Preparing the Way
1. And in those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea,
2. And saying, “Repent ye; for the kingdom of the heavens is near.”
3. For this is he that was declared by Isaiah the prophet, saying, “The voice of him that cries in the wilderness, ‘Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make His paths straight.’”
4. And the same John had his clothing of camel’s hair, and a leather belt about his loins; and his food was locusts and wild honey.
5. Then went out to him Jerusalem, and all Judea, and all the countryside of the Jordan,
6. And were baptized by him in the Jordan, confessing their sins.
7. And seeing many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming upon his baptism, he said to them, “Brood of vipers, who has shown you to flee from the anger to come?
8. Therefore make fruits worthy of repentance;
9. And think it not right to say within yourselves, ‘We have Abraham [for our] father,’ for I say to you that God is able of these stones to raise up children to Abraham.
10. And already also the axe is laid to the root of the trees; therefore every tree which makes not good fruit is cut down, and cast into the fire.
11. I indeed baptize you with water to repentance; but He that comes after me is stronger than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to carry; He shall baptize you with [the] Holy Spirit and with fire,
12. Whose fan [is] in His hand; and He will purge His floor, and gather His wheat into the barn, and will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
Taking up residence in Nazareth of Galilee, as we have seen, represents a state of receptivity to basic truth. It is that place in each of us which is eager to receive the truth when it hears it without filtering it through confusing theological systems that can introduce distortions. It represents our earliest states of receptivity before our understanding is corrupted by misleading teachings, faulty reasoning, and selfish desires (Herod and Herod’s son).
Herod and his son were the great Roman kings of Judea. This was also the land of the entrenched religious establishment. It was a time of widespread corruption in both religion and politics. In sacred scripture, then, Judea represents a spiritual state in which ideas and attitudes — many of which are diametrically opposed to the teachings of genuine religion — are deeply embedded in people’s consciousness; these false idea and negative attitudes must first be uprooted before spiritual progress can begin.
The uprooting of false religious principles is now represented by the coming of John the Baptist — the central figure of this new episode. 1
The focus now shifts not only from Jesus to John the Baptist, but also from Nazareth to Judea. This is the land of the political authorities and religious leaders. Interestingly, Judea — the region that included the thriving metropolis of Jerusalem — is described as a “wilderness.” We read, “In those days, John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea” (3:1). This accurately describes the state of religion and politics in the land of Judea at that time — a spiritual wilderness. 2
In order to have an accurate idea of what is being represented spiritually, we need to understand what the biblical writers meant by the term, “wilderness.” It does not refer (as it often does today) to a place of unspoiled growth with flourishing trees, fertile fields, and untamed wildlife. On the contrary, the biblical writers used the term “wilderness” to describe a barren place where nothing useful is produced. While Judea may have been flourishing materially, it is nevertheless called a “wilderness” because all truth was being destroyed, and spiritual values could not take root. In terms of authentic spirituality, it was more like a barren desert than a lush forest. Religious leaders ruled with an iron hand, teaching people the traditions of men rather than the commandments of God.
While the religious leaders may have thought that they were teaching people the way to heaven, they were greatly mistaken. That’s why John the Baptist’s message is so alarming to the religious establishment: “Repent,” he says, “for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (3:2). Apparently, the religious leaders were not promoting the kingdom of heaven. Like it or not, repentance would be necessary.
But what is repentance?
The term usually suggests feeling sorry for what we have done. It is related to words like “penitent,” (a person who is sorry for his actions), “penance” (atoning for sins), and “penitentiary” (a place where people are sent to reflect on their transgressions). While these concepts are certainly a part of repentance, it includes much more. Not only does it involve recognizing, acknowledging and feeling guilty for our sins, but it also involves prayer to God, and the resolve to begin a new life in which sinful thoughts and behaviors are put away. 3
To put away “sinful thoughts and behaviors” is to reject any thought or behavior that is opposed to the Ten Commandments. This is what prepares the way for the Lord.
John the Baptist, then, represents the basic teachings of the Word. Those who heed his warning will be baptized — that is, they will wash themselves by means of the truths of the letter of the Word. This is called a baptism by water, because water represents divine truth — especially the clear, refreshing, life-giving truths of the literal sense. These are the truths that give us spiritual life, just as water gives us natural life. 4
But the letter of sacred scripture is filled with spirit. Therefore John says, “I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (3:11).
Spiritually understood, John’s baptism, is an introduction to the most basic truths of scripture (baptism of water). When we strive to live according to these truths from faith, we undergo a baptism of the Holy Spirit. But when we strive to live according to these truths from love, believing that the power to do so comes from God alone, we undergo a baptism of fire. It is the fire of God’s love blazing in us. 5
When this fire arises in us, we no longer live according to the truth because of mere obedience; nor do we live according to the truth because we see and understand that it is true; rather, we live according to the truth because we love living according to the truth. This is the baptism of fire.
Love to the Lord is spiritual fire. 6
It is a fire that gives life. But when self-love and love of possessing the things of the world supplants a holy love to the Lord, a different kind of fire sets in — an “unquenchable fire” which leads to spiritual death. In sacred scripture this is described as the Lord separating the useful wheat from the useless chaff: “He will gather his wheat into the garner; but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (3:12). 7
Why Jesus Needed to be Baptized by John
13. Then comes Jesus from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him.
14. But John forbade Him, saying, “I have need to be baptized by Thee, and comest Thou to me?”
15. And Jesus answering said to him, “Let [it] now [be so]; for thus it is becoming to us to fulfill all justice.” Then he let Him.
In the literal narrative, Jesus now approaches John. This is a picture of the spiritual sense of the Word (Jesus) approaching the literal sense (John), seeking to be baptized. But John tries to prevent Him, saying “I have need to be baptized by You, and You are coming to me?” (3:14). John has good reason to be hesitant. He knows that Jesus lives according to a higher degree of spirituality than anything that John can confer upon Him through baptism. So, why would Jesus need to be baptized by John? After all, Jesus already contains the divinity that governs the universe and provides all things.
But this inner divinity is still clothed in fallible humanity — the heredity nature that Jesus took on through His birth into the world. If humanity had remained in its original pristine state, there would be no need for John the Baptist, or the written Word, or even the Lord’s physical advent. Humanity would have known intuitively and directly the inmost truths of heaven, and would have lived according to them. People would have acknowledged God’s presence and leading at all times, fully believing that life is from God alone and not from themselves. Over the course of many years, however, and through many generations, people came to believe that life originated with themselves rather than being a gift of God. This is represented by Adam’s eating from “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” 8
As people gradually turned away from God, believing the appearance that life is from themselves, they fell away from their original state of spontaneous love for God and for the neighbor. In theological terms this is referred to as “the fall of man” and “Adam’s sin.” 9
In accommodation to this “fallen state” of humanity, and as a means of leading us back to our original awareness of God as the source of our life, it was provided that a written Word be given — the Word of God — to help lift humanity from its fallen condition. In this way, through the acquisition of truth which could be applied to life, humanity would have the chance to regain its original integrity. This would take place first through learning the literal truths of sacred scripture (being baptized by John), and later through learning and living the spiritual truths of sacred scripture (being baptized by the Holy Spirit and by fire).
In spite of the provision of a written Word, humanity continued to fall away from its original state. And as humanity continued to fall, it no longer read, studied, or understood the scriptures. Those who did read them — the religious leaders — began to twist and pervert the Word so as to serve their own ends. As a result, God could no longer reach humanity directly (as He had done in the beginning), or even indirectly through the Word. He had to come in Person, clothed in finite humanity.
Like each of us, He had to be born, to learn, to be baptized, and thus to enter upon His spiritual path according to order. Even though Jesus was God Incarnate, His life on earth would be a gradual process of casting off all that He had derived from the mother (everything that pertained to the corrupt loves of self and the world), gradually replacing those corrupted desires with pure divinity from the “Father” within Him — His Divine Soul.
This process would begin by learning truths from the literal sense of the Word — signified by being baptized by John the Baptist in the Jordan River. In this way it was altogether fitting, and necessary, that Jesus be baptized by John. This is meant by Jesus’ words, “Permit it to be so now, for thus it is fitting to fulfill all righteousness” (3:15).
Each of us must go through a similar process, beginning with learning the simple truths of the literal sense of the Word (John the Baptist), and then applying them to our lives (Jesus). This is exactly what Jesus does, beginning where each of us must begin — with baptism, and moving gradually onward and upward. Just as Jesus gradually glorifies His humanity and becomes more fully divine, we gradually shed our inhumanity and become more fully human.
Interestingly, the words, “Permit it to be so now,” are the first words spoken by Jesus in Matthew, as well as His first recorded action. His words and this initial action indicate humility — the willingness to freely submit Himself to baptism.
These first words and this first action contain a great lesson: even Jesus needs to first learn the truths of the letter of the Word. There are times in our lives, too, when we might feel that we have “outgrown” religion, or no longer need the simple truths of the Word. But we are greatly mistaken to believe that we no longer need those basic truths. Like Jesus, we must “permit it to be so now.” We must continue to learn those basic truths, more and more deeply, so that we can continue to learn and grow.
The Heavens are Opened
16. And Jesus, being baptized, went up straightway out of the water; and behold, the heavens were opened to Him, and he saw the spirit of God descending as a dove, and coming upon Him;
17. And behold, a voice out of the heavens saying, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”
As we begin to learn, study and apply the simple truths of the letter of the Word to our lives, something wonderful happens. We read, “Then, Jesus, when He had been baptized, came up immediately from the water; and behold the heavens were opened to Him” (3:16).
The “opening of the heavens” refers to the opening of the inner meaning of the Word, the understanding of the spiritual sense which is contained within the literal words. Normally, this takes a considerable amount of time as new insights come to us through long years of study and application. But for Jesus, whose soul is Divine, this happens “immediately.” We read, “And he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting upon Him. And suddenly a voice came from heaven, saying, ‘This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased’” (3:16-17). 10
Jesus being baptized by John represents the coming together of the spiritual sense of the Word (Jesus) and the literal sense of the Word (John the Baptist). The result is that the heavens are opened. The same is true when the externals of our life are in agreement with spiritual principles. The natural and the spiritual become one, and we experience the kingdom of God. The spirit of God comes upon us and “the heavens are opened.”
Our spiritual progress, while similar to the process that Jesus goes through, is much slower. And while it is true that we have His divine aid every step of the way, there are still obstacles to overcome and problems to deal with. Truths from the literal sense of the Word do indeed initiate the process for us, but we must strive to put them to use. Inevitably, we will meet opposition, because there are parts of ourselves that resist living in accordance with these truths. This resistance, in which our inherited and acquired patterns of selfishness are aroused, is called “temptation.” Because we now know what is true, we must compel ourselves to live accordingly.
Along with the acquisition of truth comes the opportunity to either confirm ourselves in it, or, if we choose, to turn away from it. This time of decision is called “temptation.” It is a moment in our life — and there will be many such moments — when we can make a newly learned truth “our own” by actually using it. As we mature, and as our love for God and for others deepens, the temptations will also deepen — to the point where it sometimes may feel like we are giving up our very lives. The greater the love, the greater the temptation. The more we love, the more we grieve. 11
While this can be a most grueling process, it is also most necessary. That’s because we become spiritual beings through the process of temptation, a process which begins as we learn the truth (baptism) and then struggle to live according to it.
Accordingly, as soon as Jesus’ baptism is accomplished, He is immediately tempted by the devil. The truth that He has learned cannot merely remain in the memory. It has to be tried in the fires of temptation. And so, as our divine narrative continues, the baptism by water leads to trial by fire.
1. This is the first mention of John the Baptist. It will be important to keep in mind that John the Baptist represents the straightforward teachings of the literal sense of the Word. For example, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Like camel’s hair, these teachings come across as harsh, coarse and inflexible. They are “tough as leather.” Here how Swedenborg explains the representation of John the Baptist: Apocalypse Explained 619:16: “John the Baptist represents the exteriors of the Word [literal meaning of scripture], which are natural, like his clothing…. namely, camel’s hair and the leather belt about his loins…. The Word in its most exterior sense is called ‘the sense of the letter’ or ‘the natural sense,’ for this is was what John represented.”
2. Apocalypse Explained 730:4: “In the Word ‘wilderness’ and also ‘solitude’ and ‘waste places’ are mentioned in many passages, and these signify the state of the church when there is no longer any truth in it because there is no good. This state of the church is called a ‘wilderness’ because in the spiritual world the place where those dwell who are not in truths because they are not in good is like a wilderness, where there is no verdure in the plains, nor harvest in the fields, nor fruit trees in the gardens, but a barren land, parched and dry.” [This is the usual significance of the term “wilderness.” However, Swedenborg also describes it as a wild, uninhabitable place filled with dangerous animals — thus a correspondence of hell. See, for example, Apocalypse Explained 730:42]
3. True Christian Religion 528: “Actual repentance is examining oneself, recognizing and acknowledging one's sins, praying to the Lord, and beginning a new life.”
4. Apocalypse Revealed 378: “The Lord washes or purifies a person by the Divine truth…. ‘Water’ signifies the truth of the Word, which becomes good by living a life according to it.”
5. Arcana Coelestia 9229: “‘Baptizing with the Holy Spirit’ means regenerating by means of the good of faith; and ‘baptizing with fire’ means regenerating by means of the good of love.”
6. Arcana Coelestia 7950:2 “The good of charity is like a flame from which is light; for good is of love, and love is spiritual fire, from which comes enlightenment.”
7. Arcana Coelestia 4906: “Good is actually spiritual fire, from which comes the spiritual heat which vivifies, and evil is the fire and the consequent heat which consumes…. This spiritual fire or heat which produces life becomes a burning and consuming fire with the evil, for with them it is turned into this kind of fire.”
8. True Christian Religion 48: “‘The tree of the knowledge of good and evil’ signifies a person who believes that life is from oneself, and not from God; in other words, that love and wisdom, charity and faith, that is, good and truth in the person and belong to the person rather than to God. People believe this because in whatever they think and will, say and do, they seem and appear to behave exactly as if they did so of themselves. So since they go so far as to persuade themselves that they are God, the serpent said: ‘God knows that on the day you eat of the fruit of that tree your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil’”
9. True Christian Religion 444: “People were created so that everything they will, think and do appears to be inside them and so to come from them. Without this appearance a person would not be a human being, for people could not receive, retain or make as it were their own any trace of good and truth, or of love and wisdom. It follows from this that unless this were exactly the appearance, a person could not be linked with God, and so no one could have everlasting life. However, if this appearance induces people to believe that they themselves, and not the Lord, are the source of what they will, think and do, however much it looks as if they are the source, they turn good in themselves into evil and so produce a source of evil in themselves. This is called ‘Adam’s sin.’”
10. In Swedenborg’s translation, it is John the Baptist who sees the dove and hears the voice — not Jesus. In True Christian Religion 164, he writes: “When Jesus was baptized, behold, the heavens were opened, and John saw the Spirit of God coming down like a dove, and alighting upon Him; and a voice from heaven saying, ‘This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.’” This is also consistent with what is written in John: “And John bore witness, saying, ‘I saw the spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on Him’” (John 1:32).
11. Arcana Coelestia 1690:3: “All temptation is an assault upon the love in which a person is, and the temptation is in the same degree as is the love.”