Exoteric and Esoteric Meaning

by Greg Kagira-Watson (taken from a personal correspondence I have written)

As a close friend of mine once explained, some sacred writings have both literal and symbolic meanings -- through "equivocal" language. He states: By equivocal I mean that it was intended to be interpreted literally to persuade persons of that outlook, while also written so as to be interpreted symbolically, to instruct and illumine minds of that capacity. That way, out of love for every soul (Iqan 175, 237), "whether high or low" they "may obtain, according to his measure and capacity" their "share and portion thereof" and "That all sorts of men may know where to quench their thirst."

"Then, know thou that the power of the Word of God is effective, both in the spirit and the body, and the influence of the Spirit of God is predominant over the material as well as the essential and spiritual. And that, verily, God is powerful in all things, and that the signs (or verses) have exoteric and esoteric meaning, and neither their outward preventeth their inward, nor doth their inward prevent their outward meaning."  (Tablets of Abdu'l-Baha v3, p. 608 -- Also, Compilations, Baha'i Scriptures, p. 464) [emphasis added]

"...Christ, Who is the Word of God, sacrificed Himself. This has two meanings, an apparent and an esoteric meaning."  [SAQ 120] 

At the same time it also seems true that some texts are meant to be understood more (or only) through symbolism or higher spiritual discernment -- and not their literal meaning, the latter not making any sense at all.  Some things can only be "spiritually discerned" with the aid of the Holy Spirit.

“Blessed art thou, Simon Barjona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven.” (Holy Bible, Matthew 16:17)

 “…the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.”  (Holy Bible, 1 Corinthians 2:14)

The greater truths are often hidden behind of the veil of metaphors, parables and epiphany stories, etc. Perhaps believers are not even "true" believers if they don't gain the higher spiritual insight in this case, but of course we humans are in no position to judge. (God help us all!) For this perspective I am relying on the verse of Christ: "And he said, Unto you it is given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God: but to others in parables; that seeing they might not see, and hearing they might not understand." (Bible, Luke 8:10) This type of teaching separated believers from unbelievers.  Different levels of interpretation -- and insistence that one is better than another -- is what has led to the 23,000 sects of Christianity (World Christian Encyclopedia, D. Barrrett).  It is indeed ironic, and I cannot fully understand why God should have chosen to create scriptures in this genre, that the "believers" themselves (both Muslims and Christians) have often understood various verses in a literal and superficial manner.  Perhaps it is to truly separate believers from unbelievers.

However, it does seem obvious that the symbolism within the language often hides the higher truth that simply cannot be expressed directly. Abdu'l-Baha has explained this fully in Some Answered Questions (p.92) see http://reference.bahai.org/en/t/ab/SAQ/saq-16.html or http://www.ibiblio.org/Bahai/Texts/English/SAQ/SAQ-16.html   [All this is taken from:  http://watsongregory.homestead.com/files/Crucifixion_Trinity.html ]

Martin Luther, in a sermon, says this:

But what does it mean when Jesus says: "Unto you it is given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God," etc.? What are the mysteries?

 …  A "mystery" is a hidden secret, that is not known And it is called a mystery because it is spiritual and secret,. . . . where the spirit does not reveal it. For although there are many who see and hear it, yet they do not understand it. . . . just as there are many who hear how Christ offered himself for us; but all that is only upon their tongue and not in their heart; for they themselves do not believe it, they do not experience it.

(Sermons of Martin Luther, The Parable of the Sower)


“And he said unto them, ‘Unto you it is given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God: but unto them that are without,

all these things are done in parables: That seeing they may see, and not perceive; and hearing they may hear, and not understand; lest at any time they should be converted, and their sins should be forgiven them.’”(Holy Bible, Mark 4:11) 


Similarly Mirza Abu’l Fadl states:

By figurative interpretation is meant only the original meanings intended, which God veiled in the inner depths of the verses and hid behind a curtain of metaphors.  Such interpretation is not something for mere mortals, nor should every ignorant one plunge haphazardly into it, nor every obscure scholar interpret verses according to his opinion.  Some of the ignorant have done this in their pride, and have gone astray and led many others astray with their interpretations.  They have thus kept people from the well-spring of life, the path of salvation.  Rather, this is a matter for the Manifestations of God [“the Christ”], the Vindicators of His promise.  Therefore one cannot depend on the outward meaning.” (Mirza Abu’l Fadl “Miracles and Metaphors”, p. 11)

Some believe that to say something is “symbolic” means that it is not true.  This is a gross error.  Symbolism simply means that metaphorical terminology is used to try and explain something intangible – beyond words – yet in an effort to convey truth and real meaning.  With respect to scripture, it is the Holy Spirit that moves the heart to understanding.  


On the other hand, in this NEW dispensation Baha'u'llah explains that the teachings are not meant to be esoteric for this day, which is one reason we have the Center of the Covenant (Abdu'l-Baha, the son of Baha'u'llah) -- as the Interpreter (not only of Baha'i Writings but also the scriptures of the past).  Is this not in fulfillment of the verse:

“The time cometh, when I shall no more speak to you in figures, but I shall show you plainly of the Father.” (John 16:25)  Sometimes Baha'u'llah is very emphatic about it:  "Whosoever interpreteth this verse otherwise than its obvious meaning is deprived of the Spirit of God and of His mercy which encompasseth all created things."  [Gleanings 345]   Bahá'u'lláh cautions against ascribing to "this verse" anything other than its "obvious meaning", and in one of His Tablets, He specifies that "each year" of this thousand year period consists of "twelve months according to the Qur'án, and of nineteen months of nineteen days each, according to the Bayan".  [Aqdas195]  

 At other times he says:  "'None knoweth the meaning thereof except God and them that are well-grounded in knowledge.' And yet, they have sought the interpretation of the Book from those that are wrapt in veils, and have refused to seek enlightenment from the fountain-head of knowledge."  [Iqan 17] 

". . . The path hath become smooth, the way straightened, the carpet of the Kingdom is spread, the Tabernacle hath been elevated upon the Hill of Might, the powers of heaven have been shaken, the corners of the earth have quaked, the sun has been darkened, the moon ceased to give light, the stars have fallen, the nations of the earth have lamented, and the Son of Man hath come upon the clouds of heaven with power and great glory, and He hath sent His angels with the sound of the great trumpet, and no one knows the meaning of these emblems save the wise and informed..." (BWF 360) 

But both of these references are in themselves pointing towards the "unsealed" interpretation that is being made plain in this dispensation, are they not?

"Today the greater number of them [the Persian followers of Baha'u'llah] recite and chant, as is suitable, the contents of these two Books [Old and New Testaments] in their reunions and assemblies, and they expound their esoteric teaching."  [SAQ 304]


"Now that this subject has been clearly elucidated we will submit that the present state of progress in the world necessitates the Most Great Manifestation. While His Holiness Bahá'u'lláh resided in Baghdad the first book revealed by Him was "Kitáb-i-Íqán" which is the key to unlock the seals of the Heavenly Books. It comprehends the realities revealed in Holy Writ. By it the doors of the understanding of prophetic words were opened to the faces of the people of Baha, the real meaning of the Divine Glad-tidings were revealed and the original purposes of such terms as were latent and unknown became manifested.  These terms are: 'Death,' 'Life,' 'Heaven,' 'Earth,' 'Sun,' 'Moon,' 'Stars,' 'Resurrection,' ["Return,” “Revival,” etc.]  Thus the means of unity became facilitated and the hindrances to international misunderstandings were removed."  (Mirza Abu'l-Fadl, The Brilliant Proof, p. 22)

Here are another couple of interesting passages, in this light:

"227.15 Whenever I witnessed what befell these believers, the words of God would find meaning in front of my eyes. I had looked up the meaning of these words in the dictionaries, but I did not know that in addition to their obvious meaning they describe, or better even, create new realities. Now that the tempest of trials and afflictions has encircled the community of the beloved ones, the believers who have remained behind and who steadfastly and firmly are bearing the burden of this storm, only can sing the eternal epic of the second century of the Faith. Truly, all of them are the children and descendants of those who watered the tree of the Faith with their pure blood. This tree is still bearing fruit, is still growing! What a glory! What a glory!"

 (The Universal House of Justice, Messages 1963 to 1986, p. 418)


"Know thou, verily, man before reaching (spiritual) maturity passes his days and only apprehends trivial things which are clear on account of their exoteric indications, but when he attains full development, then he grasps the realities of things and their esoteric facts. Every day after maturity is equivalent to one year before it, on account of (man's) perception, understanding, apprehension and discoveries.  Now, thou hast reached development and apprehended the degree of maturity: Gaze at the grades of the existence, the realities of things, the allegories in the epistles of God, and the mysteries in the Old and New Testament. By the life of Baha, the covering will be removed from thee, and thou will be informed of that which all the philosophers and wise men are unable to apprehend. Verily, this is a gift which God assigns only to such of His chosen servants as He willeth. Verily, Thy Lord will inspire thee with the mysteries of God, the Protector, the Self-subsistent."  (Compilations, Baha'i Scriptures, p. 480)


"O maid-servant of God! Verily, the tests and trials of God are very great and very violent. Beseech thou God to protect thee from all doubts and to guard thee from the interpretations of parabolical [1] verses, as made by those who know not in what valley they are roving, who speak according to their own selfish purposes and after their own evil inclinations; who accept and then reject; who believe in God and then deny Him; and who appear firm and then backslide; thus thou beholdest these oscillating daily."  [1 Texts relating to parables and which are veiled in symbols and have esoteric meanings.]   (Tablets of Abdu'l-Baha v1, p. 72)

"The Guardian also made it very clear that now is not the time to dwell on the esoteric part of the teachings - on the contrary, 'we must be ACTIVE and positive...'"  (The Priceless Pearl, p. 81)


In this connection perhaps it is also useful to point out the distinction between "esoteric" and "secret."  Some think the two terms are synonymous, as they have been in past dispensations.  (Apparently even Martin Luther equated the two.)  In this new Day however, there are no secret teachings, however esoteric [hidden] they may be.  To every seeker who seeks them they are open for discovery.  Baha'u'llah promises this, if we but ponder and meditate upon the meaning of the verses (assuming that they have not already been interpreted at some level by Abdu'l-Baha): 

"Wert thou to heed these words, wert thou to ponder their outward and inner meaning in thy heart, thou wouldst seize the significance of all the abstruse problems which, in this day, have become insuperable barriers between men and the knowledge of the Day of Judgment." (KI 123)


"Blessed those who peruse it. Blessed those who apprehend it. Blessed those who meditate upon it. Blessed those who ponder its meaning." (Tablets of Baha'u'llah, p. 200)


"Ponder this in thine heart, that thou mayest comprehend its meaning."  (GL 46)


"Ponder a while those holy words in your heart, and, with utter detachment, strive to grasp their meaning."  (KI 5)


"And in another place He said: 'I go and another will come, Who will tell you all that I have not told you, and will fulfil all that I have said.' Both these sayings have but one meaning, were ye to ponder upon the Manifestations of the Unity of God with Divine insight."  (Gleanings 21)


"It is now incumbent upon them who are endowed with a hearing ear and a seeing eye to ponder these sublime words, in each of which the oceans of inner meaning and explanation are hidden, that haply the words uttered by Him Who is the Lord of Revelation may enable His servants to attain, with the utmost joy and radiance, unto the Supreme Goal and Most Sublime Summit -- the dawning-place of this Voice."  (Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, p. 147)


"They whose sight is keen, whose ears are retentive, whose hearts are enlightened, and whose breasts are dilated, recognize both truth and falsehood, and distinguish the one from the other. Recite thou this prayer that hath flowed from the tongue of this Wronged One, and ponder thereon with a heart rid of all attachment, and with ears that are pure and sanctified, be attentive to its meaning, that haply thou mayest inhale the breath of detachment and have pity upon thyself and upon others:"  (Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, p. 9)


"We do not feel their necessity [citing all the traditions], however, inasmuch as the things We have already mentioned suffice the world and all that is therein. In fact, all the Scriptures and the mysteries thereof are condensed into this brief account. So much so, that were a person to ponder it a while in his heart, he would discover from all that hath been said the mysteries of the Words of God, and would apprehend the meaning of whatever hath been manifested by that ideal King."  (KI 237)


"It is incumbent on all who have ears and clear insight to meditate and ponder carefully upon these supreme words, in each of which oceans of meanings and distinct explanations are hidden, that the revelation of the Possessor of all religions may cause all His creatures to attain the desire and that supreme station which is the dawning of the horizon of this Declaration."  (Compilations, Baha'i Scriptures, p. 122)

Abdu'l-Baha promises the same:

"Read ye The Hidden Words, ponder the inner meanings thereof, act in accord therewith."  (SWAB 35)  "The exposition is brief. Ponder and thou shalt understand the meaning."  (Tablets of Abdu'l-Baha v2, p. 309)

The Guardian carries this principle (of meditating for insight) right into the Administrative Order: 

"The Guardian would strongly urge each and every member of the National Spiritual Assembly to carefully peruse, and to quietly ponder upon the outer meaning and upon the inner spirit as well, of all his communications on the subject of the origin, nature and present-day functioning of the administrative order of the Faith."  (Compilations, The Compilation of Compilations vol. I, p. 220)

In most cases, I find that Christians are most grateful to get an understanding about their "hidden" teachings from "our" Writings, such as the "Return" of Elias in John the Baptist, or the "Mirror" analogy with respect to the trinity.


Sometimes they need a little reminding that it is not possible to interpret before (and without) Baha'u'llah's coming:


Isaiah ( 29:11):  "When men give it to one who can read, saying, 'read this,' he says, 'I cannot, for it is sealed.'"  Also, in Isaiah 6:9-10-- "...make the ears heavy, and shut their eyes, lest they see with their eyes and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and convert, and be healed."   Similar statements can be found in Daniel (12:4-10) where Daniel asked God to explain his vision to him and was told not to ask because it was sealed until the "time of the end."


“Therefore judge nothing before the time, until the Lord come, who both will bring to light the hidden things of darkness...”  (1st Corinthians 4:5)


"Who is worthy to open the book, and to loose the seals thereof? And no man in heaven, nor in earth, neither under the earth, was able to open the book, neither to look thereon.   And I wept much, because no man was found worthy to open and to read the book, neither to look thereon.   And one of the elders saith unto me, Weep not: behold, the Lion of the tribe of Juda, the Root of David, hath prevailed to open the book, and to loose the seven seals thereof."  (Revelation 5:1-5)


"In that day you will ask me no questions.”  (John 16:23)   "These things have I spoken unto you in proverbs: but the time cometh, when I shall no more speak unto you in proverbs, but I shall shew you plainly of the Father."  (John 16:25)


I explain that the verse, "shall show you plainly..." is a reference to the "unsealed books," and the language of plain speech to be used in the new Revelation (at the time of the "return").


I hope these quotes will prove as useful to you as they have to me.  I have assembled most of them into a PowerPoint presentation which you are most welcome to use: http://ppt.homestead.com/Mediator.ppt