Who is Jesus?
Who is Jesus?Probably one of the most debated topics between different People of the Book relates to the Prophet Jesus, son of Mary, and who exactly he is. For example, Muslims such as Dr. Zakir Naik and Ahmed Deedat happily accept that the Prophet `Īsā is the Messiah and born of a virgin. But they spend great time and effort seeking to prove that Christians are heretical because, according to them, they worship three gods and also because Jesus never died on the cross. Jews, on the other hand, accept that `Īsā died on the cross, but do not accept his virgin birth or that he was the promised Messiah. Even among Christians, especially during the first few centuries after his being taken up to heaven by God, there were great debates over exactly who Jesus was. The reason for such differences of opinion is the simple fact that Jesus is unique, unlike any other person who ever lived. His birth, his teachings, his actions, his miracles, his death – all are unlike those of any other person who has ever lived. It is not surprising that the way people understand and interpret such amazing information differs greatly. In what I say now, I will try to avoid the trap of philosophical debate and empty argument. For example, tremendous amounts of time and effort have gone into debating words such as the trinity, words that never once appear in the Injīl or any of the books before it.. Instead of arguing about words not found in the Scriptures, I will focus on what the different religious Scriptures actually do say about who Jesus is and how he is described. My attempt in what follows will be to show a clear picture from the different books, especially the Injīl, as to who Jesus the Messiah is and what he did.
God is OneThe basic starting place for this investigation is the central truth that units all People of the Book. That truth is the unity of God. All people of the book believe in One God, creator of all things, eternal, unchanging, all powerful and all knowing. That is the clear testimony of the Tawrat, the Zabur, the Books of the Prophets, the Injīl and the Qur’ān and it is the foundation of our faith. For example, when asked what the greatest commandment was by a Jewish religious leader, Jesus the Messiah answered by saying,
“The most important one is this: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” (Mark 12:29-30)His clear testimony was that God is One. Or later in the Injīl it is written this way,
“For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 2:5).
The Unique ProphetThe question then arises, if that is the common belief of all People of the Book, then why is there such dispute over the person of Jesus the Messiah? For example, there is general agreement among all People of the Book over the nature and work of such prophets as Abraham, Moses, or David. They were men who had been called by God and given God’s message for the people of their time. Why is there no such unity of opinion over Jesus? The answer is simply because, while in some ways he is like the other prophets, in many important ways he is different and unique. It is that uniqueness that creates the differences of opinion. In what follows, I want to survey in brief what the different books say about Jesus the Messiah. I will look at the miraculous signs he performed, the authority he demonstrated, his nature, the claims he made about himself, and finally, the names used of him in God’s Word.
Jesus’ Unique MiraclesFirst of all, he performed more miraculous signs than any other prophet before or after. These signs were prophesied about him in the earlier books. It was said in the Books of the Prophets that when God’s Messiah would come, he could be recognized by the miracles he did, and those miracles were briefly described. Those same miracles as done by Jesus are described fully in the Injīl and summarized in brief form in the Qur’ān in such places as Al-Imran (3):49 and Al Maidah (5):110. Sura Al-Imran (3):49 says,
“And (appoint him) a messenger to the Children of Israel, (with this message): ‘I have come to you, with a Sign from your Lord, in that I make for you out of clay, as it were, the figure of a bird, and breathe into it, and it becomes a bird by Allah’s leave: And I heal those born blind, and the lepers, and I quicken the dead, by Allah’s leave; and I declare to you what ye eat, and what ye store in your houses. Surely therein is a Sign for you if ye did believe.”It would take far too long to look at all the miracles Jesus performed, but I will mention some of the various types of miracles he did. Once Jesus and his disciples were caught in the middle of the Sea of Galilee in a terrible storm. His disciples were terrified, certain they were going to drown. Before all the disciples, Jesus showed his power over nature by commanding the storm to stop and it became immediately calm. The disciples were overwhelmed and speechless. “What kind of man is this?” they asked, “Even the wind and water obey him (Matthew 8:27)!” If we really think about it, we are tempted to ask the same question ourselves. Another time, he ordered a barren fruit tree to never again bear fruit; it withered and died immediately (Matthew 21:18-19). Such examples could be multiplied as he demonstrated his power over nature.
Jesus’ Power over Sickness & DemonsHe also showed power over sickness by healing all types of diseases. He healed lepers and the paralyzed, and restored sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf. The sick from far and wide, both Jew and Gentile, flocked to him during his three-year ministry to be healed of all their ailments. In a similar way, he showed his power over Satan and his host of evil spirits by driving them out of people who had long suffered under their oppression. So well known was he for this ability that even those not his followers started using his name in their attempts to drive out evil spirits. Another power he demonstrated was over food and drink, one of our survival essentials. One time, as recorded in the Injīl in John 6, he had been teaching a large crowd of several thousand people in an isolated place. It was mealtime but no one had any food and there was nowhere to buy any. Only one boy had any food, four small loaves of bread and two small fish – nothing at all for such a crowd. And yet, Jesus took the boy’s food, gave thanks to God and ordered it to be distributed among the people. All ate their fill and 12 baskets of leftovers were gathered after the meal.
Jesus’ Power over DeathFinally, he showed his power over mankind’s final and greatest enemy, death itself. In several different instances he commanded and a dead person was restored to life. For example, in the Injīl in John 11, it records how Jesus’ friend Lazarus died suddenly. Although Jesus had been told of his sickness, he went to Lazarus’s village only after he had died and been in his tomb for three days. On arriving, Jesus asked to see the tomb and then ordered that the stone covering the entrance be removed. People objected saying decay had started and there would be a smell. Yet, at Jesus’ insistence, the large stone was removed, upon which Jesus commanded saying, “Lazarus, come out.” To everyone’s complete amazement, Lazarus promptly walked out of the tomb in his grave clothing, alive and well.
Forgiveness of SinThis God-given power to perform miracles served as an important sign as to Jesus’ true identity. In a similar way, he also demonstrated authority such as no person has ever shown before. One of the most remarkable of his claims to authority was his claim to be able to forgive sins. One such incident is recorded in Mark 2:1-12, when a paralyzed man was brought to Jesus for healing and Jesus, sensing his faith, told him his sins were forgiven. The Jewish religious leaders were horrified and enraged, thinking God alone had the authority to forgive sins. In response, Jesus told the crowd that he would heal the man, thereby proving the truth of his claim to be able to forgive sins. He then commanded the man to get up and walk, which the man (paralyzed from birth) promptly did.
The Giver of PeaceAnother significant area of authority that Jesus claimed was the ability to give peace to his followers. For example, on one occasion, he said to his followers,
“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” (John 14:27)The world’s peace is temporary and incomplete. The peace Jesus gives is complete and never ends. That is one of the reasons that his disciples do not pray for his peace on mention of his name. To do so would be meaningless, for two reasons. First, we already know from both the Injīl and the Qur’ān that Jesus is at peace and in a place of honor and authority in God’s presence right now – for example, in Sura Al-Imran (3):45. He does not need our prayers. And second, he is the one who gives us peace, not we him.
Jesus Judging at QiyāmahAnother very significant authority related to his ability to give life to the dead is his authority to judge the dead on the Last Day. We get a hint of this in Sura Zukhruf (43):61, where it says that Jesus is the sign of the Last Day. What exactly that sign is we find described in the Injīl where it says that when Jesus returns on the Last Day, all the nations will be gathered before him and he will judge them, dividing them into two groups, those accepted by God and those rejected (Mt. 25:31-32). The last two areas of authority exercised by Jesus are probably the most difficult of all to understand since they are so amazing. To begin to understand them, we must wait until we have looked more fully at who he is and especially his names and titles. I will just mention the two now. They are:
1. The authority to create all things, and2. The authority to keep all things runningWe will come back to these two again later.
Why So Different?We have looked now at the miraculous signs that Jesus performed and then at the areas of authority he demonstrated. They are very different from any other person who has ever lived. And the question immediately arises, why was he so different? Was he not just another prophet like all those who had come before him? To answer that question, we must examine a third area, his nature. And in this area, as in the preceding ones, we again find that Jesus was unique.
The Mystery of the Virgin BirthFirst of all, of all human being who ever lived, Jesus was the only one born to a mother but without human father. His mother Mary was a virgin and promised in marriage to Joseph, son of Heli. Before their marriage, by the power of God’s Holy Spirit, Mary was found to be pregnant with Jesus. This is recorded in the Injīl in Matthew 1:18, Luke 1:29-35, and in the Qur’ān in Sura Al-Imran (3) and Maryam (19).
The Second AdamJesus’ miraculous birth and life results in him being compared in the different books to Hazrat Adam. For example in Sura Al-Imran (3):59 it says,
“Lo! the likeness of Jesus with Allah is as the likeness of Adam. He created him of dust, then He said unto him: Be! and he is.”In the Injīl, the same comparison between Jesus and Adam is made. We see there that what was harmed and destroyed by Adam’s disobedience was put right again by Jesus’ obedience. It says,
“Consequently, just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men. For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.” (Romans 5:18-19)
“Our Lord! We have wronged ourselves. If thou forgive us not and have not mercy on us, surely we are of the lost!”The only exception to the sin and selfishness we see all around us, even in the lives of the prophets, is Jesus the Messiah. Being born without father by the power of the Holy Spirit, he lived a holy and pure life. This is clearly seen in both the Injīl and the Qur’ān. In Sura Maryam (19):19, when the angel appears to his mother, Mary, she is told she will receive a ‘holy’ son. This agrees with the testimony of the Injīl which says that Jesus was tempted in every way other people are, yet was without sin (Hebrews 4:15). In fact, when the Jewish religious leaders were attacking and criticizing him, Jesus defended himself by challenging them, “Which one of you can prove that I am guilty of sin? (John 8:46).” No one could say anything against him. Even the sahih Hadith testifies to Jesus’ unique sinlessness:
Abu Huraira said, “I heard Allah’s Apostle saying, ‘There is none born among the offspring of Adam, but Satan touches it. A child therefore, cries loudly at the time of birth because of the touch of Satan, except Mary and her child.” 1
Before Abraham, I Am!In the same passage where he challenged people to prove him a sinner, he also made another claim that greatly upset the religious leaders. He told them that if they followed his teaching, they would know the truth and the truth would set them free (John 8:31-32). The Jews responded angrily that they were disciples of Abraham. Jesus then told them, “Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad” (John 8:56). The Jews told him, “You are not yet fifty years old and you have seen Abraham!” Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth, before Abraham was born, I am! (John 8:57, 58). Jesus’ comment enraged the Jewish religious leaders, who picked up stones to stone him to death. Before they could do so, however, he left them and disappeared. Once again, Jesus’ claim is amazing. It is not just that he claims to have lived before Abraham. Rather, what he says is, that before Abraham was, I am. Rather than try to understand at this point exactly what he meant, we shall come back to this matter a bit later when we have more of the necessary background.
Jesus’ Own ClaimsI have now briefly looked at Jesus’ different miraculous signs, his authority, and his nature. Next we shall look at the claims he made about himself. Those claims are, like what we have seen in the other areas, totally unique and unlike those made by anyone else who has ever lived. Let me quickly cover some of the more striking ones.
The Light of the WorldIn one place he said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). In essence, Jesus is saying here that if anyone wants to know how to walk on God’s path through life, then he needs to follow Jesus’ teaching.
The Path to GodIn a somewhat similar situation, but at a later date, Jesus was preparing his disciples for persecution by the Jewish religious leaders. He told them not to be worried or afraid, but that he was going to be taken up to heaven by God, where he would prepare a place for them. And he assured them that he would come back at the Last Day to take them to be with him. He ended his encouragement by saying, “You know the way to the place where I am going” (John 14:4). However, one of his disciples promptly responded, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:5, 6). Here Jesus claims not to be a path to God, but the path to God, the one and only such path.
Believe and LiveAnother of Jesus’ remarkable claims was made at the same time as he performed one of his most memorable miracles, restoring dead Lazarus back to life. As Jesus approached Lazarus’s village, the following conversation occurred between Jesus and Lazarus’s sister, Martha.
“Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” (John 11:21-26)What Jesus is saying here is that anyone who believes in him and follows him will never face eternal destruction in hell but will live forever in God’s presence.
Rest for the WearyAnother claim of Jesus is directed very much to the fearful and overburdened people of today, people burdened by cares, concerns and their own sin. Jesus said,
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)People long for rest and an ease to their burdens. That is exactly what Jesus promises to all who come to him.
The Bread of LifeA further claim of Jesus was made shortly after he miraculously provided food for the thousands who thronged to hear his teaching, as we saw earlier. Some of those who had been fed came back to Jesus the next day, but for the wrong reason. They came not to hear his teachings about knowing God and how to gain eternal life, but in order to fill their stomachs again. After pointing out their wrong motives, Jesus redirected their thinking by telling them,
“I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty.” (John 6:35)Once again, Jesus is pointing to the same truth but in different words. He is saying that those who come to him will live forever in heaven and have their physical needs met through all eternity. Those, then, are some of the claims that Jesus made about himself. They are expressed using different symbols and word pictures, but they all point to the same truth. That truth is that Jesus is the way to God. Those who follow him need not fear hunger, thirst, death or the heavy burden of sin.
Assurance of HeavenI will turn now from the claims that Jesus made to the fact that both he and his followers are given the assurance of heaven by the different religious books. For example, Sura Al-Imran (3):45 says,
“Behold! the angels said: “O Mary! Allah giveth thee glad tidings of a Word from Him: his name will be Christ Jesus, the son of Mary, held in honour in this world and the Hereafter and of (the company of) those nearest to Allah.”Among many other remarkable things in this verse, we find the fact that Jesus is held in honor both in this world and in the hereafter – at the Qiyāmah and beyond. Other prophets in the Qur’ān plainly confess that they know nothing of what will happen to them in the hereafter, such as in Sura 46:9. But of Jesus, we have no doubt. There is no question of what will happen to him in the Judgment Day – God will honor him. Nor is there any question of what will happen to his disciples since the Injīl records that Jesus will take them to heaven at the Qiyāmah to spend eternity with him there.
“Messiah”There is just one last important area about Jesus that we need to examine. We need to look at the different names used for him. The first word we will look at is “Al-Masih” or “Messiah.” It is not a name, but rather a title of Jesus found in the Injīl, the Qur’ān , and the earlier books. In the Injīl, it is used everywhere of Jesus and in the Qur’ān it is seen in such places as Sura Al-Imran (3):45 and An-Nisa (4):171. The word “Messiah” means “chosen” or “anointed one”. God promised in the earlier books that he would send someone who would defeat Satan and restore the damage done by Satan to Adam and Eve by bringing God’s grace to mankind. This promised person was called the Messiah, or God’s chosen one.
The Meaning of “Jesus”The second name is that given him by his mother and step father, the name “Jesus”. It was actually not their choice. They were told by an angel before Jesus’ birth that Mary would have a child by the Holy Spirit’s power and they should name him Jesus. The reason for giving that name was not left in doubt. Quoting the angel’s words in the Injīl,
“She will have a son and you will name him Jesus – because he will save his people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:21)What did giving him the name Jesus have to do with saving people, we might ask? In God’s Word, names are very important. Thus, God often gave people a new name on calling them for His work – such as Hazrat Abraham or Hazrat Ya’qub. The new name showed something central and important about the person’s character or work. In the case of Jesus, his name focused on his work since the word “Jesus” comes from Hebrew and means “savior” or “to save.” When we put the two names together – Jesus the Messiah – the meaning becomes “the one God has chosen as savior.”
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the LORD. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8-9)God is far above us. We can never hope to comprehend Him completely in all his fullness. God is also the creator of all things. The Tawrat opens with a detailed account of how God created the heavens and the earth. And at the pinnacle of creation, God made Adam and Eve to have fellowship with God and care for His creation. On our diagram, let’s put a curved line to represent creation – the world that God made. And on top of the curve, we put a figure of man, the pinnacle of creation.
God Communicates through His Written WordAll People of the Book respect God’s Word because it is one of the primary means of learning about Him. Though we do learn important things about God through examining His creation, when we read His Word, we see much more clearly who God is and what He has done. As the Zabur says in chapter 119:130, “The entrance of Your Word gives light, it gives understanding to the simple.” In God’s Word we learn about God’s holiness and goodness. We see his hatred of all sin, deceit and hypocrisy. We learn about God’s justice, while at the same time learning about His mercy and grace to those sinners who turn to him in repentance and faith. I will write “God’s Word” on the diagram next to “God”:
The Written Word InadequateAnd yet, our understanding of God through his Word also has limits. It is like trying to gain a clear picture of someone with whom we have exchanged letters, but never met in person. We feel we know them in many ways, but we lack the intimacy of a personal relationship. In order to open the door for such intimacy, God went one step further in revealing himself.
The Uncreated WordIt is obligatory for every Muslim to accept the concept of God’s Eternal Word; His eternal and everlasting speech and self-expression which is ghayr makhluq , or uncreated. According to orthodox Islamic belief, the Revealed Scriptures are expressions of this uncreated Word, which is why they are called kalām-Allah (كلام الله). When the Scriptures were revealed to the Prophets, God’s Eternal Word took the written form of pen and ink in the form of the scriptures we have today. The unique thing about Jesus is that both the Qur’ān and the Injīl give Jesus himself the title of the embodied kalām-Allah , the living ‘Word’ or expression of God’s Self. Jesus is given the title “Word of God” in both the Qur’ān and Injīl:
“The Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, was a messenger of Allah, and His Word , which He bestowed on Mary, and a spirit proceeding from Him: so believe in Allah and His messengers..” (Sura Nisa (4):171)This passage calls Jesus the Messiah “His word,” or God’s word.2 And just as Islam teaches that the Written Word (Scriptures) pre-existed even creation, so too the Injīl teaches that Jesus (the Living Word), existed before creation:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God…through him all things were made” (John 1:1,3)”He [Jesus] is the firstborn over creation…For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible … He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” (Colossians 1:15,16)So through Jesus all things were created and hold together. We know from the Tawrat that God created all things out of nothing, merely by uttering a command. God spoke, and through His Word, everything sprang into being. However Jesus is not the result of God’s creative Word فيكن !كن (kun! faya kun, ‘Be! And it is’) ; he himself is that very creative Word, he is the ” kun fayakun.” From the Injīl we learn that Jesus was that Word through whom God worked in both creating all things in the beginning and now in sustaining that creation. This preexistent Word who took human form and lived among us was the Prophet Jesus. So what are we to understand by this?
Beyond ComprehensionWhat this is saying about Jesus is not easy to comprehend because it goes beyond what we are familiar with. And yet, over the years, there has been a wide consensus among those who have studied this passage and others as to who Jesus really is. And who is he? Put simply, he is the living Word of God. The different books God has sent through the prophets are God’s written word. Jesus is God’s living word in human form.
The Living Word of GodA “word” is a means of communication. When people want to communicate, what do they do? They speak to each other using words. If I sit silent and say nothing, no one knows what I am thinking. It is only when I open my mouth and speak that my words reveal my inner thoughts. I will now add another figure to the diagram to represent the Living Word of God:
“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”In response, one of his disciples answered, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.” Obviously, what the disciple wanted was impossible. God is invisible. No one can show him. And yet, through Jesus, we can understand what the invisible God is like. Jesus responded,
” Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?”What an amazing statement. Jesus shows us in human form what the invisible God is like. It is the clearest picture we will get of what God is like. The Injīl bears the testimony of the disciples who had been with Jesus, the living Word of God, watched him and learned from him. Here is how they described it in 1 John 1:1-3:
“That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us.”
ConclusionsAs we finish our look at what the different religious books say about Jesus, what conclusions can we draw? First of all, it is very clear that Jesus was different from the other prophets God sent. He was unique and one of a kind. That is the reason there has been so much controversy centered around him. Different people look at the different facts about him and conclude different things. And yet, I think any who examine all the evidence impartially will draw certain conclusions. He is the Messiah or God’s chosen one sent to offer salvation to sinful mankind. He is also the Word of God, who existed with God from the beginning, coming down as a human being through the virgin Mary. He lived a sinless life and was taken back up alive by God into heaven where he is now preparing a place for his followers. Finally, he will return to earth at the Last Day to judge mankind and to take his followers back with him to heaven.
- Sahih Al-Bukhari , Volume 4, Book 55, No 641, see also 4:54:506)
To avoid Jesus’ uniqueness, some have tried to allege that Al-‘Imran 3:39 also calls John the Baptist the Word of God. However, if we read the verse, it is very clear that it speaks of John the Baptist confirming Jesus as the Word. The Early Commentators such as Ibn Abbas almost unanimously affirm that this “Word” of Allah is Jesus, which is confirmed in the classic Tafsir al-Jalalayn , al-Zamakhshari and Tabarsi, and of course the Injil (John 1:7,14) as well.
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