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Heart of the Gospel:
The Bible and the Bahá'í Faith

by George Townshend

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Chapter 12

THE FOUNDING OF A CHRISTIAN COMMUNITY

The manner of teaching which Jesus employed in dealing with the Jewish people and in particular with the apostles is one of the most interesting among the minor features of His Revelation. It was not a method calculated to give the most sensational or the quickest results. It was one which would proceed little by little and would of necessity take time. One observes, on reflection, that the method was in reality an application on a small scale to the individual mind of the self same principle which the Eternal Lord of Evolution uses on a large scale in the education of the soul of mankind. Jesus neither had nor desired human credentials. His Five Witnesses are given in the fifth chapter of St. John: the Baptist — His own life and teaching — the Father — -Holy Scripture — and Moses. Jonah had one sign to give to the Ninevites — his inspired message of God's compassion: Jesus likewise (so He taught) had His sign, which was His divine Message; and that sign must suffice, for He would give no more. In accordance with the determination He had made before the beginning of His ministry, He did not attempt to force anyone's conversion or hurry anyone's enlightenment by resorting to supernatural means. He would not suppress incredulity by doing wonders nor exemplify His Messianic power by physical miracles. When He was importuned to confirm His utterances by performing some prodigious feat, He refused. A portent,


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had He consented to give one, would have produced no constructive effect on people's minds; it would have made the wrong appeal: it would not have awakened spiritual faith nor promoted that most delicate process of soul-development. In the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, Jesus quoted Abraham, in paradise, as saying that if men on earth were not persuaded by the teaching of Moses and of the prophets, they would not be persuaded even by one who came back from the dead to warn them.

He would heal a sick man, not to display His power, but out of pure kindness and compassion; He would strictly enjoin him to tell no one about the incident. Ostentation, even in what might appear the best cause, was not within His plan. He would raise the dead, for was He not the Prince of Life, and had He not come to give men a more abundant life — was He not Himself the Resurrection, so, that any one who believed in Him had eternal life and was for ever immune from death? After ages and more materialistic minds might reduce His miracles of life-giving and represent Him as merely restoring to dead men the physical life which had been taken from them and which must soon be taken again from them this time beyond recovery. Such restoration would indeed spread amazement and consternation far and wide, beyond the borders of Palestine, and no doubt as far as Rome itself and put every Scribe, Pharisee and sceptic to shame and to silence. But the true miracles of life-giving which Jesus performed and which assuredly proved beyond any doubt His Messiahship were spiritual miracles wrought upon men's hearts and souls, which the carnal ego could not see nor the mundane mind appreciate, and which for


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that reason might be well symbolised by parables of men called back from beyond the grave.

Jesus, in fine, showed in every way the utmost deference to man's independent will. He offered to men truth as a gift. He did not urge it upon them, not even upon the disciples; He did not beg them to accept it, nor try by any stratagem to induce them to believe in it. With care and infinite patience, He measured His teaching to the capacity of those whom He taught, and as their receptivity improved, He gave them a little more and again a little more.

It is in His education of the 'Twelve whom He chose to be continually with Him that the progressiveness of His teaching is brought out most clearly and most dramatically. He did not attempt to suggest to the disciples at once, or quickly, all that He intended them to learn from Him. He, of course, well knew (as we with wisdom of the event know too) that He was about to institute such colossal changes in human history and human character as no Hebrew in the past, not Moses or Abraham himself had contemplated. He would soon lay upon the apostles one of the most tremendous responsibilities ever undertaken by human beings. But He did not try to explain to them what that responsibility would be nor how great would be the civilisation which He was about to found through their agency. 'They were quite unprepared for such knowledge and quite incapable of penetrating His meaning or visualising future developments. He told them very little about their future work. His endeavour was so to strengthen them that they would be fit for the emergency when it arose. He taught with the purpose of opening their hearts, quickening their faith, intensifying their


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spirituality, so as to equip them for the responsibilities all too soon to be laid upon them. At first He told them little in plain, explicit language, and He chose the subjects of His teaching less with a view to satisfying their curiosity than with a view to remedying their moral deficiencies and to converting weakness into strength. His aim was evidently not merely to change the views of the apostles, but (what was much more difficult) so to change their hearts and minds that their views would then change themselves. He once said that whatever a man found to do he should do with his might; and assuredly His teaching was thorough. There was something in His utterance, however undogmatic or serene His manner, which made His words sink deep. He breathed about those who were with Him a spiritual atmosphere in which superstitions and follies weakened and withered. He did not try to blot out of the disciples' minds the whole system of a former belief that He might build a new and better system in its place. On the contrary. He sought to disturb their religion as little as possible, to encourage the growth of whatever was good in it and to let whatever was corrupt die through its own unsoundness. It was not by imparting items of information to them that He sought to guide them to a knowledge of God; rather He sought to invigorate their minds and strengthen their intuitions that they might of themselves learn more of the divine truth which was being shed upon them. Through this method, undazzling and unrhetorical as it was, Jesus was able to recreate and regenerate the souls of the apostles and lead them gradually onward and upward from their original ignorance and infirmity to the heights of wisdom and power which ultimately they attained.


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The basic fact on which the New Era and its civilisation were to be built was the fact of Jesus' Messiahship. But Jesus was in no hurry to announce this even to the disciples. His wish was so to increase their spirituality that they would be enabled to discover it for themselves; for their appreciation of the truth would, in that case, be more full and more firm than if He spared them the effort and told them with His own lips.

For this reason Jesus refused to be drawn into any premature declaration of His identity. Two attempts to draw from Him a clear statement of His status are recorded, one friendly and one unfriendly: both times He refused. The Baptist from prison had sent messengers to Jesus to ask, 'Art thou he that should come, or do we look for another?' (Matt. xi. 3.) The Baptist, of course himself well knew that Jesus was the Messiah, but he wished that others should know. He felt his own end hoped approaching, and he that before the Herald was put to silence in the grave the Lord whose advent he had proclaimed would see fit to declare Himself publicly to the world. He determined that before he died he would give Christ at least an opportunity and an invitation to make the great pronouncement. Jesus gave an answer which implied but did not openly state that He was indeed the Christ and was doing the Christ's work; and (Matt. 11. 4-5) was healing the spiritually sick, giving spiritual knowledge to the ignorant, bestowing eternal life on those buried in mortality: and 'blessed is he , whosoever shall not be offended in me' (Matt. xi. 6), meaning, blessed were those who, in spite of the personal simplicity and lowliness of Jesus, were spiritual enough to discern His heavenly power and His divine dignity.


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At a later date, shortly before the end of His life, the chief priests and the scribes and the elders assembled, and approaching Jesus as He taught in the temple, sought from Him such a definite declaration of His claims as they hoped soon to be able to use against Him with deadly effect. 'By what authority', they enquired, 'doest thou these things? and who gave thee this authority?' Jesus courteously replied that He would answer them if they first would answer a question of His; and He asked them, whence came the authority of John the Baptist? When they could not tell Him, He said, 'Neither tell I you by what authority I do these things.' (Matt. 21:23-27; See also Mark 11:28-33.)

The people at large, like the disciples, were attracted by Jesus, they gathered about Him, they hung upon His words, they were charmed by His sweetness and astonished at the strange power that was in His words; but like the apostles, they did not realise He was the long-expected Messiah. The divines had deduced from a number of Old Testament texts what the Messiah would be like and what He would do. He would be something like what they imagined Moses and Joshua had been, a great warrior-deliverer, and He would carry the work of Jewish emancipation which these two leaders had begun to a still more glorious and resounding conclusion. Moses had given the Israelites the Holy Land: the Messiah would give them the world. Of all this the divines were quite satisfied, and of a great deal more, and they had for generations been telling the Jews in school and synagogue what great things this mighty earth-conqueror would do for them as soon as he made his appearance. Jesus of Nazareth did not at all resemble this Messiah: He had


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no throne, no sword and was a simple, poor man. Some people were so deeply impressed by His doctrine and personality they thought He was like an Old Testament prophet; no one thought He was the Messiah. Even the disciples themselves for a time did not think so. They loved Him; they regarded Him with wonder and awe; they felt and often spoke as if they were children before Him, He was so wise and so great; they were ready to leave their homes to be with Him and to learn from Him; they believed they would follow Him anywhere. Yet He did not seem to them like a Messiah. The Messiah would be quite a different sort of person. They would recognise Him at once because the Scribes had drawn such a vivid picture of Him, and it was the Scribes' business to know all about such matters. Jesus did not conceal His identity from them; but on the other hand He did not hasten to proclaim it. He was content for a while to imply it. In the Sermon on the Mount He made statements of Himself which could only be true of a Messiah, and of a great Messiah. But He did not affirm in so many words His true dignity. He taught His disciples and encouraged [ them and led them with Him into such a strange, new, beautiful world of spiritual values that, by degrees, they became able to appreciate something of His true majesty and splendour. There began to dawn on them the truth this radiant Being was in reality more than they had suspected at first. Weeks passed; and months: still Jesus did not open to them the great mystery. He watched, and continued His training of them till He saw that, at last, the moment had come: they had reached, or some of them had reached, the very edge of the great recognition.


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The experience of the disciples, therefore, was in contrast to that of Simeon and of the prophetess Anna recorded in the second chapter of St. Luke. The intuition of these two aged people perceived at once the identity of the infant as the Promised One; but they did not live to learn in what a strange and unexpected manner the child would become the glory of Israel and shed light upon the Gentiles.

The account given in St. John's Gospel puts the acknowledgment that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God, together with the changing of Simon's name to Peter, at the very beginning of the ministry; in fact, before the actual call of any of the disciples. But St. John assuredly does not intend here to contradict the chronology of St. Matthew, which Christendom has always accepted. Rather, according to the spirit and the purpose of his unique Gospel, these words, like many other words in other connexions, must be taken in some profound mystical sense or as having an important theological rather than historical meaning. But even when Jesus saw that the first stage of His preparation of the disciples was complete and that the right moment had come to make known to them His station as the Christ, He did not then declare His identity to them with His own lips.

He did not, in fact, ever make an open declaration (according to the first three Gospels) until his trial. Then in answer to a direct question from the High Priest, he gives (to His own..destruction) the great claim which they had vainly sought to establish from the mouth of witnesses: nobody could be found who had actually heard Jesus assert that He was the Messiah. (Matt. 24:63-64.)


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It was from the lips of Peter that there came the first declaration of Jesus' Messiahship ever made on this earth; and Jesus drew the pronouncement from him. At a time chosen by Himself, Jesus brought forward the problem of who He really was and who the Jewish public said He was. The disciples told Him that some supposed He was John the Baptist miraculously come back from the dead, some that He was Elijah, or else Jeremiah or some other prophet. They said no more; they did not volunteer what they thought of these opinions nor did they give their own opinion. Jesus propounded them a further question: 'But who say ye that I am?' (Matt. 16:15.) 'The disciples' reply came from St. Peter: "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.' Jesus at once accepted the title and pronounced on Peter the only personal blessing of a disciple quoted in the four gospels: 'Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-jona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed st unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven. . .'

Jesus left no doubt in the minds of those present of the immense significance of this pronouncement. Peter, in virtue of his confession and of his brilliant vision of the truth, was declared the first believer, the first Christian. Hereafter there would arise down the ages others who would share his intuition, who instead of reflecting the belief of those about them, instead of owing their faith to tradition, would, like Peter, receive not from their fellow-men but immediately from the Father Himself an inward understanding of Christ's nature and message. As the first Christian, so should be other Christians: they would be distinguished from others as Peter was distinguished from others. They would have from God an independent realisation in their own hearts of the Messiahship of Christ.


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They would be knit with Peter, the First Christian, by this common experience; and out of all such believers; (their hearts indissolubly united together in love for God and Christ) would be built Christ's true congregation into which all who entered were admitted not by their fellow-men, not by flesh and blood, but directly by the Father in heaven Himself.

To such Christians Jesus committed the evangelisation of mankind and all the authority and discipline which would be needed for the prosecution of the task. So long as He lived, all power was His; but He foresaw that soon He would be taken from them and He now began to prepare them for their heavy responsibility. The time would come (and come at no distant date) when the burden would be shifted from His shoulders and would be laid on theirs. The spiritual future of mankind would depend on them and on those who after them would walk in their steps — the steps, that is, of humble faith and of intuitive assurance of the reality of their Master's Messianic title. However lowly or obscure or poor such followers might be, however overwhelming the opposition marshalled against them, Jesus promised that no power on earth or under the earth ever should prevail against them. Nothing could refute their witness. They and such as they were the true servants of human progress, the children of spiritual evolution, the destined inheritors of the earth. This appointment of the Twelve to 'bind' and 'loose' implied the revocation of all authority given under the Mosaic Dispensation. Officials of the Jewish Church would no longer be in the line of spiritual evolution nor empowered to work as agents of a Dispensation to promote the spiritual progress of mankind. The authority of


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the Kingdom was to be transferred henceforth to the Christians.

The removal of the Scribes from their position as teachers must have saddened the heart of Jesus. It was called for, it was forced upon Him by their own arrogance and craving for personal leadership. Had they really had the divine wisdom they pretended to have, they would have been the first to acclaim their Messiah and would have retained the leadership (or rather become the divine servants) of the people. Their spiritual influence would have spread far and wide among the nations and they would have won eternal, and perhaps also temporal, fame and glory. Often and often God would have gathered them under the wings of His love and saved them from destruction; but they would not heed, and their house was made a desolation. (Matt. 23:37-38.)

This confession of Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God, and His acceptance of the title, mark a central and crucial point in the spiritual education of the Twelve. At first there was a doubt. 'The disciples remembered the prophecy that Elijah would come before the Messiah, and Elijah, as far as they knew, had not yet come: how then could Jesus be the Christ of prophecy? Jesus explained that Elijah had indeed come and the Jews had done to him as they listed. 'The disciples knew that He referred to the Baptist and they began to see what none else saw, how in Jesus the prophecies of the Old Testament were being fulfilled before their eyes. Realising now that their Master was none less than the Messiah, they became conscious of the importance of their own advancement and authority. As the chosen


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friends of the Messiah and His inner council, they would be made rulers in Israel as soon as the Messianic kingdom was set up. It was not long before they were disputing among themselves who should sit nearest the Throne and take precedence of the others and wield the greatest power over the people.

Jesus no doubt foresaw this development and He took pains quickly to disillusion them, to start them along the second part of their spiritual education and to discourage the rise of any such foolish and unworthy ambitions. He warned them in plain, strong words that a complete surprise awaited them; that He would not prove to be the kind of Messiah they had been led to expect: far, far otherwise. They would gain no praise from men for following Him: quite the contrary. He foretold that He must go to Jerusalem; and there in the Sacred City suffer many things at the hands of the very elect of His own people, the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be set at nought and mocked and crucified. But, He explained, no cross could kill His spirit, no grave could hold His power, no darkness dim His light.

This blunt and terrible warning, given designedly so soon after the declaration of His Messiahship, shocked and horrified the disciples. No doubt it was meant so to do. They could not believe it nor comprehend it. He was the Messiah. No defeat could happen to the Messiah, least of all in Jerusalem and at the hands of the leaders of the Chosen People.

Peter again became the apostles' spokesman and gave utterance to those unspiritual conceptions of Christhood in which all Jews had been trained and from which the disciples had not yet shaken loose.


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Then Peter took him, and began to rebuke him, saying, Be it far from thee, Lord: this shall not be unto thee. (Matt. 16:22.)

Jesus instantly, in the sternest language possible, reprimanded Peter and repudiated his opinion as being of the essence of evil; and then, proceeding, set forth the law of self sacrifice, and the certainty that in spite of His apparent defeat, He would in God's strength triumph over all opposition; His Cause would suffer eclipse for three days, but for no longer.

This new strange spiritual conception of the Messianic office bewildered the disciples. They did not, they would not reject it; they tried to accept it. But their minds were not flexible enough to grasp it. It sank into their hearts very, very slowly. In spite of their Master's vigorous and reiterated teaching, they could only abandon the familiar idea of the Messiah with toil and pain; they clung to it, as it were, in spite of themselves. Even at the end of Jesus' ministry, they had not been able to understand His meaning nor succeeded in their efforts to accept His statement as to His sufferings and His violent death. They still expected He would set up some form of external kingship in which they would enjoy positions of glory and power among men; and Jesus' last efforts in their spiritual education were directed to training them in the virtue of humility and in the ideal of service.

Before He could bring home to their hearts this difficult and unwelcome lesson, He was taken from them. The tragic close of His career brought their spiritual failure to unmistakable expression. Peter denied His Master thrice; Thomas doubted Him; Judas betrayed Him; all in the


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hour of His danger forsook Him and fled. The crucifixion cast them into utter amazement and despair. The whole mental fabric which their pride and imagination had built up was shattered in a moment and fallen. Their world was empty. Their beloved Lord was defeated — the mocking scribe was right. 'They had made some terrible mistake . . . For three days the Cause of Christ lay in their hearts dead and buried. None can tell what might have happened, had it not been for the intuition and courage of one who was not of their number — a woman, Mary of Magdala. She it was who was the first to understand the reality of Eternal Life and Christ's Eternal Sonship. She understood before those to whom they were spoken, the words of Jesus after His rebuke of Peter.

If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it. . . the Son of man shall come in the glory of his Father with his angels. . . (Matt. 16:24-25, 27.)

Quicker than any of the Twelve, she perceived the reality of His kingship, and recognised that if His body was dead, His spirit was indestructible and was alive breathing in mortal power. She cheered the disciples. She communicated to them her vision, quickened their faith and renewed their courage. Purified by their suffering, animated by her spiritual power, they now perceived for the first time the incorporeal nature of the dominion and glory of their Lord and of His kingdom. Not till the first Easter was the great confession of an earlier day completed; and


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if the glory of that confession belongs to Peter the glory of making it in the fullness of its spiritual sense belongs to the Magdalene. But even at this stage in their mental growth, even after this appalling trial and this celestial illumination the disciples had not shaken off the hold of convention and superstition nor realised the independence of the Revelation of their Lord. They still clung to the idea that Christ had come to reform the Jewish church. As if to show how closely ingrained in their habit of mind were the old traditions and how slow and toilsome was their transition to a larger truth, the New Testament records that for years after the Resurrection Peter, the leader of the Twelve and the greatest of them, could not free himself from his old thraldom to Jewish custom — nor was he alone in his hyper-conservatism. 'The disciples might accept Jesus' abrogation of the law of the Sabbath and his prohibition of divorce, but they could not accept the principle on which these changes depended. 'They could not apply it to other parts of the Mosaic tradition. When Jesus was no longer with them in the flesh to give definite directions and rulings, their inclination was to hold fast to an old belief unless he had explicitly rejected it. In spite of such general remarks of Jesus as his statement that new wine would need new bottles, and a more specific remark such as that in Mark 7:18 (Luke 11:41) that what a man ate did not defile him, but what he thought ('This he said, making all meats clean'), Peter and others with him sincerely maintained that the observance of circumcision and of the distinction between clean and unclean meats was still called for under the Christian law. Nor even when with difficulty he changed his mind on this point and adopted a larger opinion, did he find it easy


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at first to adhere, under stress, to his new point of view. (Gal. 2.)

Whatever may be the psychological explanation of the extraordinary fact, it was Paul, the ex-Pharisee, the extremist, more thoroughly steeped in Scribal lore than any or all of the other early Christians, who made this mental transition from Judaism to Christianity more quickly, as well as more discerningly than any of his contemporaries, and showed the older believers how to apply to Mosaism the principles of religious development they had been taught by Christ. Doubtless, a philosophic temperament, eagerness of mind and intellectual courage, travel and variety of experience (he was not a Palestinian Jew) as well as the particular grace of God, helped him to this remarkable feat. But he did not achieve his faith without strong effort. Long before his conversion his heart had been torn by a struggle between old error and new truth. He resisted the call of God, and like many another great evangelist in after ages, like St. Patrick, for example, and like St. Xavier, he refused to surrender his proud independence till, at last, the force of truth overwhelmed him and he realised the enormity of refusing to confess his knowledge and to go forth to give battle for his dear Lord. 'For if I preach the gospel,' he cried, 'I have nothing to glory of; for necessity is laid upon me; for woe is unto me, if I preach not the gospel.' (1 Cor. 9:16.) He, like Peter, was vouchsafed the privilege of an outward vision to strengthen him in his struggle. He needed a period of seclusion and meditation to win peace after the turmoil of conflict, and to think out the manifold problems that beset him. But once he became sure of himself and of his position, he went forward, never looking


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back. Owing to the tardiness of Peter and the other disciples, he took their place as the chief expounder and propagator of the Gospel. His point of view and his views (even when largely personal) have greatly influenced Christian interpretations up to the present time. He it was who, moved by the same intoxication of love for Jesus as the earlier disciples, was the first to recognise the comprehensiveness of Jesus' teaching, to see the significance of the command to gather all nations into the kingdom and to paint in clear outline the vision of a world-community bound into one by the inward bond of a common faith. He never met Jesus in the flesh, but he learned from Jesus' words and bore witness more clearly than any other of his time to the truth that man's freedom does not impair God's sovereignty, that world-history is radically a spiritual process, that the Creative Will laid out its course from the beginning and that mankind (one and all) tread haltingly and erringly a path ordained before the foundation of the world.


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