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

by George Townshend

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Chapter 8


'We have Moses and the prophets. Are not they good enough for us? What need have we of this new teaching? Why should we listen to this new prophet?' Such would be the remark of every Jewish churchman as he heard the counsels and pronouncements of Jesus of Galilee. Jesus anticipated the objection. From the first He tried to make clear to all Hebrew enquirers what was the relation of His own message to that of His great predecessor. But His teaching on this point has more than a temporal or local meaning and is of interest and value to-day to the modern Christian and to every student of progressive revelation.

The people to whom Jesus delivered His message were Hebrews. They were steeped in Mosaism: how strong its grip upon them their subsequent history shows. Their whole outlook on life, their whole civilisation, was penetrated by Mosaism.

Passionately religious, intensely nationalistic, they regarded themselves as apart from the rest of mankind, and the force which united them in this exclusiveness was their loyalty to Moses. A man of any other nationality, a Greek or a Roman, might in those days travel to foreign lands and bring his gods with him or find abroad a faith kindred to his own. But to the Jews of the Dispersion as to those (fewer in number) who remained at home, there was only one true God, the God Who spoke to them through Moses; only one priesthood, that which had come from Moses; only one Temple, that

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in Jerusalem, in which sacrifices for the forgiveness of sins and for fellowship with God were continually offered according to the ritual of Moses. Jews out of every nation under heaven mingling with their brethren of Galilee and Judaea thronged the courts of that Temple, the shrine and sacred centre of their history and their religion, where they gathered under the shadow of that divine prophet who had delivered them from Egyptian serfdom, led them to the Holy Land and made of them a nation chosen by the one true God as His very own. From Moses, too, and after him from the prophets of his Dispensation, flowed that distinctive glorious hope that animated all Hebrew hearts, fortifying and cheering them in adversity and proving itself too strong to be quenched by any vicissitude or lapse of time: the hope of the Messiah. Every detail of Hebrew life, public or private or domestic, was regulated with precise and prying exactitude by the enactments of the Law which (some of it oral and some of it written) was all supposed to have been given on Mount Sinai by God to Moses. The 'traditions of the elders' explained, expanded and applied to every imaginable case the meaning of Scripture; so great was the veneration in which they were held that they were regarded as more binding than the written Word, and once they were formed and accepted as orthodox not a phrase or letter might be annulled or changed. The most important and prominent persons in the social order were not officers of the army nor leading politicians, but rather the Pharisees, a religious party who kept ostentatiously the minutiae of the law of Moses, and the Scribes who were the official expounders of that law. A scribe's dignity

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was so exalted that he outweighed in value all the common people and any statement whatever that he made was above question and must be received with implicit belief.

The Mosaic religion, as it confronted Jesus, was thus a great system pervading all Hebrew activities; it was final, closed and unassailable. In the midst of it stood the written Law; around it the sacrosanct traditions; and on the outside guarding this holy deposit walked the sentinel figures of the Scribes whose authority none could challenge and who were the intimates of God both in this world and in the next.

When Jesus came to bestow a new revelation on the Hebrews, He did not find an open door into their hearts, nor their minds hungry for further knowledge and for a better righteousness. Quite the contrary. As a teacher who was courteous to those He addressed, who respected the opinions of others and who desired not to over-awe nor overwhelm nor to coerce, but to attract and to win, to persuade and to convince, His first pedagogical problem was to find the best approach to souls already saturated with an alien orthodoxy. He showed no wish to remove the law and the teaching of Moses from their minds: heaven forbid. His aim was to cleanse away the accretions which had accumulated about it; to straighten out what through men's perversity had been warped; to make people's belief in Moses sincere and true-not a view adopted by inheritance, but a view firmly held by a native activity of the believer's own heart. He took for granted the divine prophethood of Moses; upheld the truth of Moses' revelation, and represented His own teaching as a natural development out of it.

But His words on this matter have a wider reference

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than their immediate appeal and a larger purpose than to remove the religious difficulties of those to whom He spoke. They prove to be an important part of His gospel and to illumine the method which God has established on earth for the spiritual evolution of mankind. They testify to the continuity of revealed religion and show how one revelation passes away and enters into that which succeeds it. He said (in effect) that between His Message and that of Moses there was an organic connexion. Though He might alter the customs of Moses, yet He was not Moses' enemy but his friend; He was not poisoning, not subverting the ancient Word but purifying it, advancing it: if the Scribes really knew as much about Moses as they imagined they knew, they would understand that Moses and He both bare witness to the same Truth, upheld the same cause and had in view the same consummation of human history.

His attitude on this point was wholly new and surprising. It not only affronted the prejudices of the Scribes, the Pharisees and the ultra conservative, but it perplexed the disciples themselves and remained for long a critical difficulty to Christian converts from Judaism.

John the Baptist had already prepared the mind of the Jewish people for the new point of view. He connected his work closely with the Old Testament, claimed to fulfil the prophecy of Isaiah and to be 'the voice of one crying in the wilderness'. In spirit and in manner he was like Elijah of old, with whom Jesus identified him. But in trenchant, fiery phrases he rejected utterly the current interpretations of God's Word and the authority of its self appointed expounders. The Pharisees and Sadducees considered themselves the elect of the elect, the choicest

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spirits of the chosen people; but when they came to him to seek his baptism, they did not receive from him any congratulations either on the reality of their holiness or the reality of their repentance. He greeted them as a 'generation of vipers', as deadly ingrates who being cradled in Mosaism, drawing out of it for themselves honours and privileges, were yet the treacherous enemies of the system that supported them, living at the heart of it and striking at its heart. He denounced their pride of race, their trust in their descent from Abraham. He bade them if they repented to show their repentance by their deeds; for there was about to descend upon them from on high a greater baptism than his, the baptism of One Who with unerring judgment would separate the true Hebrew from the false, the true shepherd from the hireling; and if their repentance and their deeds were not approved by this Holy One, He would assuredly expose them and cast them out to a terrible destruction.

So far the Baptist went in his teaching; and it was far. He repudiated without qualification or compromise as utterly worthless all the Masters of Israel and everything they did: they were the covert, sneaking, treacherous enemies of the Great Deliverer on whose revelation they fattened themselves and nothing less than a renunciation of all their past pride and wickedness could save them from judgment. As the forerunner of the Christ, preparing for his Lord a way into men's hearts, he had to break the people's mental idols, to clear away ecclesiastic debris and to present first the negative destructive side of the new teaching. Jesus followed, taking exactly the same attitude towards Moses and the Old Testament as John, but presenting the positive aspect of John's argument and

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laying as it were the foundations of His system on the ground which John had cleared.

The effect of the Gospel of Jesus has been in history to spread the knowledge of the Old Testament far and wide across the globe, to win for it a place of reverence and love in countless millions of human hearts and to make the name of Moses honoured among all the peoples, nations and languages of the earth. The enthusiasm of the Scribes and Pharisees did not accomplish this: far otherwise. It has been the direct result of the teaching of Jesus Who Himself bound up His own work with that of Moses and bade all Christians down the ages to esteem and glorify Moses as His own predecessor and one of the exalted eternal prophets of the Most High God. So transcendent was the veneration which the first Christians learned from their Lord to pay to Moses that not only do New Testament writers so strongly stress the debt of Christianity to him, but in the apocalyptic vision of the final Day of Wrath of God those who have gotten the victory over the powers of evil sing to the music of the harps of God a lyric of triumph in which the Song of Moses still blends at that distant day with the Song of the Lamb.

And they sing the song of Moses the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb, saying, Great and marvellous are thy works, Lord God Almighty; just and true are thy ways, thou King of saints. (Rev. xv. 3.)

Strange that both the orthodox Hebrews on the one side, and Christ upon the other should so honour Moses and yet their views should be irreconcilable and violently opposed to each other. What the Jewish authorities

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thought of Jesus' attitude to Moses is made plain by their actions. Jesus on His side denied that the Jews for all their parade of devotion really believed in Moses at all; He said the hope they placed in Moses was vain — He was not on their side, He was against them; true faith was impossible for them because they sought only glory from one another, not from God. If He said these hard things of them, it was in fact not Himself but Moses who was their accuser. (John 5:42-47.) On the other hand, Jesus claimed that between Him and Moses, in their teaching, their function, their purpose, there was the closest resemblance and affinity. The vision vouchsafed to the three principal disciples on the Mount of Transfiguration revealed in symbol the intimate spiritual communion which Christ enjoyed with Moses in moments of contemplation.

On one occasion (John 14:7) Jesus said that to know Him was to know the Father, and again, whosoever had seen Him had seen the Father: He was the express image of God reflecting in perfection all the divine attributes. On another occasion, speaking to the Jews, He said that if one believed in Moses one would believe in Him, the Christ; meaning that so alike were He and Moses in those things which the eye of Faith discerns that a true believer would see no difference between them. In these two comparisons, first of His likeness to God and second of Moses' likeness to Him, Jesus shows that the essential kinship between Himself and Moses was in their godlike attributes, in their perfections, in their power, in their service of God and in the spirit of their teaching. They were two distinct individuals, separated by more than a thousand years, and they gave counsels and commandments

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which in many ways were different; yet in their spirit and their power they were so much alike that sincere true-hearted belief in one was identical with belief in the other.

In such passages as these Jesus makes manifest how spiritual evolution is for ever continuous through unceasing change, and how one Prophet of God succeeding another shows forth by word and by example a Truth which in its aspect and in the degree of its revelation is always altering, but in its source and in its essence is for ever the same. The progress of religion appears in the Bible as being analogous to the growth of an individual, to the process of a child's becoming a man. From infancy to old age the human body is being unceasingly transformed, its appearance is changing, and its development in youth is so rapid that the passage of ten years or less will alter a child beyond recognition. Intellectual capacity, too, develops with the years, the individual's knowledge increases, his character is ennobled: and yet his identity remains the same throughout. So is it with the religion of mankind which the Bible portrays. Religion becomes progressively a larger and sublimer thing; but it remains in essence one and the same religion. The sacred rites and ceremonies, the customs and ordinances of one era are cast aside in another, and new rites and customs substituted for them, but the same religion remains, expressing itself more fully in new forms. The Divine Prophets follow one another, each with an ampler Revelation than his predecessor, but all coming from the One God, exemplifying in word and deed the one Truth and acting as the Lord's vicegerents in one evolutionary process, one Scheme of Salvation.

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Each prophet is independent of any before him, annuls or institutes ordinances and rites as he sees fit, expands or adds to doctrine, and under God issues new decrees on his own authority and in his own name. But his informing purpose is none other than to carry on the divine work of his predecessor: to fulfil, not to destroy.

The Gospel gives with emphasis many illustrations in detail of this great and vital truth, and enforces it strongly by holding always over against it the utterly false and mischievous idea on the continuity of religion held by the Pharisees and the Scribes.

There are certain fundamental spiritual truths which stand in both Revelations; some of which may have come down without any change from earlier prophets than Moses. Such truths are, for example, first, that of the existence and the unity of God; second, that of God's two prerogatives, to command and to create (all men being no more than his servants and his creatures); third, that of the two laws of love and of justice; fourth, that of revelation and prophethood (for Moses foretold there would come after him another Moses, from which statement arose the Messianic expectation fulflled in the Advent of Christ). The truth of personal immortality might be added to the list of essential truths, for Jesus affirmed that Moses had by implication taught it, though a lack of spiritual acumen had prevented the Hebrews from discerning the significance of his words.

Such everlasting verities as these form as it were the core of revealed religion as it appears in the two testaments. On the other hand the Gospel shows almost from the first word to the last in how many ways the teaching of Jesus was more lofty, more exacting and more subtle

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than that which Moses had given in an earlier day to a cruder people.

Moses addressed himself to the Twelve Tribes and said, 'Hear, O Israel, the statutes and judgments which I speak in your ears. . .' (Deut. 5:1, etc.) Jesus bade His disciples teach all nations, spoke of His gospel being preached throughout the world and foretold men would come into the Kingdom from north and south, from east and west.

Moses summarised his teaching in Ten Commandments; and when the Christian peruses them he observes that Christ heightened each several one of these and did not leave one of them unamended. Moses had said the Israelites were to have one God only. Jesus went further: He said that all mankind was to have one God, the Universal Father of all men and nations. Moses forbade the people to grave any image lest they fall down and worship it; but Jesus said a man must have nothing in his heart to worship but God only. Moses warned men against taking God's name in vain, an injunction which has a general meaning and also a special reference to keeping a solemn oath. Jesus went further: He put the command in a positive form — men were to hold God's name and His attributes holy. He forbade an oath as wrong in principle because it implied that reliance should not be put on a man's bare word and in effect condoned a simple untruth. Moses separated the Sabbath, the seventh day, from the rest of the week as a day to be kept holy. Jesus taught that all time was God's; and as the early Christians had not, like the Hebrews, a central Temple, but found God present everywhere if they worshipped in sincerity and truth, so they set no special days apart as holier than

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others. Moses said, 'Honour thy father and thy mother' and to obedience to this injunction he attached a promise 'that thy days may be long upon the land. . .' Jesus said that a higher duty even than that to earthly parents is owed to one's Father in heaven, that one may have to leave father and mother for God's sake, and He averred that a man has in reality no true Father except the Father in heaven who is his Creator. 'And call no man your father upon the earth: for one is your Father, which is in heaven.' (Matt. 23:9.) The first recorded act of Jesus was to leave Joseph and Mary that He might go to the Temple and 'be about his Father's business'. Moses forbade the taking of another man's life or his property or his wife Jesus would not permit any thought or emotion or desire in the heart that would lead to any such wrong deed. Moses prohibited the coveting of anything of one's neighbours. Jesus extended indefinitely the meaning of 'neighbour', and He did not stop short at forbidding any coveting of another man's goods, but he strongly enjoined a readiness to part with one's own goods for the benefit of those in need, regardless of race or creed.

As in these precepts and counsels, so through all the teaching of the New Testament may be traced the twofold principle of spiritual continuity and change on which progress in religion depends and through which the evolution of the spirit of man is achieved. Jesus with definiteness and with firmness rescinded or altered very much that Moses had enjoined. He heightened the former level of moral obligation. He extended the range of spiritual knowledge. He abolished Old Testament ceremonies and forms, laws and customs, and introduced others (simpler and fewer in number) in their stead.

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The importance attached by Jesus to these changes is shown by the fact that for them He faced the hatred and the opposition of the all-powerful Scribes and Pharisees and made inevitable that martyrdom which brought His work to so cruel and untimely an end before the disciples had received that instruction and training of which they stood in such great need.

But if the life of Jesus and the record of it be brief, there is material enough for the believer to study the relation between the Teaching of Jesus and the Teaching of Moses, to ponder over the changes which Jesus made and from them to learn what is essential in religion and what not, and so to judge in what respects future religious progress is to be made. However little human judgment can decide this question, one principle is established for ever and one mistake exposed beyond cavil by the error of the Scribes and Pharisees. They entertained no doubt whatever that the continuity of revealed religion depended on the rites, ceremonies, customs and ordinances given by the Prophet, and through these its reality was conveyed for ever. Through this delusion they were prevented from recognising the need of a New Teaching, and when One came in the very spirit and power of Moses (and even greater power) they tried Him by their own standards and adjudged their own Messiah an imposter, a friend of the devil's.

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