Jesus: More Than a Prophet?

Jesus of Nazareth is, of course, at the heart of the New Testament. He also occupies an important place in the Qur’an. Both books attribute to him the title of prophet. Isa, the Quranic version of the name Jesus, appears 25 times in the Qur’an, not counting the passages that use other terms to refer to him. The importance of Jesus, both for Christians and for Muslims, is undeniable. But would it be right to elevate Jesus in importance so that he would be above God’s other prophets? Why should he receive more attention than all the others?

The Coming of Jesus Was Prophesied

One of the first things that strike us concerning Jesus is the fact that his coming had been predicted by God’s other prophets, not just once or in a vague or doubtful manner, but clearly and in many different writings. The Jewish people did not understand very well the character of the Messiah and of the work that God would have him do, but certain things were clear for them, as we see in Matthew 2:1-6, which says:

“Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him.’

When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born.

So they said to him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it is written by the prophet: “But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are not the least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you shall come a Ruler Who will shepherd My people Israel.”’”

The passage to which the priests and scribes referred is found in the book of the prophet Micah and was written 700 years before the birth of Jesus!

The miraculous nature of the birth of Jesus had also been predicted. It was the prophet Isaiah who had announced that a virgin would be found with child (or pregnant) and would give birth to a son who would be called Emmanuel, one of the names that have always been used for Jesus. This prophecy dates from the eighth century before Christ (Isaiah 7:14).

Jesus was famous for the extraordinary miracles that he did. The prophets had spoken of them well ahead of time. In Isaiah 35:4b-6 we read, “He will come and save you. Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped. Then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the dumb sing.” After having been put in prison by Herod, John the Baptist wondered if he had been mistaken about Jesus. If the Messiah were here, how could John be subjected to so great an injustice for having preached the truth? So he sent messengers to ask Jesus if he really was the one they were expecting. “Jesus answered and said to them, ‘Go and tell John the things which you hear and see: The blind see and the lame walk; the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear; the dead are raised up and the poor have the gospel preached to them. And blessed is he who is not offended because of Me’” (Matthew 11:4-6). John had asked Jesus if he was truly the one who people knew was supposed to come. Jesus pointed out the miracles that he was doing and which were the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy about the one who was to come.

When it comes to the death of Jesus, the prophecies about him are even more numerous. It was announced in advance that he would enter Jerusalem seated on a donkey, that he would be betrayed by one friend and abandoned by the others, that his hands and feet would be pierced, that people would cast lots to divide up his clothes, that he would be thirsty and be given vinegar to drink, that his bones would not be broken but that his side would be pierced. The prophets even predicted the exact words that the mockers would use to ridicule him: “He trusted in the Lord, let Him rescue Him; let Him deliver Him, since He delights in Him!” (Psalm 22:8; Matthew 27:43). The prophet Zachariah wrote the following about four centuries before the death of Jesus, “So they weighed out for my wages thirty pieces of silver. And the Lord said to me, ‘Throw it to the potter’—that princely price they set on me. So I took the thirty pieces of silver and threw them into the house of the Lord for the potter” (Zachariah 11:12,13). Those who are already familiar with the story know that Judas, the one who betrayed Jesus, had received exactly thirty pieces of silver for having given to the enemies of the Lord the information they wanted so that they could arrest Jesus far from the crowds. But when Judas saw how things took place following this betrayal, he was filled with remorse. The Bible says that Judas took the thirty pieces of silver back and threw them in the temple before going out to hang himself. The chief priests gathered up the money and used it to buy a potter’s field to serve as a cemetery for the burial of foreigners (Matthew 27:3-7).

In chapter 53 of the book of the prophet Isaiah, we find that the Messiah would be despised by men, acquainted with grief and rejected by his own people, but also that he would be punished for the sins of others, that he would intercede for the guilty, that he would be numbered with the transgressors, that his tomb would be with the rich and that he would be raised from the dead.

The Ministry of John the Baptist

In addition to all these prophecies, God sent a special messenger just to announce the arrival of Jesus. The Qur’an recognizes this individual as a prophet, a man of integrity, a man who spoke the truth to the people. This messenger, whom the Bible calls John and whom Muslims know by the name of Yahya, identified himself simply as a voice, the voice of someone who cried: “Make straight the way of the Lord” (John 1:23). Let us say in passing that even this aspect of the life of Jesus had been prophesied. Malachi, the last book of the Old Testament, contains the prediction that God would send his messenger in order to open up the way by calling the people to repentance (Malachi 3:1). When a head of state is to go somewhere, it is customary to send people ahead of time so that he may be welcomed in a manner worthy of his dignity. This is what John was doing for Jesus, the king who was coming to bring a blessing to some and judgment to others. The Gospel of Luke 3:15-17 says:

“Now as the people were in expectation, and all reasoned in their hearts about John, whether he was the Christ or not, John answered, saying to all, ‘I indeed baptize you with water; but One mightier than I is coming, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to loose. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clean out His threshing floor, and gather the wheat into His barn; but the chaff He will burn with unquenchable fire.’”

When Jesus came to be baptized, John told the crowd, “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is He of whom I said, ‘After me comes a Man who is preferred before me, for He was before me’” (John 1:29,30). John’s mission was to prepare the people to receive in a worthy manner the prophet who was to follow him: Jesus.

Just the preparation for the coming of Jesus has to impress us deeply. His life and his works will do so even more.

A Life Without Sin

Several passages in the Bible emphasize the idea that Jesus did not sin. In 2 Corinthians 5:21 the apostle Paul wrote, “Christ had no sin, but God made him become sin so that in Christ we could be right with God.” The apostle Peter, also, upheld the same truth: “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth” (1 Peter 1:22). Peter quotes here a word from the prophet Isaiah concerning the Christ: “And they made His grave with the wicked—but with the rich at His death, because He had done no violence, nor was any deceit in His mouth” (Isaiah 53.9). But it was not only other people who claimed that Jesus had no sin. Jesus himself challenged his opponents by saying, “Which of you convicts Me of sin? And if I tell the truth, why do you not believe me?” (John 8:46).

Muhammad did not try to prove that Jesus had committed sin. To the contrary, we see in Surah 19, aya 19 of the Qur’an that the angel said to Mary, “I am only a Messenger from your Lord, (to announce) to you the gift of a righteous son.” One of the Muslim commentators, by the name of Er-Razi, says that the title of Messiah was given to Jesus because he was free from the stain of sin. Oddly, this state of purity is not attributed to any other prophet in the Qur’an. In the Bible we see the weaknesses and sometimes even the sins of the other prophets. Adam ate the forbidden fruit; Noah got drunk; Abraham lied; Jacob deceived his father; David committed adultery; Solomon worshipped his wives’ idols. Even Muhammad recognized that he had sin in his life. More than one verse in the Qur’an exhorts him to beg for the forgiveness of his sin. The 48th Surah begins with these words, which Allah addresses to Muhammad: “Verily, We have given you (O Muhammad) a manifest victory. That Allah may forgive you your sins of the past and the future, and complete His Favour on you, and guide you on the Straight Path.” In addition, Muhammad himself admitted that he did not know his eternal destiny. “Say (O Muhammad): ‘I am not a new thing among the Messengers (of Allah) nor do I know what will be done with me or with you. I only follow that which is revealed to me, and I am but a plain warner’” (46:9).

The apostle John said, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). But this same John said about Jesus: “In Him there is no sin” (1 John 3:5). There can be no doubt that Jesus is clearly different from all the others whom men have recognized as prophets.

His Pre-Existence

No one found anything to condemn in the actions of Jesus. He is the only Jew to ever perfectly keep the law that God had given to the Jews. The words of Jesus were, on the other hand, often very surprising, not to say chocking. One day while speaking with the Jews, Jesus told them:

“‘If anyone keeps My word he shall never see death.’ Then the Jews said to Him, ‘Now we know that You have a demon! Abraham is dead, and the prophets; and You say, “If anyone keeps My word he shall never taste death.” Are You greater than our father Abraham, who is dead? And the prophets are dead. Who do You make Yourself out to be?’ Jesus answered, ‘If I honor Myself, My honor is nothing. [The One] who honors Me [is the One] of whom you say that He is your God. Yet you have not known Him, but I know Him… Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad.’ Then the Jews said to Him, ‘You are not yet fifty years old, and have You seen Abraham?’ [The patriarch Abraham had lived almost two thousand years before the time of Jesus.] Jesus said to them, ‘Most assuredly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM.’” (John 8:51-58)

These words of Jesus agree with the testimony that John the Baptist had given. Remember that the angel Gabriel had announced to Zachariah, the father of John, that his wife, Elisabeth, would have a son. Remember also that she was already in her sixth month of pregnancy when this same angel appeared to Mary to tell her that she would be the mother of the Christ. John was therefore six months older than Jesus. But what does John say in the Gospel of John 1:30? When he saw Jesus, John the Baptist said, “This is He of whom I said, ‘After me comes a Man who is preferred before me, for He was before me.’”

In speaking to Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews, Jesus had been a little more precise. He said, “No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven, that is, the Son of Man who is in heaven.” “Son of Man” was the expression that Jesus used most often to speak of himself.

The prophet Jeremiah said that God knew him when he was still in his mother’s womb (Jeremiah 1:5). But Jesus claims to have been in heaven before his birth and to have spoken with Abraham.

His Claim to Forgive Sins

The prophet Jesus made other claims that shocked the hearers of his time and which continue to shock some who read them today. A plain example is found in the Gospel of Mark 2:1-12:

“And again He entered Capernaum after some days, and it was heard that He was in the house. Immediately many gathered together, so that there was no longer room to receive them, not even near the door. And He preached the word to them. Then they came to Him, bringing a paralytic who was carried by four men. And when they could not come near Him because of the crowd, they uncovered the roof where He was. So when they had broken through, they let down the bed on which the paralytic was lying.

When Jesus saw their faith, He said to the paralytic, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven you.’

And some of the scribes were sitting there and reasoning in their hearts, ‘Why does this Man speak blasphemies like this? Who can forgive sins but God alone?’

But immediately, when Jesus perceived in His spirit that they reasoned thus within themselves, He said to them, ‘Why do you reason about these things in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, “Your sins are forgiven you,” or to say, “Arise, take up your bed and walk”? But that you may know that the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins’—He said to the paralytic, ‘I say to you, arise, take up your bed, and go to your house.’ Immediately he arose, took up the bed, and went out in the presence of them all, so that all were amazed and glorified God, saying, ‘We never saw anything like this!’”

The Title of Messiah

The word, prophet, designates someone who receives a message directly from God, an inspired message that he is supposed to communicate to men. Of course, there have always been men who claim to speak for God but who, in fact, deceive their listeners. The Qur’an treats Jesus as a true prophet, but at the same time it insists that Jesus was not more than a prophet, that he was a mere messenger. But it must also be said that the Qur’an speaks of “al-Masih” (3:28) or “the Messiah, Jesus, the son of Mary” (4:171). If, therefore, Muhammad recognized Jesus to be the Messiah, it would be worthwhile to examine the meaning of this title.

In the Gospel according to John, we see in the first chapters two future apostles of Jesus, Andrew and his brother, Peter. John the Baptist had just born testimony to Jesus of Nazareth, and Andrew, who was already a disciple of John the Baptist, heard it. John 1:41 says: “He first found his own brother Simon, and said to him, ‘We have found the Messiah’ (which is translated, the Christ).” In this verse we have a Hebrew word and a Greek word that have each been Anglicized. The Hebrew word, mashiah, and the Greek word, christos, mean the same thing: they mean “anointed,” or “one who has been anointed.” But what is the meaning of this curious term?

In the Bible we find three categories of people who were anointed with oil—that is, oil was poured on their heads when they took on their particular roles. These three categories were: priests, charged with presenting to God the sacrifices of His people; prophets, charged with communicating messages from God to the people; and kings, charged with governing and leading the people in the name of God, the true King of kings. But the term, the Messiah, is even more special. It was the subject of several prophecies in the Old Testament. The Messiah would be prophet, priest and king all at the same time. He would be anointed, not by the hand of man, but by God Himself. In the Psalms (known to Muslims at the Zabur), David wrote concerning the enemies of God:

“He who sits in the heavens shall laugh; the Lord shall hold them in derision. Then He shall speak to them in His wrath, and distress them in His deep displeasure, ‘Yet I have set My King on My holy hill of Zion.’” (Psalm 2:4-6)

All the Jewish people in the time of Jesus waited longingly for the coming of this individual who was to be anointed by God. Even among the Samaritans, those of mixed origin whose pagan ancestors had intermarried with Jews, people were aware of the One who was to come. In John 4:25,26 a Samaritan woman who was speaking with Jesus stated, “’I know that Messiah is coming’ (who is called Christ). ‘When He comes, He will tell us all things.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I who speak to you am He.’”

His Miracles

What shall we say of the miracles performed by Jesus? Is there a difference between what he did and what others were able to do? The Gospel is filled with stories of the miracles of Jesus. The Qur’an also attributes miracles to him. In Surah 5, aya 110, Allah says to him:

“When Allah will say: O Jesus, son of Mary, remember My favour to thee and to thy mother, when I strengthened thee with the Holy Spirit… and thou didst heal the blind and the leprous by My permission; and when thou didst raise the dead by My permission; and I protected thee from the Children of Israel when thou camest to them with clear proofs.”

The various miraculous deeds of Jesus not only showed his power over the forces of nature, over demons, over disease and over death; they not only demonstrated his knowledge even of the secret thoughts of men; they not only constituted very often proofs of his great compassion in the face of suffering; they also testified of his identity. And Jesus did not hesitate to draw men’s attention to what his miracles signified. In the Gospel according to John we read, “Then the Jews surrounded Him and said to Him, ‘How long do You keep us in doubt? If You are the Christ, tell us plainly.’ Jesus answered them, ‘I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in My Father’s name, they bear witness of Me’” (John 10:24,25). The enemies of Jesus recognized the reality of the miracles of Jesus, but they were not ready to believe, in spite of the proofs. John 11:47,48 says: “Then the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered a council and said, ‘What shall we do? For this Man works many signs. If we let Him alone like this, everyone will believe in Him.’”

His Resurrection

Other prophets had done miracles before Jesus, but as we have suggested, one of his miracles surpasses all the others. In the Gospel according to John 2:18-22 we read:

“So the Jews answered and said to Him, ‘What sign do You show to us, since You do these things?’ Jesus answered and said to them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ Then the Jews said, ‘It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will You raise it up in three days?’ But He was speaking of the temple of His body. Therefore, when He had risen from the dead, His disciples remembered that He had said this to them; and they believed the Scripture and the word which Jesus had said.”

These disciples “believed the Scripture” because they understood that the resurrection of Jesus was one of the things that had been announced in advance concerning him. The apostle Peter preached to the people of Jerusalem a few weeks after the death and resurrection of Jesus. He said:

“God raised [him] up, having loosed the pains of death, because it was not possible that He should be held by it. For David says concerning Him: ‘…For You will not leave my soul in Hades, nor will You allow Your Holy One to see corruption.’

…Men and brethren, let me speak freely to you of the patriarch David, that he is both dead and buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. Therefore, being a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that of the fruit of his body, according to the flesh, He would raise up the Christ to sit on his throne, he, foreseeing this, spoke concerning the resurrection of the Christ, that His soul was not left in Hades, nor did His flesh see corruption. This Jesus God has raised up, of which we are all witnesses.” (Acts 2:24,25,27,29-32)

The apostle Paul, also, placed great emphasis on this miracle. When he preached in the city of Athens, Greece, he said:

“Truly, these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent, because He has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained. He has given assurance of this to all by raising Him from the dead.” (Acts 17:30,31)

From the dawn of the first day of the week after the crucifixion, the disciples of Jesus recognized that the tomb where the body of Jesus had been laid was empty. In addition, various people began to testify that Jesus, returned to life, had shown himself to them. First there was Mary Magdalene, then certain other women; next Cleopas and another disciple spoke with Jesus on the road to Emmaus. Upon their return to Jerusalem, they learned that Peter was also saying that he had seen the Lord. Finally, Jesus presented himself to ten apostles at one time. Judas has already committed suicide, and Thomas was not with the others. But the ten others were able, that first Sunday evening after the death of Jesus, to speak with him, to touch him and to see him eat so that they would know that he was not a ghost. Other appearances of the resurrected Lord would follow for a period of forty days. These two things fully attest to the reality of the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth: the empty tomb and the eyewitnesses.

The Empty Tomb

Three days after the crucifixion of Jesus his tomb was found to be empty. This is a well-substantiated historical fact. If the body of Jesus had been in the tomb where it was laid, Christianity would have been stillborn. Who would have proclaimed Jesus as the living Lord while his corpse was rotting in the grave? No one.

Those who do not want to accept the idea that Jesus rose from the dead have proposed other theories to explain why the body was no longer there.

1. The body stolen by the disciples? Some tell us that the disciples of Jesus stole his body. This was the first explanation offered by the unbelievers. Remember that after the death of Jesus, the Jewish chief priests and the Pharisees had gone before the governor Pilate,

“saying, ‘Sir, we remember, while He was still alive, how that deceiver said, “After three days I will rise.” Therefore command that the tomb be made secure until the third day, lest His disciples come by night and steal Him away, and say to the people, “He has risen from the dead.” So the last deception will be worse than the first.’ Pilate said to them, ‘You have a guard; go your way, make it as secure as you know how.’” (Matthew 27.63-65)

So all possible precautions were taken: the tomb was carved out of solid rock; a great stone, weighing at least a ton, was rolled in place to close the entrance to it; the seal of the Roman government was placed on the stone as a warning to anyone who might think of disturbing the grave; and soldiers were posted, according to some experts as many as sixteen men, four of whom would be on guard duty at any given time. According to Roman custom, a soldier caught sleeping while he was supposed to be at his post was to be put to death for his transgression. In spite of all these precautions, some have claimed that the body was stolen.

In Matthew 28.11-15 the Bible tells us what happened after some women saw the Lord:

“Now while they were going, behold, some of the guard came into the city and reported to the chief priests all the things that had happened. When they had assembled with the elders and consulted together, they gave a large sum of money to the soldiers, saying, ‘Tell them, “His disciples came at night and stole Him away while we slept.” And if this comes to the governor’s ears, we will appease him and make you secure.’ So they took the money and did as they were instructed; and this saying is commonly reported among the Jews until this day.”

Matthew does not even bother to refute this idea—after all, who can say what happens around him while he is asleep? Besides, all these soldiers would not have dared to go to sleep at the risk of their lives. The disciples would not have had the opportunity to steal the body of Jesus.

If the disciples had been able to steal the body of Jesus, they would have committed the greatest fraud ever carried out. It would also mean they had knowingly lied. But their behavior is not that of deliberate liars: to the contrary, almost all the apostles died for their testimony (and all of them were beaten and imprisoned for it). One would not be willing to undergo that and even give one’s life to uphold what one knew to be a deliberate lie. Not only did they give their own lives rather than retracting their words, but they also knew that many of those who would accept their testimony would also die for having believed. And yet, not one of them renounced his testimony concerning the resurrection of Jesus.

2. The body stolen by the Jewish authorities? A second theory says that the body of Jesus was stolen by his enemies. But this idea is even more unbelievable than the first. The Jewish authorities wanted to put a stop to the preaching of the Christians. They told the apostles: “Did we not strictly command you not to teach in this name? And look, you have filled Jerusalem with your doctrine” (Acts 5:28). If they had the body of Jesus, they would have simply been able to produce it and parade it through the streets of Jerusalem. There would have been no need to tell the apostles not to preach—they would have been laughed at. No one would have been converted to Christianity. The fact that the authorities did not produce the corpse of Jesus proves clearly that they had not stolen it.

Let’s be frank: apart from the resurrection, there is no reasonable explanation for the empty tomb of Jesus. But there is another incontrovertible proof of the resurrection:

The Eyewitnesses

Remember that already on the very day of his resurrection, Jesus showed himself to a variety of people and under a variety of circumstances. The witnesses did not all have the same temperament. There were men and also women who saw him. He showed himself to individuals and to groups. Some of his appearances took place in closed spaces and others out in the open, some in the morning and others at evening.

Notice also that the witnesses of the resurrection of Jesus were not expecting to see him. In spite of the promise that he had made to come back from the dead, it could not be said that the disciples were fervently desiring or hoping for the resurrection. The women who saw him were going to the tomb to embalm a body and not to find a living Lord. When these women came back saying that they had seen Jesus risen from the dead, the other disciples made fun of them. Before Jesus made himself known to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus in Luke 24 beginning in verse 13, he found them sad and downcast, without any hope, in spite of the testimony they had heard from the women. All of this shows that the appearances of Jesus were not hallucinations or mirages. They were not comparable to the person in the desert who thinks he sees a well-watered oasis surrounded by palm trees, where, in fact, there is nothing but sand. Such visions are not a group activity where everyone sees and hears the same thing. In addition, people who hallucinate generally see something they hope for or desire strongly. And finally, had they been hallucinations, all these appearances would not have suddenly ceased 40 days after the resurrection. But they did stop after 40 days, because Jesus ascended back up to heaven in the sight of his disciples.

The witnesses of the resurrection of Jesus were men and women who knew him very well. They could not have been mistaken about his identity. They were also devout people who were never accused of dishonesty or immorality. They called on others, also, to follow righteousness. If they were deliberately lying, it would be hard to figure out their motivation in doing so. They never gained any material advantages for what they preached. On the contrary, they were persecuted and even killed. If this were a modern trial, no reason would be found to remove them from the jury. Historians find no reason not to accept their writings. Several historians have solemnly stated that no event in history can be more firmly established than the resurrection of Jesus.

What other prophet announced ahead of time that he would be put to death and would rise from the dead on the third day? More importantly, what other prophet was able to fulfill such a promise?

The Importance of What One Believes About Jesus

Jesus spoke, of course, of faith in God, but no other prophet insisted as he did on himself and the necessity of believing in him. Jesus dared to say that the eternal destiny of each one of us depends on the conclusion that we come to regarding his identity. Does it not seem to you that he must have been more than a prophet? Perhaps the greatest danger for us, whether we be readers of the Bible or of the Qur’an, would be to adopt the attitude that the inhabitants of Nazareth had. When Jesus, having begun his ministry, went to the town where he had grown up, the people were amazed. They were saying:

“‘Where did this Man get this wisdom and these mighty works? Is this not the carpenter’s son? Is not His mother called Mary? And His brothers James, Joses, Simon, and Judas? And His sisters, are they not all with us? Where then did this Man get all these things?’ So they were offended at Him… Now He did not do many mighty works there because of their unbelief.” (Matthew 13:54-58)

These people thought they already knew who Jesus was. But their conception of him was much too limited. They did not discover his true identity, because they had too many preconceived ideas about him. Their prejudices prevented them from taking advantage of what Jesus would have done for them.

According to Surah 3 – Al-Imram, “When Allah said: O Jesus, I will cause thee to die and exalt thee in My presence and clear thee of those who disbelieve and make those who follow thee above those who disbelieve to the day of Resurrection.” If you have not already done so, get a copy of the Gospel and fully discover this one called Jesus.

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