The Reflection of the Father’s Love

God so Loved the World

Isaac is the perfect type of Christ’s first coming to earth. He was born of the Spirit in unique circumstances, thereby prefiguring the virgin-birth; was to be sacrificed as a burnt offering, foreshadowing the redeeming work Jesus was to accomplish at the cross; and was to return to life as a blessing to the nation that would come from him, symbolising the resurrection of Jesus Christ and his saving grace for all who would believe in him. Abraham rightly concluded that it was the resurrection that would qualify his son for his unique role and, in this, he foresaw the glory of the risen Saviour, the greater son of Abraham to be revealed at a time yet to come.

In my experience the most effective way of communicating to Muslims exactly what this event means is to focus on the patriarch’s uncompromising love for God in being willing to sacrifice his son. Muslims always do this. When challenged as to why God would have asked such a sacrifice, they respond by saying it was test of Abraham’s love for God. He would prove it was complete if he was willing even to forego his only son. I have often asked Muslims why God did not ask for something less, such as a sacrifice of a hundred sheep, or that he should fast for forty days, or that he should give away half his wealth. They have so often answered me "You do not understand. A son is the dearest thing to a man’s heart. If a man will give his son for God, he will give anything for him."

This opens the door to the heart of the Gospel. Abraham was told "Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love" (Genesis 22:2 emphasis added). God, in calling on Abraham to do this, emphasised the essential nature of the sacrifice. It was, in real terms, a straight choice between his love for God and the object of his deepest affection on earth. Surely if the patriarch would do this, it would prove he would give anything for God. No further proof would be needed. So the Bible says of God’s love for us in Christ:

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. John 3:16

Abraham’s love for God in being willing to sacrifice his son for him is the perfect type of God’s love for us in giving his Son, Jesus Christ, for the redemption of our souls. Many times I have asked Muslims whether Allah really loves them and, if he does, what he has done to prove it? The answers usually follow the same pattern. They point to the very blessing of their lives, or to times when he has answered their prayers by healing them of diseases or saving them from financial crises. Others have mentioned children they did not think they could have or all their material benefits and possessions. I have always responded by saying that, without doubting that these are all expressions of his kindness and love, they all cost God nothing and do not affect him at all. What, I have concluded, has God ever done for them that compares with what Abraham was called on to do for him? Has God matched this supreme example of love a father tearing at the depths of his heart and being willing to give his only son for him? This cost Abraham, indeed it cost him the expression of his very own being has Allah ever done anything like this in return?

The Muslim can go no further. Allah, in the Qur’an, has done nothing to give something of himself, indeed something at the depth of his very own being, to show his absolute love for the human race. The Christian, however, has the perfect answer Jesus Christ! There was nothing greater that Abraham could sacrifice to prove his surpassing love for God than his son. He was parting with something living that had come from him, something that would cost him far more than all his material possessions put together. Here is the kernel of our witness: God only asked him to do this because he intended to give his own Son as a sacrifice for our eternal salvation.

What greater sacrifice could a man make for God than to give his own son for him? What greater proof of God’s love can be found than this that he gave his own Son to die for our sins? And God only required that Abraham should contemplate the sacrifice. God, on the other hand, actually went right through with his love for men by giving his Son Jesus to die for us so that we might live in him.

In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. 1 John 4:9

Just as Isaac willingly showed complacency with the will of God, so Jesus of his own free will voluntarily laid down his life for us. If God had redeemed us through anything he had created, it would have cost him nothing for he created it out of nothing. But God never asked any man to do more for him that he was willing to do in return. Isaac had come from his father’s body. So God gave his own Son for us one who was not created but whose blessed presence the Father had enjoyed from all eternity. Notice that in this story it is the father’s love that it is emphasised in being willing to give his son. Point out to Muslims that it shows that the death of Jesus was not something that happened to him while his Father simply looked on. The Father gave his only Son it was an awesome expression of his own love for us in being willing to sacrifice what was dearest to his own heart.

There can only be a few Muslims who will not be moved by the comparison. Islam, ultimately, leaves them with an imbalance they can hardly explain. A man was commanded to show his love for Allah in a way which Allah has never matched for mankind in return. Can this really be true? Can a man’s love for God, fully expressed, surpass God’s love for mankind? Christianity has the golden answer! Abraham’s love was only a reflection, a shadow, of the supreme love God was destined to show us in the gift of his Son. Abraham’s love for God could not have been tested more deeply. Could the depth of God’s love for mankind have been proved in any way greater than this, that he sent his Son to become our Saviour? Can this be surpassed?

In this is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the expiation of our sins. 1 John 4:10

The Eid-ul-Adha festival commemorates an act of love by a man for God which, in its excellence, has no parallel from heaven in return. Allah has given man things children, health, possessions, religion but he has given him nothing of himself. It is like a man who bestows gifts on his beloved but never gives himself to her in marriage. Ask a Muslim this simple question if the greatest way a man could show his love for God was to be willing to sacrifice his son for him, what is the greatest way God could ever show his love for us? There can only be one answer.

You can go further. God’s love for us in Christ far overshadows Abraham’s love for him. Abraham, a man of dust, was prepared to give his son, also made of dust, for the God of glory in heaven. An obligation rested on him to be obedient to God’s command. But what obligation was laid on the God of glory in heaven to give his Son, who shares his eternal glory to the full, for sinful men of dust on the surface of a minor planet? Again, God spared the son of Abraham. He did not spare his own Son.

He who did not spare his own Son but gave him for us all, will he not also give us all things with him? Romans 8:32

Once a year the Muslim world remembers a man’s sacrificial love for God but every day of the year Christians celebrate God’s sacrificial love for mankind and honour his wondrous grace in securing our salvation and that so that we could receive it as a gift! (Romans 6:23) I do not believe there is a greater contact point in the lives of the former prophets and patriarchs, where Christians have a more powerful witness resource to Muslims, than here.

True Faith Submission or a Response to God’s Faithfulness?

We go back to the subject of Abraham’s faith. We saw in the last chapter that it was a response to God’s faithfulness. It is important to see how the Qur’an regards Abraham’s faith, especially as it uses the same expression found in Romans 4:16 to define it. It appears in this verse:

Say: Allah has spoken the truth. Follow therefore the faith of Abraham, the upright, who was not one of the idolaters. Surah 3:95

The expression "the faith of Abraham" reads, in the original Arabic, millata-Ibrahim. The word millah appears fifteen times in the Qur’an and on seven occasions it is used directly in association with Abraham (cf. Surahs 2:130, 2:135, 6:161). At face value the Qur’an appears to be confirming what the Bible teaches about Abraham, namely that his faith is an example of the faith all believers should have in God (Galatians 3:6-9) but, on closer inspection, we get a very different picture. The following verse defines the relationship between God and Abraham:

Recall when his Lord said to him: "Submit!," he replied "I submit to the Lord of the worlds". Surah 2:131

The command in the Arabic original is simply Aslim Submit! Abraham’s reply is aslamtu I submit. Both words come from the same root letters (sin, lam, mim) as the words Islam (Submission) and Muslim (one who submits). Abraham is said, in the Qur’an, not to have been a Jew or a Christian but a haniffaam-muslimaan, "an upright man and one who submits." Thus he is a prototype of a true Muslim. Abraham’s faith, therefore, is defined as no more than an unquestioning obedience and submission to the commands of Allah. His willingness to sacrifice his son is not seen as an act of love towards Allah, contrary to what Muslims freely assert, but solely as a submission to the inevitable. He did not question the command to sacrifice, he simply obeyed it. It appears he did not work it through on the basis that God would be true to his promises, nor did he determine his response as an act of faith in God’s faithfulness. He took the third option we mentioned earlier, namely blind faith, a simple acquiesence with the will of God irrespective of the circumstances or implications. In the story of the sacrifice in the Qur’an we get a very clear definition of his response:

When they had both submitted and he had thrown him down on his forehead, We called out to him: O Abraham! You have already fulfilled the vision. Surah 37:103-105

Both Abraham and his son are marked out for their submission to Allah’s command. The words used in the original Arabic are falamma aslama "they had both submitted," and once again the word for "submitted" comes from the same root letters as Islam and Muslim. While the Qur’an may characterise Abraham’s faith consistently with its whole concept of what Islam is, it is a poor shadow and substitute for what that faith really was. The Bible shows that he did not simply respond "I submit" as a dog unthinkingly does when you issue the command "heel!," rather it reveals how the patriarch wrestled with the command which appeared not only to be morally questionable but also seemed to cut right through the promises he had previously received. In the Bible Abraham deals with this by responding to God’s faithfulness, in the Qur’an he simply responds to his will, and there is a huge difference between the two.

In the Bible Abraham considers what he knows about God, in the Qur’an he reacts to no more than what he hears from God. Unfortunately this comparison defines the whole difference between Islam and Christianity we know the Lord, we have been saved by his grace, we are his children and we have experienced the greatest act of his love for mankind. Muslims, on the contrary, worship a God they neither know nor can truly love. Here is an open door for a witness to God’s glorious grace in his Son Jesus Christ!

Ishaq or Ismail The Muslim Dilemma

Which son was saved from being sacrificed, Isaac or Ishmael? Muslims universally believe that it was Ishmael and that the event took place near Mina, a village a few miles east of Mecca. Both the Jewish and Christian Scriptures plainly state that it was Isaac (Genesis 22:2, Hebrews 11:17, James 2:21) and it is most significant to find that the Qur’an does not say which son it was. The story of the call to Abraham to sacrifice his son and what followed is recorded in Surah 37:100-113 but the Qur’an does not identify the son. This is strange, and if a Muslim challenges you and claims it was Ishmael, you can ask why the Qur’an is silent on the matter if it came to confirm the former scriptures (Surah 5:48) and was sent to clear up any differences of opinion (Surah 16:64).

The argument that it was Ishmael is based on two premises. Firstly, God called Abraham to sacrifice his only son and, as Ishmael preceded Isaac, it must have been him. Secondly, just after the narrative in the Qur’an the book says:

And we announced to him Isaac, a prophet of the righteous, and we blessed him and Isaac. Surah 37:112-113

It is argued that this statement follows the story of the sacrifice and therefore it must have been another son of Abraham who submitted to Allah’s command, namely Ishmael. We’ll give you the key answers to Muslims on the issues here.

1. Sarah and Hagar

No Muslim doubts that Sarah was the mother of Isaac and Hagar the mother of Ishmael. Significantly, Sarah is mentioned on a few occasions in the Qur’an but Hagar never. Also, Sarah is expressly said to be the only wife of Abraham in the book, as in this verse:

And his wife was standing by, wondering. Then We announced to her the good news of Isaac, and from the progeny of Isaac, Jacob. Surah 11:71

In another passage, when Allah confirms the promise of a son to Abraham, "his wife came up" and smote her face, bewailing her barrenness as an old woman (Surah 51:28-29). In both cases the singular is used for the word "wife," namely imra’ah. Not only is Hagar not mentioned in the Qur’an but the book, by implication, makes it clear she was never the wife of Abraham. A tradition in the Sirat literature confirms that Hagar was only a servant in Abraham’s household when Sarah gave her to her husband to bear him a son:

Then he called Hagar who was the most trustworthy of his servants, and he bestowed her (Hagar) on her (Sarah) and gave her clothes; subsequently Sarah made a gift of her (Hagar) to Ibrahim who cohabited with her and she bore Ismail who was the eldest of his children.   Ibn Sa’d, Kitab al-Tabaqat al-Kabir, Vol.1, p.41

Quite clearly, Hagar was never the wife of Abraham but only the maid of his wife Sarah. Thus it was quite proper for God to speak of Isaac as Abraham’s only son, namely his only legitimate son of his wife Sarah. This is strengthened by the fact that Hagar and Ishmael had parted from Abraham many years earlier (Genesis 21:14).

2. "We blessed him and Isaac"

No Muslim can dogmatically say that it was Ishmael who was to be sacrificed in the light of the Qur’an’s silence on the subject. There is a double testimony from both the previous scriptures that it was Isaac and, if the Qur’an had come to clarify any previous errors or points of dispute as it claims, it would surely have named Ishmael if he was the chosen victim. Ishmael is specifically named as the helper of Abraham when, as the Qur’an alleges, he built the Ka’aba (Surah 2:127). Significantly, early Muslim historians differed on the identity of the son while no such confusion has ever existed between Jews and Christians. Also, Surah 37 mentions many of the prophets by name (Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Moses, Aaron, Elijah, Lot and Jonah) and the omission of Ishmael is remarkable if he was the son to be offered in the only passage in the Qur’an where the event is recorded.

There is a clear symmetry between these clauses: "when they had both submitted," (Surah 37:103) and, "We blessed him and Isaac" (Surah 37:113). As Abraham and Isaac had both fully submitted themselves to the will of Allah that the one should sacrifice the other, it was only reasonable that his blessings should come on both of them. Furthermore, the Qur’an confirms that the child to be sacrificed was originally promised to Abraham: "We announced to him an upright boy" (Surah 37:101). The Qur’an, on a number of occasions, confirms that Isaac was specifically promised to Abraham but nowhere says anything similar about Ishmael. If we are to believe the Qur’an when it claims to clarify everything that preceded it in the former scriptures, we must presume the son to be sacrificed was Isaac.

3. The Scripture and the Prophethood

You can emphasise the special role of Isaac as the promised son by pointing out to Muslims that God’s covenant was made through his line and not Ishmael’s. This is clearly stated in the Bible:

And Abraham said to God, "O that Ishmael might live in thy sight!" God said, "No, but Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him. As for Ishmael, I have heard you; behold, I will bless him and make him fruitful and multiply him exceedingly; he shall be the father of twelve princes, and I will make him a great nation. But I will establish my covenant with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this season next year". Genesis 17:18-21

There is another passage in the Qur’an which testifies to the preference of Allah for Isaac and his offspring as the medium of his coming salvation rather than the line of Ishmael. It is significant to find, once again, that the Qur’an takes no issue with the Bible but confirms that God’s covenant was to come through Isaac:

And we granted him Isaac and Jacob and ordained through his progeny the Prophethood and the Scripture. Surah 29:27

This is an emphatic statement. The Nubuwwah (prophetic line) and Kitaab (scripture) were to come through his offspring alone. The Bible confirms this in Romans 9:4-5. So the Qur’an confirms the covenant and the superiority of Isaac over Ishmael, hence it must be concluded that as the intended sacrificial victim was announced to Abraham beforehand, it could only have been Isaac and not Ishmael.

In conclusion, it is useful to point out to Muslims that as it was Isaac and not Ishmael who was expressly promised, and that the covenant of God was made through his line, including the Prophethood and Scripture, and that he was born in a unique manner as opposed to Ishmael who was born by a simple illegitimate union, Isaac is obviously the more prominent of the two men. Once it is accepted that he was the son to be sacrificed, the whole purpose of his life comes into focus. He was a type and a symbol of the Messiah to come after the line of Prophethood and the prophecies of the Scriptures would have their fulfilment. You can freely challenge Muslims to become followers of the ultimate Son of Abraham, Jesus Christ, whom God has set forth as the one and only true Saviour of the whole human race, and whom Isaac prefigured. The Apostle Paul brings out the ultimate distinction between Isaac and Ishmael very concisely in these words:

Now we, brethren, like Isaac, are children of promise ... we are not children of the slave but of the free woman. Galatians 4:28,31

Why does the Qur’an not name the son to be offered as a sacrifice and, immediately thereafter, name Isaac twice as the promised son of Abraham? Perhaps Muhammad was uncertain about the identity of the son and, though he might have wished it was Ishmael, he may have been aware that he is an insignificant and irrelevant figure in the Bible in comparison with Isaac. Hence he left the identity an open question. If, however, Isaac is overlooked as the intended victim, the whole character of the event as a type and symbol of God’s coming salvation in his Son Jesus is missed completely and, with it for the Muslim world, the hope of eternal life.

Sharing the Gospel with Muslims [Table of Contents]
Materials by John Gilchrist
Answering Islam Home Page