By the Rev. Lee Woofenden

Bridgewater, Massachusetts, May 20, 2001




Isaiah 29:9-14 A sealed scroll for blinded readers

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."


Revelation 5:1-10 The scroll and the Lamb

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."


The Heavenly City #252-254 The Bible: a divine revelation

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.


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?" (Revelation 5:1, 2)

Much of the Book of Revelation is concerned with judgment. Those who have turned away from God are judged for hell, and those who have followed God are judged for heaven. Chapter four, which we read last week, and chapter five, from which we read today, 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 the 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.

Now obviously, the words describing Isaiah's vision were available to read; it is very unlikely that they were kept literally sealed up so that no one could read them. No, Isaiah 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, because 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 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, plainly visible. 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 probably very boring.

So the Bible reaches out to us right where we are in vivid, concrete 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 a part of the consciousness of our society.

And 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 even the 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 them 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 many other conundrums found in the Bible, the simple trust in the Bible as God's teacher of truth that we may have developed as children if we were brought up in the church gives way to many questions that we must struggle with if we are to continue to accept the Bible as God's Word in our adult lives. And in fact, millions of people have abandoned the Bible and the Christian Church, not because they are evil, ungodly people, but because they simply can't reconcile many of the teachings and stories of the Bible--not to mention the use that some Christians make of its teachings--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 week, I was brave or foolhardy enough to send the webmaster of that site a link to the online version of last week's sermon. 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.

And to give credit where credit was due, he actually did follow the link and read most of the sermon. Needless to say, he didn't like it very much! And he sent me a message saying just why he didn't like it. Among other things, he brought up a common charge brought against us by Fundamentalists and 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.

Naturally, I couldn't resist replying. And on this issue, 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 rather vague foreshadowings of the doctrine that was later stated more specifically.

In particular, this is true of the Trinity of Persons in God, which was first stated as a required belief for all Christians in the creed produced by the Council of Nicea in 325 AD. This Council was called by the emperor Constantine in order to form a faith that would become the state religion of the Roman Empire. So the division of God into three Persons was done as part of an effort to make Christianity serve the worldly use of empire-building. From that human-derived 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--which is the second essential teaching of our church? 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 of the 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 to the extent that 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, and 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 supporting and defending genuine Biblical Christianity. Once false teachings become popular, and 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 however much we may 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 through 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, in our reading from The Heavenly City, 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 himself. 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 in which 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 from our own needs.

The Bible does not say the same thing to every person who reads it because each person who reads it 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. For those who are scraping the bottom of life's barrel, the Bible speaks 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. For those who have progressed well along on the spiritual path, so that their hearts and minds are open to the thoughts of the angels, the Bible becomes a book in which the literal meaning is almost transparent, the deeper love and wisdom of God showing through everywhere--even in places where other people 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 memorable 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 and believe in the Lord, and go to the Bible to learn how to live as the Lord wants us to, we will be able to open up that treasure chest, and find spiritual riches beyond anything we have ever imagined. Amen.

 

 


To Part 1

To Part 3

 

Background Courtesy of:

Music: Prism: Color of Love
Bruce DeBoer

Rose Icon Image Courtesy of:

Rose Icon Photo Tube Courtesy of: