This is a phrase that comes from the Qur’an,* the Holy Book of Islam. It’s a way of describing the common heritage of Jews, Christians and Muslims: all three base their faith on a Book in which God reveals himself and his will to humans on earth. All three believe God spoke through Moses in the Old Testament. Christians believe God spoke a second time through Jesus Christ. Muslims believe that God also spoke a third time through the Prophet Mohammed.
A simplified overview of the timeline of revelation history shows that God’s first Word (to and through Moses) was organized into a Book, the Torah (Law), the first five books of our Old Testament, by about 500 BC. The Prophets, Psalms and other books were added during the next century. God’s second great Word was spoken through Jesus Christ’s teachings, life, death and resurrection. These were written before AD 120 and were gathered into what we know as the New Testament by AD 367 (the time of Athanasius). The third Word, in the belief of Islam, came by personal revelations to the Prophet Mohammed in the years between AD 609 and 632. It’s interesting that the person quoted most often in the Qur’an is Moses, and that Jesus is referred to more often than Mohammed. In summary, there were about 700 years between the first Book (the Torah) and the second Book (the New Testament), and about 500 years between the second and the third (the Qur’an).
Of course, each group believes that theirs is the final Word of revelation and that the later writings are either false or misinterpreted. Judaism teaches that God spoke his greatest Word through Moses and the Prophets, and that Jesus’ life and teachings are just a later chapter of Jewish faith and history. Christians believe that Jesus Christ is God’s unique and pivotal Word, and that the New Testament supersedes and interprets the Old Testament. Muslims believe that the Word spoken through Mohammed and preserved in the Qur’an is a final authoritative revelation, explaining both Moses and Christ in the context of God’s larger plan.
C.S. Lewis, the famous Christian thinker and writer, described in his biography his journey as an English schoolboy learning for the first time that Christianity was not the only religion in the world:
The impression I got was that religion in general, though utterly false, was a natural growth, a kind of endemic nonsense into which humanity tended to blunder. In the midst of a thousand such religions stood our own, the thousand and first, labelled True. But on what grounds could I believe in this exception? It obviously was in some general sense the same kind of thing as all the rest. Why was it so differently treated? Need I, at any rate, continue to treat it differently? I was very anxious not to.**
These thoughts caused Lewis to lose his faith, and, for a time, he considered himself an atheist, before beginning a long, life-transforming journey toward the profound understanding of Jesus Christ as the ultimate Word from God. His writings about this rediscovery have inspired thousands of others to personal encounters with Christ.
As for me, I see the Old Testament as the fertile ground in which Jesus Christ sprouted as the central Word of God’s revelation to us, so I respect it highly and study it in depth. I see the New Testament as the flowering of the Christ Event, showing how his birth, teachings, death and resurrection embrace the drama of my own personal salvation. I see the Qur’an less clearly because I’m just becoming familiar with it. However, it seems to me that its message is a step backward from the powerful Words God spoke through Moses in the first great revelation and through Christ in the second great revelation. I’m open to learning more, but at this point I don’t see anything in it that is an advance on the grace of God expressed through Jesus Christ.
One final word: “People of the Book” are called on to worship the God of the book, not the Book itself. Whether it’s Jews and their Torah, Christians and their Bible or Muslims and their Qur’an, holding the Book itself up as the center of faith can become idolatry. – Pastor George Van Alstine
* This seems to be the preferred way of transliterating the Arabic title into English, though it’s more commonly referred to as the Koran.
** From Surprised by Joy, Harcourt and Brace (1955), p. 63.