Tag Archives: Jesus Christ

Jesus is Our Jubilee


The word “Jubilee” comes from the Hebrew word for a ram’s horn. Rams’ horns were used in ancient Israel to signal the arrival of important moments in their public life, and so the word Jubilee became the name of the biggest and best day imaginable on the Hebrew calendar.

  • Every seventh day on the Hebrew calendar was the Sabbath for our spiritual mothers and fathers – a day each week for them to stop and give God His due.
  • Every seventh year was a Sabbath Year – a whole year when their fields were supposed to lie fallow so that they might be replenished. Spiritually the Sabbatical year was the reminder that God was the provider for all of His people’s needs and that He could be trusted completely to meet them, even when they weren’t working.
  • And every seventh Sabbatical Year was supposed to be the Jubilee for our spiritual mothers and fathers – a moment in time every 50 years when everything that had gone haywire in people’s lives and worlds throughout that generation got put back in right order again so that everyone might get a fresh start.


Debts were forgiven. Slaves were set free.  Land reverted back to the families of its original owners.  The Jubilee was a season of redemption, reconciliation, and redistribution that came around once in everybody’s lifetime.  It was a generational reordering of the world so that God’s conditions for human flourishing might be restored.  And although it was commanded by the Law of Moses (Leviticus 25), historians tell us that there is no evidence that the Jubilee was never actually kept.  Apparently it was just too radical a realignment of life to be practically undertaken by God’s people.  But they didn’t forget it.  The Jubilee remained an ideal for them.  It was their dream for the future they wanted, but it was a dream so big that they concluded that only God could finally bring it about (Isaiah 61).  When the Messiah came, they said, that’s when the Jubilee would arrive.

CHristLuke 4:16-21 is the story that Luke tells us about the beginning of Christ’s public ministry. A hometown boy made good, Jesus was invited to read one of the morning Scripture lessons for his community gathered in worship, and the text that He read to them was a Jubilee text – excerpts from Isaiah 61 –

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

After reading these words that everybody in the room understood were about the Jubilee, Jesus gave the scroll back to the attendant, sat down – the teaching posture of a rabbi in the synagogue – and once He had everybody’s attention, Jesus preached a nine word sermon –

“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Christopher Wright, an Old Testament scholar, writes –

How many years had this Scripture been read in the synagogue? How many times would the local rabbi have encouraged his people to go on praying and trusting for the day to come when the one of whom it spoke would come and do those things? 

“May he come soon, O Lord!”
“Bring us this good news in our lifetime. Perhaps tomorrow…”

Then one Sabbath morning, the local carpenter’s son shocked the whole town with the electric word: “Today!” No more waiting.  What you have hoped and longed for all these years is here, in the One standing before you.

More than one interpreter suggests that Luke wanted the readers of his Gospel to use the Jubilee categories of Isaiah 61 that Jesus told His family and friends that day in the Nazareth synagogue had been “fulfilled in their hearing” as the window for us to use to look at His ministry.  They say that the rest of the Gospel of Luke can be read as a record of how Jesus actually went about fulfilling His Jubilee mission as the Messiah, the Christ – how He brought good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, set the oppressed free, and proclaimed the year of the Lord’s favor. As Jesus, anointed with the Holy Spirit and with power, went about doing good (Acts 10:38) — healing the sick, raising the dead, feeding the hungry, forgiving the wayward, freeing the possessed, embracing the marginalized, announcing the arrival of the kingdom, and finally, going to the cross — Luke wants us to know that Jesus did all of these things with the Jubilee in mind.  There is no better way for us to get to the heart of Jesus, which is how we get to the heart of God, than to look at Him and what He did when He was here through the window of the Jubilee.

Those same interpreters who want us to read the Gospel of Luke against the backdrop of His announcement in the Nazareth synagogue that the Jubilee had arrived in Him, also want us to read the book of Acts, the other New Testament book that Luke wrote, in the same way. “If the Gospel of Luke shows how Jesus fulfilled the [Jubilee] mission mandate of Jesus as recorded in Luke 4:18-19, then the book of Acts shows how the church, guided and empowered by the same Spirit, worked to carry on the [Jubilee] ministry of Jesus” (Jeremy Myers).  Now, the key to all this, it seems to me, is to always be just as clear as we possibly can about the fact that Jesus is the Jubilee, and that we, His church, are just a signpost that points to Him as God’s Jubilee.

Our spiritual parents, the Jews, realized pretty quickly that bringing about the Jubilee on their own was something that was well beyond their capabilities. It’s well beyond our capabilities as Christians too.  And that’s okay because it’s not our job.  Jesus is God’s Jubilee.  He’s the good news for the spiritually and materially poor. He’s the One who brings release to the captives.  He’s the One that gives recovery of sight to the blind.  He’s the One who sets free the oppressed.  He’s the one who establishes this as the time of God’s favor.  We’re not the Jubilee; He is.  We’re just signposts that point to the Jubilee that Christ embodies and establishes. It’s our job to bring His good news to the poor, to proclaim His release to the captives, to offer His recovery of sight to the blind, and to point to His liberation of the oppressed because now is the time of His favor.

I’ve heard a story about a group of slaves who were working in a field during the Civil War when a battalion of Union soldiers marched past headed south. One of the slaves in the field ran over to them and fell into step with them, his hoe over his shoulder like a rifle.  His friends all pointed and laughed. “What do you think you’re doing?” they asked.  “You’re not a soldier,” they scoffed.  “You don’t know the first thing about fighting” they  taunted.  And turning to face them he said, “You may be right, but I don’t want there to be any mistake about which side I’m on!”

I may not be able to bring about God’s Jubilee in my own wisdom, or by my own effort, but I can make it unmistakably clear by what I think, and by what I say, and by what I do that I’m on the side of God’s Jubilee that’s arrived in Jesus Christ.

  • Wherever people are spiritually or materially impoverished, I can share from the bounty of the abundance that I have been given in Christ who is God’s Jubilee.
  • Wherever people are being held captive in prisons of hatred, addiction, prejudice, or sin, I can extend the freedom that I myself have received from the hand of Christ who is God’s Jubilee.
  • Wherever people are suffering limitation and loss, physically or spiritually, I can provide comfort and care even as I promise them the eventual healing of all things in Christ who is God’s Jubilee.
  • Wherever people are “oppressed, distressed, weighed down, or grieving” because they have been pushed away from opportunity and community because of the color of their skin, or the country that they come from, or their gender or orientation, or because of how much they have, or because of what they have done or been in the past, I can open my heart, my arms, and my doors because Christ who is God’s Jubilee opened them for me.
  • And to anyone who might be wondering what God thinks of them, or wants for them, I can announce without any hesitation at all that God loves them and wants them to come home because Jesus Christ is God’s Jubilee, and this is the moment of God’s favor for me, for you, for all.  DBS +





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The Good Confession and the Las Vegas Concert Shooting

The Good Confession and the Las Vegas Concert Shooting
“I believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God…”


 If Christian faith doesn’t have something more than confusion, anguish, or anger to say on a day like this one when more than 50 people are dead, and more than 400 people are being treated for their injuries from the biggest mass casualty shooting in modern American history, then maybe it’s time for a different kind of faith.

William James (1842 – 1910), the American philosopher and psychologist, in The Varieties of the Religious Experience (1902) observed that there are two broad categories of religion that are available to us as human beings, what he called “the religion of the healthy-minded” and that he described as the religion of people with “sky-blue souls whose affinities are with flowers, and birds, and enchanting innocencies,” and “a constitutional incapacity for prolonged suffering,” and what he called “the religion of the sick soul” and that he described as having a deep awareness of “the darker aspects of the universe,” a real “consciousness” of one’s own sin, and a recognition that there is a profound “sadness” at the heart of the human condition. Professor James left no doubt as to which of these two religions he’d personally embraced himself –

…Systematic healthy-mindedness, failing as it does to accord to sorrow, pain, and death any positive and active attention whatever, is formally less complete than systems that try at least to include these elements in their scope. The completest religions would therefore seem to be those in which the pessimistic elements are best developed.  Buddhism, of course, and Christianity are the best known to us of these.  They are essentially religions of deliverance: the man must die to an unreal life before he can be born into the real life.

Our “Good Confession” as Disciples that “Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God” is an affirmation of the way that we believe that God in Jesus Christ is providing our “deliverance.”  When bad things happen, be they mass shootings in Las Vegas or devastating storms in the Caribbean and along the Gulf Coast, it’s what the “living” God – that is, a God who is present and active – is doing in Jesus as the Christ that is God’s personal and powerful response to human suffering.  When we say that Jesus is the Christ what we are saying that He is God’s answer to life’s most urgent questions, and the solution to the most painful situations that we will face.

Alexander Campbell, following his, and our, Reformed theological heritage, employed something known as the “munus triplex” – Christ’s threefold office of Prophet, Priest, and King – when thinking and talking about the things that God has done for us in Jesus.

It was for us he became a Prophet, for us he became a Priest, for us he has been made Lord of hosts, King of the universe, Judge, and avenger of all. [Alexander Campbell – The Christian System – “The Lordship of the Messiah”].

This model is based on the Old Testament descriptions of who it was that got anointed to function as God’s special representatives for God’s first covenant people – prophets, priests, and kings. “Christ” is the Greek form of the Hebrew word “Messiah” which means the “anointed one.” Because prophets, priests, and kings all got anointed in the Old Testament, the Old Testament’s promise of the coming “Messiah,” or “Anointed One,” was understood to mean that He was coming to do the work of a prophet, and a priest, and a king.

The “munus triplex” says that God’s work of deliverance in Jesus the Christ moves through these three channels – He does the work of a priest for us, He does the work of a prophet for us, and He does the work of a king for us.  And today, in the aftermath of what happened on the Las Vegas strip last night, as people who say that we believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, our response needs to correspond to what it is that we say that we believe God in Christ is actually doing to deliver us.

Because Jesus as the Christ does the work of a Priest to deliver us – our response to the suffering of this day must be pastoral.  The comfort that the Gospel offers people today is that God “gets” the pain of this moment because in Jesus Christ He has been here and gone through it Himself. “Jesus wept” is what John 11:35 tells us.  And more than just the answer to a familiar Bible riddle, these two words assure us today that we don’t have a God who is absent from our tragedies, or who is unaware of or unconcerned about the anguish that they cause in us.  Hebrews 4:15-16 is where my faith instinctively turns on morning’s after evenings like the one we’ve just had –

We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. 16 Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

And don’t fail to constantly keep in mind and heart where God’s identification with us in Jesus Christ wound up — on the cross –

Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil,  and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.  For surely it is not angels that he helps, but he helps the offspring of Abraham.  Therefore he had to be made like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.  For because he himself has suffered when tested, he is able to help those who are being tested. (Hebrews 2:14-18)

Being able to comfort ourselves and others with the Priestly presence work of Jesus as the Christ is part of what the Gospel enables us to do. The Gospel’s answer to human loss and suffering is Emmanuel – that “God is with us.” The Gospel’s assurance in the face of the evil of this day is that it can’t separate us from the love of God. The Gospel’s provision for us in the face of the world’s and our own brokenness is reconciliation and peace with God.  And the Gospel’s final solution to problem of death is the gift of eternal life.

Because Jesus as the Christ does the work of a Prophet to deliver us – our response to the suffering of this day must be prophetic.  We have the mind of Christ. Because of Jesus Christ we already know what it is that God wants for us and for all of creation, and we know that history is moving inexorably in that direction, the direction of shalom – harmony and perfect peace – everything and everyone fit together like the pieces of an intricate puzzle of a picture of personal well-being and cosmic thriving.  When the Kingdom finally comes in Revelation 21 and we are told that in that day tears will be wiped away from our eyes and death shall be no more, and neither shall there be any mourning, nor weeping, nor suffering, we are not being given permission to just sit around waiting for it to arrive like a bus at a stop or a train at a station, but rather, we are being commissioned to be harbingers of that future.  This morning this means doing more as a people to figure out what it means when God tells us that “Thou shalt not commit murder.” Lewis Smedes, one of the people who taught me ethics, said that this Divine command creates a clear predisposition for life within God’s covenant people.  Every conversation and consideration for us as Christians begins with us already knowing that life is God’s preferred option in each and every situation, and that this preference must inform all of our subsequent choices.  God didn’t want Stephen Paddock pulling that trigger.  God didn’t want all those people to die, or to suffer injury.  And God doesn’t want this world of terror and violence.  Being “prophetic” means saying these things loudly and clearly to ourselves, and to the world around us.  And then it means fostering the crucial conversations that lead to decisions about the public policies that best embody what it is that we already know as Christians that God wants.  I don’t know what the political solution to this current epidemic of violence in American society is, but I do know as a Christian that God is for life, and that God expects us to advocate for ways that promote and preserve life in a society that is becoming increasingly violent. The Prophetic work of Jesus as the Christ calls us to be prophetic as His disciples about the things He has shown us and told us are God’s will for us and for all of creation.

And because Jesus as the Christ does the work of a King to deliver us – our response to the suffering of this day must be to point to that Kingdom that is coming. Biblically, I see no solution to the world’s troubles apart from the promised return of Jesus Christ to finish the work of redemption and reconciliation that He began in the manger, on the cross, and out of the garden tomb.   To live in hope as a Christian is to live with the assurance of Philippians 1:6 that the good work that God has begun in us and in the world will be brought to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.  In the Didache, an important second century manual of church practice, the exclamation of the Aramaic word “Maranatha” – loosely translated: “Come, Lord Jesus, come!” – appears to have been the final prayer of the church in the communion service.  Vernard Eller, the late Church of the Brethren scholar, suggested that “Maranatha” provides us with our most comprehensive understanding of what’s actually happening at the Lord’s Table.  He said that it means “Our Lord has come — He has already been here and shared our life,” and that it means “Lord, come right now — come to this place, in this moment, to be with us in the present journey of our lives,” and that it means “O Lord come again — return to us in the near future in final victory to establish your kingdom where there will be no more suffering or sadness, no more sickness or death.”  And that makes “Maranatha” as comprehensive a prayer as we can possibly pray as Christians.  When we pray “Maranatha” we are consciously remembering what Christ has already done.  And when we pray “Maranatha” we are consciously reminding ourselves of what it is that Christ is still doing right now. And when pray “Maranatha” we are consciously rooting ourselves in the Gospel’s promises of what Christ is going to do when His Kingdom finally and fully comes.  “Maranatha” is a comprehensive affirmation of, and petition for the deliverance of God in the kingly work of Jesus Christ.   When the world breaks our hearts as it does today, it is a “Maranatha” moment.  It is time for us to remember that Christ has come, that Christ is here, and that Christ will come again.  The death and violence of this day will not have the final word. “Maranatha” — “Come quickly Lord Jesus.” DBS +


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“To Know Jesus Christ More Intimately…”


 “At Covenant, we believe a Seminary Education is successful only if – at its end–
the student knows Jesus Christ more intimately than at its beginning.”

This is the mission statement of Covenant Seminary in St. Louis. This is a school that was, and still is intimately associated with the ministry and legacy of Francis Schaeffer, the teacher on whom I cut my theological teeth. I am not the same person that I was when I first started seriously reading Francis Schaeffer as a college freshman in 1971, but in many ways he set the theological table at which I still sit and from which I still feast, and I am deeply grateful for the ways that he first pushed my thinking, and for the ways that he continues to shape my believing.

Because of this connection, when I first saw this mission statement in an advertisement for Covenant Seminary in Christianity Today some 40 years ago, I immediately clipped it and pinned it to the cork board that I keep on the wall beside my desk.  I appreciated its clarity of purpose, and it wasn’t long before I found that I had adopted it, and adapted it to fit my own sense of personal mission.

 “My ministry will be successful only if – at its end – the people in my care
know Jesus Christ more intimately than they did before.”

Yesterday, the church I serve, celebrated my 20th year with them as their pastor. It was a wonderful day. Half of my ministry has spent at this one church.  I could not be more blessed.   They have been patient, responsive, resilient, discerning, missional, and pastoral throughout this long journey we have made together.  We have shared joys and sorrows, accomplishments and failures, growth and decline, renewal and resolve. In the climactic moment in the movie “As Good as it Gets,” the Jack Nicholson character tells the Helen Hunt character, “You make me want to be a better man,” and this is what Northway has consistently done for me, in me.  This church has made me want to be a better minister.

When I am asked how you stay at the same church for 20 years, the first thing I say is that it has almost everything to do with the church and very little to do with the minister. In 80 years this church that I serve has had just 3 senior ministers — 3!  My immediate pastoral predecessor served here 20 years, and his pastoral predecessor served here for more than 40!  That’s a remarkable record of steadfastness.  Quoting Friedrich Nietzsche, Eugene Peterson named his collection of sermons on the Psalms of Ascent (Psalm 120-134) A Long Obedience.  This comes from the Nietzsche quote –

The essential thing “in heaven and earth” is that there should be a long obedience in the same direction; there thereby results, and has always resulted in the long run, something which has made life worth living.

Through all of the “ups and downs” and the “ins and outs” of a ministry over two decades, a church must consciously cultivate this “long obedience” mindset if a minister is to survive, let alone thrive.  I have been given this gift from this church that I have been privileged to serve for these past 20 years.  They have “kept on keeping on.” But this same gift of perseverance, or “stick-to-it-iveness” as the chair of a search committee I once visited with put it, must also be consciously cultivated in a minister’s heart if s/he is to remain on that pastoral path of the long obedience in the same direction.

I keep a note card in one of the prayer books that I regularly use on which I wrote down the advice that Dr. Charles Kemp gave us in seminary about the four ways that we would find “repose” in our ministries. He said that peace in a minister’s heart comes by way of:

  1. Perseverance – That is, working steadily toward the goal;
  2. Patience – Ministry is relational, and relationships take time, so suppress the “I want it now” mentality that is always trying to take over our expectations and desires;
  3. Perspective – Always keep the long view of an entire ministry in mind, and not the just the present moment. Celebrate the moments of collaboration and cooperation; and
  4. Prayerfulness – Never forget that this is the Lord’s Work — we plant the seeds and we water the fields, but it is God who gives the growth (I Corinthians 3:6).

I know that I have reached the milestone of 20 years at Northway through perseverance, patience, perspective and prayerfulness, all that, and one more thing – purposefulness. From that first day on the job 20 years ago, to the anniversary celebration last Sunday, I have known who I am, why I am here, and what I have been called to do.

“My ministry will be successful only if – at its end – the people in my care
will know Jesus Christ more intimately than they did before.”

In the Reformed spiritual tradition (which I believe is our most natural spiritual habitat as Disciples) it was not uncommon for ministers to put the letters “V.D.M.” after their names.  F.F. Bruce explained the meaning of these three little letters –

“No letters indicating academic achievement or public honor can match in dignity the letters ‘V.D.M.’ applied to the pastor’s name in some Reformed churches – ‘Verbi Divini Minister’ – ‘Servant of the Word of God.’” 

A “V.D.M.” — That’s all I have ever wanted to be.  And when I am done, the most that I could possibly hope might be said of me is – “We know God in Jesus Christ just a little bit better because he was here with us for a little while.”  And I understand that the only way for me to be able do this – the only way that I know how to help people become “just a little bit better acquainted with God in Jesus Christ” – is to lead them to the Scriptures, and to let it facilitate the transformative encounter with Christ who is the living Word who changes how we think, what we value, why we act, and who we are.  DBS +

___________________________________________________________________________________________                                                           The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God stands forever.
Isaiah 40:8

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“Which Gospel?”

The Competing Versions that Vie for our Attention

tug of war

On Sunday, July 23, 2017, I had the privilege of preaching and teaching at the First Christian Church in Edmond, Oklahoma, as one of the guest presenters in their Summer Series. I was asked to reflect with them on how we as Disciples characteristically use the Bible. In the Forum I talked about Alexander Campbell’s “dispensational” way of reading the Bible and how the “canon within the canon” that it created for us as a church has not always serve us well.  And in worship I brought this message about the importance of embracing a “whole” Gospel.  DBS + _________________________________________________________________________________________________________

When Matt Chandler was just getting started as the lead pastor of the Village Church, he says that he kept hearing the same thing from the people who were being baptized. “I grew up in church,” they’d say.  “I went to church every Sunday… got baptized when I was 8, or 10, or 12, or whatever… I attended Sunday School, Vacation Bible School, Youth Groups, went to Summer camps and conferences.  And then I just sort of drifted away until somebody invited me to The Village and I heard the Gospel for the very first time in my life, and it blew me away.”  And Matt says that when he heard people saying things like this that he didn’t believe them.

“How can you grow up going to church every Sunday and not hear the Gospel?” Matt wondered, and so he concluded that these people must have heard the Gospel before getting to the Village, but that they just didn’t have the spiritual ears to be able to truly “hear” it. So Matt said that he began talking with all of these new people who were getting baptized at the Village Church to hear their stories and to confirm his hypothesis.  He asked them to show him their Bibles from those days and any notes from any teachings or sermons that they might have heard.  And Matt says that while some of them did fit his theory, the vast majority of them did not.  Many of them had in fact grown up going to church every Sunday and had never heard the Gospel.  Of course, that begs the question: “What is the Gospel?”

Martin Luther, the Protestant Reformer, said that knowing what the Gospel is, and being able to distinguish it from the other Biblical Word that God speaks to us – the Law – is the essential Christian distinction. Simplistically put, when you hear Scripture saying – “This is what you must do” – what you’re hearing is the Law.  And when you hear Scripture saying – “This is what God has already done for you” – what you’re hearing is the Gospel, and this is what Matt Chandler says that the people who were coming to the Village Church had never heard before.  They’d never heard anything about what God had done for them in Jesus Christ, but instead they had been fed a steady diet of sermons that urged them to nod at God, do good, be happy, and try harder.  Jesus was never offered to them as a Savior but rather as a life coach. With more information and a little motivation, they could be successful at life. The focus was not on forgiveness and eternal life, but rather on how people could live the best life possible right now, personally and socially.  The crisis in the church today, Matt concludes, is a crisis of the Gospel.  There are competing versions of it vying for our attention.

The first version says that Christianity is about the Kingdom of God that Jesus announced was breaking into this world through Him. This is the version of the Gospel that Christians in the mainline church typically prefer.  The Gospel is about justice; it’s about setting things right in this world.  It’s about God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven.  It’s about making life better for people right here and right now.  It’s about hungry people being fed, and sick people getting better, and oppressed people being set free, and marginalized people being welcomed in.  These are “red letter” Christians, those Christians who say that what they are paying attention to most are all of the things that Jesus actually said.


 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim
release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
 competing versions of it vying for our attention.

Luke 4:18-19


The second version of the Gospel that other Christians embrace says that it is about the forgiveness of sins and eternal salvation that Christ’s death, burial and resurrection provides. This is the version that Evangelical Christians like those at the Village Church in Dallas prefer. The Gospel is about justification; it’s about getting right with God.  It’s about being saved from sin, and death, and darkness, and being saved to newness of life now, and to the promise of eternal life when we die.  These are “black letter” Christians, those Christians who say that what they are paying attention to what it was that Jesus Christ did, and to what the rest of the New Testament tells us that it means.


 Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we[c] boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope,  and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

 Romans 5:1-5 _________________________________________________________________________________________________________

The way that many have framed this struggle to define the Gospel today, this tug-of-war between the “Social Gospel” of mainline churches, and the “Soul Gospel” of Evangelical churches, is to talk about it as a fight between Jesus and Paul.  Jesus came preaching the Kingdom of God, and Paul turned it into a conversation about the church, it’s said.  The simple religion of imitating Jesus who just went about doing good in this world became a complicated religion about having to believe in Jesus for eternal salvation in the hands of Paul, it’s argued.  And the assumption here is that there is this fundamental and irreconcilable difference between what we find in the Gospels of the New Testament and what we find in the Epistles of the New Testament.  But I’m not so sure that this is a safe assumption.

Take, for example, Jesus’ familiar Parable of the Prodigal Son from Luke chapter 15, and lay it side-by-side with one of the great summaries of the Gospel that Paul preached in Ephesians chapter 2. It was the Jesuit Bible Scholar David Stanley who pointed out that there are “striking resemblances” between the summary of the Gospel in Ephesians 2 and the Parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15 (The Jerome Biblical Commentary – 345).

  • Ephesians 2:13 – “You who were once afar off have been brought near.”
  • Luke 15:15 – The son goes to a far-off country.
  • Ephesians 2:4 – “God the Father rich in mercy.”
  • Luke 15:20 – “His father saw him and was moved with compassion and ran and fell upon his neck and kissed him.”
  • Ephesians 2:1 – “When you were dead… he made alive.”
  • Luke 15:24; 32 – “He was dead, and has come back to life again; he was lost, and is found.”

And David Stanley concluded, “It would seem that the theology of Luke 2 gets expressed in story form in Luke 15.” And so, while some Christians want to frame the Gospel through the category of justice based on their reading of the “red letters” of the New Testament, and while other Christians  want to frame the Gospel through the category of justification based on their reading of the “black letters” of the New Testament, there have got to be some Christians somewhere who insist that the Biblical Gospel is not properly framed by the categories of justice and justification alone, but only by the category of Jesus, and to get Jesus we need both the New Testament’s red letters and its black letters (Scott McKnight).

While some Christians insist on a “social” Gospel, and other Christians insist on a “soul” Gospel, there have just got to be some Christians who insist on the “whole” Gospel, and I can’t help but think that we who are Disciples ought be those Christians, after all, our denominational identity statement says that we are “a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world,” that “part of the one body of Christ” that “welcomes all to the Lord’s Table as God has welcomed us.” Look closely at this statement, listen carefully to what it’s saying, and I think that what you’ll see is justice and justification coming together in Jesus.  The Social Gospel and the Soul Gospel sit down across from each other at the Lord’s Table and become a Whole Gospel.

Richard Lischer is the Professor Emeritus of Preaching at Duke Divinity School. A number of years ago his church was building a brand new sanctuary, and the architect approached the board one day with a question. “What do you want for the space’s central appointment,” he asked, “an altar or a table?” Most churches these days, Dr. Lischer points out, want tables — welcome tables — not altars in their sanctuaries, and for good reasons.

At the table there is the coziness of family relationships. One belongs at the table. Only for the most heinous of crimes is the child sent from the table. There, at table, one has direct access to the parent. …At table there is bread, wine and conviviality.

The inclusiveness of this Table symbolism appeals to “red letter” Christians.  It bears powerful witness to the meals of Jesus in the days of His public ministry and to the way that He deliberately sat down to eat with people His religious culture was consciously spurning.   Our heritage of open communion as Disciples, of having a Table to which everyone is invited and at which everyone is welcomed, is pretty close to the heart of who we are and what we do as a people.   And Dr. Lischer doesn’t disagree.

Although he is a Lutheran, Dr. Lischer is just as much as advocate of working for wholeness in a fragmented world as we are, and he is someone who wants to welcome all to the Lord’s Table just as much as we do as Disciples.  But Dr. Lischer is also concerned about the way that we are “shielded from origins.” “As an experiment, [he suggests] ask a child this question: “Where does that slice of bread on your sandwich come from?” And he says that they will likely say “from the store” and know nothing about the farm or farmers, nothing about a bakery or a baker.  That’s what it mean to be “shielded from origins,” and when it happens in church, what we get are communion services without the cross. What we get is a welcome to the Lord’s Table without any reference to how it is that God has actually welcomed us in Christ.  Bread gets broken without anything being said about how it is a sign of Christ’s body broken for us; a cup gets poured without anything being said about how it a sign of Christ’s blood poured out for the forgiveness of our sins.  We wind up where theologian H. Richard Niebuhr a generation ago feared we were heading, to a Christianity of “A God without wrath who brings men without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross.”

And so, when that architect asked Dr. Lischer’s church what it was that they wanted in their sanctuary, they finally told them. Make it a table — but make it a very substantial one.”  And Dr. Lischer explains –

Most churches today have tables… as the setting for their sacramental meals without remembering all that lay behind it. …But our theological instincts told us that that there is [in fact] something big and powerful behind the table… …[We understood that] our table-oriented family relationships in the church was only possible because behind the table, visible to the eyes of faith, there is the outline of something more substantial and more terrible… The table from which we receive the bread and wine is possible only because once, for all people, there was an altar on which God’s Son was sacrificed. … The table does not create the altar; the altar creates the table…

 You see, it’s not the altar or the table, it’s the altar and the table. It’s not Jesus or Paul, it’s Jesus and Paul. It’s not just the red letters or black letters of the New Testament, it’s both the red letters and the black letters of the New Testament.  It’s not a social Gospel or a soul Gospel, it’s a social Gospel and a soul Gospel – a whole Gospel. It’s not justice or justification, it’s Jesus.

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Getting the Gospel Straight ~ Keeping the Gospel First


It’s a familiar warning in certain parts of the church these days. They say that there are four steps in the process of a church “losing” the gospel.  First, the gospel is accepted and affirmed. Second, the gospel gets assumed and goes unreferenced. Third, the gospel gets confused with other things, many of them good and noble. And then finally, the gospel gets lost. People no longer remember why the church exists and does what it does. The example of the Mennonite Brethren Church is frequently cited as a classic picture of how this happens –

…the first generation believed and proclaimed the gospel and thought that there were certain social entailments. The next generation assumed the gospel and advocated the entailments. The third generation denied the gospel and all that were left were the entailments. (David Gibson – “Assumed Evangelicalism”Modern Reformation)

I thought about this observation again this past week with the controversy that was generated by something that Andrew Forrest, the minister who is leading the revitalization of Munger Place United Methodist Church over in East Dallas, said about community gardens and co-working spaces (http://www.ministrymatters.com/all/entry/8114/andrew-forrest-every-dying-church-in-america-has-a-community-garden) –

Every dying church in America has a community garden. Every dying church in America has a co-working space. What do I mean by that? I have no problem with community gardens; a garden is a beautiful thing. And I don’t have any problem with co-working spaces. But Jesus didn’t tell us to start a community garden, and he didn’t tell us to start co-working spaces; he told us to make disciples. That’s literally the mission of the church.

The problem is not the gardens… The problem is that we often want to substitute secondary and tertiary concerns for the primary concern of discipleship.

What Andrew is doing here is a reversal of the field that David Gibson mapped out in his assessment of how the Mennonite Brethren Movement lost the Gospel.   Andrew is pushing back through that third generation mainline version of the church that has lost the Gospel and only has the social implications of the Gospel, and back through the second generation mainline version of the church that assumes the gospel and advocates the Gospel’s social implications, to a renewed mainline version of the church that believes and proclaims the Gospel and understands that it has some important social implications.

Of course, to do this one must have some real clarity about what the Gospel is. Andrew Forrest certainly does.  In that same article in which he names community gardens and co-working spaces as secondary concerns, he explains –

…Neither by background nor by training nor by inclination am I a fire-and-brimstone preacher. And yet the gospel itself makes no sense if it’s just vague feel-goodery. The gospel, as I understand it, is the good news regarding the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

It seems to me that this “vague feel-goodery” substitution for the Gospel takes two forms in the church today.  In the traditional/conservative/Evangelical church it takes the form of the subjective experience of the individual Christian – the offer of forgiveness and personal peace of mind right now, and the promise of an eternity in heaven with God when we die.  And in the progressive/liberal/mainline church it takes the form of a focus on social action and a passion for social justice – changing the systems and structures of society so that people can thrive physically, relationally, emotionally, psychologically, intellectually, and spiritually in this world.  Personal spiritual experience and a conscientious engagement with social issues are neither unrelated nor unimportant to the Gospel, but, in the words of Andrew Forrest, they are “secondary and tertiary concerns for the primary concern of discipleship” which is what Jesus told us to do.

Graeme Goldsworthy, an Australian Evangelical Anglican and Old Testament scholar, wrote these words to his own traditional/conservative/evangelical wing of the church that he sees as being at real risk of losing the Gospel in its focus on the Gospel’s fruit of the subjective experience of the individual Christian –

The core of the gospel, the historical facts of what God did in Jesus Christ, is often downgraded today in favor of a more mystical emphasis on the private spiritual experience of the individual. Whereas faith in the gospel is essentially acceptance of and commitment to the declaration that God acted in Christ some two thousand years ago on our behalf, saving faith is often portrayed nowadays more as trust in what God is doing in us now… But when we allow the whole Bible – Old and New Testaments – to speak to us, we find that those subjective aspects of the Christian life, which are undoubtedly important – the new birth, faith, and sanctification – are the fruits of the gospel. The gospel, while still relating to individual people at their point of need, is rooted and grounded in the history of redemption. It is the good news about Jesus, before it can become good news for sinful men and women. Indeed, it is only as the objective (redemptive-historical) facts are grasped that the subjective experience of the individual Christian can be understood.

And I read Andrew Forrest’s article as a version of this same warning to his own progressive/liberal/mainline that is at real risk of losing the Gospel in its focus on the Gospel’s fruit of social action and a passion for social justice.

The fruit of the Gospel is transformation. Traditional/conservative/Evangelical Christians and churches emphasize the Gospel’s fruit of personal transformation. Progressive/liberal/mainline Christians and churches emphasize the Gospel’s fruit of social transformation. We all want transformation.  The real question is, what effects this kind of transformation, personally and socially?

With Andrew Forrest and Graeme Goldsworthy I would argue that it’s the Gospel, the transformative message of new hearts, new values, new lives and a new world through the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ and His indwelling and empowering presence in us, both individually and collectively as the church, through the Pentecost gift of the Holy Spirit. For the kind of transformation that we’re looking for, the Gospel is the power that we need. DBS +

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“Compel Them to Come In” (part 2)

Making a Case for Northway Christian Church


Then the master told his servant, ‘Go out to the roads and country lanes
and compel them to come in, so that my house will be full.
(Luke 14:23)


In Luke 14:23 the master of the house who was putting on the party sent his servants out to “compel” people to come in.   The word “compel” here refers to the act of making a convincing argument that will move another person to make an appropriate response, in the case of this story, to persuade them to come into the house.  So, what are the convincing arguments that we can make to persuade people to come to Northway?  Today I will provide you with my first five reasons, and tomorrow I will conclude with my last five.

  1. Because we believe in a generous God. Richard Mouw says that this is the first and most important theological decision that any one of us has to make – Do we believe that God is stingy or generous? Is God reluctant to love us and has to be convinced to save us, or is God so in love with us that it takes extraordinary effort on our part to keep Him out of our lives?   The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is the church of a generous God because it is a church based on the person and work of Jesus Christ.
  2. Because we are a church that has no creed but Christ and no book but the Bible. I found the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) at a moment in my young Christian life when I was being pulled in different directions by well-meaning brothers and sisters who were all insisting that “real” Christians believe this or that. No sooner would one of them tell me that one thing was true, than another one come along and tell me the exact opposite thing was true. It was all very confusing to me. And then a Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) pastor sat down and talked with me about how the “what” of doctrine always divides while the “who” of Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God, our Lord and Savior, always unites. He advised me to be certain of Christ and then to stay just as open as I possibly could about everything else, testing every faith claim and assertion by the teaching of Scripture. This approach – so characteristic of Disciples – has served me well.
  3. Because we observe open Communion each and every week. Going to the Lord’s Table each Sunday morning keeps me focused on the redemptive purposes of God in Jesus Christ, keeps me anchored to the Gospel experience of grace in Christ, and keeps me oriented to the mission of reconciliation through Christ with which the church has been entrusted and for which the church has been empowered by His indwelling Spirit. Weekly Lord’s Supper keeps the Gospel of Jesus Christ front and center in my own life, and in the life and mission of the whole church. The Disciples are a movement for wholeness in fragmented world. We welcome others to the Lord’s Table just as God in Jesus Christ has welcomed us.
  4. Because we respect the competency of each soul to do its own believing. Romans 14:4-5 looms rather large in our life of mutual encouragement and accountability as Disciples –

    Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Master is able to make him stand.  One man esteems one day as better than another, while another man esteems all days alike. Let everyone be fully convinced in his own mind.

    In other words, we’ve all got to decide things for ourselves, and we will all have to answer for how we’ve decided them. This is the right of private interpretation and the freedom of conscience distilled into the concrete practice of mutual respect for which we as Disciples have been justly recognized.  As Disciples we honor the freedom and responsibility of each believer to “work out their salvation with awe and reverence” (Philippians 2:12).  We are not the kind of church that’s going to tell you what to think, but rather we are going to be the kind of church that’s shows you how to “think believingly,” and that then challenges you to get on with it.

  5. Because we make a “good faith assumption” about one another.  Because we are forever deciding things differently as Christians, there is a very real temptation to conclude that those whose conclusions are at variance with our own conclusions on any number of vital matters of faith and practice must be either stupid or wicked. The “good faith assumption” is the glue that holds us together in spite of those differences.  When we disagree about something, the “good faith assumption” says that I am going to believe and behave in such a way that shows that I think that you are just as serious about Jesus Christ as I am, and that you are just as committed to knowing and doing what Christ commands as I am.  And as Disciples, it is going to the Lord’s Table together each week with people who don’t necessarily think as I think, or believe as I believe, that seals the bond of this resolve for unity in love


 Tomorrow I will post the last five reasons I use to make a compelling case for Northway Christian Church in particular, and the Disciples of Christ in general. DBS +


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Loving Our Muslim Neighbors


I am convinced that one of the greatest issues of this day that we are living in is the relationship between Christians and Muslims, made even more difficult by global tensions and the current political climate. As the “Common Word” (www.acommonword.com) that was addressed to the Christian Community by 138 of the world’s most important Islamic leaders and scholars back in 2007 put it –

 Christianity and Islam are the largest and second largest religions in the world and in history. Christians and Muslims reportedly make up over a third and over a fifth of humanity respectively. Together they make up more than 55% of the world’s population, making the relationship between these two religious communities the most important factor in contributing to meaningful peace around the world. If Muslims and Christians are not at peace, the world cannot be at peace. With the terrible weaponry of the modern world; with Muslims and Christians intertwined everywhere as never before, no side can unilaterally win a conflict between more than half of the world’s inhabitants. Thus our common future is at stake. The very survival of the world itself is perhaps at stake.

 What makes this such a complicated thing for us to do are our family ties and our strained history as Christians and Muslims. Christianity and Islam belong to the same Abrahamic family religions. We share some spiritual characteristics and have some common theological and moral perspectives. But we also have a long history with each other, and not much of it is good.  As the two great missionary religions of the world who equally believe that it is part of their God-given mandate to convince other to believe as they do, Christians and Muslims have been in nearly constant contact and direct competition with each other for centuries, and that’s crated some wounds and left some scars.

The late Vernon Grounds, one of the giant American Evangelical theologians of the last generation, liked to compare Christians to a pair of porcupines on a freezing winter’s night.


He said that they pull in close to each other for warmth, but just as soon as they get close, they start to poke each other and that forces them apart.   Well, I think that this same dance characterizes Christian/Muslim relationships.  We are drawn in close to each other because we recognize a family resemblance in one another, but just as soon as we start to move in each other’s direction, we begin to poke and jab each other because of our differences and disagreements. We need to choreograph a different dance.  But to do so, I believe that two attitudes prevalent among Christians will need to be adjusted.

Some Christians, mostly from the progressive wing of the church, approach the Christian/Muslim relationship with the idea that our differences of belief are insignificant and unimportant. Peter Kreeft often points out that the only beliefs that separate Muslims and Christians are the Incarnation, the Atonement and the Resurrection.  But doctrinally, that’s pretty much the core of Biblical Christianity!  And just as convinced as I am about their truth, and just as passionate as I am about their proclamation as a Christian, in my five years of monthly public dialogue with Muslim Imams here in Dallas, I have yet to meet one who is not just as convinced that I am wrong about these things, and who is not just as passionate about telling me so. The approach to Christian/Muslim relations that begins with the idea that there’s really not anything important that separates us is a dead-end.

But so is the approach of other Christians, mostly from the conservative wing of the church, who argue that there is nothing that Muslims and Christians have in common spiritually, and that to even talk with them about the things of God is a dangerous compromise. More than once I have been accused of betraying Christ and denying the Gospel because I have entered into serious conversation with them about matters of faith and practice, and because I have chosen to related to my Muslim colleagues with respect and affection.  There’s got to be another step to this dance.

Back in 2012 our “Faiths in Conversation” series consisted of a cycle of fascinating presentations on what we as a Jewish Rabbi, a Christian Minister and a Muslim Imam believe about Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad.  What follows are my remarks from that conversation the night we talked about Muhammad.  In my presentation I tried to navigate a narrow path between wanting to honor the convictions of my Muslim friends about the status of Muhammad as a Prophet, and remaining true to my own commitment to Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the Living God, and my Lord and Savior.

In this historical moment when Islamophobia seems to be running rampant in the West, I offer here a different way of thinking and talking about Muhammad as a Christian that attempts to build a bridge rather than erect a wall, that wants to find a space where we can come together rather than closing a door that drives us even further apart. I’m not saying that I succeeded in this in what I said that night — but  I am saying that we’ve all got to try.  The whole world is watching.



Christians and Muhammad


  Dr. Douglas B. Skinner
Northway Chistian Church
Dallas, Texas

The Koran has a high regard for Jesus, affirming His claim to be the Messiah and numbering Him among the true Prophets of God. Why, there’s even an entire chapter in the Koran devoted to Mary the mother of Jesus where the Virgin Birth gets fully affirmed!  And then there’s the famous “Charter of Privileges” that Muhammad gave to the monks at the Monastery of St. Catherine in the Sinai Peninsula that offered them, and all Christians his respect and protection.  History tells us that Muhammad was nice to Christians, so why haven’t Christians been nice to Muhammad in return?

The history of anti-Semitism in Christianity is a shameful legacy of my branch of the Abrahamic Family Tree. It is a contradiction of the Gospel of love that is the very heart of our faith as Christians.   And the history of anti-Islamism by my branch of the Abrahamic Family Tree is no less shameful and no less a contradiction of the Gospel of God’s love.  And while most of the Christians I know will openly acknowledge and easily voice regret for the very real damage that we’ve done to our Jewish parents, we are not nearly as quick to acknowledge or apologize for the very real damage that we’ve done, and are doing to you, our Muslim siblings.

And so, as one Christian, let me begin by saying to my Muslim relatives in the Abrahamic Family who are here tonight, that I am sorry: I am sorry for the disrespect that we have shown you; I am sorry for the distortions of your beliefs that we have perpetuated; and I am sorry for the hatred that we have sanctioned if not actually encouraged against you. Our Lord and Savior told us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves, and I confess that we have not always loved you, our Muslim neighbors, like that.  And our Lord and Savior told us to do unto others as we would have them do unto us.  And I confess that not only have we failed to do this with you; when you have done this with us – as with Muhammad’s “Charter of Privileges” – we have not even had the simple human decency to reciprocate.

And so I certainly don’t want to do or say anything here this evening that could be construed as an insult to you as a people of deep and genuine faith, or taken as a lack of respect for the beliefs that you hold sacred. But I am here as a Christian, and Christians, while we share some beliefs, practices and values with you who are Muslims, we don’t share all of the same beliefs, practices and values, otherwise we would be Muslims. My specific assignment here this evening is to talk for a few minutes about how Christians think of Muhammad; what Christians do with Muhammad.  And I suppose that I could just say that in the history of the world that Muhammad ranks as one of the great men, a fact that Christians can clearly see and easily acknowledge.  Politically, socially, economically, intellectually and culturally – Muhammad was one of greatest men who has ever lived.  His genius is obvious to anyone who takes the time to read his story and look at the facts.  And I suppose that I could say this, as a Christian, and then just sit down.  It would be accurate, I would be honest, and it would be a dodge.

You see, as great a man as Muhammad was politically, socially, economically, intellectually and culturally, these are the wrong criteria to be used by me in his assessment here tonight. I am here as a Christian believer, and it is as a Christian believer that you have asked me to tell you what I think of Muhammad, and what I do with Muhammad.  This is a religious question, and it deserves a religious answer.  And so, specifically, the question that I am going to try to respond to this evening is the one that Mahmut Aydin framed in his essays “Muhammad in the Eyes of Christian Scholars” published online at http://www.onislam.net-

Since we Muslims accept Jesus as a genuine prophet and messenger of God, can you Christians not reciprocate by accepting the genuiness of Muhammad’s prophethood?

Now, to answer this question as a Christian, I must first tell you briefly about an internal conversation that we Christians have among ourselves. It’s a debate over the question: “Does the gift of prophecy still operate in the church today, or has it ceased?”  In the Apostle Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth, he affirmed both the fact that there was a gift of prophecy operative in Christianity by which people spoke for God under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit (11:4; 12:10; 12:28-29; 14), and that this gift of prophecy would eventually “cease,” specifically when the “teleion” – the  Greek word for “the perfect” or “the complete” – “comes” (13:10).

Now, some Christians have interpreted the meaning of the “teleion” in this verse to be a reference to the Apostolic writings themselves, the books of the New Testament.  When it was finished, traditionally argued to have happened in the middle of the last decade of the first century, 95ish when the Apostle John finished his Gospel and letters – “the perfect” had come and so the gift of prophecy was said to have ceased.  It was no longer operative.

Known as the “cessationist” position, these Christians have a simple answer to the question about Muhammad’s status as a prophet of God, and it’s – “No, he’s not a prophet.”  But don’t take it personally – cessationists say this about anybody and to everybody who claims to have had a prophetic gift after the close of the first century, the Apostolic age – Montanus, Bahaullah, Joseph Smith, Mother Ann Lee, Mary Baker Eddy, Syung Yung Moon – any of them, all of them.  They can’t be prophets because there are no prophets anymore.  The gift of prophecy has ceased.  Case closed.

But not all Christians think this way.

With the rebirth of Pentecostalism at the beginning of the 20th century, one of the largest and fastest growing subsets of global Christianity, the belief in prophecy as one of the continuing gifts that the Holy Spirit distributes sovereignly according to the Divine purpose among believers for the building up of the church and the fulfillment of its mission in the world has been widely embraced. “Continuists” interpret the “teleion” – “the perfect” – of I Corinthians 13:10 as a reference to the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, and since that hasn’t happened yet, the gift of prophecy is still operational and that means that prophets still exist.

In another one of his letters, the Apostle Paul writing to the church at Thessalonica specifically told them not to “quench the Spirit” by “despising the words of prophets.” But neither did Paul want them to just blindly believe every prophetic claim.  And so, “test everything,” Paul told them, “holding fast to what is good” and rejecting what is not (I Thessalonians 5:19-21).  Christians who hold to this position – and I am one of them – would not reject the genuiness of Muhammad’s prophethood automatically out of hand as being impossible like “cessationist” Christians do, but would want to test the claim instead.  And the way that such a claim gets tested is by comparing the content of what has been “prophesied” to what has been previously accepted as a genuine revelation of God.

Just like you, Christians believe that God is really there and that the God who is there is not silent. God has spoken and acted in human history to make Himself known to us.   This is what we Christians mean by revelation, and when Christians think and talk about God’s revelation, we typically think and talk about it in two ways, in what’s called “General” Revelation – God’s speaking and acting generally in nature and conscience; and in what’s called “Special” Revelation – God’s speaking and acting specifically in the history of Israel and in the person and work of Jesus Christ, all of which has been preserved for us by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit in the Scriptures, both the Old and New Testaments.

It is against these two grids of revelation – “General” and “Special” – that the prophethood of Muhammad must be evaluated by me as a “continuist” Christian, and when I do, what I wind up with is a hung jury, a split decision.  You see, by the standards of the Special Revelation that I have as a Christian, I have some fundamental difficulties with Muhammad’s claim to be a prophet.

The New Testament tells me that Jesus is “Emmanuel,” “God with us,” the “Word made Flesh,” and that He went to the cross to die an atoning death for my sins and for the sins of the whole world, and that He was raised from the dead on the third day and ascended into heaven where He is seated at the right hand of God the Father from where He will come again at the close of the age.

Now I understand and can appreciate the fact that these are not things that you believe as Muslims. And I also know that you argue that your “Special” Revelation, the Koran, “corrects” what it believes are the distortions that we Christians have introduced into the record of the New Testament about Jesus.  You use your “Special” revelation as Muslims to correct what it is that I believe about Jesus Christ as a Christian.  But the very things that you would “correct” by your “Special” Revelation are the very things that I believe because of the “Special” revelation that I believe I have as a Christian.  And so beyond arguing the credibility of our respective sources of Special Revelation – which we have been known to do – I just don’t see much room for budge here.

There are fundamental differences, monumental differences, between the New Testament’s teachings about who Jesus Christ is and what Jesus Christ does, and what the Koran teaches about who Jesus Christ is and what Jesus Christ is. But as far apart as we are as Muslims and Christians with respect to the content of our respective “Special” Revelations, with respect to what we affirm about God from the source of “General” Revelation, we actually share a remarkable unanimity. And that’s not “nothing.”

David Bentley, a Christian scholar, has written an important book for Christians to see. It’s called The 99 Beautiful Names of God (William Carey Library – 2012). These are the 99 names of God that I see so beautifully calligraphied on the walls of the Mosques I visit, and that I am told you recite with your prayer beads.  Dr. Bentley wrote this book to show Christians that the God whom Muslims obey and adore is the same God whom we as Christians obey and adore.  Using the Bible as his source, Dr. Bentley showed that the 99 names you who are Muslims use to think about and talk to the One, True and Living God are 99 names that we who are Christians use to think about and talk to the One, True and Living God as well!

And the only way that I can explain this is to say that for all of the problems that I face as a Christian in accepting Muhammad as a genuine prophet of God because of the very real differences that exist between what our respective “Special” Revelations teach, at the point of “General” revelation there is no conflict and no question at all.

The Apostle Paul, preaching in the New Testament book of Acts, made it clear that there is a genuine knowledge of God available to us as human beings through “general” revelation.

“In past generations he allowed all the nations to follow their own ways; yet he has not left himself without a witness in doing good—giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, and filling you with food and your hearts with joy.” (Acts 14:16-17)

From one ancestor God made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’” (Acts 17:26-28)

And at the beginning of his magnum opus – his letter to the Romans – Paul made the case for “special” revelation –

For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made.” (Romans 1:19-20)

And so, with these texts in support, without hesitation whatsoever I can affirm the conclusion that Muhammad was a prophet of God’s General Revelation.  He personally knew and publically proclaimed some important truths about the God who is there.  And while that’s not everything that you as Muslims believe about him, I would propose that it is way more than what many Christians have been willing to say in the past, and that it provides us with a real basis for our relationship with each other as we move ahead, together.



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