Friday, 11 December 2015

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

Continuing from Part II

Jesus Christ: Son of David, Son of Abraham
Christianity has the most pessimistic view of what human beings are by nature – bound in sin and slaves to it to such an extent that they cannot acquit themselves – but it also has the most optimistic view of what men and women can become – sons and daughters of God, born of his Holy Spirit, transformed into his personal image, and generating his glory for all eternity. Yet, when God’s supreme deliverer came to achieve this, he was missed by his own people and his mission is still overlooked and rejected by countless millions down to the present day.

The 17 prophetic works written at the time when God promised the new covenant climaxed the revelations of God to the Jewish people. The promise of a coming Messiah, a deliverer, was to be their final and supreme hope as God’s purposes for the human race would be concluded. After these books no new ones followed. All went quiet for about four hundred years. By the time Jesus was born the nation of Israel had feverish Messianic expectations. A similar period of silence, also just over four hundred years, had followed God’s promises to Abraham before the first covenant had been introduced through Moses. The time for the new covenant to be enacted had surely come. Israel waited anxiously and – correctly, as it turned out – expected the Messiah to appear at that time. Yet, when he came, only a relatively few recognised him while the nation as a whole overlooked him and, worse still, opposed and rejected him.

God had promised David a son who would rule over his kingdom for ever. When Jesus one day asked the Jews: ‘What do you think of the Christ? Whose son is he?’ they replied ‘the Son of David’ (Matthew 22:42). Solomon, David’s immediate son, had been Israel’s most prosperous and powerful king. In his day Israel ruled its surrounding world. Peace prevailed. The nation now longed for a new king who would introduce a similar reign and one which would never pass away. They expected their Messiah-king to make the Jewish nation the most powerful and affluent on earth. But they had missed one crucial point – and they had no excuses for their oversight. God had promised another patriarch a son long before the time of David and Solomon who was also to prefigure a greater Son to come, and they should have paid most of their attention to him, for he was to appear first.

You don’t have to look far into the Christian Scriptures (the New Testament) to find out who it was. Just read the first verse of its first book, the Gospel of Matthew. The opening text of the whole of the Christian Scriptures reads: ‘The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham’ (Matthew 1:1).
It was the Son of Abraham whom they should have first anticipated. We looked at some length at the son God promised to Abraham, namely Isaac, the son of his wife Sarah. When Abraham took him up to Mount Moriah to sacrifice him, Isaac said to him ‘Behold, the fire and the wood; but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?’ (Genesis 22:7) Abraham replied ‘God will provide himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son’ (Genesis 22:8). The original Hebrew is more emphatic – it effectively says ‘God will give from himself the lamb for a burnt offering.’ Abraham was, in reality, saying to Isaac “my son, you are the offering, but take heart. You are only a type of another yet to come. God will one day giveof himself the true lamb as an offering.”

John the Baptist (Yahya in Islam), looking at Jesus as he walked one day, proclaimed “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!’ (John 1:29), identifying the lamb of whom Abraham spoke. On another day Jesus himself said to the Jews who were arguing with him: ‘Your father Abraham rejoiced that he was to see my day; he saw it and was glad’ (John 8:56). He clearly had the moment in mind when Abraham had said ‘God will provide himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.’

Abraham foresaw the whole Christian Gospel. Isaac was born of the Spirit in unique circumstances, so Abraham knew God’s Son would be born uniquely too (Jesus was born of a virgin woman). Abraham planned to sacrifice Isaac, knowing the Son of God would be sacrificed as well. Abraham believed Isaac would rise from the dead. In so doing he foresaw the resurrection of the Son of God. No wonder we find it stated that the scripture ‘preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham’ (Galatians 3:8).

Whenever the following question is asked “what is the greatest gift God has ever given you to show his love for you?”, some might say “my health”, others “my children” or yet others “he answered my prayers and helped me when I was in terrible trouble.” All these are good answers, they show the kindness of God in providing for us and caring for us. But none of them cost him anything, they are not evidences of any depth of love in his heart for us. But if he should give his Son to die for us so that we could receive eternal life as a gift, be forgiven of all our sins, and be able to know God personally, it would be the greatest gift he could give because it would come at the greatest possible cost to him. And this is exactly what happened when Jesus came into the world! As one of his most famous disciples, the apostle Paul, put it: ‘He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, will he not also give us all things with him?’ (Romans 8:32)

This was the supreme price God was prepared to pay to gain the highest treasure he sought – a cleansed, forgiven people in whom his own Holy Spirit could always comfortably dwell. When Jesus died on the cross God’s wrath against the sins of all those who would fully believe in him was exhausted. The sin-holiness problem, which had caused such trauma during Moses’ time and in the generations to come, had been solved. The door was open for all those wonderful things God had promised through Jeremiah and Ezekiel to be fulfilled.

True Christian believers don’t just believe in God, they would have no special message for their fellow monotheist Muslims if they did.
But they do have a very special message for all who dwell on earth including Muslims. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, fulfilled the hopes of all true believers when he laid down his life for their redemption. Abel sacrificed the blood of his lambs to symbolise his hope in God’s salvation to come. Abraham was prepared to sacrifice his son and share his blood as a shadow and token of God’s great love in being willing to do the same one day in return for him. Moses ordered every Israelite family to spread the shed blood of a lamb on their doorposts and lintels, symbolising the crucifixion of the Son of God to come for their eternal deliverance.

Our message to Muslims and all the world in consequence is this – in Jesus we have received the salvation of God, we have been given the full forgiveness of our sins, we have become the children of God, we have received the Spirit of God, we are heirs of the kingdom of God and, most importantly, we have come to know God as his saved, redeemed people.

When God spoke to Moses his face shone, reflecting the immediate presence of God before him and among his people. The glory of God was manifested in the first Jewish temple when Solomon dedicated it to God, again proving that God was present among his people in a very special way. But when Jesus, God's Son, stood among his people, the manifestation reached a new dimension. He took three of his disciples up a mountain apart and was suddenly transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his garments became white as light (Matthew 17:2). This time the glory far exceeded its manifestations at the time of Moses and Solomon, but it went still further. Jesus himself was transfigured. The glory shone through him. He did not reflect it or behold it, he generated it from within himself in awesome splendour. When the Son of God took human form, God and man became united forever. We will soon see how, in eternity, the followers of Jesus too will generate the same glory from within themselves.

In all other monotheistic religions God’s image is much the same. He revealed his laws, summoned obedience from his servants, and folded his arms, watching and waiting to see what would follow. This is the Religion of Cain and it breeds formal monotheism. But, in fulfilling the hopes of Abel, Abraham and Moses whom he was willing to call his friends, God stepped off his throne, unfolded his arms, spread them out over all the earth, humbled himself and visited our world, paying the supreme price to show his eternal, perfect love for us and give us the assurance of a glorious place in his heavenly kingdom.

The Jews missed the Son of Abraham. They could not see that the Messiah had to come as his son first, in complete humility, to be sacrificed for our redemption. Paul puts it in these words: ‘Have this mind among yourselves, which you have in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, and being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross’ (Philippians 2:5-8).

Prophecies to the sacrificial death of the Messiah abound in the Jewish Scriptures. Most were made through David and Isaiah centuries before Jesus came. Many predicted the circumstances of his death in fine detail (Psalm 22:1-21, 69:1-29) while others declared the purpose of his sacrifice – to redeem the world from its sinfulness – in explicit, unmistakable language (Isaiah 53:1-12). The prophets did not know precisely what they were predicting but knew it was for generations to come. As the apostle Peter put it: ‘The prophets who prophesied of the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired about this salvation; they inquired what person or time was indicated by the Spirit of Christ within them when predicting the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glory. It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things which have now been announced to you by those who preached the good news to you through the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look’ (1 Peter 1:10-12).

Many predictions of his reign in glory as the Son of David yet to come also fill the pages of the same scriptures. Sometimes predictions of the coming Messiah as the suffering son of Abraham were couched between others predicting his heavenly glory, so the Jews had no excuse. Here is a typical example: ‘Behold, my servant shall prosper, he shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high (glorious son of David). As many were astonished at him – his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of the sons of men (suffering son of Abraham) – so shall he startle many nations; kings shall shut their mouths because of him (glorious son of David); for that which has not been told them they shall see, and that which they have not heard they shall understand’ (Isaiah 52:13-15).

Having first shown how the greater son of Abraham, Jesus Christ, not only humbled himself but was even prepared to be humiliated through his death on a cross, Paul then concludes: ‘Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father’ (Philippians 2:9-11 – emphasis added).

Jesus gave the Jewish leaders of his time every indication of who he really was and that his coming had been clearly foretold.
Moses wrote of him (John 5:46). Abraham rejoiced that he was to see his day (John 8:56). David, inspired by the Spirit, had called him his Lord (Matthew 22:43). They should have known and recognised him.

To his own disciples, however, on the night before his crucifixion Jesus said: ‘Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.
You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you’ (John 15:13-15). God’s cycle was complete. He had called Abraham his friend. He had spoken face to face to Moses as a man speaks to his friend. So now Jesus was able to speak to all his disciples present as the true friends of God. His impending death and resurrection were to open the door, at last, for all God’s people to know him personally, to be forgiven of their sins, to love him with all their hearts, and to eventually be glorified at his own level. It was what God had most deeply desired and for which he had endured so much.

The Holy Spirit: God’s Indwelling Presence
After Jesus rose from the dead he appeared to his disciples on various occasions. On the fortieth day he ascended to heaven after first telling them ‘Behold, I send the promise of my Father upon you; but stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high’ (Luke 24:49). He identified that power very clearly: ‘Before many days you shall be baptised with the Holy Spirit’ (Acts 1:5). Ten days after his ascension, as the disciples were gathered together in Jerusalem, ‘a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind’ and suddenly ‘they were all filled with the Holy Spirit’ (Acts 2:2-4).

God’s deepest desire, to enter into the closest possible relationship with his people, was fulfilled as his own Spirit came down on Jesus’ disciples.
It was the beginning of the golden new covenant age. God and man united to each other – for all eternity! The climax of his supreme goal had been reached. While Jesus, the Son of God, had walked in human form among the Israelites, God was present with his people in a personal way far more intense and intimate than it had ever been at the time of Moses. But now, as the Holy Spirit came to live in the hearts of God’s people and to remain there until Jesus returns, God became present in his people, resident within the deepest recesses of their hearts.

True Christian believers, born of God’s Spirit, know God personally. They allow his Spirit to search the depths of their hearts, to root out all dishonesty, arrogance, pride, lust, religious self-sufficiency and malice. They have an absolute assurance of eternal life. They know all their sins have already been forgiven. They love the Lord with all their hearts. They know that God is worthy of their deepest affections, having paid the supreme price to redeem them. As they behold that love, perfected in the sacrifice of his Son, they are free to love him with all their hearts, souls and minds. Nothing stands between them and the kingdom of heaven.

The apostle Paul addressed the first true Christian believers as follows: ‘now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known of God’ (Galatians 4:9 – emphasis added). This clearly shows that it was God’s good pleasure to open the door for him to be known and not some religious effort on any man’s part that brought him into this position. You too can know God personally – if you are willing to commit yourself to Jesus Christ and receive the fullness of his salvation.

Abraham’s faith, perfected in his willingness to sacrifice his son, was a wonderful reflection of God’s own faithfulness.
But God’s gift of his Son as a sacrifice for our redemption, is the perfect proof of his intense love for us. ‘In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation of our sins’ (1 John 9-10).

Jesus said ‘Unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God’ (John 3:3). That includes you. To be born of God’s Spirit is the only way for any man, at any time, in any age, to be freed from his sins and become a citizen of heaven.
True faith, the Faith of Abel, is the world’s only true religion, if it can remotely be called a religion. In reality it is a living faith, a response to God’s faithfulness finally and fully revealed in his salvation through Jesus Christ. Referring to God’s declaration that Abraham was righteous in his sight purely because he had believed in his faithfulness, Paul says: ‘But the words, “it was reckoned to him,” were written not for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be reckoned to us who believe in him that raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was put to death for our trespasses and raised for our justification’ (Romans 4:23-25).

So Paul continues: ‘Therefore, if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come’ (2 Corinthians 5:17). God’s true people are those who have believed in Jesus, the Son of God, and have received his ultimate promise, the Spirit of God.
Christians who read the Qur’an are often struck by the striking statements in the book that actually confirm this. The Qur’an comes tantalisingly close to acknowledging this revelation. Firstly, it says that an angel appeared to Jesus’ mother and said to her: ‘O Mary, surely Allah gives you good news of a word from him whose name is the Messiah, Jesus son of Mary’ (Surah 3:44). In the original Arabic the key words are kalimatim-minhu “a word from him.” Note the words minhu – ‘from him’ – meaning that Jesus came from God himself and was not just another ordinary human being.

In another passage the Qur’an says of true believers ‘These are they into whose hearts He has impressed faith, and strengthened them with a Spirit from himself’ (Surah 58:22). The key words here are very similar: ‘a Spirit from him’ – ruhim-minhu.
It is uncanny to find the Qur’an confirming the core of the Christian Gospel. Jesus was the Word who came from God (minhu – ‘from him’), and the Holy Spirit who followed is the Spirit who also came from God (minhu – ‘from him’). The Qur’an emphatically states that these two persons came from God himself. It does not use this expression (minhu) for any other personality in a similar context.

The door is open for you to believe in God’s Redeemer, Jesus Christ, and to enter into a personal relationship with him by receiving the Holy Spirit. All it requires is one supreme act of committed faith – believing in Jesus as your Lord and Saviour.

I have, in recent years, often asked Muslims three crucial questions. Firstly, do you know God personally? Have you come into the greatest of all relationships – a living, personal relationship with him? Secondly, are your sins forgiven for his sake? Have you been cleansed not only from the guilt of all your sins but also their power? Lastly, do you love God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength? Do you have real evidence that God is truly to be loved, that he has done something outstanding to prove his love for you, and asks only that you respond to him in heartfelt love in return?

I have received a variety of answers to these questions, but a young Muslim woman recently gave me three answers that, in my view, correctly reflect the only real answers a Muslim can give according to Islamic theology.
Firstly, she said: “According to Islam it is impossible to know God personally. You can believe in Allah, pray to him, worship him, but never know him.” She went on: “it is also impossible to know you are forgiven of all your sins. You can pray for forgiveness, try to keep the laws of Allah, and hope in his mercy, but you can never know for sure in this life that you are forgiven.” Lastly she said: “do I love God with all my heart? I’ve never really thought about that. I believe in him, I’m willing to serve him – but love him? That has never crossed my mind.”

The good news is that all three are open to you. The true God broke down the barriers between him and sinful men and women when Jesus Christ died for the sins of the world. The door was opened for all true believers to receive his Holy Spirit and live solely by faith in him (the Faith of Abel), rather than to try vainly to commend themselves to him by slavish adherence to fixed religious routines and rituals (the Religion of Cain). You can know God personally, you can be forgiven of all your sins, and you can love him with all your heart, soul and mind. These are the keys to eternal life.

Abraham’s faith reflected God’s faithfulness. It shone like the moon in response to the sun’s light. But true believers can do far more than this. They can generate the love of God back to him in return. They will shine like little suns in the kingdom of heaven. Jesus said ‘Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father’ (Matthew 13:43 – emphasis added). Angels will continue to reflect the glory of God when that day comes, but true Christian believers will generate it back to him.
Angels are God’s heavenly servants, but God’s redeemed people on earth are his sons and daughters. They will manifest the very presence of the Holy Spirit within them. Their light will shine from within in pure, transparent splendour. No wonder Paul spoke of: ‘what no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him’ (1 Corinthians 2:9).

By faith in Jesus, and by that faith alone, you can become a true child of God, know him personally, be forgiven of all your sins, and become an heir of eternal life. Jesus said: ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life.
No one comes to the Father but by me’ (John 14:6). All true Christian believers are assured: ‘Without having seen him, you love him; though you do not now see him you believe in him and rejoice with unutterable and exalted joy. As the outcome of your faith you obtain the salvation of your souls’ (1 Peter 1:8-9).

The door is open for all human beings on earth, no matter what their backgrounds may be, in spite of all their sins and no matter how grievous they may be, to receive God’s perfect mercy in this age of grace and become the heirs of his eternal kingdom.

As Jesus put it: ‘I am the Door; if any one enters by me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture’ (John 10:9). That door will remain open until he returns. It remains open to you.

Knowing God Personally



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