Contend Earnestly: Do Muslims and Christians Worship the Same God? Part II

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Do Muslims and Christians Worship the Same God? Part II

What Do the Scriptures Teach About Non-Trinitarian Peoples?

Hopefully you have seen what I mean when I say worship (again, not speaking of the term “to know”) and the fact that Allah is described in many of the same ways we would describe him. The one fact remains though: We (Christians and followers of Jesus) worship God, knowing God is triune in nature; God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.

Remember that when seeking to find if Muslims or Jews worship the same God, we are not saying that they know him or are fully worshiping him in the manner that God desires. We even see this in the Old Testament when Isaiah is given the commandment to proclaim to Israel that they were not worshiping God in the way he desired, but this didn’t mean that they were not worshiping God, it just meant that their worship was in vain, or empty.

Then the Lord said,
“Because this people draw near with their words
And honor Me with their lip service,
But they remove their hearts far from Me,
And their reverence for Me consists of tradition learned by rote,

Isaiah 29:13

We see that Jesus quotes this same verse from Isaiah in Matthew 15:8, using the term “sebomai” to show forth the idea of “worship or fear” of God. If Jerusalem in the Old Testament wasn’t worshiping the true God, we have some real issues, as it is God himself who is speaking to Jerusalem and telling them “you are worshiping me incorrectly!” What God is not saying is that they are worshiping another god. What is being conveyed, in both the Old and the New, is the importance of worshiping God correctly, so that your mouth and your heart are near God, so that you may know God.

What I want to show is how the terms used for worship are used both of those who are true followers of Jesus and those who don’t know Jesus as God. If I am successful in this, one should be able to see that to say that “Muslims don’t worship the same God as Christians” is at least unhelpful, if not totally false.

Cornelius in Acts 10

When we come to Acts 10, a man named Cornelius is introduced to us. He is described in this way:

a devout man and one who feared God with all his household, and gave many alms to the Jewish people and prayed to God continually.

Acts 10:2

Understand that Cornelius is a Gentile and knows nothing of Jesus. The term “feared” used here is the term “phobeo” which Peter also uses in 1 Peter 2:17 when he tells believers to “Honor all people, love the brotherhood, fear God, honor the king.” As we mentioned above, this term for fear is closely related to the term worship. Not only this, but this passage gets very clear about this Gentile who knows nothing of Jesus Christ. It says in Acts 10:4 that the angel of the Lord that appeared to Cornelius states, “Your prayers and alms have ascended as a memorial before God.” I don’t know of any scholar, or even nominal Christian, who would say that prayer isn’t a part of worshiping God. What we find here is that a Gentile, who has yet to be converted to Jesus, or taught the triune aspect of God, is, and has been, worshiping the true God.

Cornelius’ total ignorance of what it means to truly worship and know God shows forth when Peter visits him to preach. When Peter approached Cornelius, Cornelius fell down and worshiped Peter!

So, although Cornelius is a Gentile, knowing nothing of Jesus, he worships/fears/prays to God and God hears him.

The First Convert in Europe, Lydia

The second example is found in Acts 16:14 when it states the following:

A woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple fabrics, a worshiper of God, was listening; and the Lord opened her heart to respond to the things spoken by Paul.

In this passage, we find a woman in Europe who ended up submitting herself to Jesus. But, before she was surrendered her life, she is called a “worshiper of God.” This is before Paul had spoken the gospel to Lydia, and once she heard, her heart was opened and she responded. The term used here in the Greek is the term “sebomai.” Which, as we noted above, is used both to have a sense of “fear” and also “worship.” This term puts these two expressions in congruence with each other.

One might say at this point, “Yes, they are said to worship God, because once they heard the good news, they then converted to Jesus.” (I think that is quite a weak argument, but nevertheless, I will respond as though it were convincing) While this is true of both of the first two examples, this term “sebomai” is also used of people where we have no proof that they ever converted to be followers of Jesus

Here is a quick list of the verses that use this term “sebomai” in regards to those who are not shown to ever submit to Jesus:

‘But in vain do they worship Me,
Teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.’ ”
Matthew 15:9

‘But in vain do they worship Me,
Teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.’
Mark 7:7

So he was reasoning in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Gentiles, and in the market place every day with those who happened to be present.
Acts 17:17

In every one of these instances, we see that this Greek term “sebomai” is used for those who are worshiping God in ignorance, with no proof that they ever turned to Jesus. On the contrary, we also find the same term used, not only with Lydia, but with others who “feared” or “worshiped” God and then later (also used in the present tense) turned to Jesus.

Some of these could be argued from the text that we don’t even know if some of these people actually submitted to Jesus later, but I will put them in this context to avoid argument.

Now when the meeting of the synagogue had broken up, many of the Jews and of the God-fearing proselytes followed Paul and Barnabas, who, speaking to them, were urging them to continue in the grace of God.
Acts 13:43

But the Jews incited the devout women of prominence and the leading men of the city, and instigated a persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and drove them out of their district.
Acts 13:50

And some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, along with a large number of the God-fearing Greeks and a number of the leading women.
Acts 17:4

Then he left there and went to the house of a man named Titius Justus, a worshiper of God, whose house was next to the synagogue.
Acts 18:7

saying, “This man persuades men to worship God contrary to the law.”
Acts 18:13

One can plainly see that throughout the Scriptures, the term “sebomai” which means to worship is used interchangeably with those who know the fullness of God through Jesus Christ, those who eventually come to the knowledge of Jesus Christ, and to those who we never see turning to Jesus. What we never see is the fact, that some would like to charge, that Jesus and the apostles ever told those who are worshiping God in the way they know him as, that they are worshiping another god.

If this term “sebomai” or “worship” or “God-fearers” can be used for those who don’t know Jesus in the New Testament, why can this term not be used in today’s context with Muslims?

Miscellaneous Thoughts on Worshiping God

I want to also point out a couple of other verses that support this understanding, but might not necessarily hold enough weight to convince as the above.

The first is found in Matthew 5:16

Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.

What we see is a command from Jesus to those who follow him, his disciples. He tells them that they should be light and salt, and to allow their works to be seen by men. Why? So that men will glorify their Father who is in heaven. It interesting because the term “glorify” is closely related to worship (1 to think, suppose, be of opinion. 2 to praise, extol, magnify, celebrate. 3 to honour, do honour to, hold in honour. 4 to make glorious, adorn with lustre, clothe with splendour. 4a to impart glory to something, render it excellent. 4b to make renowned, render illustrious. 4b1 to cause the dignity and worth of some person or thing to become manifest and acknowledged).

You’ll also notice that there is no distinction whether those that will glorify God are followers of Jesus or not. But, the fact remains, whether they love Jesus or not, they can glorify God who is in heaven, without knowing Him. Again, this would seem to show that although one doesn’t know God, they can still glorify and worship God.

The second is found in Acts 13:48 and has been much debate among Calvinists and Arminians, but we can also glean one other theological conclusion here.

When the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord; and as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed.

What you see here is Paul and Barnabas preaching to a group of Jews and Gentiles. The Jews reject the preaching, while it says that all the Gentiles present began to rejoice and glorify the word of the Lord. Again, we see this exact same term “glorify” or “doxazo.” You’ll notice that not all those who were rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord then believed; only those who were appointed to believe, believed. That would leave us to understand that there were some who rejoiced and glorified the word, without actually turning to Jesus.


I wrote this to simply ask those who continually say that “Allah” is a demon or that Islam worships another god, to see the reasoning from us who say that this isn’t the case. Although I don’t believe that Islam paints a complete picture of who God is, and what his attributes are, this doesn’t mean that they worship a completely different god altogether. Let me give an example before I conclude.

There were two men (Steve and David) who claimed to know another man (James) who lived in South Africa. As these two met each other in New York at a conference, they began speaking about this man James who lived in South Africa. David began to speak about James, but didn’t know him personally. He only knew a guy who claimed to know James and learned about James through him. Throughout the years, David sent James letters of thankfulness because of all the wisdom he was learning through his other friend. As David began to describe James to Steve, they seemed to be talking of the very same man. They both knew James to be quite funny, he had two sons, his wife had died giving birth to their second son and James, to both of them, was quite the business man. Then David said that James was pretty harsh in business, and disowned his second son after the son refused to get a job when he turned 18. Steve was quite perplexed. Steve told David, I actually live right next to James and I personally have known him for over 20 years. He actually isn’t harsh in business, but quite kind to all of his employees and very forgiving those who have been dishonest in their business dealings. Also, Steve said that James’ oldest son, decided to leave the house at the age of 18 on his own and James has been pursuing a relationship with him ever since. Then Steve asked, “Would you like to know James personally?” David quickly responded, “Yes, in fact I would”. Steve said, “Good, because he is coming to New York tomorrow, and you can start to personally know him.”
I know that this parallel is only helpful to a small degree. But, the understanding I am trying to get across is the one we should have with our Muslim friends. Although they might worship God, as David was sending letters to James, they don’t know God personally as we do, because of Jesus. Our job isn’t to tell the Muslim that they don’t worship another god, as it would have been very odd for Steve to tell David that he didn’t know the real James from South Africa. Our job is to lead them to the fullness of God, only known through Jesus Christ. Our job is to lovingly guide the Muslim to a complete understanding of the grace found in God, through the Messiah.

Remember, incomplete truth isn’t non-truth. It’s like saying, “sugar and flour” are ingredients of a cake. While true, this isn’t the complete ingredient list for a cake. We need to continue with the fullness of wisdom to show which ingredients have been left out, or which ones are wrong.

We should be like Paul at Mars Hill. We should find those things that are similar and then guide them to the fullness of truth. We should not burn those bridges that have already been built between the two faiths, but we should introduce Jesus to them through these bridges. Just as Paul did with the “unknown god” to the Greeks.

Let me remind the reader, that what I am trying to convey is the difference between worship and knowing God. Knowing is a very deep and personal term in both the Hebrew and the Greek. One can think of it this way:

All those who know God will worship God; All those who worship God, don’t necessarily know God.

May we continually seek ways to show all men the greatness of the Messiah, and ask them to seek out who Jesus was, is and will continue to be. May we do this in a constructive way, instead of a detrimental one.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
Matthew 5:9


Anonymous said...

I have to disagree Seth. I'll base this on a discussion I participated in in a class with Gerry Breshears.

Of the faiths of the world that believe in "God" there is a predominant worldview that God is at the top of the mountain and each faith is a different means of getting to "God." The average evangelical tends to have a functional belief that this is correct, though most believe that only the Christian faith can actually reach the summit. (This may not be what they say, but it is functionally the way they behave and interact.) The reality as Dr Breshears put it is that it's not just that non-christians won't reach the summit, it's that they are trying to summit the wrong mountain. And to top it all off, Christians know that we do not need to reach the summit nor could we if we tried. We know that God (Jesus) came down to the plain to meet us. (hmm, maybe that story isn't helpful)

For me, it's come down to a question of "what is the Gospel?" and "what is a false gospel?" I must conclude that any faith that does not involve Jesus' penal substituationary atonement for my sins, freely given, and only accepted by me through God's regeneration of my heart, is a false gospel. By definition then, the Jewish and Muslim understanding of salvation are false gospels and therefore are not based upon worship of the same God. If I can say that someone who claim Jesus but functions out of a social gospel is not worshipping the same God (and I would say that) then certainly a Jew or Muslim as at least as "incorrect" as the social gospel believer.

You do raise the interesting distinction of OT Jew vs NT Jew. We know that NO ONE is saved except by Jesus. That includes OT "heroes" like Abraham, Moses, David, etc. By my reading, there clearly are Christophanies in the OT. I believe that the Jews of the OT had a much clearer understanding of the future promise of Jesus and that there was a dramatic shift during the intertestamental period and after. By my reading of Scripture I must conclude that OT Jews did worship the Christian God complete with an understanding of Jesus, and that there subsequently was a shift away from the one true God to a false god.

SnatchedFromTheFire said...

Seth -
wow, that was quite thorough and i do think i understand where you're coming from with your "knowing/worhsiping" distinction - thanks for taking the time to put this together! I think the statement i agree with the most is when you said, "I wrote this to simply ask those who continually say that “Allah” is a demon or that Islam worships another god, to see the reasoning from us who say that this isn’t the case." You certainly have achieved that task!
I still am not convinced by your reasoning nor do i agree with your conclusions, but i do understand a lot more how you get there, and what gives me the most ease is to see that you are going to the Scriptures to seek the truth (and the Truth!). And what's more, i see a genuine love for lost people and a desire to bring the truth of the gospel to them with the knowledge that "salvation is found in no one else." In light of all that, i will take the advice of Gamaliel in Acts 5 when he says of the apostles evangelising, "if this plan or this undertaking is of man, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You might even be found opposing God!" May God be with you and His Spirit empower your ministry to people of the Muslim faith.
God's peace -

human about said...

worshpping god is not only a must, but also a need. Great blog, I added u in my link list, would u add me too. Thanx

paul said...

I'm just wondering if Seth and Anonymous would say that all Arab Christians worship a false God too when they also pray to "Allah"?

If one wants to argue about semantics, the term "Allah" is actually closer to Biblical reference to God (Elohim) than the actual word "god" which finds it's origins in paganism.

But let's say we're not talking about the actual word "Allah". Back to the core question: "Do Muslims and Christians worship the same God?" I guess for anyone to look at a massive, multifaceted religion such as Islam or Christianity and define whether "Joe" or "Mo" is TRULY worshiping the true God, that's dangerous territory. Neither religion is monolithic. God is moving hearts to Himself regardless of labels, and is truly the judge of those hearts.

SnatchedFromTheFire said...

Seth -
found this post today and thought it had direct relevance to some of our other discussions. Love to hear your thoughts.

Seth McBee said...

Thanks Wesley...will check it out.

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