Is God/Allah mighty to save?
My focus is on Muslims and there is a simple reason for that. I'm deeply concerned that although Muslims claim to know Jesus, the truth is, they don't know him. Thirty five years ago, while studying at seminary I attended a prayer meeting about unreached people where I heard someone speak passionately about God's love for Muslims. His message was contagious. Soon I began seeing Muslims through God's eyes. Of course, this did not stop me from caring for other people. It simply meant I became more burdened about helping Muslims see the light. I noticed in those days that very few Christians were concerned about Muslims. Sadly, it is not very different today.
Reflecting on the late 70's we rarely heard about Muslims in the news. Islam was seldom discussed in articles or magazines, as it is today. Now things are very different. It seems we are bombarded by news from the Muslim world and often it involves violence. In fact, radical Muslims are pushing the battle for world domination to the very heartlands of the west, where Judeo-Christian values once held sway. Christ taught his followers to pay attention to the signs of the times. How many of us are paying attention?
One thing is clear: Over the last decade there has been an unmistakable resurgence of Islam. Thousands of mosques have been built in non-Muslim countries. There has been a massive influx of Muslim refugees and immigrants to so-called Christian nations, e.g., England, USA, Canada, Australia as well as South Africa. In fact, over the last two years SA has had the highest influx of asylum seekers of any country in the world! From my observation about a third to a half of all newcomers to Durban are Muslim. This has resulted in the Muslim population almost doubling over the last 15 years!
If we look beyond Durban and SA, we can see eye-catching events that have shaken the Arab world these last 3 years. Is God working out his purpose in these turbulent events? On December 20th, 2013 a UNHCR report concluded that we are “on track for some of the highest levels of forced displacement ever seen...” Is it coincidental that people from some of the least reached countries are now rubbing shoulders with Christians on an unprecedented scale?
This kind of migration began happening much earlier in South African than in Canada. Interestingly, Canadians and South Africans both struggle with xenophobia, the fear of strangers. This raises questions, “Can Christians have a positive influence to overcome this fear?” God gives us the answer in his Word which teaches philoxenia – literally, 'love of strangers'. This Greek word is consistently translated 'hospitality' in English.
The challenge posed by displaced refugees is important, but there is an even more basic fact that ought to weigh on our hearts. Muslims are the largest group of unreached people on earth, numbering some 1.6 billion. As we already noted, most Christians shrink from sharing the Good News with them. Why are we so reluctant, and even afraid to reach them?
We could list many reasons but let me give three. First, the Qur'an strongly contradicts core Christian beliefs such as the death and resurrection of Christ, not to mention Christ's deity. Muslims have been inoculated against the Gospel from childhood so it is natural for them to raise countless objections and arguments. Most of us feel out of our depth when it comes to answering their objections. But often this is just an excuse for not engaging Muslims in spiritual conversation. Preoccupied with our sense of inadequacy, we overlook the small opportunities to show Muslims that we genuinely care for them. For example, what about Christ's teaching in Matthew 5:47, “And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?” (NIV)
Now let's consider a second reason why we are afraid of reaching out to Muslims. Over the last 12 years we have seen a continuous barrage of terror attacks by radical Muslims, targeting mainly non-Muslims. These scary images reinforce a stereotype which affects us negatively.
The third reason is persecution, a reality that has been 'scandalously' under-reported, according to a new book, Persecuted: The Global Assault on Christians written by three seasoned scholars. This landmark book says, “Christians are the single most widely persecuted religious group in the world today.” Moreover, "it is in the Muslim world where persecution is now most widespread, intense, and, ominously increasing." This was confirmed in early January 2014 when Open Doors released their World Watch report listing the nations with the highest level of persecution. Of the top ten, nine were Muslim. The report also concluded that the number of Christian martyrs almost doubled in 2013 as compared to 2012. Such trends fuel fear and timidity.
It is understandable these trends make unbelievers afraid, but surely Christians are different, aren't we? “For God has not given us a spirit of fear but rather a spirit of power, of love and of self discipline.” Notice how the very next verse adds, “So do not be ashamed to testify about our Lord... join with me in suffering for the Gospel.” (2 Tim. 1:7-8, NIV)
Let's take a few moments to encourage ourselves by reflecting on two key words, love and power as found in these verses. Notice how the apostle John emphasized this same point in 1 John 4:17-18, “Perfect love expels all fear.” We must always be growing in our love for God, especially our appreciation of his love to us. This also means loving humans who are made in God's image, even to the extent of loving our enemies!
Secondly, Paul reminds us we have received power from God. The more aware we are that God has empowered us by his Spirit, the less afraid we will be. Not only so, the Gospel that we preach is “the power of God at work saving everyone who believes.” (Rom. 1:16-17) Notice how verse 16 begins. Paul says,“For I am not ashamed of this Good News about Christ.” This underscores what he said in 2 Timothy, “So do not be ashamed to testify about our Lord.”
As we look around our world we see a tide of refugees and immigrants, most of whom are going west. Secular governments struggle with the social, political and economic implications, but we must not forget God has another purpose. Acts 17:26-27 tells us God has determined where and when people live so that they might seek him and find him. Do we see God's hand behind this unprecedented migration of Muslims? Are we are building bridges of friendship with these lost people whom God has brought to our doorstep, to help them find God?
There are opportunities year-round to do small acts of kindness for neighbors, however, let's not overlook the Christmas season which affords special opportunities to build bridges and also share the indescribable gift we received.
In the OT God instructed his people to include strangers in festive events where they celebrated God's goodness. Should we not do the same? Do we not have ample opportunities to show hospitality to foreigners and immigrants? Imagine, as you sit around the table with your Muslim guest, how natural it is, to explain the reason behind our celebration? We can tell the story of Christ's birth – the Good News in a nutshell. (See appendix for more practical pointers based on Deuteronomy 26:10-11)
Let us remember, however, that the Gospel does not begin in the NT. It was foretold by the prophets, in fact, it is embedded throughout the OT. Interestingly, many Bible personalities are mentioned by name in the Qur'an which gives us further reason to begin in the OT where Muslims usually feel more comfortable.
A good place to start talking about spiritual things with a Muslim is the first commandment because it resonates strongly with them. God's oneness is foundational to both the Bible and the Qur'an. Interestingly, however, the first command does not just focus on the oneness of God. It also underscores the epic rescue out of Egypt. This rescue theme is what we want to shed more light on. Our plan is to unfold or illustrate it in the writings of six OT prophets as well as the Messiah. I like the word unfold because Scripture emphasizes this approach, as it is written, “The unfolding of your words gives light; it gives understanding to the simple.” (Psalm 119:130, NIV)
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, even the second half which says God rescued Moses' people out of slavery in Egypt. (cf. Surah 2:50)
Considering we are talking with Muslims, it is worth noting that this rescue story is highlighted in a conversation between Moses and his father-in-law, Jethro, who was a priest of Midian. It so happened that Jethro and Moses met each other a few weeks before the 10 commandments were revealed. Interestingly, some Muslims know that Moses married a Midianite, but more importantly, all Muslims are fascinated to read this conversation between two godly men who hadn't seen each other for a long time. They had a lot to talk about and Moses told him:
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)
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. On the other hand, this does not necessarily mean Muslims 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.
Several hundred years after Moses died the Lord raised up another prophet to bring back the wayward Israelites to God and remind them of the great things he did for their forefathers. Hosea declared,
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 (Danyal) who told an amazing story of 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)
The stories of Moses, Hosea and Daniel underscore God's oneness and his power to save. Not only so, his saving power proves he is greater than all idols. Now we will see how the story of Jonah also confirms this.
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. However, they finally did as Jonah instructed. They threw him overboard and the raging sea suddenly stopped. Their lives were spared and “they were awestruck by the LORD'S great power and they offered him a sacrifice and vowed to serve him.” (Jonah 1:16)
Jonah had barely survived the killer storm when he experienced something even more terrifying. He was swallowed by a gigantic fish. However, as we all 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)
These same two truths – God's oneness and his saving power – are echoed again and again in the writings of David the Psalmist who wrote,
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 ... (Psalm 69:19,20; Psalm 96:2-5)
The prophet Isaiah tells a similar story where 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, we see that Jonah, David and Isaiah also praised God because of his awesome power to save. But notice after Isaiah commanded the whole world, “look to me for salvation” that he looked to the future. Isaiah foretold the coming of a special 'servant' who will bring God's salvation to the whole world. (Isaiah 49:6) But before we look closer at this Messianic prophecy let us review what we've said.
We've seen there is only one God and he demonstrates power to save which proves he is greater than all other gods. These twin truths are repeated by different prophets which emphasizes how important they are.
This repetition has the effect of building momentum. We can build on it by asking our friend, “Do you have the name, Savior (or Rescuer, Deliverer) in the 99 beautiful names?” I asked a Muslim friend this question and he immediately replied, “Yes.” So I suggested he get his book containing the 99 names of Allah and check to whether it was there. Much to his surprise, he couldn't find it! How I wished this could have been an eye-opening moment in Yusuf's life. I trust the Lord has used it as a stepping stone to the light. Let us pray, even as we ask stimulating questions, that our friends will be challenged to give God the honor he deserves – to praise him for showing such amazing power to save.
Muslims believe Islam simply reaffirms the basic teachings of the earlier prophets. It makes sense, therefore, if the prophets honoured God as Savior, modern day believers should too. The name Savior is even more important considering that God commanded the whole world to bow before him and acknowledge him as Savior.
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. (Isaiah 45:21-23)
Let me suggest a question we can respectfully ask which will help our friend think seriously about this, “Suppose you wrote a book called, The 99 Most Beautiful Names of God/Allah. Would you include the name Savior?”
Some Muslims I've discussed this with admitted Savior is a valid name. But they suggested it is undoubtedly found somewhere among the thousands of other honorable Divine names, though not on the 99. In response I ask, “Is it right to marginalize the name Saviour? Did the prophets not repeatedly declare that this name is a key distinguishing mark? False gods cannot save, only one God has the power to save.” It is fitting therefore, to describe the name Savior as God's signature attribute.
Up til now we've looked at six prophets in the OT. We should remember, however, that they looked forward to the coming of a special servant, the Messiah. Interestingly, Muslims admit that God can foretell the future through his prophets. So it is appropriate to mention certain Messianic prophecies. For example, Isaiah foretold the Messiah would bring God's salvation to the ends of the earth. (Isaiah 49:6)
This naturally raises the question, “How did Jesus bring God's salvation?” Did you know the Qur'an calls Jesus Al Masih (the Messiah) eleven times? The simplest way of answering this is to look at Christ's miraculous birth, a story which is 'familiar' to most Muslims. It is also helpful to realize that the Qur'anic account of Jesus' birth has significant similarities to the biblical account.
It should not be difficult, therefore, for us to build on these similarities as we seek to engage our friends and arouse their curiosity. 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 Ramadaan. 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 Isaiah 49:6 which foretells in a summary statement what the Messiah would 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.” (NIV) I read this a couple times and asked them to choose a key word. Their teenage son who was paying close attention to this conversation, picked the word 'salvation.' This simple conversation enabled Yusuf and his family to glimpse the Good News. They seemed to agree that the name Jesus (Yeshua) means God is salvation, a fitting fulfilment of Isaiah's prophecy.
Exploring questions like these helps connect the dots with the unfolding plan of salvation in the OT. These questions also look forward to the Messiah's birth in the NT. But there are more dots to connect.
As baby Jesus grew to be an adult more clues come to light, confirming his mission involved bringing God's salvation to earth as prophesied. The next question is, “How did Christ's actions and personality reflect the name Jesus?” This can be answered on two levels – physically and spiritually. 1) Jesus performed miraculous physical signs which indicated saving power, i.e. God's salvation. 2) Jesus powerfully impacted the lives of sinners, changing them from within. (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 Jesus felt that his mission reflected his name. (cf. Matthew 1:21)
If we had more time we could look at 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 shone the light on her sinful life? Initially, she tried hiding from the light but then admitted to having a series of illicit relations with five men. (John 4) Amazingly, this story ends with many others from her village believing that Jesus is the Messiah, the Savior of the world! Did they recognize it was Jesus who convicted her and instructed her to worship God in spirit and in truth? All indications suggest this is what happened. It seems that this woman, like Zacchaeus, found salvation.
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)
Whenever possible, we should read each of these stories in their entirety. Obviously our time is limited because we have covered many highlights through the Bible. Let me assure you that all these stories make interesting reading for Muslims – and non-Muslims too! Each story is a step on a journey that unfolds the Good News.
Jonah: A challenge to Muslims & Christians
Earlier we looked at Jonah's story and saw how God rescued him from a perilous situation. However, his story illustrates another important truth. We shouldn't understand salvation as only involving 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 have come to view Jonah's problem as simply a small slip or mistake. But the Bible is clear: Jonah disobeyed God. His sin was so serious that it prompted God to take drastic action. He sent a fierce storm against the ship in which Jonah had hidden. It is important, therefore, to encourage our friend to read the Biblical account of Jonah's story. Perhaps it will open his/her eyes to see that God takes sin seriously.
But what about Christians? Is there a lesson for us in this story? Have we, like Jonah, also failed to obey the Lord. Have we been unloving to our Ninevite/Muslim neighbor? Have we shrunk back in fear or bitterness from sharing God's message with them?
Let us take a look at some possible reasons why Jonah avoided going to Nineveh? Was it perhaps because the Ninevites were a notoriously violent people and he was afraid of them? Probably there is some truth to this. 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, different from Jonah or James and John?
The Samaritan Connection
Whenever Christ encountered Samaritans, as in Luke 9 or John 4, there are important lessons we can learn in relation to Muslims. Like Samaritans Muslims also believe in one God. Both passages show us a glimpse of how Samaritans bore the brunt of Jewish prejudice and bitterness. Notice how this corresponds with a similar situation today. Many ordinary Muslims bear the brunt of much prejudice, hatred and fear from non-Muslims.
We know from the familiar story of the Samaritan woman that Jesus related to Samaritans in a very gracious and tactful way. On the other hand, Jesus displayed another exemplary trait. He spoke the truth lovingly, even though it was a difficult pill for the woman to swallow. Notice the challenging implications of what he said,
You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. (John 4:22, NIV)
Notice too, there are more than a few similarities between the Samaritan religion and the Muslim religion. In addition to the foundational belief in one God, both faiths affirmed the teachings of the prophets, including an emphasis on the Messiah. Both religions circumcised their sons and were careful to eat ritually clean meat.
However, in spite of the many outward similarities, Jesus focused on the heart issues. He rebuked the bankruptcy of Samaritan religion. Painful though it was, this corrective did not derail their conversation. Part of the credit for this goes to the woman because of her humble, teachable attitude. We should be encouraged, seeing that her fellow villagers, who had been so polarized against the Jews, invited Jesus to stay. They wanted to hear more of what he had to say.
Notice also that Jesus focused on salvation, the very theme we have been unfolding, i.e. God's power to save. In fact, John 4 ends with this same theme: the Samaritans concluded that Jesus is the Savior of the world. There is a flip side to the coin: In the same way that Muslims fail to grasp God's signature trait so also the Samaritans were ignorant of God's salvation! And because they missed this central truth they did not know God.
No discussion of salvation is complete without showing that it is fulfilled at the cross where Christ, as the Lamb of God, took away the sins of the world. Moreover, he 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 gone to great lengths to share the Good News using commonalities and bridges. Hopefully these insights will encourage us to be more confident and less timid. However, at the end of the day, we have to come to terms with the fact that the cross is a stumbling block. Paul determined, by God's grace, that he would not be ashamed of it nor would he be intimidated by the prospect of suffering for preaching the cross. (Galatians 6:12-14)
All Biblical quotes are taken from the New Living Translation unless otherwise indicated.
Appendix 1: Practical ideas for showing kindness at Christmas: Hospitality, Thanksgiving and Christmas
Scripture tells us, "God loves the foreigner, giving him food..." (Deut. 10:18) God wanted the Israelites (& us) to show this same love. Moses instructed the children of Israel to give thanks to the Lord for freeing them from slavery and bringing them to the Promised Land. This is what he told them to pray, “'And now, O Lord, I have brought you the first portion of the harvest you have given me from the ground.' Then place the produce before the Lord your God, and bow to the ground in worship before him. Afterwards you may go and celebrate because of all the good things the Lord your God has given to you and your household. Remember to include the Levites and the foreigners living among you in the celebration.” (Deuteronomy 26:10-11)
Why do I highlight foreigner? Because the biblical term, philoxenia, literally means love of strangers. Moreover, when we celebrate Thanksgiving Day (and Christmas) we usually do so with friends and relatives, but rarely with strangers.
Look carefully at our modern 'festivals' of Thanksgiving and Christmas. Do you notice a fundamental similarity with the OT festival of first fruits? Both these feasts focus on giving thanks. On the one hand, Thanksgiving acknowledges a harvest which comes from the ground, whereas, Christmas celebrates a gift from above – the all surpassing gift of God's Son.
As much as the Israelites in Moses' time included foreigners in their thanksgiving feast shouldn't we do likewise? Bear in mind, the huge influx of refugees/immigrants to so-called Christian nations! A very considerable percentage of them are Muslim, as much as a third or half.
Is it not true that there is a warm sense of bonding and joy around the table when choice food, special juice and joyful laughter are flowing? Not only so, foreigners can begin to appreciate the source of our joy as we share the reason why we are celebrating.
Speaking of WHY we celebrate, consider the profound implications underlying the Qur'anic & Biblical accounts of the nativity story, not the least of which is how God himself chooses the name for this miracle son. It isn't hard to imagine a Muslim sitting around the table becoming curious as we pose the question, "Why do you think God chose the particular name, Yeshua/Isa, for the virgin born baby?" "What does it mean and how is this name reflected in Jesus' actions and personality?"
Two pocket style booklets which ask questions similar to the above are available online. They are titled, A Dialog about the One True God and Signposts to Paradise. You may like to check them out here.
I've written a number of helpful articles available online here.
A couple articles which are especially relevant are titled, God is Hospitable: Shouldn't we also be hospitable? and Hospitality in Heaven: Feasting in Paradise.
Appendix 2: Stepping stones as guidelines
We emphasized unfolding the Gospel by tracing a series of highlights from half a dozen OT prophets. Some readers may wonder if this means one needs to follow a strict sequence, beginning with the first commandment? Not at all! It is helpful to use these stepping stones as a broad guideline but please be flexible where you start. For example, during the Christmas season one might begin a conversation by looking at Christ's birth and then consider Isaiah 49:6. After that you can explore other OT passages highlighting God's power to save.