Do Muslims and Christians worship the same God? On December 15, 2015, Wheaton College, evangelical school in Chicago, placed a tenured professor on administrative leave for making comments that they felt were contrary to their Statement of Faith. Dr. Larycia Hawkins, political science professor, wanted to show solidarity with her Muslim neighbors by wearing a hijab as part of her Advent discipline. It wasn’t the stand of solidarity that brought her the attention of the school board. It was her Facebook post. She says, “I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book and as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God.”
As of current, it appears that Dr. Hawkins will be terminated by the school for her refusal to recant her statement even though she says she continues to adhere to the school’s Statement of Faith. Is she right? Do Muslims and Christians worship the same God? After all, Muslim’s profess belief in God who created Adam and Eve, who rescued Noah from the flood, promised Abraham many children, helped Moses escape Egypt, who gave a child to the Virgin Mary, and who sent Jesus into the world. Is this not the same narrative of the God of the Christians? Does the finer details of Christian theology disrupt any talk of unity? Does it matter that Christians believe in the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus and Muslims are diametrically opposed to this type of thinking about God?
For the sake of solidarity many are saying that there is one Creator whom Muslims and Christians worship. For example, in some parts of the country soda is called pop, and in other regions all pop are referred to as Coke. No matter what name we call it we are referring to the same thing – a carbonated soft drink. This is the approach many take to understanding religion. There is one God being called by different names depending on where you are from and what religion you follow.
Difficult times come with challenging questions. Our current culture context is asking us to answer some difficult questions. There is enormous pressure on followers of Jesus to know what they believe and the ability to articulate that belief in a convincing, non-threatening way. The cost of getting it wrong has huge implications on how we come to translate the gospel for the next generation.
For centuries, Christians in Malaysia have been using the word Allah for God. That is until 2006 when the Islamic-influenced government prohibited non-Muslims from using the word Allah to refer to the creator God. The Muslims wanted a clear distinction to be made between the god of Islam and the god of the Christian. The Christians countered by pointing out that the word precedes Islam. It was used to describe the Supreme Being by the Arab tribes in Northern Africa long before Islam. Christians in Malaysia have lost the legal battle and can no longer use the word.
The reason I bring this up is because it is not as clear-cut to say Christians and Muslims worship different gods. We could be using the same argument that the Islamist are arguing in Malaysia. At the same time, we have to admit that there are some crucial differences in the way the two religions have come to speak of God. It remains unfaithful to both traditions to simply say we are all talking about a carbonated soft-drink but calling it a different name.
The Gospel of John was written for such a time as this. The book was written between 80-90 AD during a volatile time for Christians. The gospel is attributed to John, the son of Zebedee. He and his brother is one of the first disciples called by Jesus. They are fishermen. The three letters of John and the Book of Revelation are also attributed to the same author. Reading through the book gives the appearance of someone who has an intimate friend with Jesus and who spends the rest of his life reflecting over what that friendship means for him and his community.
He writes from Ephesus, a cosmopolitan city on the coast of modern-day Turkey. The Christians in John’s community find themselves in an odd predicament. They have been kicked out of the synagogue accused by the Jews of heresy. There is a story in John 9 where Jesus heals a blind man. He and his parents are brought before the Jewish leaders and asked about the validity of the healing. His parents respond, “Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself” (John 9:21). The author gives us some commentary on the passage by saying, “His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue” (John 9:22). By the time the gospel of John is written, the Jewish-Christians were getting kicked out of the synagogues. A Jewish benediction from this time period reads, “Let the Nazarenes (Christians) and the Minim (heretics) be destroyed in a moment and let them be blotted out of the Book of Life and not be inscribed together with the righteous” (Twelfth Benediction “Blessing of the Heretics). Jesus predicted this would happen, “They will kick you out of the synagogues” (John 16:2).
They live in a world hated by those they called brothers and sisters. Jesus reminds them, “If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you” (John 15:18). They were good Jews. They trusted in the narrative of the Hebrew bible. Abraham, Moses, David were their people. And now they are being excluded from this narrative and told that they can no longer be connected to their own story because of their belief in Jesus as the Messiah. The post-resurrection Jews would say that the Christians worshipped a different God, or at the very least, a distorted view of God. The Christians argued that the God they worshipped was the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. What the Gospel of John does for the people is to tell the people who in and through Jesus, Yahweh is doing something new. It is nothing short of the creative act of God. In and through Jesus, God is doing a new thing and they are participates of God’s creation.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.
The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.
(John testified concerning him. He cried out, saying, “This is the one I spoke about when I said, ‘He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’”) Out of his fullness we have all received grace in place of grace already given. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known. John 1:1-18
Most scriptural characters are introduced by genealogies. Matthew and Luke begin their story of Jesus by tracing his origins to his biblical ancestors. John begins the story of Jesus in the eternal heart of God. At the beginning of creation, God spoke the world into existence. God’s speech served as God’s creating power. By referring to Jesus as the Word, John is implying that Jesus gives visible expression to the invisible power and presence of God. The Greek for Word is Logos. The Greeks understood Logos as the rational force at work in our world. It was the unseen presence that brought stability and order to our world. It is what links the human mind to the mind of God. The philosophers of John’s time, and of ours, would say there is a “force” or “principle” at work in our world creating and bringing order. If you want to find purpose, get in touch with this life force. It is a Greek philosophy meets Star Wars meets Oprah Winfrey kind of thought process. John says there is a force at work in our world bringing life but it is not an abstract principle, it is a person. The Word has taken on flesh and made his dwelling among us.
Jesus is the one who has come to make known to us the Father in heaven. In verse 14 when John says, “The Word became flesh and lived among us,” he is making a powerful statement about Jesus’ role in revealing God. The Greek word used for “lived” or “dwelt” means “to tabernacle.” It means that God has taken up residence among us. It is the word used in the Old Testament of the tent of meeting where the Lord’s presence dwelt in the wilderness and the people encountered God. “The Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the tent of meeting” (Numbers 1:1).
Once the people settled in Jerusalem, the Temple served as the place where God’s presence dwelt. It was at the Temple that the people went to encounter God. The Temple was the place where heaven and earth interlocked. It was the place of divine encounter. John is saying that place is now a person. It is in and through Jesus that God promises to be present with his people. This is a good thing because the Jerusalem Temple was destroyed in AD 70. John wrote his story of Jesus after the destruction of the Temple. The Jewish people are in the process of redefining their religion based on the fact that the place where they meet with God no longer stands. Eventually, the Torah takes the sacred place of encounter for Jews. The Torah is God’s word and is eternal and unchanging. It is normative for life. The Jews believed that where the Torah was read, continues to be read, God’s presence is felt. In a Jewish commentary it is written, “Where two who sit and exchange words of Torah, the Divine Presence rests amongst them” (Pirke Aboth 3.2). Sounds familiar to Jesus’ words, “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them” (Matthew 18:20).
Jesus becomes the place where people will meet with God. He has become the visible presence of God. “We have seen his glory,” John declares (1:14). The presence of God is no longer in a temple, but in a person. Jesus rather than the Temple is the place where the living God is present. No longer must one go to the Temple to seek forgiveness for their sins. Now forgiveness is found through Jesus. If we want to know the character of God, we look to Jesus. “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known” (John 1:18). As we go through the Gospel of John, we will see how Jesus makes know the Father in heaven. Only Jesus can lead people to the heart of God because He is the only one who has come from the heart of God.
As a Christian, if someone asked you about God, that is why we tell them about Jesus. We don’t get the luxury of talking about God in abstract language or as some generic Universal Being. We can’t refer to some force at work in the world bringing order and meaning to people’s lives. If you want to know God, discover forgiveness, walk in truth, then follow Jesus. Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Him (John 14:6).