Sunday, 22 November 2015

Knowing God Personally; The Christian Message to the Muslim World, Part II

Continuing from Part I

David: A Man after God’s Own Heart
When David became king of Israel, God said: ‘I have found in David the son of Jesse a man after my own heart, who will do all my will’ (Acts 13:22). He was not talking of David’s religiousness, outward adornment, or reverence for holy days, he was speaking of his inner being – his upright spirit, love for God, refined character, personal sincerity and deep faith. David expressed his devotion to God in his many psalms. He was a man of great weaknesses and failings, yet in spite of these he longed for God and turned his heart constantly towards him. He prayed: ‘As a deer longs for flowing streams, so longs my soul for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God’ (Psalm 42:1-2).

In another of his praise songs David declared: ‘I love you, O Lord, my strength. The Lord is my rock, and my fortress, and my deliverer, my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold. I call upon the Lord, who is worthy to be praised, and I am saved from my enemies’ (Psalm 18:1-3). He was not reciting from a prayer-book, he was expressing the depth of his belief in God.
He knew that true faith came from the core of a soul turned towards God. He did not project an outward appearance of uprightness to the world around him while remaining unregenerate within himself. He longed to be pure in all his thoughts, words and deeds. He cried out: ‘Search me, O God, and try my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!’ (Psalm 139:23-24)

When he did fail he examined his heart and prayed: ‘Behold, you desire truth in the inward being, therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart’ (Psalm 51:6), going on to plead: ‘Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.
Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your holy spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit’ (Psalm 51:10-12). True humility before God also comes out as his prayer continues: ‘The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise’ (Psalm 51:17). David was chosen to lead Israel because his heart was true to God. He understood true faith. He knew it was a willingness to pursue inner renewal, a response to God’s perfect faithfulness. When God commanded Samuel to anoint David king of Israel, he said to him: ‘the Lord sees not as man sees; man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart’ (1 Samuel 16:7). David knew and understood this.

Throughout his life David strived to unite the nation of Israel in the worship of the one true God. When he was able to rest after subduing all his enemies, David said to the prophet Nathan ‘See now, I dwell in a house of cedar, but the ark of God dwells in a tent.’ Nathan replied ‘Go, do all that is in your heart; for the Lord is with you’ (2 Samuel 7:2-3). David proposed to build a great temple for God, to bring the people of Israel constantly together to worship God where his glory dwelt. But God told Nathan to speak to David and say: ‘When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. I will be his father, and he shall be my son’ (2 Samuel 7:12-14). God told him that his son would build the temple he proposed and concluded by promising: ‘Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure for ever before me; your throne shall be established for ever’ (2 Samuel 7:16).

As God had promised Abraham a son, so now he promised one to David as well. Solomon was the son promised and after his father’s death he set about building the first Jewish Temple. In the generations to follow the people of Israel sensed that, while Solomon was the immediate son promised, the prophecy also spoke of a greater son to follow. God had assured David that the promised son would rule over his kingdom for ever. When Solomon died the people soon realised the prophecy would only be completely fulfilled when the greater Son of David arrived and they looked forward to his day. Significantly God had said to David that the greater son to come would be his own Son. God had added unambiguously “I will be his Father, and he shall be my Son.”

The prophecy is found in the Jewish Scriptures (the Old Testament), not some later Christian work. Like Muslims Jews have never believed that God has a Son, but right here, in one of their own books (2 Samuel) revered as the Word of God by all Jews throughout the generations since it was written, God’s promise that his own Son would come into the world to establish his eternal kingdom was plainly foretold. The promise is confirmed in another passage: ‘He shall cry to me, “You are my father, my God and the Rock of my salvation.” And I will make him the first-born, the highest of the kings of earth. My steadfast love I will keep for him for ever, and my covenant will stand firm for him. I will establish his line for ever and his throne as the days of the heavens’ (Psalm 89:26-29). This quote is also from another of the core books of Jewish Scripture, written a thousand years before Christianity began.

Both promises of a son to come, made to Abraham and David, came suddenly without any precedents or anticipation. As you read through the Jewish Scriptures you cannot but be amazed at how striking both prophecies are as there is nothing in the build-up before them to give the slightest hint of what was coming. God simply chose an appropriate moment to speak of things to come as his purposes for mankind and plans for its redemption unfolded.

When Solomon had completed the Temple and the priests came out of it after placing the ark of the covenant in the holiest place: ‘A cloud filled the house of the Lord, so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud; for the glory of the Lord filled the house of the Lord’ (1 Kings 8:10-11). Once again God visibly manifested his presence to the nation as he had done when Moses completed the tabernacle in the wilderness. Islam has never had anything comparable to this.

During those forty years when the Israelites had wandered around the desert regions because of their unbelief, the nation was stripped of its fertile surroundings and given nothing but manna to eat and water to drink. The people chafed under the pressure as God tested them severely to see whether they would be true to him or not. He projected his righteousness strongly at them and, whenever they disobeyed him, he reacted immediately, sending plagues and fires through their camps.

Now, however, God gave the nation forty years of unparalleled peace and prosperity. This time he let go of it, happy that the covenant he had made with Moses finally appeared to be working. His hopes for the nation had peaked and he allowed it to rejoice in its splendour. Even Israel’s enemies were at peace with her. It was a golden age, a symbol of heavenly peace and glory to come. ‘The king made silver as common in Jerusalem as stone, and he made cedar as plentiful as the sycamore of the Shephelah’ (1 Kings 10:27).

Unfortunately the honeymoon did not last long. Solomon failed to focus his faith in God and turned to material extravagance. He married foreign wives who introduced pagan customs to the nation. Solomon ‘clung to these in love’ (1 Kings 11:2). When he grew old his foreign wives ‘turned away his heart after other gods; and his heart was not wholly true to the Lord his God, as was the heart of David his father’ (1 Kings 11:4). After Solomon’s death the nation soon divided in two as the people of Judah followed Rehoboam, Solomon’s son, as their king while the northern tribes of Israel followed Jeroboam who placed two golden calves at Dan and Bethel to distract the people away from worshipping the Lord at Jerusalem. (1 Kings 12:28-29).

God said to Jeroboam: ‘You have done evil above all that were before you and have gone and made for yourself other gods, and molten images, provoking me to anger, and have cast me behind your back’ (1 Kings 14:8-9). A succession of evil kings led the tribes of Israel into every form of idolatry and wickedness. Judah’s history was more chequered – some of its kings like Ahaz were as bad as the kings of Israel while others like Jehoshaphat kept the people true to God, but it was only a matter of time before Judah too fell away and angered God intensely.

His hopes for the nation had been shattered. His wrath became white-hot against it. He could have summarily called Israel and all the other nations of the world, who had long abandoned the worship of God, to a final day of judgment. But he didn’t. The God of all faithfulness, whose love for his people had also reached a peak, a white-hot intensity of its own, weighed up the possibility of yet bringing his people into a deep personal relationship with him. He sought an alternative to judgment. What was he to do – judge or redeem? His burning love made him choose the latter, but not after considering very deeply what price he himself would have to pay to accomplish his purpose.

Jeremiah and Ezekiel: The Promise of a New Covenant
No less than 17 of the 39 books of the Jewish Scripture come from the time of the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel. They lived about three centuries after Solomon and David. The writings of this time are, with the exception of the Book of Jonah, all prophetic works. They are full of prophecies about the future and focus on God’s expanding revelation and the climax towards which it was heading. Some quotes from these books, however, show just how deep God’s anger against his people was for consistently rejecting him at the time.
‘My anger is hot against the shepherds, and I will punish the leaders,’ God declared (Zechariah 10:3). Again he cried out: ‘Woe to them, for they have strayed from me! Destruction to them, for they have rebelled against me. I would redeem them, but they speak lies against me’ (Hosea 7:13). Yet again he exclaimed: ‘I know how many are your transgressions, and how great are your sins,’ adding ‘I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies’ (Amos 5:12,21).

Yet it was not just hot anger that moved God to speak so forcibly, it was also a deep grief that the nation he had chosen and loved from the depth of his being had so coldly chosen to brush him aside as we see in this passage: ‘Like grapes in the wilderness, I found Israel. Like the first fruit on the fig tree, in its first season, I saw your fathers. But they came to Baal-peor, and consecrated themselves to Baal, and became detestable like the thing they loved’ (Hosea 9:10). Therefore God proclaimed: ‘Because of the wickedness of their deeds I will drive them out of my house. I will love them no more, all their princes are rebels’ (Hosea 9:15).

But between these quotes, which are only a selection of a number of condemnatory exclamations, come an abundance of similar texts where God declares his burning love for his people and his desire for their redemption. ‘I will strengthen the house of Judah, and I will save the house of Joseph. I will bring them back because I have compassion on them, and they shall be as though I had not rejected them, for I am the Lord their God and I will answer them’ (Zechariah 10:6). Again he declared: ‘My heart recoils within me, my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my fierce anger, I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God, and not man, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come to destroy’ (Hosea 11:8-9). Many others show how God’s emotions at the depth of his heart had intensified within him. He loved his people and his compassion for them had reached a defining stage, but his wrath and anger against their coldness of heart had also reached their zenith.

It was not just a simple matter of tossing a coin and choosing which would prevail. Throughout the Bible one finds that God’s attitude to sin is absolute. He does not regard the sins that men commit as nothing more than acts of wrongdoing, oversights, mistakes or errors of judgment that can easily be forgiven. They confront and offend his holiness. From the time Adam and Eve first rebelled against him God has treated human sinfulness as a rebellious condition. It shows that humans do not truly love him, that their hearts are cold towards him, and that they do not care to enter into a close relationship with him where his Spirit is free to search their innermost beings and cleanse their souls. Pious observance of fixed prayer-times, regulated fasting, formal recognition of outward rituals and ceremonies do not and cannot compensate for a heart that is cold towards him. Nor are these observances proof of an obedience that comes from the heart.

The 17 books written at this crucial juncture of Israel’s history show just how God feels about human sinfulness. Here is God’s basic assessment of the human condition from one of them: ‘The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately corrupt; who can understand it? I the Lord search the mind and try the heart, to give to every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his doings’ (Jeremiah 17:9-10)Two other quotes from books written at this time define God’s perfect holiness and show why sin angers him and is not easily forgiven: ‘the Holy God shows himself holy in righteousness’ (Isaiah 5:16) and ‘your eyes are too pure to behold evil, and you cannot look on wrongdoing’ (Habakkuk 1:13).

The Bible shows that although God has many attributes (such as those mentioned in the 99 names of God in Islam), two are paramount. By nature he is righteous, it is the basic facet of his being. Sinful acts and attitudes confront that righteousness and, as numerous records in the early days of God’s relationship with man show, awful judgments can follow. Satan and his fallen angels were cast into pits of gloom never to be forgiven or delivered (2 Peter 2:4), every first-born son in Egypt was slain in a single night because of the nation’s resistance to God (Exodus 12:29), while numerous Israelites perished in the wilderness whenever they opposed Moses and defied the Lord (Numbers 11:33, 16:35).

The second great virtue in God’s character is his love which is so deeply ingrained at the depth of his being that the Bible simply declares ‘God is love’ (1 John 4:8). But whereas his righteousness is at the forefront of his being and was quickly thrust in the face of those who defied him in those earlier times, his love appears to have taken time to develop, grow and rise from the deepest recesses of his being. It wasn’t a natural affection for his people, it was a deepening desire for their best welfare in spite of their hostility towards him. It was a strengthening love for a world that was consistently proving to be decidedly unlovable. By the time of Jeremiah and Ezekiel it had reached its zenith and, although God could justifiably have called all mankind to judgment because of its sinfulness, he chose rather to express the fullness of his love towards it, making one decisive and definitive statement which was to shape his attitude to the human race for the rest of its days: ‘I have loved you with an everlasting love, therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you’ (Jeremiah 31:3). After intense reflection and inner resolve he decided to press on and almost immediately declared how he planned to change the God-man relationship completely and bring the two together in a wonderful new way, uniting them in perfect fellowship, goodwill, personal knowledge and mutual companionship.

God declared: ‘Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant which they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each man teach his neighbour and each his brother, saying ‘Know the Lord’, for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more’ (Jeremiah 31:31-34 – emphasis added).

This promise was unprecedented – God giving his people a divine motivation and power from within to keep his holy laws, opening the door for all his people to know him personally, and guaranteeing to forgive all their sins right here and now. And this wasn’t all. Through the prophet Ezekiel God went on: ‘A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and will give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances’ (Ezekiel 36:26-27), adding: ‘I will save them from all the backslidings in which they have sinned, and will cleanse them; and they shall be my people, and I will be their God’ (Ezekiel 37:23). Unlike the first covenant, where God had commanded his people consistently “You shall” and “You shall not”, placing the obligation on them to obey him unreservedly, he now consistently declared “I will, I will, I will”, thereby placing on himself the obligation to ensure that his people would respond faithfully to him. True Faith had reached its peak. God’s faithfulness was going as far as it possibly could – guaranteeing the faith of those who were willing to walk through his open door into a deep personal relationship with him.

The angels of heaven must have wondered, however, how he proposed to reconcile this open invitation with his perfect righteousness which would instinctively keep sinners at bay. How could absolute righteousness finally give way to perfect grace and mercy? How could God possibly introduce a new golden age in which his people, sinners to the core, could nevertheless be so forgiven that they could live in a perfectly holy relationship with him right now and know him from the depth of their beings? In short, how could God’s Holy Spirit live comfortably in unholy human hearts? God gave them the answer: ‘Behold I will bring my servant the Branch … I will remove the guilt of this land in a single day’ (Zechariah 3:8-9 – emphasis added).

For centuries he had longed for his people to respond to him, to draw close to him and to obey his commandments from the depths of their hearts. But as their resistance increased, so his love grew until it went far beyond just wanting a more intimate communion with them than a master-to-servant relationship. God knew that the only way he could ever bridge the gap between his all-holy character and unholy human sinfulness would be for him to pay the price we should pay to satisfy his wrath and vindicate his righteousness. He promised to send a deliverer, whom he called the Branch, who would bring redemption for the human race in less than a day. But it was obvious this deliverer would have to come from his own being if he was to fully pay the supreme price required to secure the forgiveness of God’s people and to do it in only a few hours.

God fell back on his promise to David that he would give him a son who would rule over his kingdom for ever. Remember that God said ‘I will be his Father and he shall be my Son’ (2 Samuel 7:14). Also remember what was pointed out earlier – this does not come from an original Christian text, it is found in the Jewish Scriptures written many centuries before the Christian era. The important thing here is that God was willing to give his own Son to achieve his supreme goal – the complete acquittal of all who would believe in him for the forgiveness of their sins and, with it, the free gift of eternal life. What we see here is God’s ultimate purpose – to engage man in the closest possible relationship and what he was prepared to do to achieve this. In short, God was willing to send his own Son for the salvation of the world so that we might no longer be unworthy servants but become the redeemed children of God and heirs to his everlasting kingdom. God was willing to enter the darkest recesses of the human world so that we might behold his glorious light.

After going through what must have been an extremely painful experience when deciding to tear his heart apart to redeem us, God allowed himself a brief moment to savour and relish its eventual outcome. With great joy and tangible relief he declared: ‘And they shall be my people, and I will be their God. I will give them one heart and one way, that they may fear me for ever, for their own good and the good of their children after them. I will make with them an everlasting covenant, that I will not turn away from doing good to them; and I will put the fear of me in their hearts, that they may not turn from me. I will rejoice in doing them good, and I will plant them in this land in faithfulness, with all my heart and all my soul’ (Jeremiah 33:38-41 – emphasis added). He went on to affirm the complete forgiveness of all their sins so that they might know him personally and live with great joy to his praise and glory: ‘I will cleanse them from all the guilt of their sin against me, and I will forgive all the guilt of their sin and rebellion against me’ (Jeremiah 33:8).
We move on to the glorious new covenant age God had promised.

Continuing on Part III



Thursday, 12 November 2015

Knowing God Personally; The Christian Message to the Muslim World, Part I

By John Gilchrist

Introduction: True Faith or Formal Monotheism?

Christians and Muslims have many things in common. They believe in one God, worship in holy sanctuaries (churches and mosques), have similar annual religious calendars (Christmas, Good Friday and Easter for Christians, Eid ul-Fitr, Eid ul-Adha, Laylatu’l Mir’aj and Laylatu’l Qadr for Muslims), and set aside one day a week for a major community worship service (Sunday and Friday respectively). Outwardly both religions can look very similar. Their worship services can be very formal and repetitive. The Muslim salat, in particular, follows the same pattern day after day, year after year, decade after decade without variation. The adhan, the call to prayer, never changes. The hajj pilgrimage perpetuates an exact sequence of religious practices which have been observed unaltered for fourteen centuries. Many Christian churches are no different. Catholic and Orthodox priests chant out the same prescribed prayers week after week just as Muslim imams do.

Some years ago a Muslim woman said to me “Whenever I go to the cemetery I look at all the Muslim graves on the one side and the Christian graves on the other, and I say to myself, ‘What’s the difference?’” Well, if you’re looking for the living among the dead, you’re not likely to find much. Judaism is not very different. All three monotheisms have institutionalised their religious systems, going round in circles as they return annually to the same routines, ceremonies and holy days, all based on outward conformity and formal worship. A Muslim shopkeeper in Jerusalem once said “There are only three big businesses in Jerusalem. One collects money on Fridays, the second on Saturdays, and the third on Sundays.” (The quote is from the Discovery video Jerusalem: City of Heaven).

Formal monotheism. Is this really what God wants? A slavish commitment to repetitive ceremonies for as long as we live? A verse from the Bible shows how monotonous and ultimately meaningless this can be. I will accentuate the key words to emphasise the point: ‘And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins’ (Hebrews 10:11). The irony is obvious when you compare the repetitions with their inability to achieve anything: every – daily – repeatedly – the same – yet never availing!

Islam places a tremendous emphasis on formal, repetitive worship. There is no room for spontaneous prayer or praise while performing each raka’ah. A true Muslim will not only wear a beard but will trim it to a prescribed length to follow the sunnah of Muhammad. A skullcap must be worn while praying in a mosque. Shoes must be removed. The same motions of washing beforehand (wudhu) must always be followed in obedience to the Qur’anic injunction: ‘Wash your faces, and your hands up to the elbows, and wipe your heads and your feet up to the ankles’ (Surah 5:6). Each ruku (bowing down) and sajdah (prostration) must be performed in unison with the other worshippers present, in the same way, at the same times, every day. During the qa’dah (the sitting position) the same taslim must be recited as each worshipper passes the greeting to his left and right. No variation of this ceremony is allowed at any time.

Islam claims to simply restate the original religion of submission to God that all the previous prophets followed and imposed. The Qur’an says that it came only as a tasdiq, a ‘confirmation’ of what was before it (Surah 10:37) and not as a new form of religion. If so, the true religion of God must always have focused on formal, repetitive submission, the homage of a servant to a divine Master who can neither be personally known nor loved for who he really is.

The Bible paints a very different picture. It does not see God’s religion as always the same, simply a conformity to exact patterns of worship that have never changed and never will. As it covers the history of God’s relationship with his people, it shows a progression and expansion as God draws ever nearer to his own, and it finishes with a glorious climax when he takes the initiative to redeem his people and invites them to a living, personal relationship with him. Not as servants bound to do his bidding, mind you, but as children born of his Holy Spirit, forgiven of their sins, and booked for eternal glory. Join me on a journey as we discover the Christian message to the Muslim world.

Cain and Abel: The Only Acceptable Sacrifice
We have many religions on earth. They include Judaism founded by Moses, Christianity by Jesus, Islam by Muhammad, Buddhism by Gautama Buddha, and many others like Hinduism without any known originators. Heaven, however, sees only three. The first is Antitheism. It is the worship of anything other than God, the creature rather than the Creator. Whether it is the veneration of pagan idols, ancestral spirits or other beings, it makes no difference. It’s all the same to the angels of heaven – the worship of anything and everything but the true God. The Bible describes antitheists perfectly: ‘for although they knew God they did not honour him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man or birds or animals or reptiles’ (Romans 1:21-23). The definition concludes: ‘they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed for ever! Amen’ (Romans 1:25).

The only other two religions on earth, as heaven sees them, are the oldest that have ever existed. They were founded on the same day by two brothers and, outwardly, they can look very similar. The brothers were Cain and Abel, the sons of Adam and Eve. On the day that the first religious ceremonies were ever performed on earth, Cain and Abel each brought an offering to God. Cain had become a farmer, a tiller of the ground. So he brought a portion of the fruits of his labour and offered it to God. Abel, however, had become a shepherd, so he brought a different present, a sacrifice of his young lambs and their fat portions. There seemed to be no real difference between the two offerings, but the Bible says ‘the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard’ (Genesis 4:4-5). What followed is well-known: Cain was angry and rose up against his brother, killing him in a field.

The Qur’an confirms the story: ‘And relate to them the story of the two sons of Adam with truth, when they offered a sacrifice which was accepted from one of them but not accepted from the other. He said: I will certainly kill you’ (Surah 5:27). Neither book states why Cain’s sacrifice was rejected, but the Bible goes on to show why Abel found favour with God. It says ‘By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he received approval as righteous, God bearing witness by accepting his gifts; he died, but through his faith he is still speaking’ (Hebrews 11:4). The key words are the first two: by faith Abel won God’s favour.

Abel’s sacrifice tells you what that faith was. He presented the shed blood of his lambs. Abel loved the Lord, but he was painfully aware that he could, at times, be as cold to him as his brother Cain was. He knew he was implicated in his parents’ sin in the Garden of Eden and that he could offer nothing to God from the fruit of his own labours to redeem himself. He also knew, however, that God had warned the serpent in the garden: ‘I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel’ (Genesis 3:15). This clear statement that God would one day raise a Saviour from Eve’s descendants who would suffer severely to achieve human salvation, but would fatally injure the serpent at the same time and deliver her offspring from its power, was Abel’s hope. His sacrifice sent its own message: “I know my sinfulness and that I can by no religious means commend myself to you, but I am offering back to you something that is your own, slain with its shed blood, because I sense my redemption will come at considerable cost to you.” Abel was the first man to offer true faith to God. This is the second religion heaven sees, and it is the only true one. It is the Faith of Abel.

Cain, however, had no true love for God. He did not believe he was implicated in his parents’ sin. He also told God that he did not believe he was his brother’s keeper either (Genesis 4:9). He killed Abel in cold blood. Yet Cain was prepared to acknowledge God as his Creator and so he also brought a present, but his was only a gesture, a token offering from the abundance of his labours. He would have been willing to worship God occasionally, but regarded his life as his own and believed he was free to exploit the earth for his benefit alone.
He would come round every now and again to salute God, perhaps once a week or for a harvest ceremony once a year, but no more. Cain was the founder of formal monotheism, worshipping God without truly loving him. This is the Religion of Cain, the third religion heaven sees, and it regards it as entirely false. It is the largest religion on earth today and embraces every expression of formal monotheism, whether Judaic, Christian or Islamic. God himself summed it up in these words: ‘This people draw near with their mouth and honour me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment of men learned by rote’ (Isaiah 29:13).

Cain’s anger showed the difference between him and his brother. He might well have retorted: “I would have been willing to come round many times to salute you, once a week if need be. Why did you reject my first offering so completely?” God’s answer to him would have been: “Abel made only a single offering, but it was an all-embracing commitment of his whole life to me, trusting me for his salvation. I will one day, by a single offering of my own, perfect for all time those who are sanctified” (Hebrews 10:14). The Faith of Abel is the only true religion the world has known or ever will know. It is a vibrant, living faith as opposed to dry, outward conformity. It offers God nothing of its own, it trusts God entirely for its salvation. It does not look on the outward appearance and say what am I? A Muslim, Jew or Christian identified by my dress, beard, head-covering, robes, weekly worship attendance, etc, signifying my allegiance to a particular religion? No, it asks the acid question who am I? How deeply within my own soul do I love God and how willing am I to pursue his perfect honesty, purity, love and righteousness? After my religious dress is removed, my beard shaved off, my priest’s robes put away, what is left? What do I have within myself to commend me to God? There is only one true religion on earth – it is human faith responding to God’s faithfulness, a theme we will explore more fully as we press on.

Abraham: The Father of the Faithful
All Muslims honour Ibrahim alayhis-salam. He is regarded as one of the greatest messengers of God. Christians likewise look to him as a prototype of a true believer and the father of the faithful. He followed the true faith, the Faith of Abel, and true Christians are said to be ‘those who share the faith of Abraham for he is the father of us all’ (Romans 4:16). The Qur’an likewise speaks of the millata abikum Ibrahim, the “faith of our father Abraham” (Surah 22:78). But why is Abraham marked out for his faith and not for his religious submission to God?

The Qur’an sees the millah of Abraham as no more than unquestioning submission to the will of Allah. It says that he was one of the musliman, a “submitter” (Surah 3:67) and states that ‘when his Lord said to him Submit!, he said I submit to the Lord of the worlds’ (Surah 2:131). The command for “submit” in the text is Aslim! and his response is aslamtu, “I have submitted.” All three words come from the same root letters as islam and muslim. This is not true faith, however. It is no more than an uncomprehending resignation to God’s will. It does not tax the prophet’s faith in God’s faithfulness.

The Bible shows that God called Abraham to a much deeper relationship with him than mere submission to his will. It begins with a simple promise which God made to him when he complained that he had no heir to his estate: ‘Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them … so shall your descendants be’ (Genesis 15:5). What follows is equally simply stated: ‘And he believed the Lord; and he reckoned it to him as righteousness’ (Genesis 15:6). It seems too easy – Abraham just took the promise at face value and, because he believed God, he was declared righteous in his sight.
He did not have to pray a number of times a day, fast for many months, go on pilgrimages or donate large sums to the poor to obtain God’s approval. He just believed the promise and was immediately placed on an even footing with God.

His faith was to be tested again and again, however. Many years passed without anything happening. His wife Sarah, who had never been able to bear children and was growing older every year, told him to procreate offspring through her maid Hagar (Genesis 16:2). When Ishmael was born, Abraham was convinced that he must be the heir who was promised but, just thirteen years later when Abraham was 99 years old and his wife Sarah already 90 and still barren, God said to him: ‘I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her; I will bless her, and she shall be a mother of nations; kings of peoples shall come from her’ (Genesis 17:16). At first Abraham laughed at the prospect, but then it dawned on him that Ishmael was obviously not the child of the promise. So he cried out to God ‘O that Ishmael might live in your sight!’ but God answered: ‘No, but Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him’ (Genesis 17:18-19).

When Isaac was finally born, Sarah demanded that Abraham send Hagar and Ishmael away. The patriarch was sore-pressed, but God confirmed her wish, advising Abraham at the same time that he would nevertheless make a great nation out of him. Still, Abraham was severely tested as he realised Ishmael had been rejected by God. At fourteen years of age he was sent away into the wilderness.

Whenever Abraham looked on the new youngster he at least knew for certain that he was the child who had been promised. He looked forward to the day when Isaac would rise up as the fulfilment of God’s promise that he would become the father of many nations. But, when Isaac had reached a similar age as Ishmael’s when he was sent away, God finally spoke to the patriarch again. ‘Abraham!’ he suddenly called out (Genesis 22:1). Abraham responded willingly, expecting to hear God define how his son was now to become a blessing to the generations to come. Instead God said to him: ‘Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering upon one of the mountains of which I shall tell you’ (Genesis 22:2).
(The Qur’an records the incident but does not name or otherwise identify the son who was to be sacrificedSurah 37:102. It does, however, confirm that the line of nubuwwah – prophethood, and kitab – scripture, would follow through Isaac’s line – Surah 29:27.)

This was a far greater test for the patriarch. When Ishmael started turning into a young man, God told Abraham to reject him, but now, as Isaac reached the same budding moment in his life, God told Abraham to slaughter him! It was the supreme test of a man’s love for God – to offer his son to him. If he would not spare his son, surely he would give him all he had (cf. Romans 8:32). It was the best any man could offer to God.

But Abraham was facing a far sterner test. God had promised him he would have descendants like the stars of the sky through his son Isaac. How could this promise possibly be fulfilled if he was to offer him up as a burnt offering? Abraham must have pictured the scene – his son cremated to ashes after being sacrificed and, as the wind came down and blew the ashes away, he would have imagined himself despairing “there goes the promise of God to the wind.”

By this time, however, Abraham had gone far beyond just submitting to God’s will without asking further questions. When God, on another occasion not long before this, had threatened to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah for their wickedness, the patriarch objected: ‘Will you indeed destroy the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; will you then destroy the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?’ (Genesis 18:23-25)

How could a prophet argue with God’s decrees? This was not humble submission. But God honoured it, eventually promising not to destroy the cities if just ten righteous people could be found in them. (They weren’t, and only Lot and his two daughters were eventually saved from their destruction.)

There’s more to this than meets the eye. Abraham was calling on God to be true to himself. Believing that God is faithful, he placed all his faith in God’s faithfulness. That is why he reacted when he heard something that seemed to deny that faithfulness. ‘Every word of God proves true’ the scripture declares (Proverbs 30:5), and Abraham faced the command to sacrifice his son with the same dilemma.
How could God’s promise be fulfilled if he was to sacrifice Isaac? He could have said to himself “I don’t know but it doesn’t matter. God has commanded me to destroy him, so I will. I’ll just unquestioningly submit to his will. The unfulfilled promise will be his problem, not mine.”

But Abraham didn’t. He knew that his faith, which had earned him a declaration that he was righteous in God’s sight, was merely a reflection of God’s faithfulness. The sun generates light, blazing light. The moon can do no more than feebly reflect it but, as it faces the sun head on, it reflects that light to the full. Take away the moon and the sun’s sparkling light will be totally unaffected, but take away the sun and the moon will not shine at all. So God generates faithfulness as the sun generates light, but Abraham’s faith was like the moon’s light – no more than a reflection of God’s glorious faithfulness.

Yet Abraham held to that faith. Like Abel, he continued to follow the only true religion in the world: true faith, and like Abel he was commended for it: ‘By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was ready to offer up his only son of whom it was said “Through Isaac shall your descendants be named.” He considered that God was able to raise men even from the dead; hence, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.’ (Hebrews 11:17-19)

God honoured Abraham and restored his son to him. He had passed the supreme test. He had been willing to give the greatest blessing in his life back to God, his only true son, and in this he perfected his faith, believing God would yet fulfil his promise to him by raising his son back to life. For this Abraham received a very special title. He was called the friend of God. Jehoshaphat, a righteous king of Judah many centuries later, prayed to God: ‘Did you not, O our God, drive out the inhabitants of this land before your people Israel, and give it for ever to the descendants of Abraham your friend?’ (2 Chronicles 20:7) God himself once spoke of the nation of Israel as ‘the offspring of Abraham, my friend’ (Isaiah 41:8). James, an early disciple of Jesus and his blood-brother, also wrote of Abraham’s faith and added ‘he was called the friend of God’ (James 2:23).

The Qur’an confirms the title: ‘For God did take Abraham for a friend’ (Surah 4:125). The Arabic word here is khalilan, “a friend”, and Abraham has consequently always been known in Islam as khalilullah, the Friend of God. The Qur’an gives no explanation for the title, however.

In the Biblical record, however, we can see more and more what true faith really is.
God wants to have a living relationship with his people. He desires this far more than strict obedience to religious routines, observance of ceremonies and a repetitive adherence to prescribed prayers, prayer-times, etc. This will become ever more apparent as we proceed. At present, however, let us mark the symbol of Abraham’s recognition – true faith. God did not forcefully project his righteousness at him, expecting him to respond in perfect righteousness and obedience to his every demand. No matter how religious, pious or devoted any man may be, he cannot match God’s perfect righteousness. His sin will pull him down again and again.

God elected to project his faithfulness to Abraham and was delighted when the prophet responded consistently to it by faith, eventually perfecting it when being commanded to offer his son as a sacrifice. We will have more to say about it when we come to the climax we spoke about earlier. We will see how Abraham’s sacrificial faith was only a shadow of God’s sacrificial love yet to be revealed. For the moment, however, let us press on to the next great patriarch in Israel’s history, Moses, and see how God’s plans and purposes for his people continued to expand and grow.

Moses: The Man who Knew God Face-to-Face
More than four hundred years passed before God moved again to communicate directly with his people. After forty years of prosperity as a prince in Egypt, and a further forty years in the Sinai wilderness as a fugitive from justice, Moses suddenly found himself face-to-face with the God of Israel. God called him to deliver the nation from Pharaoh’s rule and, after a series of plagues which finally broke the back of Egyptian resistance, Moses led the people into the same wilderness on their way to the promised land, Canaan.

The final scene in this famous story needs to be retold here. Pharaoh only relented when an angel from God slew the first-born of every family in Egypt in just one night. Only the Israelites who had obeyed God’s word to sacrifice a passover lamb were exempted. They had been instructed to ‘touch the lintel and the two doorposts’ of their homes ‘with the blood which is in the basin’ (Exodus 12:22) and were further told to ‘observe this rite as an ordinance for you and for your sons for ever’ (Exodus 12:24). The angel of death would then pass over the home. A clear trend was developing as God’s relationship with his people progressed. Abel had offered the blood of his lambs as an atoning sacrifice, shadowing a far greater sacrifice to come. Abraham was willing to offer his son Isaac as a similar token of a greater offering to follow. Now the people of Israel were commanded to place the shed blood of their sacrificial lambs across their doorposts. True faith was beginning to define itself. The hope of all God’s true people, trusting solely in his grace and not their religiousness, was increasingly being focused on the shed blood of the true Lamb of God to follow. True believers discerned this, and placed their faith in God’s redemptive grace yet to be fully revealed.

Not long after their exodus from Egypt, God instructed Moses: ‘Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow, and let them wash their garments, and be ready by the third day; for on the third day the Lord will come down upon Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people’ (Exodus 19:10-11). On the third day the people trembled as God’s presence was manifested on the mountain. There God spoke directly to the nation, giving it the ten commandments that were to become the backbone of Jewish moral law thereafter. It was a unique occasion, one for which God had been preparing for centuries.

Moses was not visited by an angel as a mediator from heaven. God himself drew near to the prophet and the nation, expressing his desire to relate closely to the people of Israel thereafter. To reveal his presence among them, God told Moses to build an ark with a mercy seat above it and said: ‘There I will meet with you, and from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim that are upon the ark of the testimony, I will speak with you of all that I will give you in commandment for the people of Israel’ (Exodus 25:22).

The nation had visible proof that God himself was present among them. Whenever Moses entered the holy tent he had constructed as a tabernacle where the ark was placed, a ‘pillar of cloud would descend and stand at the door of the tent, and the Lord would speak with Moses’ (Exodus 33:9). When the people saw the cloud, they would rise up and worship.
The story concludes: ‘Thus the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face as a man speaks to his friend’ (Exodus 33:11). Moses was overwhelmed that God was willing to relate so directly to him and the people as to manifest his presence among them. He said to God: ‘Is it not in your going with us that we are distinct, I and your people, from all other people that are upon the face of the earth?’ (Exodus 33:16)

Very boldly Moses prayed ‘I pray you, show me your glory.’ God responded: ‘I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you my name, ‘the Lord’; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy’ (Exodus 33:18-19).

With respect, even at this stage God’s revealed presence and favour go far beyond anything comparable in Islam. Far greater intimacy, fellowship, grace and favour between God and his own were to follow, but even at this stage the relationship between God and his people had far exceeded the highest of Muslim expectations. God himself was visibly present among them. The cloud, which was a special manifestation of his presence, hovered over the mercy seat by day and shone at night. When it moved, the nation knew it had to follow and stay close to God as he dwelt among his people.

When Moses came down from Mount Sinai with two tablets containing the ten commandments, inscribed by God himself, ‘Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God’ (Exodus 34:29). Whenever he came out from speaking to the Lord, ‘the people of Israel saw the face of Moses, that the skin of Moses’ face shone’ (Exodus 34:35). The Qur’an confirms the unique, direct relationship between God and Moses: ‘And to Moses Allah spoke directly’ (Surah 4:164). It says nothing further, but confirms the special relationship between them. The story of Moses in the Bible concludes with these words: ‘And there has not arisen a prophet since in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face’ (Deuteronomy 34:10).

Abraham was called the friend of God. Moses spoke to God face to face as a man speaks to his friend. We see here the growing supreme purpose of God steadily being revealed. God’s presence was so closely manifested that Moses’ face shone when he spoke to him. God was going far beyond religious observances. His ultimate desire that his people should relate personally to him and know him directly was being increasingly revealed as time went on.

Unfortunately God’s immediate presence brought constant tensions and conflict between him and the people of Israel. Time and again they distrusted and rebelled against him. Right from the start, when God called the nation to hear his word and receive his ten commandments, the people said to Moses ‘You speak to us and we will hear, but let not God speak to us, lest we die’ (Exodus 20:19). When Moses went up the mountain to converse with God over forty days, the people rose up and tried to shake off his presence and power over them. They made a golden calf and worshiped it, promptly proceeding to break every commandment they could to tell him precisely what they thought of him.

God’s anger grew deep within him. Time and again he threatened to destroy them. ‘I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people; now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them’, God declared (Exodus 32:9-10).
A benevolent but righteous God among an unholy and malevolent people – conflict was inevitable. The nation did not want to draw near to God. For their unbelief he kept them wandering with minimal food and water for forty years in the wilderness. Despite all his favours towards them, the people just would not draw near to him. Living so closely among them, their sinfulness and hard-heartedness inevitably ground sharply against his righteousness and holiness.
‘And now, Israel,’ Moses declared, ‘what does the Lord your God require of you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments and statutes of the Lord which I command you this day for your good?’
(Deuteronomy 10:12-13). In this Moses revealed God’s ultimate aim – a deep mutual relationship based on reciprocated love and obedience towards him. Even though he regulated various forms of religious ceremonies and observances to constantly draw out at least a formal worship towards him, they turned against him. From the depths of their hearts they did not want to draw near to him in purity, honesty, faithfulness and love. Quite simply, they would have preferred to turn back to their former slavery in Egypt than live by faith in his faithfulness and allow his Spirit to examine the depths of their hearts and souls.

At one point, after tiring of the manna God sent them from above every day to eat, some of the ‘rabble that was among them had a strong craving; and the people of Israel also wept again, and said: “O that we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic, but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at”’ (Numbers 11:4-6). Later generations honoured the manna with religious devotion as bread from heaven itself, but the Israelites at the time simply complained to Moses ‘we loathe this worthless food’ (Numbers 21:5).

Once they had entered the land of Canaan, the visible cloud above the mercy-seat faded away. The manna sent to feed them daily ceased. God could see that they could not match or reflect his righteousness and could only be exposed to wrath and judgment if he continued to manifest his presence so obviously to them. So he let go of the nation, still living among his people, but withdrawing his visible presence to avoid further face-to-face conflict. Patiently God watched and waited as the following generations came and went. Some centuries later God again began to make his presence felt among the people of Israel. Another man arose with a burning love for God, a strong man who could unite the nation, and God moved to relate to him as it appeared his hopes for the nation might yet begin to materialise.

Continuing on Part II