My new favorite Podcast is the Unbelievable Podcast by Justin Brierley on the Premier Christian Radio in the UK. I was listening this morning to a dialogue with Abdu Murray, a Muslim, turned Christian, and Aliyah Saleem, a Muslim turned atheist. The discussion got me thinking about the idea of progressive revelation in both scriptures, the Bible and the Qur’an.
In Islam, the later sura exceed the earlier sura in importance. When a statement in a later sura contradicts a statement in an earlier sura, the doctrine of abrogation applies. The earlier statement is negated by the later statement. Thus, the statements found in the later sura carry the most weight.
A similar, but very different, idea arises in Christianity. Christians interpret the Old Testament through the lens of Jesus in the New Testament. In Christianity, however, statements in the Old Testament are not abrogated (negated); rather they are affirmed, explained and extended.
Jesus doesn’t give us the option of ignoring or negating the Old Testament. Perhaps, the most famous example of the way Jesus interpreted the Old Testament is found in the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus said,
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.” (Matthew 5:17-18)
Rather than abrogation, we get the idea of progressive revelation. Jesus affirms, builds on and extends the intent and purpose of the revelations revealed in the Old Testament. Even more significantly, Jesus says He is the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets.
The Old Testament, of course, isn’t a “book” in itself. It is a collection of writings that purport to be revelations from God to men over a long period of time. The writings that are separated in the collection of writings known as the Old Testament (by Christians) are as follows: the Torah or Pentateuch (the five books of Moses – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy); the History (Joshua to Esther); the Poetry (Job to Song of Solomon) and the Prophets (Isaiah to Malachi).
But when Jesus referred to the “Law and the Prophets”, he was referring to the Torah (the Law), and rest of what Christians now call the Old Testament (the Prophets). (The Law and the Prophets) Jesus not only claimed to be the fulfillment of the prior revelation of God; he summarized it succinctly as follows:
“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37-40)
Jesus lived out and demonstrated this summary in his life, but he was also the flesh and blood embodiment of that revelation and historical fulfillment of it.
The progression of the revelation might be summed up this way: the Old Testament Scriptures anticipate and point toward Jesus, and the message progresses from physical to spiritual, from law to grace.
On the first point, Jesus said to a group of religious leaders:
“You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me….” (John 5:39)
After his resurrection, Jesus explained to his followers, “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets… in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” (Luke 24:27) All of the Old Testament Scriptures anticipate and set the stage for the revelation of God to us in the person of Jesus Christ.
On the second point, we see a progression from physical to spiritual and from law grace. Jesus explained to the Samaritan woman at the well that his coming would shift the attitude and circumstance of worship from the physical to the spiritual, from the external to the internal. (John 4:21-26)
In the Sermon on the Mount, in the same context in which Jesus said that he did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it, Jesus provided a series of examples to demonstrate this progression of revelation:
“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment.” (Matthew 5:21-22)
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matthew 5:27-28)
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:43-48)
Jesus was harshest in his criticism of the religious leaders of his day, calling them “white-washed tombs” who looked good on the outside but were empty on the inside. In all these ways, Jesus was painting a picture of the importance of the internal reality of faith. We don’t worship ultimately in a place; we worship in our hearts.
The Old Testament example of the Temple, with the Ark of the Covenant carrying the presence of God, is meant to lead us to the understanding that we are the temple of God, and we carry God’s presence within us.
“Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20)
I don’t write this piece to compare Islam to Christianity, other than to shine some light on how scripture works in Christianity, which I think is largely misunderstood. People question why Christians no longer follow the Jewish ceremonial or dietary laws. It is partly because of this idea of progressing from the physical to the spiritual. The real point is the spiritual one, but we needed to understand on a physical level in order to get to the spiritual message and reality.
A key to understanding also involves the idea of a new covenant (thus the New Testament). But it really isn’t a new covenant at all; Jesus takes us back to Abraham, the father of faith. Again, the thrust of Scripture isn’t that Jesus introduced something new; it is actually that He filled out the picture; he connected the dots.
The progression of the revelation in the Scriptures takes us full circle back to the beginning and the purposes of God that He set in motion “before the foundation of the earth”. I can’t do it justice in a couple of short blog posts, but I can set the stage for deeper exploration. In a follow up blog on The Progression of Revelation in the Bible Part 2, I will try to explore these themes in a little bit more detail.