God specializes in meeting people where they are. Perhaps one of the more notable biblical examples is found in Daniel 2 and 7. God gave arguably the same vision of four kingdoms to a pagan king and to a Hebrew prophet. To the pagan king He chose to give a vision of an idol. To the prophet Daniel, a worshiper of the Creator, He gave the same basic message in the form of a parade of different animals. God communicated in a medium that would resonate with each man uniquely. God met them where they were.
The same Paul that warned in 2 Corinthians 11 of “false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into apostles of Christ” counseled his readers in 1 Corinthians to meet people where they are — in fact, to become like them! In 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 he tells us “to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win Jews.” Paul says that he would become “under the law” to meet those of that worldview, or “without the law.” Or to reach the weak, “I became as weak, that I might win the weak.”
Paul then explains his motive and rationale for doing so: “I have become all things to allmen, that I might be allmeans save some. This I do for the gospel’s sake” (emphasis mine).
In Acts 17 a fascinating and even challenging story is recorded of Paul “evangelizing” in Athens: “his spirit was provoked within him when he saw that the city was given over to idols” (v. 16). Paul reasoned in the synagogue as well as in the marketplace, where “certain Epicurean and Stoic philosophers encountered him” as he “preached to them Jesus and the resurrection” (v. 18).
Intrigued, they “brought him to the Areopagus, saying, ‘May we know what this new doctrine is of which you speak?’” (v. 19). Note carefully that Paul did notbegin chastising them for their obvious, rampant false and pagan worship. Instead, he began to praise them by noting, “I perceive that in all things you are very religious. . . . I even found an altar with this inscription: TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. Therefore, the One whom you worship without knowing, Him I proclaim to you” (vv. 22, 23). Paul then proceeded to give them a biblical understanding of this “unknown God” without quoting Scripture from the Old Testament, which would have been an unfamiliar and foreign source or reference to them.
The challenging part came when Paul, as part of his sermon about the true God, quoted from a Greek poet (v. 28), Epimenides, who wrote “They fashioned a tomb for Thee, O holy and high One The Cretans, always liars, evil beasts, idle bellies! But Thou art not dead; forever Thou art risen and alive, For in Thee[Zeus] we live and move and have out being”(emphasis mine).
If that were not enough, Paul went on to quote the fifth line of the poem “Phaenomena,” by Aratus, a Stoic philosopher (for the purpose of context we have included the first five lines of “Phaenomena”):
“Let us begin with Zeus, whom we mortals never leave unspoken. For every street, every market-place is full of Zeus. Even the sea and the harbor are full of this deity. Everywhere everyone is indebted to Zeus. For we are indeed his offspring . . .”(emphasis mine).
Really, Paul? In order to preach about Jesus and the resurrection, you had to quote from obviouslypagan literature? Was this appropriate? What gives?
Simply put, Paul was quoting from known and respected non-biblical philosophers or poets as a tool or bridge to communicate eternal truth. Through Paul, God met them where they were — getting their attention, building rapport, moving truth seekers from the familiar and known to the unknown, from the false to the true, from the pagan to the sacred. The result? “Some men joined him and believed . . .” (v. 34).
I think Paul had this day in mind when he wrote to the church in Corinth “I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22).
As a young man I always heard “Beware of even the slightest hint of false teaching! A glass of pure orange juice is pure — until a drop of poison is dropped into it. After that, don’t touch it.” But it seems the Holy Spirit is able to take “less than perfect” illustrations and bridges, and miraculously distill out the false so that they are left with the true. In the words of Richard Longenecker in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, “In his search for a measure of common ground with his hearers, he is, so to speak, disinfecting and rebaptizing the poets words for his own purposes” (p. 476).
With Paul’s example, is it any wonder that many of us use passages from the Qur’an as a similar “bridge”? The Qur’an has many passages that are clear in their support of the Bible. While sometimes referred to as the “revelation” or “law” or “gospel” or even “Scriptures,” the words are often the Torah (the books of Moses), the Zaboor (books of David), and the Injeel (Gospels and larger meaning of the New Testament). The Qur’an says it confirms the Bible: “This is a blessed Book [the Qur’an] which We have revealed, confirming what came before it [Bible] . . .” (Qur’an 6:92, translation by N. J. Dawood). Indeed, the Qur’an offers help to those confused by its own teachings: “If you doubt what We have revealed to you, ask those who have read the Scriptures before you” (Qur’an 10:94).
These are just two of several Qur’anic verses that are successfully used to lead adherents of the Qur’an to reconsider the authority of the Bible. Would Paul himself, were he alive today and called to share the good news with Muslims, hesitate to familiarize himself with the Qur’an so that he may use the “truth” in it to guide the spiritual seeker to “greater Truth”?
Jesus is the only one to whom the Qur’an ascribes many unique characteristics: He was born of a virgin (Qur’an 3:47; 19:20, 21; see Luke 1:30-32, 34); He is the Messiah (al-Masih, Qur’an 3:34; 4:157, 171; see Mark 8:29); He is the Word of God (Qur’an 3:45; 4:17; see John 1:1, 14); Jesus is the word of truth (Qur’an 19:34; see 2 Corinthians 6:7); He is the Spirit of God (Qur’an 4:171; see Luke 3:21-22); Jesus is holy (Qur’an 19:19; see Acts 4:27, 30); Jesus ascended into heaven after His death and resurrection (Qur’an 3:55; see Ephesians 1:19-20); Jesus is coming again (Qur’an 43:61; see Acts 1:10, 11).
Ultimately, the work of drawing anyone, whether Muslim or Jew or other, to see Jesus as more than just a great prophet is the work of God himself. In Matthew 16:13-17 Jesus asked His disciples, “Who do men say that I, the Son of Man, am?” They noted that no one was quite sure. He asked, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus said to him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven.”
This encounter seems to have taken place near the end of Jesus’ ministry. The disciples had over three years to listen to His teachings, observe the miracles and magnitude of all He had done and said (John 21:25). Apparently, Jesus himself in His “flesh and blood” manifestation was unable to reveal this great truth to them, but it took a spiritualwork orchestrated by His Father.
Jesus likened the new birth and the work of the Spirit to the wind (John 3:8). The Spirit draws some of the most (seemingly) unlikely of individuals. It may be a harlot in Jericho (Joshua 2), perhaps a woman “living in sin” as part of a theologically syncretistic community (John 4), or a zealous persecutor of the fledgling church (Saul in Acts 9).
Indeed I have had Muslims tell me that the words of Rabia a female Sufi Muslim (CE ad 750) were the cry of their own heart.
O God! If I worship You for fear of Hell, burn me in Hell,
and if I worship You in hope of Paradise, exclude me from Paradise.
But if I worship You for Your Own sake,
grudge me not Your everlasting Beauty.
It was Jesus’ desire that those with Him “lift up your eyes and look at the fields, for they are already white for harvest!” (John 4:35). Surely now as then “The harvest truly is great, but the laborers are few; therefore pray the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest” (Luke 10:2, emphasis mine).