Answering Islam - A Christian-Muslim dialog

User Guide for sharing the Good News
Using the “sunrise” pamphlet

Roland Clarke


Preamble

Can you imagine a more gentle and appealing way of engaging unbelievers in meaningful spiritual conversation than to show them Solomon's wise saying about God planting eternity in the human heart? But now consider nudging someone to ponder this heart warming topic by showing him/her a beautiful picture of an early morning sun breaking the horizon. Speaking of sunrise, Solomon observed that, “Light is sweet; how appealing it is to see a new day dawning.” (Ecclesiastes 11:7, NLT, bold added for emphasis)

Anyone who has read the Bible is aware of the Messianic significance of the imagery of dawn and light. The prophets described Christ coming as a great light shining in the darkness or as the “dawning of the Day.” (Luke 1:78; 2 Peter 1:19, Isaiah 49:6)

Suddenly it dawned on me, “Why not use a picturesque sunrise as a backdrop to enhance the meaning of a proverb which describes the dawn?” Doing this might provide a lovely way of making the Good News more attractive. I realized, almost intuitively, that Solomon's proverbial description of light as life and immortality, is profoundly true. (Proverbs 4:18; 12:28; cf. John 1:4,5,9; 8:12)

Let me conclude by quoting two other proverbs that underscore the value of using word pictures or words with pictures. As the saying goes, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” In a similar way, Scripture says, “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver.” (Prov. 25:11, NKJV)

I trust this brief explanation of what inspired me to write this meditation has blessed you. May it also encourage you to share it with friends. These insights are, of course, suitable for sharing with anyone. The pamphlet is available online here: tinyurl.com/ycng4a7r


Introduction

My aim is not to have you mimic exactly how I explain the Gospel. I simply want to paint a picture that shows you it is possible to share the Good News in a gracious and seasoned with salt manner as Scripture tells us in Colossians 4:5-6. I trust that my example will encourage you to better follow Christ empowered by the Spirit who will enable you to apply and adapt the insights and principles in this pamphlet.

Recently, while paying the cashier for a coffee, I commented, “You've probably heard of a saying that goes like this, A picture is worth a thousand words.” He agreed, so I showed him a picture that made this saying come to life as it appears on the sunrise pamphlet. I said, “Isn't it lovely?” He smiled showing that it resonated with him. I asked, “Do you think this is a photo of a sunrise or a sunset?” He thought for a moment and answered, “Sunrise.” “You're right,” I replied. Fortunately, there were no other customers waiting in the queue, so he turned the page as though curious to answer the question, “Can you believe what happened next?”

Not surprisingly, the sun rose higher as pictured on the inside cover. His eye naturally moved down and he read the two sayings at the bottom of the page. I commented, “You might be interested to know that these two Proverbs were penned by Solomon.” In fact, he wrote another wise saying on a similar theme as seen on the next page. The cashier continued reading the whole pamphlet which took just a few moments. We parted on good terms and I told him that I hope to come back some time for another coffee.

Let's suppose you've had a similar experience sharing the seed of the Gospel with a receptive person like my new friend Lewis. Would you try meeting when your friend is not working? How would you continue watering the seed after the initial pleasantries?

Here's what I asked Lewis, “Did you ever read any of those wise sayings before seeing them in that pamphlet?” Here are a couple other questions that might help you to see where he's at. “Was there anything in the meditation that particularly interested you? Did it raise any questions you'd like to discuss?”

Regardless how your friend answers, it shouldn't be that difficult to address his concerns and then connect the dots with two ideas – sin and salvation. These are important foundations for helping your friend understand the Good News. Neither of these terms are explicitly mentioned in the pamphlet but the latter one are certainly implied in 2 Timothy 1:10, in the title, “Saviour” referring to Jesus, and in the unusual, if intriguing idea that Jesus “destroyed death.” As you continue reading this user guide notice how the Gospel is explained beginning from the OT, then unfolded and fulfilled in the NT. According to Psalm 119:130, “The unfolding of your words gives light; it gives understanding to the simple.”

Here is a question that will help you explore the meaning of death. Ask your friend: “Does it seem somewhat strange to describe Jesus as destroying death?” There may be various reasons why this strikes people as strange. People tend to assume that death is normal. It happens to everyone, so we must learn to accept it and get over it. In fact, many movies minimize the painful feelings associated with loss of a loved one and portray death as somehow being a bridge to a better life, e.g. the hope-inspiring image of a light at the end of a dark tunnel.

However, God's Word says death is fundamentally abnormal and negative. We see hints of this in the way humans feel towards death. People grieve deeply and we fear death. (Ecclesiastes 7:1-5; Psalm 49:6-8,15; John 11: 33-38; Hebrews 4:15) Consider also how we respond intuitively to being diagnosed with a life threatening disease like cancer. We deeply dislike death and resist it. Indeed, it is not uncommon to hear people talk about fighting it.

Interestingly, humans are not the only ones who fight death, God himself is violently opposed to death. We see this in Isaiah 25:7-9, a prophecy that stands out like a beacon of hope. “On this mountain he will destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations; he will swallow up death forever. The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces; he will remove his people’s disgrace from all the earth. The Lord has spoken. In that day they will say, “Surely this is our God; we trusted in him, and he saved us. This is the Lord, we trusted in him; let us rejoice and be glad in his salvation.

Notice the terms “destroy” and “swallow up” are often used in relation to overpowering an enemy. (1 Corinthians 16:25-26) We find another clue to understand death as an enemy by reflecting on how things were at the very beginning. This perspective is appropriate since Ecclesiastes 3:11 makes it painfully clear that humans “cannot see the whole scope of God's work from beginning to end.” (NLT)

Genesis, the first book of the Bible, explains that the world was originally created “very good.” But then death came as an intruder when Satan deceived and enticed Eve and Adam to disobey God. As a direct result they were sentenced to die, physically and spiritually. For this reason, Jesus called Satan “the murderer from the beginning.” (John 8:44)

Isaiah 25:7-9 foretells the coming of a day when God will destroy death. Furthermore, Scripture makes it clear that the Messiah will bring God's salvation to the ends of the earth. Seven hundred years after the time of Isaiah, Jesus came as the Messiah and fulfilled this promise in two ways:

  1. He rose triumphantly from the grave at the very place where Isaiah predicted death would be destroyed, i.e. Mt Zion, Jerusalem. (cf. Luke 18:31-33)

  2. Notice however, that Jesus not only saves people from death, he also saves us from sin. As it is written, “You are to give him the name Jesus, because he shall save his people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:21)

You may need to help your friend take sin seriously, so that he will repent and turn from it. If necessary he may also need to make restitution. Part and parcel of repenting is believing that the Lord Jesus Christ died for our sins and accepting the complete forgiveness Christ offers and accepting eternal life as a gift.

We've touched briefly on some key Scriptures which you can use to explain the Good News to your unsaved friend. Of course, there are many different ways the how a conversation might unfold. Don't be worried or timid about what to say. God has given his Spirit to guide and empower us to be his witnesses.

Have you noticed that several of the Bible passages we've mentioned engage people on more than just an intellectual level? They touch our whole being, including the aesthetic appeal of a beautiful sunrise, our heart longing for eternity as well as various negative emotions related to death. Why not encourage your friend to share experiences from his own life involving these “feelings”? Doing this will undoubtedly help “season your conversation with salt.” (Colossians 4:2-6)

To help you further probe these glimpses of Gospel light, I suggest you carefully read the following online articles, Meditation on Light, Is death the end?

All Bible quotations are taken from the New International Version unless otherwise indicated.

If you would like to correspond please email me here.


Endnote

Some readers may wonder if this article is relevant to Muslims, especially considering that it does not mention Islam. This article and the accompanying sunrise pamphlet contain several themes that are very relevant to Muslims.

  1. “The path of the righteous” is a phrase that resonates with Muslims. (see surah 1)

  2. Since “Allah is the light of the heavens and the earth” it makes sense to Muslims that this pathway leads to a brighter and brighter destiny.

  3. Muslims believe Sulaiman (Solomon) was a prophet endowed by Allah with exceptional wisdom.

  4. It is important for Muslims to think much about death, not unlike how Solomon advised in Ecclesiastes 7:1-5 as referenced above.

  5. The Qur'an, like the Bible, depicts Satan as the evil enemy who caused the downfall of Adam and Eve. It was he who deceived and enticed Adam and Eve to eat the forbidden fruit.

  6. Whereas the earlier 5 points involve similarities between Christianity and Islam, there are of course, differences. For example, Islam categorically denies that Jesus is the Son of God. Also Muslims emphatically reject the central teaching of the Bible that Jesus died on the cross to take away the sin of the world. Faced with this challenge, let us be strong and courageous. “For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid but gives us power, love and self discipline. So do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner. Rather join me in suffering for the Gospel.” (2 Timothy 1:7-8)

 

APPENDIX

What does the Scripture mean, “Let your conversation be full of grace, seasoned with salt”?

A few weeks ago my wife and I were strolling through the downtown market and we decided to buy a cup of coffee. While paying the cashier I commented, “You've probably heard of a saying that goes like this, A picture is worth a thousand words.” He agreed, so I handed him a pamphlet with a beautiful picture of the morning sun breaking the horizon. I said, “This picture makes that saying come to life. Isn't it lovely?” He smiled warmly as if to agree with me. I asked, “Do you think this is a sunrise or a sunset?” He thought for a moment and then answered, “Sunrise.” “You're right,” I replied. Fortunately, there were no other customers waiting to be served, so he turned the page as though curious to answer the question, “Can you believe what happened next?”

Not surprisingly, the sun rose higher as pictured on the inside cover. His eye naturally moved down the page as he read the two sayings at the bottom. I commented, “You might be interested to know that these two Proverbs were penned by Solomon.” In fact, he wrote another wise saying on a similar theme as seen on the next page. The cashier continued reading the whole pamphlet which took just a few moments. We parted on good terms and I told him that I hope to come back some time for another coffee.

This experience is a fairly typical example showing how I've been sowing Gospel seed in the hearts of many dozens of unbelievers over the last 8 weeks. Some are strangers and some are friends. Well over 90 percent of these people accepted it gladly, in most cases, with a warm smile. My prayer is that these seeds will be watered, whether by me or some other Christian.

My aim in this sermon is to explain some of the key themes in this meditation, such as light and eternal life. I want to make it clear that Christ's example in John 4 is what inspired me to discover these insights. So when you hear me share experiences from my life as a way of illustrating the principles in God's Word be assured that you are ultimately following Christ. As Paul himself said, “Be imitators of me as I also am of Christ.” (1 Cor. 11:1)

John 1:18 summarizes Christ's character saying that he was “full of grace and truth.” Let us keep these traits in mind as we look at John 4 and review the familiar story of Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman at a well. Let us also bear in mind, that Christ wants us to see his encounter with Samaritans as a prime example of how to preach the Good News to unbelievers, especially in Samaria. Notice how Jesus mentions Samaria in Acts 1:8 which is so foundational for understanding God's plan to bring the message of salvation to the whole world. “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

Let's read the first couple paragraphs of John 4.

So Jesus left Judea and went back once more to Galilee.

4 Now he had to go through Samaria. 5 So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6 Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about noon.

7 When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” 8 (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.)

9 The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.)

10 Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”

11 “Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? 12 Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his livestock?”

13 Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

15 The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.”

16 He told her, “Go, call your husband and come back.”

17 “I have no husband,” she replied.

Jesus said to her, “You are right when you say you have no husband. 18 The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.” [Isn't it amazing how beautifully and seamlessly Jesus combines “grace and truth”!]

19 “Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. 20 Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”

21 “Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews.

Notice, at the very beginning how Christ showed respect and grace towards the Samaritan woman by talking with her and asking for a drink. This was in stark contrast to the aloofness and disrespect which most Jewish people showed to their Samaritan cousins. Also notice, it wasn't as though Christ's disciples showed a much better attitude than their fellow countrymen!

In fact, his disciples were very surprised when they saw Jesus talking freely with the Samaritan woman. They were uncomfortable with the easy-going and friendly way he was acting towards her as a Samaritan. (v. 27) Their suspicious and negative attitude towards Samaritans is underscored on another occasion where James and John wanted to call fire down from heaven against a Samaritan village just because the local innkeeper declined giving them a bed! (Luke 9:51ff)

So let me ask you, “What people do you think correspond to Samaritans in our society where Judeo-Christian roots have shaped mainstream Canadians? What group in Canada are comparable to Samaritans in the 1st century who shared significant cultural/religious commonalities with their Jewish cousins, yet were shunned and disdained by the mainstream Jewish community? (v. 9) ... Yes, Muslims of course.

Time does not allow me to list the many similarities between the two monotheistic faiths, Islam and Samaritanism, which ironically fueled a deep sense of rivalry over which was the true worship centre – Mt Zion or Mt Gerazim? Whether in the first century or today, both of these polarized scenarios involved a longstanding legacy of heated debates. [A fuller explanation of this is available online in the introduction to my book, What every Christian needs to know about sharing the Gospel with Muslims.]

Although time does not permit us to explore these fascinating parallels, we do have time to look at an example from John 4 showing how Christ's conversation was full of grace, seasoned with salt” as mentioned in Colossians 4:2-6; “Devote yourselves to prayer ... that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, ... Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.”

Notice, Paul instructs us to be “full of grace,” which calls to mind how Jesus was “full of grace.” So how did Jesus show grace towards the Samaritan woman? By simply engaging her in friendly conversation Jesus showed her grace and respect. But even more so, he showed grace by offering her “the gift of God”!

Now let us consider the idea of “seasoning our conversation with salt.” How did Jesus demonstrate this with the Samaritan woman? Notice how he stimulated her curiosity and spiritual thirst by describing eternal life using an intriguing word picture, i.e. living water.

Then, as the conversation continued to unfold Jesus made it clear that eternal life is, in fact, salvation. (v.22) The woman acknowledged Jesus is the Messiah. We see this in the way she strongly encouraged her fellow villagers to come and meet this remarkable man. Her rhetorical question expected a positive response, “Could this be the Christ?” (v.29) Interestingly, most of them were persuaded to come and hear him. Then, after hearing him for two days, they too acknowledged that he is, indeed, the Saviour of the world. (v. 42) This is, of course, exactly what Isaiah predicted, that the Messiah would bring God's salvation to the world. (Isaiah 49:6)

Let me suggest that “seasoning our conversation” not only involves evoking a person's curiosity or stimulating their thinking, it also implies making food more appetizing or appealing. How can we do this in relation to engaging unbelievers in spiritual conversation? One way is by appealing to the longing for eternity that God has planted in the human heart. Of course, this is what Jesus did. Another way is to appeal to the innate pleasure people get from seeing light. As the Scriptural maxim says, “Light is sweet; how pleasant to see a new day dawning.” (Ecclesiastes 11:7)

It is not easy to describe a beautiful sunrise using only words. How much more effective, to combine words with visual images! There's no denying that having the two sunrise pictures on the cover of the pamphlet enhances the two proverbial sayings. In fact, Solomon penned another proverb affirming this two pronged approach: “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver.” (Proverbs 25:11)

What I want to do next is to share an example of how my wife and I met and befriended a Syrian family nearly two years ago, and throughout that long process how we sought to imitate Christ by being “full of grace and truth.”

  1. I met Moe at a church which rents out space to an ESL class. I happened to be there while the students were having a coffee break. Moe was alone so I went over to him and plucked up the courage to greet him and introduce myself. Once the ice was broken we quickly became friends. We exchanged phone numbers and continued to meet each other at a nearby coffee shop.

  2. Early in my friendship with Moe I shared a wise saying of Solomon that goes like this: “There is a season for every activity under heaven, a time to be born and a time to die. God has made everything beautiful for its own time. He has planted eternity in the human heart, but even so people cannot see the whole scope of God's work from beginning to end. A good reputation is more valuable than costly perfume and the day you die is better than the day you were born.” Being a devout Muslim, Moe respects the prophet Sulaiman highly. Also he believes that Allah gave Sulaiman an exceptional gift of wisdom. Furthermore, Moe seemed to resonate with the key idea in this verse, i.e. God has planted eternity in the human heart.

  3. Last Summer my wife and I planned a recreational day-outing with Moe and his family to see the market in Sarnia and a couple interesting sights at the waterfront. We even drove half an hour north along the coastline of Lake Huron.

  4. On Christmas day we invited them to our home. We wanted to give them a glimpse of the real reason why we celebrate Christmas, so we read them the story of how the wise men saw a star and travelled a long distance from the east to find the new born king. Half way through the story Moe interrupted me to explain that he doesn't believe Jesus died on the cross to take away the sins of people. The fact that he went out of his way to interject something we had never broached with him previously, shows how deeply entrenched his thinking is in terms of the Islamic spirit of anti-Christ.

  5. There were also other occasions when Moe responded defensively as I read him a Scripture passage. However, this has not deterred me from continuing to read appropriate Bible passages from time to time. One example is John chapter 4 which makes no direct reference to any topic that is likely to offend a Muslim.

  6. In the last 3 months I've started to see Moe's attitude change. For example, I read him a verse from the Bible and one from the Qur'an which affirms that God is light. (1John 1:5; Surah 24:35) Then we read the two proverbs relating to light which are at the bottom of the second sunrise picture on the inside cover of the pamphlet. (Proverbs 4:18 and 12:28) I noticed that Moe was carefully comparing the English and Arabic Bible. Also, he has been willing to spend much longer time reading and discussing the Bible! Interestingly, the idea of following the path of righteousness also resonates with devout Muslims.

  7. The challenge comes, of course, as we unfold the Good News and show how it is fulfilled in the New Testament. I will never forget the day when Moe and I read the fascinating prophecy in Isaiah 25:7-9 describing how God will destroy death, wipe away all tears and bring to completion his plan of salvation.

It reads as follows, “On this mountain he will destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations; he will swallow up death forever. The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces; he will remove his people’s disgrace from all the earth. The Lord has spoken. In that day they will say, “Surely this is our God; we trusted in him, and he saved us. This is the Lord, we trusted in him; let us rejoice and be glad in his salvation.”

You may not realize at first glance, how intriguing this prophecy can be to a devout Muslim like Moe. In case you don't know this; Muslims believe that in paradise/God's home, there is no death or tears. I continued to explain salvation by showing Moe Isaiah 49:6 where God foretold he would send his special servant the Messiah to bring his salvation to the ends of the earth.

Then I read Luke 18:31-33 where Jesus prophesied something which correlates with Isaiah 25:7-9. In a similar way to how Isaiah foretold death would be destroyed on Mt Zion, (Jerusalem) Jesus foretold he would be killed in Jerusalem and three days later rise again. The implication is: he triumphed over death as it clearly states in 2 Timothy 1:10. We read in Luke 18:31-33,

Jesus took the Twelve aside and told them, “We are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written by the prophets about the Son of Man will be fulfilled. He will be delivered over to the Gentiles. They will mock him, insult him and spit on him; they will flog him and kill him. On the third day he will rise again.”

The amazing thing is: Moe did not object to reading this passage about Christ's death and resurrection, as he had 13 months earlier, when we simply read the story of the wise men! For two years my wife and I have patiently shared the grace and truth of Jesus to Moe's family. We've unfolded God's word beginning with the OT and have shown how it is fulfilled in the NT. Now Moe is finally beginning to see the light. As a simple, non-scholarly Muslim, he is gaining understanding as it says in Psalm 119:130)

Like Moe, the Samaritan woman was also a simple, non-scholarly person. Perhaps you doubt whether God can really use a simple, ordinary Christian like yourself to share the Good News with Muslims or even non-Muslims. I trust you've been encouraged as you realize that our message resonates with the longing for eternity implanted in people's hearts. Not only so, the Gospel can be portrayed with aesthetically appealing imagery of a beautiful sunrise. However, in spite of these encouragements you may still be feel hesitant. You may still lack confidence or courage to step out of your comfort zone to share a reason for the hope you have.

What could be some of the underlying reasons behind our inhibitions? Feelings of inadequacy, timidity, fear or perhaps even shame? Let me encourage you and bolster your faith by reminding you that “the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid but gives us power, love and self-discipline. So do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner. Rather join me in suffering for the Gospel.” (1 Timothy 1:7-8)

Obviously Paul didn't necessarily mean that Timothy should become a prisoner like Paul. He wanted Timothy to faithfully proclaim the Gospel regardless of the consequences he might suffer. Paul's challenge to Timothy was given so long ago that it may seem distant and irrelevant to us. Not only so, we experience very little persecution in Canada. But when we consider that persecution of Christians in the non-western world has risen on a yearly basis over the last 3 years to the extent that it has now reached unprecedented levels, this can help us take to heart Paul's remarkable challenge to Timothy to “join me in suffering for the Gospel.” What this means, at the very least, is that we ought to “Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.” (Hebrews 13:3)

Let us continue putting ourselves in the shoes of over half the world's Christians who are living under the shadow of persecution, by asking ourselves, “What kind of consequences am I willing to endure in order to maintain a witness for Jesus? And how does this compare with the way Christian brothers and sisters living in the non-western world would answer this question?”

If I am not willing to take the risk of broaching spiritual things with an unbelieving friend because I fear that he/she may not accept my witness or testimony what does this indicate about my relationship with Jesus? Do I take their rejection of my message as personal rejection? Do I allow this to shake my confidence, to intimidate me or make me feel ashamed?

Review and final words of encouragement

I began the sermon by sharing an example of how I gave the sunrise pamphlet to a cashier at a coffee shop whom I had never met before. Then I explained how Jesus shared the gift of eternal life with the woman at the well, and finally I summarized a two-year friendship with Moe in which I highlighted several key Scriptures I shared with him.

I realize it is so easy for Christians not to take to heart this challenging message. They tell me that they feel inadequate to witness to Muslims because they don't have enough training, e.g. how to avoid doing certain things that might offend Muslims or how to answer questions/objections that Muslims typically raise. Let me assure you that you don't have to be an expert. God's Almighty Spirit who indwells you is the one who empowers each and every Christian to be a witness for Christ. (Acts 1:8; 8:1ff) In fact, I'm convinced that some of you ORDINARY folk can share examples how you've been a witness. Perhaps you greeted a newcomer like I did with Moe while he was on a coffee break. Perhaps you shone the light by doing some acts of kindness (Matthew 5:16) or you sowed a seed of Gospel truth. Let's take the few remaining minutes to hear some of you share your stories as a way to encourage and spur one another to love and good deeds as Scripture tells us in Hebrews 10:24.

[ Note, the text of this appendix is a sermon that I preached in May 2018. ]