Mighty to Save
This article is intended as a sequel to A Heart for Eternity but it is still meaningful as a stand alone piece. As in the previous article, my aim is to “keep it simple” thus empowering ordinary Christians to share the Good News of salvation as unfolded in the many Bible stories alluded to here. Due to space limitations we are only able to briefly glimpse these rescue stories. In order to present the big picture I had to sacrifice many details. Please don't regard the Scripture quotes as proof texts so much as parts of a bigger whole, pieces of a puzzle. Each verse needs to be seen as part of a paragraph or cluster of paragraphs which hang together as a story. Ideally, they should be read as a unit. For example, I quoted only two verses while telling the story of the fiery furnace in Daniel chapter three, however, it is better to read the whole chapter. The same holds true for the story of Zacchaeus in Luke 19:1-10 and the woman who wiped Jesus' feet with her tears in Luke 7:36-50. Use common sense and be lead of the Spirit as you do this with other passages.
The previous article quoted extensively from John chapter four. We noted key insights for seasoning our conversation with salt as seen in the way Christ talked to the Samaritan woman about living water/eternal life. We also glimpsed the theme of salvation/Savior in verses 22 & 42 but we didn't explain it, except to say that eternal life and salvation are flip sides of the same coin.
This article explores the theme of God's power to save beginning with six prophets from the Hebrew Scriptures. As you would expect the stories of these heroic figures were often rehearsed as parents taught their children. This happened not only in Jewish families but also Samaritans. So also today, Muslims teach (some of) these stories to their children in a somewhat similar, yet distorted way. We will unwrap this foundational truth of God's saving power, showing how it is fulfilled in Jesus the Messiah.
Since Muslims revere many OT prophets it makes sense to explain the Good News beginning with them and progressively unfolding it in the NT (Injil). A good place to start talking about spiritual things with a Muslim is the story of Moses which contains the first and foremost commandment. One could hardly find another Bible passage that resonates more strongly with Muslims. The fact that there is only one God is foundational to both the Bible and the Qur'an. It is important, however, to note that this command doesn't just teach God's oneness, it also underscores the epic rescue out of Egypt. And, as we will see, the prophets who came later, continued to emphasize these twin themes of God's oneness and his saving power.
The first and most well-known command reads, “I am the LORD your God who rescued you from the land of Egypt, the place of your slavery. You must not have any other god but me.” (Exodus 20:2-3) Muslims agree wholeheartedly with this command. They also agree with the second half which says God rescued Moses' people out of slavery in Egypt. (cf. Surah 2:50)
A few weeks before God revealed the 10 commandments, Moses had the opportunity to meet his father-in-law Jethro after not seeing each other for 40 years. As you can well imagine, they had a lot of news to catch up on! Exodus 18:8-11 tells us how Moses told Jethro:
everything the LORD had done to Pharaoh and the Egyptians on behalf of Israel. He also told about all the hardships they had experienced along the way and how the LORD had rescued his people from all their troubles. Jethro was delighted when he heard about all the good things the LORD had done for Israel as he rescued them from the hand of the Egyptians. “Praise be to the Lord,” Jethro said, “for he has rescued you from the Egyptians and from Pharaoh ... I know now that God is greater than all other gods. (Exodus 18:8-11)
This story resonates with Muslims. They are very much in their comfort zone hearing Jethro exclaim, “the Lord is greater than all other gods.” (Allah u akbar) Secondly, most Muslims know that Moses married the daughter of a Midianite priest. Incidentally, they know Jethro by another name, Shuaib.
Interestingly, the Qur'an teaches that Allah struck Egypt with a series of devastating plagues. But nowhere does it specifically mention the Passover Lamb by which the Lord redeemed Israel out of Egypt. However, this does not necessarily mean Muslims immediately object to a sacrificial ransom. In fact, the theme of ransom is a vital part of Eid ul Adha, the annual sacrifice which Muslims perform each year in remembrance of Abraham.1
The twin truths of God's oneness and his saving power are echoed again and again in the writings of the psalmist David. For example, he wrote in Psalm 69:19,20 and Psalm 96:2-5:
praise God our saviour! ... Our God is a God who saves! The Sovereign Lord rescues us from death... Each day proclaim the good news that he saves. Publish his glorious deeds among the nations ... He is most worthy of praise! He is to be feared above all gods. The gods of other nations are mere idols.
Several hundred years after Moses died the Lord raised up another prophet to bring the wayward Israelites back to God. Hosea reminded them of the great things the Lord did for their forefathers:
But I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt. You shall acknowledge no God but me, no Savior except me. (Hosea 13:4, NIV)
Not long after Hosea the Lord raised up another prophet named Daniel who told an amazing story how three of his friends faced the wrath of King Nebuchadnezzar. The King commanded them to bow before a 90 foot golden statue but they bravely refused, preferring to die rather than sin against God. Finally they were thrown into the blazing furnace but God dramatically rescued them. The story takes an amazing turn as Nebuchadnezzar declares:
Praise to the God of Shadrack, Meshack and Abednego! He sent his angel to rescue his servants who trusted in him... I make this decree that no one can speak a word against the God of Shadrack, Meshack and Abednego. There is no other god who can rescue like this! (Daniel 3:28-29)
We've seen how the prophets Moses, David, Hosea and Daniel underscored God's oneness and his power to save. Not only so, this awesome power proves he is greater than all other gods. Now we will see that Jonah also confirms these core truths.
Based on the Qur'an, Muslims believe Jonah was saved by God from a near-death experience. Early in the biblical account we see Jonah getting onto a ship headed in the opposite direction to Nineveh, where God had commanded him to go. A terrible storm breaks on the ship and the sailors desperately pray to their idols but their idols cannot not save them. Finally they did as Jonah asked, throwing him overboard. The raging sea suddenly stopped and their lives were spared. The sailors “they were awestruck by the LORD'S great power and they offered him a sacrifice and vowed to serve him.” (Jonah 1:16)
Having endured a fierce storm that threatened to sink everyone on board the ship, Jonah now experienced something even more terrifying. He was swallowed by a gigantic fish. However, as we know, God miraculously rescued him. The Bible tells how he prayed from inside the belly of the fish:
But you, O Lord God, snatched me from the jaws of death! ... Those who worship false gods turn their backs on all God's mercies. But I will offer sacrifices to you with songs of praise ... For my salvation comes from the Lord alone. (Jonah 2:6-9)
The prophet Isaiah also tells an amazing rescue story in which King Hezekiah was besieged by the overwhelming army of the King of Assyria. Hezekiah prayed:
It is true, LORD, that the Kings of Assyria have destroyed all these nations. And they have thrown the gods of these nations into the fire and burned them. But of course the Assyrians could destroy them! They were not gods at all – only idols of wood and stone shaped by human hands. Now, O LORD our God, rescue us from his power; then all the kingdoms of the earth will know that you alone, O LORD [Yahweh], are God. (Isaiah 37:18-20)
Some time later, Isaiah declared in chapter 45:21-23:
There is no other God but me, a righteous God and Saviour. There is none but me. Let all the world look to me for salvation! For I am God; there is no other. I have sworn by my own name; ... Every knee will bend to me, and every tongue will confess allegiance to me.
In keeping with the other prophets, Isaiah also praised God because of his awesome power to save. But notice after Isaiah commanded the whole world, “look to me for salvation,” he foretold something very special. Isaiah predicted the coming of a special 'servant' who will bring God's salvation to the whole world. (Isaiah 49:6) But before we examine this Messianic prophecy let us review what we've said so far.
We've seen there is only one God and he is mighty to save. These twin themes are repeated by many different prophets showing how important these truths are. Naturally we want to ask our friend, “Is the name, Savior (or Rescuer, Deliverer) listed among the 99 beautiful names?” I asked a Muslim friend this question and he immediately replied, “Yes.” So I suggested he look to see where it was in his book on the 99 beautiful names of Allah. Much to his surprise, he couldn't find it! How I wish this would be an eye-opening moment for Yusuf. I pray that the Lord will remind him of this conversation and use it as a stepping stone to the light.
Muslims believe Islam reaffirms the teachings of the earlier prophets. So, if the early prophets honoured God as Savior, surely modern day believers should do the same. The name Savior is even more important when you consider that God commanded the whole world to bow before him and acknowledge him as Savior, as already quoted in Isaiah chapter 45:21-23.
Here's another question we can ask our Muslim friend, “Suppose you were asked to write a book, titled, The 99 Most Beautiful Names of God/Allah, do you think you would include the name Savior?”
Some Muslims with whom I've discussed this haven't hesitated to admit that Savior is a beautiful name. However, when they realised it isn't in the list of 99 beautiful names, they said it must be somewhere among the thousands of other Divine names, which aren't in the 99. My response is, “Don't you think this diminishes the importance of the name Saviour? You've been agreeing all along as we've read through these many testimonies of the prophets. Can't you see that this name is important because it is the key criterion distinguishing the true God from false gods?
Perhaps, some Muslims balk at accepting this undeniable truth because they (intuitively?) know that Christians call Jesus Savior which seems to compromise the Islamic view of God's oneness. Certain Muslim publications even quote Isaiah 43:10-11 which says God alone is Savior.2
We've seen how the divine name Savior is emphasized throughout the prophets. Now we will explore a series of clues in the NT, showing that the full meaning of salvation (including forgiveness of sin) is fulfilled in Jesus. Christians who know their Bible recall how the Jewish leaders complained that Jesus forgave sins, saying, "Only God can forgive sins.” (Mark 2:7; compare Surah 3:135) The answer to this quandary is simple, but difficult for Muslims to accept: Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us. Having read the testimony of six OT prophets we understand that Savior is God's signature attribute. The NT further explains how God gave the name Jesus (Savior) to his Messiah, thus vesting in Jesus, the authority to save people from their sins. (see Matthew 1:21; Acts 4:11-12)
Messianic prophecy: he will bring God's SALVATION worldwide
The OT prophets not only testified that God is mighty to save, they looked forward to the coming of someone who would bring God's salvation, the servant of the Lord, also called the Messiah. Like the Samaritans, Muslims anticipate the coming of Messiah. In fact they believe Jesus (Isa) is the Messiah. Furthermore, they know that God can foretell the future through his prophets. So it is appropriate to show our Muslim friend Isaiah's prophecy which foretells that the Messiah will “bring God's salvation to the ends of the earth.” (Isaiah 49:6)
This leads us to consider another question, “How did Jesus bring God's salvation?” The simplest way to begin answering this is to look at Christ's miraculous birth, a story which is 'familiar' to most Muslims.
Messiah's birth: Jesus' name means God is SALVATION
It is helpful to bear in mind that while the Qur'anic account of Jesus' birth differs in some ways from the Biblical account, nevertheless, it does have significant similarities. So why not build on these similarities as we graciously engage our Muslim friend in seasoned-with-salt conversation?
Let me explain how this happened with a man named Yusuf who sat next to me on a flight from Frankfurt to Toronto. The six hour flight gave us plenty of time to get to know each other. When we said good bye in Toronto, we exchanged phone numbers. To my surprise I found out Yusuf lived a half hour's drive from me! Over the next few months I met him a couple times at his shop. Eventually he invited me to come to his home. It so happened this was during the month of Ramadan. As Muslims are accustomed to doing, Yusuf and his wife broke the fast by eating some dates. I commented how much I love dates. This prompted Yusuf's wife to tell me the Qur'anic story of how Mary was leaning against a date palm when she was about to give birth to baby Isa/Jesus. This led us to discuss other aspects of the story, including what the angel said to Mary. I asked how the name was chosen. The conclusion was: it came from God through the angel.
Then I asked, “Why did God choose this particular name?” As I expected, they didn't know, so I gave them a clue by reading a prophecy of Isaiah which summarizes the great task God intended the Messiah to do, “It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob... I will also make you a light for the Gentiles that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.” (Isaiah 49:6, NIV) I read this a couple times and asked them to choose a key word. Their teenage son who was also paying close attention to this conversation, picked the word 'salvation.' This simple conversation gave Yusuf and his family a glimpse the Gospel. It made sense that the name Jesus (Yeshua) means God is salvation.
I trust this illustration encourages you to ask thought provoking questions as you seek to point people to the Messiah. These kinds of questions can help people (including Muslims) connect the dots in the unfolding plan of salvation especially as you transition from the Old Testament to the New. Of course, there will be other dots that we need to connect as we come closer to the turning point of the story, the cross, where Christ paid the penalty of sin, overcame death and won the victory over Satan.
Messiah's miracles: showed SAVING power
As baby Jesus grew to be an adult more clues come to light, confirming that his mission was to bring God's salvation to the world. The next question is, “How did Christ reflect the name Jesus in his actions and his personality?” This can be answered on two levels – physically and spiritually. Jesus performed miraculous physical signs which showed saving power, i.e. God's salvation. He healed terminally ill people thus saving them physically from the brink of death.
Not only so, Christ raised the dead – people who were, in effect, already in the grip of death. This is clearly taught in both the Qur'an and Bible.
Messiah's mission: he came to seek & SAVE the lost
Jesus had a powerful impact on sinners, radically changing their lives. (Luke 19:1-10, NIV) Notice how the story of Zacchaeus, a notorious sinner, concludes with Jesus saying, “The Son of Man came to seek and save the lost.” The word 'save' shows that Jesus believed his name reflected his mission. (See Matthew 1:21)
There are several other stories which illustrate how Jesus saved lost people and forgave sinners, e.g., the well known story of the Samaritan woman who met Jesus at the well of Sychar. Do you remember how she responded when Jesus gently but firmly exposed her sin? Initially, she tried to hide from the truth but then admitted to having a series of illicit relations with five men. Amazingly, this story ends with many people from her village believing that Jesus is the Messiah, the Savior of the world! It seems, from every indication in the story, that these Samaritans began to worship God in spirit and in truth.
Another example that highlights Christ's authority to forgive sins is the story of the sinful woman who wiped Jesus feet with her tears. (Luke 7:36-48) Yet another example is the repentant criminal who was crucified on the cross next to him. Jesus spoke comforting words to him shortly before they both died, “I assure you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:39-43)
Messiah's death: SAVED through believing in him
We read in Mark 16:14-16 that Jesus:
appeared to the eleven disciples as they were eating together. He rebuked them for their stubborn unbelief because they refused to believe those who had seen him after he had been raised from the dead. And then he told them, 'Go into all the world and preach the Good News to everyone. Anyone who believes and is baptised will be saved. But anyone who refuses to believe will be condemned.'”
It is clear from this statement that Jesus Christ viewed his death as having saving power, in particular, the power to save from sin. (Cf. Luke 24:44-47) God accomplished his salvation at the cross, taking away the sins of the world through the sacrifice of Messiah as his own spotless Lamb. Christ destroyed death by rising from the grave and gives eternal life to all who repent and believe in him as Lord and Savior. We have taken many steps along a pathway using OT signposts that have a ring of familiarity to Muslims. Not only so, they are not unfamiliar with many of the signposts in Christ's life. I trust these insights will encourage you not to be inhibited by timidity but rather to witness more confidently and boldly. At the end of the day, Muslims deny that Jesus died on the cross. The cross will be a stumbling block and an offence. Like the apostle Paul, (and Jesus) let us not be ashamed of the cross nor intimidated by the prospect of suffering for preaching the cross. (Galatians 6:12-14)
Salvation/eternal life, flip sides of the same coin
You recall in John 4 how Jesus offered the Samaritan woman eternal life, that is, the gift of God. Eventually it came to light that he is the Messiah, the Savior of the world. As we unfold the Gospel it has gradually become clearer that eternal life and salvation are woven together seamlessly in Jesus as Messiah.
Few scriptures show the integral relationship between salvation and eternal life more clearly than Isaiah 25:7-9:
In Jerusalem the LORD ... will swallow up death forever! The Sovereign LORD will wipe away all tears. ... In that day the people will proclaim, “This is our God! We trusted in him and he saved us! This is the LORD in whom we trusted. Let us rejoice in the salvation he brings!” (Isaiah 25:7-9)
This intriguing prophecy glimpses a future day which is truly heart warming to Muslims, a day when “there will be no more death or sorrow.” (Revelation 21:4) Not only so, this vision of a new heaven and new earth resonates with Muslims because the Qur'an describes paradise as a place where there is no grief and no death.
Two articles that illuminate this hope of immortality are available online:
Lessons from Jonah
Jonah's story shows us that God is mighty to save, but there are other important lessons we need to learn. Salvation involves more than just physical rescue. Salvation, in its fullest sense, involves being saved from sin. Unfortunately, Muslims tend to underestimate sin, especially as it relates to prophets. Muslim scholars invented the idea that all prophets are perfect. For this reason, Muslims view Jonah's problem as simply a small slip or mistake. But the Bible plainly states that Jonah disobeyed God. His sin was so serious that it prompted God to take drastic action, sending a fierce storm against the ship. It is important, therefore, to encourage our Muslim friends to read the Biblical account of Jonah's story. Perhaps it will open their eyes to see that God takes sin seriously.3 Notice also that Jonah offered a sacrifice to the Lord which provides another vital clue towards understanding that the Messiah is the ultimate sacrifice for sin, as foretold in Isaiah 53.
And what about Christians? Is there a lesson for us in this story? Have we, like Jonah, failed to obey the Lord? Have we been unloving to our Ninevite/Muslim neighbor? Have we shrunk back from sharing God's message with them because of fear, bitterness, etc?
Let us take a look at some possible reasons why Jonah avoided going to Nineveh? Was it perhaps because the Ninevites were notoriously violent and he was afraid of them? Probably this influenced him, but Jonah was more to the point when he admitted that from the start he knew God is merciful. He suspected this outcome – that they would repent and not be punished! What Jonah really wanted was to see them punished. Sadly, he wasn't in tune with God's heart. Interestingly, 700 years later, James and John the sons of thunder, showed a similar attitude. They wanted to call fire down from heaven on the Samaritans. (Luke 9:51ff) But are we, in the 21st century, really that different from Jonah or James and John?4
Who is Savior, Jesus or God?
Feel free to ask me any questions you may have which are relevant to this article.
All Bible quotes are taken from the New Living Translation unless otherwise noted.