The New Understanding of the Word, part 2

A sermon by the Rev. James P. Cooper

He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. (Rev. 2:7)

In the New Church, the body of teachings regarding the nature and use of the Word is so rich that it cannot easily be summarized in a few words. Therefore, this week’s sermon is a continuation of a sermon on this subject given two weeks ago. In that sermon, it was shown that the Old and New Testaments are very difficult to understand in their literal sense. It was also shown how they are full of apparent contradictions and appearances of truth, but how they can be seen to be full of the most beautiful and appropriate spiritual truths when they are understood in the light of the internal sense. The internal meanings of scripture can be revealed when they are seen to be like a parable, and when the symbols are translated using the Science of Correspondence as revealed by the Lord through the Theological Writings of Emanuel Swedenborg. The spiritual truths of the Word have been hidden by the Lord in plain sight within the natural histories recorded in scripture. Those who are affirmative to the Lord, and who seek to learn how to live a life in obedience to God and in charity toward the neighbour, have no difficulty seeing the spiritual principles contained within the stories of the Word. On the other hand, those who are sceptical of scripture, who believe it to be nothing more than a collection of ancient legends, will never see the eternal truths hidden within. In this way, the Lord has provided that the real value and power of the Word has been hidden away from those who would seek to use it to harm others or gain power for themselves, while it is freely available to those who would use it for good.

The way the Word speaks to some people and not to others is illustrated by the story of king Saul. Before Saul, the children of Israel had always been governed by some leader, such as Moses, or Samuel, to whom God spoke directly – and in the case of when the Ten Commandments were given to Moses, so openly that all the people gathered around the mountain heard it for themselves. But the children of Israel as a group were becoming more and more interested in evil, and they no longer wished to be governed by a prophet, but demanded to have a king so that they could be like the other nations.

The Lord agreed, and selected Saul to be the first king of Israel. At first it seemed to work out very well. Saul was handsome, and brave, and a natural leader. He depended on the counsel given to him by the prophet Samuel, and the nation prospered. Eventually Saul became disobedient, and Samuel was instructed to tell him that none of Saul’s sons would be king after him as punishment. Saul then tried to kill David, whom he perceived would be the Lord’s choice to be the next king. His pursuit of David caused him to leave his kingdom unprotected and open to attack by the Philistines. And finally, when he returned to face the Philistine attack, he found that the Lord would no longer speak to him through prophets, or through dreams, or in any other way, that he was left alone. Without the Lord’s help, he lost the battle, his three sons, and his own life. (See1SA25ff)

The important question we have to ask ourselves in this context is, did the Lord actually stop guiding Saul, or was that just the appearance? Wouldn’t it be more correct to say that Saul had stopped listening to what the Lord had to say?

What about the fact that the Lord had spoken to the children of Israel through prophets from the time of Abraham, but there was no more prophecy for 400 years before the Lord was born, a period known in church history as the “Great Silence.” Was God angry? Did God turn his back on His own church for 400 years? Can God really be angry? What about the silence in our own time? Why does the Lord not speak to us through prophets today?

The answer is that God was not silent, nor is He silent today. He is constantly reaching out to every one, but He is and was doing so by means of the written Word. Although the Bible, as we know it, did not exist until the 17th Century, still the words of the prophets were written down and studied in ancient times. Those who wanted to know what the Lord taught could seek it out. For example, the Wise Men in the East knew when to expect the star, because they listened to what the Lord said to them in the words written by the prophets and carefully preserved by them. Actually, the reason the Lord spoke to the ancient prophets was specifically so that the Word could be written down and fixed in one particular form that could one day be known to all mankind.

The Lord speaks to us every day in the Word. In times of trouble, all we have to do is pick up the book and open it, and there is the Word of the Lord bringing us comfort and guidance. But what about those people who don’t receive comfort, for whom there seems to be a great silence? The heavenly doctrines of the New Church indicate where the problem lies:

For the Divine truth which is from the Lord is continually flowing in with man, and forms his understanding; and if you will believe it, without this continual influx of the truth Divine that proceeds from the Lord a man can perceive and understand nothing whatever. For the Divine truth that proceeds from the Lord is the light which lights up the mind of man, and makes the internal sight, which is the understanding; and as this light continually flows in, it adapts every one to receive. But they who receive are they who are in the good of life; and they who do not receive are they who are in evil of life. Nevertheless the latter, like the former, have the capacity of perceiving and understanding, and also the capacity of receiving, in so far as they desist from evils. The Divine truth which proceeds from the Lord is continually flowing into human minds and adapting them to receive it, and that it is received in the proportion that the evils of the loves of self and of the world are desisted from. (AC9399)

The Lord never stopped speaking to Saul. He never stopped trying to lead the Jewish Church out of its downward spiral. It was just that He was saying things that they did not want to hear, He was telling them that they had to turn away from their evil ways and return to the way of the Lord, but they chose to continue in their evil ways which gave them delight.

The same principle applies for us. When we approach the Word with the heartfelt conviction that it is the Word of God, and that we are seeking to learn how to shun evils and to do good to others, then the Lord will speak volumes to us through the Word. If, on the other hand, we never turn to the Word because we believe that all it contains is some outmoded moral structure that does not apply to us, then it will indeed be silent in our hearts, for it will find no room there.

The doctrines of the Church tell us that those who wish to understand, and who shun evils as sins, will be able to understand the Word, and that, in general is true. But it has to be understood that this principle has to be applied with mercy, and with accommodation to the states of the reader. We cannot assume that because a person has difficulty at their first attempts in reading the doctrines of the church, or some of the more difficult books of scripture, that the Lord is not speaking to them because they are evil. It is like any other skill in the natural world: it must first be learned, and then practised. Another consideration is this:

All the histories of the Word are truths more remote from essential Divine doctrinal things, but still are of service to little children and older children, in order that thereby they may be by degrees introduced into the interior doctrinal matters of truth and good; and at last to Divine things themselves; for within them, in their inmost, is the Divine. (AC36902)

In other words, the Word has been specifically constructed in such a way that there is something in it for everyone. Little children love the story of Creation, and learn simply that God created them and everything else. Older children love the stories of the conquest of Canaan, and learn that the Lord will fight for them in their battles against evil. And if such a foundation has been laid, and there is an effort to keep the life in order, every time a person returns to the stories of the Word they will see something new, something deeper, something more Divine.

Those are taught by the Lord who read the Word not for the sake of self and the world, but for the sake of good and truth itself, for then they are enlightened. But when men read it for the sake of self and the world, they are blinded. (AC9188)

There is one other problem regarding the Word that needs to be addressed, and that is that many people feel that the language is too difficult, that they cannot understand. But again, we must ask ourselves if the problem is with the Word, or with our attitude toward the Word.

When I was a teen-ager, I was interested in sports cars, so I bought a magazine. I only understood about two words out of five, but I studied the illustrations and reread the articles until that magazine was just about worn out. And then I bought another one. It wasn’t long before I could speak easily with members of the local sports car club and serve as a marshal at meets. Later I became interested in other very specialized fields such as flying, photography, and computers and the same kind of thing happened. At first I didn’t understand what anybody was talking about, but because I was interested and persistent, I soon learned the necessary vocabulary. Those people who have learned to use computers as adults will know exactly what I am talking about. Anyone who needs to make use of a specialized field of knowledge has to learn its particular language.

Look at the problems most laymen have with legal documents, page after page of phrases like ‘the party of the first part’ and words like ‘fiduciary.’ If you complain to the lawyer, he will most likely tell you that those particular words and phrases are necessary because there are very complex ideas that have to be expressed clearly and without ambiguity, and so a specialized legal language has been created.

The point is that all these principles apply first and foremost to the Word. The words and phrases that have been chosen were specifically selected for their impact on our natural senses, and at the same time for the sake of the spiritual meanings that they contain within them.

Yes, it can be difficult to read the Word at first. But remember that it wasn’t so long ago that the Bible was used in every American school as a primary reader for first grade. It can be read and understood simply by the young and the simple, but if they persist, and make the effort to acquire the skill, and to practice it regularly, the Word can easily be read with understanding. God wrote the Word for the sole purpose of communicating with us. He certainly wouldn’t have written it in such a way as to make it impossible for most people to read.

The Word was written to be a means of conjunction and communication between God and man. God, being infinite, cannot actually be conjoined with finite man. However, we have been created in such a way that we can receive the truth into our minds. Truth is from God, and He can therefore be conjoined with us by means of what is His in us, that is, the truth in our minds. We learn the truth from the Word, and compel ourselves to obey it. The Lord then changes our loves so that we come to love doing what is true, and that Divine truth becomes a part of our essential character. The Lord can then draw nearer to us because there is genuine truth from Him in our minds, and the associated good love in our heart.

But it is not just the Lord who is more closely conjoined with us when we read the Word, but the angels in heaven as well. Angels and spirits draw nearer to us when we are thinking and doing things that they love. This also means that evil spirits draw nearer to us when we are doing things that they love. But when we read the Word, and we are thinking about the historical characters and the things that they did, the angels who are with us see within the characters and stories to the Divine principles that are hidden there, and they are inspired to worship the Lord.

Every word, even to the smallest iota of all, in the Word, involves spiritual and heavenly things; and that the Word is in this manner inspired, so that when it is read by man, spirits and angels immediately perceive it spiritually according to the representations and correspondences. (AC2763:2)

These are the arcana contained in these words and in those which follow; but they are delivered in an historical form in order that the Word may be read with delight, even by children and by simple-minded persons, to the end that when they are in holy delight from the historical sense, the angels who are with them may be in the holiness of the internal sense; for this sense is adapted to the intelligence of the angels, while the external sense is adapted to that of men. By this means there is a consociation of man with the angels, of which the man knows nothing at all, but only perceives a kind of delight from it that is attended with a holy feeling. (AC3982:3)

In the book of Revelation, John reports that the angel said to him, He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes I will give to eat from the tree of life, which is in the midst of the Paradise of God. (REV2:7) The Word has been provided by the Lord so that those of us who have an ear, that is, those of us who are willing to hear and obey what the Lord has to teach, will hear what He has to say to the churches, that is, to all those who would follow Him. Each of those who hear the Word will then face the conflict between the desires of their will and the laws of life set forth by the Lord. To those that hold firm in these temptations, to those who overcome hell, the Lord has promised that they will eat of the tree of life in the midst of the Paradise of God. AMEN.

Lessons: 1SA 14:24-39, JOH 1:1-14, AC 2899, 6333:4




First Lesson: 1 Sam 14:24-39

And the men of Israel were distressed that day, for Saul had placed the people under oath, saying, “Cursed is the man who eats any food until evening, before I have taken vengeance on my enemies.” So none of the people tasted food. {25} Now all the people of the land came to a forest; and there was honey on the ground. {26} And when the people had come into the woods, there was the honey, dripping; but no one put his hand to his mouth, for the people feared the oath. {27} But Jonathan had not heard his father charge the people with the oath; therefore he stretched out the end of the rod that was in his hand and dipped it in a honeycomb, and put his hand to his mouth; and his countenance brightened. {28} Then one of the people said, “Your father strictly charged the people with an oath, saying, ‘Cursed is the man who eats food this day.’ “ And the people were faint. {29} But Jonathan said, “My father has troubled the land. Look now, how my countenance has brightened because I tasted a little of this honey. {30} “How much better if the people had eaten freely today of the spoil of their enemies which they found! For now would there not have been a much greater slaughter among the Philistines?” {31} Now they had driven back the Philistines that day from Michmash to Aijalon. So the people were very faint. {32} And the people rushed on the spoil, and took sheep, oxen, and calves, and slaughtered them on the ground; and the people ate them with the blood. {33} Then they told Saul, saying, “Look, the people are sinning against the LORD by eating with the blood!” So he said, “You have dealt treacherously; roll a large stone to me this day.” {34} And Saul said, “Disperse yourselves among the people, and say to them, ‘Bring me here every man’s ox and every man’s sheep, slaughter them here, and eat; and do not sin against the LORD by eating with the blood.’ “ So every one of the people brought his ox with him that night, and slaughtered it there. {35} Then Saul built an altar to the LORD. This was the first altar that he built to the LORD. {36} Now Saul said, “Let us go down after the Philistines by night, and plunder them until the morning light; and let us not leave a man of them.” And they said, “Do whatever seems good to you.” Then the priest said, “Let us draw near to God here.” {37} So Saul asked counsel of God, “Shall I go down after the Philistines? Will You deliver them into the hand of Israel?” But He did not answer him that day. {38} And Saul said, “Come over here, all you chiefs of the people, and know and see what this sin was today. {39} “For as the LORD lives, who saves Israel, though it be in Jonathan my son, he shall surely die.” But not a man among all the people answered him.

Second Lesson: John 1:1-14

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. {2} He was in the beginning with God. {3} All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made. {4} In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. {5} And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it. {6} There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. {7} This man came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all through him might believe. {8} He was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of that Light. {9} That was the true Light which gives light to every man coming into the world. {10} He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him. {11} He came to His own, and His own did not receive Him. {12} But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name: {13} who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God. {14} And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.

Third Lesson: AC 2899, 6333:4

2899. A Word afterwards followed in the Jewish Church that in like manner was written by representatives and significatives, so that it might have within it an internal sense understood in heaven, and that thus by the Word there might be communication, and the Lord’s kingdom in the heavens be united to the Lord’s kingdom on earth. Unless everything in the Word represents, and unless all the words by which everything therein is written, signify the Divine things pertaining to the Lord, thus the celestial and spiritual things belonging to His kingdom, the Word is not Divine; but being so it could not possibly be written in any other style; for by means of this style and not possibly by any other, human things and human words correspond to heavenly things and heavenly ideas, even to the least jot. From this it is that if the Word is read even by a little child, the Divine things therein are perceived by the angels (see n. 1776).

6333[4] The historical parts have been given in order that infants and children may thereby be initiated into the reading of the Word; for the historical parts are delightful, and rest in their minds, whereby communication is given them with the heavens; and this communication is grateful, because they are in a state of innocence and mutual charity. This is the reason why there is an historical Word. There is a prophetical Word, because when it is read, it is not understood by man except obscurely, and when it is understood obscurely by such men as there are now, it is perceived clearly by the angels, as it has been given me to know from much experience.


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