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.
2708. 'And dwelt in the wilderness' means that which is obscure comparatively. This is clear from the meaning of 'dwelling' as living, dealt with in Arcana Coelestia 2451, and from the meaning of 'a wilderness' as that which possesses little life, dealt with in Arcana Coelestia 1927, here as that which is obscure comparatively. By that which is obscure comparatively is meant the state of the spiritual Church in comparison with the state of the celestial Church, that is, the state of those who are spiritual in comparison with the state of those who are celestial. Those who are celestial are moved by the affection for good, those who are spiritual by the affection for truth. Those who are celestial possess perception, whereas those who are spiritual possess the dictate of conscience. To those who are celestial the Lord appears as a Sun, but to those who are spiritual as a Moon, Arcana Coelestia 1521, 1530, 1531, 2495. The light which the former have - enabling them to see good and truth from the Lord with their eyes as well as to perceive it - is like the light of the sun in the daytime; but the light which the latter have from the Lord is like the light of the moon at night, and so, compared with those who are celestial, these dwell in obscurity. The reason for this is that those who are celestial dwell in love to the Lord, and so in the Lord's life itself, whereas those who are spiritual dwell in charity towards the neighbour and in faith, and so, it is true, in the Lord's life but in a rather more obscure way. All this explains why those who are celestial never reason about faith or the truths of faith, but because a perception of truth from good exists with them, simply say, 'That is so', whereas those who are spiritual talk and reason about the truths of faith because a conscience for what is good received from truth exists with them. A further reason for this difference is that with those who are celestial the good of love has been implanted in the will part of their minds, where man's chief life resides, but with those who are spiritual it has been implanted in the understanding part, where man's secondary life resides. This is the reason why, compared with the celestial, the spiritual dwell in obscurity, see Arcana Coelestia 81, 202, 337, 765, 784, 895, 1114-1125, 1155, 1577, 1824, 2048, 2088, 2227, 2454, 2507. This comparative obscurity is here called 'a wilderness'.
(References: Arcana Coelestia 1530-1531)
 In the Word 'a wilderness' can mean that which is sparsely inhabited and cultivated, or it can mean that which is totally uninhabited and uncultivated, and so is used in two senses. When it means that which is sparsely inhabited and cultivated, that is, where there are few dwellings, and where there are sheepfolds, pastures, and waters, it means that thing or those persons who, compared with others, have little life and light, as is the case with that which is spiritual or those who are spiritual in comparison with that which is celestial or those who are celestial. When however it means that which is totally uninhabited and uncultivated, that is, where there are no dwellings, sheepfolds, pastures, and waters, it means those who have undergone vastation as regards good and desolation as regards truth.
 That 'a wilderness' can mean that which, compared with other places, is sparsely inhabited and cultivated, that is, where there are few dwellings, and where there are sheepfolds, pastures, and waters, is clear from the following places: In Isaiah,
Sing to Jehovah a new song, His praise from the end of the earth, those that go down to the sea, and the fullness of it, the islands and their inhabitants. The wilderness and its cities will lift up [their voice]; Kedar will inhabit the settlements, 1 the inhabitants of the rock will sing, they will shout from the top of the mountains. Isaiah 42:10-11.
I will make with them a covenant of peace and I will banish the evil wild animal from the land, and they will dwell securely in the wilderness and sleep in the woods, and I will give them and the places around My hill a blessing. The tree of the field will give its fruit, and the earth will give its increase. 2 Ezekiel 34:25-27.
This refers to those who are spiritual. In Hosea,
I will bring her into the wilderness and will speak tenderly to her; and I will give her her vineyards from it. Hosea 2:14-15.
This refers to the desolation of truth and to the comfort that follows later.
 In David,
The folds of the wilderness drip, and the hills gird themselves with rejoicing; the meadows clothe themselves with flocks, and the valleys are covered over with grain. Psalms 65:12-13.
I will make the wilderness into a pool of water, and the parched land into streams of water. I will put in the wilderness the shittim-cedar, and the myrtle, and the oil tree. I will set in the wilderness the fir, that men may see and know, and may consider and understand together, for the hand of Jehovah has done this, and the Holy One of Israel has created it. Isaiah 41:18-20.
This refers to the regeneration of those who have no knowledge of the truth, that is, gentiles, and to the enlightenment and teaching of those who have experienced desolation. 'The wilderness' is used in reference to these. 'The cedar, the myrtle, and the oil tree' stands for the truths and goods of the interior man, 'fir' for those of the exterior man. In David,
Jehovah turns rivers into a wilderness, and streams of waters into dryness. He turns a wilderness into a pool of water, and parched land into streams of water. Psalms 107:33, 35
Here the meaning is similar. In Isaiah,
The wilderness and the dry land will be glad for them, and the lonely place will rejoice and blossom like the rose. It will bud prolifically. Waters will break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the lonely place. Isaiah 35:1-2, 6.
In the same prophet,
You will be like a watered garden and like a spring of waters whose waters do not fail; and those that be of you will build the wilderness of old. Isaiah 58:11-12.
In the same prophet,
Until the spirit is poured out on us from on high, and the wilderness will become Carmel, and Carmel counted as a forest. And judgement will dwell in the wilderness and righteousness on Carmel. Isaiah 32:15-16.
This refers to the spiritual Church which, though inhabited and cultivated, is, in comparison [with the celestial Church], called 'a wilderness', for it is said that 'judgement will dwell in the wilderness and righteousness on Carmel'. It is evident from the places just quoted that 'a wilderness' means an obscure state compared with other states not only because it is described as 'a wilderness' but also as 'a woodland'; and an obscure state is plainly the meaning in Jeremiah,
O generation, observe the word of Jehovah. Have I been a wilderness to Israel, or a land of darkness? Jeremiah 2:31.
 That 'a wilderness' can mean that which is totally uninhabited and uncultivated, that is, where there are no dwellings, sheepfolds, pastures, and waters, and so can mean those who have experienced vastation as regards good and desolation as regards truth, is also clear from the Word. This kind of wilderness is used with two different meanings; that is to say, it may be used in reference to those who are subsequently reformed or in reference to those who are unable to be reformed. Regarding those who are subsequently reformed, such as Hagar and her son represent here, it is said in Jeremiah,
Thus said Jehovah, I have remembered you, the mercy of the days of your youth, your going after Me in the wilderness, in a land not sown. Jeremiah 2:2.
This refers to Jerusalem, which in this case means the Ancient Church that was spiritual. In Moses,
The portion of Jehovah is His people, Jacob is the line of His inheritance. He found him in a wilderness land and in the waste, the howling, the lonely place. He encompassed him, led him to understand, and kept him as the pupil of His eye. Deuteronomy 32:9-10.
They wandered in the wilderness, in a desolate way; they did not find an inhabited city. Psalms 107:4.
This refers to those who have experienced desolation of truth and are being reformed. In Ezekiel,
I will bring you to the wilderness of the peoples and I will enter into judgement with you there, as I entered into judgement with your fathers in the wilderness of the land of Egypt. Ezekiel 20:35-36.
This likewise refers to the vastation and desolation of those who are being reformed.
 The travels and wanderings of the Israelites in the wilderness represented nothing else than the vastation and desolation prior to reformation of those who have faith. It consequently represented the temptation of them, for when people undergo spiritual temptations they experience vastation and desolation, as may also become clear from the following in Moses,
Jehovah carried you 3 along in the wilderness, as a man carries his son, in [all] the way [you went], until [you reached] this place. Deuteronomy 1:31.
And elsewhere in the same book,
You shall remember all the way in which Jehovah your God has led you forty years already in the wilderness to afflict you, to tempt you, and to know what is in your heart, whether you will keep His commandments or not. He afflicted you, caused you to hunger, caused you to eat manna which you do not know nor your fathers knew, so that you may recognize that man does not live by bread only but that man lives by all that goes out of the mouth of Jehovah. Deuteronomy 8:2-3.
And further on in the same chapter,
Do not forget that Jehovah led you in the great and terrible wilderness where there were serpents, fiery snakes, and scorpions, parched places where there was no water, and that He brought you water out of the rock of flint. He fed you in the wilderness with manna which your fathers did not know, that He might afflict you, tempt you, to do you good in the end. Deuteronomy 8:15-16.
Here 'wilderness' stands for the vastation and desolation such as people experience who undergo temptations. Their travels and wanderings in the wilderness for forty years describe every state of the Church militant - how when it is self-reliant it goes under but when it relies on the Lord it overcomes.
 The description in John of the woman who fled into the wilderness means nothing else than temptation experienced by the Church, referred to as follows,
The woman who brought forth the male child fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God. To the woman were given two wings of a great eagle, so that she might fly into the wilderness, into her own place. And the serpent poured water like a stream out of his mouth after the woman, to swallow her up in the river. But the earth helped the woman, for the earth opened its mouth and swallowed the stream which the dragon poured out of his mouth. Revelation 12:6, 14-16.
 That 'a wilderness' may be used in reference to a totally vastated Church and to people totally vastated as regards good and truth who are unable to be reformed may be seen in the following in Isaiah,
I will make the rivers a wilderness; their fish will stink for lack of water and will die of thirst; I will clothe the heavens with thick darkness. Isaiah 50:2-3.
In the same prophet,
The cities of Your holiness were a wilderness - Zion was a wilderness, Jerusalem lay waste. Isaiah 64:10,
I looked, and behold, Carmel was a wilderness, and all its cities were destroyed from before Jehovah. Jeremiah 4:26.
In the same prophet,
Many shepherds have spoiled My vineyard, they have trampled down [My] portion, they have made the portion of My delight into a desolate wilderness. They have made it into a desolation; desolate, it has mourned over Me. The whole land has been made desolate, for nobody takes it to heart. On all the slopes in the wilderness those who lay waste have come. Jeremiah 12:10-12.
Fire has devoured the folds of the wilderness, and flame will burn up all the trees of the field. The streams of water have dried up, and fire has devoured the folds of the wilderness. Joel 1:19-20.
In Isaiah, He made the world like a wilderness and destroyed its cities. Isaiah 14:17.
This refers to Lucifer. In the same prophet,
The prophecy concerning the wilderness of the sea. Like storms in the south it comes from the wilderness, from a terrible land. Isaiah 21:1 and following verses.
'The wilderness of the sea' stands for truth that has been vastated by facts and by reasonings based on these.
 All these places show what is meant by the following reference to John the Baptist,
It was said by Isaiah, The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare a way for the Lord, make His paths straight. Matthew 3:3; Mark 1:3; Luke 3:4; John 1:23; Isaiah 40:3.
These words imply that at that time the Church was so totally vastated that no good and no truth remained any longer. This is quite evident from the fact that nobody at that time knew of the existence in man of anything internal, or of anything internal in the Word, so that nobody knew that the Messiah or Christ was coming to save them for ever. The places quoted above also show what is meant by the statement that John was in the wilderness until the time of his manifestation to Israel, Luke 1:80, that he preached in the wilderness of Judea, Matthew 3:1 and following verses, and that he baptized in the wilderness, Mark 1:4; for by this he also represented the state of the Church. From the meaning of 'a wilderness' it may also be seen why the Lord retired so often into the wilderness, as in Matthew 4:1; Matthew 15:32-end; Matthew 15:Mark 1:12-13, 35, 45; 6:31-36; Luke 4:1; 5:16; 9:10 and following verses; John 11:54; and also from the meaning of 'a mountain' why the Lord retired into the mountains, as in Matthew 14:23; 15:29-31; 17:1 and following verses; 28:16-17; Mark 3:13-14; 6:46; 9:2-9; Luke 6:12-13; 9:28; John 6:15.
1. literally, courts. The Hebrew may mean courts or else villages which Swedenborg has in another place where he quotes this verse.
2. The Latin means fruit but the Hebrew means increase which Swedenborg has in other places where he quotes this verse.
3. The Latin means them but the Hebrew means you.