From a letter to a friend who asked for ideas on answering the question, “Who is Jesus?”:
“Who is Jesus?” is an excellent question. It’s important to answer the questions of Christians, but it leads us [Baha’is], in a profound way, directly to the question, “Who is Baha’u’llah?” as well.
I’m sure you’ve received any number of answers to your question by now, and I apologize both for my delay in answering and for the length of this response, but your question inspired me to do some research and write what has turned into a short essay on the subject. I hope it’s of some use in your teaching work.
Jesus asks Peter, in Luke 9:18-21, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter answers, “The Christ of God.” Jesus seems to affirm his answer, telling the disciples to “tell this to no one.”
The Gospels are written in Greek, while the Torah and other Old Testament books are written in Hebrew. “Christ” comes from a Greek word meaning “anointed”; in Hebrew, it’s “Messiah.”
According to Easton’s 1897 Bible Dictionary, cited on dictionary.com:
“Thus priests (Ex. 28:41; 40:15; Num. 3:3), prophets (1 Kings 19:16), and kings (1 Sam. 9:16; 16:3; 2 Sam. 12:7) were anointed with oil, and so consecrated to their respective offices. The great Messiah is anointed ‘above his fellows’ (Ps. 45:7); i.e., he embraces in himself all the three offices.”
Thus Jesus is the “anointed” of God — that is, He is elevated to some special (priestly, kingly, prophetic) station by God — and also, He is the great Messiah, the king expected by the Jews. Psalm
45, quoted above, is instructive: it tells of the coming of a glorious king, and clearly many Jews of the time expected an earthly king. But to our modern eyes, the psalm seems obviously metaphorical:
at the end, Israel, in the form of a “daughter” or “princess,” attains the presence of the king, and is by implication even married to him.
So Jesus is the Messiah — and this is confirmed by Muhammad in the Quran (5:70-75 as well as other places) and Baha’u’llah in the Kitab-i-Iqan (pp. 18-19).
He is also often referred to as “the Word” or “the Word of God” or “the Word from God”; see, especially, the first chapter of the Gospel of John. Baha’u’llah also confirms this title (Kitab-i-Iqan, p. 64). There is a neat chain of metaphor here: the Word of God is associated with bread in both the Torah (Deut. 8:3) and the Gospel (Matt 4:4 specifically, and Mark 7 and 8 are basically a series of meditations on bread and eating metaphors), and bread is associated with Christ Himself in John 6:31-64, and the eating of it with belief in Him. “[T]he bread of God is that which comes down from heaven, and gives life to the world.” This is, as is said earlier, “every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.”
Christians will often ask if I believe that Jesus was the Son of God. To which I often reply, “Yes, but probably not in the way you think.” Baha’is uncategorically accept the miracle of the Virgin Birth, of course, as do Muslims. (There is an entire surih in the Quran devoted to the suffering of Mary when no one believed her story.) Moreover, Shoghi Effendi says that “the Sonship and Divinity of Jesus Christ are fearlessly asserted.” (Promised Day is Come, p. 109) And Jesus refers to Himself as “the Son” all over the place in the Gospel. But what does this mean?
Orthodox Christian churches usually uphold the “Doctrine of the Trinity”: that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are three aspects, or persons, of one God. They are literally all one.
Indeed, the ancient Jews thought Jesus was saying, more or less, exactly this: they assumed that because He “called God his Father,” that He was “making himself equal with God.” (John 5:18) This passage is even sometimes used to justify the concept of the Trinity and the elevation of Jesus to Godhood.
But immediately after this passage, Jesus responds. And He gives a stunning rebuff to the idea that He is identical to God: “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing; for whatever he does, the Son does likewise. For the Father loves the Son, and shows him all that he himself is doing….” (John 5:19-20) The metaphor is beautiful, especially considering that in an era almost entirely devoid of formal education, a man would normally be educated in every aspect of life by his parents. A son would literally know how to do nothing but what he saw his father doing. And so Christ is saying that He has no knowledge or power of His own, but everything comes to Him from God.
He then goes on to delineate the specific powers God has given Him “authority” over — again pressing the point that God and He are two separate beings, and that everything He has is granted Him by God (“I can do nothing on my own authority… my judgement is just, because I seek not my own will but the will of him who sent me”) — before wrapping it up by comparing Himself, not to the Father, but to Moses:
“Do not think that I will accuse you to the Father. There is one who accuses you: Moses, on whom you have set your hope. If you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?” (John 5:45-47)
And in case we missed it, He does exactly the same thing two chapters later, in John 7:16-19. There are many other passages where He makes the distinction between Himself and God, but we don’t need an exhaustive list here. Moreover, if you believe in Muhammad as a Messenger of God, as Muslims and Baha’is do, then His clarification that “Unbelievers are those that say ‘God is the Messiah, the son of Mary.'” (5:72) really ought to put the whole thing to rest.
But if this is true, how is it that Christ says, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30)? And how is it that John says that “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made”? How is it that Christ says “Before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58)? This seeming contradiction is, indeed, a question of endless speculation in Christianity itself. Perhaps a clue can be found in the seeming absurdity of being “with” oneself: how can the “Word” both be God and be “with God”?
Yet Baha’u’llah teaches that it is exactly the case that these things are true: that Christ was pre-existent, that the Creation came into being because of Him, and that Christ and God are, in some sense, one.
This last should be addressed first, because it is the crux of the matter. First, let’s note that both Christ and Baha’u’llah address the very heart of the problem, the whole reason for Manifestations in the first place. Christ says:
“Not that any one has seen the Father except him who is from God; he has seen the Father.” (John 6:46)
This is amplified and elucidated by Baha’u’llah (Gleanings, XIX):
“The door of the knowledge of the Ancient of Days being thus closed in the face of all beings… [He] hath caused those luminous Gems of Holiness to appear out of the realm of the spirit, in the noble form of the human temple, and be made manifest unto all men, that they may impart unto the world the mysteries of the unchangeable Being, and tell of the subtleties of His imperishable Essence.”
In other words, men are incapable of seeing God directly, so there is an Intermediary who is in some way in direct intercourse with the divine. But how, exactly? Baha’u’llah goes on to call them “sanctified Mirrors” who reflect “Him Who is the central Orb of the universe.” “[T]hese Primal Mirrors which reflect the light of unfading glory… are but expressions of Him Who is the Invisible of the Invisibles.”
So when we see the Manifestation, we are seeing God. You can point to an image of the sun in a mirror and correctly say, “That’s the sun.” Yet the Manifestations do not share in God’s Essence, any more than the mirror shares in the substance of the sun.
Moreover, Abdu’l-Baha says that the Manifestations have three natures: the physical body and the rational soul, which they share in common with us, and the station of “divine appearance,” which He calls “the Word of God, the Eternal Bounty, the Holy Spirit. It has neither beginning nor end, for these things are related to the world of contingencies and not to the divine world.”
We find Christ’s physical, human, and divine natures neatly summarized in Matthew 4, in the parable of Christ’s “temptation” by Satan. On the one hand, Christ suffered the same bodily needs and human desires as any other man (the voice of Satan, “the tempter,” who represents physical hunger, pride before God, and the love of temporal power). On the other hand, the perfection of His “station of divine appearance” enabled him to meet these needs and desires with spiritual responses.
It is this third aspect which John refers to as existing at creation, and of which Christ says, “Before Abraham was, I am.” (Note the present tense, indicating something essentially outside the scope of normal time.)
According to Abdu’l-Baha, it is this spiritual nature of the Manifestations which is the whole reason for existence in the first place:
“Therefore it cannot be said there was a time when man was not. All that we can say is that this terrestrial globe at one time did not exist, and at its beginning man did not appear upon it. But from the beginning which has no beginning, to the end which has no end, a perfect manifestation always exists. This man of whom we speak is not every man; we mean the perfect man. For the noblest part of the tree is the fruit, which is the reason of its existence; if the tree had no fruit, it would have no meaning.” (Baha’i World Faith, ch. 7, “Spiritual Nature of Man.”)
In other words, man, who is capable of manifesting all the attributes of God, is both the purpose and the fruit of creation. But long before the creation, those attributes already existed in perfect form — the light of the Sun existed long before any of us humble mirrors, or even the “sanctified Mirrors” in their human forms.
So it is that Christ, although He is not God in essence, clearly is God in all His attributes, reflecting the light and manifesting the grace of the Father.
Then “Who is Jesus?” Jesus is anointed (i.e., appointed to a special station) by God. He is the King expected by the Jews. He is the Word of God and the Bread of Life — i.e., He brings a message (Word) and provides spiritual sustenance. He is not God, but rather says that He is a studious “Son,” learning from the Father, compares Himself to Moses, and says that He is “given authority” by God. He lived a human life, yet His essential nature was spiritual, perfect, pre-existent, and a flawless reflection of the attributes of God, Who is unknowable. And, although I’ve used passages from Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha to make these arguments clearer, fundamentally all these ideas about Christ’s identity are present in the Gospel, given in His own words.
I’ll end this, then, by giving Jesus the final word on who He is:
“You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world–to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” (John 18:37)
[The Handsome Camel]