Three Testaments; One Word
The world’s most ancient literature is stories about God and creation. Across cultures and forms of expression, including pictorial writing, the earliest expressions are about God and how He created the earth. Now, the cynics of the world will observe that this means that the belief in the existence of God is merely the longest delusion humans suffer. Such people would say that our evolution has brought us to a stage of mental ability that allows us to escape such limiting ideas. Thus we need not hold a belief in an invisible force in order to make sense of our world.
And yet, such a paradigm cannot explain the very human condition it says explains our ability to think it! Explaining this is not the subject of worship. Rather, our glorification of the Lord comes from a desire for a much deeper foundation. Those who worship the Lord seek to connect to their infinite Creator who is desiring to communicate His love to us.
Through the ages, people have sought to know God through nature. Indeed, nature is a theater representative of God and His kingdom. Nature surely displays God because He is its source. And surely we experience His action of creating as we live in it. This is what attracts those who seek God in nature. And we have all felt a sense of love, holiness and even goodness in special moments in the forest, on the mountain or by the stream.
I was climbing up the final half mile of a peak in New Mexico. We started at dawn in order to get up and down before the heat of the day. There was no path. The rocks were more often than not boulders as big as cars that had to be gone over or around. We started at 10,000 feet, and in only a half hour and about another 1000 feet I quit, and the teenagers went on alone. I was too scared of falling and was going too slowly to keep up. I realized I was not enjoying the awesomeness of God’s handiwork, which was the whole point.
I climbed a final boulder and carefully turned and sat down. And then I looked up for the first time. I swear I could see Colorado and Texas! The sun rising in the east brought warmth, and a sensation of being in a huge space. I felt like I was in an epic story. The mountains to the north are the edge of my world. The plains to the south are an open invitation to eternity. The ever brighter light in the east is drawing me up and into its gravity. I am in God’s country. In fact, I am a full fledged member of His kingdom, His church.
“You established the earth, and it abides….I am Yours, save me!”
And then the realization comes: I cannot actually be joined with nature. We cannot have a mutual love with nature. We cannot feel nature dwelling in us, as our Creator does. We must know God in a very personal way if we are to fully, spiritually, experience His love for us. We must know Him as our Redeemer and Savior, not only as a rising sun, a force in or a source of, creation. God must reveal His love for us through nature in a way specifically adapted to our spirit.
These reflections lead our thought to a clear and powerful sense of the nature of the Lord’s Word. It is among the most ancient literature of the world. And yet its power and usefulness are not established simply by its age. It includes phrases, insights and epic stories know by billions all over the globe. It is still the most purchased book in our country. And yet its power and usefulness are not established by its familiarity or copies its in print. Rather, the Word connects our spirit, our feelings and thoughts, to our Creator in a living way, in the current events of our lives.
The Word is part of nature; it is part of our experience of the world outside of our minds. It is made of the same stuff as the rest of our experience here in the world. And yet it is absolutely unique in all of creation. It is not one example of a species within a genus, within a family. An Oak Tree, a Freshwater Trout, a Red Headed Woodpecker, a Great Ape, each is a unique example of its type. But there is only one Word in all of nature.
The Word communicates the Lord’s Divine love and Divine truth to our mind. The Word communicates them in such a way that we can understand the Divine love and truth, assent to them, adapt our behavior to them, and thus return them to their source. The Word establishes the process whereby we are reformed and regenerated. And then feel fully, genuinely, authentically alive. The Word makes possible our happy, heavenly life here and now and to eternity.
The Lord accomplishes this Divine feat by means of the Word by producing three Testimonies, or three collections of “little books” (the origin of the name “Bible”), for the three main stages of our regeneration. The Old Testament is generally adapted to our life of obedience to the law. The New Testament is generally adapted to our obedience to spiritual principles. And the Heavenly Doctrine for the New Church is adapted to our obedience to love.
On the level of external obedience to the law, which is what the Old Testament generally speaks to, life issues are pretty black and white. We are told to do such and such and not to do such or such. The instructions are simple, if harsh at times. Perhaps blunt is a better description.
Perhaps you have images of external obedience and the consequences of disobedience. A Dr. Skinner used controversial methods to control the environment of a child in the hopes of molding him. The reaction was a swing the other way, giving the smallest children a say in families’ decisions. In both cases, the spirit of the child was damaged. Current theories hold that children are not adults, and that we must not abuse them or stifle their spirits. It is a complicated process as all parents know.
I have one image of my cousin being whipped with a belt by his Dad. I don’t know the offense, it was likely serious, but the boy had tried to run away, and the Dad chased him down. Those two did not love each other much as adults. But I also remember disobeying and then disrespecting my Mother. I was sent to my room where I waited a couple of hours for my Dad to get home. And then, with careful explanation and a certain ritual, he spanked me with his belt. I am sure I learned the lesson of respecting my parents, although I have very few memories of wanting to rebel or disobey. I learned external obedience when I needed to, as a child.
What is your favorite Old Testament story, perhaps from childhood? For me it is Joshua, the brave army commander. He was faithful to the Lord. He saw an angel! He fought in battles and was victorious. Perhaps David fighting Goliath is your favorite story. He was just a boy, but his trust in the Lord made him brave! David was too small and weak to wear the king’s armor, but the Lord gave him all he needed. Some love the story of Deborah, a prophetess who was true to the Lord, regardless of the message she had to give. And she stood up for the Lord when others were afraid to do what was commanded.
Notice that, whatever story you remember, you have specific images in your mind. These pictures in your imagination are obviously based on what you have seen in the world. But you construct them. We each will have different mental images of the same story, based on our unique experience. Any story we delight in will have definite, clear pictures, images, and scenes in the imaginative level of our mind. I experienced this on the mountaintop. You have experienced it on the ocean or lake, or in the woods, or by a stream, or on the beach.
As adults, we certainly look for the message within the story, its moral. We might even seek to learn the internal sense of the story so that we may benefit from its description of the Lord or our regeneration that we find there. And yet, on the face of the story, according to its literal sense, the Lord is describing external obedience and disobedience and the consequences of both. The images we have are of statutes, promises, threats, rewards, punishments and a focus on what our external man is doing or ought to do. These images connect our notions and sensations to the Lord. Our imagination thus makes us ready to accept the influence of the Lord. The external part of our being can be saved because the Word has connected us to our Savior. The Old Testament is the first of the three because this external obedience is our first step.
Now, the stories of the New Testament make a connection on a different level of our being. The New Testament is generally adapted to our life of obedience to spiritual principles. We need this adaptation of the love and truth of Jesus Christ because He redeemed humans and glorified Himself. Our minds were by those means opened to a new level. Since Jesus opened a new level of the human mind by His spiritual work, and united of His Human with His Divine by glorifying Himself, our spirit is able to know and love a now visible God, and indeed we must if our spirit is to be regenerated, making us fit for heaven.
My earliest image of Jesus is a pretty common one: the minister who gave the children’s talks at church. My father would take me to this huge cathedral of stone. We would sit only a few rows back, but still the altar was far, far away; a massive block of glowing gold on a purple light. And then a man in shining white came forward and spoke with a booming voice. It was the Lord! The man may have spoken gently and even kindly, but I only remember the awe. In fourth grade, the last vestiges off that awe were dissipated when that same man–Rev. Stroh–came to our classroom to teach us religion and hymns!
What New Testament story challenges you in your obedience to spiritual principles? Perhaps it is the story we read about the bleeding woman. Her hemorrhaging is an image of how we can be unable to hold the Lord’s love and use it and effectively pass it on to others by loving them. We can, even in that desperate strait, find the Lord and reach out to Him in faith that He will heal us. We may have tried every device we could think of, using just about all our resources, spiritually and naturally, seeking a solution. But we continue to feel like our life is ebbing away. It is in this most desperate state that, having nothing else to do, we turn to the Lord. As awful as that sounds, that is the only state in which all the barriers are down, all the obstacles destroyed. It is when, in awe of our Lord as Jesus Christ, the Teacher, Miracle Worker and, especially, Healer, is accept Him as needed in our life.
What we have just done is used the literal sense to describe our spiritual situation. This is less about the black and white of obedience to the law, and more about our particular spiritual needs. It is about what is necessary to establish genuine morality in our spirit. When we discover these ideas, and let go of our own, and when we feel His mercy, and let go of our own desires, then we are ready to accept the influence of His love and truth. Our spirit may then be saved because the Word has connected us to our Savior. The New Testament is the second of the three collections of “little books” that become The Word, because our spiritual turning to Him is the next step after external obedience.
The Heavenly Doctrine for the New Jerusalem, which we call “The Writings” for convenience’s sake, is generally adapted to our life of obedience to love. We desire to feel that we are doing what is good, and not only to know that we are right. As the Writings say, we desire truth only from what is good, whereas earlier in our regeneration we wanted to be good based on the truth we knew. The Writings offer us an opportunity to be led directly by the Lord. We can have a confidence, indeed a sense, of His immediate influence.
We experience this state as being quite distinct from external laws or principles of truth. The law is still present in our lives. There is still part of us for which life is black and white. And our motives still determine the nature of our acts. We can do an action that, depending on our intentions, is either good or evil.
We now know that there is more to life than those behaviors and judgments. We want to love.
Perhaps like me you went through a stage in young adulthood of great idealism. A small group of us were convinced we could live together in a community of love. It was the early 1970’s, and we were going to form a kingdom! Several of us traveled to Chicago where we joined a few others. We consulted a minister, we decided on a form of government (I was elected king!), and we studied geography. I had a couple of good conversations with my Dad, who was appropriately encouraging. We found a likely spot, conveniently in beautiful western Canada. Two of the Chicago boys were going to go there later that summer to check it out. Well, the one with the truck had to work, and the other went MIT. Reality struck down our grand dream.
We want to have a relationship with the Lord and with other people that is based on a mutual desire to do what is good. This is the essence of charity. And we now have the means to accomplish this state. We have external laws to guide our behavior. We have a clear sight of the mercy of our God. And now we know that the Lord God Jesus Christ loves us and we know we can love Him. We know what it is to love someone else, and we know what it is to be loved by another.
The first passages of the first published book of the Writings, which we read, are about the Word. We are first told that the Old and New Testaments are the necessary first steps on the road to heaven. And we are further told that another step is needed: seeing the internal sense of the stories of the Old and New Testaments. We are shown how, if we don’t know this, we don’t know what the Word is, and will miss the opportunity the Word offers us. And the effects are described: and gradual decrease in belief in the Word, and lessening of attention to it, and a diminishing of obedience to it. The result is our choice to descend to a level more amenable to our spiritually impoverished state. Indeed, a descent into hell. The Lord is here offering an insight about how we can live the dreams of goodness that we love.
The Writings generally appeal to our reason. The Lord chose Emanuel Swedenborg because he was able to show with clear and simple logic the deep truths the Lord wants us to know. Swedenborg was certainly prepared for this mission. His upbringing, education, life experience and opened spiritual sight combined to make him an instrument fit for the task. He was not a perfect person. His mission did not require some advanced stage of regeneration, although Swedenborg was clearly enlightened.
And still, even in this Third Testament of the Word, a third collection of “little books,” we find wonderfully imaginative stories revealing deep truths. Perhaps you remember the scene Swedenborg used to tell us about the final effects of greed. Three men sit around a table upon which is a pile of gold. They each speak as though this is all the gold in the whole world and they each say that all of it is theirs! This is clearly absurd and insane. And yet, one of them says, “We each of us know that ‘all this is mine;’ yet no one of us is allowed to think, still less say, ‘my things are not yours,’ but we are permitted both to think and say, ‘your things are mine.’”
The Writings use such scenes along with complicated discussions of abstract ideas to provide us a rational explanation of the laws and spiritual principles the other two Testaments provide. This rational explanation communicates the Lord’s love and truth to the highest part of our minds, thus opening even the highest, deepest levels of the human spirit to the influence of the Lord’s love and truth. Thus our spiritual man, although hidden in our body and imagination, is saved. And thus the Heavenly Doctrine for the New Church is the third Testament of the Lord.
This is the Lord’s Word. Here the Lord’s love is more, and less, hidden. It is a parable from beginning to end. Each jot and tittle–its smallest parts–bring God’s love present on the earth and in our spirits. How else can the Word contain the Law? How else can it be a lamp by which we may walk the road to heaven? How else could it cause miracles, as it did when the Israelites crossed the Jordan? How else could it be in the beginning and create the world, as John says it does? How else could the Jesus promise in the Word to lift us into the light and warmth of heaven, put away all our sin, heal us, and make it possible to experience heavenly joy to eternity?
It is the Word, and it does all this because it is all connected to the Divine itself. To the Divine love and the Divine wisdom. The Lord God Jesus Christ, the one God of heaven and earth, finds a way to express His love by creating and sustaining life, including our human, free and eternal life.
The promise is thus sure. Take the Word to you heart and you will be rescued. You will be healed. You will be lifted up. The Word will be a lamp for your feet–physical, moral and spiritual. The Word will bind up the wounds of your spirit. Its truth will enlighten your path. Its love will motivate your thoughts and actions.
Write a short story of your own. Base it on an experience you have during the day. Now, imagine that that story is a fable, with a meaning and moral. What do you think it means? And then go step further: notice the feelings you have had during the process. Are you concerned? Do you rejoice in the beauty life? Do you get angry at yourself? In the end, you can find a delight in your story as a revelation of your own spiritual journey!
Let us find ways to bring all these testimonies into our lives. Let us support each other in this great work. Let us share what the Word has done for us, giving the gift of delight, encouragement and hope to all those we can influence. We will also then be participating in the upbuilding of His church on earth as others discover what the Word has to offer them.
We will join the Psalmist giving glory to the Lord: “I will never forget your precepts, for by them You have given me life. I am Yours; save me!” (Psalm 119:93, 94).