The Bahá'í concept of the intermediary between God and humanity is expressed in the term Manifestation of God. Bahá'ís believe in a single, imperishable God, the creator of all things, including all the creatures and forces in the universe. Though inaccessible directly, God is nevertheless seen as conscious of his creation, with a mind, will and purpose. Bahá'ís believe that God expresses this will at all times and in many ways, including through a series of divine messengers referred to as Manifestations of God. In expressing God's intent, these Manifestations are seen to establish religion in the world.
The Manifestations of God are not seen as an incarnation of God as God cannot be divided and does not descend to the condition of his creatures, but they are also not seen as an ordinary mortal. Instead, the Bahá'í concept of the Manifestation of God emphasizes simultaneously the humanity of that intermediary and the divinity in the way they show forth the will, knowledge and attributes of God; thus they have both human and divine stations. A common Bahá'í analogy used to explain the relationship between the Manifestation of God and God is that of a perfect mirror. In the analogy God is compared to the Sun as the source of physical life on the earth. Then, the spirit and attributes of God are likened to the rays of the Sun, and the Manifestations of God are like a perfect mirror reflecting the rays of the Sun. Thus, the Manifestations of God act as a pure mirror that reflect the attributes of God onto this material world.
The Manifestations of God are seen to represent a level of existence which is an intermediary between God and humans. Bahá'u'lláh, the founder of the Bahá'í Faith, explained that at that at one extreme the Manifestations of God are humble servants of God and at the other extreme they claim to speak with the voice of God, and manifest his attributes to humanity. They may at different times emphasize their humanity, and at other times proclaim their divinity, and the stations are complementary rather than being mutually exclusive.
The Manifestations of God posses capacities that do not exist in humans, and this difference is not a difference in degree but a different in kind. The Manifestations of God are not seen to be simply great thinkers or philosophers who have a better understanding than others, but that, by their nature, they are superior to others that do not have that capacity. Thus, the Manifestations of God are seen as special beings, and having a unique relationship to God as they have been sent by God from the spiritual world as an instrument of divine revelation. They are understood to having existed in the spiritual world prior to their physical birth in this life. They are also seen to have innate, divinely revealed knowledge and absolute knowledge of the physical world. According to `Abdu'l-Bahá, the son and successor of the founder of the Bahá'í Faith, the Manifestations of God must be distinguished above any other person in every aspect and qualification, in order that they can effectively train and educate people.
The purpose of the Manifestation of God, according to Bahá'í belief is to educate humanity. The Manifestations of God are seen as divine educators, who are raised up by God with the purpose of uplifting mankind and expressing his will. In expressing God's intent, the Manifestations of God are seen to establish religion in the world and each one brings a book, and reveals teachings and laws according to the time and place which they appear. Bahá'u'lláh used the term revelation to describe the phenomena that occurs each time a Manifestation of God appears; he stated that the writings of the Manifestation of God represent the infallible word of God, and because the writings remain after the earthly life of the Manifestation they are an very important part of revelation. The laws and education brought by the Manifestation of God lie in different spheres and levels, and includes laws and principles to help individuals in obtaining a sound character and divine attributes, as wells laws and principles to help better the welfare of human society and civilization. `Abdu'l-Bahá has stated that from time to time an educator will come to teach humanity, and without these teachings humanity would be overcome by such emotions and attitudes as anger, jealousy and hatred.
The Bahá'í belief in the purpose of the Manifestation of God as an educator has been stated by Bahá'u'lláh and `Abdu'l-Bahá:
The Manifestations of God are taught to be "one and the same", and in their relationship to one another have both the station of unity and the station of distinction. Bahá'u'lláh wrote in the Book of Certitude that in respect to their station of unity "if thou callest them all by one name and dost ascribe to them the same attribute, thou hast not erred from the truth." In this sense, the Manifestations of God all fulfill the same purpose and perform the same function by mediating between God and creation. In this way each Manifestation of God manifested the Word of God and taught the same religion, with modifications for the particular audience's needs and culture. Bahá'u'lláh wrote that since each Manifestation of God has the same divine attributes they can be seen as the spiritual "return" of all the previous Manifestations of God.
Bahá'u'lláh then states the diversity of the teachings of the Manifestations of God does not come about because of their differences, since they are one and the same, but because they each have a different mission. Bahá'u'lláh writes regarding this station of distinction, "each Manifestation of God hath a distinct individuality, a definitely prescribed mission, a predestined Revelation, and specially designated limitations." Bahá'u'lláh wrote in the Gems of Divine Mysteries that those who perceive distinctions and differences between the Manifestations of God, will notice the underlying unity of the Manifestations once they continue on their spiritual path. Bahá'u'lláh in several passages goes so far as to say that denial of one Manifestation is equivalent to denial of all of them. `Abdu'l-Bahá said that a Bahá'í will choose death over denial of any of the great Prophets, whether Moses, Muhammad or Christ.
The Bahá'í belief in the oneness of the Manifestations of God does not mean, however, that the same individual soul is born again at different times and in different physical bodies. In the Bahá'í view, the various Manifestations of God were all different personalities and had separate individual realities. Instead their equality is due to that Manifestation of God manifested and revealed the qualities of God to the same degree.
While Manifestations of God are explained to have always come to humanity and will continue to do so, `Abdu'l-Bahá explained that there are distinct cycles within this process. The cycles consist of hundreds of thousands of years and are characterized by three periods. The first period involves the coming of a series of Manifestations of God who prepare humanity for a universal theophany; the second period involves the appearance of the Manifestation of God that brings the universal theophany and his dispensation; finally the third period includes the Manifestations of God that come after. `Abdu'l-Bahá stated that in the current cycle, the first period was started by Adam and extended to the time of the Báb. Bahá'u'lláh is seen as the universal Manifestation of God, and the current cycle will continue for another 500,000 years.
There are no definitive list of Manifestations of God, but Bahá'u'lláh and `Abdu'l-Bahá referred to several historical figures as Manifestations; they include Adam, Noah, Krishna, Moses, Abraham, Zoroaster, Buddha, Jesus and Muhammad. The Báb, as well as Bahá'u'lláh, were included in this definition. Thus religious history is interpreted as a series of dispensations, where each Manifestation brings a somewhat broader and more advanced revelation, suited for the time and place in which it was expressed.
Bahá'ís do not claim that the Bahá'í revelation is the final stage in God's direction in the course of human spiritual evolution. The Bahá'í writings contain assurances that after 1000 years, another Manifestation of God will appear to advance human civilization.
The Manifestations of God are described as prophets endowed with constancy. The term endowed with constancy refers to prophets to whom a book was revealed (in which the book contained legislation) and with whom lasting covenants with God were made, abrogating past covenants. For example, Bahá'u'lláh describes Moses as a Manifestation of God and his brother Aaron a minor prophet; Moses spoke on behalf of God, and Aaron spoke on behalf of Moses (Exodus 4:14-17). Furthermore, the other prophets of the Old Testament such as Jeremiah, David, Solomon, Ezekiel, and Isaiah are described as minor prophets as they came in the shadow of the dispensation of Moses to develop and consolidate the process he set in motion. There is, however, no definite list of who is or isn't a minor prophet in the Bahá'í understanding.
The distinction can also be described as the difference between inspiration and revelation. Revelation is seen to be the direct and infallible perception of God's word and is only accessible to the Manifestations of God who transmit it to humanity. On the other hand inspiration is seen to be the indirect and relative perception of spiritual truths that each person may have access to. Bahá'u'lláh stated that at times, God chooses ordinary people to act as prophets and thus inspires them to play certain roles in human affairs; these people however remain ordinary people whose powers of inspiration have been further developed by God.
In Islam, the station of prophethood (Risalah) is also divided into two categories. The equivalent of major prophets are known as Messengers of God (Rasul) who bring a major revelation from God. The equivalent of minor prophets are known as prophets of God (Nabi).
In regards to the Asiatic prophets, Shoghi Effendi wrote: