There are many similarities between the three great monotheistic religions in the world, namely Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Not only do they all confess the existence of one Supreme Being only, hut they place the revelation of his will and the development of prophetic history against the same background. All three teach that God created the world in six days, that the first man created was Adam and that Eve (Hawwa) was his wife, that men have sinned against God and need his forgiveness, that God has sent a series of prophets into the world (such as Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, etc.), and that there will be a Day of Judgement for the vindication of the righteous and the destruction of the ungodly.
Yet the same three religions have marked differences, so radical and so crucial that there is ultimately no prospect of reconciliation between them. Each looks to a respective founder - Judaism to Moses, Christianity to Jesus, and Islam to Muhammad - and the former faiths are not prepared to acknowledge the founders of the religions that succeeded them. The result has been much dispute and debate about the two great authors of the world's two universal monotheistic faiths, Christianity and Islam. Am objective approach to all three religions must lead to the conclusion that the true religion is somewhere among these three, but which one is it?
An open mind, aided by the guidance of God, can no doubt discover the one true religion, but as there is so much debate and dispute between the three major faiths, especially over the personalities of Jesus and Muhammad, perhaps it is better to look towards one of the great prophets who preceded all three religions and about whom all three are generally in agreement, namely the patriarch Abraham. Although ho was not the founder of any of those three, yet he is openly regarded by all of them as a true prophet and an example of a man of true faith, a prototype of the fuller revelation of God's truth yet to come through his antitype.
It is indeed fascinating to discover that all three monotheistic faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, acknowledge that Abraham was a central, and yet unique figure in the matter of God's revelation of his truth to the human race. In fact there are three major points relating to Abraham where the major monotheistic religions all agree and, in the circumstances, it can be presumed that these points of agreement are based on a foundation of truth common to each one. The religion and faith of Abraham therefore, called in the Qur'an millata-Ibrahim (Surah 2.130), is commonly acknowledged to be the true one. All three religions can openly testify that these words express a conviction cherished and recognised by each one in turn:
Say: Follow the religion of Abraham the upright, for he was not one of the Pagans. Surah 3.95
It is thus agreed that "the religion of Abraham" (millat-a-Ibrahim) was indeed the true one and that he foreshadowed a greater revelation of it yet to come. But which one was it? We all agree in principle that he was a man of true faith, but which faith did he represent, Judaism, Christianity or Islam? Let us proceed to analyse the three points of agreement referred to and press on from there to study the implications of each, for if we can truly discover what Abraham's faith really was, we can settle the whole issue between us and duly discover God's true final revelation to mankind. By establishing a foundation of truth based on those facets of Abraham's life and faith upon which we agree, we can build until we come to a realisation of what the true religion of Abraham really was and on what grounds he was found pleasing and acceptable to God.
1. ABRAHAM - THE FRIEND OF GOD.
Our first point of agreement relates to a title given to Abraham which is found in all three of the sacred scriptures of each respective religion, namely the close Friend of God. In the Jewish Scriptures, the Tawraat (which Christians commonly call the Old Testament), he is twice so described. On one occasion the upright king of Judea, Jehoshaphat, prayed to God in these words:
"Didst thou not, 0 our God, drive out the inhabitants of this land before thy people Israel, and give it for ever to the descendants of Abraham thy friend?" 2 Chronicles 20.7
In another very similar passage we find that God himself spoke from heaven and openly acknowledged that Abraham was his friend:
"You, Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, the offspring of Abraham, my friend". Isaiah 41.8
The Jews, therefore, have always believed that Abraham was not just a servant of God but also his friend, meaning that a very intimate relationship existed between them and that God was willing to communicate with him on a far more familiar level than that of master to servant.
In the Christian Scriptures, the Injil (which Christians commonly call the Now Testament), we find that Abraham is again described and recognised as the friend of God. The verse roads:
The scripture was fulfilled which says, "Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness"; and he was called the friend of God. James 2.23
Significantly Islam also recognises that Abraham was, in a special way, the friend of God. Whereas Muhammad is called in Islam the "messenger of God" (rasulullah), and David is called the "vicegerent of God" (khalifatullah), with Moses being designated the "word of God" (kalimatullah) and Jesus the "spirit of God" (ruhullah), so in turn the specific title given to Abraham in Islam is the "friend of God" (kalilullah). The title duly appears in the following verse of the Muslim Scriptures, the Qur'an:
For God did take Abraham for a friend. Surah 4.125
Just as Judaism and Christianity therefore acknowledge him to he the friend of God, so the Qur'an states explicitly that the great prophet Ibrahim was duly taken by Allah to be his very own friend, his khalil.
What is the implication of this title? Clearly it has a very special significance. It obviously implies that Abraham was not just a willing servant of God to whom God gave commands which the prophet summarily obeyed, nor was he purely a prophet to whom God dictated re-velations through the medium of an angel. He had a very close relationship with God, so close and so intimate that God was willing to confide in him, share his secrets with him, and even trust himself to him. A common bond of loyalty and mutual trust clearly existed between them, for this is the true meaning of friendship. A beautiful example of the distinction between a servant and a friend was given by Jesus Christ when he said:
"No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you". John 15.15
In the same way we must presume that if God was willing to take Abraham as his friend, this means that he was willing to confide in him and let him know many of his deepest counsels and purposes that he would not otherwise reveal to someone who was only his servant. We must conclude, therefore, that in a unique way God revealed to Abraham his plans and decrees for the future, confiding in him as a loyal and trusted friend who would believe in his revelations and faithfully and loyally preserve them for the generations to come.
Our study of the first point of agreement between Judaism, Christianity and Islam relating to the prophetic office of the great patriarch Abraham, therefore, has laid a sure foundation on which to build and from which we can explore the nature of his relationship to God. Before doing so, however, let us proceed to analyse the other two points of agreement so that the foundation may first be completed.
2. THE FATHER OF ALL TRUE BELIEVERS.
The second great point of agreement between the three great monotheistic religions is that Abraham is respected as the head of all the faithful and the father of all true believers. In the Jewish Scriptures it is recorded that God said to Abraham:
"I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing". Genesis 12.2
On two other occasions God renewed this promise, adding that he would be the father of a great multitude whom no man could number:
"I will make your descendants as the dust of the earth; so that if one can count the dust of the earth, your descendants also can be counted". Genesis 13.16
"I have made you the father of a multitude of nations". Genesis 17.5
God later confirmed that his covenant would be made, not through his son Ishmael who was born of a slave woman, Hagar, but through Isaac who was born of his wife Sarah (Genesis 17.19). As a result the Jews, who were all descended from Abraham through Isaac, looked on him as the father of their nation and regarded themselves as his true offspring and the nation that had been promised to him. Furthermore, because they also considered themselves the only nation on earth who were the true people of God, they accordingly saw him also as the father of all true believers.
Christians likewise regard Abraham as the father of all true believers, but we do not believe that the promises made to him referred ultimately to his physical offspring, the Jews, but rather to his spiritual offspring, that is, all those who have the same kind of faith that Abraham had. Indeed, in our view, the very choice of Isaac as the son through whom the covenant God had made with Abraham was to be fulfilled, shows that God was not thinking of his physical offspring. If he had, he would have chosen Ishmael, the first son born to Abraham, but he chose Isaac to show that he intended the blessings of the covenant to become effective for those who were spiritual and true in faith towards him. For it is recorded in both the Jewish Scriptures (Genesis 16. 12) and the Christian Scriptures (Galatians 4.29) that Ishmael was a decidedly unspiritual man (one born of "the flesh" as opposed to Isaac who was born of "the Spirit") and God therefore overlooked him in favour of Isaac to show that the true beneficiaries of his promises would not be those who would bear Abraham's genetic image in their flesh but rather those who would emulate his faithful character in their spirits. As it is put in the Christian Scriptures:
Not all are children of Abraham because they are his descendants; but "Through Isaac shall your descendants he named". This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are reckoned as descendants. Romans 9. 7-8.
So you see that it is men of faith who are the sons of Abraham ... So then, those who are men of faith are blessed with Abraham who had faith. Galatians 3. 7,9.
To us Abraham was accepted by God because he had faith in God and accordingly he became the father of the faithful. As the moon reflects the sun's light, so Abraham in his faith reflected the faithfulness of God. As the sun generates light, so God generates faithfulness and trustworthiness. Abraham responded to this by trusting God and by having faith in him (as we shall see in greater detail shortly). Therefore, just as God is the true Father of all true believers, so Abraham became a reflection of his leadership and was told, "I have made you the father of many nations" (Romans 4.17).
In our view, too, because this promise was made in the plural ("a multitude of nations - Genesis 17.5), it means that Abraham is not only the father of all true believers in Israel but also of all those in every nation who follow the example of his faith. It is therefore said in our Scriptures that the promise was made to all "those who share the faith of Abraham, for he is the father of us all" (Romans 4.16).
Just as the Jews believe, therefore, that Abraham was really a Jew and the father of the Jewish nation, so we believe that he was really a Christian at heart because he had the same kind of faith of which all true Christians are made - not in self-righteous piety through the performance of religious works and good deeds, but in a God-given righteousness by faith in a God who is faithful (1 Corinthians 10.13). We believe he was accepted and appointed as the father of all true believers, not because he had a righteousness which he had in himself, but because he had faith in God's own righteousness and faithfulness. He trusted not in works of law which he performed but in the grace of God towards all who respond to him in true faith. Islam also appoints Abraham as the representative of all true believers on earth. According to the Qur'an he was made an imam, a "faithful leader" for the whole human race. The Qur'an states that Allah said to him:
"Lo, I have appointed you a leader for mankind". Surah 2.124
Islam follows Christianity in regarding him, not as a father of one particular nation, but as the father of all true believers. He is regarded as the head because his belief and creed is regarded as the true one. On the other hand, whereas Christianity marks him out for his faith in God's faithfulness, Islam credits him for his belief in the oneness of God against the polytheism of his day (Surah 21. 66-67) and for his submission to the will of God (Surah 2.131). We shall go into this in greater detail as well in the next section, but at this stage it is important to note that as Judaism and Christianity regard him as a true Jew and Christian respectively, so the Qur'an, honouring his submission to God, calls him a muslim (Surah 3.67), saying of him that he was haiifaam-muslimaan - "an upright Muslim" or, more literally, one who was righteous and submissive. Once again his belief in the unity of God (tauhid) is also emphasised as both titles, hanif and muslim, are used for monotheists in the Qur'an in contrast with unbelie-vers (kafirun) and idol-worshippers (mushrikin).
Abraham, as a true Muslim therefore, is regarded in Islam as the imam of all true Muslims and the Qur'an, therefore, again and again exhorts Muslims: faattabi'uu millata Ibrahim - "follow the faith of Abraham", alternatively, follow his creed or form of religion. The true faith that Abraham had, therefore, is called in the Qur'-an the millata-Ibrahim and this very faith is set before all Muslims as the kind of faith they should emulate. We have now considered two of the great points of agreement between Judaism, Christianity and Islam on the prophetic character of Abraham and shall now analyse the third.
3. AN EXAMPLE AND PROTOTYPE OF THE TRUE RELIGION TO COME.
Although all three religions look to Abraham as a leader and the father of all true believers, none regards him as its founder or its most prominent figurehead but sees him solely as a prototype and example of what was yet to come. This is the third great point of agreement between Judaism, Christianity and Islam regarding Abraham's prophetic office.
In Judaism, Moses has always been regarded as the true founder of the religion of the people of Israel for it was to him that God's law was given. All the religious books of Judaism, including its Scripture and its traditional works (such as the Mishnah) distinguish him above all the other prophets of God. Some strictly orthodox Jews once summed it up when they said "We are disciples of Moses" (John 9.28). Jesus Christ himself also spoke to the Jews of Moses as "him on whom you set your hope" (John 5.45). The place Moses has in Judaism is well summed up in this description of Jewish worship:
For from early generations Moses has had in every city those who preach him, for he is read every sabbath in their synagogues. Acts 15.21
Christianity likewise looks to another man of God as its founder and central figure, namely Jesus Christ. Although Abraham is highly respected and honoured as a fine example of true faith, Jesus is the real founder of Christianity and its ultimate patron. Christians view the faith of Abraham as symbolic of their own faith in Jesus Christ, both being based on an implicit trust in the revealed faithfulness of God rather than any merit in the life and works of the believer. In our view the covenant God made with Abraham was precisely a shadow of the real covenant to come. God said to Abraham:
"Surely I will bless and multiply you". Hebrews 6.14
The covenant which God later made with Moses, a covenant of law, was based on commands which placed the responsibility of compliance squarely on the shoulders of those with whom it was made, namely, "You shall be holy, you shall keep my commandments, you shall be careful to observe my statutes" and, negatively, "You shall not kill, you shall not steal, you shall not commit adultery", etc. These were the kinds of commandments God gave to the people of Israel. But to Abraham God said simply, "I will bless you". This was not the "you shall ... you shall not" of the Mosaic Law. God, when making promises to Abraham, said "I will bless you ... I will make your name great", etc., thereby holding himself responsible for the fulfilment of the covenant he made with him. Abraham's part was to trust in God and to believe that he would do what he had promised.
In this way we see Abraham's faith in God as an example of a true Christian's faith in Jesus Christ. We trust in the promise God made to send a Saviour, we have faith in Jesus Christ as our Redeemer, and we are saved by God's grace through the great work of salvation he wrought through his crucifixion and resurrection. Abraham's faith is well described in this outline of his trust in God that he would duly receive the son which God had promised to him:
No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. Romans 4. 20-21.
Here we find what really commended Abraham to God, not his good deeds or religious works, but his faith that God would fulfil his promise. It was because he so trusted God that "his faith was reckoned to him as righteousness" (Romans 4.22). In this he was an example of true Christian faith which depends on God's grace in sending his Son to save us from our sins just as he had promised through the prophets who came before him. So our Scriptures say that as Abraham was declared righteous by God because he trusted in him, so we too will be equally regarded if we place all our confidence and trust in Jesus as our Lord and Saviour.
But the words, "it was reckoned to him", were not written for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be reckoned to us who believe in him that raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was put to death for our trespasses and raised for our justification. Romans 4.23-25.
Abraham did not try to gain God's favour through his own piety or self-righteousness - he put all his confidence in God's grace and faithfulness. He is thus an example of true Christian faith for we likewise do not seek our own glory but trust in what God has done in Jesus Christ. This helps, furthermore, to give the title "the friend of God" more meaning. The marks of friendship are trust, loyalty and a close personal relationship. Abraham was not commended for any good work but was regarded for what he was. God took him as a friend.
His good standing depended not on some form of individual righteousness by which he gained God's favour, but a personal relationship based on mutual friendship. This is precisely what true Christian faith is. All true Christians are declared in the Christian Scriptures to be "children of God" (1 John 3.1), people who have a personal relationship with their Father in heaven. Through faith in Jesus we too enter into the same covenant of grace, faith and the promises of God which cha-racterised God's relationship with Abraham. So we read in this passage of our identification with Abraham in a covenant based on faith in the promises of God:
That in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come upon the Gentiles, that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith. Galatians 3.14
In Islam we likewise find that the central figure is not Abraham, even though he was declared to be an imam for mankind. Muhammad, proclaimed in Islam as the last and greatest of God's prophets, is the ultimate founder and figurehead of the religion. Yet, as with Judaism and Christianity, Abraham's own faith is set forth as a good example of true Muslim faith and in the Qur'an Muslims are bidden:
Say, we follow the faith of Abraham the upright. Surah 2.135
Once again Abraham is regarded as an example of true faith and the Qur'an thus highly commends the millata-Ibrahim, the "faith of Abraham". Yet, as pointed out already, there is a clear distinction between Christian and Muslim views of what Abraham's faith really was. Islam determines it principally as submission to the oneness of God. The Qur'an thus summarises his faith as follows:
Behold! His Lord said to him, "Submit". He said, "I have submitted to the Lord of the Worlds". Surah 2.131
The very word fs/am means submission and a Muslim is one who submits to God. Both words come from the same root letters. In Surah 2.130 we again read that the true faith of a Muslim is the mil1ata-Ibrahim, the "faith of Abraham", and in the verse quoted it is defined in the command of God, Aslim! ("Submit") and the reply of Abraham, Aslamtu ("I have submitted"). The two words are also from the same root letters as the first two and in the next verse (Surah 2.132) we read that Abraham exhorted his sons to die purely as muslimuun - "those who have submitted". In another passage Muhammad himself is bidden to proclaim that the religion he has been commanded to follow and preach is nothing less than that which Abraham himself followed. He was bidden to say to all who questioned the source of his religion:
Say: "Verily, my Lord has guided me into a straight path, an upright religion, the faith of Abraham the upright who was not one of the idolaters". Surah 2.161
Here the Siratal-Mustaqim the "Straight Path" defined in the Suratul-Fatihah as the religion of all true Muslims, is regarded as synonymous with the millata-Ibrahim, the "faith of Abraham".
There are differences between Judaism and Christianity as well as Islam regarding the nature of Abraham's faith. Both Christianity and Islam agree that he believed in the one God and that he submitted to his will, yet Christianity explores a characteristic of his faith that obtains no mention in the Qur'an, namely his implicit trust in God's faithfulness. As we proceed we shall see what the implications of this distinction are, but at this stage it will he useful to summarise as the foundation we sought to lay through our analysis of the common ground between our respective faiths is now complete. All three agree that Abraham was the friend of God, that he is the head of all true believers, and that he was an example and prototype of the true religion which was to be revealed later in all its fullness through another figurehead yet to rise upon the earth. Let us press on to discover what that religion, that which the Qur'an calls the mil1ata-Ibrahim, really was.
4. THE PROMISE OF A SON TO ABRAHAM.
We begin with the promise God made to Abraham that he would give him a son, a promise recorded in both the Bible (Genesis 15.4) and the Qur'an (Surah 37.101). When he was seventy-five years old God said to him:
"Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who curses you I will curse; and by you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves". Genesis 12. 1-3.
This glorious promise was repeated on a number of occasions to Abraham. On one of them God said to him that he would make his descendants like the dust of the earth so that, if the dust of the earth could be counted, his descendants also could be numbered (Genesis 13.16). On another occasion he made him look at the stars and said "Look toward heaven and number the stars, if you are able to number them" (Genesis 15.5), adding that in the same way his descendants would be an innumerable multitude. At the same time he promised him that, although he was childless, his descendants would not come from a slave in his house but that his own son would be his heir (Genesis 15.4).
Abraham knew that it was physically impossible for his wife Sarah to have a son as she was barren and "it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women" (Genesis 8.11), she being no less than sixty-five years old. Abraham knew, therefore, that if he was to have a son God would have to act in a supernatural way to bring it about. Without doubting in any way, however, he believed that it would happen. His response of faith and God's appreciation of his trust are described as follows:
And he believed the Lord, and he reckoned it to him as righteousness. Genesis 15.6
There are many people who believe that God can act in a supernatural way and such a conviction is no doubt essential to true faith in him. Abraham, however, believed in the promise for another reason. He responded in positive faith, not because he was persuaded of the power of God to accomplish anything he purposed, but because he trusted to the holy character of God who, he believed, would always be faithful to his own word. It was for this reason that God counted his faith to him as righteousness. To return to the illustration of the sun and the moon, the sun generates light and the best the moon can do is to reflect it as far as its nature allows. So God generates faithfulness and the best a man can do is to have faith in God and so reflect his faithfulness. When Abraham did precisely this, God, who also generates righteousness, counted Abraham s faith to him as a reflection of his righteousness as well On this count he constituted and declared him righteous in his sight not by virtue of his own good works but by virtue of his trust in God's goodness and faithfulness This then is the first thing we learn about the faith of Abraham the millata-Ibrahim as the Qur'an calls it It was a faith in God's faithfulness. He based his whole trust on this precept which was firmly fixed in his mind:
Every word of God proves true. Proverbs 30.5
This brings us to the second thing we learn about his faith, and that is that his belief that God would exercise his power in a supernatural way to fulfil his promise arose, not out of a conviction that God could act in such a way because he was all-powerful, but that he would so act to fulfil his promise. The faithfulness of God to his own word demanded, in Abraham's mind, the conclusion that, although such things had never happened before, they would now, because God would surely fulfil his promise. He believed in God, therefore, as he who "gives life to the dead and calls into existence things that do not exist" (Romans 4.17). The only way a son could be born to him was if God intervened in the natural order and brought about a conception that could not naturally result, and so give life to the womb of a woman that was as good as dead, having ceased to function years earlier. In hope Abraham "believed against hope" (Romans 4.18) because he knew that God would surely fulfil his promise. He knew that God would never break his word and it was this conviction that gave him the grace to believe that he would duly bear a son. The third thing we learn about the real millata-Ibrahim, the true "faith of Abraham", is that he was not a man of blind faith, of uncomprehending resignation to the will of God. He was not the kind of man who did not reason about difficult matters and just trusted to what he had been brought up to believe without any kind of reflection or consideration, like so many people today. Fatalistic resignation was not Abraham's idea of surrendering to the will of God. As we analyse his faith we are bound to see it was far mare profound than this. We cannot accept that God simply said to him Aslim! - "Submit!" - in the way a dog-trainer will command a dog "Heel!" If the dog does so respond, we will not say he has faith in his master, rather that he has been programmed into responding appropriately to the command. The only state of mind in the dog will be a fear of the consequences if he fails to obey. This certainly was not the attitude of Abraham. He did not say aslamtu - "I have submitted" - and come immediately to heel . No -this man Abraham is set forth in both the Bible and the Qur'an as the great human figurehead of faith whose example should be followed by all men (Galatians 3.9). There must have been more to Abraham's faith than blind, uncomprehending submission.
Because he always trusted in the faithfulness of God, he gave God's promise to him that he would have a son serious consideration and reflection. Be considered that it came from a God who is faithful, reasoned that God would fulfil his word, came to a conclusion that it must therefore come to pass, and thus believed it. He reasoned carefully about the promise. He questioned whether it could be fulfilled. He could not naturally have a son but he knew that God was faithful and if God had promised to give him a son, then because of the faithfulness of God to his own word, the promise must surely come true.
Because of this exercise of faith, because he rea-soned carefully about the matter and did not just accept the promise fatalistically, he came to understand how the son would be conceived and in so doing gained a greater understanding of the mind and will of God.
A further proof that God was, in fact, both testing and proving Abraham's faith in this manner is found in what followed. Instead of immediately giving him the son he had promised, God waited twenty-five years before he fulfilled his promise, by which time Abraham was a hundred years old and his wife ninety. In the meantime Abraham had begotten a son through his slave-woman Hagar and, believing God's promise to be fulfilled, he called him Ishmael, meaning "God hears". But no word came from God when Ishmael was born. For thirteen years no communication of any kind came from heaven to confirm that Ishmael was the child of the promise. Instead, at the end of this period, God finally called Abraham again and said to him of his wife Sarah:
"I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her; I will bless her, and she shall be a mother of nations; kings of peoples shall come from her". Genesis 17.10
At first he was astonished and even laughed to himself when he thought of the respective ages of Sarah and himself. But, being a man of the kind of faith he had, that which alone is true faith, namely a conviction that God will, in his faithfulness, make every word he says come true he immediately realised that this word of God would surely be fulfilled and that Sarah 5 son to come was the real son God had promised. He cried out to God, "O that Ishmael might live in thy sight (Genesis 17.18). God replied emphatically "No, but Sarah your wife shall bear you a son and you shall call his name Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him (Genesis 17.19).
The great promises of God were thus not to be fulfilled through the son of Abraham's slave-woman Hagar, whom Abraham named Ishmael, but through the son of Abraham's free woman and wife, Sarah, whom God named Isaac. Even the Qur'an confirms that the only son promised to Abraham by God was Isaac. In some passages (e.g. Surah 37.101) the son promised is not named, but in others he is specifically named as Isaac, the son of his wife Sarah. Wa bashsharnaahu bi Ishaaq - "And we announced to him Isaac" (Surah 37.112, so also Surah 11.71). Nowhere in the Qur'an is it specifically stated that Ishmael was ever promised to Abraham by name as Isaac was.
This was a severe test of faith for Abraham but here, as anywhere else, we see his faith proved in all its fullness. He knew God was faithful and so he trusted yet again to his faithfulness. He knew that "every word of God proves true" (Proverbs 30.5) and therefore he was quickly assured that Isaac would be born as the promised son. He reasoned carefully yet again and this exercise of his faith is set out very strongly in this passage:
He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead because he was about a hundred years old, or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah's womb. No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. Romans 4. 19-21.
He trusted, he considered, he grew strong in his faith and he became fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. "That is why his faith was reckoned to him as righteousness" (Romans 4.22). This was the true mil1ata-Ibrahim, the true faith of Abraham, and it enabled him to pass the test when God, through a promise that was finally fulfilled, put him through an exacting trial of patience and willingness to confide in him until the end. In this we see how Abraham came to be called the friend of God, not because he was a righteous servant who did a measure of good deeds, but because he at no time wavered through distrust in the promises God had given him. So also we see why he became the father of all true believers - because his faith was a reflection of God's faithfulness who likewise is the ultimate Father of the faithful. Finally we see why he was an example and prototype of the true religion to come - because he had the only kind of faith that is commendable and acceptable to God, that is, a comprehending and full conviction by sound reason (and not blind resignation) that God is Faithful and True and that every word of God will surely come to pass.
5. THE COMMAND TO SACRIFICE HIS SON.
The rejection of Ishmael came as a shock to Abraham but far worse was to follow. God was nowhere near finished with testing and proving the intensity and degree of his faith. The final and great test was about to confront him.
Just as he had watched Ishmael grow to thirteen years of age in hope of the fulfilment of the promises God had given him, only to see them dashed, so now he watched his son Isaac grow to the same age. Suddenly God again called him, "Abraham!" (Genesis 22.1). Immediately he responded "Here am I", expecting some indication of the fulfilment of God's promise that he was to have descendants as many as the stars of the sky. But God said to Abraham:
"Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering upon one of the mountains of which I shall show you". Genesis 22.2
This command must have shocked and bewildered Abraham. Most people regard it - quite rightly - as a supreme test of Abraham's love for God, there being nothing more precious that he could offer to him than his only son by his wife Sarah and the only one still with him, Ishmael having departed from him with Hagar many years earlier. But Abraham is marked out more as a man of faith than a man of love. God was indeed testing Abraham's love for him but it is not often realised that God was really testing his faith and was putting himself on trial before him. Less than twenty years earlier he had promised him that he would give him descendants as many as the stars of the sky through his son Isaac - how could this promise now possibly be fulfilled if Abraham was to strike him down and consume him as a burnt offering? (Both the Jewish and the Christian Scriptures state plainly that the son who was to be sacrificed was Isaac - Genesis 22.2, James 3.21 - and while the Qur'an does not say which son it was, it does confirm, in Surah 37. 101-102, that it was the son promised to him who, as we have already seen according to other Qur'anic passages, was Isaac).
Abraham could well have contemplated in his mind a gust of wind coming down on the smouldering ashes, saying to himself, "there goes the promise of God to the wind". It seemed that a pair of scissors was about to cut the string that tied the promise of a son to the promise that he would ultimately have descendants as many as the stars of the sky. The command to sacrifice appeared to cut right through these promises and hopelessly annul them. How could he have the descendants promised to him if his son Isaac was to be annihilated before he was old enough to bear offspring? If the call to reject Ishmael cane as a shock to Abraham, the command to destroy Isaac must have taxed him to the limit. What was to be his response to this command?
There were at least four possible responses. Firstly, he could have said to himself, "God has forgotten his promise". After all, men forget things and fourteen years is a long time. But Abraham had far too high an impression of God's glory to believe such a thing. God would never forget such a promise, not even in a million years. Secondly, he could have mused, "God has changed his mind". Perhaps his son was not turning out to be quite what God had hoped for and expected and he bad therefore changed his mind. Once again, however, Abraham could not entertain such thoughts. He believed that God is absolutely faithful and therefore there was no possibility that he would forego his promise.
Thirdly, he could have said to himself, "I do not know how the promise can be fulfilled if I offer my son as a sacrifice but, if God so commands, I will do it in obedience to his will. Let him resolve the dilemma". This is the spirit of fatalistic resignation, of blind faith that refuses to enquire or discover the will of God in accordance with his faithfulness. It is not true faith at all. There are millions today who believe that real faith is just simply to accept what their elders educate and bring them up to believe. To these any spirit of enquiry, any form of questioning, any willingness to doubt or critically analyse their heritage is regarded as the first step on the slippery road to unbelief.
Abraham was not such a man. He would not summarily abandon himself to the command to sacrifice his son without considerable reflection on its implications and circumstances. God put this very test of faith before him precisely because God knew that he would never see it through unless, as in the case of the birth of Isaac, he was fully convinced that it was consistent with God's faithfulness and the promise that he would have descendants like the stars of the sky.
The greatness of this man's faith is found in his refusal to simply bow to a command without understanding how it could be consistent with the absolute faithfulness of the One who gave it. God would have been most unimpressed with Abraham's attitude if he had simply said aslamtu - "I submit" - to the command to sacrifice his son without any consideration of what God's purpose was or what conciliation there was between the promises he had received and the command which now appeared to contradict and negate them completely. God wanted him to once again exercise his faith, to explore at length the harmony between this seemingly dreadful command and the eternal faithfulness of the God who gave it, for it was through precisely such reasoning that God intended to reveal to him the glory of his salvation for all mankind. This leads us to the fourth and last possible response, the only one which could reconcile the promises God had given him with the command to sacrifice his son.
6. ABRAHAM'S CONTEMPLATION OF THE COMMAND.
We have seen that Abraham reasoned very carefully about the promise that his wife would bear him a son and that he believed it would surely come to pass, not just because God has the power to do anything he chooses, but because he believed that God is so faithful that he will always fulfil his word. As Abraham himself said on another occasion, "Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?" (Genesis 18.25). When the command came to sacrifice his son, therefore, Abraham did not suddenly lose heart and throw his hands in the air in confusion. No, he was a man of faith as the Bible and the Qur'an both testify, and at this point the genuineness of his faith was about to be proved in all its fullness.
Abraham considered none of the other three options we have mentioned with any degree of seriousness. He based his attitude on the same foundation which had seen him through all This previous tests. He believed that God is always faithful and, therefore, the promise that he would have children like the stars of the sky must surely be fulfilled. Although this promise appeared to be beyond fulfilment if his son was to be sacrificed, in the providence of God it must yet come to pass.
There was only one way that Abraham's son Isaac could beget offspring if he was to be sacrificed and that was by rising from the dead. Abraham concluded that this was the only way God's promise could be fulfilled and he reasoned that, if God could give him a son when it was naturally impossible to have one, then God could also raise him back to life from the ashes. We have already seen that he believed in God as he who "gives life to the dead and calls into existence things that do not exist" (Romans 4.17), and he therefore considered that if God could give life to a dead womb so that a child could be conceived by a woman who was ninety years old and who had always been barren, then he could also raise the sane child from the dead. The Qur'an itself also teaches that Abraham once prayed, "My Lord, show me how you give life to the dead" (Surah 2.260). The whole of Abraham's contemplation of the command to sacrifice his son is summed up in these words:
By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was ready to offer up his only son, of whom it was said, "Through Isaac shall your descendants be named". He considered that God was able to raise men even from the dead; hence, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back. Hebrews 11. 17-19.
Abraham believed that God would raise Isaac from the dead and, through this belief, he gained a remarkable understanding of God's real purpose behind all that was happening to him. He suddenly realised that it was a risen Isaac who would be the one through whom all his descendants would come. No wonder his son would become a blessing to his offspring and one through whom all the nations would be blessed. Abraham realised that, by conquering death, his son Isaac would fulfil God's promise that he would become a blessing to the world. In this spirit he went forward boldly with the sacrifice in the faith that God would fulfil his promise by raising Isaac from the dead.
We need to notice how often it is said of Abraham that he carefully considered all that God said to him. "He considered his own body ... he considered the barrenness of Sarah's womb ..." are the words describing his response to the promise that he would bear a son (Romans 4.19), and now we read, in response to the command to sacrifice, "He considered that God was able to raise men even from the dead ..." (Hebrews 11.19). Abraham did not just accept all he was told to believe without contemplation and reflection. Be was not like many who just accept what they are brought up to believe and will not consider alternatives lest they become confused or be required to give up all they have hitherto held dear. Abraham, rather, considered very deeply the promises God had given him as well as the command to sacrifice and he was able to reconcile these two apparently contradictory statements which came to him from heaven.
At first the command, as we have seen, seemed to cut through the promise like a pair of scissors slicing through a piece of string. The promise had consisted of two extremes - the birth of a son at the beginning and countless descendants at the end. In between these two came the devastating command to sacrifice. But Abraham could not believe that it was really contrary to the promise for both came from the God who, Abraham believed, was always faithful and consistent in his acts. Be thus reasoned that the command, instead of violating the promise, must in some way be inseparably linked with it and that somehow the promise of descendants was dependent upon and to be fulfilled through the sacrifice of his son Isaac.
This led to the only possible conclusion - that God would raise his son from the dead, and through this Abraham saw, in a wondrous way, what God was really doing. A risen Isaac was to be the source of blessing to his offspring and to the world. Instead of cutting through the string that linked the promise of a son to that of countless descendants, he saw that the command was actually the hand that tied the two together and gave effect and meaning to the promises. This was the true mil1ata-Ibrahim, not an uncomprehending, unquestioning submission to God's commands, but an exercise of real faith that considered all God's promises and commands against the sure background of his faithfulness, a faith that led to an outstanding realisation of what God was really doing with him.
If this were all we would do well to marvel. But it was only a shadow, a foretaste of what God was really going to do. The sacrifice of Isaac was only a prototype of a far greater sacrifice to come and we must press on to find out how Abraham saw the ultimate significance of what God was doing in all this and how he discovered the true religion that was to come.
7. THE GOSPEL THAT WAS PREACHED TO ABRAHAM.
We have seen, in the early chapters of this booklet, that Abraham was called the friend of God, that he was made the father of many nations, and that his faith was a prototype of the true religion yet to come. In this closing chapter we shall see the real essence of all three of these great teachings about Abraham which Islam and Christianity have in common.
Abraham was a man who carefully considered all that God said to him, so he also thought much about God's statement to him, "I have made you the Father of many nations" (Romans 4.17). Why, he reasoned, should he be made a leader for mankind and the father of the faithful? We return to the illustration of the sun and the moon. The sun brilliantly generates light and the best the moon can do is to reflect that light. So Abraham, as we have seen, merely regarded his faith and trust in God as a reflection of God's own inherent faithfulness and eternal trustworthiness. In the same way, therefore, his status as father of the faithful could only be a reflection of God's own glory as the true Father of the faithful.
Abraham saw his high status, therefore, as a reflection of God's great glory in heaven. He realised that he was merely a type of the true Father and this surely meant that all that had happened to him was likewise only a human and an earthly type of a divine and heavenly course yet to be revealed. If he was, thus, only a type, then his son Isaac, the unusual circumstances of his birth, the sacrifice, the resurrection from the dead, and the innumerable descendants were also all types of a greater reality yet to come. He realised that the whole process had issued from him purely as a man and that a similar process, therefore, must yet come from God.
Abraham put it all together. The course he had perceived that was yet to be emulated in a divine parallel was this - the father was to have a son born in this world, born in unusual circumstances by the intervention of the Holy Spirit, and this son would be a decidedly spiritual man all his days. Before he could have any descendants, however, he was to be offered as a sacrifice to God, struck down by the hand of his own father. But he would rise from the dead and the risen son would beget descendants of a great number through whom the nations of the world would be blessed.
God had promised Abraham descendants "as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore" (Hebrews 11.12). Were the latter not surely a reflection of the former? Both appear to be tiny specks to the human eye and both are too many to number. So the true children of God appear to be of the same stature today as the natural children of men and both are a great multitude. But what a vast difference there ultimately is between a grain of sand and a star. The first is really only a speck of dust on the earth, the second is a heavenly giant of unimaginable glory and splendour. Grains of sand are only feeble types of the splendid stars that shine in the heavens.
So Abraham realised that his earthly descendants through his promised son Isaac, namely the Hebrew people, would only be an earthly shadow of the true children of God who would one day "shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father" (Matthew 13.43). He realised that he would have physical offspring through Isaac but that he would also have spiritual offspring through the one that Isaac was representing and that they would be men of the very same faith that had commended him to God.
Abraham searched out the meaning of all this as he moved away from the reflection to the reality, from earth to heaven, from man to God, and in doing so discovered God's glorious process of salvation and the true religion that was yet to come. God, the true Father, was to send his own Son into the world. He would be born miraculously by the power of the Holy Spirit, he would live solely by the same Spirit as the image of his eternal Father in every way, and would transform men of all nations from sinners of mere flesh and blood into saints of true spiritual dignity, bringing them eventually into eternal glory in the kingdom of God. But first he must be cut off and sacrificed as an offering for sin. He was to burn within as he endured the wrath of God on behalf of those he was to redeem. He was to be struck down, not only physically at the hands of men, but spiritually by the hand of his own Father as he endured his wrath against the sins of men so that he might make full atonement for them.
The Son of God was to rise from the dead, however, and the risen son was to make available to all men of true faith the Spirit of God so that they might inherit the blessings of God and become his children in his heavenly kingdom. Ibis, Abraham realised, was the logical divine parallel that would follow the pattern God was al ready taking him through To put it plainly in one glorious flash of inspiration and revelation, Abraham saw the whole of the Christian Gospel By a faithful consideration of nothing more than two apparently contradictory statements, he worked out the whole of God's plan of salvation that was yet to come. By exercising faith in the "unchangeable character of his purpose" (Hebrews 6.17), he saw the glory of the Gospel of the grace of God. As Abraham walked with Isaac to the place of sacrifice, his son asked him what they were going to sacrifice. He had to explain to Isaac that he himself was to be the sacrifice, but as he did so he made a remarkable statement. He said to Isaac:
"God will provide himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son". Genesis 22.8
Abraham's answer to him was, "My son, you are to be the sacrifice. I, your own father, must offer you like a sacrificial lamb to God. But take heart, God will give of himself a lamb for an offering. God, the true Father, will give his own Son as the lamb for the salvation of the world". Abraham genuinely believed that he would have to go through with the sacrifice of his son Isaac. He did not anticipate that God would stop the process and put a sheep in his place. This would have negated the whole test Abraham was being put through. No, Abraham obviously had another lamb in mind - the Lamb of God who would yet come as a sacrifice for the sins of the world, God's own Son. When God stopped the sacrifice and told him to sacrifice a sheep instead, Abraham saw his perception of God's ultimate plan of salvation being fulfilled. The sheep was sacrificed as a substitute for his son Isaac, and so Abraham saw that God's own son would become the true Lamb who would be substituted for sinful men as he died as a sacrifice for their sins.
We have already seen that, whereas Judaism, Chris-tianity and Islam all came after Abraham, each one sees Abraham as an example of true faith in God, and we noted that Abraham must have had some knowledge of the true religion to come. Now it is important to observe that, whereas Moses and Muhammad both knew much about Abraham, neither ever claimed that Abraham had anticipated their day. There is no suggestion that Abraham looked forward to the form of religion they were to introduce. On the other hand Jesus Christ, in an argument one day with the Jews about Abraham, boldly declared to them:
"Your father Abraham rejoiced that he was to see my day; he saw it, and was glad". John 8.56
It is thus clear that the one to whom Abraham was looking as the Son of God who would come into the world to redeem men from their sins was Jesus Christ. He rejoiced, said Jesus, "that he was to see my day" and it was to him that he looked for the ultimate fulfilment of all his hopes, not to Moses or Muhammad, but only to Jesus. He looked ahead, not to his immediate son Isaac, but to his greater son yet to come who he knew would be the Son of God. Be had exercised his faith in a very deliberate way, had reasoned carefully about the promises, and thus foresaw, in one glorious comprehension of the significance of the sacrifice, the coming of the Son of God as his greater offspring to bring salvation into the world. It is for this reason that one of the very first titles of Jesus in the Christian Scriptures is "the son of Abraham" (Matthew 1.1). Indeed one day, when John the Baptist (the prophet yahya in the Qur'an - Surah 3.39) saw Jesus coming towards him, he cried out:
"Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world". John 1.29
Abraham had comforted Isaac, promising that God would "provide of himself the lamb for a sacrifice" and, when John beheld Jesus, he exclaimed "There is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world". The whole key to Abraham's remarkable discovery of what was to happen is found in his faith, a trust in God's faithfulness through which he reconciled the promise of descendants with the command to sacrifice. He foresaw the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ and worked out that the Son of God would become the ultimate sacrifice for sin and that through him the blessings promised to Abraham would become real to all men in all nations who would emulate his faith and trust in the same Jesus. The whole of this vision which Abraham had of the coming salvation of God is well summed up in these words:
That in Christ Jesus the blessings of Abraham might come upon the Gentiles, that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith. Galatians 3.14
The Qur'an says that Abraham could not have been a Christian because the Gospel, the Injil, was only revealed long after him through Jesus Christ (Surah 3. 65,67). But we can see clearly that this very "Gospel", that is, the "Good News" of God's saving grace, was in fact revealed to him during his very lifetime and that he fully discerned it when he, in true faith, contemplated the command to sacrifice his son. This revelation is well described in this verse:
And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, "In you shall all the nations be blessed". So then, those who are men of faith are blessed with Abraham who had faith. Galatians 3. 8-9.
When the promise of descendants as many as the stars of the sky was made to Abraham, the Injil was in fact revealed to him. The Qur'an asks why Christians dispute about Abraham when the Gospel was "not revealed till after him" (Surah 3.65), yet here we see plainly that this very Gospel was preached beforehand to Abraham (Galatians 3.8). His faith led him to a full realisation of what was to come and he thus anticipated the atoning death and resurrection of the Son of God and so became a prototype of all true Christians, rejoicing that he was to see the day of Jesus Christ.
This, then, is the true faith of Abraham, the only real mil/ata-Ibrahim - faith in the Son of God who died that we might be forgiven and rose from the dead so that we too might conquer death and obtain eternal life. This Abraham worked out by exercise of faith in God's faithfulness and here his faith rested. He "died in faith, not having received what was promised, but having seen it and greeted it from afar" (Hebrews 11.13). It was through this very kind of faith that he became approved of God and it is through the same kind of faith that we too can become acceptable to God.
But the words, "it was reckoned to him", were not written for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be reckoned to us who believe in him that raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was put to death for our trespasses and raised for our justification. Romans 4. 23-25.
Abraham became the friend of God because he trusted him and rejoiced to see the day of Jesus Christ who likewise promised that all who become his disciples will also be his friends (John 15.15). He became the father of all true believers who are now his children if they share his faith and believe in the Gospel (Galatians 3. 8-9). He was the prototype of the true religion to come and, as his search for the purpose of God led him to discover the coming of the Son of God as the Saviour of the world, so the true religion has to be Christianity for it was in Jesus that his faith reached its goal.
In conclusion it needs to be said that if the willingness of Abraham to offer his son to God was the highest proof of love that any man could show for God, then the grace of God in giving his Son Jesus Christ for us must be the greatest manifestation of God's love for men. The sacrifice of Isaac was only a type and shadow of God's love for us revealed in the gift of his Son as the means of our salvation. No greater love than this could have been shown by God to sinful men.
In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his son to be the expiation for our sins . . . So we know and believe the love God has for us. God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. 1 John 4.9-10,16.
Furthermore Abraham, as the servant of God, was obliged to obey God in whatever he commanded him, and it was only a man of dust like himself, though his own son, that he was willing to offer to the God of glory in heaven. But what obligation lay on the heart of God to give his Son, who had always shared his everlasting glory, for sinful, feeble men on earth? It goes further. God eventually spared the son of Abraham but he did not spare his own Son. What further proof do we need that all the blessings promised to Abraham will one day be ours if we will commit ourselves in faith to the one who laid down his life for us, whose day Abraham eagerly anticipated - what more can we ask or need?
He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all, will he not also give us all things with him? Romans 8.32
Both the Bible and the Qur'an mark Abraham out for his faith and declare that this faith is the essence of true religion. We have shown comprehensively that Abraham's faith reached its zenith when he saw the coming of Jesus Christ as the Saviour of the world and thus "rejoiced" to see his day "and was glad" (John 8.56). The Christian faith is, therefore, the only true faith and Abraham was accordingly a prototype of a true Christian.
The command to Abraham to sacrifice his son may be regarded as the greatest example of the love of a man for God being tested and proved to the limit, indeed it reveals this love almost to perfection. But it cannot be treated in isolation. God was surely not just putting Abraham through an exercise of faith and love as an end in itself. It is unthinkable that God could ever ask more of a man than he was willing to do for man. And if he did not in turn give his own Son as a sacrifice to save us from our sins and give us the hope of eternal life, then what expression is there, in all history, of the love of God for man to compare with this supreme example of a man's love for God in giving his own son, the closest thing to his heart, as a sacrifice to God? It surely must be true that God's command to Abraham was only a shadow and foretaste of what God himself intended to do for the human race in time.
It is often said that a good leader will never ask anything more of his followers than he himself is willing to do for them. So likewise Abraham saw that the command to sacrifice was not a one-sided test that would tear at his heart without any reciprocal act of love from heaven in return. He willingly went ahead with the sacrifice, because he had, by the time he took his son up the appointed mountain, worked out that all that he was doing was only a shadow and human example of a real and divine work of grace to follow. It is little wonder that Jesus said that Abraham rejoiced to see his day and that he was delighted in his spirit.
Will you not, too, become one of the true children of Abraham by putting your faith in Jesus Christ so that you also may shine one day as one of those stars of heaven who was promised to Abraham? Will you not believe in Jesus as your Saviour and Lord and likewise rejoice and be glad with Abraham that you will also be privileged to see his day? Will you not acknowledge him as your only true Master so that you too may enjoy the riches of God's grace and kindness towards us?
If you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to promise. Galatians 3.29
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