Are All Faiths the Same?

How should we think about, feel about and relate to people with faith beliefs that contradict our own? Join us this Sunday as we look at how Jesus’ earliest followers answered this question.

We’re in a series called, “I have a question” and the question we’re asking today is — Are all faiths the same?

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In 1788, an English poet, William Blake, wrote a book for the the first time really with this argument. The book was called “All Religions Are One” saying every religion was true in its own way and they’re all really saying the same thing.

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Recently, Steven Prothero, professor of religion at Boston University, explains this is an odd claim that we don’t generally make in other spheres like politics, economics or education.

Democracy is not the same thing as fascism. One of them is better and we know which it is.

Capitalism is not the same thing as Communism. One of them is better, and I think we know which one it is.

Stanford is not the same thing as Cal. One of them is better, and I could not get into either one.

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I was talking to someone recently who was telling me that in different eras, when people were not really exposed to different religious viewpoints, he could see how it would have been possible for people to think their religion was the right religion.

But now we know there are intelligent people who hold different religious viewpoints, so it would be arrogant for any one person to think they’re right.

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Alvin Plantinga, a Christian philosopher at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he was born, says that sometimes a student, often from California, will say to him, “If you had been born in Morocco instead of Michigan, you’d be a Muslim instead of a Christian, and that’s why I’m an agnostic. What you believe is just a byproduct of where you were born.”

Plantinga’s response is, “But if you had been born in Morocco instead of California, you’d be a Muslim instead of an agnostic.”

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The simple fact that where we were born impacts what we believe does not give anyone a free pass from having to seek to discern the truth.

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One of the questions I asked the person I was talking to was, “Do you want a particular religion to be true?”

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I think, human nature being what it is, a lot of times we don’t want one religion to be true. Because then we’d have to be accountable for our lives. It would take away our freedom.

We prefer to use whatever spiritual realm there might be without being accountable to anyone.

But I think a deep concern many people have about religion is — if people regard their religious belief as true and think people who disagree with them are wrong, won’t that make them arrogant and superior?

And isn’t that what leads to religious violence like in the Crusades or the Inquisitions or terrorism?

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Well, what I want to do today is look in Scripture at the posture of Christians toward people of other faiths. I want to look at followers of Jesus (Christianity) and how those who follow Jesus treat people of other faiths.

And I want to do that by starting with what is really a disturbing story in the Old Testament.

And then look at a rabbi named Saul and how he treated people who differed religiously from him.

And then what this means for you and me.

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Alright, here we go.

In the Old Testament, in the book of Numbers, Israel is just about to make it into the Promised Land. Their final enemy is the king of Midian.

The king tries to bribe a soothsayer, a guy named Balaam, to curse Israel.

Balaam is riding his donkey on the way to do this when an angel blocks his path.

Balaam, in this story, cannot see it, but the donkey does and stops moving.

Balaam beats his donkey to get him to continue moving, but his donkey speaks to him and says, “Why are you beating me?”

And Balaam doesn’t say, “How is it that you’re an animal and you’re talking to me?”

He says, “I’m beating you because you’re making a fool out of me.”

And the donkey says, “Am I not your own donkey? Do I make a habit of doing this sort of thing?”

And Balaam says, “Well, you have a good point.” It’s a pretty comical story.

The donkey wins the argument. And Balaam backs down.

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The king of Midian goes to plan B, which is where the story gets dark.

Plan B is for him to force a large group of Midianite women into promiscuous sexual relations with the Israelite men, which means those men will be unfaithful to God and their wives and end up in idolatry.

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Now, idolatry was the ultimate moral and spiritual sinkhole for Israel.

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The prophets of Israel railed against idolatry not because it was just a different religion and not even just because idols were false, but because idols did not demand justice for the poor, or fidelity for your spouse, or concern for widows and aliens, or parental care for children.

Idolatry meant trying to use spiritual power without spiritual or moral accountability, or concern for justice, and it always ends up meaning enslavement for the idolaters.

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In the ancient world, it often involved temple prostitution, particularly for women. And sometimes it involved infant sacrifice.

Idolatry would mean for Israel the loss of ethical monotheism (the truth that there was one God and he is good).

It would mean spiritual, national, and missional suicide for Israel, so it was unthinkable.

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Now, the low point was when one Israelite was so shameless and thoughtless that he brought his Midianite idolatress girlfriend into his tent in full view of Moses who had forbidden this.

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A priest named Phinehas grabbed his spear, ran into the tent, caught them both in the act, and killed them both. It’s a horrible story. It’s very dark. It’s very violent.

The ancient world was a violent place.

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In the story, as it was read by Israel, Phinehas who opposed idolatry was a hero. And the key word in the story is the word zeal.

Three times that word gets used to commend Phinehas. He had zeal for the Lord.

That word in Israel took on a life of its own.

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This message, in a way, is really about that little word zeal.

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A long time later, about 200 years before the New Testament era, Israel was oppressed by a Syrian king named Antiochus Epiphanes.

Epiphanes means divine manifestation. So this was a king who did have a low self-esteem.

He killed countless Jewish people, and he desecrated the temple of their God by turning it into a pagan temple to Zeus. He defiled it by sacrificing on their altar a pig, which was an unclean animal for Israel.

He demanded that Israel betray their God, and a lot of Israel went along. But there was a priest named Judas Maccabeus — Judas the Hammer. He picked up a spear, and he led a rebellion that, against all odds, defeated Antiochus and made Israel relatively free for the better part of a century.

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I’m sure you know the holiday, Hanukkah. Well that’s the event it commemorates.

That battle is told in the book of Maccabees, and that’s a book the apostle Paul or Saul, as he was originally known, studied.

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Like Phinehas, Judas Maccabeus was called a hero, because like Phinehas, he had zeal; because, like Phinehas, he took a spear. — He had zeal to fight God’s enemies.

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Now, this is all leading to a moment when God, and other faiths, and followers of Jesus, and intolerance, and violence will all get turned upside down.

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So fast forward a few more centuries.

Now, Israel’s new enemy is Rome, and once again many in Israel were prepared to compromise with Rome and become idolatrous.

But there were some in Israel who would eventually come to be known as zealots — from that little word zeal. They believed they should fight God’s enemies. They had zeal for God.

One of these zealots is a young man named Saul. That was Paul’s original name.

We first meet him when he is helping at the execution — he’s helping at the murder of a follower of Jesus named Stephen.

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While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep. (Acts 7:59-60)

That is, he died.

And Saul approved of their killing him. (Acts 8:1)

Saul had zeal like Phinehas, and like Judas the Hammer. He sincerely believed those who disagreed with him would mislead Israel and should be stopped by any means possible, including prison or execution.

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This is how Saul later described himself in those early days. He says he was:

… circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless. (Philippians 3:5-6)

That’s what zeal looked like to Saul.

Zeal for God was the courageous willingness to do anything to fight God’s enemies and to stop them.

He says to the church at Galatia:

For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it. I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers. (Galatians 1:13-14)

Paul did not have just zeal; he had what he calls here extreme zeal, like Phinehas and like Judas.

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Then, something happened that would change his life, and would change the history of the world, and would completely reverse the way Saul or any follower of Jesus, including you and me, should think about and live with people of other faiths.

It happens in Acts, chapter 9.

Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, [That is, the way of Jesus.] whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem. (Acts 9:1-2)

Saul’s mind is full of Torah, God’s law. His heart is full of zeal. He is on a mission for God. It’s a dangerous and violent mission.

As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. (Acts 9:3)

Some people (not many, but some) have a profound transcendent experience of God that is so shattering that it changes them forever, brings them sobriety, or turns them around.

That’s what happens to Saul.

He falls to the ground, and this is the moment, maybe, he has waited his whole life for.

Maybe he thinks, like Moses, he’s going to see the glory of God. His zeal is being rewarded by heaven, and his heart is pounding in his chest.

Then, something utterly unexpected happens.

He is not commended by God for his zeal. He’s rebuked for it. He’s condemned for it.

And this comes in the form of a question that he could not have imagined. There’s light from heaven all around him.

He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4)

What does this mean? Saul is doing the work of God. He’s a hero of Israel.

“Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked. (Acts 9:5)

He had never asked that question before.

He knew. He studied. He answered. He taught. But in this moment, before this experience, he has no answers.

It was maybe the first time he had asked that question in a long time — “Who are you, Lord?”

He knows it’s the Lord. He knows it’s God, but he suddenly realizes he doesn’t know God like he thought he knew God.

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Sometimes it comes to a human being to ask that question — “Who are you, Lord?” with all your heart, soul, mind and strength; and to want to know him more than you want anything in the world.

Sometimes it comes.

There’s a moment of silence, and Saul doesn’t know it, but this moment is the end of his old life. And the beginning of a new one.

“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. (Acts 9:5)

“Every time you harm, every time you threaten, every time you kill a brother or sister who follows me, you persecute me. Now, get up and you will be told what to do. I am Jesus.”

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It comes to people sometimes — In one moment, all of his dreams are shattered forever. In one moment, all of his dreams were fulfilled — but in a way he never could have imagined, and he’s face to face with the crucified Jesus.

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People sometimes speak of the conversion of Saul, but that’s not quite right.

He did not for a second cease to believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah and Rebecca. He did not cease for a moment to revere Moses, or love the Law or the Torah, or revere the Prophets.

It’s just this happens to people sometimes — everything got turned upside down.

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He had been absolutely right to be zealous for God but tragically wrong about what zeal consists of.

He was completely correct that God was at work in the world but horribly misguided, as we can all get about what God’s work looks like, until he sees the crucified Jesus. — “I am the one you are persecuting.”

Saul is literally blinded by the reality.

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In Jesus, and supremely Jesus on the cross — the persecuted Jesus, Saul finally sees the kind of zeal God requires.

Not the zeal to kill your enemies but zeal to die on their behalf.
Not the zeal to persecute your enemies but the willingness to suffer persecution in order to help them.

The zeal God is looking for is the zeal to love.
The zeal to forgive.
The zeal to embrace.
The zeal to identify with.
The zeal to understand.
The zeal to break down barriers.
The zeal to realize in repentance that those we thought were enemies are loved by God.

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How do we (you and me and our church) think about, feel about, and relate to people of other faiths?

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Saul, now blind, is led by the hand to a home in Damascus where for three days he fasts and prays.

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Meanwhile, God comes in a vision to a follower of Jesus named Ananias. God says:

“Ananias, I want you to go to this house and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul and pray for him — for his sight to be restored.”

Ananias says, “Lord, thou hast had many good ideas, but this ain’t one of them. You probably have not heard with how busy you are running the universe, but Saul is not what I would call a safe person.”

But the Lord said to Ananias, “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.” (Acts 9:15-16)

Ananias goes.

By the way, when God calls you to do something, just because you don’t feel peace about it does not mean you’re off the hook.

Almost never in the Bible when God calls someone to do something do they say, “Lord, I feel peace about this.”

Peace generally lies on the other side of obedience, not this side.

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Ananias goes to the door. Knock! Knock!

He asks for Saul — the killer, the persecutor of followers of Jesus of whom Ananias is one.

Saul is brought to the door.

Sure enough he’s blind.

Ananias, who may well have been one of the disciples from Jerusalem who had to escape and run for his life because of Saul’s persecution — Ananias, who may well have had loved ones or even family members imprisoned or killed because of Saul — Ananias speaks.

He doesn’t say, “Oh, Saul, you’re in trouble now. God will make you suffer many things. He told me so.”

Ananias went to the house and entered it. We’re in another spiritual reality here.

Then Ananias went to the house and entered it. Placing his hands on Saul, he said, “Brother Saul… (Acts 9:17)

Anthropologists have a wonderful phrase for this. They talk about what they call fictive kinship groups — people who are not part of your biological family but become part of your relational family, or become like honorary family.

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I have a friend who often says to me, “I love you like family.” Or, “I love your kids like they’re my kids.” It’s a way for him to say, “My love for you and your family is deeper than friendship. You’re like family.”

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Well, followers of Jesus were to treat people of different religions, and even who persecuted them, by placing their hand on them and saying, “Brother. Sister.”

What kind of movement is this? What kind of people are these?

As a matter of historical record, no matter what you think of him, no one would extend the fictive kinship group more radically, more inclusively, or more promiscuously than Saul, whose favorite language for human beings just becomes — “Brother” and “Sister.”

He became a student of how Jesus was with people of different religions.

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In Luke 9, Jesus and his disciples are going through a Samaritan village. Samaritans and Jews did not get along at all.

The people there did not welcome Jesus, so the disciples asked Jesus, “Master, should we call down fire from heaven to destroy them? We have zeal. Yes, we do!”

The text says that Jesus rebuked his disciples, not the Samaritans.

We see the exact same pattern with Saul. They were not commended for their zeal either. They were rebuked for it.

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Jesus loved and served and cared for and touched people of other religions (pagan Canaanites and Roman centurions and Samaritans) the same way he did people of Israel.

It’s as if Jesus thinks his presence, his healing, and his message has somehow burst through the boundaries of human religion, and if someone just wants him, just responds to him, just listens to him, or just follows him, God will somehow take care of all of the rest.

And so it was.

In the end, when people hated him, Jesus did not take a spear in his hands like Phinehas or like Judas Maccabeus.

He took a spear in his side.

It’s on a cross that the world would finally learn what zeal for God looks like.

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Once Paul met this Jesus (this spear-pierced, crucified Messiah) and Paul could never look at zeal the same way.

This is why later on he would say about others in Israel who were part of that old zeal movement and people he loved dearly:

For I can testify about them that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge. (Romans 10:2)

Religious zeal not based on knowledge is very dangerous. We see it in our world every day.

It’s the belief that somehow killing the enemies of God is an act of service to God.

But that zeal, not based on knowledge, is not just out there. It’s in the judgment or the fear or the superiority or the hatred or the apathy or the coldness of my own heart.

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What does zeal based on knowledge look like? What is this new kind of zeal Paul receives from Jesus?

Well, it’s the exact opposite of what Paul used to think.

He would write to the church at Rome:

Never be lacking in zeal, [That old word.] but keep your spiritual fervor. (Romans 12:11)

Then, he goes on a couple sentences later.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. (Romans 12:14)

That’s zeal based on knowledge.

Bless those.
Love them.
Care for them.
Die for them.

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Practically, how do you relate to people in your life, in your neighborhood, in your work, or in your school who differ from you religiously?

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I was talking to a friend this week who is a devoted follower of Jesus.

He said that he used to think devotion to Jesus meant that when he met a person of a different religion his job was to out-argue them.

He told me about one time when he started a debate with a coworker and eventually the whole team joined in, and he was so glad because he was certain he had won the debate. He had crushed his opponent, demolished his arguments, and exposed his defective belief system which, oddly enough, did not win the other person to the love of Jesus.

He said he’s learned that the best thing to do with people of other faiths in his life is to listen.

Be curious.
Care about them.
Ask questions.
Want to learn.
Sincerely want to know.
Assume that you might have something to learn.

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I want to invite every one of us to listen with love.

Before you leave today, I want to invite you to write down the name of one person in your life who has a religious difference from you (a different faith).

Pray for them and just start a conversation.

Just ask:

Will you tell me about your spiritual journey?
What was it like growing up in that tradition?
How has it shaped your life?
What do you believe about this or about that?

There’s no pressure on this. You don’t have to make a sales pitch. You don’t have to worry that if you show interest without saying you think they’re wrong you haven’t done your job right as a Christian.

Just care.
Just be curious.

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Zeal according to knowledge means we don’t just tolerate people of other faiths.

We honor them.
We love them.
We protect them.

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People sometimes wonder, “Well, what do Christians think happens to people of other faiths when they die? Are people who affirm other religions in danger of hell?”

The answer is, “Yes,” but people who affirm the Christian religion are in danger of hell, too.

Being right with God is not a matter of just affirming right beliefs.

Jesus’ most vivid condemnations were of religious leaders who affirmed the right beliefs.

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When it comes to other religions, the question ends up being — what’s the least amount of stuff you have to believe in order to get into heaven?

Of course, Jesus never answers that. He never says, “I will satisfy your curiosity about the minimal belief required for other people to get in.”

He just calls anyone who is interested, “Follow me. Follow me. Follow me.”

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Particularly in our day, one of the tests of people who follow Jesus will be our treatment of people of other faiths.

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People are killed all over the world as an act of hatred just because they’re of a different faith.

And we follow a man who was killed, who died asking God to forgive and to receive anyone and everyone who would come to him.

So let’s agree we will pray for the safety of every synagogue, every mosque, and every temple as well as every follower of Jesus in danger all around our world.

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And let’s make this a place where courtesy and honor and respect and love for people of every faith will be the heartbeat of our worship and life.

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And we do this — we do this — not because we are doubtful about following Jesus but because we follow Jesus fully with zeal according to knowledge.

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Arthur Burns was the head of the Federal Reserve and a man of immense gravitas, a remarkable guy.

He began, quite a number of decades ago now, to attend an informal White House group of fellowship and prayer.

It was a Christian group based on Jesus, but Arthur Burns was Jewish, so when it was time for someone to pray, no one ever called on Arthur Burns because they thought he might feel awkward.

Then, one week a newcomer was leading the group, and he didn’t know about any of this, so he turned to Arthur Burns and asked him to pray.

The old-timers wondered what in the world would happen next, and everyone bowed their heads and joined their hands, and he began to pray. This is what he prayed.

“Lord, may all Jews come to know Jesus Christ. May all Muslims come to know Jesus Christ. May all Buddhists come to know Jesus Christ. May all Christians come to know Jesus Christ.”

Let pray.

Blue Oaks Church
Pleasanton, CA

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