Christmas in the Bible and the Al Qur’an

19 12 2016
Govert Flinck – Angels announcing Christ’s birth to the shepherds (1639)

Govert Flinck – Angels announcing Christ’s birth to the shepherds (1639)

“Why do you think God announced the birth of Al Masih (the Messiah) to shepherds?” I asked my Muslim friend.

We had been talking about the Christmas story, and how the Al-Qur’an and the Bible emphasize different aspects of the story, but the Bible definitely includes a lot more detail.

Already mentioned were the similarities between the two accounts—of God visiting the virgin Mary to announce to her the miracle He was about to do by giving her a special son. The Bible tells how God chooses the boy’s name to be “Jesus,” literally, “God saves,” and that he will be called “Son of God” and rule over an everlasting kingdom. (Luke 1:26-38) Later God adds to the shepherds that Jesus is the “Savior…Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2:1-20) The Al Qur’an contributes that Jesus is a “mercy” from God, His Word and Spirit. (Surah Al-Maryam 19:16-21; Surah Al-Nisa 4:171)

The chapter of the Al-Qur’an named after Jesus’ mother Mary (Surah Al-Maryam) focuses in on the story of how Mary’s neighbors reacted wrongly to this immaculate conception, causing Mary to take refuge from them outside the village, but how God took care of her there.

The Bible accounts of Jesus’ birth in Matthew and Luke use a panoramic view to include several other characters in the story, such as the sky being filled with singing angels announcing Jesus’ birth to the shepherds, and the star leading wise men from the east to bring their gifts in worship to a new “king.”

So I asked my friend, why not announce Jesus’ birth to the governor or the king? Why not to the religious leaders? Why shepherds?

“Rich people often use their wealth for evil,” he replied. “Maybe the shepherds had pure hearts.”

“That’s so true,” I agreed. “And I think God wants us to know that He sees all of us. He sees the everyday people, like the shepherds, and He wants to include them in what He’s doing.”

“I have some goats,” my friend boasted. “I’m a shepherd too, you know.”

I smiled at him. Yes, I did know. And I knew that he lived a self-sacrificing life trying to raise four children after the untimely death of his wife, but he had never resorted to wrong ways of obtaining money. He’d worked hard, treated people well, and trusted God. He had a pure heart. And I knew God saw this, and loved him.

“How about this one?” I continued. “Why did God announce the Messiah’s birth to foreign wise men? Were there no wise men in Israel?”

My friend had no answer for this. So I shared my idea: “I think God wanted us to know that this Messiah’s birth was not just for the people of one country, but for everyone around the world.” And for me living in Indonesia, I wanted to add, “I’m a foreigner too, you know.”

No other birth in history has been marked with so many signs—a special star, a heavenly choir, a virgin-birth miracle, so many people receiving dreams and visitations, numerous prophecies fulfilled… No other baby has been given such illustrious names to live up to—Savior, Son of God, eternal King, God’s Word and Spirit, God’s mercy to mankind… Truly this is a birthday worthy of being remembered by Christians, Muslims, and anyone who respects what Jesus brought to this earth.

But for my friend and me, this Christmas we’re challenged to remember that God cares enough about us to include us in what He’s doing—even if we’re only lowly goatherds or foreigners—perhaps He’s just looking for someone with an open heart.

Merry Christmas!





Is Jesus the “Son of God”?

21 02 2016

Jesus statue Rio   Recently I was having a meal in my home with a Muslim brother who often quotes the Bible to me and has a high honor for Jesus. I loved his openness to talk about Jesus, and wanted him to know that at least some of the differences between how Muslims and Christians talk about Jesus (not all) have their roots in historic and linguistic differences.

So I began to share about the phrase “son of God,” which is so difficult for Muslims to accept. The Qur’an clearly states that God cannot have a walad, or a biological offspring. Of course, all Christians would agree—Jesus’ sonship has nothing biological about it. So why did the Qur’an emphasize this point?

In the era of the Prophets of Israel, everyone was looking forward to the coming Messiah. He would be the “Anointed One,” the King who ushers in God’s Kingdom, the offspring of King David.

This concept of a King anointed by God to rule invoked a special relationship with God, which God chose to describe as a “Father-Son” relationship. In Psalm 89:20-27, we read that God called David his “firstborn,” and that David was to call God “Father.” This is even clearer in the case of Solomon, where God declares:

“I will be his a¯b (father), and he shall be my ben (son).”

Did you realize Jesus was not the first person to be called God’s son? But as Messiah, and rightful King, God spoke from the sky a similar pronouncement over Jesus in Luke 3:22:

“You are my ben (son), whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

So for a 1st century Jew, hearing a voice from heaven calling Jesus “the Son of God” would be understood as declaring him to be the Messiah (see also Matthew 16:16).

Now fast-forward to the 7th century and the birth of Islam. The Christian faith had spread throughout Greek and Roman culture, which both had religious traditions of major gods having sexual relations with other gods or with mankind to produce offspring, or minor gods—making the phrase “son of god” susceptible to more elastic interpretation. The Arabs themselves had centuries ago left the monotheism of Abraham and his son Ishmael and turned to worshiping a plurality of gods, which included male gods, female goddesses, and gods who were their offspring. There needed to be a clear call back to monotheism, to exalt God’s Oneness, and make it clear that He could have no offspring  (no walad, as opposed to the slightly more flexible Arabic word for “son” which is ibn, and has been used symbolically–like ben–in other Arabic texts).

While Christians believe that Jesus did have a unique relationship with God as the “eternal Word of God made flesh,” (John 1:1-14) the term “son” should not be a dividing point between Muslims and Christians, but a point of agreement. Jesus was not a walad, a biological son—far be it from God to have biological offspring—but an anointed Messiah-King, the “Al-Masih” mentioned in the Qur’an.

For those who want to explore many other Muslim-Christian misunderstandings based on historical or linguistic differences, let me recommend these two sources:

1) short video lectures on “Jesus in the Qur’an” accompanied by excellent articles from reputable Christian and Muslim scholars who are finding common ground at http://equalaccess.org.au/index.php/resources/videos

2) the outstanding book by Mark Siljander, A Deadly Misunderstanding, available at www.amazon.com or at http://www.adeadlymisunderstanding.com/

So when someone asks you, “Do you believe that Jesus was the Son of God?” take a moment to understand what the person is really asking. Don’t let the terms divide you, when in reality you may believe much the same thing!





Web Interview with Jim on Loving God and Others

2 02 2015

bc12e5bb[1]   This week on the always uplifting blog 7 Christians (http://7christians.blogspot.com/), Victoria Buck has posted Part 1 of an interview with me. Part 2 will be posted next Monday. She asks some really insightful questions. If you’re interested in what other American Christians are concerned about regarding Islam, check out this interview!

I was excited to see the interview was picked up by the First Manuscript Daily News:  http://paper.li/DaxMacGregor/1308327425

Victoria is also an author of the futuristic Christian thriller, Wake the Dead, available at Amazon.com, and a Christian who publicly takes a stand for the Great Commandment—to love God with all our hearts and to love our neighbors as ourselves—even if that neighbor is from a different religion that scares us.

My wife arrived home yesterday from a trip to London, and one thing that stood out to her was how many Muslims she saw at the airport, at the grocery store, just about everywhere. She said it felt like going to parts of our home town of Los Angeles where entire neighborhoods are Asian or Latino and a Caucasian or African-American really stands out. Many of the perspectives from this interview address an American audience for whom opportunities to love Muslims may be fewer than our British counterparts today, but looking at population growth and immigration trends, we know this will be an increasing opportunity in America for us and our children.

I hope you see it like that—as an opportunity. I recently heard of yet another Christian leader who wants to move to the mountains of Montana to escape all the troubles coming to America. To me, this is the exact opposite of what Jesus taught and lived.

When the Samaritans built a cultural and religious wall to keep the Jews out, what did Jesus do? John 4:4 says that “he had to go through Samaria.” No Jew ever went through Samaria—from Galilee in the north they would cross the Jordan River, walk south along it and then recross the river to visit Jerusalem rather than take the direct route through Samaria. Why does the Bible say Jesus had to go through Samaria?

I believe it’s because the kind of love emanating from the Messiah’s heart had to go touch everyone, regardless of the human walls built by either side. Jesus never walked down the opposite side of the street to avoid the demonized, the prostitutes, the Roman soldiers, the lepers, or even the hypocritical religious Jewish leaders who were out to kill him. He even told his disciples that he was going to Jerusalem to die. He went to the cross, not away from it.

So the next time you are in a rush and have to go through the part of town that’s different from your culture, or have to go to the drugstore or gas station attended by someone who doesn’t look like you, try to look at it through Jesus’ eyes. Maybe you have to go there because there’s a wall that needs to be broken by Jesus’ love in you.

Check out the interview at: http://bit.ly/165ZSGk . And maybe post a comment thanking Victoria for being a Christian doing her part to make a difference. Enjoy!





Healing the Wounds of 9/11

18 09 2012

In 2003, President George W. Bush sent American troops to invade Iraq.

We were living in Indonesia, and many Muslim students opposed the war. Just 50 yards from our office (the only business in town where Americans worked), protestors hung banners stating, “Go to Hell America,” and “George Bush is the great Satan.” We wondered if the demonstration would migrate to our building, and discussed what we should do.

If you were in my shoes, which of these options might YOU choose?

a) tear down those banners and publically defend the good name of my country

b) stay home from work, and if anyone knocks, answer them in a Russian accent

c) be myself, and proactively look for positive ways to build friendships, even with those who judge me based solely on my nationality

I chose letter “c.” I didn’t defend the decisions of American politicians, nor feel ashamed to be an American. In fact, I told my Muslim friends that I had prayed against the invasion, and now would pray for all those on both sides who would suffer because of it. I assured them that I was an American who loved Muslims and loved peace. And I looked for more ways to actively promote peace.

Not long after that, our Peace Generation educational initiative was launched, with Muslims and Christians working together to train the younger generation in how to develop peaceful, mutually supportive, loving relationships with those who are different than you. Our PeaceGen went on to train thousands of youth and win a national award for peacemaking.

In the face of hatred, stereotyping, prejudice, and even potential threats, I chose to move TOWARD those whose hurt and anger had blinded their eyes from seeing me clearly—as I got closer to them, their eyesight cleared, and we became friends.

In 2001, another American went through a similar situation. As a 16-year-old girl, Hanadi watched from her high school classroom window when the second plane crashed into the World Trade Center. Immediately aware of the potential danger, the staff began to evacuate the students from this K-12 New York City school.

But Hanadi was still in the school yard shepherding small children when people began throwing glass bottles and pieces of pork at the students—simply because it was a Muslim school.

In the days that followed, Hanadi and her classmates, many of them born and raised in America and no less Americans than I am, were harassed, bullied, and belittled frequently. These kids had never met a terrorist, but were treated as though 9/11 was somehow their fault.

This unconscionable behavior could have driven Hanadi to defend her religion with vengeful, violent means. It could have driven her to hide in her home, or only go out in public without her headscarf to avoid persecution.

Instead, Hanadi chose like I chose, to be herself, and to proactively look for positive ways to build friendships, even with those who judged her solely on her religious affiliation. She decided to move TOWARDS those whose eyes were clouded with pain and anger. She joined Park 51.

About 3 blocks from the tragedy of Ground Zero, a small seed of hope is sprouting—a community center, founded by Muslims who abhor terrorism and love peace, seeking to rebuild the community upon the values all Americans cherish: freedom to be yourself, while uniting with others from many backgrounds to make our community and our nation a better place. It’s a place for Muslims to come and pray and to hear sermons that promote peace and unity. It’s a place for non-Muslims to come and share and be welcomed in as friends. And it’s a place for all kinds of community classes or gatherings, many of which have nothing to do with Islam, and everything to do with enriching the lives of the whole community.

The victims of the WTC tragedy weren’t just those who died in the building—they were also thousands of American Muslims around the country who were unjustly persecuted. Many lost businesses or jobs, lost friends, were threatened, beaten, treated as exiles in the very communities they had loved and served.

Some people (even Christian leaders) have overlooked this stain on the American conscience, choosing to focus only on the fall of the towers. They think that those victims of the 9/11 attacks are better honored by distancing ourselves from all Muslims. I say that the only way to move forward in healing is to find those people (Muslim, Christian, anyone) who are committed to peace and rebuild our hurting community together. I’m blessed to see Hanadi leading the way—who will join her?

Sometimes a broken place in us, when healed, can grow even stronger than it was originally. This is my hope for New York City. It was an honor for me to present a copy of my book to Park 51, and to pray for God’s blessing upon their beautiful vision for peacemaking.