Recently I was reminded at a talk that the heart of the Christian faith is not a book. It is a person — Jesus. The context of the comment was our continuing (and necessary) attempts to build bridges with our Muslim friends. It is so tempting to draw the following parallel: Christianity has a leader, Jesus, and Islam has a leader, Muhammad. Christianity has a book, the Bible, Islam has a book, the Quran. We are both people of the book.
The speaker disagreed. He maintained that Christians are a people of the Person, not a people of the book. Of course we believe the bible is special revelation from God but it points us towards a person, Jesus. The Old Testament looked to His coming and gave us key categories to understand Him. The Gospels record His life and teaching, His death and resurrection. The rest of the New Testament works out the implications of Jesus’ life and teaching for a variety of situations.
We are a people of the book but the book is in some sense penultimate because its job is to confront us with the ultimate, Jesus. It seemed an obvious point yet one that needed to be made as we consider what it means to be Christian and as we dialogue with those outside the Christian faith.
Muslims are a people of the book. The pinnacle of revelation in Islam is the Quran. Allah painstakingly dictated the Quran word by word to Muhammad. Muhammad was the special messenger of God. But he was human. He died. The Quran is the revelation of God that continues to guide the Muslim community.
But Jesus is no mere messenger. He is the Message and the ultimate revelation of God. He lived, died, rose again and continues to lead us through the Holy Spirit.
In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. (Hebrews 1:1-3a)
And as the speaker pointed out, when Jesus knew He was about to leave His disciples, He didn’t say, “I will not leave you as orphans, I will leave you a book.” Instead He said, “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.” (John 14:18 TNIV) The third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit mediates the presence of Jesus to all His disciples who live after His resurrection and ascension. The heart of Christianity is a person — Jesus.
Why is Jesus the perfect revelation of God? Because He is God. Confronted with the reality of His resurrection, Thomas cries out:”My Lord and my God (John 20:28b TNIV)” and Jesus did not correct him because Thomas was right. In Jesus, God Himself has come to us. So when we ask “What is God like” we find the answer by looking at Jesus.
God is, in a word, Christlike. Jesus presents a God with skin on whom we can take or leave, love or ignore. In this visible, scaled-down model we can discern God’s features more clearly. (Philip Yancey, The Jesus I Never Knew, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1995, 265.
If the person of Jesus, truly God and truly man, is the heart of the Christian faith, it has implications for our evangelism. In sharing the gospel to those outside the community of faith, we are not just asking people to subscribe to a creed. We are asking them to follow Jesus (Matthew 16:24).
If the person of Jesus is at the heart of the Christian faith, it has implications for our discipleship. It is not enough that our people know bible content or are actively serving Christ. They are to grow in Christlikeness, “imitating Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1).”
If the person of Christ is the heart of the Christian faith, this will have implications in how we dialogue with those who are not followers of Jesus. We cannot downplay the core of the Christian faith, that Jesus is truly God and truly man and that it is He who stands at the centre of our faith.
It would be easier, I sometimes think, if God had given us a set of ideas to mull over and kick around and decide whether to accept or reject. He did not. He gave us himself in the form of a person… Jesus’ audacious claims about himself pose what may be the central problem of all history, the dividing point between Christianity and other religions. Although Muslims, and increasingly Jews respect Jesus as a great teacher and prophet, no Muslim can imagine Mohammed claiming to be Allah any more than a Jew can imagine Moses claiming to be Yahweh. (Yancey, The Jesus I Never Knew, 261-262)
Don’t get me wrong. We need to take the Bible with utmost seriousness. We need to interpret the Bible correctly and reverently. Only than can we get an accurate picture of the person of Christ. But it is Christ we want to see.
And we must enter into humble dialogue with our Muslim friends and friends of other faiths. We live in violent times. Good people of all faith traditions must work hard to find common ground for peace. But all true dialogue must take seriously each religion’s own truth claims. The heart of Christianity is Jesus Christ.