JESUS CHRIST – ESCHATOLOGICAL PROPHET AND INCARNATE SAVIOR
A CHRISTIAN PROPOSAL TO MUSLIMS (Part 1/3)
Both Muslims and Christians apply the title ‘prophet’ to Jesus. However, the distinctive Islamic emphasis on prophethood should not be missed. In general the Muslim teaching of prophets includes the following: 1) A messenger/apostle (rasul) is sent with divine Scripture to guide and reform mankind; 2) All God’s prophets were trustworthy, knowledgeable, and most obedient to God. Allah protected them from serious sins and bad diseases; 3) Denying any of the prophets constitutes unbelief (Surah 4: 150-151); 4) Many prophets were mocked and rejected (Surah 15:11; 17:94). Some prophets were delivered by God, e.g. Noah (Surah 21:76; 26:118; 29:15; 37:76), Lot (21:71, 74; 26:170), and Moses (Surah 28:20-22; 26:65). Some of the prophets, however, were killed ‘wrongfully’ (e.g. Abel, Zechariah, and Yahya or John the Baptist), c.f. Surah 2:61, 87, 91; 3:21, 112; 4:155; 5:70. Finally, and most importantly, for Muslims Muhammad is ‘the seal of the prophets’ (Surah 33:40) /1/.
Islamic traditions have described Jesus as an ascetic prophet. A famous hadith has Jesus saying, “My seasoning is hunger, my undergarment is fear of Allah, my outer-garment is wool, my fire in winter is the ray of the sun, my lamp is the moon, my riding beast is my feet, and my food and fruit are what the earth brings forth (that is, without cultivation). At night I have nothing and in the morning I have nothing. Yet there is no one on earth richer than I” /2/.
In another hadith Ka’b al-Akbar reported that Jesus “was an ascetic in the world, longing for the next world and eager for the worship of Allah. He was a pilgrim in the earth till the Jews sought him and desired to kill him. Then Allah raised him up to heaven; and Allah knows best” /3/.
More significantly, Jesus holds an honored position among the prophets, being none other than the eschatological prophet who brings his work to completion at the end of time. As one hadith testifies, “And there are none of the People of the Book who will not believe in him before his death. On the day of Resurrection he [Jesus] will be a witness against them” (Al-Bukhari Vol.4.Book 55.657) /4/.
However, Christians will be startled by Muslim teaching that Christ’s return will include judging Christians for their folly. According to Al-Bukhari (Vol.4. Book 43.656), Jesus will descend as a Just Ruler. He will break the cross and kill the pig and bring war to an end. Such Muslim eschatological expectation can only bring a sense of foreboding for the Christians.
Despite their high estimate of Jesus, Muslims assert Prophet Muhammad’s superiority: Jesus wandered as an ascetic, but Muhammad brought glory and triumph to God as a ruler-saint and bequeathed us a comprehensive legal system as well as a blueprint for building a perfect political order. Several implications arise from this evaluation: Since Islam is the final and perfect revelation (Surah 5:3, 5), the Gospels cannot be final. The Gospels retain truth to the extent that they are prophecies concerning the coming Muhammad.
For Muslims, Jesus is only a prophet, albeit a most honored prophet; he is not the son of God, much less an incarnate God. It is natural for Christians to react to this diminution of Jesus status by avoiding any discussion about Jesus’ prophetic vocation. However, dialog must begin with common ground. Discussion about the prophetic vocation of Jesus can be an opportunity to nudge Muslims to reconsider whether their understanding of Jesus is prematurely truncated. The question raised is, to what extent God is personally involved in the sending of his prophets, especially the prophet [Jesus] who manifests the full embodiment of God’s spirit and who not only proclaims salvation but attests to his message with signs and wonders. Christians should urge Muslims at least to be willing to listen to the self-testimony of Jesus and assess the Bible on its own terms.
One may begin with the Old Testament which understands a prophet to be a person who, “because he is conscious of having been specially chosen and called, feels forced to perform actions and proclaim ideas which, in a mental state of intense inspiration of real ecstasy, have been indicated to him in the form of divine revelation” /5/.
Reginald Fuller argues that the category of the eschatological prophet remains the best category for understanding Jesus’ historical mission and “gives a unity to all of Jesus’ historical activity, his proclamation, his teaching with exousia (‘authority’), his healings and exorcisms, his conduct in eating with the outcast, and finally his death in the fulfillment of his prophetic mission. Take the implied self-understanding of his role in terms of the eschatological prophet away, and the whole ministry falls into a series of unrelated, if not meaningless fragments” /6/
The Old Testament also looks forward to the coming of an eschatological prophet. This teaching has its origin from the Deuteronomic tradition of Moses found in Deut. 18:15, “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me [Moses] from among you, from your brethren – him you shall heed.” Moses was a prophet, a proclaimer of the word, a mediator between God and the people (Deut. 5:5) and sometimes a suffering mediator (Deut. 1:37; 4:21, c.f., Num. 12:6-8 and Exod. 33:11).
According to the New Testament, Jesus fulfilled these prophecies. The Gospels tell us that Jesus had visions and ecstatic experiences – baptism and transfiguration. His insight and supernatural knowledge is evidenced by his prophecy of his death in Jerusalem and the destruction of Jerusalem by the Roman legions in AD 70. He taught with divine authority, but he also enacted symbolic actions that were characteristic of the Old Testament prophets. After the miraculous feeding of 5000 (Jn. 6:1-15; cf. Mk. 6:30-44; cf. Mt. 14:13-21; Lk. 9:10-17), the crowd declared that “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world!” ( Jn. 6:14). They were recalling the miraculous provision of manna in the Exodus event (Ex.16:4-8). At the Feast of Tabernacles, during the ritual pouring of water at the altar, Jesus declared “If any one thirsts, let him come to me and drink. He who believes in me, as the scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water” (Jn. 7:37-39). The significance of Jesus’ claim was not lost to the crowd, given the traditional belief that the eschatological prophet would repeat the miracle of dispensing water at Horeb (Ex. 17:1-6; Num. 20:2-11). Their verdict was, “This is really the prophet after Moses” (Jn. 7:40, c.f. Mk. 6:4; Deut. 18:15-19).
Edward Schillebeecks elaborates,
“Like Moses, he [Jesus] communicates the law and justice (Isa. 42:1f) , but now to the whole world; the suffering servant-like Moses is “the light of the world” (Isa. 49:5-9; 42:1-6); and like Moses he is the mediator of the covenant (Isa. 42:6; 49:8), leader of the new exodus, this time from the Babylonian captivity. The twelve tribes are gathered together again as a result of this exodus (Isa. 49:5; 43:5f). In this new exodus the eschatological prophet greater than Moses will again strike water from the rock and offer “the water of life” to his people (Isa. 41:18; 42:20; 48:21; 49:10; see the Gospel of John). The suffering servant is the Moses of the new exodus (Isa. 43:16-21); expiating sins, suffering for his people, the Mosaic servant has all the marks of the figure who in early Judaism is in fact called the messianic eschatological prophet like Moses . . . the royal messianic prophet Moses, the divus” /7/
Jesus’ symbolic actions came to a climax when he rode into Jerusalem riding on a donkey. The crowd proclaimed Jesus to be no ordinary prophet but the prophet with a messianic mission, who comes in the name of the Lord (Mt. 21:9). Jesus was the fulfillment of all OT prophecies concerning the eschatological prophet – particularly those in the book of Isaiah – not only in the proclamation of the Jubilee (Luke 4:18-19, c.f. Isa. 61:1-2) but in the his prediction of vicarious death for sinners (Isa. 52-53). Later, the early Church pointed to the resurrection of Jesus as evidence that God vindicated him as the eschatological prophet foretold by Moses (Acts 3:12-26; 7:2-53; cf. Deut. 18:15-19).
In fulfilling the Old Testament prophecies, Jesus endowed his prophetic office with eschatological significance. The Old Testament prophets proclaimed the word. Jesus himself is the Word. The OT prophetic message was given to Israel. Jesus is the light of God given to the world. In other words, the category of eschatological prophet elevates rather than restricts Jesus’ universal significance, since the qualifier ‘eschatological’ points to his universal paradigmatic significance of Jesus. To quote Schillebeeckx again, “Certainly in the New Testament, the term eschatological prophet implies that this prophet is significant for the whole history of the world, and significant for the whole of subsequent history. . . . Thus eschatological prophet means a prophet who claims to bring a definitive message which applies to the whole of history” /8/.
1. David Shenk and Badru Kateregga, Islam and Christianity: A Muslim and a Christian in Dialogue (Eerdmans 1981), pp. 34-38.
2. Muhammad ’Ata ur-Rahim, Jesus, Prophet of Islam (Omar Brothers 1978), p. 223.
3. Ibid. 222.
4. Hadith Al-Bukhari, MSA-USC Hadith Database. Internet edition found in (http://www.usc.edu/dept/MSA/reference/searchhadith.html). A handy one volume collection of the hadiths can be found in the Summarized Sahih Al-Bukhari, tr. Muhammad Muhsin Khan (Darussalam Pub. 1996).
5. J. Lindblom, Prophecy in Ancient Israel (Fortress 1962), p. 46.
6. Reginald Fuller, Foundations of New Testament Christology (Charles Scribner’s Sons 1965), p. 109.
7. Edward Schillebeecks, Interim Report on the Book Jesus and Christ (SCM 1980), pp. 65-66.
Ibid., p. 67.