We are all troubled by the images of terrorist acts in France, or ISIS beheadings in the Middle East. It’s shocking and offensive to us that civilians are often the target. The term jihad may be the most hated word in the world today.
But before we join all the political pundits pointing fingers, let’s remember that the concept of jihad, or “holy war,” didn’t start with Islam. The Bible has several examples of God sending His people to kill others. Joshua and Saul were commanded to lead genocide of whole people groups, including the children. Samson initiated a suicide attack that murdered 3,000 men and women. This week I was reading in II Kings 9-10 about Jehu—this story has a military coup, the beheading of 70 relatives of the king, the mass slaughter of religious leaders of a rival religion in their own house of worship—doesn’t this story sound like something we might read about in the Middle East today? Yet God was behind it: His prophet commanded Jehu to do it. At one point in the story, Jehu says, “Come with me and see my zeal for the Lord” as he goes on a killing spree. And when he’s done, God commends him!
Today we see the same stories played out on the nightly news, of beheadings and massacres by those “zealous” for the One they worship, believing that He will award their deeds. Many people have compared modern-day Islam to life in the Bible’s Old Testament. Their understanding of God as Creator, sender of the prophets and holy books, and man’s responsibility to follow His law, including giving alms, keeping prescribed fasts, and going on pilgrimage, has extensive parallels. One more similarity is an acceptance of violence done in the name of God.
The coming of Jesus changed everything. The Bible says Jesus is God’s eternal Word that took on flesh (John 1:14). God met man in the person of a Messiah. The Bible also says that looking at Jesus is the best way to understand what God is like, since he’s “the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15).
Jesus had enemies—the Jewish religious leaders jealous of his favor with the masses; King Herod, fearful of any political rival; Pilate and the Romans, their occupied territory threatened by popular uprisings. Some of Jesus’ disciples wanted to fight with swords, see Jesus overthrow the Romans and become their new king. But Jesus was bringing a different kind of Kingdom, launched by love and pursuing peace. Even through Jesus’ death on the cross he treated his enemies with compassion, one of his last, dying utterances being this prayer: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do” (Luke 23:34). All of Jesus’ teachings about “love your enemies,” and “turn the other cheek” he lived consistently to the end.
If looking at Jesus is the best way to understand God, the implications of this are profound. Because of Jesus, if we say we love God, we have to love man. Because of Jesus, when we accept Jesus’ divinity and follow him, even if we thought it was justified to kill in the name of God, we can never kill in the name of Jesus, for it’s the opposite of all Jesus stood for.
The cross started as a symbol of death. During the crusades of the Middle Ages it unfortunately became a symbol of Christian warfare and atrocities. But for those who accept this mystery of God’s Word becoming man, it is the most perfect symbol of love. One beam points up to heaven, representing the love between God and man; the other beam stretches left to right, representing the love between man and man, both of these based on Jesus at the center.
I have many wonderful Muslim friends who absolutely condemn the barbaric acts of ISIS and other jihadists today. They are good people with a sincere faith. I also happen to believe that the Messiah came not just for the Jews, but like the Prophet John said, Jesus is “the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29), while another prophet ascribed to Jesus the title, “Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6). For those who are zealous for God in any religion, I say to you, that following Jesus changes everything.