Answering Islam - A Christian-Muslim dialog

Was Jesus’ Mission Universal in Scope?

Sam Shamoun

Muslims are fond of citing the following Biblical texts to prove that Jesus wasn’t sent for the entire world, or to every creature, but rather only to the nation of Israel:

“These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: ‘Do not go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans. Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel.’” Matthew 10:5-6

“Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, ‘Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.’ Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, ‘Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.’ He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.’” Matthew 15:21-24

Jesus explicitly tells the Gentile woman that he was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel, which explains why Jesus sent his disciples to minister only to these same lost sheep. The Muslims take these statements as clear-cut evidence that Christ could not have been a messenger for the whole world, let alone its Savior.

We have decided to address these assertions so as to show that these particular Muslims have either grossly misunderstood Jesus’ words, or are deliberately misinterpreting them in order to substantiate their view that Muhammad was the only messenger that Allah sent for the entire world. As we shall document, this not only contradicts the testimony of the Holy Scriptures, it also conflicts with Muhammad’s own teachings on this particular issue.

To begin with, these Muslims conveniently overlook the fact that the very same Gospel of Matthew emphatically testifies Christ is the Savior of all the nations, the One in whom the Gentiles must turn to in order to be saved.

For instance, even the very same chapter where Jesus is said to have initially sent the disciples to preach only to the Israelites plainly teaches that Christ ‘s followers would also be sent to testify to the Gentiles:

“I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves. Be on your guard; you will be handed over to the local councils and be flogged in the synagogues. On my account you will be brought before governors and kings as witnesses to them and to the Gentiles. But when they arrest you, do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say, for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.” Matthew 10:16-20

Jesus reiterates this point of testifying to the Gentiles in one of his post-resurrection appearance:

“Then Jesus came to them and said, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of ALL NATIONS, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.’” Matthew 28:18-20

Jesus’ instruction to his followers to go forth and make disciples of all nations shows that Christ came to save the entire world, not just the nation of Israel, a fact that is confirmed in Mark’s Gospel:

“He said to them, ‘Go into ALL THE WORLD and preach the gospel to ALL CREATION. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.’” Mark 16:15-16

Nor is this the only place in Matthew where Jesus expressly testifies that the Gospel which he brought must be proclaimed throughout the entire world to all nations:

“And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached IN THE WHOLE WORLD as a testimony to ALL NATIONS, and then the end will come.” Matthew 24:14

We again find Mark’s Gospel making this very same point:

“You must be on your guard. You will be handed over to the local councils and flogged in the synagogues. On account of me you will stand before governors and kings as witnesses to them. And the gospel must first be preached to ALL NATIONS. Whenever you are arrested and brought to trial, do not worry beforehand about what to say. Just say whatever is given you at the time, for it is not you speaking, but the Holy Spirit.” Mark 13:9-11

“Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.” Mark 14:9

Matthew even cites a passage from Isaiah 42:1-4 which identifies Jesus as the Servant of Yahweh whom all the nations must put their trust and hope in:

“Aware of this, Jesus withdrew from that place. A large crowd followed him, and he healed all who were ill. He warned them not to tell others about him. This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah: ‘Here is my servant whom I have chosen, the one I love, in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him, and he will proclaim justice to the nations. He will not quarrel or cry out; no one will hear his voice in the streets. A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out, till he leads justice to victory. In his name THE NATIONS will put their hope.’” Matthew 12:15-21

This is the same Servant whom Isaiah says shall illuminate the nations and bring God’s salvation to all the ends of the earth:

“Listen to me, you islands; hear this, you distant nations: Before I was born the Lord called me; from my mother’s womb he has spoken my name. He made my mouth like a sharpened sword, in the shadow of his hand he hid me; he made me into a polished arrow and concealed me in his quiver. He said to me, ‘You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will display my splendor.’ But I said, ‘I have labored in vain; I have spent my strength for nothing at all. Yet what is due me is in the Lord’s hand, and my reward is with my God.’ And now the Lord says—he who formed me in the womb to be his servant to bring Jacob back to him and gather Israel to himself, for I am honored in the eyes of the Lord and my God has been my strength—he says: ‘It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you A LIGHT FOR THE GENTILES, that my salvation may reach TO THE ENDS OF THE EARTH.” Isaiah 49:1-6

In Luke’s Gospel a man called Simeon employs the very language of this specific text to describe Jesus’ role and mission:

“Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord's Messiah. Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying: ‘Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of ALL NATIONS: a light for revelation to THE GENTILES, and the glory of your people Israel.’” Luke 2:25-32

Luke also records Jesus himself instructing his disciples to spread his message to the ends of the earth so that all the nations are given the opportunity to hear and believe in Christ’s name in order to receive forgiveness of sins:

“He said to them, ‘This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.’ Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, ‘This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name TO ALL NATIONS, beginning at Jerusalem.’” Luke 24:44-47

“He said to them: ‘It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, AND TO THE ENDS OF THE EARTH.’” Acts 1: 7-8

Thus, as far as the consistent witness of the NT is concerned Christ’s message wasn’t meant for the Israelites alone. Rather, the Gospel of the Lord Jesus is God’s means of salvation for all the nations throughout the entire world, just as the blessed Apostle Paul stated in one of his inspired Epistles:

“For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” Romans 1:16

This is why Revelation can speak of a great multitude of people whom no one could number from every nation, tribe, and tongue that have been redeemed by Christ’s sacrificial death:

“And they sang a new song, saying, ‘Worthy are You to take the book and to break its seals; for You were slain, and purchased for God with Your blood men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to our God; and they will reign upon the earth.’” Revelation 5:9-10

“After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could count, from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, and palm branches were in their hands; and they cry out with a loud voice, saying, ‘Salvation to our God who sits on the throne, AND TO THE LAMB.’ And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures; and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying, ‘Amen, blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might, be to our God forever and ever. Amen.’ Then one of the elders answered, saying to me, ‘These who are clothed in the white robes, who are they, and where have they come from?’ I said to him, ‘My lord, you know.’ And he said to me, ‘These are the ones who come out of the great tribulation, and they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. For this reason, they are before the throne of God; and they serve Him day and night in His temple; and He who sits on the throne will spread His tabernacle over them. They will hunger no longer, nor thirst anymore; nor will the sun beat down on them, nor any heat; for the Lamb in the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and will guide them to springs of the water of life; and God will wipe every tear from their eyes.’” Revelation 7:9-17

What Muhammad Taught

Ironically, even Muhammad is said to have confirmed the universal scope of Jesus’ mission since this is what he wrote in the Quran:

He said: "So (it will be), your Lord said: 'That is easy for Me (Allah): And (We wish) to appoint him as a sign TO MANKIND and a mercy from Us (Allah), and it is a matter (already) decreed, (by Allah).’” S. 19:21 Hilali-Khan

And she who was chaste, therefore We breathed into her (something) of Our Spirit and made her and her son a token FOR (all) PEOPLES. S. 21:91 Pickthall

These texts explicitly testify to Muhammad’s belief that Jesus and his blessed mother were meant to be miraculous signs for all the nations so that they may believe in God.

Muhammad also taught that the Gospel (as well as the Torah) was sent down to guide all mankind, not just the Jews:

It is He Who sent down to thee (step by step), in truth, the Book, confirming what went before it; and He sent down the Law (of Moses) and the Gospel (of Jesus) Before this, as a guide TO MANKIND, and He sent down the criterion (of judgment between right and wrong). Then those who reject Faith in the Signs of God will suffer the severest penalty, and God is Exalted in Might, Lord of Retribution. S. 3:3-4 Y. Ali

That’s not all. According to the oldest extant Muslim biography, Muhammad further taught that Jesus commissioned his disciples to preach the Gospel to the entire world:

Yazid b. Abu Habib al-Misri told me that he found a document in which was a memorandum (T. the names) of those the apostle sent to the countries and kings of the Arabs and non-Arabs and what he said to his companions when he sent them. I sent it to Muhammad b. Shihab al-Zuhri (T. with a trusty countryman of his) and he recognized it. It contained the statement that the apostle went out with his companions and said: ‘God has sent me as a mercy to all men, so take a message from me, God have mercy on you. Do not hang back from me as the disciples hung back from Jesus son of Mary.’ They asked how they had hung back and he said, ‘He called them to a task similar to that which I have called you. Those who had to go on a short journey were pleased and accepted; those who had a long journey before them were displeased and refused to go, and Jesus complained of them to God. (T. From that very night) every one of them was able to speak the language of the people to whom he was sent.’ (T. Jesus said ‘This is a thing which God has determined that you should do, so go.’)

Those whom Jesus son of Mary sent, both disciples and those who came after them, in the land were: Peter the disciple AND PAUL WITH HIM, (Paul belonged to the followers and was not a disciples) to Rome. Andrew and Matthew to the land of the cannibals; Thomas to the land of Babel, which is in the land of the east; Philip to Carthage which is Africa; John to Ephesus the city of the young men of the cave; James to Jerusalem which is Aelia the city of the sanctuary; Bartholomew TO ARABIA WHICH IS THE LAND OF THE HIJAZ; Simon to the land of the Berbers; Judah who was not one of the disciples was put in place of Judas. (The Life of Muhammad: A Translation of Ibn Ishaq’s Sirat Rasul Allah, with introduction and notes by Alfred Guillaume [Oxford University Press, Karachi, Seventeenth Impression 2004], p. 653; bold and capital emphasis ours)

And according to renowned Muslim scholar and commentator Ibn Kathir, Jesus’ disciples were commissioned to invite both Jews and Greeks to embrace Islam!

Allah the Exalted orders His faithful servants to be Allah's supporters at all times, in all their statements and actions, sacrificing their selves and wealth. Allah orders them to accept His and His Messenger's call, just as the disciples said to Prophet `Isa when he said

(Who are my helpers (in the cause) of Allah) meaning, `who will support me in conveying the Message of Allah, the Exalted and Most Honored?'…

(The Hawariyyun said:) in reference to the followers of `Isa…

(We are Allah's helpers) meaning, `we will support you with regards to the Message you have been sent with and will help you convey it.' Whereby, `Isa sent the disciples to the various areas of Ash-Sham to call THE GREEKS and the Israelites to Islam. Similarly, during the days of Hajj, Allah's Messenger used to ask…

<<Who will support me in conveying the Message of my Lord Verily, the Quraysh have prevented me from conveying the Message of my Lord.>> Allah the Exalted and Most Honored raised Al-Aws and Al-Khazraj to support the Prophet. They were the residents of Al-Madinah who gave the pledge to him and supported him, vowing to protect him from mankind and the Jinns if he migrated to them. When he migrated to them with his Companions, they fulfilled their vow to Allah. This is the reason why Allah and His Messenger called them, Al-Ansar, the Supporters. The name became synonymous with them… (Tafsir Ibn Kathir, Q. 61:14; bold and capital emphasis ours)

This means that Muslims must either accept that Jesus’ mission is universal in nature, or admit that Muhammad was mistaken for contradicting their claim that Holy Bible teaches that Jesus was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.

Concluding Remarks

It is abundantly clear from the Gospel of Matthew, and the NT as a whole, that Jesus Christ was sent to save all the nations, being the One whom God appointed as a vicarious sacrifice to take away the sins of the whole world. In the words of the Apostle John:

“The next day he saw Jesus coming to him and said, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!’” John 1:29

“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.” John 3:16-18

“From that city many of the Samaritans believed in Him because of the word of the woman who testified, ‘He told me all the things that I have done.’ So when the Samaritans came to Jesus, they were asking Him to stay with them; and He stayed there two days. Many more believed because of His word; and they were saying to the woman, ‘It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves and know that this One is indeed the Savior of the world.’” John 4:39-42

“This is the bread which comes down out of heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down out of heaven; if anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread also which I will give for the life of the world is My flesh.” John 6:50-51

“My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world.” 1 John 2:1-2

“In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins… We have seen and testify that the Father has sent the Son to be the Savior of the world.” 1 John 4:10, 14

In light of the foregoing, it is abundantly clear that Jesus’ statements in Matthew 10:6 and 15:24 do not mean that his mission was limited only to the nation of Israel. Rather, what Jesus meant was that while he himself was on earth he and his disciples would only preach among the Israelites, and any other ethnic group that lived in close proximity to them, e.g. Samaritans, Syrophoenicians etc. Yet once Jesus finished his work on earth and returned to heaven, he would then send forth his disciples to proclaim his message to all the nations. As the Apostle Paul put it:

“Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God. For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the Jews on behalf of God’s truth, so that the promises made to the patriarchs might be confirmed and, moreover, that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written: ‘Therefore I will praise you among the Gentiles; I will sing the praises of your name.’ Again, it says, ‘Rejoice, you Gentiles, with his people.’ And again, ‘Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles; let all the peoples extol him.’ And again, Isaiah says, ‘The Root of Jesse will spring up, one who will arise to rule over the nations; in him the Gentiles will hope.’… Yet I have written you quite boldly on some points to remind you of them again, because of the grace God gave me to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles. He gave me the priestly duty of proclaiming the gospel of God, so that the Gentiles might become an offering acceptable to God, sanctified by the Holy Spirit. Therefore I glory in Christ Jesus in my service to God. I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me in leading the Gentiles to obey God by what I have said and done—by the power of signs and wonders, through the power of the Spirit of God. So from Jerusalem all the way around to Illyricum, I have fully proclaimed the gospel of Christ.” Romans 15:7-12, 15-19

Paul’s point is that Jesus came to the Jews in order to fulfill God’s promises to them, promises that included God saving the Gentiles as well, just as the OT prophets had announced beforehand. Yet the way in which the Gentiles would be saved is by God raising up the followers of Christ to go forth throughout the entire world preaching the good news that the Savior from Israel has come and that the nations had to now turn to him if they wanted to be saved from God’s righteous wrath.

In other words, God sent Jesus to the Jews first since they were the heirs of the prophecies that God made through the prophets, and then sent forth Christ’s disciples as the light of Christ bringing God’s salvation to the ends of the earth. In the words of the blessed Apostles themselves:

“Therefore repent and return, so that your sins may be wiped away, in order that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord; and that He may send Jesus, the Christ appointed for you, whom heaven must receive until the period of restoration of all things about which God spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets from ancient time. Moses said, ‘The Lord God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your brethren; to Him you shall give heed to everything He says to you. And it will be that every soul that does not heed that prophet shall be utterly destroyed from among the people.’ And likewise, all the prophets who have spoken, from Samuel and his successors onward, also announced these days. It is you who are the sons of the prophets and of the covenant which God made with your fathers, saying to Abraham, ‘And in your seed all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’ For you first, God raised up His Servant and sent Him to bless you by turning every one of you from your wicked ways.” Acts 3:19-26

“Paul and Barnabas spoke out boldly and said, ‘It was necessary that the word of God be spoken to you FIRST; since you repudiate it and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we are turning to the Gentiles. For so the Lord has commanded us, “I have placed You as a light for the Gentiles, That You may bring salvation to the end of the earth.”’ When the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord; and as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed.” Acts 13:46-48

So much for the Muslim distortion of God’s inspired Word.

Unless noted otherwise, all scriptural quotations taken from the New American Standard Version (NASB) of the Holy Bible.