d have it right. Of course, I don’t hold out much hope in Islam reforming itself along the lines of Christianity. They are likely too far down the road for that. Although I do hold out great hope that Judaism will eventually embrace the Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ, because the New Testament seems to teach that mainstream orthodox Jews will at some future time come around to recognizing Jesus as Messiah. This is what the Apostle Paul teaches, “I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers, so that you may not be conceited: Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel will be saved, . . .” Romans 11:25-26.

 

Somebody might say after hearing all this, “What difference does it make whether one has the correct view of God or not? Jews, Christians and Muslims have similar understandings of God. Isn’t that good enough?” Well, if we are talking about what’s good for life on earth, what’s good for organizing society, what’s good for politics, then, yes, I suppose we could leave it at that. But the stakes are higher than simply everyone getting along on earth. We’re talking about eternity. We’re talking about eternal destinies. It does matter what one believes about God. Now that doesn’t mean that we all have to be Christian theologians with crystal clear concepts of the divine. Of course we won’t be able to form a perfect concept of God with our limited human abilities here on earth. We’re bound to get some things wrong in our thinking about God. But that’s different than saying it isn’t important to get the basic understanding of God right. It is important. That’s why Jesus spoke to the Samaritan woman the way he did. If it’s not important, if one can hold to any concept of God, then Jesus probably would have let her go without trying to explain to her the truth. It’s very important to get a proper understanding of God right because our eternal salvation depends on it. God either appeared on earth in Jesus Christ or he didn’t. Either Christians are correct in insisting that Jesus died for the sins of the world and offers salvation by faith, or their not. On this point, either Christians are right in respect to Jesus, or Jews and Muslims are right. If John 3:16 is correct, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life,” then Jews and Muslims are wrong. Their concept of God needs to include the Incarnation or they risk losing out on salvation in eternity. Why? Because to reject Jesus as Savior is to reject the only means of salvation offered by God. It’s not only being incorrect in thinking about God – in other words, it’s not only an issue of theology; it’s mostly an issue of salvation. As Christians we need to patiently and lovingly explain, over and over again, the understanding of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. It won’t be easy because it’s definitely the most divisive point of disagreement between these three religions. But it’s so important that we can’t simply ignore it in order to be polite. One simply cannot hold a proper understanding of God unless one admits that God came in human flesh in Jesus Christ to die for the sins of the world. Let’s pray that all people come to this understanding of God.

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