WHAT IS A COVENANT?
"A Covenant in the sense is a binding agreement between God and man, whereby God requires of man certain behavior in return for which He guarantees certain blessings, or whereby He gives man certain bounties in return for which He takes from those who accept them an undertaking to behave in a certain way. There is, for example, the Greater Covenant which every Manifestation of God makes with His followers, promising that in the fullness of time a new Manifestation will be sent, and taking from them the undertaking to accept Him when this occurs. There is also the Lesser Covenant that a Manifestation of God makes with His followers that they will accept His appointed successor after Him. If they do so, the Faith can remain united and pure. If not, the Faith becomes divided and its force spent..." - from a letter written by the Universal House of Justice to an individual believer dated 23 March 1975
WHY A COVENANT?
Jesus established a covenant with his followers to provide them with authoritative leadership after his own death. Why? Why did Jesus see the need to appoint a leader?
Jesus knew that he was going to be killed by his enemies. He told his followers many times that this was going to happen. In addition, Jesus also knew that since he had not personally recorded any of his teachings in a book... there was a real danger that they would be misrepresented. In fact, Jesus explicitly warned that "false Christs, and false prophets" were going to arise to "deceive even the elect" of Christianity.-Matthew 24:24 (NIV)
Jesus wanted Christianity to remain united and pure. He did not want his to become "divided and its force spent..." This is why Jesus made provisions so that his pure teachings would not be lost. Jesus established a covenant with his followers to provide them with authoritative leadership after he was no longer with them.
What was this covenant? Jesus appointed Peter as the head of his Church and Jesus empowered Peter alone to speak with the voice of authority. Jesus declared: "Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven."-Matthew 16:18
Jesus appointed Peter as the head of "my church" and he gave Peter the "keys" of his authority. Peter's endowment of authority is totally unique within Christianity. Nowhere in any of the other New Testament writings is Jesus reported to have bestowed the "keys" of his authority upon anyone else. Peter was the rock... the foundation stone upon which Jesus was going to build his church. This means that in matters of doctrine... Peter alone had the final authoritative word.
In his writings, Peter actually acknowledged this unique endowment of power. Peter wrote: "we have the more established prophetic word in which you do well to take heed."-2 Peter 1:19 (IB) The authority of Jesus, as represented by the "keys of the kingdom", was given only to Peter.
The Baha'i writings endorse this viewpoint. They assure us that:
"the primacy of Peter, the prince of the Apostles, is upheld and defended... Peter is recognized as one whom God has caused 'the mysteries of wisdom and of utterance to flow out of his mouth.'"-The Promised Day Is Come p.110Peter's "prophetic word" is still something that we today would "do well to take heed."
Towards the end of his ministry, in his second (and last) letter, Peter announced that the time was soon coming when, like Jesus, he too was going to be killed. Peter wrote: "I think it right, as long as I am in the body, to arouse you by way of reminder, since I know that the putting off of my body will be soon, as our Lord Jesus Christ showed me. And I will see to it that after my departure you may be able at any time to recall these things. For we did not follow cleverly devised myths."-2 Peter 1:13 (RSV)
Peter knew that he was going to be killed... "that the putting off of my body will be soon". Keeping this in mind, we can begin to see that Peter's second (and final) letter effectively amounts to his last will and testament.
In his last letter, Peter used Jesus' "keys" of authority to provide for continued leadership of the Christian community after his own death. In this letter, Peter encouraged Christians to turn to the God "inspired wisdom" of his "friend and brother" the Apostle Paul. Peter wrote: "Bear in mind that our Lord's patience with us is our salvation, as Paul our friend and brother, said when he wrote you with his inspired wisdom. And so he does in all his other letters... they contain some obscure passages, which the ignorant and unstable misinterpret to their own ruin."-2 Peter 3:16 (NEB)
Peter, the head of the Christian Church, recognized Paul as having God given "inspired wisdom" and he clearly informed us that those "ignorant" people who "misinterpret" Paul's teachings were doing so at the danger of "their own [spiritual] ruin."
Peter did not endorse anyone else. Paul was the only person who was ever explicitly endorsed in writing by Peter.
Paul is one of the more controversial figures of first century Christian
history. In his writings, Paul too makes some very strong statements both
about himself and about his own teachings. For example, Paul says:
"I was appointed herald and apostle... to instruct
the nations in the true faith." 1 Timothy 2:7 (NEB)
In another place, Paul declares that Christians will be judged by the standard of his teachings. He told us that a day will come "when God judges the hidden things of men, according to my gospel." -Romans 2:16 (IB)
And then, Paul even more strongly asserts that anyone who follows a form of Christianity which is different than what he taught, has believed in vain. He warned: "do you still hold fast the gospel as I preached it to you? If not, your conversion was in vain." -1 Corinthians 15:2 (NEB) If we don't "hold fast the gospel"... if our interpretation of the Christian teachings doesn't match what Paul taught, then, according to Paul, our faith is "in vain".
How does Paul explain where he got this "inspired wisdom"? He informs us that: "by revelation he (Jesus) made known to me the mystery... that mystery which in other ages was not known."-Ephesians 3:3 (CATHOLIC DOUAY BIBLE) Paul claims that it was Jesus who, "by revelation", taught him the "true faith".
Paul, who originally was an enemy of both Jesus and of Christianity, a change of heart and eventually became Jesus' most faithful servant. Paul wrote: "I am the least worthy of all the apostles, and shouldn't even be called an apostle at all after the way I treated the Church of God. But what even I am now it is all because God poured out such kindness and grace upon me and not without results: for I have worked harder than all the other apostles." -1 Corinthians 15:9 (LIVING BIBLE CATHOLIC EDITION)
The Baha'i writings also substantiate this viewpoint. They state that: "Paul, the Apostle, was in his early life an enemy of Christ, whilst later he became His most faithful servant." -Paris Talks, Abdu'l Baha, p.147
The controversy surrounding Paul is still alive today. There are some Christians today who still believe that Paul wrongfully seized authority from Peter and the other Apostles. The Baha'i Universal House of Justice, in response to an inquiry from an individual, offers this insight into this question. They wrote: "The Research Department has found nothing in the writings of Baha'u'llah, Abdu'l Baha or the Guardian which states that St. Paul 'usurped the station of Peter' or that he 'changed the basic message of Peter' or that he 'changed the basic message of Christ.'" -Universal House of Justice letter to J. McCants, Feb 25, 1980
While it certainly is possible that others also spoke with the voice of truth, it is important to remember that only Peter and Paul were specifically designated in writing to speak with Jesus' authority. This is the covenant that Jesus Christ established with his followers to provide them with authoritative leadership after his own death. Peter and Paul's writings are the ultimate standard of truth within Christianity. If Christians want to have the "true faith" it is necessary, at the very minimum, that their beliefs agree with Peter and Paul's writings. From this perspective, any teaching which claims to be Christian and, at the same time, contradicts Peter and Paul's writings would have to be false.
Why would this be important to know? Why did Peter see the need to endorse Paul's writings? What was going on back then? According to Peter, ignorant Christians were misinterpreting the true Christian teachings. They were leading other Christians astray and, as a result, they were causing disunity within the Christian community.
In one of his more well known statements, Jesus said: "I am the way (HODOS)... no one comes to the Father, but by me." (John 14:6 RSV) The word that is translated here as "way" comes from the original Greek word HODOS. A HODOS is a "road" or "highway". In other words Jesus was saying that he is the true highway that leads to the Father.
In his second (and last) letter, Peter warns that because of "false prophets" this "true way" or true road of Jesus' will be abandoned. Peter wrote: "Israel had false prophets as well as true; and you [Christians] likewise will have false teachers among you. They will import disastrous heresies... They will gain many adherents to their dissolute practices, through whom the true way (HODOS) will be brought into disrepute... They have abandoned the straight road (HODON) and lost their way (HODOS)."-2 Peter 2:1 (NEB)
Notice how Peter phrases this statement. He doesn't say that the possibility exists that "false teachers" could arise. Instead he states, without any doubt, that they both "will" appear and that they "will gain many adherents". Like the "leaven of the Pharisees"... the misinterpretations which had blinded the Jewish people in the past, Peter warns that "false teachers" will likewise "import disastrous heresies" into Christianity and that because of these "disastrous heresies"... the "true way" of Jesus will actually be "abandoned". These "blind leaders of the blind" will "deceive" the "elect" of Christianity with "great signs and miracles" and lead them off of the true road and into the ditch of misinterpretation and error.
Paul also gave similar warnings. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul wrote: "I am astonished to find you turning so quickly away from him who called you by grace and following a different gospel. Not that it is in fact another gospel; only there are persons who unsettle your minds by trying to distort the gospel of Christ."-Galatians 1:8 (NEB) In the very next verse, Paul tells us what he thinks of these people. He wrote: "As we have said before, and now I say again, if anyone preaches a gospel to you beside what you received [from Paul], let him be accursed..." (ANATHEMA)-Galatians 1:9 (IB)
In another of his letters, Paul again advises: "I urged you... charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine, nor to occupy themselves with myths (MUTHOUS)."-1 Timothy 1:3 (RSV)
HAVE THESE OMINOUS PREDICTIONS COME TRUE?
These are ominous predictions. Have they come true? Have "false prophets" truly appeared within Christianity? Have the true Christian teachings been distorted? Has the "true way" been "abandoned"? Most Christians either hope that this really didn't happen or they somehow feel that Jesus and Peter couldn't possibly have been speaking about them. Were they? What do you think? Over the last two thousand years, Christianity has grown to encompass the entire world. Today there are literally hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of different denominations that call themselves Christian. Each one has it's own distinctive beliefs, interpretations and practices yet each one assumes that they have the truth. Since many of these interpretations contradict each other... it's simply just not possible for all of them to be right. How can we determine which, if any, of these Christian groups have remained faithful to the original teachings of Jesus and his Apostles?
Paul offers this advice: "hold fast to the traditions which you have learned from us by word or by letter... hold aloof from any Christian brother who... does not follow the tradition you received from us."-2 Thessalonians 3:6 (NEB)
Peter advised: "be ye all of one mind..." (1 Peter 3:8) And Paul pleaded with Christians: "I exhort you... that you all say the same thing, and there not be divisions among you; but you be united in the same mind and in the same judgment... I desire all men to be as myself."-1 Corinthians 1:10, 7:7 (IB)
How can we reestablish this unity of thought? Paul advises Christians to carefully examine what they accept as the truth. He first tells us to: "examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves."-2 Corinthians 13:5 (NIV) And then he warns: "Do you still hold fast the gospel as I preached it to you? If not, your conversion was in vain?"-1 Corinthians 15:2 (NEB)
"Test yourselves" to see whether your beliefs are consistent with the original, authoritative Christian writings. If they're not, then according to Paul, your Christianity is worthless... "your conversion was in vain."
Considering the fact that, even back in Peter and Paul's time, many false teachers were already beginning to distort the gospel of Christ, it is extremely important that we "hear" these warnings and remain faithful to the covenant that Jesus personally established with his followers. It is essential that we cautiously accept only those teachings which we know to be consistent with the writings of the authorized Apostles.
As you probably already know, the Baha'i Faith teaches that there is only one true religion of God and that this one religion has been progressively revealed to humanity, from age to age and in various parts of the world since the dawn of human history. One question that Christians frequently ask Baha'is is "if it is true that there is only one religion and if the Baha'i Faith and Christianity truly are just different stages of the same one religion sent by the same one God... then why is it that what is being taught in the churches today is so different than what the Baha'i Faith teaches?" This is a good question. Why is that?
Most Christian churches today teach that when Jesus Christ was killed, after three days he literally came back to life in the flesh, he walked out of the tomb, he appeared to his followers and he let people touch him. Furthermore, most churches also teach that sometime later Jesus literally ascended into the sky with his fleshly body where he now sits at the right hand of God in heaven. Because of these very literal understandings most Christians today have also been led to believe that this exact same Jesus that people supposedly saw ascend into heaven, will also personally return to earth in his fleshly body and that he will cause his followers to literally fly away with him into the sky where they will always be with Jesus in heaven.
The Baha'i Faith, on the other hand, teaches that none of these things ever literally happened. That instead, each of these events have hidden, inner spiritual meanings. These two viewpoints are completely contradictory. They are the exact opposite of each other. Both can't be true. So, how can we resolve this apparent contradiction? How can we tell which is the true church? What is the true religion? What is going on? And what does God want us to do? Satisfactory and, I might add, surprising answers to these questions can be found in the teachings of the covenant that Jesus established with his followers before he died.
The people of two thousand years ago had many of the same concerns that we have today. They too wondered "what happens when we die? Is there some kind of afterlife? Or do we just simply cease to exist?" There are key statements found in Peter and Paul's writings which clearly answer these questions. What did Peter and Paul actually teach concerning resurrection in general and Jesus' resurrection in particular?
Back in Jesus' day, there were many different ideas concerning resurrection. The Romans had many resurrection stories associated with their mythological gods. At the same time, within Judaism, we find that there were two basic viewpoints concerning resurrection. There were people like the Saducees who denied any form of resurrection. And there were also other groups who believed in resurrection but differed concerning it's nature. Some believed it was spiritual, while others insisted that it was physical.
The new Christians in Corinth, Greece apparently were having difficulty deciding which interpretation of resurrection to adopt. Evidently, in an attempt to get the authoritative understanding of this doctrine, they had asked Paul to explain his teachings on resurrection.
Paul's first written explanation of resurrection can be found in First Corinthians 15. This letter not only is the first written mention of resurrection in all of the New Testament writings, but since it comes from Paul himself, it also is the most authoritative statement on this subject in the entire Bible.
To begin his commentary, Paul first gives a general explanation of resurrection. In answer to the question: "How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?" Paul explains that there are different kinds of bodies. He tells us: "For not all flesh is alike, but there is one kind for men, another for animals, another for birds and another for fish. There are celestial bodies [the bodies we will have in heaven] and there are terrestrial bodies [the bodies we have here on earth]." Just as men, animals, birds and fish have different kinds of bodies here on earth, so too will the bodies that people have after death be different.
Paul then uses the analogy of a seed to explain that we are transformed at death from one bodily form to another. He says: "What you sow [a seed] does not come to life unless it dies. And what you sow is not the body which is to be... So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable... It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body... flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God... we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye."-1 Corinthians 15 (RSV)
Paul was trying to explain that when a seed is planted, what grows out of that seed is not the same seed that was planted. It is "changed" into something different and better. The seed grows into a plant or a tree.
According to Paul, the same thing happens when a person dies, they are "changed" into something different and better. Paul explains that what: "is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body."-1 Corinthians 15 (RSV)
In the original Greek manuscript of this passage the two words that are translated here as "spiritual body" are PNEUMOS SOMA... a non-physical, spirit body. Our old "physical body" is discarded while our new "spirit body" survives.
"WE... WOULD PREFER TO BE AWAY FROM THE BODY"
Paul also wrote a second letter to the Corinthians. Apparently these new Christians were still having difficulty grasping Paul's doctrine of resurrection and they wanted him to explain this "truth" in more detail.
Remember, in Paul's commentary on resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15 he wrote that "flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God". "Flesh and blood" can't go to heaven. Compare this statement with what Paul wrote in his second letter to this same Christian community in Corinth, Greece.
Paul wrote: "Now we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands... as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. We live by faith, not by sight [not by what we can see]. We are confident, I say, and would PREFER to be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it. For we must all appear before the judgement seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done in the body, whether good or bad."-2 Corinthians 5 (NIV)
Notice what Paul says in this passage... "As long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord..." "We [should] PREFER to be away from the body and at home with the Lord." "Whether we are at home in the body or away from it." When we die, we leave our bodies behind... while we ascend to be with the Lord in heaven.
This is exactly what is taught in the Old Testament concerning what happens when we die. In Ecclesiastes 12:7 it says: "Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it."
Paul showed us that there is a reason for cultivating spiritual qualities in our lives. When we die, that's not the end... in fact, it's just the beginning. When we die we go to receive our "reward in heaven."-Matthew 5:12 (KJV)
Towards the end of his ministry, after enduring hardships for many long years, Paul again wrote that he too was looking forward to the time when he would die and leave his body behind. He wrote: "I am torn two ways: what I should like is to depart and be with Christ... but for your sake there is greater need for me to stay on in the body."-Philippians 1:23 (NEB)
And again, shortly before he was beheaded by the Romans, Paul wrote: "the time of my release is here."-2 Timothy 4:6 (IB)
Peter wrote: "I know that the putting off of my body will be soon, as our Lord Jesus Christ showed me."-2 Peter 1:13 (RSV)
Can you see what Paul and Peter are saying in these passages? When the body dies, the spirit survives. The spirit leaves the body and goes to be with our Lord in heaven. Paul explains that this is something that is so wonderful that, not only should we not fear death, but we should joyously look forward to it. In fact, he says that we should "prefer" it.
This belief is also echoed many times in the Baha'i writings. In one place we are told: "I have made death a messenger of joy to thee. Wherefore dost thou grieve?"-Hidden Words of Baha'u'llah #32
JESUS' DEATH AND RESURRECTION
Paul's principle of "spiritual" resurrection is also clearly illustrated in the Gospel accounts of Jesus' death. Three of the four Gospels record what could be the most famous death in history.
As Jesus was dying on the cross he exclaimed: "Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit (PNEUMA): and having said thus, he gave up the ghost (from the Greek EKPNEO= the PNEUMA departed)."-Luke 23:46 (KJV)
In Matthew it says: "when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit."-Matthew 27:50 (NIV) And then, in the Gospel of John, Jesus said: "'It is finished.' with that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit."-John 19:30 (NIV)
These passages seem to be clear enough. When Jesus died, his body returned to the earth while his spirit "returned unto the Lord who gave it."
Another statement in the Book of James confirms these viewpoints. James wrote that when the spirit leaves the body: "the body without the spirit is dead."-James 2:26 (KJV) The body and the spirit are two separate things. The "imperishable" spirit survives the death of the physical body. Is this also what Paul taught concerning the resurrection of Jesus?
When we look at 1 Corinthians 15 again, we see that Paul continues by explaining how Jesus "rose again from the dead." Paul wrote: "For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive... Thus it is written, 'The first man Adam became a living being'; the last Adam [who was Jesus] became a life-giving spirit... flesh and blood cannot... inherit the kingdom of God". (RSV)
According to Paul, when Jesus died, he "became a life-giving spirit." This is all that Paul taught concerning the resurrection of Christ.
The Apostle Peter only explains the resurrection of Jesus one time in all of his writings and here we find that Peter, once again, agrees with Paul. Peter wrote that Christ was "put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the Spirit."-1 Peter 3:18 (IB)
Peter clearly taught that when Jesus' fleshly body died, he was raised from the dead "in the Spirit." And Paul explicitly taught that when Jesus died he "became a life-giving spirit..."
Have you noticed that nowhere in their writings do Peter or Paul ever state that the resurrection of Jesus was fleshly or physical? Nowhere in their writings will you find any empty tomb stories. Nowhere in their writings can you find accounts which state that Jesus was touched by his followers after his resurrection or that they placed their fingers in his wounds. Why not? It's because Peter and Paul never taught such things. Such fables were invented years after both Peter and Paul had been executed.
As Jesus was being crucified, he turned to the thief on the cross next to him and promised that "today you will be with me in Paradise."-Luke 23:43 (RSV)
In Paul's letter to the Ephesians, and in several other places, Paul tells us that when Jesus died on the cross he ascended into heaven and sits at the "right hand of God."-Mark 16:19, Ephesians 1:20, Hebrew 1:3
Paul also says that Christ "is the image of the invisible God".-Colossians 1:15 (NIV) And then, in the Gospel of John, we are told that "God is a Spirit".-John 4:24 (KJV)
God is a spirit. God is invisible. God is not physical. Jesus died physically, was resurrected "in the Spirit". Jesus ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God. God is an invisible Spirit. If Paul's statement is true that "flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God", then fleshly bodies obviously cannot ascend to the invisible spiritual realm of God. The ascension of Jesus into heaven was not a literal, fleshly event... it too was "in the Spirit".
Once again, the Baha'i writings agree with this interpretation. They teach that Jesus' "resurrection from the interior for the earth is... symbolical; it is a spiritual and divine fact, and not material; and likewise His ascension to heaven is a spiritual and not material ascension... such is the meaning of the resurrection of Christ, and this was a true resurrection. But as the clergy have neither understood the meaning of the Gospels nor comprehended the symbols, therefore, it has been said that religion is in contradiction to science, and science in opposition to religion, as, for example, this subject of the ascension of Christ with an elemental body to the visible heaven is contrary to the science, and science in opposition to religion, as, for example, this subject of the ascension of Christ with an elemental body to the visible heaven is contrary to the science of mathematics. But when the truth of this subject becomes clear, and the symbol is explained, science in no way contradicts it; but, on the contrary, science and the intelligence affirm it."-Some Answered Questions p. 104-5
To summarize Peter and Paul's teachings on the resurrection and ascension of Christ, they clearly state that Christ was "put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the Spirit." That when Jesus was crucified his fleshly "physical body" died, he was "changed", he "became a life-giving spirit." Referring to Jesus' ascension into heaven we were told that when Jesus was dying on the cross he exclaimed: "Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit: and having said thus, he gave up the ghost (his spirit left his body). And to be certain that we don't "misinterpret" what these passages are saying, Paul explicitly tells us that "flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God." Fleshly bodies can't go to heaven.
The Baha'i writings agree with Paul and Peter's teachings on resurrection. The Baha'i writings state that: "The resurrections of the Divine manifestations are not of the body. All Their states, Their conditions, Their expressions, Their parables and Their instructions have a spiritual and divine signification, and have no connection with material things..."-Some Answered Questions p.103
Has the modern Church followed these teachings? If not, how can they claim that their Faith is still valid? The Apostle Paul advised people who consider themselves to be Christian to: "examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves."-2 Corinthians 13:5 (NIV) And then he warns: "Do you still hold fast the gospel as I preached it to you? If not, your conversion was in vain?"-1 Corinthians 15:2 (NEB)
So, go ahead. Give yourself the "test." "Do you still hold fast the gospel as [Paul] preached it to you? Do you still "take heed" of Peter's writings? If Christians want to remain faithful to the covenant of Christianity, if they want to remain faithful to the original authoritative teachings of Christianity... then there is only one place left that they can go. The Baha'i Faith is the only remaining religious group left on the planet whose teachings are still in accordance with the original, uncorrupted teachings of Christianity. Christians who want to have the "true faith"... may want to seriously consider what the Baha'i Faith has to offer.