In reflecting upon The Annunciation, the announcement of Jesus’s coming birth to Mary, IMES MRel faculty Colin Chapman set out last week to share with us “how he would try to explain to Muslims what we mean when we say that Jesus is the Son of God”. You can find this in Part 1. Colin explains that Jesus’s disciples, each avowedly monotheistic Jews, come to believe during their three years with him that he’s more than an ordinary human being – that he’s the promised Messiah. And, this results ultimately in Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah, the ‘Son of God’. Colin’s reflection continues below. –IMES Staff
Muslims, Mary, and the “Son of God”: A Reflection (Part 2)
By Colin Chapman
We need to look more closely at our gospel text. The angel says,
‘He will be great, and will be called Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David, and he will be king over Israel for ever; his reign shall never end’ (Luke 1:32 – 33).
This is referring back to the promise that God made to David (2 Samuel 7), that God would establish David’s royal line for ever – that there would always be someone on his throne. So in the Old Testament King David is described as ‘the son of God’ (see Psalm 2:7).
And ‘Son of God’ therefore comes to be a title that is used for the Messiah, the anointed king, the ideal king that God is one day going to raise up as a descendant of David, and who will be God’s agent to establish his kingdom in the world.
Notice therefore that all that this text is saying – all that the angel says to Mary – is that Jesus is going to be the fulfillment of the promise made to David. The angel says nothing about Jesus being God or that he existed with God before he was conceived in the womb of Mary.
So let’s come back to the disciples and the gradual process by which they begin to see that Jesus is more than a man, a teacher or a prophet. When God raises Jesus from death in the resurrection, they see this as God’s vindication of Jesus, God’s way of demonstrating, proving that Jesus really is the person he claims to be.
They therefore realise that Jesus has come from God and that he is the human being through whom God, Yahweh, the Creator has revealed himself to the human race. And at the end of this process, they still believe in the oneness of God, that God is one, that there is only one God. But they have come to see that this oneness is a more complex kind of unity than the simple mathematical unity of the number ‘one’.
The gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke were probably written in the 50s, 60s or 70s of the first century. The gospel of John was probably written later – in the 90s. It’s different from the first three gospels, which we call the Synoptic Gospels, and is the product of John’s reflection over many years.
So whereas Matthew, Mark and Luke describe the gradual process by which the disciples come to understand who Jesus is, John tells us something incredibly bold and strong in the very first verse:
‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God’ (1:1).
‘So the Word became flesh; He made his home among us, and we saw his glory, such glory as befits the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth’ (1:14).
What we find therefore is that the meaning of the title ‘Son of God’ has developed: in the story of the Annunciation the ‘Son of God’ simply means the Messiah, David’s descendant, God’s anointed agent. But in John’s gospel ‘the Son of God’ is the eternal Son, who has always been with the Father.
And these are the ideas that are expressed by John also in the epistle:
‘It is this which we have seen and heard that we declare to you also, in order that you may share with us in a common life, that life which we share with the Father and his Son Jesus Christ’ (1 John 1:3).
Then the Creeds come later – in the 4th and 5th centuries – and by now Christians have had many years to reflect on the relationship between the man Jesus and God.
Now some of my Christian readers may be wanting to say to me at this point:
‘Why are you going into all this complicated, deep theology? Are you trying to challenge and upset my simple belief in Jesus as the Son of God?’
This is where I come back to my starting point. I’m doing this because I think it helps me to understand the problems that Muslims have with our beliefs about Jesus. To us it’s obvious that Jesus is the Son of God, that he is fully human and fully divine, that God became man in the incarnation, that the Word became flesh.
But for our Muslim friends this is impossible; it’s unthinkable that the Creator of the universe should become a creature in the world he has made. So can we try to put ourselves into the shoes of Muslims and understand how difficult, how shocking this idea must have seen to them?
In fact the idea of God becoming man is so difficult to grasp, that we could say that God took a very long time to prepare the human race for the incarnation. If Abraham lived in the 18th century BC, then God spent about 1800 years preparing for the coming of Jesus; and the angel Gabriel visiting Mary is the final stage of that long, careful preparation.
I’m doing this also because I think it helps us to be very patient and understanding with our Muslim brothers and sisters. If for them it’s a slow process by which they come to put their trust in Jesus, it was a slow, gradual process over three years for the disciples to put their trust in Jesus; and it probably took many years after that for them to be able to understand and articulate what they believed about Jesus and his relationship with God.
And let me add that many Muslims experience Jesus before they fully understand who he is. Sometimes it’s through dreams or visions; sometimes it’s through healing in the name of Jesus that they experience the power of Jesus.
So finally, let me say that talking to Muslims and studying Islam have profoundly challenged my Christian faith. But far from weakening or destroying my faith, it has strengthened, deepened and enriched it. It has helped me to realize what incredibly good news it is that, in order to reveal himself to us and to win back our love, the Creator should become a creature in the womb in the Virgin Mary.