Saturday, February 8, 2014

What is Love?

Mysterious, elusive love. It mystifies and enchants. It both elates and sickens. It provides endless inspiration for artistic expression in music, painting, poetry, prose, filmnot to mention the nostalgic lyrics of a one-hit-wonder: What is love? Baby don't hurt me no more! Like in this [pretty annoyingly] catchy song, love often mingles with pain in these contexts. Perhaps this is why a heart pierced with an arrow is so often used to symbolize love! The pursuit of love can indeed lead us down a lonely rabbit trail of sin and suffering. Our yearning for it can give rise to desperation, obsession, and compulsion. We are all on a quest to grasp it, to earn it, to experience it. Some of us find it, many of us don't. This is because many things that aren't actually love masquerade as the real thing: lust, infatuation, idol-worship, hopeless romancepeople-pleasing, co-dependency, neediness...all these things can feign love.

But what is love actually?

The concept of "love" is central to biblical truth. We know from Scripture that God is love (1 John 4:8). The gospel is rooted in love (John 3:16). The purest form of love is revealed in Jesus’s death on the cross. And we are admonished to love God above all else and to love others as ourselves (Matt 22:37-38). So what does godly love look like?

The Greek term for love used by John to describe God in 1 John 4:8 is agape, a form of agapeis, which is also used by Jesus (agapaō) when he quotes the greatest commandments to love God and others (Matt 22:37-38). The essence of agape love is self-sacrifice. True love, then, is not self-seeking (1 Cor 13:6). And it is the Holy Spirit who empowers us to love God and love others in a truly self-sacrificial way. Because Godly love is self-sacrificial, living it out can be costly to us. It can cost us material possessions, time, relationships, popularity, and can be really inconvenient! It motivates us to die to self (Luke 9:23; Gal 2:20). Because it is not of this world, it is often rejected by the world. But, loving others without the Holy Spirit often involves a self-serving, consumerist form of "love" that actually takes away from God and other people more than it gives.

When John says, "God is love" (1 John 4:8), he points us to the origin of love, for in the previous verse, he writes unequivocally, “love is from God” (1 John 4:7). This brings up the question, can we truly love without God?

Humans are made in the image of God, and so we have an innate desire to give and receive love. Paul tells us that the lawsummed up by Jesus in the greatest commandments to love God and love neighboris written on the hearts of men (Rom 2:15). We all have a God-given conscience that bares witness to the law in our hearts. We are pre-wired to express and seek love. While the law is written on the hearts of men, however, the fulfillment of that law is another story. Paul says, "but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous." (Rom 2:13). And to fully obey the law is impossible without Christ; Paul also writes: "For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit." (Rom 8:3-4). If we live in the flesh, then, we are unable to fulfill the law to love God and neighbor. But if we live in the Spirit, the righteous requirement of the law is fully met in us, through Christ, not through ourselves. So, God-honoring love is not possible without Christ.

But wait! you might say, I know loving, self-sacrificial people who aren't Christians! This is true. I do too. Because we are made in God's image, we all have an intrinsic ability to love others. Parents love their children, just as God the Father loves His children, for example. We were made in His likeness. It is also true that courageous acts of self-sacrificial love have been performed by people who do not know Christ. But here's the tragedy of a love without God: loving neighbor without loving God doesn't fulfill the first and greatest commandment of the law. It attempts to fulfill the second commandment to love others, but is an act of the flesh, not of the Spirit. And we know that living in the flesh is to live in sin and death (Rom 8:13). This is tough to swallow isn't it? Even courageous acts of martyrdom that have been performed by those who live in the flesh are like filthy rags before a Holy God! As it is written, "All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away." (Isa 64:6). Scripture is clear that to liveand lovein the flesh alone is to be bound by sin and death. Without being made righteous in Christ, we cannot love others in a God-honoring way with a love that endures forever. While acts of self-sacrificial love can be inspiring to many people and can be a blessing to others, they do not glorify God if they are performed in the flesh. In actuality, they are not truly righteous acts of love because righteousness is only found in Christ. But loving others in the Spirit always glorifies God because it cannot be achieved in human strength, so that the glory goes to Him! 

In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). Our natural response to this would be: but I can't be perfect! That is true...who has ever succeeded in loving the Lord with all their heart, soul, mind and strength and their neighbor as themselves? We have a problem: our fallen, sinful nature. But we shouldn't be discouraged when we fail to love God and others perfectly. Christians are not perfect. We are in a daily battle against the temptation to live in our own strength and take back control from God. When we fail, the important thing to remember is that our righteousness is imputed to us through our faith in Christ—not through our own effort. And for those who are in Christ there is no condemnation (Rom 8:1)! So, we need not be slaves to guilt! 

Indeed, love covers a multitude of sins (1 Pet 4:8) and the love of God endures forever. Take a moment to absorb this...God's love never fizzles out, or shrivels up like a leaf. It cannot be swayed by sin. It is unconditional and unchanging. Godly love always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres (1 Cor 13:7). It endures in perfect form for eternity! Godly love never ends in pain like the tragic love of a hopeless romance or in the death of an unbeliever. (Instead of an arrow-pierced heart, perhaps a heart with a crown over it is a more fitting symbol of love!). Godly love never fails (1 Cor 13:8). How amazing it is that Godly love never fails

And Godly love rejoices with the truth (1 Cor 13:5). Love without God, on the other hand, is not rooted in absolute truth, and so it is relative. It is vulnerable to being tossed back and forth by waves of human teaching, emotion, and circumstance because it is not anchored in truth. But Jesus said, "I am the truth." (John 14:6). So to love God, as Jesus commanded us, is to love the truthPaul further demonstrates this when he says: "wickedness deceives those who are perishing. They perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved." (2 Thes 2:10). The truth of the gospel is the purest expression of love. God is love just as He is truth. Truth and love are inseparableinextricably intertwined. Truth and love are completely submerged and saturated in each other! In Christ, therefore, love actually is truth!

Saturday, February 1, 2014

The Jesus of Jihad

The world’s Muslim population is expected to increase by about 35% in the next 20 years, rising from 1.6 billion in 2010 to 2.2 billion by 2030, according to population projections by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life. Islam is the fasted growing religion in the world, mainly due to high birthrates in Asia, the Middle East, and Europe—not in large part due to conversions. Despite the enormous global impact of Islam, many Christians in the West are apathetic toward, or uninformed about, the religion and what it actually teaches. Yet having an understanding of Islam is important in helping us pray more specifically about, and respond knowledgeably to, the rapid growth of the religion.

Christians in the West are often surprised to learn that Muslims revere Jesus, who is referred to in Arabic as Isa, and is declared in the Qur'an to be a prophet of Islam. Consequently, Muslims lay claim to Jesus, not as the Son of God, but as the prophet who foretold the coming of Muhammad, and performed [some pretty outlandish] miracles. In an era of Western pluralism, it is becoming common to hear the argument that Christianity and Islam should share Jesus, and that He rightfully belongs to both religions. In this vein, the concept of the “Abrahamic civilization” of the West is gaining ideological clout in place of the former emphasis on a “Judeo-Christian civilization.” This shift of thinking reflects the growing influence of Islam in the world today.[1]

If we are to share Jesus with Islam, let's consider the implications of this. Firstly, it's useful to be aware of the common ground Islam and Christianity share when it comes to Jesus, as much is made of this in the interfaith movement and in the pluralistic schools of thought that prevail in most American colleges and universities.

Jesus in Islam & Christianity: The Similarities
The Qur’an holds that Jesus was the only sinless man to have ever lived, telling us that Mary was given a pure son who was faultless in the eyes of God (Surah 19:19). Muslims believe that all people are born sinful, so in his sinlessness, the Muslim Jesus is unique, which is consistent with the biblical perspective.

The Qur’an also teaches that Jesus was born of a virgin, and that he had no earthly or physical father. As it is written, “…she who was chaste, therefore We[3] breathed into her (something) of Our Spirit and made her and her son a token for [all] peoples.” (Surah 21:91) The language of the Qur’an is unambiguous about the virgin-birth of Jesus. In Surah 4.156, Mary is cleared from the charge of the Jews that she had conceived Jesus out of wedlock. 

Another point of agreement between the Qur’an and bible is found in their accounts of the ascension of Christ. The ascension is mentioned in the Qur’an in these words: “Allah took him up to Himself” (Surah 4:158). While the Qur’an and the Bible differ on the timing and nature of the ascension of Jesus, they both agree on the fact that it did indeed occur. 

Certain titles given to Jesus in the Bible are also used in the Qur’an. For example, He is called the Word of God and the Messiah in the Qur’an. The Qur’an and the Bible both give Him titles which are applied to no one else, thus setting him apart as unique.

Jesus in Islam & Christianity: The Differences
There are important, deal-breaking differences between the Jesus of the Qur’an and the One of the Bible, however. In the Qur’an, Jesus performed miracles that are not recorded in the Bible, including breathing life into clay birds (Surah 5:110) and speaking as a baby in his cradle (Surah 3:46; 19:28-34).  

Islam teaches that while Christians believe “[Jesus] died on a cross, and Jews claim they killed him, in reality he was not killed or crucified, and those who said he was crucified lied” (Surah 4:157). And further, “[Jesus] did not die, but ascended to Allah” (Surah 4:158) and at his second coming, “[Jesus] himself will be a witness against Jews and Christians for believing in his death” (Surah 4:159). This is not only a denial of Jesus' atoning death on the cross, but also of His resurrection.

The Qur’an and Hadith[2] do prophesy the second coming of Jesus. But Islamic teaching disagrees with the Bible on the nature and purpose of the second coming. Islam teaches that Jesus will have a pivotal role in the end times, destroying all other religions and establishing the authority of Islam. As one tradition of Muhammad teaches, Jesus "will break the cross, kill pigs,[3] and abolish the poll-tax. Allah will destroy all religions except Islam. [Jesus] will destroy the Evil One (anti-Christ figure) and will live on the earth for forty years and then he will die.” (Sunan Abu Dawud, 37:4310)This image of the Muslim Jesus violently attacking the cross personifies him as the final destroyer of Christianity.

In Islam, Jesus is not part of the Trinity. The central belief that God is an unassailable, singular entity exists at the core of Islamic theology. To perceive Him in terms of having multiple “natures” or to ascribe “partners” to Him, as Muslims believe Christianity does, is considered deeply blasphemous. The Qur’an calls Muslims to what is portrayed as unequivocal monotheism: “Allah does not forgive association with Him, but He forgives what is less than that for whom He wills. And he who associates others with Allah has certainly fabricated a tremendous sin.” (Surah 4:48). The Christian view of the Trinity is frequently misrepresented in Islamic teaching as a belief in three Gods. In fact, many Muslims are under the impression that the Trinity is made up of God, Jesus, and Mary! Muslims believe that Christianity is heretical, therefore, viewing it as a polytheistic religion. 

Despite the fact that Muhammad founded Islam in 622 CE, the religion is regarded not as a subsequent faith to Judaism and Christianity, but as the primordial religion, the original faith, from which Judaism and Christianity broke off in corrupted forms. Islam teaches that the The Gospels (the Injeel) that were originally given to the Muslim Jesus, were corrupted later by Christians (some believe this began with the Apostle Paul). The Qu'ran, therefore, that was given to Muhammad in a series of revelations (that were later recorded) 500 years later is the only trustworthy version of God's word. 

The Same Jesus?
Despite a few minor similarities, the fact that the Muslim Jesus is not the Son of God, but merely a prophet, means they are two very different persons. One is central to the Christian faith; the other is expected to demolish the Christian faith! Efforts to achieve theological syncretism between Islam and Christianity (as is attempted by the "Chrislam" movement, for example) are futile; the two faiths are completely incompatible. 

Furthermore, seeking common ground between two disparate Jesus figures, which has become a popular practice among Christians in Muslim ministry, is more confusing than it is helpful in dialoguing with Muslims; it blurs the truth about His identity from the beginning and gives the false impression that the Qur'an is a credible source of truth about the Him. In actuality, the common ground approach, while a good "conversation-starter" and as well-intended as it may be, is a disingenuous and misleading way to talk about Jesus.

So what? 
Islam is presenting a growing challenge to the Christian church, which should not be ignored. This is in part because the religion acts as a political institution (in fact it is intrinsically political in nature), which often has dire implications for Christians living in Muslim-majority countries and can impede missionaries from reaching unreached people groups in these contexts. Many Westerners, including Christians, however, seem largely unconcerned about the worldwide impact resulting from the rapid growth and radicalization of Islam in spite of the warning signs of unrest in the Middle East and Africa or the growing problems in Western countries like Great Britain, for example, where due to pressure from the British Muslim community the country is becoming incrementally Islamized. 

Samuel Huntington in his well-known, much debated thesis that was first laid out in his article, “The Clash of Civilizations,” holds that the fundamental source of conflict in the post-Cold War era will not primarily be ideological or economic, but cultural, in shape of an ultimate clash between Islamic and non-Islamic civilizations, which will dominate global politics. Huntington's position on Islam has been passed off by many academics as an "over-simplification" or an "unhelpful" point of view. But, if he is right—and certain factors seem to indicate he may be—then we as Christians need to be all the more aware of what is happening in the Muslim world and help to educate others. 

This is because the truth about Jesus is under siege. Within the context of world politics, great significance has been placed on the figure of Jesus, with prominent Islamic leaders laying claim to Him. To give just a couple of examples, Yasser Arafat, addressing a press conference at the United Nations in 1983 called Jesus “the first Palestinian fedayeen who carried his sword,” implying in other words that He was a freedom fighter for Islam. Sheikh Ibrahim Madhi, employee of the Palestinian Authority, broadcast live in April 2002 on Palestian television: “The Jews await the false Jewish messiah, while we await, with Allah’s help…Jesus, peace be upon him. Jesus’ pure hands will murder the false Jewish messiah. Where? In the city of Lod, in Palestine.” 

Essentially, then, the Muslim Jesus is the Jesus of Jihad. In fact, Muslim apologists frequently misquote Matthew 10:34, which mentions a sword, to show that the Bible also claims Jesus endorsed jihad. 

The figure of Jesus is, and has historically been, used as a weapon in the realm of international politics. As Christians, however distasteful we find the nature of politics to be, we must be confident in stating who we believe the true Jesus is in the face of such tragic misuse of His Name. We are called to speak up in defense of the Gospel and to answer the very question Jesus asked of His disciples, "Who do say I am?" (Matt 16:15) without fear.

Now what?
We are called to show Christ-like love to Muslims. This shouldn't mean turning a blind eye to the injustices that take place in the name of Islam, however. When we talk about, and form opinions on Islam, we need do so accurately and understand what we are really dealing with. It is important to know that the violent verses in the Qur’an from Muhammad’s later warlord years abrogate (nullify) the more peaceable verses from earlier in his life as dictated by Islamic tradition. These verses command Muslims to “fight and kill [non-Muslims] unless they convert” (Surah 9:5), for example, which is a principle that Muhammad himself practiced, personally beheading infidels. And Muslims are taught to model their lives on the Sunnah, Muhammad's perfect life example. This is deeply unsettling when we consider that Muhammad was also a polygamist who took many concubines and married a six-year-old girl, consummating the marriage when she was 9 years old and he was 53. To understand this, is to understand the true evil and violence that is at the core of the religion of Islam. True Islam, Muhammad’s Islam—not the peaceful Islam of liberal Muslims or that which is presented to the West by Imams who are permitted to lie for the furtherance of Islam as under the law of taqiyya—is a religion of the sword.  Many injustices against Christians, women, and minorities living in Muslim-majority countries occur as a result. Violent jihad is at the heart of Islam—it is not just the misinterpretation of a peaceful religion by extremist fringe groups. There are hundreds of Qur’anic verses on the subject of jihad, as well as the "Book of Jihad," which found in all Hadith collections. 

As Christians, we cannot show authentic Christ-like love to others without upholding justice. By faith we are called to be administrators of justice (Heb 11:33) and to correct oppression (Isa 17:1). In doing so, we should of course be careful to distinguish between individual Muslims and the institution of Islam, standing against bigotry, hatred, and the demonization of Muslims or the negative stereo-typing of Muslim people. In the same vein, we should distance ourselves from absurd protests against Islam such as Qur'an burning. The challenge of Islam to the Church calls for a balanced, informed, reasoned, prayerful response—and our total submission to God. 

Speaking the truth in love is a biblical approach to showing authentic Christ-like love to Muslims. In doing so, we don't have to gloss over our fundamental differences—but we don't have to lead with them in an adversarial way either. In talking with our Muslim neighbors, we can pray that the Holy Spirit would reveal the authentic Son of God to them, through our truthful, loving, respectful witness, remembering that it is the role of the Holy Spirit to convict the heart, not ours to finesse or tweak the gospel message to make it
 culturally sensitive or more appealing



[2] The Hadith  is a collective body of traditions recording the sayings or actions of Muhammad, together with the tradition of its chain of transmission, which is used as a basis of Islamic law
[3] In Islamic tradition, pigs are associated with Christians.