I am very grateful for this timely and generous look at interfaith dialogue. Nijay Gupta’s call to be ready to meet “great-faith-pagans-for-Jesus” is similar to what we are experiencing in the Middle East where Muslims are encountering Jesus and demonstrating great faith. Although Muslims do not fit into the category of “pagan,” the vast majority are missing a full and transformative life of faith in Christ. Two of the texts that Gupta highlights have been part of the foundation upon which our ministry is built: Acts 17 and John 4.
In Acts 17, Paul not only uses the “altar to the unknown God” but he also quotes from religious writings in 17:28. Paul first quotes Epimenides when he says, “In him we live and move and have our being.” Then he quotes Aratus saying, “For we are indeed his offspring.” The shocking fact is that these quotes were originally about Zeus so that “in him,” and “his offspring” in its original context, referred to Zeus. According to Richard Longenecker, “In his search for a measure of common ground with his hearers, he is, so to speak, disinfecting and rebaptizing the poets’ words for his own purposes.”1 Paul uses religious writings that were familiar to his audience as a way to connect with them and lead them to deeper truth about the person of Jesus.
This practice is bearing fruit in the Muslim world. As we seek a “measure of common ground” in our conversations with Muslims, we are starting with things Muslims already accept about Jesus. For example, in the Qur’an, Jesus is born of a virgin, he is born “holy,” he is the Word of God, he is exalted in this world and the next, he is a sign to all peoples in the spiritual and physical world, he is one like Adam (which can lead to discussions about Jesus as the “second Adam”), and he is a spirit from God (which can lead to discussions about how the “second Adam became a life-giving Spirit,” 1 Cor 15:45). In the Qur’an these statements are scattered throughout, but when brought together in one conversation, it can have the same effect as Paul’s messages when some in the crowd wanted to know more.
One day I was talking with a young Muslim man who found a Bible (intentionally left behind at a place where Muslims worked by a discerning Christian) and this young man wanted to know more. At the end of our conversation I told him, “You, as a Muslim, know that Jesus is the Word of God. And you know he is alive in heaven. He doesn’t have a grave with bones in it. So go and ask to hear the Word of God.” He did and came back the next night and told me, “I didn’t hear anything, but I felt such peace.” We got together a week later with another Muslim believer in Jesus and talked about the kingdom of God. This time when we prayed together, he looked up with tears in his eyes and said the Lord spoke his name. He was being called and it opened up for him a new spiritual reality, under the authority of Christ and in the name of Jesus, where he was experiencing the Holy Spirit in transformative ways.
There are numerous reports worldwide of Muslims experiencing the Lord in creative ways through healings, dreams, and visions. Now when I pray with a Muslim friend, I often say, “God created our hearts, and minds, and souls, and emotions, and imaginations, and gave us the ability to feel and hear and know things in a deep way. Why is it that when we pray, it is usually us talking or asking God for something? Maybe we have memorized something and we recited it.” Then I say, if the time seems right, “why do we not ask God if he would like to reveal something to us? Maybe we will hear something, maybe we will see something, maybe we will feel something.” As we have gone to the Lord in openness, he has been faithful to reveal his heart. Some Muslims have seen visions of light coming down from heaven and actually warming their body. Others have seen Jesus approaching them and taking them by the hand with the promise that he is with them. Others have heard the Lord say Udrik wajuudi, which my pocket Arabic translator tells me means “Realize, I Am.”
Nijay Gupta says, “Matthew seems to go out of his way to demonstrate that the very last people you would expect to demonstrate faith in Jesus are the very ones who seem to really ‘get’ who Jesus is.” I think many Western evangelicals would not expect that Muslims, some with backgrounds they would consider very problematic, would be experiencing the Word of God in transformative ways. But this is what we are seeing time and time again.
The other passage that Gupta focuses on is John 4 and Jesus’ interaction with the Samaritan woman. He rightly identifies the differences between Samaritans and Jews as having religious differences. Samaritan scholar John MacDonald says, “Samaritanism is not a form of Judaism; it is no heterodox religion. It is a development of one religion with the aid of the ideology of another.”2 Gupta says about the Samaritan woman, “That Jesus considered her religiously ‘other’ is clear enough when he says ‘You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews’ (4:22).”
The shocking part of John 4 is in the end when it says, “Many Samaritans believed in him” (4:39) and that they knew “that this one is indeed savior of the world” (4:42). To “believe” is a hermeneutical key in the gospel of John. In John 1:12, to receive and believe gives one the right to become a child of God. And we read that the reason for writing the entire gospel is “so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that by believing you may have life in his name (John 20:31).”
In Matthew, readers are shocked to hear that the “pagans” believed and were faithful. So also in John, those from an enemy religion believed and were still identified as Samaritans. Jesus also highlights the one from the enemy religion as the faithful one in the parable named after the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30–37).
In the letters of Paul we read about his own understanding of identity. In Philippians 3:4–11, Paul says that his tribal identity, his ethnic identity, and his religious identity are “of the flesh” and “rubbish” when compared to knowing Christ. But in other places, he claims and uses those identities so as to win as many as possible (1 Cor 9:19–23), including his “brothers according to the flesh” (Rom 9:3; 11:1).
This is similar to what is happening throughout the Muslim world. Muslims who have experienced the transformative power of the Injeel (“Gospel”) and are following Jesus are choosing to do so while identifying with their birth community “according to the flesh.” The Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary states:
As of 2010 approximately 5.9 million non-Christians were following Christ from within the context of their own religious and cultural traditions. These include insider movements as well as hidden and secret believers. The Center’s estimate for the year 2000 for these types of believers was 4.6 million, which means that they grew at 2.5% per year from 2000–2010 or twice as fast as Christianity as a whole. 85% of these individuals are either Hindus or Muslims. Given current trends, these are expected to grow to 6.5 million by mid-2014.3
We believe that Muslims who receive Jesus as their Lord and Savior, and submit to him as the one who was given all authority in heaven and on earth, and live by fixing their eyes on him as the author and completer of their faith, while also choosing to “remain”4 as a part of their family and community as Muslim followers of Jesus, while acting as yeast and salt and light in their communities—we believe that they will be transformative agents within those communities and will lead others to Jesus. As in John 4, we pray that the Lord of the harvest will raise up laborers and that those who sow and reap will rejoice together as the Lord of the harvest sends his laborers to serve in a variety of ministries throughout the world.
Richard N. Longenecker, Acts, Expositors Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995), 476.
John MacDonald, The Theology of the Samaritans, The New Testament Library (London: SCM Press, 1964), 419.
Todd M. Johnson and Gina A. Zurlo, eds., World Christian Database (Leiden/Boston: Brill, accessed July 2013).
Gordon Fee says this about 1 Cor 7: “Vv. 18–19 apply this to ethno-religious life (being Jew or Gentile), which now counts for nothing. There are no exceptions here: let each one remain in his/her calling (v. 20)” (p. 308). He goes on to say, “That does not mean that one is forever locked into that setting. Rather, Paul means that by calling a person within a given situation, that situation itself is taken up in the call and thus sanctified to him or her. Similarly, by saving a person in that setting, Christ thereby ‘assigned’ it to him/her as his/her place of living out life in Christ” (p. 310). “And how better to illustrate that than by the one mark of sociological distinction that formerly did have religious significance but does no more—circumcision” (p. 311). “Being Jew or Gentile simply means nothing to God; whatever one was when called is what one still is, with no need to change. Christ has made such distinctions obsolete” (p. 312). The First Epistle to the Corinthians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987).