Do we simply share the gospel? Not really.
We present the gospel in a way that is understandable to the person we are speaking to; we take their background understanding about God into account. In the book of Acts we see the apostle Paul do this. To the Jews he presented Jesus as the fulfilment of the promises God made through the prophets. To the Gentiles he proclaims that God is the creator, idols do not represent him, and that his true representative is Jesus who he raised from the dead.
So how would Paul present the gospel to Muslims?
To answer this we need to think about Islamic culture and how it affects Muslims listening to the gospel. There are two common beliefs that most Muslims have that stop them listening to Christians (what philosophers would call ‘defeater beliefs’: beliefs Muslims hold that are incompatible with Christianity):
- Muslims believe all the prophets. Therefore Muslims feel that they already believe in Jesus and his message.
- The Bible is corrupted and does not truly represent Jesus. This teaching of the corruption of the Bible is so strong in many Muslim communities that just saying ‘Bible’ can start an argument.
These two beliefs make Muslims feel quite reasonable when they ignore the Christian message. If we want to present the gospel to Muslims, we must take these defeater beliefs into account. This means that the way we present the gospel to Muslims needs to demonstrate that they do not believe all the prophets and that the Bible is not corrupt. So how do we do this?
Stop talking about ‘The Bible’
First, stop using the word ‘Bible’. In its place, use the traditional category names that our Scriptures use of themselves: Torah, Prophets, Psalms and Gospel. There are several reasons for doing this. These are the titles that the Qur’an uses for our Scripture, so they resonate with Muslims—but more than resonate, they actually clarify what our Scriptures are. We don’t simply have one book, but many books from many prophets over about a 1500 year period. The vast majority of Muslims do not know this. They think the Bible is one book like the Qur’an. When we use the word Bible we make it sound like it is one book like the Qur’an.
Why does this matter? The Qur’an does not contain any of the books of the Bible. It only contains what Muhammad said. Therefore, when Muslims say they believe all the prophets what they mean is they believe everything Muhammad said about the prophets. This is not what Christians mean when we say we believe the prophets: we believe Moses and read the Torah; we believe David and read the Psalms; we read the books of all the prophets. Muslims do not do this; they only believe what Muhammad says about these people.
Imagine if our Bible only contained the letters from Romans to Philemon. Christians dependent on this version of the Bible would believe in Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Elijah, John the Baptist, Jesus, creation, the Exodus, and so on, but only through the lens of what Paul said about these people and events. This is what Islam is like. Muslims only believe what Muhammad says about the prophets, and so Islam is built on one man. Christianity is built on all the prophets.
Many Muslims say “peace be upon him” when they mention the name of a prophet. They do this to honour the prophet, but this is a strange kind of honour—surely you honour a prophet by listening to them.
The majority of Muslims do not know what is in the Bible; they do not know that Christians read all the prophets. Explaining to them what books are in the Bible is a powerful lesson, and using the titles Torah, Prophets, Psalms and Gospel for our Scriptures demonstrates all this to them. This is one way to address the first defeater belief of Islam.
The gospel of all of the prophets
Secondly, it’s not enough to call the Scriptures Torah, Prophets, Psalms, and Gospel; when we explain or defend the gospel we should do it in terms of those categories. So instead of showing how the gospel is ‘from the Bible’, talk rather about how it comes first from the Torah, then from the books of the prophets, then from the Psalms, and finally from the Gospel. We need to show Muslims that the Christian message is in fact the message of all the prophets.
“To this day I have had the help that comes from God, and so I stand here testifying both to small and great, saying nothing but what the prophets and Moses said would come to pass: that the Christ must suffer and that, by being the first to rise from the dead, he would proclaim light both to our people and to the Gentiles.” (Acts 26:22-23)
The gospel is new, but not novel. The books of the prophets build on each other and are meant to be read together; this is the progressive nature of God’s revelation.
Consider the doctrine of the Son of God. For many Muslims this is a stumbling block and for Christians it can be an issue we try to avoid when talking to Muslims. Some Bible translations for Muslims have gone so far as to remove this phrase and replace it with ‘God’s representative’. However, rather than being on the back foot, Christians should be on the front foot with this doctrine. Why? Because the Son of God is the message of all the prophets.
The Son is the one who represents God in the world, displays God’s glory and is God’s heir. God’s people, Israel, were the son of God (Exod 4:22) and were meant to do this but failed. The kings of Israel were the sons of God (2 Sam 7:14; 1 Chr 28:5-6) and they failed too. Therefore God promised to send his true Son who would fully represent him, display his glory, and be his heir:
For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
and his name shall be called
Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. (Isa 9:6)
The doctrine of the Son of God is not a Christian idea. That is, Christians did not invent it. It was not invented at the Council of Nicea. It is a doctrine from all the prophets that Jesus fulfils. Muhammad, however, denies any use of the phrase ‘Son of God’. We are just slaves in Islam:
Had God wished to take to Himself a son, He could have chosen whom He pleased out of those whom He doth create: but Glory be to Him! (He is above such things.)… (Qur’an 39:4, Yusuf Ali)
This changes the logic of all conversations about Christianity and Islam. It’s no longer “the Bible says this and the Qur’an says that”, but “the Torah, Prophets, Psalms and Gospel say this and Muhammad says that”. That is, all the prophets say one thing and Muhammad says another. There is a weight to the testimony of all the prophets.
This testimony also demonstrates that our Scriptures have not been changed. Over a 1500 year history, through prophets from different locations and speaking different languages, there is one message. This unity of the Torah, Prophets, Psalms and Gospel shows that our Scriptures have not been corrupted, contrary to common Muslim belief. It shows that the Qur’an does not fit with the earlier prophets and that Muhammad had a completely different concept of God to all the prophets. Islam has a completely different logic about God compared to the Torah, Prophets, Psalms and Gospel. It is not simply that the Bible says one thing and the Qur’an another; it is that all the prophets say one thing and Muhammad says something else. When we explain the gospel from all the prophets we testify to the fact that the message has not changed—and so we deal with the second defeater belief of Islam.
This approach has many benefits. In fact, the ministry that I am associated with has gone so far as to publish a Bible that is named on the cover as Torah, Prophets, Psalms, and Gospel. Inside it is a NIV2011 translation, which means that Muslims don’t have to go and get another Bible later on, and it demonstrates very clearly that Christians believe and read all the prophets. I see four specific advantages:
- It doesn’t require any specific knowledge of Islam, yet it connects with the way most Muslims think.
- It requires Bible knowledge: we’re actually teaching our Scriptures as we teach about Islam!
- It greatly strengthens Christians, and inoculates them against the lies of Islam. We are much more able to see clearly that Islam is really just one man, Muhammad, and has nothing to do with the prophets of God. In stark contrast, Christianity is all the prophets.
- It is evangelism that presents the gospel in a way that deals with the apologetic questions.
We don’t ‘simply’ share the gospel, we present it in a way that is intelligible to the person we are speaking to. So next time you’re speaking with a Muslim, talk with them about the Torah, Prophets, Psalms, and Gospel.