The Gospel that was Preached to Him

Khalilullah The Friend of God

I believe the story of Abraham and Isaac is the most powerful and effective source of witness to Muslims from the Old Testament. This is not surprising Abraham is the great figurehead of all three monotheistic faiths: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. There is so much common ground here and the opportunities for witness abound. We’ll look at them in this and the next chapter and shall begin with a description of the patriarch which is common to all three religions the friend of God. In the Jewish Scriptures (a useful description of the Old Testament in discussion with Muslims as opposed to the Christian Scriptures, the New Testament), the designation appears in the following two passages:

Did you not, O our God, drive out the inhabitants of this land before your people Israel, and give it for ever to the descendants of Abraham your friend? 2 Chronicles 20:7

You, Israel, my servant, Jacob whom I have chosen, the offspring of Abraham my friend. Isaiah 41:8

Note that in the second passage God himself is recorded as calling Abraham his friend and that the title came not as a result of any writer’s impression of the relationship he had with God. When we turn to the Christian Scriptures we find the same title being applied to Abraham in the following text:

Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness, and he was called the friend of God. James 2:23

It may come as a surprise to you to find that the Muslim scripture, the Qur’an, expressly calls Abraham the friend of God as well. Although the title only appears once, like the quotations given from the Bible it is clearly stated and emphasised:

For Allah did take Ibrahim for a friend. Surah 4:125

The word for "a friend" in this verse is khalilaan and, as a result, Abraham is especially known in Islam as Khalilullah, the friend of Allah. Moses is called Kalimu’llah, one who conversed with Allah; David Khalifatullah, the representative of Allah; and Jesus Ruhullah, the spirit of Allah. Muhammad is known simply as Rasulullah, the messenger of Allah. The first question to ask here is obvious why was Abraham called the Friend of God and what relationship is implied in this title?

Friendships are not based on master-to-servant relationships, nor on the performance of the one party towards the other. Most importantly friendships are built on an acceptance of each other as equals, even though their statuses in life may differ. This verse from the Qur’an helps to illustrate the contrast between friendships and other relationships:

No one in the heavens and the earth can come to the Compassionate but as a servant. Surah 19:93

If so, then the relationship between God and Abraham must have been unique. The title Friend of God implies that there was a deep personal relationship between them and one based on mutual trust and affection. The initiative came from God, indeed it had to for no human being could have approached him as other than a servant, and it is clear that it was God’s choice to enter into a relationship with the patriarch on equal terms. Muslims cannot easily explain why Abraham was called God’s friend as the Qur’an attempts no explanation of the description, but the Bible does and here the Christian has his first point of witness.

When God first promised Abraham that he would give him a son in his old age, the Bible simply says "he believed the Lord, and he reckoned it to him as righteousness" (Genesis 15:6). This means that Abraham was accepted by God not because of any deeds done in righteousness but because of his complete faith in God. It was simply human faith responding to God’s faithfulness. On this basis God took Abraham as his friend. We shall see how this relationship, based on faith alone, leads ultimately to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and how you can witness effectively from it.

The Father of All True Believers

The second point of agreement between Judaism, Christianity and Islam on the person of Abraham is their joint recognition of him as the father of all the true people of God. In the Jewish Scriptures we read that God said to Abraham:

I have made you the father of a multitude of nations. Genesis 17:5

As a result the Jewish nation claimed to have a special relationship with God and, when Jesus one day accused his Jewish audience of being children of the devil, they boldly declared, "Abraham is our father!" (John 8:39). The Christian Scriptures, on the other hand, teach that the true offspring of Abraham are not his physical offspring but those who share the faith of Abraham, the distinct feature that established his unique relationship with God:

So you see that it is men of faith who are the sons of Abraham ... So then, those who are men of faith are blessed with Abraham who had faith. Galatians 3:7,9

Abraham was not approved by God because of any merit he had in himself, nor because of his genetic lineage, but because of his faith in God’s faithfulness. He is therefore the father of the faithful, all true believers who share his faith, not only from the people of Israel but also from the Gentiles, "those who share the faith of Abraham, for he is the father of us all" (Romans 4:16). Interestingly, in the Qur’an Abraham is also called the father of those who believe. These two verses make the point:

I will make you a leader to the nations. Surah 2:124

Strive hard for Allah with due striving. He has chosen you and has not laid upon you any hardship in your religion, the faith of your father Ibrahim. Surah 22:78

The Qur’an follows the New Testament in declaring Abraham to be a leader and example (imam) to all mankind (linnaasi). Once again he is called the father of all true believers. Here, as in the title Friend of God, Christians have common ground with Muslims and an opportunity to share the Gospel with them. We shall go on to see just how this can be done.

The Promise of a Son to Abraham

Both the Bible and the Qur’an record the express promise of God to Abraham that he would have a son by his wife Sarah. By this time he was nearly a hundred years old and his wife was barren (Romans 4:19). Despite the apparent impossibility that this could happen naturally, Abraham trusted God and believed the promise would be fulfilled. It is recorded in the Bible in these words:

As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, moreover I will give you a son by her; I will bless her, and she shall be a mother of nations; kings of peoples shall come from her ... Sarah your wife will bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him. Genesis 17:15-16,19

The Qur’an confirms the promise and, even though it does not name Abraham’s wife, there can be no doubt that it was Sarah. It expressly states that the child of the promise was to be Isaac in these two passages:

And his wife was standing by, and she laughed; but We gave her glad tidings of Isaac, and after him Jacob. Surah 11:71

And We gave him the good news of Isaac, a prophet of the righteous. Surah 37:112

Because Abraham trusted in God’s faithfulness, he believed the impossible would happen. Note well it was not because he believed all things were possible to God or that he could simply do anything he wished. He believed, quite simply, that God would be true to his word. That is why "no distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised" (Romans 4:20). In witnessing to Muslims it is important to emphasise that it was his faith in God’s faithfulness that made him believe God would be faithful to his word and so his son Isaac would be born.

The Command to Sacrifice His Son

In the next chapter we will look at the question of whether it was Isaac or Ishmael whom God called Abraham to sacrifice. Muslims believe it was Ishmael but, as we shall see, the Qur’an does not identify the victim. At this point it is sufficient to deal solely with the subject of the intended sacrifice and you should do the same with Muslims.

When Abraham’s son was still a young boy, too young to marry and have any children of his own, the command came to Abraham to sacrifice him. It is recorded in the Bible in these words:

Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering. Genesis 22:2

Muslims credit Abraham for simply being willing to submit to God’s command, but here you must go further with them and challenge them to consider what the effect of this sudden demand on him must have been. There are three things the patriarch had to resolve. Muslims acknowledge the first did he love God enough to be willing to give his son for him? That was the first trial, a test of his love for God, but there were two others where God put himself to the test before Abraham.

Abraham knew God was absolutely holy and trustworthy. In this knowledge he had to resolve how God could command him to do something that was apparently morally questionable and, secondly, he had to ask how God could fulfil his promise to give him a son and, through him, descendants so many that they could not be numbered for multitude (Genesis 16:10) if his son was to be sacrificed before he could even father a child of his own. It is important to deal with these two questions as they are crucial to the purpose of the sacrifice and its foreshadowing of the sacrifice of God’s Son for the sins of the world in a time to come. We’ll deal with them in turn.

During his lifetime Abraham must have witnessed with moral abhorrence and repugnance the idol-worship of his contemporaries. One of the worst practices of idolatry was the sacrifice many idolaters made of their sons to their gods. In a later age Moses himself warned the people of Israel not to enquire how the other nations served their idols that they might imitate them:

You shall not do so to the Lord your God; for every abominable thing which the Lord hates they have done for their gods; for they even burn their sons and their daughters in the fire to their gods. Deuteronomy 12:31

This, to Moses, was the most abominable practice. Centuries later the evil king Ahaz, who led the nation of Judah into the worship of Baal, also "burned his sons as an offering, according to the abominable practices of the nations whom the Lord drove out before the people of Israel" (2 Chronicles 28:3). How then, Abraham must have asked, could God now command him to offer his son as a burnt offering as well? Was he no better than these detestable idols?

In my experience Muslims have no answer to the second test. How could God fulfil his promise that nations would come through Isaac if he was to be sacrificed while still a youngster? The Bible shows that Abraham considered this matter very carefully and, in doing so, came to an astonishing discovery of what God was going to do for the whole human race. It also resolved the first problem, the moral issue. Trusting in God’s unflinching faithfulness, Abraham began by presuming that "Every word of God proves true" (Proverbs 30:5). What appeared to be morally reprehensible and physically impossible must in some way be morally excellent and perfectly capable of being fulfilled. Armed with this awareness, based on God’s faithfulness, he set out to find out the meaning and purpose of the command to sacrifice his son.

The command to sacrifice seemed to have cut through the promise of a multitude of descendants like a sharp knife cutting a piece of string. As he contemplated first sacrificing his son and then cremating him as a burnt offering, Abraham might have imagined a gust of wind coming down and blowing the ashes away, concluding "there goes the promise of God to the wind." There were four possibilities and I’ve often canvassed them with Muslims with interesting results. They were:

1. God has forgotten his promise

Fourteen years, the probable age of Abraham’s son when the command came to sacrifice him, is a long time. Perhaps God has forgotten his promise? Muslims always react negatively to this suggestion. "God knows everything and never forgets anything." So much for that one.

2. God has changed his mind

Perhaps Isaac has not turned out as well as God might have wished, Abraham might have reasoned. Maybe God has had second thoughts. This one, too, gets short change from Muslims. "God knows all things in advance. He never has to change his mind about anything." This one also soon goes overboard.

3. I’ll just submit even though it makes no sense

This is blind faith. Abraham could have simply concluded that he could not resolve the paradox and did not have to. Now God was calling for a sacrifice and he would simply submit to his will. How the promise would be fulfilled, or if it could be, would not be his concern. Here it’s not so easy for the Muslim. As we will see in the next chapter, this is exactly what Islam teaches about the millata-Ibrahim, the faith of Abraham (Surah 3:95). It sees his faith as an unquestioning submission to God’s will and, if Abraham was a prophet of Islam, he might well have chosen this course.

4. God will fulfil his promise!

This is where the Bible’s concept of Abraham’s faith comes in. Being a faithful God he would not fail to fulfil his word. The question was only, how? When God, at another time, announced to Abraham that he intended to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham argued with him because he believed God was going against his own faithfulness. Would God destroy the righteous with the wicked? What if there were fifty righteous people in the cities would he destroy them with the rest? Abraham cried out to God:

Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right? Genesis 18:25

On the same terms Abraham wrestled with the command to sacrifice his own son. He gave it serious thought. Just as he had previously considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb and had considered his own body which was as good as dead at a hundred years old when the promise first came (Romans 4:19), so now he did the same. Here is the answer he came up with through the same application of faith in God’s faithfulness:

By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was ready to offer up his only son, of whom it was said, "Through Isaac shall your descendants be named." He considered that God was able to raise men even from the dead, hence, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back. Hebrews 11:17-18

The only way God’s promise could be fulfilled was for Isaac to be brought back from the dead after he had been sacrificed. Abraham considered this, not because he believed God could perform any miracle, but because it was the only way God could be true to his promise. Let’s see what this conclusion led to and how you have here probably the greatest source material to witness to Muslims of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Isaac: A Type of the Son of God, Our Saviour

The sun generates light, loads of it. It needs no other object in the sky to assist it to do so. At full moon our satellite reflects the sun’s light beautifully, but only marginally. Take away the sun and the moon cannot shine, but remove the moon and the sun will blaze with light undaunted. The moon simply reflects the sun’s light as Abraham’s faith was a reflection of God’s faithfulness. From this principle, and the conclusion that Isaac would rise from the dead, Abraham, the friend of God and father of all true believers, worked it all out.

God is the ultimate Father. Abraham’s fatherhood, too, could only be a reflection of it. So, logically, the promised son, and the sacrifice, and his resurrection from the dead, must also be a reflection. Abraham foresaw that God would send his own Son into the world, also to be born uniquely, that he would become a sacrifice and, in rising from the dead, would bring a multitude of believers to eternal glory. He worked out the whole Christian Gospel! The New Testament confirms this:

And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the Gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, "In you shall all the nations be blessed." Galatians 3:8

Here Abraham not only worked out how God’s promise would still be fulfilled, but saw the glory of it as well. The moral issue was immediately solved. The sacrifice would not imitate pagan degradation, it would be a sign of his love for God which would reflect God’s love for us in sending his own Son as the saviour of the world. In the end Isaac was spared and Abraham got him back, but God’s Son would not be spared. Is this all just speculation or coincidence? No, you can show Muslims very easily that it is exactly what happened. When Abraham and Isaac were going up to the chosen place of sacrifice, Isaac said to him "Behold the fire and the wood; but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?" (Genesis 22:7) Abraham’s answer is pregnant with foresight:

God will provide himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son. Genesis 22:8

The original Hebrew is more emphatic, it says in effect, "God will provide the lamb from his very own being." What Abraham was actually saying was, "My son, you are to be the sacrifice, but take heart, you are only a reflection of the lamb which God will provide from himself as the true sacrifice." Burnt offerings were sin offerings, and Abraham saw that God’s own Son would die for the sins of the world. This is confirmed in the following verse where John the Baptist, seeing Jesus pass by, proclaimed:

Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. John 1:29

There goes the lamb from God whom Abraham foretold! One other verse, where Jesus himself is the speaker, completes the picture. He declared to his Jewish audience:

Your father Abraham rejoiced that he was to see my day; he saw it and was glad. John 8:56

It is in the reassuring words of Genesis 22:8 alone, where Abraham spoke of the lamb of God yet to come, that we can see how he foresaw the day of Jesus to come and rejoiced in it. You can mention that, as Isaac was only a type of Christ and a sinner to be saved like any other human being, he could not fully represent the coming saviour. Only the ram caught in the thicket, a substitution for Isaac, could foreshadow the Son of God who would be substituted for us in enduring the wrath of God against us for all our sins. All this came from nothing more than the nature of Abraham’s faith a response to God’s own faithfulness. Seeing his own faith only as a reflection of this, as the moon can only reflect the sun’s light, he foresaw the whole Christian Gospel.

I do not know of a more effective way of using the Old Testament prophetic narratives to witness to Muslims of the reality of God’s saving grace in Jesus Christ. Once a year, at the end of the Hajj pilgrimage in the middle of the last month of the Muslim year, the whole Islamic world celebrates Eid ul-Adha, the Festival of Sacrifice, in commemoration of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son in response to God’s command. It is the greatest festival of the Muslim year, even outdoing the other great festival at the end of the Ramadan fast, Eid ul-Fitr.

So often I have concluded by saying to Muslims, "Once a year you observe a man’s love for God by being willing to sacrifice his son for him. Every day of the year we commemorate God’s love for us by giving his Son as a sacrifice for our sins so that we may be totally forgiven of them and be assured of a place in his kingdom to be revealed on the Last Day." The contrast is devastating. There are very few Muslims who will fail to get the point.

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