Concern over the use of ‘Isa [EE-sah] for Jesus when sharing the gospel with Muslims pops up now and again. And though it may be well-intentioned, it is ultimately off base.
The Qur’an mentions Jesus of Nazareth in numerous places. Muslims call him ‘Isa. Every one of the 1.8 billion (and growing) followers of Islam is required to believe in ‘Isa to be considered Muslim. Astoundingly, it’s an Islamic article of faith to believe that Jesus, or ‘Isa, was a prophet of Islam.
With my own Muslim friends, I guide conversations toward three aspects of the way the Qur’an talks about ‘Isa: ‘Isa as the virgin-born Messiah, ‘Isa as a prophet, and ‘Isa as the returning judge. Using the Qur’an can help establish a common starting point, and it opens the door for honest questions about what the person has heard about ‘Isa. It also allows me to then highlight the sharp contrast between the hope-filled message of Christ and the works-based righteousness of Islam.
“Using the Qur’an can help establish a common starting point, and it opens the door for honest questions about what the person has heard about ‘Isa.”
‘Isa the Virgin-Born Messiah
Eleven times the Qur’an refers to Jesus as ‘Isa al-Masih, that is, “Jesus the Messiah.” So, the Qur’an itself calls Jesus the Messiah. Muslims, however, have a different understanding of what it means to be Messiah. In the Jewish and Christian context, Messiah simply means “Anointed One.” What our Muslim neighbors need help understanding is the purpose for which Jesus was anointed, which opens a clear window to the gospel.
Jesus is the one whom God the Father chose and anointed to deliver his people from their sins—to offer himself as the sacrifice on behalf of sinners and to, thereby, redeem them and make them a people for himself. We can share that by simply asking the question: “Do you know what ‘Isa was anointed to do?”
Not only does the Qur’an call ‘Isa the Messiah, it speaks of the virgin birth as well, offering us the opportunity to ask more interesting questions. For instance, “If ‘Isa doesn’t have an earthly father, who is his father?” Of course, the answer is that God is his father.
Some Muslims misunderstand Christian teaching regarding the Trinity. They think Christians believe God had intercourse with Mary and impregnated her, the Trinity being the Father, the Son, and Mary. Of course, that’s not what Christians believe at all. We share in their abhorrence at such a thought!
Rather, Scripture teaches that Jesus is God, the Father is God, and the Holy Spirit is God. The correct response to the mystery of the Trinity—one Being, three persons—is worship. Simply point to Jesus’s own words, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30 ESV) and leave room for awe.
Moving on from the bridge of the virgin birth account in the Qur’an (Surah Ali ‘Imran 3:47), we can ask our Muslim friends, “Why it was necessary for Jesus to be born of a virgin?” That allows us to explain why it was necessary for Jesus to be born at all and why he had to live a sinless life (as the Qur’an and the Hadith also teach). He did so to be the spotless “Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29 HCSB).
‘Isa the Prophet
The Qur’an also teaches that Jesus was a prophet. Again, that gives us a common starting place for conversation. Christians have very much the same definition of a prophet. A prophet comes and speaks the very word of God. So, we must logically ask the question: “What did Jesus say and teach?” That question points us and our Muslim friends to the New Testament Gospels. Knowing that every Muslim is obligated to obey the prophets, we can introduce Jesus’s own words, “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no man comes to the Father but by me” (John 14:6 ESV).
Also, in Matthew 16:21 (ESV) Jesus prophesied what would happen to him in Jerusalem—that he would “suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised,” opening the way of salvation through him. Hearing the words of Jesus and knowing you are obligated to obey the prophets makes for a very interesting quandary for the honest Muslim. This was the kind of thing that led me to leave Islam and accept the truth about Christ.
‘Isa the Returning Judge
The Qur’an also includes the claim that ‘Isa will return in the second coming to judge between believers and unbelievers. Islam teaches that ‘Isa will condemn those who believed that he was God the Son. The Bible disagrees. Jesus is coming again to receive his church and to consummate his kingdom.
It won’t be those who confess him as God the Son that he judges. It will be those who refuse to worship him as God. Again, this sets up a dilemma for Muslims to choose between the true words of Jesus in the New Testament and the much later testimony of the Qur’an.
The return of Christ could happen at any moment, which is why there’s no better time than now to be a grace-filled ambassador (2 Cor. 5:14–21) to Muslims. Pray for opportunities to build bridges with Muslim friends. Trust the Holy Spirit to change hearts as you dialogue with them about the ‘Isa of the Qur’an. May God, by his grace, use us to open the eyes of many to see and believe in the glorious ‘Isa of Scripture—our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Thabiti Anyabwile is a pastor at Anacostia River Church in southeast Washington, DC. He is the author of numerous books, including The Gospel for Muslims, Reviving the Black Church, and Finding Faithful Elders and Deacons. He and his wife, Kristie, have three children. You can follow him on Twitter and visit his blog at The Gospel Coalition.