The Word of God
by the Rev. Lee Woofenden
May 14, 2000
Psalm 119:97-112 Oh, how I love
Oh, how I love your law!
It is my meditation all day long.
Your commandment makes me wiser than my enemies,
for it is always with me.
I have more understanding than all my teachers,
for your decrees are my meditation.
I understand more than the elders,
for I keep your precepts.
I hold back my feet from every evil way,
in order to keep your word.
I do not turn away from your ordinances,
for you have taught me.
How sweet are your words to my taste,
sweeter than honey to my mouth!
Through your precepts I get understanding;
therefore I hate every false way.
Your word is a lamp to my feet
and a light to my path.
I have sworn an oath and confirmed it,
to observe your righteous ordinances.
I am severely afflicted;
give me life, O Lord, according to your word.
Accept my offerings of praise, O Lord,
and teach me your ordinances.
I hold my life in my hand continually,
but I do not forget your law.
The wicked have laid a snare for me,
but I do not stray from your precepts.
Your decrees are my heritage forever;
they are the joy of my heart.
I incline my heart to do your statutes forever, to the end.
Matthew 5:17-20 The fulfillment of the Law
Do not think that I
have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them
but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not
the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear
from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who breaks one of the
least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called
least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands
will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your
righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you
will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.
The Heavenly City #252-254 The Bible: literal and spiritual
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 the understanding of simple-minded people. So we
need a religious philosophy from the Bible to give us light.
"Do not think
that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish
them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth
disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any
means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished." (Matthew
Before I go off in an
entirely different direction, I would like to wish all the mothers here a very
happy Mother's Day!
Now, I believe that
everything is connected to everything else, so I could make a connection
between Mother's Day and our topic for today, which is "The Word of
God." Let's see. . . . The Church is our spiritual mother,
and the Bible is where we learn about the Church. Voila! A connection
between Mother's Day and the Word of God!
But really, the
reason I am preaching about the Word of God today is that this is the second in
a series of three sermons on the basic teachings of our church, as we wrap up
our regular church year. Last week we focused on our church's teachings about
the Lord, and for our final regular service, on June 4, we will focus on what it
means to live a spiritual life and be "saved," from a Swedenborgian
perspective. Meanwhile, for the next two Sunday's you'll get something
The Word of God. What
does that phrase conjure up in your mind? To some Christians, it is a book
dictated word-for word by God, and meant to be obeyed in a very literal way in
order to avoid a very literal hellfire and damnation. To other Christians, it is
the record of God's interaction with a particular human culture over many
centuries, and even more than that, the place where we are taught about the life
and teachings of Jesus Christ, and therefore the sourcebook of the Christian
religion. For many non-Christians, the Bible is simply a book of cultural
history, poetry, and human religious belief. And for far too many ex-Christians,
it is a book associated with heavy-handed and guilt-inducing teachings coming
from a judgmental and arbitrary God whom they can no longer accept.
In the midst of all
this welter of opinion about the Bible, one thing is certain: the Bible has been
a central influence in the development of Western culture, and the primary
source for its dominant religion: Christianity. No matter what our opinion may
be about the Bible, we cannot deny the tremendous impact it has had on our
However, from a
Swedenborgian point of view, the Bible is the Word of God for a far greater
reason than its unchallenged position as the fountainhead of the Christian
religion and as the greatest historical influence in the formation of Western
society. Before we get to that, though, it might be helpful to say a few words
about the formation of the Bible itself.
The Bible is a book
that took over one thousand five hundred years to write. Its first five books,
Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy were originally written
down over fourteen centuries before the birth of Christ. Its final book,
Revelation, was written nearly a century after the Lord's birth. Its many books
were written by at least forty different authors. Their styles include myth,
history, law, poetry, story, sermon, prophecy, theology, and mystic vision. The
Bible is anything but a simple book. Whole colleges of scholars can and do spend
their entire careers studying its complexities and intricacies; and when one
question is answered, ten more questions spring up in its place.
reduce all this complexity down to a simple slogan: "God said it, I believe
it, and that's that." Many of them believe that if we scrutinize the
origins of the Bible too closely, we will only raise doubts about its divine
origins. And if it helps them in their faith journey to take that simple view of
the Bible, I say, "more power to them."
However, for the rest
of us, who are willing to consider the idea that the infinite God may bring
about his purposes in far more complex ways than our simple minds can possibly
imagine, it is helpful to have a deeper view of how the Bible could be written
by so many authors from so many different perspectives over so many centuries,
yet still be woven into a single, coherent book that is the inspired Word of
I believe that, far
from casting doubt on its divine origin, the fact that the Bible was written and
formed over so many centuries through so many human minds was part of God's plan
in molding it into a book that would provide a true link between the Creator and
the people whom he created. In fact, if the Bible were written at a single time
by a single author, I would have to question how a book that had such a narrow
source could possibly express the vast nature of God to the highly varied human
individuals and cultures that populate our earth. In writing the Bible through
so many human authors over so many centuries, God ensured that it could speak to
all human beings in all centuries. No matter where we may happen
to be in our lives and on our spiritual journey, we will find something in the
Bible that corresponds to what we are going through today, at this very moment.
This thought begins
to open up for us what makes the Bible the Word of God from a Swedenborgian
perspective. The Bible is not simply a book full of commandments that God
proclaims and we must obey. Yes, we do need to obey God's commandments as found
in the Bible. But at a much broader and deeper level, the Bible is a two-way
means of communication between God and human beings on earth.
God can speak to us through the Bible. But how can we speak with God through the
Let's look first at
how God speaks to us through the Bible. Obviously, in the literal story of the
Bible God gives us many teachings and commandments that we are meant to take to
heart and follow in our lives. The Ten Commandments. The Sermon on the Mount.
But what about all
that ancient Jewish history and all those awful wars? What about those laws for
sacrifice and other religious rituals that we no longer follow? What about the
Creation story in Genesis, which contradicts so much of what we know from
science about the origins of the earth, and the plant and animal life on it? Are
these merely ancient human texts, or can we somehow hear God's voice speaking
through them with a message intended for us personally, about the issues and
struggles we are facing in our lives right now?
believe that much of the Old Testament has been superseded by the life and
teachings of Jesus in the New Testament. Yet Jesus himself said, in our text:
Do not think that I have come to
abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to
fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the
smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear
from the Law until everything is accomplished. (Matthew 5:17, 18)
The Law and the
Prophets were the two most sacred of the three divisions of Hebrew Scripture.
When Jesus mentioned them, he was referring to the books of Genesis, Exodus,
Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy (which are "the Law"), and Joshua,
Judges, 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings, and the four "Major
Prophets" and twelve "Minor Prophets" (which are "the
Prophets") as found in the Old Testament. Elsewhere (in Luke 24:44) he
added the Psalms to the books that "must be fulfilled." And if Jesus
tells us in the New Testament that these Old Testament books are still sacred
and must be fulfilled, then our task is to discover just how they are
sacred, and how the Lord fulfills his mission and message to us through them.
This is where we turn
to the theological works of Emanuel Swedenborg for help and enlightenment.
Although the presence of deeper layers of meaning in Scripture is hinted at in
the Bible itself--especially in Jesus' use of parables and his explanations of
their deeper meanings to his disciples--what remained unknown throughout many
centuries of Christianity was that the entire Bible is a parable with
deeper meanings that relate entirely to the nature of God and to our own
Since we could not
find the key to this deeper, spiritual meaning for ourselves, it was necessary
for God, in the fullness of time, to open the spiritual eyes of a chosen servant
and through that person, guide us into the knowledge of the deeper meanings of
Scripture. This, we believe, is what the Lord accomplished through Emanuel
Swedenborg over two centuries ago. And the light that Swedenborg's writings have
thrown on those books that formerly seemed so old and outdated cannot be
compared to any other Bible commentaries.
Of course, if you
haven't read any of Swedenborg's writings, you'll just have to take my word for
it. However, a couple of brief examples may help to illustrate what I mean.
First of all, what
about those wars? In the literal meaning, they are very brutal--not pleasant
reading at all. And yet, don't we each experience brutal struggles within
ourselves at various times during our lives? Don't we struggle at times with our
own anger, or depression, or discouragement, or addictive tendencies? When we
start reading those Old Testament battles as metaphors for the battles that go
on in our own souls over whether we will be ruled by God and the better side of
our nature, or by the evil and destructive forces that would tear us down and
ruin us, those old battles suddenly come alive with new and personal meaning!
Or what about the
Creation story? If, instead of remaining stuck in the idea that the first
chapter of the Bible is about the literal creation of the physical universe, we
think of it as the story of the creation and formation of our own souls, then
once again, the story comes alive with very personal meaning for each one of us
today. When we first set out on our spiritual journey, we are spiritually
formless and void, waiting and hoping for the Lord to shape us into new people.
And each one of us, as we move forward on our spiritual journey, finds that the
Lord is continually creating new stages and new chapters in our story. All of
these stages lead toward the day when God will fully re-create us as new human
beings in his divine image--meaning that we live, not from self-absorbed and
materialistic motives, but for the joy of following God's wisdom and expressing
God's love. When we reach this stage, we are at the seventh day of rest--rest in
the experience of God's presence within us.
If we begin to look
at the Bible in this way, with the help of Swedenborg's writings we will
discover the Bible as one great parable that tells our spiritual story from
beginning to end. All the stages of our life are represented there, from Genesis
through Revelation. And on every step we take along the way, we can find help
and insight in the spiritual story that unfolds through the histories and
prophecies, the poetry and stories of the Word of God.
explanation only scratches the surface of the many and varied ways that God
speaks to each one of us personally through the pages of the Bible. But we must
move on to the question of how can we speak to God through the
This we do, not so
much in the literal printed pages of the Bible as through the way we write the
message of the Bible on the pages of our hearts and lives. When we allow
ourselves to be opened up and enlightened by God's personal message to us in the
Bible, it is a life-changing experience. That experience causes us to become new
people. We look on everyone around us with more understanding, kindness, and
compassion. We begin treating them with more respect and more love. And we
devote our lives more and more to serving our fellow human beings out of the
pure joy of providing for their happiness. And as Jesus tells us in the Gospels,
whatever we do for the least of our brothers and sisters, we do for him (Matthew
This is how we speak
to God through reading God's Word. We speak through the living language of our
lives. We enter into a beautiful conversation with God as we learn to show God's
love to one another, and in this way return God's love back to the Creator from
which it comes.
As the Psalmist said,
"Your decrees are my heritage forever; they are the joy of my heart. I
incline my heart to perform your statutes forever, to the end." Amen.