The Central Touchstones in Christian Scripture

My Jehovah’s Witness friend Epi wasn’t sure what to make of our ongoing dialogue about scripture. He kept insisting that anyone but Jesus of Nazareth was a false prophet. As a Baha’i, I firmly disagreed.

The Baha’i teachings clearly say that the prophets of God, the founders of the world’s great Faiths, are linked in a great chain of progressive revelation, a successive sequence of divine messengers all functioning as a faculty of educators for the entire human race. Baha’u’llah, the prophet and founder of the Baha’i Faith, wrote:

Contemplate with thine inward eye the chain of successive Revelations … I testify before God that each one of these Manifestations hath been sent down through the operation of the Divine Will and Purpose, that each hath been the bearer of a specific Message, that each hath been entrusted with a divinely-revealed Book and been commissioned to unravel the mysteries of a mighty Tablet. The measure of the Revelation with which every one of them hath been identified had been definitely fore-ordained. This, verily, is a token of Our favor unto them, if ye be of those that comprehend this truth …. 

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Also, my friend Epi took exception to my use of a certain passage to make a point about how we read and interpret scripture. Here’s the passage, from John 5:38-40: “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.

Epi responded: John 5:38-40 is about attitude when studying the scriptures. Are you studying them to get your own agenda, or are you studying to learn God’s ways? He (Jesus) was talking to the Pharisees.

I agreed that it’s about attitude — the attitude that you take to your own understanding of scripture. I think you can see this clearly in context with verses 46 and 47, where Christ tells the Pharisees: 

“If you had believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote of me. But if you do not believe his writings, how can you believe my words?”

Here, Christ explicitly says that if they really understood their own scriptures, they’d see that Moses was talking about Jesus Christ, himself. The specific passage Christ refers to is this one from Deuteronomy 18:15, where Moses says, “God will raise up a prophet like me from among your brethren.” The Pharisees missed the advent of Christ because of the way they interpreted their own scriptures. 

In context with my life, during my own spiritual search, I was ready to reject Baha’u’llah for the same reason the Pharisees rejected Christ.

Epi then asked me: Why do you look into the Bible at all? What is your purpose?

Like all Baha’is, I believe that the books of the Bible — especially the teachings of Christ — are part of God’s revelation to humankind. I studied the Bible when I was a child the way my parents and ministers taught me to. I memorized passages and listened to sermons based on them. When I was confronted with Baha’u’llah, I studied it again, using it as a standard in my attempt to prove or disprove the Baha’i teachings. As my quest progressed, I began to understand the Bible as part of the scriptural record of the entire human race, not all of it. As Paul writes: “But now we know in part …”

I study the Bible now because it illuminates and is illuminated by other scriptures. I study it because, in it, I find evidences of an eternal, loving God who has spiritually fed, clothed and educated humanity in every age. I study it because it speaks of Christ and Moses and Baha’u’llah, and through them, Jehovah, whom I love. 

But I think, Epi, that part of your question is how I read scripture and what has brought me to conclusions you vehemently disagree with. In every scripture, there are key passages that illuminate the rest. These passages, I believe, are “touchstones” that should be referred back to whenever a question about meaning or application comes up. In the Gospel, some of these passages are: 

  • Matthew 7: 7-13, in which Jesus reveals what we call the Golden Rule and says that it is sum of the Law and the Prophets.
  • Matthew 22:37-40, in which Christ reaffirms the two greatest and inseparable commandments that sum up the Law and the Prophets: to love God and love others as we love ourselves (here, Jesus is reaffirming the words of Moses).
  • John 15, where Christ reminds the disciples that they cannot bear fruit unless they abide in his love, and then tells them the only way to do that is to obey his commandment to love one another as he has loved them. This is the last thing Christ tells them before he goes to the cross – and he repeats it several times.
  • Luke 10:25-37, In which Christ is asked a foundational question of faith by a scholar of Jewish law: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Christ establishes the twin Greatest Commandments, again, as the answer.  “Do this and you shall live,” Christ says, then illustrates what this means by telling the Parable of the Good Samaritan. I’m sure you know the significance of that example: a Jewish man is rescued by a Samaritan, though these two groups have been locked in ages-old hatred based on their differences of religion.

Because of the way Jesus Christ repeats and emphasizes these particular teachings, because he chose these teachings to emphasize the night he faced death, and because he makes a point of their primacy, I have no recourse but to recognize their supreme importance. 

They are touchstones: other scriptures should be read in light of these. If there seems to be conflict between differing verses, these words of Christ will tell me how those verses ought to be understood. Further, if a human interpretation of a verse of scripture violates these teachings, then it can’t be correct.

Let’s look at the idea that God has left billions of souls in ignorance — and worse, let them be misled by false prophets who came with the same essential teachings that Christ brought. Here are the words of Krishna, from the Bhagavad Gita 8:22, on the importance of obeying the commandment to love: “This Spirit Supreme … is attained by an ever-living love. In Him all things have their life, and from Him all things have come.

Recall how, in Matthew 7, Jesus teaches how we should behave toward others – he uses God’s behavior as a model. He says that if someone asks for bread, God will not give him a stone. I doubt he’s talking about physical bread here, but rather the Bread of Life, which is far more important. After stating these things, Jesus says “If you, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more so does your Father in Heaven know how to give good gifts to those who ask Him?

Let’s look at this touchstone again, because it bears repeating: If a human parent fed, clothed and educated one child and let the others go hungry, naked and ignorant, we would consider that criminal behavior. No loving parent would treat their children that way. How can we believe that God would? Can we believe that the God of Christ has chosen a “favorite child” to guide, and completely neglected His other children, allowing them to be the victims of clever deceivers?

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I believed that once, I admit it. But I came to realize that my beliefs were in conflict with the clear touchstones in the teachings of Christ. I knew that I (and a great many others) had misinterpreted Biblical scripture in a way that “tickled our ears,” as Jesus put it. Salvation from this unhappy state lay in the words of Christ, himself, as brilliant as the sun. When I finally read the Bible in light of those teachings which Christ, himself, unambiguously emphasized, all conflict was resolved.

I try to read all scripture in context with those key teachings — the ones given special emphasis by Christ, by Buddha, by Moses, by Baha’u’llah – not by human beings.

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