JESUS CHRIST – ESCHATOLOGICAL PROPHET AND INCARNATE SAVIOR
A CHRISTIAN PROPOSAL TO MUSLIMS (Part 2/4)
MORE THAN AN ORDINARY PROPHET
One reason why Muslims reject Jesus’ crucifixion arises from Islamic faith in divine justice. In particular, God cannot abandon his prophet to tragic and unjust fate Indeed, as the Quran testifies, God gives victory to those who seek to further his cause (Surah 22:40; 40:51);
O you who believe!
If you will aid (the cause of) God,
He will aid you, and plant your feet firmly (Surah 47:7);
Nay, God raised him up unto Himself; and God is Exalted in Power, Wise (Surah 4:158).
Herein lies an ironic twist in the denial of the cross or the Messiahship of Jesus. For the Jews Jesus could not be a prophet sent by God since he was crucified. The Muslims reverse this logic – if Jesus was a prophet sent by God then he could not be crucified. Muslims appeal to other examples of God’s protection of his prophets such as Abraham and Lot (Surah 21:71), Noah (Surah 21:76-77), Moses (Surah 28:18-28) and lastly Muhammad (Surah 28:18-28).
God by definition will protect his prophets. God will not abandon his prophets or allow them to be mistreated by his people. Prophetic mission cannot be prematurely aborted by violent opposition. Hence, there is no place for the crucifixion in the arena of history.
How do we adjudicate the difference between Christians and Muslims regarding the prophetic mission and status of Jesus? Obviously, the issue cannot be answered in abstraction. For this reason, it is unfortunate that the controversy revolving around the incarnation of Christ has overshadowed his actual life lived out in history. It is of vital importance that Christians present their doctrine not as an imposition of a philosophical grid on the historical facts. Their proclamation of Jesus as God’s incarnation should be seen as a compelling conclusion based on a respectful handling and faithful interpretation of the historical data. In other words, reading about the life and works of Christ must lead us to ask what manner of man was Jesus: Isn’t he a remarkable man; isn’t he a prophet; isn’t he more than a prophet and what then?
Like the OT prophets, Jesus confirmed his words with miraculous deeds. He urged the stubborn Jews who had difficulty accepting his words to believe, at least, on the basis of his miraculous works. On the other hand, Jesus’ miracles must be viewed in proper perspective. Miracles would have satisfied both the Jewish and Islamic desire for signs and worldly success. However, the suggestion that Jesus should have resorted to miracles to win over the Jews underestimates the stubbornness of an unbelieving heart. After all, the Pharisees, like Pharaoh of old, rationalized away the miracles, either as works of the prince of devils or the illusions of court magicians.
The miracles of Jesus provided some evidences to support to his prophetic claims but they alone could not bring about the moral-spiritual transformation demanded by Jesus. Spiritual transformation or being born again is the result of being brought into a spiritual and living relationship with Jesus. It is precisely such a relationship that the powerful elite rejected; they felt too self-sufficient to require divine empowerment. Instead, Jesus’ teaching secured sympathies mainly from the hard boiled underclass of an oppressed society who knew only too well its moral inadequacies.
Admittedly, immediate success through miraculous signs would constitute a tempting strategy to achieve worldly success. Indeed, history shows that some of Jesus’ followers veered from the wisdom of their master when in their missionary enterprise, they sought to attain success in terms of power rallied around the ‘flag and sword’. By doing so, they had ascribed to politics and military might an undue importance in the light of what is truly important in spiritual terms.
The Christian may challenge the Muslims to reexamine why the success of prophets should be gauged in terms of immediate worldly success such as securing social power. Is not the sword of Caesar efficacious only for temporal rule? Indeed, such temporal concerns can detract one from a more important encounter with God that leads to spiritual transformation. The sensitive reader should detect here already a fundamental shift in our expectation of prophetic vocation, that is, a vocation that goes beyond bearing a message, it must be one which initiates a new, transforming relationship with God.
REVELATION TO INFORM AND TO TRANSFORM
Jesus exercised a prophetic vocation in continuity with the OT prophets but his ministry evidently burst the bounds of traditional prophetic vocation. The OT prophets were merely messengers but Jesus was the Incarnate Word and Mediator. Herein lies the fundamental difference between the Christian and Muslim estimation of Jesus, and consequently, their different understanding of divine revelation.
In other words, the revelation of Jesus Christ goes beyond conveying information. H. R. Mackintosh echoes the multifaceted dimensions of Jesus’ prophetic office,
Revelation explicitly includes the bestowing on man of the gift to recognize and believe it. The imparting of the Spirit, creating faith within, is an essential element of revelation itself. The event called revelation, in the New Testament is both things – a happening to us and in us . . . in other words, the revelation is revelation only when by the Spirit it “gets through” to man /1/
Christianity envisages a richer sense of revelation than does Islam. For Muslims have but the revelation of Divine will; God the Revealer remains himself unrevealed. He sends his message but is Himself withdrawn in transcendence. In Kenneth Cragg’s words,
Revelation is not a personal self-disclosure of the Divine. . . . There remains beyond the revelation the impenetrable mystery of the Divine. What the revelation does is to give men to know how God wills that men should live. It has a practical intent. . . . the substance of what God reveals is His will rather than His nature, and the end of revelation is obedience rather than perfect knowledge. God sends rather than comes /2/.
Understandably then, Islam becomes a religion that focuses on the law rather than metaphysics. On his part, Cragg argues that the Christian understanding of revelation of the personality of God is more plausible.
For the revelation is not simply a law to be followed, or a set of facts to be believed or even a history to be accepted. It is the offer of a relationship. It brings, it is true, a law to obey and involves facts and history, but it is essentially a relationship to be received and experienced. Its doctrine of God means fellowship with God: its doctrine of man means repentance, forgiveness, and regeneration. All that it proclaims and asserts, it offers and imparts. It is a proclamation unto experience /3/.
The Christian understanding of revelation is morally realistic and spiritually fitting. Many sincere seekers confess that spiritual insight remains inadequate at the level of abstraction. They long for an embodiment of spiritual precepts in the context of human relationships and the ordering of community. It is therefore reasonable to expect that God will not only reveal the requirements of his law, but personally exemplify them through an obedient life lived out in the ambiguities of human interactions. That is to say, both divine revelation the personal intervention of God are necessary since nothing less would be adequate to overcome the predicament of the human condition. Indeed, unless one realizes the magnitude of the obstacles to religious fulfillment one will not be open to the deeper dimensions of revelation emphasized by Christians who insist on the necessity of God’s personal revelation in Jesus. In Barth’s words, “He comes therefore as helper, as a redeemer, as one who brings another and proper order . . . he comes as the kingdom of God in person” /4/
One reason for Muslim’s misunderstanding that judges the mission of Jesus (depicted in the Gospels) to be a failure is that Muslims ignore the eschatological consummation waiting to be fulfilled in Jesus’ second coming. Indeed, to use a language that echoes Muslim Jihad, Jesus is prosecuting the war of the Lamb to bring about final victory or consummation for the kingdom of God. Thus we read Barth’s paraphrase of Revelation 11:15, “the kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord and of his Christ” immediately undialectically, incontrovertibly, irresistibly . . . . Then he will be not only the Reconciler, then he will be the Redeemer, the Saviour of the world (Titus 2:13)” /5/. Christian eschatology looks forward, not merely to a better future but also to a future which in its perfection includes and surpasses absolutely all the matters of history. The appropriate posture from the Christian perspective is to hope while waiting for God’s sovereign timing. We recall that when the disciples asked the resurrected Jesus when he would restore the kingdom of Israel, Jesus replied, “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority” (Acts 1:7).
1. H.R. Mackintosh, Types of Modern Theology (Nisbet 1937), p. 281.
2. Kenneth Cragg, Call of the Minaret (OUP 1964), pp. 47-48. See also his discussion in Jesus and the Muslim (George Allen &Unwin 1985) and The Christ and the Faiths (SPCK 1986).
3. Ibid., p. 277-278.
4. Barth, CD 4,1.216.
5.Barth, Credo (Hodder & Stoughton 1936), p. 122