Explanation(s) or references from Swedenborg's works:
Bible Studies:The Nexus, Part 3: Internal Work
By Rev. William Woofenden
"Repent ye; for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." Matthew 3:3
Additional readings: Isaiah 1:1-20
In the childhood of the human race, before men had departed from right ways of life, heaven was near to them. They could be led directly by the Lord, for their hearts and minds were open to him. Of this Golden Age of the human race it is written, "Man walked with God." But we have all read in the history of the human race as revealed in the Scripture the account of how many departed from the way of life and, following the devices of his own heart, closed his mind to the direct reception of goodness and truth from the Lord, until finally he reached a state in which all true knowledge of God and heaven was lost.
Then the Lord came to bring salvation to mankind, and preparation for His reception was made through John the Baptist, the messenger sent in fulfillment of a prophecy given centuries before. John’s message is our text: "Repent ye, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." And when John was put to death, and the Lord began His active ministry in the world, the words of our text were also His first message. For He came to make clear the way of life, and wrong ideas held possession of the minds of men then, as they do of many minds today.
It is not by chance that this first message turns our thoughts to heaven. The purpose of our creation is that we may so live that we shall find our homes in heaven. Belief in heaven had been lost, along with the knowledge about it. And today belief in heaven is for the most part vague, and many think that eternal life does not mean personal existence in the spiritual world, but only the persistence of one’s influence in this world. Great men like Homer, Plato, Moses, Shakespeare, Gladstone, Lincoln, Pasteur, and many others perpetuate themselves in the influence they exert in the minds of living men. This, they say, is what is meant by immortality, by everlasting life. But we should realize that this type of everlasting life is open to the evil as well as to the good. A Diocletian may be remembered forever as well as the beloved Apostle. We need to know the truth that men and women, as individuals, live forever after death in the spiritual world.
But this is not the implication of the text which I have chosen for consideration this morning." The kingdom of heaven is at hand." We know that heaven is not in some remote part of the natural sky, that we cannot say, "Lo, here, or Lo, there" (Luke 17:21). But we are still apt to think of it as far away. We are also inclined to think of it as remote in time. We speak commonly of the "future" world. In the thought of some even, it lies at the indefinitely remote time, when they expect a general resurrection along with others; death is the gateway of heaven, but heaven still seems too distant to be of much practical and present interest.
But the truth is that heaven is far away neither in space nor in time. It is here, it is now, it is "at hand." We live in it now, or we may do so. It is a present reality, the most real and the most important element of the life we are now living. When we speak of heaven, and of living for heaven, we are not, as some charge, setting our hearts on something far away, and despising the real world in which we now are. If one lives for a far-off heaven — and no doubt some have lived so — he may be careless of this world’s joys and sorrows, of opportunities for usefulness, keeping his eyes fixed on some vision of the future. But we may live for heaven and still live thoroughly in the present. We ought to value heaven as the most real of present realities. The Gospel is true: "The kingdom of heaven is at hand."
We are taught in the New Church that heaven is essentially a state of human feeling, thought and life, a state in which love to the Lord and love to the neighbor are the ruling motives. We are taught that no outward paradise which could be made by human or by Divine skill would be a heaven if those affections were absent from the heart, that there is no real or lasting satisfaction except in the exercise of these affections. It follows that we can come into heaven in this world, and live in heaven while we live on earth, for we may learn here to love the Lord and one another, and to find our chief enjoyment in the exercise of these heavenly loves.
But this is an abstract way of speaking. Concretely, heaven is not merely a heavenly state in ourselves; it is the great world of human beings who are living in that state, those people in whose hearts are heavenly affections, whose minds are bright with spiritual light, and whose hands are busy with heavenly works. There are many such people in this world. There are countless more who have gone from the earth to the spiritual world, and are there living the same good life under freer and happier conditions. All these people are heaven.
When we have love to the Lord and the neighbor in ourselves, we are brought spiritually near to those in like affections, both of this world and of the spiritual world. It is not a figure of speech when we say that heaven is about us when we are in heavenly states. It is a literal and positive fact. Heaven is so really around us at such times that if it were granted to us, as it was to Elisha’s servant and to others in Bible days to have our spiritual eyes opened, we should see the angels who are our companions and the beautiful land in which they dwell. Among them we should see and recognize some who were dear to us on earth, who still love and help us, and there would be some whom we had not known before but who would from the first glance seem to us as old friends, because they have similar desires and thoughts. And we should recognize them as the source of our happiness.
The Lord created the world and all things in it. All things in the world were made for man to use and enjoy, from the very materials of the earth to all the myriad things of the vegetable and animal kingdoms, the beast of the field, the fowl of the air, and the fish of the sea. For man’s needs of food, clothing, shelter, for gratification of his senses, and the improvement of his mind these things were made. All these were created and given to man for blessings. But they are subject to one important condition: man must indeed labor to make these things of service to himself, but he must also use them in the service of others. Only so can he have any security or peace. The world of nature and of human beings is not for one man, or a few men, or a nation to control or exploit. Indeed we cannot rightly claim sovereignty over ourselves. We need the guidance of the Lord. And whatever under the Divine Providence we have been able to acquire, whether of material wealth, or of skill, or of learning, we did not acquire it by our unaided efforts. Our daily knowledge of the happenings in the world, our libraries, our schools are made possible by the labor of mind and body of other men and women, great or humble, living or dead. We depend on others and they on us, and life and security today, as always, depend upon the honesty and good will of the community in which we live.
Yet we should also realize that behind the labors and sufferings and the honesty and good will of men stands the Lord. Through His power alone man achieves progress. It is a law of the Divine Providence that man must act in freedom according to reason. This applies to the life of nations as well as to the life of individuals. But the Lord is present and operative always.
For infinitely wise and good reasons, the Lord does not draw the veil aside for us and allow us to see the heavenly world. Some argue that if only they could see heaven, they would believe in it. But to see that world as an outward, objective reality would destroy our freedom. We should be lured by its outward attractiveness, and it would be less possible for us to come into its true spirit.
When we are living in selfish and evil affections, we are in hell. Not only is hell within us at such times but it is also about us, not by a figure of speech, but actually. We are breathing its poisoned atmosphere and, if our eyes were opened, we should see the forms and faces of those who find their life in evil and who exult in influencing others to evil. Why, at least then, does the Lord not draw the veil aside and show us the terribleness of evil? The sight might for the moment frighten us, but we should be less able to shun evil freely because it is evil, and our power to escape permanently from it would be greatly lessened.
If we are tempted to question the Lord’s Providence in not revealing to us more openly the conditions of the good and evil in the spiritual world, we do well to remember His words, "They have Moses and the prophets, let them hear them….If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rose from the dead" (Luke 16:29-31).
The Lord said, "Seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness" (Matthew 6:33). We should seek those good things which endure forever, and should not sacrifice them for the sake of money or health or life itself. To acquire love to the Lord and to the neighbor is the only thing worth living for. Our business dealings should have as their motive the love of use, of service to others. The most necessary thing in making a home is having in it the sunshine of heaven. The only absolute requirement for our happiness as we go to and fro in the ways of the world is that heaven shall go with us. This is to live for heaven, and yet to live must fully in the present. This is the practical meaning of living for heaven.
It may be stated still more simply. Heaven is not heaven from locality, neither is it heaven from anything which belongs to the angels as their own. It is heaven from what is received from the Lord into the lives and hearts of the angels. To be near the Lord, not in place merely, but in heart, to feel the protection and peace of His presence is heaven. Heaven is being near to the Lord and keeping near to Him. There is no other heaven for men or angels.
"The kingdom of heaven is at hand." When John first spoke this message, the kingdom of heaven was in a special sense at hand, because the Lord had come to live with men and to make Himself accessible to them. A power to heal and bless went forth from the Lord during His life on earth. Men obsessed felt his saving power and sat at His feet clothed and in their right mind.
At the Transfiguration Peter said, "Lord, it is good for us to be here" (Matthew 17:4, Mark 9:5, Luke 9:33). In following the Lord, in hearing His Word and in doing His work, they were tasting of heaven. But we need to note that the mere physical nearness of the Lord did not make heaven. Some cried out with fear at His approach. It was not heaven to them. It was not heaven to those who followed Him to accuse and to betray Him. His presence was a blessing only to those who in some measure drew near to Him in spirit.
Even in the Lord’s coming on earth the kingdom of heaven was not forced on me. It was made accessible to them; it was brought within their reach.
It is brought within our reach. Just as there is no royal road to knowledge, there is no royal road to heaven. We must cease to do evil before we can learn to do well. Repentance, the willingness to recognize and acknowledge our faults and weaknesses and to struggle to overcome them opens the door. Heavenly life comes into the soul when selfish desires are replaced by kindly thoughts and the desire to serve. The Lord tell us to seek these heavenly virtues now, not for the sake of honor for ourselves, but that we may be really kind and helpful to others, that our lives may have something of the Lord’s love in them. Then we shall find that life here makes one with heavenly life, and that our Heavenly Father is the Source of happiness in both alike.
1861. 'And behold, a smoking furnace' means grossest falsity, and 'a flaming torch' the heat of evil desires. This is clear from the meaning of 'a smoking furnace' as gross falsity, and from the meaning of 'a flaming torch' as the heat of evil desires. The expression 'a smoking furnace' is used because anyone, especially a member of the Church, who has some knowledge of the truth, and yet does not acknowledge it but at heart denies it, and leads a life pursuing things that are contrary to the truth, is seen as nothing other than a smoking furnace, he himself as 'the furnace', and the falsity arising from his hatred as 'the smoke'. Evil desires out of which falsities arise are seen as nothing other than torches of fire from such a furnace, as is also clear from the representatives in the next life which have been described from experience in Arcana Coelestia 814, 1528. It is desires belonging to hatred, revenge, cruelty, and adultery - especially when mingled with deceit - that are seen as such and become such things.
 That in the Word such are meant by a furnace, smoke, and fire, becomes clear from the following places: In Isaiah,
Everyone is a hypocrite and wicked, and every mouth speaks folly. For wickedness burns like a fire, it consumes brier and thorn, and kindles the entangled boughs of the wood, and they surge up in an uprising of smoke. Through the wrath of Jehovah Zebaoth the earth has been darkened, and the people has become as fuel for the fire; a man will not spare his brother. Isaiah 9:17-19.
Here 'fire' stands for hatred, 'the rising up of smoke from it' for falsities of that kind. Hatred is described by the statement that 'a man will not spare his brother'. Such people, when looked at by angels, appear exactly like the things described here.
 In Joel,
I will give portents in the heavens and on earth, blood and fire, and columns of smote. The sun will be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before the great and terrible day of Jehovah comes. Joel 2:30-31.
Here 'fire' stands for hatred, 'columns of smoke 'for falsities, 'sun' for charity, and 'moon' for faith.
 In Isaiah,
The land will become burning pitch. Night and day it will not be quenched; its smoke will go up eternally. Isaiah 34:9-10.
'Burning pitch' stands for dreadful evil desires, 'smoke' for falsities.
 In Malachi,
Behold, the day is coming, burning like a furnace, and all the arrogant and every evil-doer will be stubble; and the day that is coming will burn them up; it will leave them neither root nor branch. Malachi 4:1.
'A burning furnace' stands for the same things as before. 'A root' stands for charity, 'a branch' for truth, which will not be left.
 In Hosea,
Ephraim has become guilty through Baal. It will be like chaff that is driven by the whirlwind from the threshing-floor, and like smoke from a chimney. Hosea 13:1, 3.
'Ephraim' stands for one with understanding who has become such.
 In Isaiah,
The strong will be as tow, and his work as a spark, and both of them will burn together, with none to quench them. Isaiah 1:31.
This stands for the fact that people governed by self-love - or what amounts to the same, by hatred against the neighbour - will be burnt up by their own evil desires. In John,
Babylon has become the dwelling-place of demons. Those cried out who saw the smoke of her burning. The smoke goes up for ever and ever. Revelation 18:2, 18; 19:3.
 In the same book,
He opened the pit of the abyss, from which there went up smoke out of the pit, like the smoke of a great furnace. And the sun was darkened, and the air, with the smoke of the pit. Revelation 9:2.
In the same book,
Out of the mouths of the horses there went forth fire, and smoke, and brimstone. By these a third part of mankind was killed - by the fire and by the smoke and by the brimstone which went forth out of their mouths. Revelation 9:17-18.
In the same book,
He who worships the beast will drink 1 from the wine of God's anger, poured unmixed as it is in the cup of His anger; and he will be tormented with fire and brimstone. Revelation 14:9-10.
In the same book,
The fourth angel poured out his bowl into the sun, and it was allowed to scorch men with fire; therefore men were burned by the fierce heat, and they blasphemed the name of God. Revelation 16:8-9.
And it is in like manner said that
They were thrown into the lake of fire burning with brimstone. Revelation 19:20; 20:14-15; 21:8.
 In all of these places 'fire' stands for the evil desires, 'smoke' for the falsities, which will reign in the last times. These thing as they actually exist in the next life were seen by John following the opening of his interior sight. Similar things are also seen by spirits, and by souls after death. These references show what hell-fire is, that it is nothing other than hatred, revenge, and cruelty, or what amounts to the same, self-love, which passes into such a visible form. As long as a person is in his bodily life, no matter how different his outward appearance might seem to be, he cannot be seen by the angels, when they look at him closely, in any other way than this; that is, his hatred is not seen by them except as 'flaming torches' nor the falsities coming from it except as 'smoking furnaces'.
 Of this fire the Lord speaks in Matthew as follows,
Every tree not bearing good fruit is cut down and cast into the fire. Matthew 3:10; Luke 3:9.
'Good fruit' is used to mean charity, and anyone who deprives himself of this 'cuts himself down and casts himself into such a fire'. In the same gospel,
The Son of Man will send His angels, who will gather out of His kingdom all offences, and those who work iniquity, and will send them into the furnace of fire. Matthew 13:41-42, 50.
Here the meaning is similar. In the same gospel,
The king will say 2 to those on his left hand, Depart from me, O cursed ones, into eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. Matthew 25:41.
Here the meaning is similar.
 Where it is said that they were to be sent into eternal fire, the Gehenna of fire, and that their worm does not die, and their fire is not quenched in Matthew 18:8-9; Mark 9:43-49, the meaning is similar. In Luke,
Send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am tormented in this flame. Luke 16:24.
Here the meaning is similar.
 People who have no knowledge of the arcana of the Lord's kingdom imagine that the Lord sends the wicked down into hell, that is, into the kind of fire which, as has been stated, is the manifestation of hatred. But the truth of the matter is altogether different, for it is the person himself, or the devil- spirit himself, who casts himself down. Yet because it appears as though the Lord casts down, it has been spoken of in the Word in that way - according to the appearance, indeed according to the illusions of the senses. This was especially necessary with the Jews, who were totally unwilling to accept anything if it did not coincide with their own sensory perceptions, no matter what illusions these might entail. This is why the sense of the letter, especially the prophetical sections, is full of such ideas, as in Jeremiah,
 Thus said Jehovah, Execute judgement in the morning, and deliver him who has been robbed from the hand of the oppressor, lest My wrath go forth like fire and burn with none to quench it because of the wickedness of their works. Jeremiah 21:12.
'Executing judgement' is declaring the truth. 'Delivering him who has been robbed from the hand of the oppressor' is doing a good work of charity. 'Fire' stands for the hellish punishment of those who do not do these things, that is, who pass their time clinging to falsity that is the product of hatred. In the sense of the letter such fire and anger are attributed to Jehovah, but in the internal sense it is quite the reverse.
 Similarly in Joel,
The day of Jehovah, fire devours before him, and behind him a flame burns. Joel 2:1, 3.
Smoke went up out of His nose, and fire out of His mouth devoured; glowing coals flamed forth from Him; and there was thick darkness under His feet. Psalms 18:8-9.
A fire has flared up in My anger, and will burn right down to the lowest hell, and will devour the land and its increase, and will set on fire the foundations of the mountains. Deuteronomy 32:22.
Here 'a fire' stands for the hatred, 'smoke' for the falsities, that reside with a person, which are attributed to Jehovah or the Lord for the reasons that have been stated. To the hells also it seems that Jehovah or the Lord does the things described, but quite the reverse is the case. It is they who do them because they dwell in the fires of hatred. From this it is evident how easily a person can sink into delusions if the internal sense of the Word is not known.
 It was similar with the smoke and fire which the people saw coming from Mount Sinai when the Law was given; for Jehovah or the Lord is seen by everyone according to his character and disposition. By celestial angels He is seen as the sun, by spiritual angels as the moon, by all who are good as light of varying delightfulness and loveliness; but by the evil as smoke and as devouring fire. And because the Jews had no charity at all when the Law was given, but self-love and love of the world reigned among them, and so nothing but evils and falsities, He was therefore seen by them as smoke and fire, while in the same instant He was seen by angels as the sun and heavenly light.
 The fact that He was seen thus by the Jews, because their character was such, is clear in Moses,
The glory of Jehovah dwelt over Mount Sinai. And the appearance of the glory of Jehovah was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain, before the eyes of the children of Israel. Exodus 24:16-17.
In the same book,
Mount Sinai was smoking, the whole of it, because Jehovah came down upon it in fire and its smoke went up like the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mountain quaked greatly. Exodus 19:18.
And elsewhere in the same author,
You came near and stood at the foot of the mountain while the mountain was burning with fire even to the heart of heaven, with darkness and cloud and thick darkness. And Jehovah spoke to you out of the midst of the fire. Deuteronomy 4:11-12; 5:22.
Also in the same,
When you heard the voice out of the midst of the darkness, and the mountain was burning with fire, you came near to Me and you said, Why should we die? For this great fire will devour us; if we hear the voice of Jehovah our God any more we shall die. Deuteronomy 5:23-25.
 The same would be the case if anyone else who spends his time hating and performing filthy deeds that are the product of hatred were to see the Lord. He would inevitably see Him from his own hatred and the filthy deeds that are the product of it. These things being the recipients of the rays of good and truth from Him, they would convert those rays into that type of fire, smoke, and thick darkness. The same places that have been quoted also show what' a smoking furnace' is, and what 'a burning torch' is, namely the grossest falsity and the filthiest evil which took possession of the Church in its last times.
(References: Genesis 15:17)