The following sermon was preached by Dr Wilhelm Torgerson in the seminary’s Martin Luther Chapel for the divine service on the occasion of Holy Cross Day, 14 September 2018.
The Cross of Jesus and the Koran
“For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (I Corinthians 1:18).
Seemingly an unusual question: Is it really true that Jesus died on the cross? In our ears that sounds almost bizarre. If there is one thing that Christians and non-Christians in the western world agree on in regard to Jesus then it is this, that yes, he died on the cross. No historian who wants to be taken seriously expresses any doubt that Jesus of Nazareth hung on a cross and died there. And no Christian could possibly have concocted this idea, that his Lord and God ended his life on an instrument of torture. When the early Christians spoke about this, they were ridiculed: How can you believe in a god who died on the cross? Why would you?
Yet the Christians were both unable and unwilling to cover up the fact that their Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ died on the cross in their stead. After all, there were quite a few eyewitnesses. There was John who in the passion story expressly states: “He who saw it has borne witness —his testimony is true, and he knows that he is telling the truth —that you also may believe” (John 19:35).
And Paul full well knew that Jesus had been crucified. And he was convinced that’s the way it should be. After all, had this Jesus not claimed to be God’s Son?! He needed to be punished for this blasphemy, so Paul’s conviction. And Paul knew, anyone nailed to the cross is cursed by God. So says the Old Testament, the Law. And for that reason Paul at the beginning was so angry about the Christians; they claimed Jesus had become alive again after dying on the cross. No, that couldn’t be. According to the Law Jesus was accursed. Therefore God could not possibly put his seal of approval on this blasphemer by raising him from the dead. That was Paul’s thinking —until Jesus himself knocked him from his high horse before the gates of Damascus. And Jesus’ death on the cross was for Paul an indubitable fact, but now he understood why that happened that Jesus died this horrible death on the cross.
Already soon after New Testament times certain groups arose that did not give much credence to the reports presented by the four evangelists. For them Jesus was a teacher of heavenly truth. He had taught that human beings should search for and find the divine light of knowledge within themselves if they just try hard enough. And that such an outstanding teacher and thinker should end up dying on the cross —no, that couldn’t be; it didn’t make sense. And so they held a rather odd idea: they believed that shortly before the crucifixion Jesus returned to heaven and that in his stead someone else, who looked like him, was killed in his place. The crucifixion of Jesus —well, it was a mistake, a mix-up. That was their way of trying to make sense of what the Christians were saying about the cross.
Subsequently the Christian Church generally succeeded to fend off this crazy attempt to revise the message of the cross. It was possible to show that their claim just did not fit in with the oldest and original testimonies about Jesus. Nevertheless, this opinion, that there was some kind of mix-up at the cross, was kept alive in some groups of the Middle East during the next couple of centuries. And around 600 A.D. the Arabian merchant Mohammed came into contact with some of these groups. He took up their idea that some else other than Jesus ended up on the cross and incorporated that message in the Koran.
In Sura 4 it says: “But they did not kill him, they did not crucify him, but it only appeared that way… And they did not kill him in certainty, rather God took him up to himself. God is powerful and wise.” So far the quotation.
No, indeed! His enemies cannot have killed Jesus. According to Islamic understanding he is, after all, a prophet of God, thus he stands under God’s special protection, he could not possibly croak on a cross. It just seemed that way, that Jesus was crucified, but in reality God took him out of that perilous situation in the nick of time, and then Jesus continued his ministry and died at a ripe old age.
So far the Koran.
Well, in one regard the Koran is correct: If Jesus was merely one of the prophets, like many before him, then indeed it is not important that he was crucified. Then we need merely rely on the message he preached —although we most certainly deny that Jesus spoke the words that the Koran claimed he said on that occasion. Historically, however, it really makes not sense to deny the fact of Jesus’ crucifixion, and the explanations propounded by certain gnostic sects which Mohammed picked up seem not only artificial but even silly.
There can be no reasonable doubt that Jesus was nailed to the cross and died there! But agreeing with that statement does not yet make someone a Christian. To be that we need to hear not only the what, but also the why. We need to take note not only the explanation given by later theologians but we are to believe what Jesus himself said about it. Already before his death Jesus did not only prophesy that he would be crucified in Jerusalem; he also explained why that would happen and what the point of his death was. The Gospel tells us clearly: “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matth. 20:28). And in a moment we will hear these words at the altar: “This cup is the New Covenant in my blood which is poured out for the forgiveness of your sins.”
Jesus’ death by crucifixion was infinitely more than an injustice or a legal scandal; and it only seemed to be a humiliating defeat of the one dying on that cross. Intentionally and deliberately Jesus went the way of the cross. He did not shirk from that path, did not climb down from the cross, as his scoffers challenged him to do; he could have. And God the Father did not keep him from going to the cross, did not at the last moment prevent the scandal of the cross. Rather on that cross, there on Golgotha hill, he really gave him up for us, in our behalf, and for one single reason: that all who believe in him should not perish but have eternal life.
The death on the cross is all about a vicarious act, one person doing it for and in behalf of others. It is a sacrifice we could not but which Jesus did offer, so that we might not suffer the punishment for sin which each of us so richly deserves. The death on the cross is all about forgiveness, something we could not earn by any of our own works. That forgiveness comes solely out of the death of Christ on the cross.
The cross of Christ is the end of all religion, of all human attempts to assuage the divine with human efforts. The cross of Jesus is the end of all religions of the law, including Islam, religions that demand of man what only the Son of the heavenly Father can do. And the cross of Calvary is also the end of all uncertainty about our relationship with God and what his intentions are for us: He wants our life, all of it, lock, stock and barrel, nothing held back. Simply because Christ there on the tree held nothing back and gave his all in our behalf.
Mohammed probably fully realized that if the fact of the cross prevails, that would upend and deny his entire message. Therefore there is no room for the cross in the Koran.
What a blessing, my sisters and brothers, that Mohammed was wrong; that Jesus did die on the cross—for us! What a blessing! Amen.