Jesus’ Surprising Interactions With Other Religions

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Ding-dong. As I head for the door, my daughter screams. “Dad! Do not open that door!”

I turn to find my daughter peeking out the window. “Why not?” I ask.

“It’s those people again. You know, the ties, the bikes…why do they have to bother us?”

Think about the last interaction you had with someone from a different religion—maybe the Jehovah’s Witness that knocked on your door, the Muslim woman watching her kids play at the park, or the New Ager who tried to sell you healing crystals. Did you approach the interaction with any particular goal in mind? Were you successful in meeting that goal, or not?

Think about the last interaction you had with someone from a different religion. Did you approach the interaction with any particular goal in mind? Were you successful in meeting that goal, or not?

I can recall many instances in my life when I worked up the courage to talk to someone from another religion, with the goal of helping them see the Truth. More often than not, the conversation ended with me failing at my goal and very little chance that either of us would want to meet again.

Jesus didn’t leave that kind of bad taste in people’s mouths, probably because he approached those of other religions very differently than we do.

Though most of Jesus’ ministry occurred in a small region of the world to a largely homogenous Jewish society, he still found opportunities to interact with those of foreign backgrounds, who probably carried either partially or fully their traditional religions with them. Jesus spoke with Romans, who came from a polytheistic background; with Syrians and Canaanites, traditionally worshippers of idols including Baal and Ashtoreth; and with Samaritans, whose religion was similar to the Jews in that they followed the Torah and believed in a coming Messiah, but had differences in how they worshiped and looked to Mount Gerizim as their holiest site. (The Samaritan religion is still around today.)

The Gospels record Jesus’ interactions with specific foreigners such as the Roman Centurion with a sick servant (Luke 7); the Roman governor Pilate (John 18-19); the Canaanite woman with a sick daughter (Matthew 15); the Samaritan leper grateful for his healing (Luke 17); the sinful Samaritan woman at the well (John 4); the allegorical Good Samaritan (Luke 10); and many unnamed sick and demonized from the regions of Syria and the Decapolis who were most likely not Jewish (Matthew 4 & 8; Mark 3 & 7). In all these interactions we find Jesus’ approach to be surprisingly different from how he approached the Pharisees or his own disciples.

Surely Jesus would desire that all of these foreigners leave their false religions and embrace the truth. So how did he approach them? Reading each of the passages mentioned above would be highly instructional for those of us who claim to follow Jesus. Here’s my summary of how Jesus interacted with those of other religions:

What Jesus DID:

– healed the sick
– delivered the demonically oppressed
– told people to tell others what God had done for them
– praised people for their great faith
– praised people as examples of what God wants
– announced they would feast in heaven with the earlier prophets.

Only when he was asked did Jesus reveal himself as Messiah (John 4) and King (John 18).

What Jesus DIDN’T do:

– follow his own Jewish culture’s prejudicial norms
– condemn or rebuke
– warn of judgment or hell
– argue theology, debate, quote the Scriptures, ask if people wanted to know the Gospel, or ask people to change anything.

Think about that for a moment. Jesus didn’t try to convince people to believe anything new, change any behavior, or join his group. He simply loved them, praised the good in them, and only answered the questions they were actually asking.

A survey conducted in January 2017 by the Pew Research Center provides insight into how Americans currently feel about different religious groups. Two results from this survey are particularly apropos:

1. The young generation (age 18-29) feel more warmly toward Buddhists (+66), Hindus and Catholics (+64), and Jews (+62) than they do toward Evangelical Christians (+59). Evangelical Christians in fact rank closer to Atheists (+59) and Muslims (+58).

2. Although Republicans have the warmest feelings for Evangelical Christians (+71), Democrats put Evangelical Christians near the bottom of the list with Mormons (+53 & +52 respectively), far behind Jews (+66), Catholics and Buddhists (+64), Hindus (+61), Atheists (+57) and even Muslims (+56).

The study also found that Americans tend to feel most warmly toward those who are like themselves. No wonder Republicans and the elderly like evangelicals—they’re showing a preference for their own group. But for the many out there who do NOT identify as evangelicals—whether they’re from the young generation, the Democratic Party, or another religious group—their feelings toward evangelicals are not so warm. In fact, according to author Joseph Mattera, many American Muslims “believe Christians hate them.”

How can we change this negative perception? By changing the dynamics of our interactions. We need to leave behind some of the agenda-based dialogue and argumentative approaches that have neither achieved our goals of convincing others to change nor reflected the heart of our Savior. It’s time we got back to doing what Jesus did—loving, healing, praising, and responding to what is truly on people’s hearts.

We shouldn’t do these things so that people from other backgrounds will like us, or even so they will convert—we should do them because we claim to follow Jesus. The more we become like him, the more magnetically people will be drawn to us, and discover for themselves that Jesus is “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).

Jim Baton’s 20 years living in a Muslim nation have birthed a series of novels that are transforming people’s perceptions on Muslims and how God would have us relate to them in love. His most recent novel, A Violent Light, was released in December 2016.

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