A blessing for all the nations
From Genesis to Revelation, the Bible is a thoroughly interfaith book. | Read: Genesis 12:1–2; Acts 1:6–8
E. Quinn Fox
There are at least 200 accounts in the Old and New Testaments of the people of God encountering people of other faiths. Some of these accounts feature violence or condemnation: the Lord judges the gods of Egypt by sending the plagues (Exodus 7–11); Elijah challenges the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18).
The Apostle Paul faces Greco-Roman gods at virtually every turn in his missionary journeys, including at an altar in Athens to an “unknown god” (Acts 17:23). The Bible includes stories of amicable encounters, such as between Ruth (a Moabite) and Naomi (an Israelite) in the book of Ruth. It also includes stories of conversions: the people of Nineveh repent in the book of Jonah; Philip baptizes the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8:26–39.
There is no single biblical model for our interaction with those from other religious traditions. But it is clear that God’s people are called to unswerving loyalty and faithfulness to the Lord (Exodus 20:1–6). It is also clear that Christians are to be ready to give “an accounting for the hope that is in” us (1 Peter 3:15). To have an interfaith relationship we must know our own faith.
Pray: Psalm 67:1–5
Study: the nations
One approach to interfaith relations can be found by examining the nations, a term that is used more than 300 times from Genesis to Revelation. (To find examples, use a concordance such as http://bible.oremus.org.)
In the first 11 chapters of the Bible, human beings are created in God’s image and disobey God, resulting in alienation from God and from one another and a downward spiral for society. God preserves a remnant of humanity through Noah. The rise of the nations descended from Noah is followed by their decline after the tower of Babel is built. In Genesis 12:1–2, God chooses Abraham, blessing him to “be a blessing” to the world. The rest of the Bible tells the story of how God chooses a particular people through whom all the nations of the world will be blessed.
The nations (Egypt, the tribes of Canaan, Assyria, Babylon, Rome) frequently oppose Israel and are sometimes used as God’s instrument of judgment; often the gods of the nations tempt God’s people to syncretism (combining worship of the Lord God with devotion to other deities). But always the nations are the object of God’s redemptive purpose (see Genesis 26:4; Revelation 22:2). Insofar as the nations represent alternative religious worldviews to biblical faith, the Bible is a thoroughly interfaith book.
The biblical narrative as a whole tells the story of how God shapes a people. The initial concern (Genesis through 2 Chronicles) is with setting this people apart from the nations. The purpose is purity, the formation of a community that worships the Lord and is not confused by other religious options.
But by the time of the prophets, and even more clearly in the New Testament, God is leading the chosen people into the midst of the religious other. The prophets appear to be the hinge: exiled from their homeland, the people find their focus turned inside out, and they begin to hope in a different kind of anointed one than the predominantly evil kings of Israel and Judah who failed them.
Jesus fulfilled this prophetic hope in ways the prophets could not have imagined (nor could Jesus’ contemporaries). As Messiah, he gained victory and liberated God’s people through a humble life of suffering (Isaiah 52:12–53:13). He did this in the midst of the Roman occupation (and Roman religions) of Palestine. Christianity then expanded amid the religious pluralism of Asia Minor. Indeed, the Christian faith was born and spread initially in a thoroughly interfaith context.
Remember: Acts 1:8
“You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
Live: 1 Corinthians 9:19–23
Let Paul’s exhortation to the church in Corinth guide your relationships with people of other faiths.
E. Quinn Fox served as associate for theology in the PC(USA) office of Theology and Worship from 2007 to 2011 and is now associate pastor for discipleship at National Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. This article is part of Invitation to the Word, encouraging Presbyterians to read, study, pray, remember and live Scripture: www.pcusa.org/theologyandworship