Paul in Mecca

Gregory E. Reynolds

Ordained Servant: January 2008

Encountering Islam

Also in this issue

How Should the Reformed Church Respond to Islam?

City on a Hill: Caesar's or God's?

The Truth about Islam

The Crisis of Islam

No, Paul never went to Mecca, as far as we know from the inspired history. Had he, it would have been a relatively unknown oasis on a trade route near the western shore of the central part of the Arabian Peninsula. He certainly would not have encountered Islam, since it was not conceived until over six centuries later. But Paul's encounter at Athens is instructive for our own encounter with Islam. It demonstrates Paul's approach to people whose beliefs were almost entirely unknown to most of the Jewish and Christian comunities, although Islam has superficial historical ties to Judaism and Christianity.[1]

Paul's Agenda

The first thing that stands out in Paul's Athenian mission is that he had no intention of "taking back the culture," or (less anachronistically) taking the culture in the first place, or capturing the culture for Christ. There is no interest in such an agenda in the New Testament. The comprehensive cultural application of the death and resurrection of Christ, according to Paul, is to be realized in the glorious coming consummation. The coming of the Lord always dominates the horizon of apostolic thought: "You also, be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand" (Jas. 5:8). Paul's own suffering becomes a paradigm for life in this present evil age: "So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal" (2 Cor. 4:16-18).

Until the "not yet" arrives, the church is an embassy submitting to the providentially given authority of civil government in order that the church might be freed to spread the liberating message of "the good news of Jesus and the resurrection" (Acts 17:18, Goodspeed). The church is an embassy of the heavenly kingdom rather than a civilization or nation on earth. For Paul the primary calling of the church is to proclaim the amnesty offered from heaven: "Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Cor. 5:20-21).

Paul was willing to be labeled a "seed picker" by his opponents. He did not hanker after cultural acceptance, affirmation, or transformation. This was Paul's agenda and program as he approached the Athenians. It must be ours as we approach Muslims.

Paul's Method of Engagement

The idolatry of the Athenians deeply troubled (distressed: παρωξύνετο, parōxyneto) Paul. But instead of trying to change the culture, he sought to change peoples' loyalty through preaching Jesus as the Christ, the Savior of the world. Worship of "what God had created" rather than the Creator has eternal consequences. This is what troubled Paul. This is what he honestly and respectfully addressed on Mars Hill.

Does the worship of a god with whom there is no loving relationship, no grace and kindness, bother you? Muslims are a people seeking to earn their way to heaven by good works. They know nothing of being sinners or of being reconciled to the God under whose wrath they live. Or does the presence of a mosque in your community—a threat to Christian cultural hegemony—bother you most? Or is it even the legitimate concern for safety, due to the clandestine methods of Muslim terrorists, that troubles? These secondary concerns tempt us all to forget our calling as Christians.

Paul encountered people formally and informally in the synagogue and in the marketplace in Athens. The two different verbs used to describe Paul's activity show us that he engaged in substantive conversation which involved debating, or reasoning—what we might call dialoguing (διελέγετο, dielegeto, v. 17), which Goodspeed translated "discussions." Two sets of philosophers "conversed" (συνέβαλλον, suneballon, v. 18) with Paul in the marketplace, which for the Athenians was a marketplace of ideas as well as goods.

The American marketplace seems almost void of ideas. People generally are not talking about philosophies of life, especially consideration of the meta-narratives, as we did in the sixties. This generation, we are told, is concerned with how to make a living, and how to enjoy life in the present. But this, too, is a philosophy of sorts. While it may not deal formally with espistemology, ontology, and axiology, informally it deals with the essential questions of ultimate loyalty and what counts most in living. People made in God's image cannot, after all, escape questions of meaning, even if they invent personal narratives as answers.

But now Muslim immigrants are entering our culture—people who do believe in ultimate and absolute truth—and are changing the landscape of evangelism. We must, therefore, not assume that everyone around us is postmodern. To be sure, our consumer capitalism, democratizing electronic media, and moralistic individualism tend to assimilate new comers into the American pattern of moralistic, therapeutic deism. But we should never forget that first generation immigrants bring the baggage of their world with them—tending to cling to it for survival. Muslims are this way, but with a more self-conscious agenda of winning over the citizens of their new home to Islam. Theirs is a competing truth—a competing loyalty—seeking to dominate world history, which we may challenge on very different grounds than the postmodernist. Loyalties—read presuppositions—are always the ultimate challenge. They are the modes in which ultimate loyalties are expressed, and vary widely in the global landscape. Complicating our evangelism is the fact that the relativistic climate of our culture leaves most Americans ill-equipped to understand Islam, its doctrines, or intentions. Muslims are all too happy to be included in the murky idea that all religious roads lead to the same destination. So we must work extra hard to chart the many roads, and lovingly demonstrate the true nature of their destiny with disaster.

Paul knew the culture, the philosophies, of the Hellenistic world in which he lived and evangelized. Epicureans and Stoics covered the spectrum of Hellenistic philosophies in Paul's world. Epicureans worshipped the idol of pleasure—guided by prudence and restrained by self-preservation—but man-centered enjoyment of life no less. Stoics worshipped the idol of control through reason, seeking to shield themselves by force of intellect and will from the precariousness of living in a fallen world with all of its challenges—another man-centered enterprise.

Paul's profound grasp of Hellenistic thought and culture is demonstrated by his engagement of the audience on Mars Hill. He quotes the Cretan philosopher-poet Epimenides: "in Him we live and move and have our being;" and the didactic Greek poet Aratus: "For we are also His [Zeus's] offspring." Not only did he speak the language of Athens, but he also truly understood their ideas and motivations. He could see the general revelation of God expressed in their literature, and challenged them with the true knowledge of God through Jesus Christ. "To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some" (1 Cor. 9:22).

How many of us have read the Noble Qur'an? To a large degree our knowledge of Islam comes from the evening news or popular critiques of Qur'anic religion, all filtered through images of the crumbling towers in Manhattan. As important as the events of 9/11 are to our national safety—which should always be a deep concern of ours as citizens—our perspective on Islam as Christians must be more accurate and extensive. A clear understanding of Islam will help point up the genuine differences we have with our Muslim neighbors.

Often the charge of intolerance is thoughtlessly applied to all who profess absolute truth. However, honest, respectful discussion of differences will at least win a hearing with the thoughtful, especially among Muslims. While the "Noble Qur'an is not subtle about its disregard for people of other faiths";[2] we must demonstrate the genuine regard for people of other faiths that the Bible demands of us as we seek unashamedly to demonstrate the superiority of biblical faith.

As busy pastors, elders, and deacons we have only so much reading time, so it must be well spent. Anees Zaka and Diane Coleman's The Truth about Islam is designed to guide us into a more accurate knowledge of the Islamic scripture, and perhaps spur us on to own a copy. Zaka recommends the Noble Qur'an translated by Abdullah Yusuf Ali (2001), and the Islamic commentator Al-Ghazali.[3] If we do not accurately represent Islam, we will not—and do not deserve to—gain a hearing among Muslims. Such understanding lends credibility to our message and sharpens the content of our loving challenge to Muslims to repent and believe the gospel.

Paul's Message

Paul's method of engagement and his message were entirely compatible. Hostility toward those of other religions—especially those who have harmed us in some way—is contrary to the message of reconciliation. Look at what Paul suffered at the hands of persecutors. Such treatment never diminished his love for sinners. Strong convictions and a confident presentation of the truth are in no way contrary to the compassion needed in spreading the good news of Jesus Christ. Paul exercised a holy boldness as an apostle to Jew and Gentile, announcing the amnesty offered from heaven to ungrateful rebels. Paul never forgot that his own self-righteous hatred had been forgiven by the crucified Christ. His subsequent suffering only deepened his appreciation for God's remarkable grace.

It was in this spirit that Paul approached even the most tough-minded and virulent opposition. On Mars Hill, having demonstrated his profound understanding of the culture and philosophy of his Athenian audience, Paul was bold and clear in calling them to repentance. "The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead" (Acts 17:30-31). Some were remarkably saved in the midst of this spiritually hostile environment.

Today, as Muslims move into our communities, and mosques are built around us, our stance as the church must be fully Pauline—not seeking to "take back the culture," but rather seeking the reconciliation of sinners to our great and gracious God through Jesus and his resurrection. Should churches outnumber mosques in the future we will be grateful, especially here in New England, where there is such a paucity of churches to begin with. That this would bring many cultural benefits and blessings cannot be denied. But the mission of the church to lost sinners is the calling of the church, as the church. Nor should we be naïve about the difference in cultural intentions revealed in the Bible and in the Noble Qur'an. Anees Zaka is bold to point out:

Though we are reluctant to characterize Islamic fanaticism as anything but an extreme or aberrant form of Islam, the truth is that it follows from an honest and forthright interpretation of fundamental Qur'anic texts. To escape the obvious conclusion that Islamic law sanctions violence, one would have to blatantly overlook or completely eliminate essential sections of the Noble Qur'an.[4]

It is just at this point of extreme difference in spreading our faiths that we distinguish ourselves as those who believe that our religion is spread by the power of God's love through the cross and the resurrection, by the presence of his Spirit, and by the demonstration of visible love by the Christian community. The sword of our warfare is the truth of the gospel—the Word of God. Muslims have no acknowledgment of their deep need as sinners. They have only a call to submission to a distant god, Allah, and political, cultural, and military dominion over the nations in his name. Worst of all, they have no Savior, no Mediator, no forgiveness of sins or renewal by the power of the Spirit of the ascended Lord. Their longing for an illusive Paradise must be replaced by the true Paradise of God, realized through the Christ of Scripture. In loving boldness this is what we must bring to our Muslim neighbor. If Paul had gone to Mecca I think that this would have been his approach.

Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good? But even if you should suffer for righteousness' sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts regard Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. (1 Pet. 3:13-16)


[1] Anees Zaka and Diane Coleman, The Truth about Islam: The Noble Qur'an's Teachings in Light of the Holy Bible (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2004), 33. Muhammad's contact with Christianity was with a heretical version, namely Nestorian and Monophysite. The former separates the two natures of Christ, denying union in the person; the latter unites the two natures into one, denying the distinction. Noble Qur'an's extensive treatment of Jesus, as a great prophet, bears little resemblance to the Christ of Scripture.

[2] Ibid., 154.

[3] Ibid., 5.

[4] Ibid., 132.

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Ordained Servant: January 2008

Encountering Islam

Also in this issue

How Should the Reformed Church Respond to Islam?

City on a Hill: Caesar's or God's?

The Truth about Islam

The Crisis of Islam

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