Salvation and Sacrifice
Several Muslims have voiced concern about my explanation of Jesus’ name in three earlier articles (*, *, *), namely that his name resonates with Isaiah’s prophecy about the Lord’s servant – the Messiah – bringing God’s salvation to the ends of the earth (Isaiah 49:6). Most respondents have not denied that Jesus’ name means ‘God is salvation’. Instead, they have tried to cast doubt on the Christian understanding of salvation. For example, one writer reckons that "Christians, after sinning, become despondent [lose hope] of the true mercy of God hence a savior comes on board". Having made this interpretation of why Christians need a savior this Muslim writer voiced another objection. This time he quoted a verse in the Qur’an that seems to counteract the Christian belief in atonement sacrifices. He cited surah 22:37 which reads, "It is not their meat nor their blood, that reaches God: it is your piety that reaches him."
My response to these two interrelated objections is as follows:
Before looking at the alleged despondency of Christians, let us take a closer look at the Divine name Savior. If, in fact, God is Savior – as Moses and the prophets repeatedly affirmed – how do you think God regards religious teachers who consistently omit (delete) this title? Does it not amount to robbing God of honor that is due to him?
Consider how often the ancient prophets honored and thanked God for saving people from death and destruction. Throughout the Old Testament the prophets highlighted this attribute as a crucial credential that proved he is the true God. Idols, on the other hand, could not hear the prayers of idolaters and were unable to save them. This proved they were powerless and worthless.
The story of the prophet Jonah demonstrates this. The sailors earnestly prayed to their gods to save them from the killer storm but to no avail. They even threw their cargo over board in a desperate bid to save themselves but the storm became even more tempestuous. Finally they heeded Jonah’s words to throw him overboard. He told them if they did this "the sea will become calm again." The raging storm miraculously subsided and the sailor’s were saved.
Scripture tells us, "The sailors were awestruck by the Lord’s great power, and they offered him a sacrifice and vowed to serve him." (Jonah 2:16) As for Jonah, the Lord heard his prayer of repentance. Jonah realized the severity of God’s wrath, saying, "I was locked out of life and imprisoned in the land of the dead but you, O Lord my God, have snatched me from the yawning jaws of death. When I had lost all hope, I turned my thoughts once more to the Lord. And my earnest prayer went out to you in your holy Temple. Those who worship false gods turn their backs on all God’s mercies. But I will offer sacrifices to you with songs of praise, and I will fulfil all my vows. For my salvation comes from the Lord alone." (Jonah 2:6-9)
The question arises, "Did Jonah invent the notion of God being Saviour out of desperation or because he was despondent?" Certainly not! Jonah knew from the earlier prophets that God was Savior so why would Jonah need to devise something new? He simply acknowledged what God had already revealed about himself.
Speaking of despondency, here’s another perspective to consider. If Jonah was truly despondent don’t you think he would have probably committed ‘suicide’ by jumping overboard? But the Bible does not say he did this (nor does the Qur’an). Instead, he deliberately chose to be thrown overboard by the sailors, which showed he accepted this peril as punishment from God’s hand. Incidentally, this interpretation harmonizes with his confession to the sailors that he had disobeyed God and the storm was his fault.
Another well known prophet who was saved by God from catastrophic judgement was Noah. As in the story of Jonah, so also with Noah – it was fitting for him to make a sacrifice in acknowledgment of God rescuing him and his family. The psalmist David similarly praised God, saying, "Praise the Lord; praise God our savior! For each day he carries us in his arms. Our God is a God who saves! The Sovereign Lord rescues us from death." (Psalm 68:19,20)
The epic story of the Exodus provides another historic milestone that reflects this Divine attribute of Savior. According to the Bible and the Qur’an God "saved" the Israelites from Pharaoh’s murderous tyranny. Surah 2:50 says, "And remember, we divided the Sea for you and saved you and drowned Pharaoh’s people within your very sights." The prophet Hosea reminded the Israelites of this pivotal moment in Jewish history, saying, "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)
Exactly how did God save the Israelites? It was not only by vanquishing Pharaoh’s armies at the Red Sea. The scripture says God also broke Pharaoh’s stubborn will through a series of disasters that climaxed in the worst disaster in Egypt’s history. As it is written, "there has never been such wailing before, and there never will be again." (Exodus 11:6) Pharaoh’s first born son was killed in a plague that wiped out the first born sons of all Egyptians, including their animals. Moses’ father in law, Jethro, who was a priest of Midian heard this amazing rescue story and said, "Praise be to the Lord, who rescued you from the hand of the Egyptians. Now I know that the Lord is greater than all other gods." (Exodus 18:10,11)
I trust that now you can agree with me – more wholeheartedly – that God is indeed Savior. Not only so, this attribute proves the Lord is the ONLY true God. (We will examine this later, more carefully.)
The Exodus story, which we’ve just alluded to, contains a clue that will help us resolve your objection against my understanding of receiving forgiveness and salvation through sacrifice. The tenth plague marked the turning point in Pharaoh’s relentless resistance against God and his messenger, Moses. God declared a death penalty against all first born sons in the entire land of Egypt – all people, regardless of race or ethnic background. The Israelites were also under this death threat. The only way their first born sons could be spared from execution by the angel of death was if they obeyed God’s command to sacrifice a Passover lamb.
The fact that God put the Israelites under the same death threat as the Egyptians has important implications. It shows that he also regarded the Israelites as sinners. This is confirmed by a Jewish apostle who asked rhetorically, "Well then, are we Jews better than others? No, not at all, for we have already shown that all people, whether Jews or Gentiles, are under the power of sin. No one is good – not even one." (Romans 3:9,10)
It was only by God’s mercy that the lives of the first born Israelites were saved. God’s provision of a sacrificial lamb has unmistakable parallels to Abraham’s sacrifice, in terms of slaughtering a sheep as a ransom, in place of the son. Another similarity between these two epic rescue dramas focuses on the specific word "lamb". Abraham foresaw the provision of a lamb sometime in the future, whereas Moses instituted a yearly Passover celebration involving the slaughter of a lamb. This festival reminded the Jews how indebted they were to God for redeeming them from slavery. Discerning readers will be alert to how Passover reinforced Abraham’s prophecy of the Lamb of God which was to come.
After the Ten Commandments were revealed, God instructed Moses to establish ways and means of performing animal sacrifices centred around the Tabernacle. These sacrifices continued to play an important role in the worship of the Jews when the Ark of the Covenant was transferred to the Temple of Solomon. Bloodshed was not an incidental or peripheral aspect of these rituals. It was crucial. A real appreciation of this can only be grasped by making the effort to read the prophets.
Let me give you a glimpse by quoting two examples from the Old Testament. Incidentally, these are alluded to in the Qur’an. In Leviticus 17:10,11 the Lord says, "And I will turn against anyone, whether an Israelite or a foreigner living among you who eats or drinks blood in any form. I will cut off such a person from the community for the life of any creature is in its blood. I have given you the blood so you can make atonement for your sins. It is the blood, representing life, that brings you atonement."
Numbers chapter 19 gives instruction regarding sacrificing a red heifer (cf. Surah 2:67). This provided for cleansing from ritual defilement caused by having any contact with a dead body or even from simply being in the home where a body is awaiting burial. Anyone doubting the importance of these rituals ought to ponder the following statement, "This is a permanent law for the people of Israel and any foreigners who live among them." (Numbers 19:10)
These two examples show that bloodshed was an integral part of the daily diet and burial practices of the Jewish people. Sacrifices were also a foundational part of an Israelite’s worship experience.
You will remember that Jonah disobeyed God and spent three days inside the giant fish. While pondering life and death issues, he came to the conclusion, "Those who worship false gods turn their backs on all God’s mercies. But I will offer sacrifices to you with songs of praise, and I will fulfil all my vows."
What sacrifices do you think Jonah offered? There can be no doubt that he offered an animal as a sin offering. Probably he also offered a votive offering – a normal practice associated with making a vow to God.
Summarizing what we’ve said so far, we have seen that God is Savior, especially in the sense of rescuing people from death. However, we have also noted another nuance of God’s salvation – he forgives sinners. Sacrifice was a provision God made so that sinners could be forgiven and saved. (Leviticus chapters 4,5,16 and Isaiah 53, Psalms 51:19; 66:13-20)
We have refuted your objections by quoting many prophets including Moses, Hosea, David and Jonah. Isaiah the prophet eloquently confirms that God is Savior, saying, "There is no other God; there never has been and never will be. I am the Lord and there is no other Savior. First I predicted your deliverance; I declared what I would do and then I did it. – I saved you. No foreign God has ever done this before… What fools they are who carry around their wooden idols and pray to gods that cannot save! Consult together, argue your case and state your proof that idol worship pays. Who made these things known long ago? What idol ever told you they would happen? Was it not I the Lord? For there is no other God but me – a just God and a Savior – no, not one! Let all the world look to me for salvation! For I am God and there is no other." (Isaiah 43:10-12; 45:20-22)
Points to Ponder
How does salvation relate to eternal life?
Scripture says "God has planted eternity in the human heart" (Ecclesiastes 3:11) You may want to explore this eternity principle at: www.answering-islam.org/Clarke/eternal_hope.html This article helps explain the connection between the twin aspects of God’s salvation which we have been introduced to.
Why does the Qur’an not mention the lamb?
One does not need to be a rocket scientist to discern that Abraham’s prophecy of a lamb is a significant piece of the puzzle in terms of understanding God plan to save people from across the whole world. If one examines the Qur’an in the hope of shedding some light on this intriguing prophecy of a lamb, one will be disappointed. Unfortunately, the Muslim scripture gives no indication what kind of animal Abraham sacrificed, much less does it acknowledge any future expectation of a ransom lamb. The Bible, on the other hand, specifies that Abraham sacrificed a ram but what the Bible underscores is Abraham’s prophecy of a lamb. Check out: www.answering-islam.org/Clarke/sacrifice.html
Moreover, Moses instituted an annual sacrificial ceremony that commemorates how God provided the Passover Lamb. Once again, the Qur’anic version of this story makes no mention of a lamb. Thoughtful readers might wonder whether this omission is coincidental. Check this article: www.answering-islam.org/Clarke/cornerstone.html
Was Jonah’s ordeal three days?
Jesus Christ compared his three days in the grave with Jonah’s ‘three days and three nights’ in the belly of the giant fish. This unique sign to the Jewish nation provides another clue to understanding how Christ brought God’s salvation. You may want to read about it at: www.answering-islam.org/Gilchrist/jonah.html
Does the Qur’an unequivocally deny ransom sacrifice?
At the beginning of this article we quoted Surah 22:37 but did not explain it in the wider framework of the Qur’an. A careful analysis of this ransom theme is worth reading at www.answering-islam.org/Shamoun/ransom.htm. It shows this ayat in a different light.
By what criteria do Muslims choose the essential and most important names of Allah?
From a Muslim point of view, any Divine trait that is mentioned in the Qur’an basically qualifies for inclusion in the 99 names of Allah although there are a couple exceptions. However, there are some names not mentioned in the Qur’an which were included in the 99. Why was it necessary to draw on these ‘extra’ names when there were other legitimate traits which are clearly mentioned in the Qur’an? Indeed, God’s power to save, ranks as a pivotal and prominent name. We see the importance of God’s saving power because it is this trait that proves the surpassing greatness of God above all other gods. Again and again we have seen how pivotal this attribute was in preaching against idols and proving them to be useless. The foundational question still demands an answer: "Why have Muslim scholars deleted the name Savior from the core list of important, honorable names of God?"