A humbling solution to a great problem
Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and His glory will be seen upon you. And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.
Isaiah the prophet, The Book of Isaiah (prophesied circa 700 B.C.)
"Lord, now You are letting Your servant depart in peace, according to Your word; for my eyes have seen Your salvation that You have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the nations, and for glory to your people."
Simeon, The Gospel According to Luke (spoken days after Jesus's birth, circa 4 B.C.)
"To this day I have had the help that comes from Allah, and so I stand here testifying both to small and great, saying nothing but what the prophets and Musa said would come to pass: that the Messiah must suffer and that, by being the first to rise from the dead, He would proclaim light both to our people and to the nations."
Paul the apostle, Acts of the Apostles (spoken before King Agrippa, circa 59 A.D.)
As I read the New Testament, I found that the Bible is not just a compilation of wise sayings, nor does it simply contain propositional truths. Rather, it is the story of Allah's glory written in human history. It is the display of archetypal majesty through the fading beauty of ectypal parables. Interestingly, I found myself in the story… though not where I expected to. To my surprise, my reservations were expressed by the people who listened to Jesus's teachings. My guilt was unmasked when Jesus rebuked the sins of the self-righteous. My reaction to the tempestuous turn of events was displayed in the confusion of the disciples. Time and time again, I was humbled by the honesty of the account. Each passage unveiled a corner of my heart, exposing the darkness within and calling me to repentance. Yet, at the same time, I was comforted by the record. A solution was provided to my shortcomings. Hope was given to me, along with the characters of the story. My place in Allah's kingdom was established by the inauguration of a new covenant between the divine and His feeble vassals.
As I walked through the enactment of the gospel, I found myself torn between conflicting emotions. On the one hand, I was awestruck by the display of Allah's power through the works that Jesus accomplished during His ministry, and fascinated by His wisdom expressed through such penetrating words. On the other hand, I stumbled over the cross. This was probably the most offensive part of the story. How could such a great servant be subjected to such dishonor? The onslaught of mockery was intolerable. The display of weakness was unbearable. The lack of intervention was incomprehensible. It seemed that Christianity would be better off without the cross. It was clearly a disservice to its cause… To be honest, I couldn't conceive of any greater letdown after having built so much expectation. Could the Messiah not overcome the powers of darkness at work in the world? Wouldn't such a profound disappointment provoke delusions in the minds of the disciples? Could we explain the advent of Christianity through a response to the hopes that had been dashed upon the rocks?
Thus, I started thinking about alternatives. How else could the Messiah deliver His people from their sins? Surely, He could defeat the powers of darkness with the help of His Father above! I decided to keep reading the Bible. Just then, I stumbled upon an interesting account. It turns out that one of Jesus's disciples shared the same thoughts. Peter also didn't like the idea of subjecting Allah's Servant to dishonor. He also wanted a Messiah without the cross. But, I was shocked by the account. This is what I read: "From that time Jesus began to show His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him, saying, 'Far be it from You, Lord! This shall never happen to You.' But He turned and said to Peter, 'Get behind Me, Shaytan! You are a hindrance to Me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man'." (Matthew 16:21-23)
I couldn't believe what I was reading. Why would Jesus call Peter, "Shaytan"? It's not like Peter had bad intentions! He knew that Jesus was more than a teacher or a prophet; Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah, the Son of Allah, the Author of life! He wanted to honor the Messiah. Of course, he didn't like it when Jesus started saying that He would soon die at the hands of the religious leaders. What was the point of that? Wouldn't it be more impactful to continue performing miracles and demonstrate His power over those who were dishonoring Allah? Couldn't He save His people without dying on the cross? Maybe Haroun could help me to understand that.
So, I rushed out of the room, determined to get answers. But, I stopped when I noticed that Haroun was praying. He was still in the living room… in the same sofa chair… his hands folded together, his head slightly bowed. Then, it occurred to me that it must have been late. It sure was dark outside. I quickly glanced at the clock and noticed that it was past midnight. What was he still doing there? Had he been praying the whole time I was reading the Bible? Right then, he looked up. He didn't seem surprised to see me. He simply leaned back and gently placed his hands on his lap.
Moe – You're still up…
Haroun – So are you.
Moe – I'm sorry for interrupting your prayer.
Haroun – That's not a problem. I was praying for you.
Moe – Oh… Well, do you mind if I ask you a question?
Haroun – Go ahead.
Moe – Why did Jesus call Peter, "Shaytan"? I mean, why did He say, "Get behind Me, Shaytan"?
Haroun – Were you reading the Gospel According to Matthew?
Moe – Huh… I think so…
Haroun – Okay. Jesus said those words because Peter was trying to stop Him from doing what He had come into the world to accomplish. You see, He came into the world for one purpose: to save us from our sins. The only way that He could do that was by taking our sins upon Himself at the cross, and bearing Allah's wrath in our stead. So, when Peter was trying to stop Jesus from giving His life for us, he was going against Allah's plan.
Moe – But, why would He call him, "Shaytan"? That's pretty strong.
Haroun – That's because Shaytan has always tried to overthrow Allah's plan of redemption. The devil knew that this would be his ultimate defeat! From the beginning of the world, when Adam and Eve were deceived by the devil and sinned against Allah, they were given a promise: Allah would send a Savior who would crush Shaytan's head, though He would be wounded in the process. (You can read about that in the third chapter of the book of Genesis.) Throughout the entire history of the world, Allah has been preparing the way for that great day! From one covenant to another, the Lord kept reminding His people of His promise, ratifying the agreement with His chosen people, and setting the stage for the fulfillment of this great salvation. That's what He did when He made a covenant with Abraham, telling him that the promise of the eternal covenant would be fulfilled through his offspring. All the while, the devil has been fighting against Allah's people, trying to destroy the lineage of the promised Savior, and trying to prevent his own defeat.
Moe – So, Allah preserved His promise of a Savior through Abraham's lineage?
Haroun – Yes. That's why the genealogies in the Bible are so important. They track down this promise and authenticate it, to display Allah's faithfulness and His covenant love. They prove that we can trust Him for things unseen, and establish a sure foundation for the hope that we have through faith in the Messiah.
Moe – And, when Peter opposed Jesus's calling, he was serving the devil's interest… is that correct?
Haroun – Yes. It's even possible that Shaytan put these thoughts in Peter's mind. Let me read to you a passage from the Letter to the Hebrews. Listen to what it says regarding the way that Jesus would defeat Shaytan: "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." (Hebrews 2:14-15)
Moe – So, through death… Jesus destroyed the devil, who has the power of death…
Haroun – That's right. Death came into the world as a result of sin. That's because the wages of sin is death. In other words, if you cut yourself off from the Author of life, the result will be your death, both physically and spiritually. And, to break the curse, Jesus interceded on our behalf and conquered death by His resurrection, taking away the sting of death. The Bible says: "For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive." (1 Corinthians 15:21-22)
Moe – And, somehow, His death brought life…
Haroun – Yes. You know, there's something astounding about putting to death the One who is the source of life: it creates a thundering short-circuit!
Moe – That's an interesting way to put it… The system crashed because it was overloaded.
Haroun – That's right. He put an end to the curse and its pattern of death. That's how He destroyed the schemes of the devil, whose purpose was to kill and oppose Allah's plan of redemption. Even though it was a terrible act of depravity under the hands of wicked men, it accomplished the most wonderful act of love according to Allah's sovereign decree. And, it's not like Jesus didn't have control over the situation. In fact, Jesus said it this way: "The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep. […] For this reason the Father loves Me, because I lay down My life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down of My own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from My Father." (John 10:10-11, 17-18)
I could tell that a transformation was taking place within. It's like a veil that had been covering my mind was slowly being lifted. The eyes of my understanding were graciously being opened. Indeed, I was starting to see that there was power in the cross; a power without equal. What seemed like a pathetic display of weakness was really the greatest act of victory! But, I had to abandon my old preconceptions. I had to deny what had been ingrained in me for so long and adopt a new confession. There certainly was a measure of anxiety in my heart, but reason compelled me to move in a new direction. I could see the light shining through the darkness. Nevertheless, I still had more questions.
Moe – Okay, if Jesus secured that victory in the first century, thus conquering death and the devil, what is left for Shaytan to do? Isn't the war over?
Haroun – Well, the victory is only secured for those who believe in Jesus. Those who trust in His atoning death have already received the water that gives eternal life. But, the devil will do everything in his power to hinder those who would take that path. He will fight against those who point others in the right direction and use every scheme to turn people away from the path of life.
Moe – So, Shaytan wants to prevent them from laying hold of the victory…
Haroun – Exactly. He will do everything to keep them from trusting in the death and resurrection of Jesus, the Messiah. He's at work, putting thoughts in the minds of unbelievers, giving them plenty of reasons not to believe in Jesus. He's telling them that Jesus never really died on the cross; he's telling them that Jesus couldn't have suffered such dishonor if He truly was Allah's faithful Servant; he's telling them that Christians don't have an accurate view of Jesus, either because He's not really human, or because He's not truly divine. That's why, throughout history, people have constantly come up with reasons why they should deny the historical events recorded by the disciples of Jesus. For instance, the Early Church had to contend against Gnostics who reinvented Christianity and wrote their own counterfeit accounts of these events, even though they didn't have a shred of evidence to support it. Then came the false teachers who questioned the fundamental tenets of the Christian Faith. In fact, every cult in the history of the Church can trace its beginnings to the rejection of the work or the person of Jesus, the Messiah. For instance, if you ever come across people who call themselves "Jehovah's Witnesses" or "Mormons," bear in mind that, in essence, their rejection of the gospel is no different than the Gnostics of the second century and the Muslims of the seventh century. They simply deny what Allah has accomplished for our salvation in the substitutionary death of His eternal Son… the One who bore our likeness and the fullness of deity at the same time, who was vindicated by His resurrection so that He might give life to those who trust in Him.
Moe – That's quite a mouthful… And that's quite the statement… Do you really think that you can just put all of these groups into the same category?
Haroun – Please don't misunderstand what I am saying; I know that there are many differences between Islam, Gnosticism, and the various cults that have emerged throughout history. I'm simply pointing out a common thread. I'm not saying that they agree with each other in every way, but they certainly deny the same essence of the gospel.
Moe – So you're comparing them based on what they deny, rather than based on what they affirm.
Haroun – That's correct. Besides, let's face it: even though lies may take different forms, they all boil down to the distortion of the truth. And, once you figure out what the truth is, you can tell when it is distorted.
Moe – Could you explain what you mean by that?
Haroun – Okay, let me give you an analogy. People who handle money must be able to tell the difference between a genuine bill and a counterfeit. That's especially true of those who work in banks. Now, the interesting thing is that you can't train these people by showing them what a counterfeit bill looks like, because it could take so many different forms. Instead, these people must become so familiar with the characteristics of a genuine bill that if you were to slip a counterfeit, they would immediately recognize it as such, regardless of its form. Well, it's the same with the gospel of Jesus. We need to know the truth of the gospel so well that whenever we come across a counterfeit religion or a false gospel, we will immediately be able to recognize it as such. At the risk of being redundant, I want to reiterate that the person and the work of Jesus are at the very core of the gospel. If you deny those things, you deny the truth, and you fall short of Allah's salvation.
Moe – I see what you mean…
Haroun – And, that's why Christians put so much emphasis on Jesus and the cross.
Moe – That makes sense. To be honest, the crucifixion of Jesus seemed so weak and foolish to me before… But, now, I'm becoming convinced that it's the most vital part of the Christian faith.
Haroun – I understand why you would stumble like that. We don't normally think of humility as something that is powerful. And that translates into the way that we perceive Allah. Typically, we can't conceive that Allah could do such a thing because it seems to call into question His divine attributes. We certainly don't want to attribute weakness to Him! We don't like to think that way about Allah, and we don't like to think that way about His servants. But, what if it's simply a part of His design? What if He had decreed to use such things to accomplish His most wonderful plan? The reality is that we need to be stretched to think that way.
Moe – That's for sure.
Haroun – Do you mind if I read a passage that perfectly summarizes what I'm trying to convey?
Moe – Of course not. Is it from the New Testament?
Haroun – Yes. It's from Paul's letter to the Philippians. Just let those words sink into your heart: "Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Jesus the Messiah, who, though He had Allah's form, did not count equality with Allah a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore Allah has highly exalted Him and bestowed on Him the Name that is above every name, so that at the Name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus the Messiah is Lord, to the glory of Allah, the Father." (Philippians 2:5-11)
Moe – Wow…
Haroun – Did you get that?
Moe – Honestly, I'm having trouble wrapping my mind around these words.
Haroun – Haha! That's normal. Let me break it down for you. This passage teaches us that Jesus had Allah's form before He entered our world and took a human body. In other words, He was equal to Allah in glory, since they shared the same essence. However, He purposefully humbled Himself by taking a human body, subjecting Himself to the hardships of the task that He had to accomplish for the world. He obeyed Allah's will perfectly and completely, all the way to the ultimate purpose for which He had come: to take Allah's wrath upon Himself at the cross. And, because He did all of that, Allah magnified His Name, declaring that all of creation must bow down before Jesus, because He is the Lord and He has reconciled the world to its Creator. And, when we do that, that is, when we bow down to the Name of Jesus, we truly glorify Allah, the Father.
Moe – Does that mean that Jesus did not always have this position of exaltation?
Haroun – Well, remember, when you use the name "Jesus", you are talking about the One who is both divine and human. But, there was a time in history when Allah's Son did not have a human body and did not bear a human name. So, all the glory that He had before the creation of the world and before His incarnation was solely in respect to His divine nature. However, now that He has accomplished the task to which He was appointed, specifically in the body of a man, Jesus of Nazareth, all of that glory that He had with Father is now transferred expressly to the Name of Jesus. And, from now on, all of creation must bow before that Name! It's because this is the Name by which we must approach Allah.
Moe – And, did Jesus understand that He would receive such honor as a result of His obedience?
Haroun – Yes, He did. In fact, when He knew that the time was drawing near for Him to be crucified, He prayed a very special prayer to Allah, His Father. If you don't mind, let me read just two verses from His prayer. This is what Jesus said: "And now, Father, glorify Me in Your own presence with the glory that I had with You before the world existed. I have manifested Your Name to the people whom You gave Me out of the world. Yours they were, and You gave them to Me, and they have kept Your word." (John 17:5-6)
Moe – Interesting. He knew what the outcome would be…
Haroun – Yes, and He came to manifest Allah's Name to the world, knowing that through the exaltation of the Name of Jesus with the glory that Allah's Son had before the creation of the world, the Father would be glorified.
Moe – So, Allah has bestowed honor upon the Name of Jesus… for His own glory.
Haroun – That's right. That's how He revealed Himself to the world. That's how He reconciled the world to Himself. In fact, that's why the apostle Peter said, "There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved." (Acts 4:12)
Moe – And, all of that would not be possible if Jesus hadn't humbled Himself.
Haroun – Exactly. Allah has a place even for humility and suffering. In His divine wisdom, He designed to turn those things around for His glory, and for our greater good.
Moe – Are you saying that we can also benefit from suffering? Do we also have to go through hardships to attain glory?
Haroun – In many ways, yes! Allah uses trials and suffering to build our faith. In a strange way, hardships accomplish something majestic… something that could not be accomplished by anything else. Under Allah's guidance, when we hold on to Jesus by faith as we endure suffering, it produces a harvest of glory, prepared for us in the afterlife.
Moe – Wow! That's amazing… Suffering produces a harvest of glory.
Haroun – Yes, provided we abide in the Messiah. In other words, the result depends on whether or not we abide in the place of refuge, through faith in Jesus. Something happens when we run to Him: we are transformed from worthless vessels to valuable instruments in the hands of Allah. So, when the fire of testing comes, either we are consumed by it like the grass of the field, or we are refined by it like pure gold.
Moe – Refined like pure gold…
Haroun – Well, I could try to explain it with my own words, but I'd rather read a few passages from the Scriptures that proclaim those powerful truths. Just listen carefully to what these verses teach us, and meditate on it for a while. Here's the first passage: "The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are Allah's children, and if children, then heirs—heirs of Allah and fellow heirs with the Messiah, provided we suffer with Him in order that we may also be glorified with Him. For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us." (Romans 8:16-18)
Moe – That's profound… We are heirs of the Messiah, provided that we suffer with Him, with the result that we will also be glorified with Him…
Haroun – And that's why we can rejoice through suffering. Listen to those passages and let them sink into your heart: "We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because Allah's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us." (Romans 5:3-5) "In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus, the Messiah. Though you have not seen Him, you love Him. Though you do not now see Him, you believe in Him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls." (1 Peter 1:6-9)
Moe – That is amazing!
Haroun – It is.
Moe – The Lord turns the table… He accomplishes something glorious through a refining fire.
Haroun – Precisely. Ultimately, we have hope through these things because of what Jesus has accomplished. Otherwise, we could only pity ourselves when we go through difficulties, and we might think that Allah is unhappy with us whenever trouble befalls us. But, now, we understand that there is a place for suffering and humility, just like there is a place for honor and glory… each in their rightful time.
Moe – So, Jesus went through this process, and He calls us to go through the same.
Haroun – Yes, only because He secured our inheritance. We and others now have access to this eternal inheritance through faith in Jesus. That's why we lose nothing by humbling ourselves and enduring suffering. His calling is very clear: In the same way that He humbled Himself, He calls us to humble ourselves. As a matter of fact, at the end of His public ministry, He illustrated this when He washed His disciples' feet, just a few hours before He was going to be arrested. Listen to this account: "When He had washed their feet and put on His outer garments and resumed His place, He said to them, 'Do you understand what I have done to you? You call Me teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. Truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them'." (John 13:12-17)
Moe – And, we are His messengers…
Haroun – We are.
Moe – And, we are proclaiming the message of victory through a powerful act of humility…
Haroun – That's a good way to put it. It's a humble calling… but it's also a powerful one. It holds power that is imperceptible to the human eye. The reality is that we fight against spiritual forces of darkness with spiritual weapons: Our faith in Jesus delivers us from the schemes of the devil; our hearts are protected by the perfect righteousness of the Messiah; our minds are at peace knowing that we have been granted such a great salvation; our feet are clothed with the readiness to bring the gospel to set captives free; and we destroy strongholds with the testimony about Jesus, girded with the truth and empowered by the Holy Spirit.
Moe – That's the real holy war, isn't it?
Haroun – If only people understood that, they would stop killing each other. They would realize that we need different weapons to accomplish Allah's work, since the real battle is a spiritual one.
At that point, I realized what a fool I had been. How could I have been so blind? How did I ever think that murder could accomplish anything good? How did I miss the fact that the answer to the problem of sin and evil in the world was found in an act of humility? I had reviled the most wonderful act of love that Allah's Servant had accomplished for human beings. I had spit upon the One who died for me. I had slapped His face and mocked Him. I had joined hands with those who despised the Son of Man and wanted Him dead; my hands had held the Roman whip that tore His flesh apart and the hammer that drove the nails through His limbs. My voice had called out for His death. I had become an accomplice to those who couldn't bear Jesus's words about His divine calling to suffer and die on a cross. All the while, Jesus had loved me. All the while, Jesus was willing to take my sins upon Himself. Even though I was His enemy… He simply loved me.
My eyes quickly filled up with tears. I tried to stop the flow, but it was just too strong. The emotions boiled up within me… and the torrent gushed out. Tears rolled down my cheeks like a river. The more I tried to stop them, the greater the flow became. I finally stopped resisting, and I let the floodgates open wide. I didn't care that Haroun was watching me… I simply cried… I sobbed, as though the tears would cleanse me from within. I put my hands over my face, trying to regain a little bit of dignity. But, I couldn't hide from the One who was healing my heart. Like a gentle wind, Allah's Spirit was breathing new life into me. He was touching my heart and comforting me with soothing words. He was confirming that I could come to Him, because my warfare was ended and my iniquities were pardoned. I was at peace with Him because of His Son…
In this short time, a miraculous transformation had occurred. I found answers that I was not expecting. I found hope that I didn't know existed. My prejudices were dashed upon the rocks as I learned the truth about Christianity. The chains that once held me prisoner were shattered, once and for all. At the same time, I came to appreciate the way that Allah had revealed His salvation throughout history, as recorded in the Bible. When we consider the variety of circumstances through which the Lord chose to manifest His love, we realize that each one of them holds its rightful place in the formation a beautiful tapestry. Under the divine guidance, small narratives were woven together into a grand narrative. The establishment of provisional covenants fulfilled the promise of a greater covenant. And, everything culminated in one divine act in history: the promised deliverance; the ultimate resolution of the great cosmic conflict… through the cross. But, the cross wasn't the end; it simply paved the way to the resurrection. First comes the suffering, then comes the glory… first for our Savior, and then for His followers.
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