A. JESUS' BIRTH, ASCENSION AND SECOND COMING.
1. The Uniqueness of Jesus in the Qur'an.
In an earlier chapter we considered the two great denials in the Qur'an regarding the person of Jesus Christ, namely his deity and his crucifixion, and suggested that in one sense Islam and Christianity are as far apart from each other as the east is from the west. To the extent that the Qur'an bluntly denies that Jesus is the Lord and Saviour of all men it most assuredly sets Islam in direct opposition to Christianity and makes the Muslims perhaps the hardest people on earth to reach with the Gospel. For Islam is the only major world religion which embodies within its own sacred writ a defiant rejection of the Gospel's two major pillars. When I first read the Qur'an many years ago I was struck by these two denials very forcibly as I am sure any Christian would be on reading the book for the first time. It seemed to stand as an uncompromising, unhelpful barrier in the way of the Gospel.
In later years, however, as I studied the Qur'an more comprehensively, I began to realise that there was in fact a tremendous amount of material in its teaching about Jesus that could assist Christians to witness effectively to Muslims. The only two negative aspects of this teaching are the two denials we have already considered. The rest is all positive and much vital Biblical teaching about Jesus is repeated in the Qur'an. The virgin-birth, sinlessness, ascension and second coming of Jesus are all mentioned in the book and are basic Islamic doctrines There are other teachings which, together with a series of very meaningful titles given to Jesus, make the final image of the man far superior to the dogma that he was nothing more than a prophet. Even a cursory analysis of the whole perspective of Jesus in the Qur'an must lead to the conclusion that he was far greater than the other prophets and that he was unique among men. We shall see just how effectively these teachings can be used in Christian witness to Muslims.
Whereas the Qur'an dogmatically states Maal Masiihubnu Maryama illa rasuul - "Verily the Messiah, son of Mary, was nothing more than a messenger" (Surah 5.78), it nevertheless concedes so much to the Biblical Jesus that one can only conclude that the real Jesus was far more than just a prophet.
The end result in the Qur'an, however, is that its image of Jesus does not coincide with its dogma. It denies his deity and crucifixion clearly enough yet, in its acceptance of Jesus' unique birth, ascension and second coming and in some of the exclusive titles it attributes to him, it most certainly contradicts itself. These features and titles lose their meaning when Jesus is no longer acknowledged as the Lord and Saviour of the world. They seem to have no real significance and one finds Muslim writers more eager to explain them away than to truly understand their implications.
When the engine is removed from a motor car the steering mechanism, brakes, wheels and other working parts lose their meaning and purpose. We shall see that, once Jesus is no longer believed to be the Son of God and the Saviour of the world, all the attendant unique features of his life become enigmatic and meaningless as well.
Nevertheless the Qur'an imposes on the adherents of Is lam the duty to believe in many of the unique features of his life. It is at times quite ironic to find Muslim publications vigorously defending the virgin-birth, ascension and second coming of Jesus Christ as Qur'anic facts which no pious Muslim should dare challenge, when there is clearly no real understanding of the meaning and implications of these unique features. The facts are simply vindicated while they must surely remain a mystery to those who defend them.
We need not lament, however, the apparent meaninglessness of the Qur'an's teaching about the unique features of Jesus' life and the exclusive titles it gives him, nor should we despair at its blunt denials of the two most important tenets of the Christian faith. In the section in which we analysed Paul's approach to the Athenian Gentiles we saw that he did not hesitate to use the proverbs of their own poets to strengthen his own message, and there is perhaps no more opportune example of how this approach can be applied to Muslim evangelism than the Qur'an's positive teaching about Jesus.
We need to perceive the uniqueness and titles of Jesus in the Qur'an as stepping-stones to the Gospel. Here we have a golden opportunity to set the truth of the Gospel against the background of the Muslim's own beliefs about him. By analysing the implications and significance of the unique features of his life and the titles applied to him, we can lead the Muslim on to see the fuller truth and light of the Gospel
Even in the early days of Islam Christian theologians saw the advantages present in the teachings of the Qur'an about Jesus which coincided in principle with relevant Biblical teachings. Pere Nau, a French Jesuit based for many years in Syria, saw the Qur'an not as a thoroughly hostile barrier to the Gospel but as a potential instrument to verify much of its essence.
He manifested a genuine concern for the Muslims although he lived in times when current opinion was generally hostile towards Islam (the seventeenth century), and stated that he believed that those who were willing to deal with Muslims in a spirit of humility and gentleness would find that it was invariably possible to engage in useful debate and discussion with them. In the same spirit he saw the Qur'an:
In this whole chapter we shall endeavour to comprehensively cover this subject and in this first section shall look primarily at the unique features surrounding the beginning and end of Jesus' first sojourn on earth and those attending his second advent. Although the exclusive sinlessness of Jesus Christ is also relevant to this subject, it has already been dealt with on pages 273-283 of the companion volume to this book, Muhammad and the Religion of Islam, to which readers are referred.
2. The Virgin-Birth of Jesus Christ.
One of the most important points of agreement between Islam and Christianity concerns the conception of Jesus. Both the Qur'an and the Bible teach that he was conceived of a woman only, his mother Mary, before she had known any man. The virgin-birth of Jesus, taught so plainly in the Bible, is no less clearly taught in the Qur'an. In his Gospel Matthew (1.18-25) states that he was conceived in Mary of the Holy Spirit in fulfilment of a prophecy in Isaiah 7.14 ("a virgin shall conceive and bear a son"), while Luke also records the unusual conception, stating unambiguously that Mary was a virgin whom no man had touched when Jesus was conceived in her by the power of the Holy Spirit (Luke 1.26-35). In the Qur'an likewise we find much the same teaching. In one passage we read:
Another passage also records the visitation of an angel to Mary and the response which she gave him when he announced to her the conception of Jesus:
In both the Christian and Muslim worlds there have been attempts to explain away the plain teachings of the Bible and the Qur'an regarding the virginal-conception of Jesus - invariably on rationalistic grounds only - but the overwhelming majority in both religions to this day acknowledge the phenomenon. A well-read Turkish Muslim writer once said:
Opponents of the doctrine of the virgin-birth of Jesus in Islam have always been rigidly withstood by Muslim scholars of the orthodox school. Even though Indian and Pakistani scholars like Ghulam Parwez and Ahmad Khan denied the virgin birth, others were quick to rally to its defence, one of whom was the great scholar Abul-Kalam Azad.
It is certainly difficult to see how the response of Mary to the angel's announcement, "how can I have a son when no man has touched me?" (Surah 3.47, 19.20), can be fairly interpreted in any other way than the obvious one - that she was still a virgin. Indeed, if Mary had conceived by another man, it would hardly have been necessary for an angel to appear to her to explain the conception she was about to experience! The regular occurrence of the title "son of Mary" in the Qur'an (Surah 3.45, etc.) also strongly supports the conclusion that she conceived Jesus without the agency of a human father for men were almost always named after their fathers in historical times. Yet another passage in the Qur'an emphasises this fact equally forcefully:
The emphasis on "her and her son", who was brought into being within her by the inbreathing of God's Spirit in a miraculous way, without any reference to a human father, cannot be easily avoided. It is also most significant to find that Mary is the only woman mentioned by name in the whole of the Qur'an and on so many occasions that a whole Surah (the nineteenth) is named after her, being entitled Suratu-Maryam. In the Qur'an the names of woman are otherwise conspicuous only by their absence. It seems logical to conclude that the mother of Jesus is mentioned by name so regularly chiefly because of her significant place in human history as the only woman to bear a son while still a virgin.
Nonetheless, although this phenomenon is so emphatically admitted in the Qur'an, the book attempts no real explanation of it. The Qur'an merely states that it came about through God's decree, Kun fayakuun - "'Be', and it comes to be" (Surah 3.47). Muslims generally take it to be nothing more than a somewhat arbitrary manifestation of God's power for which no reason can or should be sought. The Qur'an itself seems to be more concerned about explaining away any unique meaning behind the virgin-birth rather than revealing wherein its uniqueness consists when it says:
In consequence Muslims argue that if the creation of Jesus without a father is a unique phenomenon, then the creation of Adam without a father or a mother must surely be regarded as even more unique. Sayyid Effendi, quoted earlier, says on this point:
A Christian can readily agree that the virgin-birth, as an expression of God's power, is indeed no more wonderful than the creation of Adam. It can even be said that it required a negligible exercise of this power in comparison with the creation of Adam, but this tends to suggest all the more that there was some other specific reason for it. Adam was created without father or mother as the first man on earth and so could not have had earthly parents. Someone had to be created first. On the contrary Jesus was born without a father when God's natural process of procreation had long been in existence. What reason was there for this unique conception? The comparison with Adam does not answer this question at all.
In the same way the argument that Jesus was conceived of a mother only purely as a demonstration of God's power fails to provide any hint as to the real meaning and purpose behind the event. Unlike other signs which were so manifest that those who beheld them could not deny them, such as the raising of Lazarus (John 11.47) and the healing of the lame man outside the Temple (Acts 4.16), there was no visible proof or evidence to substantiate the virgin-birth. Unmarried women throughout history have become mothers - what proof could Mary give in the miracle itself to show that she had in fact maintained her purity and innocence? (The Qur'an itself appears to be totally aware of this and vindicates Mary purely by another miracle - the voice of the baby child Jesus speaking ii her defence from his cradle - Surah 19.27-30). A Christian writer hints at the real meaning of this unique event when he says:
Another writer makes much the same point, contrasting the unexplained mystery of the virgin-birth in the Qur'an with its vital place in the Biblical revelation of God's saving grace as manifested in all that Jesus was and did:
A Muslim writer, speaking in another context, reinforces the obvious argument that all that God does must have a specific meaning in saying: "Indeed, to imagine that God does anything without a purpose, in effect amounts to a denial of God (38.28)" (Zafrulla Khan, Islam: Its Meaning for Modern Man, p. 96). It is the very absence of such a clearly defined purpose in the unique conception of Jesus that strikes the reader as he peruses Qur'anic teaching on this subject. Being born of a virgin-woman, Jesus had an exceptional and unique beginning to his life. As he was the only man in all human history to come into the world in this unusual way, surely we cannot be satisfied with the Qur'an's summary declaration that it was no more than an exercise of God's power.
Thus the virgin birth of Jesus, in Christian orthodoxy, has always been within the larger, deeper, surer faith of the Incarnation. The latter can subsist without the former. For, otherwise, the former would have no raison d'etre, either in fact or faith. (Cragg, Jesus and the Muslim, p. 66).
There are, nonetheless, hints in the Qur'an to the real meaning behind the phenomenon, one of which is found in the exclamation of the angels as they announced the conception of the child Jesus to Mary:
The thing that strikes us is the whole pre-eminence of the woman - chosen above all the women of the nations. This preference is repeated in the words of Elizabeth to her cousin as recorded in the Bible, but here a further exclamation follows which gives the real meaning behind the greatness of Mary and her superiority over all other women:
Mary, in both the Qur'anic and Biblical passages quoted, is declared to be the greatest among women, but now we discover why - because she mothered the greatest among men, because she was the virgin-mother of Jesus. A Christian writer says of the Qur'anic verse quoted above: "Does this passage not clearly signify that her son Jesus was to be the greatest prophet?" (Goldsack, Christ in Islam, p. 5). It is to the son of Mary that we must surely look to find the meaning of her greatness.
According to the Qur'an when the angel came to Mary he said to her: "I am only a messenger from your Lord (to announce) to thee the gift of a holy son" (Surah 19.19). The word for "holy" in this verse, zakiyya, is applied to no other prophet in the book. The angel announces to Mary that she is to conceive a uniquely holy child - does this not hint at the real meaning of the unique manner of his birth? Here is the closest the Qur'an comes to revealing the real purpose and significance of this unique experience. The angel came not only to set her mind at rest about the pregnancy she was about to experience but to explain that this unique event was simply the effect of God's plan to make her son a revelation for mankind. She was to conceive Jesus in a special way for only one reason - because there was something special about her son.
Muslims need to appreciate that Jesus was born in a supernatural way, and that solely because there was something supernatural about the man himself. He was no mere mortal, he pre-existed his earthly life and was born of a virgin-woman because there was no other way he could be born. The doctrine of the virgin-birth is crucial to the Christian belief that Jesus is the Son of God, for if he had been procreated at a point in time by ordinary means, there would have been little to argue for his supernatural pre-existence. But the very uniqueness of his birth is vital to our belief in him as God's incarnate Son, and begins in consequence to argue very strongly for it. Once the Qur'an denies the fact that Jesus is the Son of God, it can find no meaning for this phenomenon. The Bible, on the contrary, gives an absolutely necessary purpose for it - being the Son of God there was no other way he could have been conceived. It is this very supernatural character of the virgin-birth that hints at its real significance and meaning.
The most important similarity is seen in the fact that Mohammed believed in the virgin birth or at least in a "supernatural birth'' of Jesus. (Robertson, Jesus or Isa, p. 29).
It is behind the fact of the virgin-birth that we find its true meaning and it is very interesting to see how the Qur'an unwittingly goes a long way towards hinting at this meaning, only ultimately to stumble at it through its denial Of Jesus as the Son of God.
A tradition reported widely in the major works of Hadith likewise reinforces the unique character of Jesus' birth and also gives an allusion to its significance and meaning:
It is surely logical to conclude that the birth of Jesus was the only birth that Satan could not interfere with because the object of that birth was no ordinary mortal but one who is far greater than the devil (1 John 4.4), one who was no less than the Son of God himself.
Some Muslims believe that because Jesus was born without a father, we Christians automatically conclude that God was his Father and that the doctrine of Jesus as the Son of God arose from this assumption. Christians must be quick to point out that it is really the other way around - because he always was the Son of God it was not possible that he could be born in any other way.
Jesus had a unique beginning to his life on earth solely because he himself is unique in that he is the only Son of God. This is, according to the Bible, precisely what the angel said to Mary when he originally came to her to explain the miraculous conception:
This is why God has caused all other men to come into the world by natural means (including Adam who was created out of the natural realm he found himself in) but was especially involved in the birth of Jesus. All other men are made out of the same dust Adam was created out of, but Jesus was conceived solely by the Spirit of God because he is the Son of God. This is why he had this unique beginning to his life on earth - because he himself is unique in that he is the Son of God. Right from the start, therefore, Christians can show, once again from the Muslim's own Scripture, that Jesus is all we claim him to be. His unique birth can so easily be shown to be devoid of meaning if we do not acknowledge the glorious identity of its subject. We shall press on to see that if the life of Jesus began in unique circumstances, it ended in equally unique circumstances, and we shall see further how Christians can use the whole subject of the uniqueness of Jesus in the Qur'an and the Bible to communicate the Gospel effectively to Muslims.
3. The Ascension of Jesus to Heaven.
It is the fundamental belief of the overwhelming majority of Muslims in the world that Jesus was raised to heaven at the end of his life without dying. After denying that Jesus was crucified by the Jews, the Qur'an says:
The words barrafa'ahullaahu ilayh, "Nay, God raised him up unto Himself", have been taken to mean that at the point when the Jews wanted to crucify Jesus, God raised him to heaven and transformed the likeness of a bystander into that of Jesus who became crucified in his place. Although Christians will differ with Muslims on the circumstances of the ascension of Jesus to heaven, the fact is nevertheless common ground between us and one of great importance and significance. It is noteworthy that the Qur'an states that Jesus was raised, not to the second or third heaven as some Muslims suppose, but to the very presence of God himself. In the same way the Bible teaches that Jesus is "he who also ascended far above all the heavens" (Ephesians 4.9), indeed to the very throne of God himself (Revelation 3.21).
This means that just as the life of Jesus began in miraculous and unique circumstances, it ended in the same way as well. Jesus himself taught that "no one has ascended into heaven" (John 3.13), and no one has done so since so as to remain there alive for centuries upon centuries as Jesus has done. He alone truly ascended into heaven.
A Muslim writer passes a very pertinent comment about the implications of the unique manner in which Jesus' life both began and ended on earth:
Once again, however, the unique character of the event loses its meaning if it is denied that Jesus is the Son of God who came into the world to save us from our sins. Yet again the Qur'an can give no real significance or purpose to explain the phenomenon. The only reason it gives is that God took him to heaven to save him from the murderous intentions of the Jews. But this hardly explains why God has elected to enjoy the presence of Jesus in heaven for nearly twenty centuries. If the sole purpose was to save him from the Jews, why did he not send him back when those who sought his life were dead? Surely God could have found more mundane ways of delivering Jesus if he was just a messenger like those who went before him. This was surely a most extraordinary and drastic way of saving him from the Jews.
We have concrete support for this argument from the Bible for shortly after Jesus was born Herod, the King of Judea, sought his life when word came to him that the long-awaited Messiah had been born in Bethlehem. Immediately an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying:
Joseph and Mary duly left for Egypt by night with the chili. But when Herod died shortly afterwards, the angel came again to Joseph, saying:
Surely God could have adopted a similar procedure the second time if he intended to rescue Jesus from the Jews. We must reject the theory that Jesus was taken to heaven solely as an escape-route from the hands of the Jews. Those who sought his life perished nineteen centuries ago, but God remains pleased to keep Jesus in his presence in heaven and has done so over all these generations since he first ascended from the earth.
The Qur'an cannot explain why God willed that Jesus should abide with him in heaven as the only man to ascend there, from the time he left the earth until the time when will return at the end of the age. While billions of men and women have lived and died on earth over the centuries, Jesus has been alive in heaven, the only man to be raised off the earth into the very presence of God himself, and that for close on two thousand years.
Shamim Raza used a very interesting word to describe the circumstances surrounding the beginning and end of Jesus' life on earth. He stated that they were involved in mystery, and so they must ever be to any Muslim who seeks, within the heritage of Islam, to find a real meaning for the virginbirth and ascension. Insofar as the Qur'an concedes the uniqueness of these events, it hints at a deep significance behind them, but as it denies the two most important features of Jesus' personality and life, namely his deity and crucifixion, it cannot unravel the mystery.
It is tragic that Muhammad acquired only such an obscure conception of the Jesus-Christ phenomenon, one that bypasses the real mystery, and that the decisive point necessarily eluded him. (Frieling, Christianity and Islam, p. 68).
The mystery is resolved when one considers what Jesus had to say about where he had come from in the first place. On numerous occasions he stated that he had come down from heaven, as in the following verse:
Jesus once spoke plainly of himself as "he who descended from heaven" (John 3.13) and on another occasion spoke equally unambiguously of "ascending where he was before" (John 6.62). On yet another occasion, while he was debating with the Jews, he said:
"I am from above - I am not of this world", he boldly declared. It is a true maxim that man returns whence he came. We all return to the earth because we come from it. "You are dust, and to dust you shall return" (Genesis 3.19). Jesus, however, was from above and this gives the real reason why he ascended to heaven - because he came from heaven in the first place. He could not have put it more plainly than he did when he said:
Why should just one man be raised above the clouds, indeed right out of this universe, into the very presence of the eternal Father where he has been for nearly two thousand years? There can only be one logical reason. He must likewise have been in heaven for thousands of years before he ever came into the world. He returned whence he had come, he ascended whence he had originally descended.
Indeed, if Jesus had died a natural death and been buried like all other men without his resurrection from the dead, and if his body had returned to the dust and not gone to heaven, Christians would have had endless difficulty justifying their belief that he is the Son of God. If he is indeed the Son of God, however, it is essential that he return to the throne of heaven from which he must have come. Once again, therefore, we find that the Qur'an concedes a unique feature in Jesus' life that only has meaning if one accepts that he is the Son of God. As with the virgin-birth the Qur'an tnwittingly admits one of the essential aspects of his life that both endorses and implies the very fact that the Qur'an is at pains to deny - the deity of Jesus Christ.
Here too Christians can lead Muslims to see the uniqueness of Jesus and the implications of this uniqueness. Once again we can use the Muslim's own sources to prove the point and present the Gospel against the background of his own beliefs and points of common ground between us. Let us finish by looking at the second coming of Jesus to see how all three of these unique features can be used as highly effective stepping-stones to the Gospel.
4. The Return of Jesus in the Qur'an and the Hadith.
It must come as something of a surprise to Christians to hear that the return of Jesus to earth is as much a basic belief of the Muslims as it is ours. Once again the vast majority of the Muslims of the world hold to this belief. As with the ascension the Qur'an does not treat the subject at any length and, as with so much of its teaching about Jesus, it is somewhat ambiguous. The one passage invariably brought forth to justify the doctrine is this one:
The key words in the original Arabic are Wa innahuu la'ilmil-lissaa'ati which, literally interpreted, mean only "And there is knowledge (ilm) of the Hour (sa'ah)". Arberry thus translates it, viz. "It is knowledge of the Hour", as does Pickthall: "Verily there is knowledge of the Hour". At first sight Yusuf Ali's interpretation in the quote above, to the effect that Jesus himself is the sign of the Hour of Judgment to come, appears to be broadly read into the text which would not otherwise yield it. A well-known Christian writer, however, summarily discounts any possibility that the text might refer to the second coming of Jesus at the end of the age. He says on this point:
Another writer, however, accepts that if the pronoun built into the word innahuu refers to Jesus, then it may well be that this text is intended to allude to his return to the earth towards the end of time.
Commenting on the same verse a Muslim writer seeks support for the interpretation in favour of the return of Jesus to earth in some of the expressed views of some of Muhammad's own followers as they have been recorded in the traditions:
In another place, referring to the opinions of the early Muslim interpreters of the Qur'an, he says:
When the text is placed in its context in the Surah there does appear to be much to support the argument that it is Jesus himself who is spoken of as the knowledge or sign of the Hour. The passage begins by saying that Muhammad's people ridicule him when he seeks to hold up the son of Mary as an example (Surah 43.57), goes on to quote their objection that their gods are better than he (v.58), and asserts In huwa illa abdun - "He was no more than a servant" - who was made an example to the Children of Israel (v.59). Thereafter Jesus himself is quoted (w .63-64) and, analysing the key verse in this context, it is hard to see what else could be the "knowledge" or sign of the Hour of Judgment if it is not Jesus himself, the subject of the whole passage. Yusuf Ali has the following comment appended to the text:
Another Muslim translator of the Qur'an has a similar comment on this verse: "The reference is to the second advent of Jesus" (Daryabadi, The Holy Qur'an, Vol. 2, p. 493B). Going on from the Qur'an to the Hadith we find that there are a wealth of traditions in support of the doctrine of the return of Jesus to earth. There are no less than seventy in fact and they are regarded as mutawatir, "universally attested" traditions of unquestioned reliability. One reads:
Another tradition states that "spite, mutual hatred and jealousy against one another will certainly disappear" during his reign when he returns (Sahih Muslim, Vol. 1, p. 93) and in yet another tradition we read that Surah 4.159, which teaches that "there is none of the People of the Scriptures (Jews and Christians) but must believe in him before his death", is also a proof that Jesus will return to earth to receive the homage of all to whom the Scriptures have been given (Sahih al-Bukhari, Vol. 4, p. 437). Throughout the various works in the Sirat and Hadith literature we find similar traditions suppor tiny the return of Jesus, another of which reads:
It is immediately apparent that there are key differences between Christian and Muslim beliefs regarding the return of Jesus but what is of great significance is the very admission of this climactic event to come at the end of time. It goes without saying that in this Jesus is absolutely unique as well and there are obvious implications here too which lead perforce to the Gospel and we shall proceed to examine them. Before doing so, however, it will be useful to sum up Muslim beliefs about the return of Jesus and see to what extent they can assist us.
He will die at the end of the forty years and will be buried next to Muhammad in the Masjid an-Nabi in Medina. Most of this is untenable, in particular the purely earthly character of the work he will supposedly perform. We cannot accept that he will come to live again as an ordinary human being on earth, least of all that he will die and be buried. He has been alive in the glory of heaven for nearly two thousand years and we find it very hard to seriously consider the suggestion that he must return to complete a life that was interrupted on earth at the age of thirty-three and live out a further forty years before dying and being buried like any other man. It is our firm belief that he is already alive for ever more in the glory of the kingdom of God and that an earthly demise at a time yet to come would be an unfortunate anti-climax and a strange anachronism. Nevertheless there are principles in the Muslim beliefs about his earthly reign that Christians can accept as to some extent symbolic of his heavenly rule yet to be revealed.
Islam teaches that he will return from heaven, that he will destroy the Antichrist and all his host, that he will lead all true believers into an era of unprecedented bliss and prosperity, that he will rule over all the earth, and that he will establish a universal faith in God during his reign. To the extent that these beliefs can be transferred to a heavenly rule in an eternal kingdom, Christians can agree with Muslims.
5. The implications of the Second Coming.
The return of Jesus to earth at the end of time is yet another of those unique features that implies that Jesus was far greater than the other prophets. Christians and Muslims may differ in what they expect Jesus to accomplish on his return but both expect him in any event to take control of all the earth with himself as Judge of all. This alone puts him head and shoulders above all other men in accomplishment and again makes him unique among men - a uniqueness which is vested in heavenly majesty and glory.
Of no other man in history can we read of such a phenomenal beginning and end to his life on earth. No one else compares with him. In his birth, ascension and second coming, in his character, destiny and ultimate glory, he stands high above all other men who have ever lived on earth. Let us see just how his second coming can also be used as a means to lead Muslims to see the fulness of his glory and the truth of the Christian Gospel.
In their comments on Surah 43.61 we found both Yusuf Ali and Maulana Daryabadi speaking of the "second coming" and "second advent" of Jesus respectively. Some years ago Adam Peerbhai, a South African Muslim author, wrote a booklet canvassing the various traditions referring to the return of Jesus to earth and titled it Hadis Text on the Second Coming of Jesus. A key to the implications of this anticipated phenomenon is found in just one word used by all three authors without much reflection on its immediate implications - the word second. Each speaks of the second coming of Jesus.
The implication is this - if there is to be a second coming, there must have been a first coming. Christians have become accustomed to using the expression "second coming" simply because they believe that Jesus came from heaven the first time. Muslims have some dispute among themselves as to where he will land on his return to earth. Most believe he will descend to the eastern minaret of the Umayyad mosque in Damascus, some believe he will descend upon the Dome of the Rock or the Mount of Olives, while yet others that he will land in Mecca or Medina. None of these beliefs is important the important thing is where he is coming from. He is coming from heaven.
I have often suggested to Muslims that if they can believe that Jesus will return from heaven when he comes to earth the second time, it should not be too hard for them to believe that he might have come from heaven the first time. There is much to be gained at this point by quoting the words of Jesus himself to this effect and I have already given a selection of quotations from the Gospels in which he made it plain that he had in fact come down from heaven. Another quote that I have found very useful in this respect is the statement of Jesus, "I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven" (Luke 10.18). Muslims believe, following the Qur'an (Surah 7.8), that Satan was cast down in disgrace right at the beginning of creation. When Jesus said that he saw him fall, it was his way of saying "I was there, I saw it happen" - a telling testimony to his presence in heaven even from the beginning of the world. Another useful text emphasizing the presence of Jesus in heaven centuries before his first coming to earth is this one where Jesus prayed:
As the Muslims concede that he has been in heaven for nearly twenty centuries since his first sojourn on earth, notwithstanding their prejudices against the Gospel I have found them quite open at this point and willing to consider that he could just as logically have been there at least twenty centuries before he came into the world.
Our witness at this point must lead to two thrusts - the purpose of his first coming to earth and the real meaning of his second coming. Let us consider them in order. If Jesus was alive in heaven for centuries before he came into the world and has been so ever since, then the key question is why he ever descended to earth to live among us for thirty-three years of which only the last three had any real public significance. In the context of all we have said thus far I do believe there are two points that should be made. The first that we shall consider is that Jesus came to bridge the gap between heaven and earth, the chasm that exists by nature between the Holy God and sinful men.
In conversation with Muslims I have often said that most fairy stories begin "Once upon a time. . . " and end ". . . and they all lived happily ever after". Not so the reality of life. It might begin the same way but the ultimate truth about all men is that none lives happily ever after but all come to disaster. We all die like moths and come to nothing. "No one has ascended into heaven", Jesus said (John 3.13), for there is a gaping chasm between God and men, between heaven and earth, for which the prophet Isaiah gives the reason:
No one from earth can bridge the gap. Sinful men are, by nature, incapable of rising above the realm of the world in which they were made. They are nothing more than mortal flesh and blood and "flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable" (1 Corinthians 15.50). This explains why Jesus came into the world from heaven the first time. He bridged the gap by bringing something of heaven into the world - his very own self. He assumed an earthly body and lived as an ordinary man, but within him dwelt a divine spirit which had come down from heaven.
He not only closed the gap between heaven and earth but bridged the gap the other way as well. When he came to the earth he came, as the Qur'an rightly puts it, as a ruhun minhu - a spirit from him (i.e. God). But when he returned to heaven he returned as an insaan, a human being. His divine spirit returned to its heavenly abode but he took something of earth to heaven with him - he took the human nature he had assumed when he first came into the world. He came then purely as a spirit, but he returned as a man, as a human being. He thus fully bridged the gap between heaven and earth and his living presence in heaven as a human being is our pledge and assurance that we too, though mortal men of flesh and blood, can one day be in heaven with him in eternal glory and bliss.
The second point, and perhaps the greatest reason for the first coming of Jesus into the world, was to become like us in every respect so that he might save us from our sins. Because we are only flesh and blood, "he himself likewise partook of the same nature" (Hebrews 2.14) so that he might deliver us from the power of Satan, from our natural enslavement to sin, and redeem us to God.
"He had to be made like his brethren in every respect" (Hebrews 2.17), he had to assume a body of flesh and blood, so that he might conquer both the power and penalty of sin in the very realm where for so long it had maintained its domain - the human body.
When God wanted to send prophets to the world, he simply chose out ordinary men who were born naturally and who were destined to die naturally, to do his work. If Jesus came from heaven and returned there, surely there must have been another reason for his advent.
The crucifixion of Jesus Christ, so complacently overlooked in Islam as an unsuccessful plot of the Jews, alone explains why Jesus came from heaven the first time and why he will return again. He came not to be a mere prophet, he came as God's chosen Deliverer and Redeemer to save millions of men and women by dying for them on the cross, where he endured what was due to all of them for their sins, so that they might receive the hope of eternal life by following him as their Lord and Saviour.
He did not come like the Superman of the American comics, a man who can fly through the skies at his own discretion and from whose body bullets simply bounce off. He came like us in every respect and at no time did he use his divine powers to give himself any advantage over us. Be came as a normal human being and he suffered, died and was buried so that he might bridge the gap between heaven and earth completely - not only between God and men but to the very extreme of sinful man's separation from the Lord of heaven - between God and sinful men who lie hopelessly dead and buried in the dust of earth.
It is against the background of Jesus' unique beginning and end to his life - a virgin-birth made necessary because of his heavenly origin and his ultimate ascension to heaven - that Christians can really show Muslims why Jesus came into the world the first time.
What of the second coming? Let us first consider how Jesus shall appear before we decide how to relate this to the Gospel in our witness to Muslims. Jesus himself gave a number of illustrations to show how he shall be when he returns to earth of which we shall consider just two which fully describe the impact that there will be when he is revealed:
"Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken; then will appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven, and then all the tribes of the eatth will mourn, and they will see the Son of man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory; and he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other". Matthew 24.29-31.
In these words we have a far clearer picture of how Jesus will return. The sun will be darkened, the moon will lose its light, the stars of the sky will fall, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken, and then, in their place, a new brightness will appear. The whole earth will see Jesus appear in a cloud with heavenly power and glory as he calls out all those who are his own. The contrast between the present order and the new order he will bring in is finely described in the second quote. The glory, brightness and power of the present order will recede before the revelation of his majesty and power when he returns from heaven.
The point Jesus was making was this: when he appears even the sun will cast a shadow and be darkened. Before his glory not only the sun but all the stars will fade and recede. All the energies and powers in the universe will be shaken. His light will be so splendid that even the sun's light will not compare with it. When the Apostle Paul had his great vision of the glory of Jesus on the way to Damascus he said that he saw "a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, shining round me and those who journeyed with me" (Acts 26.13). The Apostle John likewise had a vision of Jesus in heaven after his ascension and testified that "his face was like the sun shining in full strength" (Revelation 1.16).
The issue is how this will affect us. He came into the world the first time as an ordinary man so that he might be made like us in every way. He will come a second time, as he really is, so that he might make those who believe in him just like himself. All his followers will be transformed into his image to share his glory for ever and ever. Jesus himself stated it plainly: "Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father" (Matthew 13.43). In another passage of Scripture we have a similar promise:
He will return shining with all the brightness of his heavenly glory, and then those who are his will be transformed into the same image to share his glory. Those who have died in ordinary human bodies, who nevertheless followed him as their Lord and Saviour will, on that glorious Day, be raised from the dead and taken up to be with him in heavenly glory for all eternity. Their present bodies are perishable, but they will be raised imperishable. They are mortal now, but then they will be raised immortal. They share now the ordinary human body of flesh that Adam, their first father, shared, but on that Day they will inherit the same resplendent, heavenly body of spirit and life that Jesus Christ, their eternal Saviour and Lord, already shares.
Here the Christian has, in my view, an ideal way of explaining the three unique features we have considered, namely the virgin-birth, ascension and second coming of Jesus. By setting each against the background of the heavenly realm to which Jesus by nature belongs, from which he came, to which he returned and whence he will come again, we can very effectively communicate the Gospel to Muslims. The essence of our witness in this context should always be twofold - the first coming, in which Jesus became like us to redeem us from sin, and the second coming, by which we shall become like him to share his glory for ever and ever.
We need to show Muslims that the unique circumstances we have considered, which they readily admit, imply that Jesus was far more than a prophet, that he was in fact the Son of God who came into the world to save us from our sins. Each one loses its meaning in the Qur'an when this is denied. It is only in the Bible, where we behold a Divine Saviour who came to redeem men from their sins, that these unique features take on meaning and have any real significance.
Having considered three unique features in the life of Jesus which the Qur'an openly concedes, let us, in the next two sections, consider three unique titles that are applied to Jesus in the Qur'an as well and see how these too can be used as a background against which the Gospel can equally well be presented.
The Christian Witness to the Muslim: Table of Contents
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