It is our strong conviction that our Lord is the divine Son of God. But we notice that the apostle Matthew reveals this fact in a gradual way. In other words, this Gospel does not begin with the solemn words that were given to the church near the end of the first century. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” John 1:1 Rather, it begins with the statement that this is the list of the ancestors of Jesus, the Messiah, and a descendant of David.
David, as a descendant of Abraham, is well known among the Muslims. As we go over the list, Muslims will be intrigued by the names of the patriarchs. They would be shocked to know that some of them were not saints according to their idea of sainthood.
The most important part of the first chapter is the wonderful message that accompanied the birth of the Messiah. He was heralded as the Savior of his people. The angel said: “She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” Matthew 1:21
This would be a good time to explain the conditions of the people under Roman rule. Arabs and Muslims in general, are very eager to learn more about the history of Israel. Much of the Old Testament sacred history is needed to fill in the gaps left by the Qur’an.
History is very important to the peoples of the Middle East. A missionary must become familiar with the history of the Old and New Testament times, including the 400-year period between the two eras. Some of this history is found in the Apocrypha. We may start with David and tell of the great kingdom he ruled, and mention also his son, Solomon the Wise, or as the Arabs call him, Suleyman al-Hakim. It was during his reign that the great temple of Jerusalem was built. After Solomon’s days, the kingdom was divided into two parts. The northern kingdom was known as the Kingdom of Israel, the southern kingdom that was much smaller was known as the Kingdom of Judah, with Jerusalem as its capital. Muslims call it, al-Quds, i.e., the Holy City, and consider it as the third of their holy places, with Mecca ranking as the first, followed by Medina, in Arabia.
The southern kingdom did not maintain its faithfulness to the Lord. The Babylonians came and carried the people of Judah into captivity. After seventy years, the Jews were allowed to return to their homeland. About forty five thousand returned under the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah.
After the fall of the Persian Empire, the Greeks came to the Middle East around 300 B.C. under Alexander the Great. After his death, his empire was divided into four kingdoms. The Ptolemains ruled Egypt, and the Seleucids ruled Syria. The Jews, who were living in Palestine at that time, felt the impact of the rivalry between those two kingdoms. At one time, they revolted against the Seleucids, and achieved a great victory over them. The Jews celebrate this event every December, in the feast of Hanukkah. The leaders of the Jewish revolt are known as the Maccabeans.
Around 50 B.C., however, the whole Middle East came under Roman rule. During the New Testament times, Palestine was part of the Syrian province of the Roman Empire. The seat of that province was Antioch. It was a huge empire with a tightly organized system. The Savior was announced as saving his people, not from Roman imperialism, but from the bondage of sin.
As we remarked in our study of the Gospel as it was expounded in Paul’s Letter to the Romans, the Muslim concept of sin is totally different from the Biblical one. As far as a Muslim is concerned, sins are simply mistakes, transgressions that flow out of the weakness of man. He can atone for them by believing in the message of Muhammad and by practicing good deeds, as required by the shari'a, law. Not so, according to the New Testament. Jesus is the Savior of his people from their sins. You need all the grace that God has given you and all your knowledge of the language you are using to be able to explain to Muslims what you mean by sinfulness or sin. This is why the telling of Bible stories is such an important and helpful method. Biblical truths cannot be simply taught in an abstract way. You have to tell stories.
Now we come to that wonderful name Immanuel that is mentioned in the first chapter of Matthew:
All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: "The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel – which means, "God with us.”
When translated literally Immanuel may be rendered: with us God. It is interesting to note that in the Greek New Testament, this happens to be the emphasis. Immanuel refers to the incarnation of the Son of God. In Christ, God has taken our side, and declared his solidarity with us! Certainly this revealed truth is beyond our imagination. Now the deep spiritual hunger of human beings; whether they are Jews or Muslims, Marxist or heathen, can only be satisfied by Immanuel, the God who is with us. In Christ, God has become our Redeemer.
You will have to sense when the time is right for you to talk about the full meaning of the incarnation. Muslims are very eager to know the details of the life of our Lord. They are very touched by the stirring, gripping, and tragic events that are related in Matthew 3. You will be telling about the coming of the wise men – perhaps from Persia, or Mesopotamia. The flight into Egypt will intrigue them. The killing of the children by Herod is another illustration of the terrible wickedness of man.
John the Baptist is known in the Qu’ran under the name of Yahya; however, his mission is not properly described. Nowhere do we even hear a faint echo of the authentic preaching of the Baptist. So, we may not take for granted that Muslims realize that the son of Zechariah called people to look for the Messiah, and introduced him as the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world.
I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering the wheat into his barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.
Jesus' Baptism and the Trinity
When we come to the baptism of Jesus, we have a revelation of the three Persons of the Trinity. This is a stumbling block to Muslims. We must not hide this doctrine. We do need to have a clear understanding of what happened.
Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented.
Here we have a manifestation of the meaning of the second name of Jesus as revealed in the opening words of Matthew. Immanuel–God with us. God in Christ is so identified with us that, sinless as he was, yet he went through baptism. This was a sign of his total identification with his people.
As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”
Matthew 3: 16, 17
Here we have a clear revelation of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. The Son was being baptized as the incarnate Son of God. He was visible. The Holy Spirit was revealed, “The Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him,” and “a voice from heaven,” the voice of God, the Father was heard saying: “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”
You must remember that you are dealing with a people who have been immunized for centuries against the doctrine of the Trinity. It is only after a Muslim has accepted the fact of his sinfulness and received the Lord Jesus Christ as his only Savior that the doctrine of the Trinity ceases to be a problem. In the course of my work I have found this to be true. When a Muslim receives Christ as his Savior, through the grace of God and the working of the Holy Spirit, he realizes that Jesus is not merely a prophet but the incarnate Son of God. It is for us human beings, and for our salvation that he came down from heaven to accomplish his work of redemption.
We do not win Muslims to the Lord by first convincing them of the authenticity of Holy Scripture, or the scriptural basis for the doctrine of the Trinity, or the deity of Christ and His crucifixion on the cross on Good Friday. We begin where every human being is. We are all creatures made in the image of God. We have all sinned. “All we like sheep have gone astray.” We begin where Paul began in his Letter to the Romans by explaining the true nature of the misery of man. Then we proceed with the exposition of the good news of God. In other words we begin with the Biblical doctrine of the plight of man and the grace of God that saves man from his captivity to sin. Once a Muslim receives these basic teachings, we lead him to receive the doctrines of the Sonship of Christ and the Trinity.
Our teaching of the Gospel should cause the Muslim to be overwhelmed by the uniqueness of the ministry of our Lord Jesus Christ and his personality. The Messiah can never be understood as a mere prophet, but as a Person who was both divine and human. This is the burden of the Gospel, to reveal Jesus as the Son of God who came down to earth to bring about our redemption.
We need not spend much of time talking about the miracles of Christ. Muslims credit our Lord with more miracles than we do. According to the Qur’an, Jesus performed miracles when he was a mere baby.
So when we are about to study the public ministry of our Lord we must have some understanding of the Muslim concept of the miracles that Jesus performed. The miracles of the Messiah in the Qu’ran are of a mythological nature. They describe Jesus as speaking to his mother on the day he was born. They claim that our Lord made birds out of mud and such birds became alive and began to fly!
The New Testament teaching about the miracles that Jesus Christ performed is very important to our evangelism of Muslims. The first purpose for the miracles was to prove that he was sent from God and that he had a specific divine mission. The second purpose pointed to the nature of his mission: namely that he came to seek and save the lost. In other words, the mission of Christ was redemptive. The miracles that the Qur’an relates do not fulfill these two requirements.
This is why, when we read with the Muslim the account of the temptations of Jesus, we point out that our Lord refused to perform a miracle for the sake of the miracle itself. When you relate the account of the long fast of forty days and the temptations that followed, you note that the Messiah refused to change the stones into bread or to jump from the highest point of the temple. Jesus Christ would not perform a miracle simply to manifest his power or to force people to believe in him.
At this point we should remember that the Qur’an claims that the devil fell because he refused to worship Adam. And to make the account more bizarre, it attributes the command to worship Adam to Allah himself! Even though Islam teaches emphatically the oneness of God and the absolute duty to worship him alone, yet it has to live with this strange account of the fall of Ibliss (the Arabic name for the devil!)
Our concern is to tell about the genuine miracles that our Lord performed and by doing so hope that Muslims will cease to believe in those false miracles that are attributed to our Lord in the Qur’an and the Hadith.
Now we come to the part about our Lord’s preaching and healing ministry.
Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people. News about him spread all over Syria, and people brought to him all who were ill with various diseases, those suffering severe pain, the demon- possessed, those having seizures, and the paralyzed and he healed them. Large crowds from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea and the region across the Jordan followed him.
Matthew 4: 23-25.
The good news of the kingdom refers to the Kingdom of God. In Islam, the concept of the kingdom is very different. While Muslims have a doctrine of the last things, they do not think of it as coming in its fullness at the end of time. Allah’s kingdom appears within Daru’l Islam, i.e., the Household of Islam. From its early times, Islam divided the world into two realms: Daru’l Islam, and Daru’l Harb, i.e., the Household of War. Allah’s kingdom and rule spread through the conquest of the world by Islam. This is their mandate. Both the sacred text of Islam and the history of Islamic conquests bear testimony to this fact.
The contrast is very great between the public ministry of our Lord and the days of Muhammad in Mecca and in Medina. Because of the spiritual nature of the kingdom of God and its final triumph at the return of Christ, Muslims charge Christians as being totally impractical and unconcerned for the affairs of the here and now. They cannot see how Christianity can be relevant to the challenges of life on earth. But the Christian response, rooted in Holy Scripture, is that in Christ the kingdom of God has appeared and is spreading throughout the world. But this kingdom does not grow through political programs. It begins in the very hearts of men and women who have surrendered to the Lord. In as much as possible, Christians reveal the power of the kingdom at work in their lives. They seek to practice the principles of the kingdom in all the spheres of life, recognizing that the fullness of the kingdom of God will be manifested at the End.
The Sermon on the Mount
You will have to have a very clear grasp of what our Lord was teaching here. Over the years I have found that these teachings are very attractive to the Muslim, but if we are not careful in our exposition of Matthew 5-7, Muslims tend to read the Sermon on the Mount in a superficial way, and imagine that our Lord taught salvation by works.
Muslims may acclaim a good deal of what we say because in some abstract or philosophical way, we appear to have much in common. Both Christianity and Islam are theistic religions. They both manifest a high regard for the law of God. Christians and Muslims regard this law as a manifestation of his will for our lives. We both believe in the sovereignty of God and that he is highly exalted over all his creatures. We are not pantheists such as the Buddhists, nor polytheists such as the Hindus.
But when Muslims hear the Sermon on the Mount I am aware that they are not hearing it exactly as it is meant to be understood. They tend to hear it through the prism of their own worldview. So long as their mind is basically a Muslim mind, it will be motivated by certain radically anti-Christian motifs.
So while rejoicing when hearing the lofty words of the Sermon on the Mount, Muslims reject everything that is specifically Christian, such as the saviorhood of our Lord, the Trinitarian nature of God, etc. They reject the doctrine of the weakness of man and his inability to please the Lord or to fulfill the requirements of the Law. All these things are automatically rejected by the Muslim mind.
Therefore in studying the Sermon on the Mount with a Muslim, you must look out for the following three errors and try to correct them.
First, you must correct the mistaken notion that man can please God by his own efforts. Make it clear that we have no power to apply this lofty teaching in our own strength, even after we become slaves of the Messiah. We need his power, through the Holy Spirit, to even approximate the goals of the Sermon on the Mount. In fact anyone who reads the Sermon on the Mount carefully will find that it shows the total inability of man to live according to the law of God. This is a very good place to emphasize what has already been taught in Romans — the radical sinfulness of man.
You must also correct the view that if we follow our Lord's example we can bring about the Millennium through our own efforts! In the Sermon on the Mount our Lord was not giving us a higher or superior law that we would practice to bring about a perfect world order. It is very important to remember that we must first receive the Lord Jesus Christ as our personal savior. Then, we must listen to him and take his words seriously. It is not legitimate to divorce the teachings of Jesus Christ from his person, or the specific work he came to accomplish. No exposition of the Sermon on the Mount is correct if it contradicts the doctrines of justification by faith and salvation by grace alone.
At this point, some Muslims may say, “You adhere to the religion that was evolved by Paul, but the real Jesus is the Qur’anic Jesus.” Unfortunately there have been some nominal Christian scholars who made Paul an opponent of Jesus. But the sole purpose of Paul was to proclaim Jesus Christ, and him crucified. Paul’s teachings do not contradict the Sermon on the Mount.
Having dealt with the three errors in the understanding of the Sermon on the Mount, we should now mention three basic truths that must be emphasized as we read and teach Matthew 5-7.
The Sermon on the Mount contains a polemic against the Pharisaic interpretation of the law of God, similar to Paul’s quarrel with the rabbinical theology of his day. To God, the real issue is the inward attitude of your heart; your outward actions follow as a result. Compare our Lord's emphasis on the inward attitude in Matthew 5: 22, 28 and 15: 16-20 with Paul's teaching in Romans 2: 28, 29.
Secondly, make it clear that the Gospel according to Matthew shows our Lord not only as Savior, but also as King. This Gospel is referred to as the Gospel of the Kingdom. It follows from this that we obey Jesus Christ because we are already His subjects. The Lord expects our righteousness to exceed that of the Pharisees, not in order that we may be saved, but because we are saved.
So make it clear, thirdly, that the Sermon on the Mount is the charter and guideline for the life of those who have already been saved by faith in Jesus Christ. We cannot achieve that through our own efforts. But in the sermon of Peter on the first Pentecost we are taught that the law of God becomes written on our hearts. Thus, the saved person lives the Christian life by obeying God’s law spontaneously. In our exposition of the Sermon on the Mount we must be careful not to represent it as a long list of external regulations, but as a guideline for a life of gratitude to Almighty God. Living in the light of the Sermon on the Mount is impossible unless you have received Jesus Christ as the Savior and King of your life.
Passion Week and the Lord's Supper
Some points must be emphasized when we get to the accounts dealing with Passion Week.
First, there is the preparation for the Passover meal. This will give you an opportunity to explain to an interested Muslim the whole background of the Passover. You will have to go back to the Old Testament, to what happened to the children of Israel in Egypt and how the Passover was kept yearly. It was part of the calendar of the Jewish nation.
Then there are the moving events in the Upper Room. Our Lord definitely predicted that he was not simply going to be betrayed and killed, but that it was going to be one of the twelve disciples who would betray him.
Here again, our Lord mentions that this event has been predicted in Holy Scripture. It could not have been invented by the Christians of later years. The cross is seen throughout all Scripture. Our Lord was not teaching fatalism or some kind of determinism about history when he said: The Son of Man will die as the Scriptures say, for he added, but how terrible for that man who will betray the Son of man! Our Lord, while teaching God's sovereignty and God's ordering of history equally taught the accountability and responsibility of Judas.
Certainly Christ taught that God had a plan of redemption that included the cross but he warned the person who was going to betray him. This teaches us that we must believe equally in divine sovereignty and human responsibility. We must never minimize either one of these doctrines or be too proud to admit that our finite minds cannot fully harmonize the two. In fact, if you find a religion which is totally understandable by the human mind you should be very suspicious. How could the human mind contain all the truths of God?
The Lord's Supper will give you the opportunity to explain that while the new covenant emphasizes the Word, yet it is not devoid of some rites or ceremonies that are tremendously meaningful and God-ordained.
We explain that our Lord gave us this sacrament. He gave us a sacrament that portrayed the very heart of his mission. We may also call it (for the sake of explaining it to the Muslims in whatever language you may be using) a sign, or a symbol, a physical portrayal of his mission.
The fact that Jesus took the cup and gave thanks and gave it to them and told them to “drink from it, all of you. This is my blood” may shock a Muslim. You must explain that it symbolizes Christ's blood. No one should be so devoid of imagination as to think that our Lord was actually giving people his blood to drink. It does mean that by drinking the fruit of the vine, we see a symbol of our Lord's blood that is necessary for our life. He shed his blood on the cross. In the first Lord’s Supper we see a prophecy of his coming death on the cross. It was not being prophesied in word only, but also in deed.
An important question may come to our mind. All Muslims know that Muhammad died within ten years after he moved to Medina from Mecca. At the same time, they say that Christ did not die. Doesn't this make Christ a greater prophet than Muhammad? It should. Here you are pointing to an inconsistency that may help us, not at the beginning of a conversation with a Muslim, but much later on. We hope that this realization may play a big role when a Muslim is converted and offers this testimony: “I believe in Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior.” Should Muslims have been consistent, they would realize that the one who, according to their account, was spared death, and lifted up to heaven, was greater than their prophet. After all, Muhammad died and was buried in Medina in June, 632 A.D. Muslims honor him to this very day when they visit his grave during the yearly pilgrimage or, Haj.
The Qur’an alone is believed to be the Word of God; however, the popular faith of Islam makes their traditions and folklore equally important. I shall never forget hearing a blind beggar in Meknes, Morocco, singing a eulogy of Muhammad at five in the morning at a bus depot. His words made Muhammad almost divine. It was the prophet for whom the whole world was created; he was in the mind of God from before the foundation of the world, etc. At the time, while waiting for the bus to start on its long journey to Tangiers, I thought of John l, and Colossians l, where the Lord Jesus Christ’s deity is affirmed. That blind beggar elevated Muhammad far beyond what the Qur’an ever said of him. But in fact, many Muslims have even made Muhammad the very center of the universe!
The Qur’an does not deny Passion Week. Supposedly, as Jesus was on his way to the cross, God tricked everyone by putting someone else in his place and by taking Jesus to heaven. In the final analysis, Muslims have a theological argument against the cross and not an historical one. They reason like this: First, God is almighty. Secondly, he sent Jesus into the world as a great revealer of His law and will. And since God would never allow his prophet to be crucified, therefore, Jesus was not crucified.
As Muhammad was persecuted there is nothing unusual about a prophet like Jesus being persecuted. Muhammad had to flee for his life. There is such a thing as the suffering of Muhammad and of the Muslim community that had recognized his mission as the Messenger of Allah. Some sought refuge in Ethiopia. And then, in 622, he and the rest of his followers migrated to Medina. That marked the beginning of the Islamic (lunar) calendar. So the idea of suffering is part and parcel of the early Muslim Umma. But the idea of complete defeat or failure of a divine messenger is unthinkable. The Jews have this problem also. How could they accept somebody who was crucified? So we have the Qur’anic account of Good Friday, where God rescues our Lord from death at the eleventh hour.
As you proceed to read in the presence of a Muslim enquirer the Biblical account of the passion of the Messiah, you may encounter a difficulty with this verse: “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” Matthew 26:39 He may ask if the Messiah was supposed to die, he should have gone to the cross without any protest. Why is he struggling with the prospect of the cross? Why is he recoiling from death and yet, surrendering at the same time to the divine will? How are we to explain these words of our Lord?
First, you must say that Christ had both a divine and human natures. We should not minimize the human nature of Christ. Death, even to a Christian, is an enemy. Thankfully we conquer this enemy through the help of Christ. But death is still an enemy. You cannot call an enemy a friend. Because Christ came in order to redeem his people, he continued to pray, “not as I will, but as you will.” This prayer was repeated three times. It shows that our Lord knew that there was no other way than the cross. Christ’s going to the cross was not because of anything he had done, but because he had accepted the mission that the Father gave him, so he died on the cross as our representative and redeemer.
The arrest of Jesus is told in the greatest detail. We see how treacherously Judas behaved. We note that Jesus appeared before the Jewish council that went through the motions of judging Jesus Christ according to the Law. However, the whole procedure showed a disregard for the true spirit of that Law.
Peter represents the human attempt to deny the necessity of the cross. For a while, he repudiated the Lord Jesus Christ. He thought at that late hour that the Messiah would not and should not end his life on a cross. He reasoned that way even though he had been very close to the Lord and had been with him for three long years. Reading this account should make us patient in our evangelism of Muslims. They come from a religious background that has always denied both the historicity and necessity of the cross. Their Holy Book tells them that this central event in the life of the Messiah did not take place, and that someone else was crucified. Allah rescued the Messiah and thwarted the evil plans of the Jews. In the final analysis, it is only the Holy Spirit who will convince a Muslim of the fact that “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.” I Corinthians 15:3b, 4
We notice in Matthew 27 that our Lord was condemned to die by an ecclesiastical authority. His enemies claimed that he had blasphemed. But the Roman authority would not put anyone to death on account of a religious misdemeanor. Notice how the charge against our Lord changed. Jesus Christ was plotting against Rome. That indeed was a serious charge. However, it was not proven. After several attempts to please the Jewish leaders and save Jesus from the cross, Pilate acceded to their request. He let them lead Jesus to Golgotha. “Then he released Barabbas to them. But he had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified.” Matthew 27:26
Pilate represented the Roman authorities, which were famous for their high regard for law. Pilate knew that Christ was innocent. This fact is very important for our redemption. The civil authority acknowledged that there was nothing in him that deserved death. But for the sake of expediency, Pilate condemned him to death on the cross. We know that behind Pilate’s act, was the will of God. However, this does not exonerate Pilate. He delivered Christ to be crucified and freed Barabbas, an insurrectionist.
As we have noted before, the Qur’anic account is totally different. As some Muslims claim, some other person was crucified. In other words, when it comes to the heart of the Christian message, Muhammad put in his veto. And this has marked his followers for the last fourteen hundred years. Muslims still veto the cross, even though the rest of mankind, regardless of their religious commitment acknowledges the historicity of that event!
This is why Samuel Zwemer, the great missionary to the Muslim world for more than fifty years, used to call mission work among Muslims, “the glory of the impossible.” Certainly, it is impossible humanly speaking, but not with God. After all, when we speak about the cross and defend its historicity, we are not merely engaged in the cause of a historical truth. We are witnessing to the fact that our liberation from the bondage of sin and evil took place because Jesus Christ went to the cross and died there on our behalf. But this is not the whole story. Christ died on Good Friday outside the walls of Jerusalem, but he rose again on Sunday morning. He was victorious over all the powers of sin and evil. All those who put their trust in him experience salvation. And this is the heart of the Christian message, the authentic Injeel of Jesus the Messiah!