A response to the Muslim claim that Jesus was
sent to the Children of Israel only
Introducing the Problem
"Jesus is for the Children of Israel only." We recall these or similar words addressed several times by a Muslim to our small group of Christians as we attempted to share Gospel portions among Muslims in a town of South India. It was as if he were telling us to stop wasting our time distributing a message which was not intended for Muslims, Hindus or anyone else in this Indian community. Did not Jesus say the same thing?
Whether or not all Muslims agree with his opinion is here beside the point. There is no doubt that this contention has been shared by a significant number of Sunni and Shi'i Muslims as well as by Ahmadis. How can Christians respond to it?
Christians will wisely recognize that sufficient evidence exists to take this Muslim contention seriously, simply because it is Biblical. After Jesus has equipped His disciples with authority, He sends them out and charges them:
Here Jesus clearly distinguishes the house of Israel from the Gentiles and the Samaritans.2 His disciples are to confine their mission to the physical descendants of their forefathers. Perhaps it is not co-incidental that their number is twelve, representing the twelve tribes of Israel.
Similarly Jesus limits His own apostolate to the house of Israel. To a Canaanite woman, seeking help for her daughter, Jesus says:
"I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." (Matthew 15:24)
This verbal response of Jesus was preceded by silence on His part and then the request of His disciples that Jesus send her away. There follows His second verbal response to her second plea, a response which can be interpreted only as a harsh rejection:
Further support to this limitation upon Jesus' ministry is indicated in the following passages which deal respectively with a sick Jewish woman and a despised tax-collector, who mends his ways after meeting Jesus:
"Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost." (Luke 19:9,10)
Jesus helps them, for they belong to the house of Israel.
Like the first three Gospel accounts, the Gospel according to St. John tends towards the same limitation. Though Jesus and His disciples encounter Samaritans and stay with them for about two days (John 4:1-42), this event is unusual in Jesus' ministry. Only prior to His Passion and the conclusion of His ministry on earth does He meet Greeks; He informs them only that the seed must first die before it can bear fruit, an obvious reference to His death (John 12:20-26). Even Paul mentions "that Christ became a servant to the circumcised ...." (Romans 15:8). He says nothing about a ministry of Jesus among the Gentiles.
Topographical studies likewise provide no evidence that Jesus ever went beyond the boundaries of the Jewish population.4
To speak of this limitation upon Jesus' ministry is one thing. To give a reason for it is another. As is often the case with the person, words and works of Jesus, here also our understanding of this limitation upon His ministry is governed by patterns deeply and beautifully engraved in the Old Testament. To search the Old Testament for such patterns is not an arbitrary procedure; it is to follow the example of Jesus, who constantly points to the Old Testament for an understanding of Him and His ways because the Old Testament always points to Him. (Luke 24:25-27; John 5:39,46)
Thus it is not co-incidental that Jesus views Himself as the shepherd of the lost sheep of Israel. Through the prophet Ezekiel God had declared:
Matthew, in summarizing the ministry of Jesus, says:
The New Testament understands Jesus, as a descendant of David, to be the David of Ezekiel's prophecy. As shepherd He is king. The New Testament term "Son of David" means the Messiah."5
What then was Jesus' attitude towards the Gentiles and the Samaritans? Occasional references of Jesus to them reveal the distinction which Jesus made between them and the Children of Israel. While they may sound disparaging, they are more accommodating to the views of Jewish hearers than disparaging of Samaritans and Gentiles. Thus He says to His Jewish hearers:
"And in praying do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their many words." (Matthew 6:7)6
After Jesus healed ten lepers, only one, a Samaritan, returned to thank God. To which Jesus says:
The Samaritans considered Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to be their forefathers and religious leaders. They also acknowledged Moses to be God's prophet, the Torah to be God's Holy Book, and awaited the coming of the Messiah.
At the time of Jesus, however, the Jews did not consider the Samaritans to be among the true Children of Israel because they had become mixed with foreigners. Open hostility existed between Jews and Samaritans, nourished by several centuries of differences. The Jew, John Hyrcanus, destroyed the Samaritan temple on Mt. Gerazim in 128 B.C. About 8 A.D. some Samaritans desecrated the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. John summarized the situation well: "For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans" (John 4:9). Did the Jews even equate Samaritans with demons? (John 8:48)
At the time of Jesus the Jews were ruled by the Romans. Generally they abhorred the Romans and other Gentiles as idolaters, rejected by God, wicked and unclean. Despite earlier Judaistic tendencies to include Gentiles in the final glory of Israel, later Judaism awaited the vengeance of God upon the Romans in particular, the Gentiles in general.
However, Jesus sharply separates Himself from His fellow Jews who despise both Samaritans and Gentiles. He rejects any hatred of one nation for another nation; nor does He allow vengeance by one nation against another. Vengeance is the prerogative of God (Luke 18:7; Romans 12:19). Moreover, as the New Testament accounts frequently show, He wants no part in establishing a kingdom of Israel according to Jewish expectation; He is concerned with establishing the kingdom of God. He seeks to free from Satan, not Rome.
In the light of Jewish relations with Gentiles and Samaritans a series of Jesus' words and acts become intelligible and meaningful. In the account of the Good Samaritan the Samaritan, not the Jewish priest or the Levite, demonstrates the true meaning and practice of love for the neighbour, i.e., if the Jews wish to know the meaning of love for the neighbour, their Samaritan enemy offers them a good example (Luke 10:29-37). Jesus rebukes His own disciples who seek revenge against those Samaritans who refused to welcome them in their village (Luke 9:55). He wonders why only one of the ten lepers, now healed, fails to give Him thanks; to which Luke adds, laconically: "Now he was a Samaritan" (Luke 17:16), i.e., not a child of the Kingdom but an outsider gives thanks. As noted below, He praises the faith of two Gentiles, whose faith, he suggests, the Jews should emulate.
Neither hate nor vengeance but repentance: This is what Jesus wants the Jews to practise. When Jesus is told that Pilate (the Gentile ruler) has massacred some Galileans (Jews), He tells His reporters to repent in order that they may avoid a similar fate. Both the prophet John the Baptist and Jesus reject any Jewish claim to be superior or to be in possession of an inherent merit or worthiness by virtue of being Jewish; they simply summon the Jews to repentance (Matthew 3:2; 4:11). John's crushing statement:
is echoed by Jesus' words of judgement upon those Jews who, despite Jesus' many works among them, remain unrepentant:
By rejecting hatred and revenge, by citing good actions of some Samaritans and Gentiles and by summoning the Jews to repentance and love, Jesus incurred the wrath of many of His countrymen. Along this same pattern He once reminded His countrymen in His own town of Nazareth of two Old Testament incidents: During a famine in Israel the prophet Elijah aided not the widows of Israel but a widow at Zarephath (a Gentile); a little later the prophet Elisha helped not the lepers of Israel but the leper Naaman (a Gentile). Hearing these incidents, Jesus' own countrymen became furious with Him. (Luke 4:25-28)
Our point here, however, is not the furious response. Rather, it is to recall that God directed both of these prophets, great prophets of God to the Children of Israel, to help individual Gentiles. Do not these prophets supply an Old Testament precedent for Jesus' action among a few individual Samaritans and Gentiles?
One of these actions concerned the Canaanite woman, to whom, as already noted, Jesus had said: "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." Let us cite the whole incident to put both the words of Jesus and His action in proper perspective, since at least some Muslims have chosen to quote only these words but to ignore their context:
In addition we cite the passage regarding Jesus and the Roman centurion:
While reiterating our agreement with Muslims that Jesus said that He was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, we note also that 1. Jesus healed both Gentiles in need of healing; 2. Both the centurion and the woman realized their unworthiness before Jesus. What is explicit in the account of the Canaanite woman is implicit in the account about the centurion: Jesus' ministry is to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Both were fully aware that they did not belong to the house of Israel and that Jesus had the right to reject their requests;8 3. Both demonstrate a faith which was unparalleled among the Children of Israel. It is this kind of faith that Jesus looked for and which He honored. Such a faith always receives what it wants, for it wants God's will (John 15:7, 1 John 5:19);9 4. Jesus told neither of them to follow Him.
Should we be surprised that Jesus followed the precedents of Elijah and Elisha in helping Gentiles, especially Gentiles of such faith? By abiding by His practice that He was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, should He have ignored their pleas? It does seem possible that these exceptions proved His rule of limiting His ministry to the house of Israel.10
Further we should note Jesus' additional words to His disciples after He has instructed them to "go nowhere among the Gentiles, and ... the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel":
Again we are faced with the paradox: Jesus sends His disciples exclusively to the lost sheep of Israel; yet before them (in their synagogues) and the Gentiles they "bear testimony". Is this testimony simply a judicial testimony, words issuing from the disciples before kings and judges in the form of a court defense only?
Even if this were the case, still an abundance of evidence in the Gospel accounts indicates an understanding of a more positive participation of the Gentiles in God's Kingdom and the role of Jesus in this Gentile participation. This understanding is related to a host of references in the Old Testament regarding the future destiny of the Gentiles:
"Listen to me, my people,
and give ear to me, my nation;
for a law will go forth from me,
and my justice for a light to the peoples." (Isaiah 51:4)
Arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you,
For behold, darkness shall cover the earth
and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lord will arise upon you
and His glory will appear over you.
And nations shall come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your rising. (Isaiah 60:1-3)
The Lord has bared His holy arm
before the eyes of all the nations;
and all the ends of the earth shall see
the salvation of our God. (Isaiah 52:10)
It shall come to pass in the latter days
that the mountain of the house of the Lord
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;
and all the nations shall flow to it.... (Isaiah 2:2, cf. vs. 3, 4)
On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make
for all peoples a feast of fat things,
a feast of wine on the lees,
of fat things full of marrow,
of wine on the lees well refined.
And He will destroy on this mountain
the covering that is cast over all peoples,
the veil that is spread over all nations.
He will swallow up death for ever,
and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces,
and the reproach of His people
He will take away from all the earth,
for the Lord has spoken. (Isaiah 25:6-8)
This outreach among the Gentiles is closely bound with the mission of the Servant of the Lord:
It is further said about this servant that
The Gospel accounts identify this servant as Jesus in unmistakable terms (Matthew 12:15-21). After Jesus has spoken to His disciples about His own suffering and the greatness of service, He concludes:
It is to these sheep that Jesus refers when He says:
Jesus, the Son of Man, will return as king to judge all nations:
The following words of Jesus at least partially summarize the direction and content of the series of Old Testament passages noted above:
Jesus' concern for the Gentiles, apart from immediate confrontation with them, is indicated in the following passage:
Jesus is disturbed by the business transacted in the Temple. In fact it is transacted in the outer court of the Temple, the first part of the Temple into which anyone coming into the Temple had first to enter. Beyond the outer court Jews alone can proceed. Yet precisely this outer court is reserved for the Gentiles to worship God.11
By cleansing the Temple Jesus acts more for Gentile worship of God in peace than against the transaction of business by various vendors, as His quotation from the Old Testament suggests.12 Moreover this quotation from the prophets Isaiah (56:7) and Jeremiah (7:11) provides him with authority to act. His action takes on greater significance when He refers to Himself as the Temple which the Jews will destroy and which He will raise again in three days, or when He states that He is greater than the Temple. (John 2:19-22; Matthew 12:6)
It is thus clear that Jesus limits His ministry and that of His disciples, as long as He was on earth, to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. At the same time His ministry has eternal significance for the Gentiles also. Can these two conclusions be reconciled?
The resolution of this tension (or contradiction, as some would see it) can be found within both the Old and New Testaments. By speaking firstly of the Children of Israel, the Old Testament hints at a sequence in the Servant's activity:
First the Children of Israel and then the Gentiles. The New Testament is quite explicit about a time sequence: the time before the climactic events of Jesus' ministry (His Passion, Death, Resurrection and Ascension) and the time established by and following after the critical events in Jesus' ministry, a ministry which the living and ascended Messiah even now continues. Prior to these events themselves Jesus described them as "the hour," "His hour" (John 8:20; 12:23, 13:1, 17:1). Before these events Jesus limits His ministry and that of His disciples to the Children of Israel. After these events His disciples are to be witnesses to all nations. Thus the crucified and risen Messiah addresses His disciples:
Peter observes this sequence when he addresses the Jews shortly after Jesus' ascension:
Soon after, Paul and Barnabas echo only what Peter has indicated about this sequence:
Thus also the Letter to the Romans reads:
This sequence, first to the Jew and then to the Gentile, is followed consistently by the early Church, as reported in the Book of Acts. No doubt, members of the early Church, composed of sons and daughters of Abraham, disputed among themselves about the position of the Gentiles in this new community. Yet the dispute focussed more on the conditions to be laid upon convert Gentiles (e.g., should they be circumcised?) than on the need to witness to them. Indeed the Book of Acts exhibits a vigorous Christian ministry among Samaritans and Gentiles. As this ministry antedates the conversion of St. Paul, it is clear - contrary to the opinion held by some Muslims - that St. Paul did not initiate Christian mission among Gentiles, however much he contributed to it.13
Why some Muslims have selected and isolated the "limiting texts" of Jesus' ministry without reference to a multitude of other texts which indicate His eventual ministry among the Gentiles is best known to them and God. Presumably their purpose is to contrast Islam as a universal religion with Christianity as a national religion. The previous Scriptures, they might say, have been lost or at least thoroughly distorted. At best, they might continue, only parts of these Scriptures remain; from these remnants it is evident that Jesus was sent only - "only" in an absolute, not a relative, sense - to the lost sheep of the house of Israel; on the other hand, of all Holy Scriptures the Qur'an alone has been preserved by God in its pristine purity and therefore it alone, as it also testifies, can be truly universal.
Yet, apart from numerous passages in the Qur'an which point to the integrity and existence of previous Scriptures*, what does the Qur'an actually say in reference to our topic? Our response to this question will be brief.
True, the Qur'an speaks about Jesus' mission to the Children of Israel (3:49; 61:6). Yet it appears that the Qur'an uses Jesus as an example for Arab unbelievers also:
It also says about Jesus:
Jesus' mission is to the Children of Israel. He is a revelation for mankind also.
Likewise the previous Scriptures, though revealed at particular places, in particular times and to a particular people, have a broader application:
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 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). (3:3,4)
The Torah and the Gospel, like Jesus, are revelations for mankind.
It is already clear from the above discussion that Jesus was saturated with the Old Testament and that the New Testament (Injil, Gospel) quotes abundantly from it. The Old Testament provides, as it were, a blueprint and a projection of Jesus' person (the Messiah, the Servant, the Son of Man) and His ministry (preaching, teaching, healing) as well as the significance of His person and ministry for Israel and the Gentiles. Perhaps a Quranic indication for this can be found in the statement that Jesus was taught "the Scripture and wisdom, and the Torah and the Gospel" (3:48), whatever else this passage may mean. Have Muslims given sufficient attention particularly to the relation between the Torah (Old Testament) and the Gospel (New Testament)?
Furthermore, the Qur'an frequently mentions the existence of two communities, Jews and Christians. True, the Qur'an occasionally reprimands the Christians. Yet it also says about them:
Are all those Christians, to which the Qur'an and reliable Muslim Traditions (Hadith) refer, from the tribes of Israel? If some of them are not of these tribes, are they then truly Christian? Waraqa, the cousin of Muhammad's wife, Khadijah? Some of the Arab tribes who had become Christians? When the Qur'an speaks of both Jews and Christians reading the Scriptures (2:113), are all the Christians, to which it refers, descendants of Abraham?
In fact, the Qur'an accepts, implicitly and explicitly, both the limitation of Jesus' ministry and the universality of His ministry and of the Gospel (Injil).
On the other hand, by isolating select passages from the Qur'an and ignoring others, it is possible to contend from these isolated passages that Muhammad is not the person many Muslims claim him to be and that the message of the Qur'an is not universal. Thus according to the Qur'an:
Thou art but a warner. (35:23, italics ours)
Since the Qur'an states that Muhammad is only a warner, then he is only a warner, no more or no less. Accordingly, one may argue, other passages which speak otherwise of Muhammad [he is "a bearer of glad tidings and a warner" (35:24); "a witness and a bringer of good tidings and a warner ... a summoner ... a lamp" (33:45,46); "a warner, and a bearer of good tidings unto folk who believe" (7:188); "the messenger of Allah and the Seal of the Prophets" (33:40)] are contradictory or later interpolations by Muhammad's companions or other members of the Islamic community. For Muhammad is only ("only" in an absolute, not a relative, sense) a warner. Muhammed himself says: "I am not a new thing among the messengers of Allah." (46:9)
Thus also the Qur'an addresses Muhammed:
... that thou mayest warn the mother of Villages (Mecca) and those around her. (6:93)
Since the above passages indicate that Muhammad is a warner to his relatives, to Mecca and to surrounding villages, how then can the Qur'an say:
Are not the limited and universal dimensions contradictory one of another?
Likewise the Qur'an says about itself:
The Qur'an is in Arabic in order that the Arabs who complain that they cannot understand another language or a revelation in another language may understand. How then can the Qur'an also say about itself that it "is naught else than a reminder unto the peoples" (12:104; 38:88; 68:52; 81:27), since the vast majority of peoples have never understood nor can understand Arabic? Nor can the Qur'an, as many Muslims would contend, be truly translated to become the Qur'an in another language. Hence, one may conclude, the need for an intelligible and lucid Arabic revelation for Arabs defeats the very purpose of the Qur'an to be a revelation for all people since the vast majority of mankind have not been able and are not able to understand Arabic.
To him, be he Christian, Muslim or neither, who accepts the inherent claims of both Islam and Christianity to have limited and universal dimensions, much of the above may appear to be a silly exercise in elementary logic in support of an initial prejudice. On the other hand he who, through prejudice, has determined to discover an absolute cleavage between the limited and universal dimensions in either the Bible or the Qur'an by arbitrarily selecting and ignoring passages in either book may also discover that similar kinds of prejudice and reasoning can equally be applied against his thesis.
In fact the concept of universality is only one of the many concepts which Islam and Christianity hold in common. Adherents of both religions, since their inception, accept the obligation to spread their respective messages to all nations and the right of all nations to share in them. It is an obvious fact of history that multitudes from many nations and of various races have followed one or the other religion.
But better than to discuss the fact of universality embedded in the message of Islam and the message of Christianity is to discuss the content of these universal messages and their meaning for mankind. What better way to begin this than by studying the Bible and the Qur'an! Perhaps this simple suggestion will sound less naive when we recall that both Muslims and Christians lament that their Scriptures are more admired, honoured and extolled than read, understood and lived.
The Quranic portrayal of the Children of Israel conforms with the Biblical portrayal: Israel is chosen and favoured by the pure grace of God, not by any inherent merit within the Children of Israel themselves.
On the other hand the Qur'an says to the Muslims; "Ye are the best community that has been raised up for mankind" (3:110). Is a time factor involved in these two (relative?) estimates of Israel and Muslims?
Quotations from the Qur'an are taken from Marmaduke Pickthall, The Meaning of the Glorious Koran.
Thus Jesus' Gentile concern was not novel for the Jews. Nor could He have hardly avoided them, even if He had wished, because of their obvious presence in Jerusalem and Galilee and because of the nature of Jesus' ministry.
This essay was originally written for a seminar in 1979. Its essential content remains unchanged.
Writings by Dr. Ernest Hahn
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