The Son of God

The Messiah, Spirit and Word

The Qur’anic Rejection of the Deity of Jesus

We have looked at some of the unique features in the life of Jesus that distinguish him from all the other prophets of God and which, when considered together, show that he is far greater than all of them and is, indeed, the Son of God. We will now turn to three titles of Jesus which are found in both the Qur’an and the Bible and see how these, too, can be used in leading Muslims to the fulness of Christ. We will be considering only one text from the Qur’an simply because all three titles appear in it and in a most interesting context. In fact, from a Christian point of view, this text is pivotal when assessing just who Jesus really is in Islam, for it shows a strong contrast, even a complete contradiction, between the Muslim dogma that Jesus is not the Son of God and the implications of this text that he most certainly is! The text is:

O People of the Scripture! Do not exaggerate in your religion and do not say anything of Allah than the truth. Verily the Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, is only a messenger of Allah, and his Word which he bestowed on Mary, and a Spirit from him. So believe in Allah and his messengers. And do not say "Three"! Desist, it is better. Verily Allah is only One. Glorified be he, than that he should ever have a son. To him is everything in the heavens and on the earth. And sufficient is Allah as an overseer. Surah 4:171

There is a threefold denial of the deity of Jesus in this verse. Firstly, Christians are commanded not to believe in Jesus as one of three gods (an allusion to the Trinity). Secondly, Allah is only one God, thus Jesus cannot be another. Finally, the glory of Allah is too great for him to ever have a Son. (The Qur’an, on the few occasions it refers to the Trinity in whatever form Muhammad comprehended it, denounces it as a combination of Jesus and his mother Mary as two gods alongside Allah cf. Surah 5:76-78; 5:110.)

Other passages of the Qur’an reject the deity of Jesus and the Christian belief in him as the Son of God equally emphatically (Surahs 9:30, 19:35), but the text quoted has perhaps the most comprehensive denial of all. What more can you want than a threefold repudiation? Yet, as we shall see, when you consider the titles of Jesus in the same verse, you find a threefold confirmation that Jesus is indeed the eternal Son of God.

Debating the subject purely as an either/or he was or he wasn’t the Son of God rarely leads to anything more than further polarisation between Christians and Muslims as they fall back on their predetermined dogmatics. Yet, when you can analyse the meanings of the unique titles given to Jesus in this text, it becomes far easier to witness to Muslims of who Jesus really is and it is this theme that we will be pursuing in this chapter. Once again, from common ground between us, you can witness to the glory of Jesus.

Al-Masih: Jesus the Messiah

In the next chapter we will consider this title in far more detail as it is one of the vital contact points between Christians and Muslims when we consider who Jesus really was, but here we will consider it solely in its context as it appears in Surah 4:171.

Firstly, Jesus alone is called the Messiah in the Qur’an. No other prophet, patriarch or priest is given this title. In Arabic it is simply al-Masih. The Qur’an makes no attempt to define the title but it does award it to Jesus on no less than eleven occasions. Sometimes it is simply al-Masih, "the Messiah" (Surah 5:72), elsewhere it is al-Masihu Isa, "the Messiah Jesus" (Surah 4:157), while it also appears as al-Masihubnu Maryam, "the Messiah son of Mary" (Surah 5:17). It is a unique title, given to no one else, but applied to Jesus nearly a dozen times.

If you were to ask a Muslim what it means, he really could not tell you other than to say, "Jesus is the Messiah." The title actually has no meaning in Islam and is not derived from any Arabic word. It is an arabised form of ha-Mashiah, the Hebrew title which does have a meaning, namely "the Anointed One." The Jews had long awaited this coming figurehead, especially after his advent had been announced through all the prophets as we have seen. It was Daniel, however, who first gave the coming Son of David the express title Messiah (Daniel 9:25). Without an explanation in Islam one has to go to the Jewish and Christian scriptures to find its meaning.

Surah 4:171 says Jesus was no more than a messenger but all Jews and Christians know that this specific title, the Messiah, speaks of a man who stands out above all other men, including the other messengers of God. The Old Testament prophecies we have considered, and many more, show that he would be possessed of a regality, majesty, splendour and excellence above all other men. While denying that Jesus is the Son of God, the Qur’an, nevertheless, is giving him a title that implies that he is the ultimate man of human history and the holy one who was to be the final expression of the revelation of God to men. "God was in the Messiah, reconciling the world to himself" (2 Corinthians 5:19).

The most important issue here, in considering Surah 4:171, is to show Muslims that while the Qur’an denies that Jesus is the Son of God, it is giving him a title that proves unreservedly that he is! In Biblical times the expressions Messiah and Son of God were synonymous. Let us look at some key texts you can quote to Muslims to prove the point.

1. Jewish believers in Jesus

The Jewish disciples of Jesus freely used the two titles, Messiah and Son of God, interchangeably. (Although the Greek texts use the word Christos, the Greek word for Messiah meaning "Christ," we will use the original Hebrew designation as it makes the point more forcefully). Simon Peter was one of the first Jewish followers of Jesus to do so:

You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God. Matthew 16:16

Nathaniel was another who simultaneously called Jesus the Son of God and the King of Israel, another synonym for Messiah (John 1:49). Martha, the sister of Lazarus and Mary, also used the two titles simultaneously in her expression of belief in Jesus:

I believe you are the Messiah, the Son of God, he who is coming into the world. John 11:27

2. Caiaphas, the Jewish High Priest

When Jesus was brought before Caiaphas, the High Priest of Israel, on the night of his trial, Caiaphas also used the titles synonymously when placing Jesus on oath to declare whether he was the Son of God:

I adjure you, by the living God, tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God. Matthew 26:63

3. The Early Christian Gospel-Writers

The closest followers of Jesus during his lifetime, and others who followed him shortly after his resurrection and ascension to heaven, also used the titles together in various contexts to declare who Jesus really was. Here are two examples:

The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God. Mark 1:1

These are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name. John 20:31

4. Demons who Recognised Him

Even the demons who were chased out of many they had possessed knew that Jesus was both the Messiah and the Son of God. They knew him from all eternity as the eternal Son from the Father and recognised him in human form when he commanded them with authority to depart.

And demons also came out of many, crying, "You are the Son of God!" But he rebuked them, and would not allow them to speak, because they knew that he was the Messiah. Luke 4:41

From all these texts we can see how unique the title Messiah is. It is no ordinary title, it is one of the highest eminence and only the Son of God in human form could claim it. This much is obvious from the texts we have quoted. Both the followers of Jesus and his enemies knew who the Messiah really would be.

By admitting that Jesus is the Messiah and by confirming his own emphatic declaration to this effect (John 4:25-26), the Qur’an has duly given Jesus a title which implies that he is the very person that the Qur’an is otherwise at such pains to deny, the Son of God himself. In the next chapter we will see, in more detail, how you can witness to Muslims very effectively on the meaning and outworking of this title.

Kalimatuhu The Word of God

In the same verse, Surah 4:171, Jesus is also called, "His Word." In Surah 3:45 the Qur’an states that the angels, when announcing the unique conception of Jesus to Mary, told her that Allah was giving her good tidings "of a Word from him." The expression here used, in the original Arabic, is kalimatim-minhu. Broken up, it means kalima (word), min (from), hu (him). Note this, as we will see this structure again soon. Jesus is the only human being who ever lived who is called a Word from God. The same title is applied to him in the Christian Bible:

He is clad in a robe dipped in blood, and the name by which he is called is the Word of God. Revelation 19:13

Once again Jesus is given a title in the Qur’an which the Bible gives him as well. Like the Messiah, this is a very distinctive and remarkable title. It is important to emphasise two specific features of this title in your witness to Muslims. Jesus himself, in his actual person, is the Word. Secondly, the source of this Word is God. Neither book says that he delivered the word of God as other prophets did, or that he was learned in it, or that he embodied and represented it. He is expressly declared to be a Word from God, or the Word of God. Other prophets received the messages of God but Jesus, in a unique way, is himself the message of God to the world.

As with the title Messiah, the Qur’an attempts no explanation of the title. You may be countered with the suggestion that this is no more than a definition of how Jesus was conceived in the first place when Allah simply said, "Be, and he came to be" (Surah 3:47). According to the whole verse, however, this is how anything is created by God. The full text reads, "If he decrees a thing, he but says to it Be! and it comes to be." This response is over-simplistic, especially when we read a similar text which says:

Lo! the likeness of Jesus with Allah is as the likeness of Adam. He created him from dust and said to him: "Be!" and he came to be. Surah 3:59

So, according to the Qur’an, Jesus was created by the word of God in the same way Adam, and by implication, all men are. The title "His Word" and the similar ascription "a Word from Him" are unique, however. Adam is not called the Word of God in the Qur’an, nor are the angels, nor is any other creature. Jesus alone, as in the Bible, is called the Word of God. The title, in its context, applies to him alone.

There is obviously something about the person of Jesus himself that makes him the Word of God in a way no other man has ever been or ever will be. You need to point out to Muslims that the key to understanding the title is the emphasis of deity as its source. The Word is from God. He himself is the communication and revelation of God to men. He does not merely bring the word of God, he is the Word of God. We have to turn to the Bible to find the ultimate meaning of the title in view of the fact that the Qur’an attributes it to Jesus without explanation. We go to the very beginning of John’s Gospel where this subject is treated in more detail. It commences with these words:

In the beginning was the Word. And the Word was with God. And the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him and without him was not anything made that was made. John 1:1-2

When we amplify or paraphrase these words we get a clear picture of the meaning of the title. In the beginning, before God ever began to create, the Word already existed. Far from being part of the created order, the Word was in the realm of God and indeed the very nature of the Word was God. When God first began to fashion the created order, the Word already existed in the divine order. He himself was not created but all other things were created by God through him as agent. Because he alone is the Word of God, and is therefore the ultimate means of communication between God and his creatures, nothing was created without being created by and through him.

Why is he the Word of God, however? In what way was Jesus uniquely the communication of God in himself to mankind? We go a bit further down the first page of John’s Gospel and find these words:

And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth. John 1:14

The title signifies two unique things about the Christian Saviour and distinguish him from all other prophets of God. They are:

1. Every Word of Jesus was the Word of God

All the prophets who went before him spoke the Word of God when moved by the Holy Spirit, but in general conversation their speech was entirely their own. Muslims themselves, believing Muhammad to be the last prophet, distinguish between the Qur’an, which he received and conveyed as the word of God, and his own teachings which are recorded in the Hadith as inspirational but not divine. Jesus, however, at all times spoke the word of God, whether in public preaching or in private conversation. He confirmed this on various occasions, as in these two verses:

I have not spoken on my own authority, but the Father who sent me has given me commandment what to say and what to speak. And I know that his commandment is eternal life. What I say, therefore, I say as the Father has bidden me. John 12:49-50

The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority, but the Father who dwells in me does his works. John 14:10

On other occasions Jesus referred to the word of God which he was proclaiming as his own word. Being the Word of God, there was no distinction. For example, he said that those who do not love him do not keep his words, adding that they were ultimately not his but the Father’s who sent him (John 14:24). Other examples are: "He who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life" (John 5:24); "If you continue in my word you are truly my disciples (John 8:31); and "Yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name" (Revelation 3:8).

2. Jesus himself is God’s Final Message to Mankind

Being the Word of God, Jesus himself is the final and complete revelation of God to the human race. The following text expresses this perfectly:

He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation; for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things and in him all things hold together. Colossians 1:15-19

Jesus himself is the Word of God. There is no independence, therefore, between God and his Word. In human form Jesus embodied the divine being. He was not a created messenger; he is, and for all eternity will be, the eternal Word of God.

Surah 4:171 tells Christians not to exaggerate in their religion and to say nothing of Allah but the truth. Yet, in view of these unique titles we are considering, it is hard to see where the exaggeration is. The text has a threefold denial of the deity of Christ, yet, in the titles it applies to him, it simply affirms the very thing it is at such pains to deny! We have already seen that the titles Messiah and Son of God are synonymous. The title Word of God is also interchangeable with the title Son of God. If anything this title is more emphatic and suggestive of deity as it implies no submission on the part of the Word to God as the expression Son to Father does.

The most important thing, however, is to use this title to witness to what it ultimately means in the context of God’s message to mankind. The word that we proclaim is the Gospel, the good news of God’s saving grace in Jesus Christ. The crucifixion, death and resurrection of Jesus is God’s message. He died to save us from our sins and rose from the dead to give us an assured hope of one day doing likewise. Instead of being raised to face the judgment, we will be glorified and will share his perfect holiness and righteousness forever. Our sins will not be counted against us. We receive this if we become committed believers in Jesus. This is where you have an open door to witness to Muslims as to why Jesus himself is the Word, God’s final message to mankind.

Let us press on to the third title to see how you can communicate the fulness of Jesus to Muslims from this one text in the Qur’an that attempts, more than any other, to avoid it.

Ruhullah The Spirit of God

In Islam Jesus is given the title Ruhullah, meaning "Spirit of God." It comes from the same text, Surah 4.171, where Jesus is called wa-ruhun-minhu, "a spirit from him." The same structure is used as for the Word from God: ruh (a spirit), min (from), hu (him). In this case we do find some evidence in the Qur’an that helps us to define the title. The expression occurs again in the following verse:

These are those in whose hearts he has inscribed faith, and strengthened them with a spirit from himself. Surah 58:22

The same words are used as in Surah 4:171, ruhun-minhu, "a spirit from him." Nowhere else in the Qur’an does this expression occur. In his commentary on the Qur’an, Yusuf Ali says that the "phrase used is stronger" than that for the Holy Spirit (Ruhul-Quds) in the Qur’an who is identified in Islam as the Angel Gabriel. He implies that this Spirit from God is greater than the mighty angel identified and says it is, "the divine spirit which we can no more define adequately than we can define in human language the nature and attributes of God".

The Muslim commentator has, unintentionally but very impressively, given a precise definition of the Holy Spirit as we known him in the Bible. He is the "divine spirit" who cannot be defined in human language with terminology other than that used for God himself. Yet the Qur’an, in the only other place where this expression occurs, applies this same divine title to Jesus. Exactly the same words are used.

So you have a third title in Surah 4:171, Spirit from God, which attributes divine features to Jesus just as the titles Messiah and Word of God do. Significantly they are synonymous with titles used in the Bible for Jesus to further express his profile towards mankind as the eternal Son from the Father. The Qur’an, in the very passage which contains a threefold denial of the deity of Jesus ("Do not say Trinity! God is only one God. Far be it from his glory to have a son"), paradoxically attributes three titles to him which affirm the very same thing! He is the Anointed Son of God, the Messiah; he is the divine Word of God, and he is a Spirit coming from God. Jesus was not just another prophet called to office at an appropriate point in time. He is the message of God, he came from God, his very spirit is the Spirit of God.

You have remarkable material here for a positive witness to Muslims of the fact that Jesus is the Son of God and God’s divine messenger, his last word, to the human race. Uniquely, however, you can take this last title further with Muslims. The Qur’an, in its use of the expression ruhun-minhu unwittingly affirms the Trinity!

Yusuf Ali freely concedes that this is no created spirit of which the books teaches but the divine spirit, which comes from God, and must be defined in the same terms as God. Twice the Qur’an uses the expression, once for Jesus Christ, and once for the Spirit which comes from God and strengthens believers. A closer definition of the Trinity you could hardly hope to find. Surah 58:22 defines the Spirit from God in terms synonymous with those applied to the Holy Spirit in the Bible while Surah 4:171 expressly nominates Jesus in the same terms.

As with the title Word of God, you have here a golden opportunity for witness. God is spirit, Jesus taught, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and in truth (John 4:24). The trouble with all men and women is that sin has deadened the spirit in us and a rebirth is necessary to come into a living relationship with God. Islam is, in practice, primarily a religion of forms and rituals. Not only are the five times of daily prayers prescribed but so is every detail of the prior ablutions and, thereafter, the performance of the salaat. The Hajj Pilgrimage is also prescribed down to the last detail. Once a man turns to God and believes in Jesus, the Spirit of God enters into him and unites him to God. He is now strengthened by the power of God’s Spirit to become the person God really wants him to be. He enters into a living relationship with God and comes to know him personally. This is certainly what the Bible teaches when it reveals that Jesus was a spirit from God, sent to redeem us, and that the Holy Spirit from God enters into our hearts to make us become the living children of God.

In the titles which the Qur’an gives to Jesus, especially those we have considered in Surah 4:171 which are synonymous with similar titles given to Jesus in the New Testament, you have common ground with Muslims and a wonderful opportunity to witness to them of who he really is God’s anointed deliverer, his own Word, and a spirit proceeding directly from his own being.

Let us look at the title al-Masih in greater detail as there is much more material here for witness to his uniqueness and unparalleled saving grace.

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