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As I continued to investigate the Baha’i Faith, my understanding of the divine purpose of the prophets as related to all forms of human knowledge and understanding led me to a second weighty insight into the appearance of these emissaries from the divine realm: they do indeed come in disguise, like a “thief in the night,” as Christ explained. They appear among us as kind and erudite, but in the guise of ordinary men. Yet from these extraordinary figures emanates a transformative force that alters the course of human history, even if we are not always conscious of the source of that change.
Abdu’l-Baha states the axiom succinctly, affirming that without the appearance of these prophets, human civilization as such would not progress or even exist in the first place:
Were it not for the grace of the revelation and instruction of those sanctified Beings, the world of souls and the realm of thought would become darkness upon darkness. Were it not for the sound and true teachings of those Exponents of mysteries, the human world would become the arena of animal characteristics and qualities, all existence would become a vanishing illusion, and true life would be lost. That is why it is said in the Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word;” that is, it was the source of all life. – Abdu’l-Baha, Some Answered Questions, newly revised edition, p. 185.
These prophets possess such power, the Baha’i writings go on to explain, precisely because they are not ordinary human beings, even though they must veil from us the complete nature of their station and powers and withhold from us all that they could reveal. Were we capable of understanding and applying a more complete outpouring of insight, they would reveal more than they do, even as Christ remarked to His disciples, “I have yet many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now (John 16:12).
This is not to say they withhold from us their divine origin or divinely ordained purpose or mission, but they do not seek to accomplish this task by sensational displays of their powers (through miracles, for example), nor by insinuating themselves into positions of social or political power. Neither do they seek to acquire material wealth or status, but instead they bring guidance quietly “like a thief in the night,” and allow themselves to be subjected to the whims of those in power. They submit, even though in reality, they could at any point overcome imprisonment or humiliation and unleash a sufficient demonstration of their power to dumbfound the most recalcitrant and devious souls. This subtle, indirect teaching method forces us to recognize the prophets of God for their manifestation of spiritual attributes, and not for mundane or less important reasons.
This was a jewel among the many insights that confirmed for me the validity of the Baha’i teachings—that the prophets are not only perfect or immaculate expressions of Godliness in human form; they are also perfect educators. As I was rapidly discovering in college, the best educators were not those who goaded the lethargic sheep into rote memorization of what they had learned from their own mentors. Masterful teachers are inevitably masters of indirection, of subtlety, and empowerment.
The prophets keenly know what any great teacher or capable parent knows, that authentic enlightenment—true education—cannot be imposed. It can be made available. It can be encouraged and lovingly exhorted, but, like authentic love, authentic learning must ultimately depend on the free choice of the student.
As a nominal Christian, the most enlightening discovery I came upon as I applied this new Baha’i lens to reality was how it unleashed the real power and significance of what Christ had done and said. Instead of distancing me from what I believed as a Christian, the Baha’i teachings gave entirely renovated and more expansive meaning to so much of what Christ said and suffered. I could sense his frustration when the very people to whom he especially came, the Pharisaic Jews, simply didn’t “get it”—that he was indeed the Messiah who had come, not to destroy the law, but to fulfill it.
But even more important for me was how this concept of the prophet as being more than man but infinitely beneath the Creator made clear all of Christ’s statements about his station and purpose. In academic terms, this insight resolved for me all the questions related to the scholarly arena of Christology, the theories about the nature or station of Christ. Jesus acknowledged the sublime station of Abraham and Moses, clearly asserted that he was indeed the Messiah, that he fulfilled all they had promised, and proclaimed another manifestation would appear after him to explain all that he would tell them, had they the capacity to understand and utilize such knowledge and insight.
While forthrightly proclaiming his perfection and godliness, Christ likewise cautions his audience not to be tempted to equate his station with that of the Father:
He that believeth on me, believeth not on me, but on him that sent me. And he that seeth me seeth him that sent me… For I have not spoken of myself; but the Father which sent me, he gave me a commandment, what I should say, and what I should speak. – John 12:44-49.
As I began to re-read all the scriptural statements of Christ and all the allusions to Christ and to his purpose and station, and to put them in a newly-discovered Baha’i context, I suddenly understood with precise clarity how the Trinitarian doctrine had come about and what it really meant in terms of reality. While the literal Trinitarian doctrine was logically untenable—that Christ and God and the Holy Spirit were one essence, as Muhammad himself would later confirm—there are portrayed in Baha’i theology three parts to the process of revelation that roughly parallel what the early Christian patriarchs so desperately tried to explain.
Next: The Three Realities of Every Revelation