by Jason Borges
During a weekly evangelistic Bible study with college-aged Muslims in Central Asia, I led the group through the seven signs in John’s gospel, attempting to draw out the implications of Jesus’ miracles.
During a weekly evangelistic Bible study with college-aged Muslims in Central Asia, I led the group through the seven signs in John’s gospel, attempting to draw out the implications of Jesus’ miracles. Each week, I would go over the miracle passage to make sure everyone understood the basic plot. I then concluded by emphasizing the contemporary relevance that illustrated some aspect of the Christian gospel. I questioned my approach when they agreed with everything I said about Jesus without changing to a Christ-centered lifestyle. I was making the miracles of Jesus relevant from a Western perspective, to someone who desires to add another element of personal happiness to their life (the water to wine represents lasting joy offered by Jesus, the feeding of five thousand signifies the permanent satisfaction from Jesus, etc.). The “add Jesus to your life to make it better” evangelistic approach was not relevant for a person who already accepted Jesus as miraculously conceived in Mary, commissioned by God as a miracle-performing prophet, ascended to heaven and will return to judge the world in the final day. The theological significance of each miracle story as I understood it was actually too insignificant for my Muslim friends. After several weeks, I knew that I had to consider a new, Muslim interpretation of the events in Jesus’ life.
Theology is the significant and relevant meaning of historical facts. Events are merely happenings unless they are interpreted for significance. For example, handing my wife flowers is an event; that I love her is the significance and meaning of that event. Western theology has interpreted the facts of Jesus’ life to make them meaningful for Christians who have a Western worldview. Over the centuries, Christian theologians have unknowingly limited themselves to a narrow meaning of Jesus’ life that fails to address the worldview of others. Therefore, missionaries in the Muslim world must contextually reinterpret the events of Jesus’ life to draw out the significance of those events most relevant for a Muslim. In this article, I examine how two historical events (Jesus’ virgin birth and his death) have been interpreted by two groups (the apostolic church and the modern, Western church) to address their cultural needs. I then propose how missionaries may relevantly interpret those same historical events for a Muslim audience.
THE VIRGIN BIRTH OF JESUS
Matthew 1:18-25 and Luke 1:34-35 both record that Jesus was miraculously conceived through the Spirit in Mary without any form of intercourse. Matthew and Luke primarily record the fact of Messiah’s coming, only secondarily discussing the nature and significance of the miracle. What is the theological significance (meaning) of Jesus’ birth (event)? Why is it important that Jesus was miraculously conceived?
Matthew was the first to theologically interpret Jesus’ miraculous birth for a particular purpose. Writing to a group of Jewish Christians who were seeking to establish the validity of their new faith for non-Christian Jews, Matthew teaches that the virgin birth of Jesus is meaningful for his audience because it is a sign of God’s salvific presence. Just as God originally gave a sign to Ahaz to show that he was present (“Immanuel” in Isaiah 7:14) to deliver Ahaz from foreign invasion, God has given a similar (even greater) sign to show that he is present in the person of Jesus to deliver his people again (Matt. 1:22-23; 28:20). For the earliest Jewish audience, Jesus’ birth was significant because it was a divine sign that God is repeating a work of salvation for his people, similar to his salvific work seven centuries earlier. Matthew used a recurring pattern of God’s activity in salvation history—a unique birth means God is at work to save—for his theological purposes. God’s deliverance of Ahaz is not personally significant for westerners who do not view Ahaz as one of “us,” so comparing God’s work in Jesus to God’s mighty salvation for Ahaz downplays rather than magnifies God’s redemptive work signified by the virgin birth. Therefore, the Western church emphasizes a different aspect of the virgin birth.
Because the empirical, mechanistic worldview of the West demands scientific proof for every claim, Western Christians typically comb their Bibles looking for apologetic evidence to verify the truth claims about Jesus. Prophecy is especially attractive to us, since we can calculate the odds of all the prophecies being fulfilled in one person. We assert, “There is a one in a gazillion chance of a person fulfilling all these prophecies, and Jesus fulfilled all of them, therefore Jesus must be the Son of God!” Since such mathematical evidence from prophecy seduces the scientific mind, the virgin conception is significant to modern westerners because it demonstrates that Jesus is the fulfillment of a specific prediction given seven hundred years before his birth. But such numerical analysis may not be as significant for non-Western Muslims.
The virgin conception is significant for Muslims because it shows Jesus is a unique prophet—unlike any other of God’s messengers, including Mohammed. Adam is our first father, and thus he is the father of all the prophets. Adam was made from the ground which is impure and dirty. Jesus came from heaven (Matt. 1:18). He is pure, clean and without sin. Jesus was not born on earth, but left his home in heaven to come to this world. Jesus is not a descendant of Adam like other prophets, but comes from God himself (Marsh 1975, 46). Although a westerner may question such an explanation of inherited sin, one must not be preoccupied by the constraints of Western theology. Muslims are usually impacted by the unique origins of Jesus’ virgin birth. Jesus is not merely another of Allah’s many prophets, but a unique messenger by virtue of his unique birth. Jesus’ virgin conception and unique birth are relevant for Muslims because they teach the unique nature of Jesus’ prophetic ministry, not because they are like God’s work seven hundred years prior for Ahaz or a miraculous fulfillment of prophecy.
THE DEATH OF JESUS
In the ancient world, thousands of people, Jesus being one of them, were crucified. The fact of Jesus’ death was hardly unique to Jesus himself, but the significance and meaning of his death is unparalleled. Christianity claims that Christ died for us. What is the significance of Jesus’ death? How did the early church interpret it? How does the modern, Western church apply Jesus’ death to its needs? How is Jesus’ death significant to modern Muslims? Again, how is that historical event relevant?
The early, apostolic church understood Jesus’ death to be relevant in a variety of ways. When Paul was struggling with Judaizers who required Gentiles to adopt Jewish ordinances, the death of Jesus was significant because it allowed non-Jews to become part of God’s people without obeying the Jewish law (Eph. 3:11-13; Gal. 2:21; 3:13-14). But in a Greco-Roman context, Paul explains Jesus’ death as the display of God’s wisdom in order to silence the prideful philosophers in Corinth (1 Cor. 1:18-25). For Matthew, the death of Jesus marks the climax of Israel’s rejection of the Messiah (Matt. 27:25). According to Mark, the death of Jesus is the ultimate display of his faithful service as the Son of God (Mark 15:39), an example for the suffering community of disciples to whom Mark wrote. For John, Jesus’ death is not a testimony of humility, but the moment of Jesus’ exaltation. In the book of Hebrews, Jesus’ death is significant because it renders the Old Testament sacrificial system invalid and useless. James never mentions Jesus’ death. While atonement of sins is the central theological interpretation of Jesus’ death in the early church, the way each New Testament author interprets Jesus’ death to make the historical event significant for his community directs contemporary theologies in new ways to meet new needs.
In modern, Western theology, Jesus’ death is interpreted existentially —it brings personal benefits to individuals. Since a westerner views himself as an autonomous person with a separate identity, the death of Jesus is interpreted through these lenses. For example, Jesus’ death is significant because it offers the introspective, psychologically-oriented westerner freedom from guilt. This is a carryover from Augustine’s and Luther’s understanding of Jesus’ death. The “penal substitutionary atonement” which emphasizes the appeasement of God’s wrath on our behalf over our individual sins dominates Western theology because it offers psychological assurance (Green and Mark 2000, 142-152). Also, for the individual in this world who hopes to discover personal identity and purpose, Jesus’ death is the means by which he or she can be identified as God’s child and thereby find a purpose for life. Moreover, Jesus’ death is a demonstration of God’s love (i.e., Four Spiritual Laws), offering security to the group-less individual seeker. For westerners who tend to value personal satisfaction and interests over those of the group, Jesus’ death purchased for you and me the true joy that we seek (Hiebert 1985, 122-26). Undergirding all such application of Jesus’ death is the Western church’s praiseworthy desire to make Jesus’ death relevant for one particular worldview. Unfortunately, this is the only understanding of Jesus’ death westerners know. Therefore, it becomes the orthodox, universal, monolithic theology exported to the Muslim world.
The formation of a Muslim theology of Jesus’ death must re-examine the individualistic orientation behind westerners’ understandings of Jesus’ death and consider Islamic doctrine about Jesus. Since most Muslims live in a group-oriented culture, existential interpretations of Jesus’ death carry little significance. Offering identity and purpose to a Muslim who already possesses an identity as a member of the family group is like bathing a fish. Group-oriented people do not feel guilt for failing to maintain an absolute standard, but shame for disrupting or dishonoring their community. Therefore, since Jesus experienced isolation and rejection (Matt. 26:31, 69-75), his death is significant for Muslims because it paid for feelings of shame and social alienation in the group that may be experienced. Jesus’ death restores humanity to God not simply by paying the punishment demanded by absolute justice, but also by dispelling the shame, abandonment and disgrace that results when humans fail to remain faithful. For westerners, Jesus’ death is an example of someone who laid aside personal desires to follow God’s will. For Muslims, Jesus is an example of someone who remained faithful to his God-given mission to the point of death, despite social rejection.
The fact that most Muslims already accept Jesus as a great prophet should not be forgotten when illustrating the significance of Jesus’ death. Jesus’ death becomes meaningful to a Muslim when it demonstrates Jesus’ uniqueness. Death is the great equalizer of humanity that affects everyone, regardless of age, status, race or position before God. Anyone, including God’s prophets, can lose their life anywhere, any way and anytime; only God himself knows and determines the details surrounding the death of humans. Even though the prophets had a unique relationship with God, their death was still determined and known only by God. But Jesus is unlike any prophet before or after him; in Matthew 20:17-19, Jesus knew where (in Jerusalem), how (beating and crucifixion from Gentiles) and when (during the Passover) his death would occur. Matthew 20:28 shows Jesus even knew the purpose of his death—it was a ransom for other people. Nobody’s death, not even another prophet’s, has ever been a ransom to God for many other people. Not only does Jesus understand the events surrounding his death, he also controls them (John 10:18). Jesus had unique knowledge of his fate. Therefore, Jesus’ death is theologically significant to a Muslim because it demonstrates the incomparable uniqueness of his life compared to other people, including other prophets.
After conducting several studies emphasizing the uniqueness of Jesus in contrast to other prophets, several of my friends recognized their need to respond to Jesus’ uniqueness by trusting solely in him. God allowed me to construct a theology for Muslims that confronted critical areas of their worldview and addressed their genuine human problems, rather than a theology that simply regurgitated Western ideas. Such a re-interpretation of Jesus’ life for the Muslim bore much fruit.
In this article I have illustrated that Jesus’ virgin birth and death can be significant for various reasons to different people. Cultural needs do not determine theology, but they do determine the questions which theology is expected to answer. The process of theological contextualization does not imply creating relevance for Jesus’ death, but purposefully seeking and emphasizing the theological aspects in Scripture most relevant to our audience. Missionaries to Muslims must not settle for the imposition of Western theologies, but strive to construct a biblically-grounded theology of Jesus’ life that answers the questions of the Muslim worldview.
While we have shown here how to develop a Muslim theology for Jesus’ birth and death; there still lies the possibilities of developing a Muslim theology for other events in Jesus’ life—miracles, teaching, call of discipleship, resurrection, ascension, future judgment and so on—not to mention other major events throughout the Bible (creation, fall, exodus, exile, etc.). It is my desire that this examination of a Muslim orientation to Jesus’ virgin birth and death inspires readers to apply the same method of 1) investigating the apostles’ contextualization of an event for a specific purpose, 2) realizing how cultural conditions of the West have shaped modern theology and 3) asking how biblical events can be interpreted to relevantly address the questions of the Muslim world. May the nations know a relevant Jesus!
Green, Joel B., Mark D. Baker. 2000. Recovering the Scandal of the Cross: The Atonement in New Testament and Contemporary Contexts. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press.
Hiebert, Paul G. 1985. Anthropological Insights for Missionaries. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker.
Marsh, C.R. 1975. Share Your Faith with a Muslim. Chicago: Moody Press.
Jason Borges and his wife, Angie, serve as church planters among Muslims in Central Asia. He is completing his M. Div. at Talbot School of Theology.
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