A response to the Muslim claim that Jesus was
sent to the Children of Israel only


Introducing the Problem

"Jesus is for the Children of Israel only." We recall these or similar words addressed several times by a Muslim to our small group of Christians as we attempted to share Gospel portions among Muslims in a town of South India. It was as if he were telling us to stop wasting our time distributing a message which was not intended for Muslims, Hindus or anyone else in this Indian community. Did not Jesus say the same thing?

Whether or not all Muslims agree with his opinion is here beside the point. There is no doubt that this contention has been shared by a significant number of Sunni and Shi'i Muslims as well as by Ahmadis. How can Christians respond to it?


I. Biblical Considerations
  1. The Limitation Upon Jesus' Ministry

Christians will wisely recognize that sufficient evidence exists to take this Muslim contention seriously, simply because it is Biblical. After Jesus has equipped His disciples with authority, He sends them out and charges them:

"Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." (Matthew 10:5,6)1

Here Jesus clearly distinguishes the house of Israel from the Gentiles and the Samaritans.2 His disciples are to confine their mission to the physical descendants of their forefathers. Perhaps it is not co-incidental that their number is twelve, representing the twelve tribes of Israel.

Similarly Jesus limits His own apostolate to the house of Israel. To a Canaanite woman, seeking help for her daughter, Jesus says:

"I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." (Matthew 15:24)

This verbal response of Jesus was preceded by silence on His part and then the request of His disciples that Jesus send her away. There follows His second verbal response to her second plea, a response which can be interpreted only as a harsh rejection:

"It is not fair to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs." (Matthew 15:26)3

Further support to this limitation upon Jesus' ministry is indicated in the following passages which deal respectively with a sick Jewish woman and a despised tax-collector, who mends his ways after meeting Jesus:

"And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath day?" (Luke 13:16)

"Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost." (Luke 19:9,10)

Jesus helps them, for they belong to the house of Israel.

Like the first three Gospel accounts, the Gospel according to St. John tends towards the same limitation. Though Jesus and His disciples encounter Samaritans and stay with them for about two days (John 4:1-42), this event is unusual in Jesus' ministry. Only prior to His Passion and the conclusion of His ministry on earth does He meet Greeks; He informs them only that the seed must first die before it can bear fruit, an obvious reference to His death (John 12:20-26). Even Paul mentions "that Christ became a servant to the circumcised ...." (Romans 15:8). He says nothing about a ministry of Jesus among the Gentiles.

Topographical studies likewise provide no evidence that Jesus ever went beyond the boundaries of the Jewish population.4

To speak of this limitation upon Jesus' ministry is one thing. To give a reason for it is another. As is often the case with the person, words and works of Jesus, here also our understanding of this limitation upon His ministry is governed by patterns deeply and beautifully engraved in the Old Testament. To search the Old Testament for such patterns is not an arbitrary procedure; it is to follow the example of Jesus, who constantly points to the Old Testament for an understanding of Him and His ways because the Old Testament always points to Him. (Luke 24:25-27; John 5:39,46)

Thus it is not co-incidental that Jesus views Himself as the shepherd of the lost sheep of Israel. Through the prophet Ezekiel God had declared:

"I myself will tend my flock, I myself will pen them in their fold, says the Lord God. I will search for the lost, recover the straggler, bandage the hurt, strengthen the sick, leave the healthy and strong to play, and give them their proper food.... I, the Lord, will become their God, and my servant David shall be a prince among them." (Ezekiel 34:15,16,24, New English Bible translation)

Matthew, in summarizing the ministry of Jesus, says:

When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. (Matthew 9:36; cf. Luke 19:9,10, already quoted above)

The New Testament understands Jesus, as a descendant of David, to be the David of Ezekiel's prophecy. As shepherd He is king. The New Testament term "Son of David" means the Messiah."5

What then was Jesus' attitude towards the Gentiles and the Samaritans? Occasional references of Jesus to them reveal the distinction which Jesus made between them and the Children of Israel. While they may sound disparaging, they are more accommodating to the views of Jewish hearers than disparaging of Samaritans and Gentiles. Thus He says to His Jewish hearers:

"And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?" (Matthew 5:47)

"And in praying do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their many words." (Matthew 6:7)6

After Jesus healed ten lepers, only one, a Samaritan, returned to thank God. To which Jesus says:

"Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?" (Luke 17:18)7

The Samaritans considered Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to be their forefathers and religious leaders. They also acknowledged Moses to be God's prophet, the Torah to be God's Holy Book, and awaited the coming of the Messiah.

At the time of Jesus, however, the Jews did not consider the Samaritans to be among the true Children of Israel because they had become mixed with foreigners. Open hostility existed between Jews and Samaritans, nourished by several centuries of differences. The Jew, John Hyrcanus, destroyed the Samaritan temple on Mt. Gerazim in 128 B.C. About 8 A.D. some Samaritans desecrated the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. John summarized the situation well: "For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans" (John 4:9). Did the Jews even equate Samaritans with demons? (John 8:48)

At the time of Jesus the Jews were ruled by the Romans. Generally they abhorred the Romans and other Gentiles as idolaters, rejected by God, wicked and unclean. Despite earlier Judaistic tendencies to include Gentiles in the final glory of Israel, later Judaism awaited the vengeance of God upon the Romans in particular, the Gentiles in general.

However, Jesus sharply separates Himself from His fellow Jews who despise both Samaritans and Gentiles. He rejects any hatred of one nation for another nation; nor does He allow vengeance by one nation against another. Vengeance is the prerogative of God (Luke 18:7; Romans 12:19). Moreover, as the New Testament accounts frequently show, He wants no part in establishing a kingdom of Israel according to Jewish expectation; He is concerned with establishing the kingdom of God. He seeks to free from Satan, not Rome.

In the light of Jewish relations with Gentiles and Samaritans a series of Jesus' words and acts become intelligible and meaningful. In the account of the Good Samaritan the Samaritan, not the Jewish priest or the Levite, demonstrates the true meaning and practice of love for the neighbour, i.e., if the Jews wish to know the meaning of love for the neighbour, their Samaritan enemy offers them a good example (Luke 10:29-37). Jesus rebukes His own disciples who seek revenge against those Samaritans who refused to welcome them in their village (Luke 9:55). He wonders why only one of the ten lepers, now healed, fails to give Him thanks; to which Luke adds, laconically: "Now he was a Samaritan" (Luke 17:16), i.e., not a child of the Kingdom but an outsider gives thanks. As noted below, He praises the faith of two Gentiles, whose faith, he suggests, the Jews should emulate.

Neither hate nor vengeance but repentance: This is what Jesus wants the Jews to practise. When Jesus is told that Pilate (the Gentile ruler) has massacred some Galileans (Jews), He tells His reporters to repent in order that they may avoid a similar fate. Both the prophet John the Baptist and Jesus reject any Jewish claim to be superior or to be in possession of an inherent merit or worthiness by virtue of being Jewish; they simply summon the Jews to repentance (Matthew 3:2; 4:11). John's crushing statement:

"Do not presume to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham" (Matthew 3:9),

is echoed by Jesus' words of judgement upon those Jews who, despite Jesus' many works among them, remain unrepentant:

"The men of Nineveh will arise at the judgement with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here. The queen of the South will arise at the judgement with this generation and condemn it; for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here." (Matthew 12:41,42; cf. Matthew 11:21-24; 10:15)

By rejecting hatred and revenge, by citing good actions of some Samaritans and Gentiles and by summoning the Jews to repentance and love, Jesus incurred the wrath of many of His countrymen. Along this same pattern He once reminded His countrymen in His own town of Nazareth of two Old Testament incidents: During a famine in Israel the prophet Elijah aided not the widows of Israel but a widow at Zarephath (a Gentile); a little later the prophet Elisha helped not the lepers of Israel but the leper Naaman (a Gentile). Hearing these incidents, Jesus' own countrymen became furious with Him. (Luke 4:25-28)

Our point here, however, is not the furious response. Rather, it is to recall that God directed both of these prophets, great prophets of God to the Children of Israel, to help individual Gentiles. Do not these prophets supply an Old Testament precedent for Jesus' action among a few individual Samaritans and Gentiles?

One of these actions concerned the Canaanite woman, to whom, as already noted, Jesus had said: "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." Let us cite the whole incident to put both the words of Jesus and His action in proper perspective, since at least some Muslims have chosen to quote only these words but to ignore their context:

And Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a Canaanite woman from the region came out and cried, "Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely possessed by a demon." But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, "Send her away, for she is crying after us." He answered, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." But she came and knelt before him, saying, "Lord, help me." And he answered, "It is not fair to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs." She said, "Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master's table." Then Jesus answered her, "O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire." And her daughter was healed instantly. (Matthew 15:21-28)

In addition we cite the passage regarding Jesus and the Roman centurion:

As he entered Capernaum, a centurion came forward to him, beseeching him and saying, "Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, in terrible distress." And he said to him, "I will come and heal him." But the centurion answered him, "Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; but only say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, 'Go,' and he goes, and to another, 'Come,' and he comes, and to my slave, 'Do this,' and he does it." When Jesus heard him, he marveled, and said to those who followed him, "Truly, I say to you, not even in Israel have I found such faith." (Matthew 8:5-10)

While reiterating our agreement with Muslims that Jesus said that He was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, we note also that 1. Jesus healed both Gentiles in need of healing; 2. Both the centurion and the woman realized their unworthiness before Jesus. What is explicit in the account of the Canaanite woman is implicit in the account about the centurion: Jesus' ministry is to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Both were fully aware that they did not belong to the house of Israel and that Jesus had the right to reject their requests;8 3. Both demonstrate a faith which was unparalleled among the Children of Israel. It is this kind of faith that Jesus looked for and which He honored. Such a faith always receives what it wants, for it wants God's will (John 15:7, 1 John 5:19);9 4. Jesus told neither of them to follow Him.

Should we be surprised that Jesus followed the precedents of Elijah and Elisha in helping Gentiles, especially Gentiles of such faith? By abiding by His practice that He was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, should He have ignored their pleas? It does seem possible that these exceptions proved His rule of limiting His ministry to the house of Israel.10

Further we should note Jesus' additional words to His disciples after He has instructed them to "go nowhere among the Gentiles, and ... the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel":

"Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of men; for they will deliver you up to councils, and flog you in their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear testimony before them and the Gentiles." (Matthew 10:16-18)

Again we are faced with the paradox: Jesus sends His disciples exclusively to the lost sheep of Israel; yet before them (in their synagogues) and the Gentiles they "bear testimony". Is this testimony simply a judicial testimony, words issuing from the disciples before kings and judges in the form of a court defense only?


  1. The Universality Of Jesus' Ministry

Even if this were the case, still an abundance of evidence in the Gospel accounts indicates an understanding of a more positive participation of the Gentiles in God's Kingdom and the role of Jesus in this Gentile participation. This understanding is related to a host of references in the Old Testament regarding the future destiny of the Gentiles:

"And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
     and all mankind shall see it together,
     for the mouth of the Lord has spoken." (Isaiah 40:5)

"Listen to me, my people,
     and give ear to me, my nation;
for a law will go forth from me,
     and my justice for a light to the peoples." (Isaiah 51:4)

Arise, shine; for your light has come,
     and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you,
For behold, darkness shall cover the earth
     and thick darkness the peoples;
     but the Lord will arise upon you
     and His glory will appear over you.
And nations shall come to your light,
     and kings to the brightness of your rising. (Isaiah 60:1-3)

The Lord has bared His holy arm
     before the eyes of all the nations;
and all the ends of the earth shall see
     the salvation of our God. (Isaiah 52:10)

It shall come to pass in the latter days
     that the mountain of the house of the Lord
     shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;
     and all the nations shall flow to it.... (Isaiah 2:2, cf. vs. 3, 4)

On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make
     for all peoples a feast of fat things,
a feast of wine on the lees,
     of fat things full of marrow,
     of wine on the lees well refined.
And He will destroy on this mountain
     the covering that is cast over all peoples,
     the veil that is spread over all nations.
He will swallow up death for ever,
     and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces,
and the reproach of His people
     He will take away from all the earth,
for the Lord has spoken. (Isaiah 25:6-8)

This outreach among the Gentiles is closely bound with the mission of the Servant of the Lord:

Behold my servant, whom I uphold,
     my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my Spirit upon him,
     he will bring forth justice to the nations. (Isaiah 42:1; cf. vs. 2-9)

It is further said about this servant that

He poured out his soul to death,
     and was numbered with the transgressors;
yet he bore the sin of many,
     and made intercession for the transgressors. (Isaiah 53:12; cf. Isaiah 52:13-53:12)

The Gospel accounts identify this servant as Jesus in unmistakable terms (Matthew 12:15-21). After Jesus has spoken to His disciples about His own suffering and the greatness of service, He concludes:

"For the son of Man (Jesus) also came not to be served but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many." (Mark 10:45)

He dies

not for the nation only, but to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad. (John 11:52; cf. 1 John 2:2)

It is to these sheep that Jesus refers when He says:

And I have other sheep, that are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will heed my voice. So there shall be one flock, one shepherd. (John 10:16)

Jesus, the Son of Man, will return as king to judge all nations:

"When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats." (Matthew 25:31,32)

The following words of Jesus at least partially summarize the direction and content of the series of Old Testament passages noted above:

"I tell you, many will come from east and west and sit at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash teeth." (Matthew 8:11,12)

Jesus' concern for the Gentiles, apart from immediate confrontation with them, is indicated in the following passage:

He entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold and those who bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons; and he would not allow any one to carry anything through the temple. And he taught, and said to them, "Is it not written, 'My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations?' But you have made it a den of robbers." (Mark 11:15-17)

Jesus is disturbed by the business transacted in the Temple. In fact it is transacted in the outer court of the Temple, the first part of the Temple into which anyone coming into the Temple had first to enter. Beyond the outer court Jews alone can proceed. Yet precisely this outer court is reserved for the Gentiles to worship God.11

By cleansing the Temple Jesus acts more for Gentile worship of God in peace than against the transaction of business by various vendors, as His quotation from the Old Testament suggests.12 Moreover this quotation from the prophets Isaiah (56:7) and Jeremiah (7:11) provides him with authority to act. His action takes on greater significance when He refers to Himself as the Temple which the Jews will destroy and which He will raise again in three days, or when He states that He is greater than the Temple. (John 2:19-22; Matthew 12:6)

It is thus clear that Jesus limits His ministry and that of His disciples, as long as He was on earth, to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. At the same time His ministry has eternal significance for the Gentiles also. Can these two conclusions be reconciled?


  1. The Resolution Of The Tension

The resolution of this tension (or contradiction, as some would see it) can be found within both the Old and New Testaments. By speaking firstly of the Children of Israel, the Old Testament hints at a sequence in the Servant's activity:

And now the Lord says,
     who formed me from the womb to be his servant,
to bring Jacob back to him,
     and that Israel might be gathered to him,
for I am honored in the eyes of the Lord,
     and my God has become my strength -
he says:
"It is too light a thing
     that you should be my servant
     to raise up the tribes of Jacob
     and to restore the preserved of Israel:
I will give you as a light to the nations,
     that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth." (Isaiah 49:5,6)

First the Children of Israel and then the Gentiles. The New Testament is quite explicit about a time sequence: the time before the climactic events of Jesus' ministry (His Passion, Death, Resurrection and Ascension) and the time established by and following after the critical events in Jesus' ministry, a ministry which the living and ascended Messiah even now continues. Prior to these events themselves Jesus described them as "the hour," "His hour" (John 8:20; 12:23, 13:1, 17:1). Before these events Jesus limits His ministry and that of His disciples to the Children of Israel. After these events His disciples are to be witnesses to all nations. Thus the crucified and risen Messiah addresses His disciples:

"All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations...." (Matthew 28:18,19)

Peter observes this sequence when he addresses the Jews shortly after Jesus' ascension:

"You are the sons of the prophets and of the covenant which God gave to your fathers, saying to Abraham, 'And in your posterity shall all the families of the earth be blessed.' God, having raised up his servant, sent him to you first, to bless you in turning every one of you from your wickedness." (Acts 3:25,26)

Soon after, Paul and Barnabas echo only what Peter has indicated about this sequence:

"It was necessary that the word of God should be spoken first to you. Since you thrust it from you, and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we turn to the Gentiles. For so the Lord has commanded us, saying, 'I have set you to be a light for the Gentiles,
that you may bring salvation to the uttermost parts of the earth.'" (Acts 13:46,47)

Thus also the Letter to the Romans reads:

For I am not ashamed of the gospel: it is the power of God for salvation to every one who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek (Gentile). (1:16; cf. 2:9,10)

This sequence, first to the Jew and then to the Gentile, is followed consistently by the early Church, as reported in the Book of Acts. No doubt, members of the early Church, composed of sons and daughters of Abraham, disputed among themselves about the position of the Gentiles in this new community. Yet the dispute focussed more on the conditions to be laid upon convert Gentiles (e.g., should they be circumcised?) than on the need to witness to them. Indeed the Book of Acts exhibits a vigorous Christian ministry among Samaritans and Gentiles. As this ministry antedates the conversion of St. Paul, it is clear - contrary to the opinion held by some Muslims - that St. Paul did not initiate Christian mission among Gentiles, however much he contributed to it.13


II. Quranic Considerations

Why some Muslims have selected and isolated the "limiting texts" of Jesus' ministry without reference to a multitude of other texts which indicate His eventual ministry among the Gentiles is best known to them and God. Presumably their purpose is to contrast Islam as a universal religion with Christianity as a national religion. The previous Scriptures, they might say, have been lost or at least thoroughly distorted. At best, they might continue, only parts of these Scriptures remain; from these remnants it is evident that Jesus was sent only - "only" in an absolute, not a relative, sense - to the lost sheep of the house of Israel; on the other hand, of all Holy Scriptures the Qur'an alone has been preserved by God in its pristine purity and therefore it alone, as it also testifies, can be truly universal.

Yet, apart from numerous passages in the Qur'an which point to the integrity and existence of previous Scriptures*, what does the Qur'an actually say in reference to our topic? Our response to this question will be brief.

True, the Qur'an speaks about Jesus' mission to the Children of Israel (3:49; 61:6). Yet it appears that the Qur'an uses Jesus as an example for Arab unbelievers also:

And when the son of Mary is quoted as an example, behold! the folk laugh out .... (43:57)

It also says about Jesus:

And (it will be) that we may make of him (Jesus) a revelation for mankind and a mercy from Us, and it is a thing ordained. (19:21)14

Jesus' mission is to the Children of Israel. He is a revelation for mankind also.

Likewise the previous Scriptures, though revealed at particular places, in particular times and to a particular people, have a broader application:

And (remember) when Allah laid a charge on those who had received the Scriptures (He said): Ye are to expound it to mankind and not hide it. (3:187)

He hath revealed unto thee (Muhammad) the Scripture with truth, confirming that which was (revealed) before it, even as He revealed the Torah and the Gospel aforetime, for a guidance to mankind; and hath revealed the Criterion (of right and wrong). Lo! those who disbelieve the revelations of Allah, theirs will be a heavy doom. Allah is Mighty, Able to requite (the wrong). (3:3,4)

The Torah and the Gospel, like Jesus, are revelations for mankind.

It is already clear from the above discussion that Jesus was saturated with the Old Testament and that the New Testament (Injil, Gospel) quotes abundantly from it. The Old Testament provides, as it were, a blueprint and a projection of Jesus' person (the Messiah, the Servant, the Son of Man) and His ministry (preaching, teaching, healing) as well as the significance of His person and ministry for Israel and the Gentiles. Perhaps a Quranic indication for this can be found in the statement that Jesus was taught "the Scripture and wisdom, and the Torah and the Gospel" (3:48), whatever else this passage may mean. Have Muslims given sufficient attention particularly to the relation between the Torah (Old Testament) and the Gospel (New Testament)?

Furthermore, the Qur'an frequently mentions the existence of two communities, Jews and Christians. True, the Qur'an occasionally reprimands the Christians. Yet it also says about them:

Thou wilt find the most vehement of mankind in hostility to those who believe (to be) the Jews and the idolaters. And thou wilt find the nearest of them in affection to those who believe (to be) those who say: Lo! We are Christians. That is because there are among them priests and monks, and because they are not proud. (5:82)

Are all those Christians, to which the Qur'an and reliable Muslim Traditions (Hadith) refer, from the tribes of Israel? If some of them are not of these tribes, are they then truly Christian? Waraqa, the cousin of Muhammad's wife, Khadijah? Some of the Arab tribes who had become Christians? When the Qur'an speaks of both Jews and Christians reading the Scriptures (2:113), are all the Christians, to which it refers, descendants of Abraham?

In fact, the Qur'an accepts, implicitly and explicitly, both the limitation of Jesus' ministry and the universality of His ministry and of the Gospel (Injil).

On the other hand, by isolating select passages from the Qur'an and ignoring others, it is possible to contend from these isolated passages that Muhammad is not the person many Muslims claim him to be and that the message of the Qur'an is not universal. Thus according to the Qur'an:

Say (unto them O Muhammad): I am only a warner .... (38:66; cf. 13:7; 11:12)

Thou art but a warner. (35:23, italics ours)

Since the Qur'an states that Muhammad is only a warner, then he is only a warner, no more or no less. Accordingly, one may argue, other passages which speak otherwise of Muhammad [he is "a bearer of glad tidings and a warner" (35:24); "a witness and a bringer of good tidings and a warner ... a summoner ... a lamp" (33:45,46); "a warner, and a bearer of good tidings unto folk who believe" (7:188); "the messenger of Allah and the Seal of the Prophets" (33:40)] are contradictory or later interpolations by Muhammad's companions or other members of the Islamic community. For Muhammad is only ("only" in an absolute, not a relative, sense) a warner. Muhammed himself says: "I am not a new thing among the messengers of Allah." (46:9)

Thus also the Qur'an addresses Muhammed:

And warn thy tribe of near kindred. (26:214)

... that thou mayest warn the mother of Villages (Mecca) and those around her. (6:93)

Since the above passages indicate that Muhammad is a warner to his relatives, to Mecca and to surrounding villages, how then can the Qur'an say:

We have sent thee not save as a mercy for the peoples. (21:107)?

Are not the limited and universal dimensions contradictory one of another?

Likewise the Qur'an says about itself:

Lo! We have appointed it a Lecture (Qur'an) in Arabic that haply ye may understand. (43:2)

The Qur'an is in Arabic in order that the Arabs who complain that they cannot understand another language or a revelation in another language may understand. How then can the Qur'an also say about itself that it "is naught else than a reminder unto the peoples" (12:104; 38:88; 68:52; 81:27), since the vast majority of peoples have never understood nor can understand Arabic? Nor can the Qur'an, as many Muslims would contend, be truly translated to become the Qur'an in another language. Hence, one may conclude, the need for an intelligible and lucid Arabic revelation for Arabs defeats the very purpose of the Qur'an to be a revelation for all people since the vast majority of mankind have not been able and are not able to understand Arabic.

To him, be he Christian, Muslim or neither, who accepts the inherent claims of both Islam and Christianity to have limited and universal dimensions, much of the above may appear to be a silly exercise in elementary logic in support of an initial prejudice. On the other hand he who, through prejudice, has determined to discover an absolute cleavage between the limited and universal dimensions in either the Bible or the Qur'an by arbitrarily selecting and ignoring passages in either book may also discover that similar kinds of prejudice and reasoning can equally be applied against his thesis.



In fact the concept of universality is only one of the many concepts which Islam and Christianity hold in common. Adherents of both religions, since their inception, accept the obligation to spread their respective messages to all nations and the right of all nations to share in them. It is an obvious fact of history that multitudes from many nations and of various races have followed one or the other religion.

But better than to discuss the fact of universality embedded in the message of Islam and the message of Christianity is to discuss the content of these universal messages and their meaning for mankind. What better way to begin this than by studying the Bible and the Qur'an! Perhaps this simple suggestion will sound less naive when we recall that both Muslims and Christians lament that their Scriptures are more admired, honoured and extolled than read, understood and lived.


Bible quotations are from the Revised Standard Version translation.

Gentiles are non-Jews. For the Samaritans, see below.

In that Eastern society, calling a person "a dog" is to abuse him terribly. By no means, however, does this statement suggest that this is Jesus' personal evaluation of the Canaanite woman. On Jesus' accommodation to the vocabulary and concepts of His contemporaries, see below.

Joachim Jeremias, Jesus' Promise to the Nations, SCM Ltd., London, 1958, p. 35. This essay is much indebted to Jeremias' work.

The prophet Jeremiah describes the coming ruler as "for David a righteous Branch." (23:5; 33:14)

Thus also Jesus portrays Gentiles as "materialists" (Matthew 6:31,32), whose rulers "lord over" rather than serve. (Mark 10:35-45)

There is little doubt that Jesus uses the word "foreigner" (allogenes) pejoratively, again as an accommodation to the normal Jewish estimate of Samaritans.

The Qur'an frequently alludes to the unique status of the Children of Israel: "O Children of Israel! Remember my favour wherewith I favoured you and how I preferred you to (all) creatures" (2:47; cf.2:122). God has chosen them (44:32). Their unique status is connected with their deliverance from the Pharaoh (14:6), their receiving of the covenant (2:40), of prophets and kings (5:20; 45:16). See also 7:40.

The Quranic portrayal of the Children of Israel conforms with the Biblical portrayal: Israel is chosen and favoured by the pure grace of God, not by any inherent merit within the Children of Israel themselves.

On the other hand the Qur'an says to the Muslims; "Ye are the best community that has been raised up for mankind" (3:110). Is a time factor involved in these two (relative?) estimates of Israel and Muslims?

Quotations from the Qur'an are taken from Marmaduke Pickthall, The Meaning of the Glorious Koran.

Julius Schniewind. Das Evangelium nach Matthäus, Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht. Göttingen, 1950, p. 184.

Other probable exceptions to Jesus' limited ministry: His healing of two demoniacs (Matthew 8:28-34) and the Samaritan leper (Luke 17:11-19). Evidently, the other nine, with whom the Samaritan leper associated, were Jews. Is it not ironical that leprosy, which rendered them all unclean, served to bridge violent differences between Jews and Samaritans? Today also in some countries it is not unusual for lepers of various castes and religious hackgrounds to mingle freely together, though often apart from the rest of society!

Despite much Jewish contempt for Gentiles in general and their Roman oppressors in particular, many Jews actively engaged in the spread of Judaism during the time of Jesus. The dispersion of the Jews among Gentiles, once considered as a judgement of God upon the Jews, was now seen as an opportunity for them to glorify God among the Gentiles through the written and spoken word, including an apologetic designed for intelligentsia (Jeremias, op. cit., p. 13). Jesus' criticism of their proselytism (Matthew 23:15) was not directed against the idea of mission among the Gentiles and the strenuous efforts this mission might entail but against the pride and self-righteousness of its promoters and their converts.

Thus Jesus' Gentile concern was not novel for the Jews. Nor could He have hardly avoided them, even if He had wished, because of their obvious presence in Jerusalem and Galilee and because of the nature of Jesus' ministry.

T.W. Manson, Only to the House of Israel?, Fortress Press, Philadelphia, 1964, pp. 13-16.

Why this time sequence? The simple, yet decisive, reply is that Jesus Himself established it. To offer a full reply is beyond the scope of this essay. Suffice it to say here that it would contain the following considerations: 1. Jesus' ministry on earth was remarkably brief. 2. He deemed it necessary to concentrate much of His limited time on teaching a small group of disciples who, like Himself, were heirs of the Old Testament and its amazing promises. 3. During this time He not only taught His disciples the meaning of being His disciples but He was continually compelled to eradicate their profound misunderstandings, shared with fellow Jews, about the Old Testament promises of the Messiah, the nature of the Messiah's ministry and the significance of being the Messiah's disciples. 4. Only after Jesus passed through "His hour" did His disciples really grasp the meaning of Jesus' ministry as Messiah and their own discipleship. Then they were ready to launch out among the Gentiles (cf. Manson, op. cit., pp. 23,24) to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world (Matthew 5:13,14). For concerned Muslim friends it should be added that Biblical ideas about the person of the Messiah and His ministry radically differ from the usual Muslim ideas about them.

The Qur'an further states: "...the Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary, illustrious in the world and the Hereafter, and one of those brought near (unto Allah)" (3:45). Does this verse indicate that Jesus' mission extends beyond this world and its finite limitations?

This essay was originally written for a seminar in 1979. Its essential content remains unchanged.


Ernest Hahn

Writings by Dr. Ernest Hahn
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