The Book Unsealed
August 18, 2002
Be stunned and amazed; blind yourselves and be sightless. Be drunk, but not from wine; stagger, but not from beer. The Lord has brought over you a deep sleep. He has sealed your eyes, you prophets; he has covered your heads, you seers.
For you this whole vision is nothing but words sealed in a scroll. And if you give the scroll to someone who can read, and say to him, "Read this, please," he will answer, "I can't; it is sealed." Or if you give the scroll to someone who cannot read, and say, "Read this, please," he will answer, "I don't know how to read."
The Lord says: "These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is made up only of rules taught by human beings. Therefore once more I will astound these people with wonder upon wonder; the wisdom of the wise will perish, the intelligence of the intelligent will vanish." (Isaiah 29:9-14)
Then I saw in the right hand of him who sat on the throne a scroll with writing on both sides, and sealed with seven seals. And I saw a mighty angel proclaiming in a loud voice, "Who is worthy to break the seals and open the scroll?" But no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth could open the scroll or even look inside it. I wept and wept because no one was found who was worthy to open the scroll or look inside.
Then one of the elders said to me, "Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals."
Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing in the center of the throne, encircled by the four living creatures and the elders. He had seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth. He came and took the scroll from the right hand of him who sat on the throne. And when he had taken it, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp, and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. And they sang a new song:
"You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you bought us for God from every tribe and language and people and nation. You have made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and we will reign on the earth." (Revelation 5:1-10)
Reading from Swedenborg
Since the Bible is a divine revelation, every single part of it is divine. Anything that comes from the divine could be no other way. Everything that comes from the divine goes down through the heavens all the way to people on earth. In heaven it is adapted to the wisdom of the angels there, and on earth it is adapted to the understanding of the people there. So the Bible has an inner, spiritual meaning for angels, and an outer, material-level meaning for people on earth. That is why our connection to heaven happens through the Bible.
The Bible's real meaning can be understood only by people who are enlightened. And only people who love and believe in the Lord are enlightened, since their deeper parts are lifted up into heaven's light by the Lord. We can understand the Bible's literal meaning only if we have a religious philosophy that an enlightened person has obtained from the Bible. The literal meaning is adapted to people's understanding--even that of simple-minded people. So we need a religious philosophy from the Bible to give us light. (The Heavenly City #252-54)
Much of the Book of Revelation is concerned with judgment. Those who have turned away from God are judged for hell; those who have followed God are judged for heaven. Chapters four and five set the stage for that judgment. In chapter four, we are given a vision of the Lord God sitting on a throne in heaven, presented as a great King who will also become the Judge of all. Chapter five focuses on a book, or scroll, with seven seals. In the following chapters, as each seal is broken one figure and event after another emerges as part of this great judgment.
Next to the divine figure on the throne, the judgment centers on the sealed book, which is a clear symbol of the Word of God, from which all truth and all judgment comes. This morning we will take a closer look at the Word of God as we continue our three part series on the essential teachings of the New Church.
The fact that the Word of God was sealed up was not new. Back in Old Testament times, the prophet Isaiah referred to his own vision--which is part of the Word of God--as "nothing but words sealed in a scroll." And he went on to tell us how people could not read that scroll, either because it was sealed, or because they did not have the ability to read.
It is very unlikely that Isaiah's words were literally sealed up so that no one could read them. No, he was talking about the seal that is placed on the Word of God in the minds of people who cannot understand spiritual truth because they do not want to listen to it nor obey it, since they do not love it. "These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips," the Lord says through Isaiah, "but their hearts are far from me."
This is a critical issue to understand about the Word of God. Some people have complained that the Bible is not written in plain language; that it is hard to understand. Why doesn't the Bible just tell us plainly what we are supposed to believe and do?
The fact is that the Bible does teach us plainly what we are supposed to believe and do. But if we are not interested in living in the Lord's way, we will not see or understand these things even when they are right in front of us. Further, if the Bible consisted entirely of plain teachings about the Lord's love and wisdom, and how we should live unselfish, spiritual lives devoted entirely to the service of the Lord and our fellow human beings, most of us as we start out in life would never read it in the first place. We would see it as impractical, unrealistic, ethereal--and very boring.
So the Bible reaches out to us where we are in vivid stories that we will read and hear, and that will stick in our minds. Adam and Eve. Noah and the ark. Moses and the burning bush. David and Goliath. Jonah and the whale. These are simple, unforgettable tales that have become part of the consciousness of our society.
Yet when we start examining the Bible stories closely, we find many parts that we don't understand, or that seem to contradict other parts. The Bible says that God is love (1 John 4:8, 16), and yet we read of God commanding the slaughter of whole cities, sometimes including women and children, and even the livestock! The Ten Commandments say that God "visits the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of those that hate him" (Exodus 20:5), and yet in Ezekiel, the Bible states with crystal clarity that "the soul who sins is the one who will die. The son will not share the guilt of the father, nor will the father share the guilt of the son" (Ezekiel 18:20).
As we encounter these and other conundrums in the Bible, the simple trust in the Bible that we may have gained as children gives way to questions that we must struggle with if we are to accept the Bible as God's Word in our adult lives. In fact, millions of people have abandoned the Bible and the Christian Church, not because they are evil, ungodly people, but because they can't reconcile many of the teachings and stories of the Bible--not to mention the way some Christians apply them--with a decent, humane life of respect for all the people of this earth.
To continue the saga of the Evangelical "cult site" from last time, I was brave or foolhardy enough to send the webmaster of that site a link to the online version of the first sermon in this series. In that sermon, I mentioned our exchange, and went on to assert the non-Biblical nature of some of the teachings he espoused, and the Biblical basis of New Church teachings.
To give credit where credit is due, he did read most of the sermon. Needless to say, he didn't like it very much! And he told me just why he didn't like it. Among other things, he brought up a common charge made against us by Evangelicals. Though he didn't state it exactly this way, the charge is that by following Swedenborg's teachings, we "add" to the Bible in a way that is forbidden in the final verses of Revelation, and that these "additions" invalidate our teachings because they are not based on the Bible.
In reply, I pointed out to him that the doctrines he was teaching as "essential to Christianity" were also taught by particular human beings at particular times in the history of Christianity. We can trace their origins back to a time before which they do not appear in the Christian literature, or appear only as vague foreshadowings of the doctrine that was later stated more specifically.
This is true of the Trinity of Persons in God, which can be seen developing in the creed produced by the Council of Nicea in 325 AD. This Council was called by the emperor Constantine to craft a faith that would become the state religion of the Roman Empire. So the division of God into three Persons was accelerated by an effort to make Christianity serve the worldly use of empire-building. This division of God was then stated explicitly in the Athanasian Creed, composed within a few centuries of the Nicene Creed. And from that human-derived and essentially polytheistic doctrine flowed all the later corruptions of Christian belief.
What does this have to do with the New Church view of the Word of God? Simply this: those who are looking to the Bible in order to justify their own evil actions, driven by a desire for power and worldly wealth, will not see any truth in the Word of God, but will instead corrupt even the truth that is plainly visible in the literal meaning into false teachings that support their motives and actions. Our eyes are opened to the true meaning of God's Word only when we go to the Bible because we want the truth for its own sake, and to use it in correcting our own lives so that we can become better, more loving, more Christ-like people.
Now, I am not accusing everyone who holds to false doctrines, and attributes these doctrines to the Bible, of being greedy and power-hungry. I suspect that the webmaster I am conversing with is a decent human being who truly believes he is defending genuine Biblical Christianity. Once false teachings become widely taught and accepted, they take on a life of their own. Many good and sincere people will adopt them and even defend them, believing they are serving God and following God's Word.
We, too, believe in the Bible as God's Word. And even if we disagree with the teachings of many so-called "Bible-based Christians," we at least have to give them credit for their willingness to stand up for what they believe the Lord teaches in the Bible. Our shared devotion to the Bible is one link we have with them.
Still, however much they may think they are simply following the plain teachings of the Bible, their view of the Bible is only as clear as the doctrines, or religious philosophy, with which they approach the Bible. And whether or not they know which human theologians and creeds these doctrines came from, everything they read in the Bible will tend to support in their mind the truth of their own particular religious tradition.
This is why Swedenborg says that "we can understand the Bible's literal meaning only if we have a religious philosophy that an enlightened person has obtained from the Bible." Of course, for us the primary "enlightened person" that we turn to is Emanuel Swedenborg. Evangelical Christians, if they go to the roots of their faith, must turn to various teachers and theologians in their tradition, sometimes going back to early Protestant theologians such as Luther and Calvin. And their understanding of the Bible is only as good as the doctrines these teachers and theologians have handed down to them.
All of this is in accord with the New Church view of the Bible. We do not see the Bible as some sort of a mechanical drawing--a blueprint of sorts, so that we simply have to accurately follow the angles and dimensions given, and we will come up with a building that matches the designer's original specifications. Instead, the Bible, as the Word of God, is a living means of communication between God and human beings here on earth. It is where God speaks to us in a living voice through the fixed and divinely arranged words and stories on the page. It is where we can listen, each at our own level and each from our own needs.
The Bible does not say the same thing to every person who reads it because each person is in a different state of mind and heart, and needs a different part of the message in order to take the next steps. One person may be caught up in all sorts of illegal and destructive behavior, and need a strongly worded command to repent or be punished. Another may be caught in the throes of depression and despair, and need comforting words of encouragement, and the assurance of God's eternal love and compassion. Another may be spiritually thirsty, seeking answers to deep and mystifying questions, and need the crystal clarity of teachings that shine through from the inner, spiritual truth of the Bible.
The Bible speaks to us in all of our states of mind, from the lowest and most corrupt to the highest and most sublime. If we are scraping the bottom of life's barrel, the Bible speaks to us in tough, hard-hitting language and stories, in which the deeper love of God is sometimes so deeply hidden that God appears to be angry and wrathful, instead of being pure love. If we have progressed farther along on the spiritual path, so that our hearts and minds are open to the thoughts of the angels, the Bible becomes a book in which the literal meaning is almost transparent, with the deeper love and wisdom of God showing through everywhere--even in places where others see only death and destruction.
Yes, the Bible is God's Word because through it the Lord speaks to us at every stage of our lives, and in every state of mind and heart. For those just starting out who need plain, simple truths, the plain literal meaning of the Bible has everything necessary to find salvation through faith in God and living according to God's commandments. For those farther along the spiritual path, the Lord has in our times opened up the deeper meanings in the Bible through the "correspondences," or living symbolism, taught in Swedenborg's writings.
Does this "add" to the Bible? No. It simply opens up what was already there. To use a vivid image from True Christian Religion #192, the Bible is like "a chest made of jasper, lapis lazuli, amianthus (also called mica), or agate, but containing rows of diamonds, rubies, sardonyxes, oriental topazes, and so on." The literal sense is the chest, which is quite beautiful with its semi-precious stones--and which also protects its more precious contents.
The wonderful promise of the New Church is that if we love the Lord, and go to the Bible to learn how to live as the Lord wants us to, we will be able to open that treasure chest, and find spiritual riches beyond anything we have ever imagined. Amen.
Dear Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, we thank you for entrusting us with the wonderful treasure chest that is your Word. Even without opening its deeper meanings, we find so many beautiful, practical teachings that guide us on our paths here on earth. And yet, you have hidden still greater treasures within! As we become ready in our spiritual journeys to receive them, open our minds and hearts to see those deeper treasures; to find that pearl of great price that you have hidden in the field of your Word. For the treasures of your Word are eternal, and lead us to heavenly joy. Amen.
Rev. Lee Woofenden