When talking about Christology and missions in a Muslim context, we need to understand the Quran’s presentation of Jesus. This will help us to actually have dialogue with Muslims and use ideas they are familiar with as a means of bridging to the truth of the biblical revelation of Christ.
Muslims will often say that they love Jesus and have more regard for him than Christians do. This is a way to gain a hearing, but it is also based on a Quranic presentation of Jesus which places him in an exalted position from other prophets. Joseph Lumbard in The Study Quran says:
Despite the emphasis upon his human nature, Jesus is recognised as holding an exalted position in relation to the other prophets: “those are the messengers. Among them are those whom God spoke, and some He raised up in ranks. And We gave Jesus son of Mary clear proofs and strengthened him with the Holy Spirit” (2:253). The best example of Jesus’ particular distinction among the prophets is the miracle of the virgin birth, to which the Quran attests.1
Yet Muslim polemicists will insist that Jesus is no more than a human Prophet who was sent by God with a limited ministry to the Israelites.
The Messiah, son of Mary, was not but a messenger; [other] messengers have passed on before him. And his mother was a supporter of truth. They both used to eat food. Look how We make clear to them the signs; then look how they are deluded. (Q. 5:75)
The knee-jerk reaction is to deny this wholesale and then respond with a quotation from John 3:16 or some other verse describing Jesus’ call to the whole world, but there is an important lesson to learn here in order to avoid common mistakes that people make when engaging with Islam. There is no need to deny things that are true in order to reject things that are false. For example, Muslims will argue that Jesus does not call himself the Son of God but rather prefers the term Son of Man. The frustrated evangelist may argue back, “Jesus is not the Son of Man he is the Son of God!” But Jesus is both the Son of God and the Son of Man with no contradiction.
The above Islamic claims about Jesus have a measure of truth in them! For one, Jesus is a man. We should never deny his humanity or order to affirm his deity. Scriptures affirms both the deity and humanity of Jesus.
"…And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth." (Jn. 1:1; 14)
The fullness of God dwelt bodily in Jesus, and He was born in the likeness of men:
"For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily." (Col. 2:9)
"But emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men." (Phil. 2:7)
Jesus is also a prophet. Consider the following verses which describe him so:
"And they took offense at him. But Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his hometown and in his own household." (Mt. 13:57)
"The Christ appointed for you, Jesus, whom heaven must receive until the time for restoring all the things about which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets long ago. Moses said, ‘The Lord God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your brothers. You shall listen to him in whatever he tells you." (Acts 3:20–22)
Jesus’ narrow and specific ministry focus to Israel should also not be denied:
"He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”" (Mt. 15:24)
"For I tell you that Christ became a servant to the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs." (Rom 15:8)
All of these descriptions about Jesus are biblically accurate. Muslims are only wrong to say that Jesus was no more than a human prophet sent to Israel. He was so much more than this and even a cursory look at Islamic sources bears this out. For example, Muslims will often use Surah 4:171 to support their claim that Jesus was no more than a prophet. It says:
O People of the Scripture, do not commit excess in your religion or say about Allah except the truth. The Messiah, Jesus, the son of Mary, was but a messenger of Allah and His word which He directed to Mary and a soul [created at a command] from Him… (Q. 4:171)
Notice it says that Jesus is “but a messenger” and “His word”, and “a soul…from Him”. One of the prooftexts Muslims use from the Quran to show Jesus is no more than a simple messenger actually proves the opposite. He is a messenger "and"!...The verse itself contradicts the assertion that Jesus is a mere prophet. Jesus is also “His word.” Further, the Quran clearly presents the ministry of Jesus as universal in scope:
He said, "Thus [it will be]; your Lord says, 'It is easy for Me, and We will make him a sign to the people and a mercy from Us. And it is a matter [already] decreed.’” (Q. 19:21)
And she who was chaste, therefor We breathed into her (something) of Our Spirit and made her and her son a token for (all) peoples. (Q. 21:91 Pickthal)
Not only is Jesus Himself a sign, revelation, and mercy from God for all people but the Injil (gospel) itself, which came through Jesus is also for all mankind:
He hath revealed unto thee (Muhammad) the Scripture with truth, confirming that which was (revealed) before it, even as He revealed the Torah and the Gospel. (3) Aforetime, for a guidance to mankind; and hath revealed the Criterion of right and wrong. Lo! those who disbelieve the revelations of Allah, theirs will be a heavy doom. Allah is Mighty, Able to Requite (the wrong). (Q. 3:3-4)
The Quran also says that Jesus is a sign for the final hour:
And (Jesus) shall be a Sign (for the coming of) the Hour (of Judgment): therefore have no doubt about the (Hour), but follow ye Me: this is a Straight Way. (Q. 43:61)
Famous commentator of the Quran, Ibn Kathir, says that Jesus will actually descend as judge at the end of the age:
Many Mutawatir Hadiths report that the Messenger of Allah said that `Isa will descend before the Day of Resurrection as a just ruler and fair judge. (Tafsir IbnKathir, Q. 43:61)
This certainly would mean that he plays a universal role which is not limited to Israel!
How then should we explain Matthew 15:24 and even Matthew 10:5-7? Does the Bible teach Jesus was only called to the Israelites? Again, in answering this question one should not deny Jesus specific call to the Jews, rather it needs to be shown how this specific call fits into the broader one. Both of these passages in Matthew happened before Jesus crucifixion and resurrection, applying to a specific timeframe. John explains the progression of Jesus ministry from the Jews to all people.
He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. (Jn. 1:11-13)
Jesus ministry begins with Israel and becomes universal. So it is true that Jesus was sent only to Israel and it is equally true that his calling was for the whole world. In fact, His specific call to Israel was necessary for his universal call to be actualized. Of course we see this in the gospel of Matthew itself:
Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Mt. 28:16-20)
Amazingly, early Islamic sources agree with the gospel account and not with modern Islamic propagandists. The Sirat Rasul Allah of Ibn Ishaq says that Jesus sent his disciples with the gospel to different people groups of the world.
"...every one of them was able to speak the language of the people to whom he was sent...Those whom Jesus son of Mary sent, both disciples and those who came after them, in the land were: Peter the disciple and paul with him, (paul belonged to the followers and was not a disciple) to Rome. Andrew and Matthew to the land of the cannibals; Thomas to the land of Babel, which is in the land of the east; Philip to Carthage which is Africa; John to Ephesus the city of the young men of the cave; James to Jerusalem which is Aelia the city of the sanctuary; Bartholomew to Arabia which is the land of Hijaz; Simon to the land of the Berbers; Judah who was not one of the disciples was put in place of Judas."2
Finally, something to share with your Muslim friend is that the Quran affirms that Jesus is the Messiah. The Quran says:
[And mention] when the angels said, "O Mary, indeed Allah gives you good tidings of a word from Him, whose name will be the Messiah, Jesus, the son of Mary - distinguished in this world and the Hereafter and among those brought near [to Allah ]. (Al-Imran 3:45)
The virginal conception and messianic role of Jesus are both affirmed in the Quran. In the Bible these are two deeply connected truths. We would do well to explain to those we are trying to reach with the gospel that Jesus' title as the Son of God has nothing to do with some kind of cosmic procreation. The title Messiah comes from the Torah and the Zabur (Psalms), referring prophetically to a king who would rule over the nations from the line of David and one who would be called the Son of God by virtue of his birth to a virgin woman. We see the Messiah called the Son of God in the Psalms of David:
The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and against his Anointed, saying, “Let us burst their bonds apart and cast away their cords from us.” He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision. Then he will speak to them in his wrath, and terrify them in his fury, saying, “As for me, I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill.” I will tell of the decree: The Lord said to me, “You are my Son; today I have begotten you. Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession. (Psalms 2:2–8)
In the Gospel of Luke the messianic role of Jesus and the title "Son of God" are profoundly linked together in the virginal birth.
And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end…The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God.” (Lk. 1:31–33; 35)
Jesus rightly holds the title Son of God because he is the Messiah, has no earthly father, came directly from the Spirit of God, and has a unique relationship to God - something the Quran itself does not deny. Of course the Quran only goes so far, and the great and disastrous deception is its denial of the divinity of Jesus. The next post will be dedicated to that topic which I like to call the stumbling block.
- 1 Lumbard, Joseph. The Study Quran. In “The Quranic View of Sacred History and Other Religions”
- 2 Ibn Ishaq’s “Sirat Rasulallah - The Life of Muhammad” Translation by A. Guillaume. 653.