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.
3540. 'And she put the skins of the kids of the she-goats' means the external truths clothing homeborn good. This is clear from the meaning of 'skins' as external things, dealt with below, and from the meaning of 'the kids of the she-goats', coming as they did from the flock bred within the homestead, as the truths which clothe homeborn good, dealt with in Arcana Coelestia 3518, 3519, where it is also evident what homeborn good is and what truths from that source are. Any good whatever has its own truths, and any truths whatever have their own good. And they must be joined together - good to truths - if anything at all is to exist. The reason why 'skins' means external things is that the skin is the outer covering of an animal to which its exterior parts extend, even as the skin or the cuticles is such with a human being. The latter receives its spiritual meaning from what is representative in the next life, where there are people who belong to the province of the skin. These will in the Lord's Divine mercy be described at the ends of chapters below where the Grand Man will be presented as a separate subject. They are people in whom none but external good and the truths which go with this are present. This is why the skin, human or animal, means things that are external. The same is also evident from the Word, as in Jeremiah,
On account of the greatness of your iniquity your skirts have been uncovered, your heels have suffered violence. Can the Ethiopian change his skin and the leopard its spots? Also are you able to do good, having been taught to do evil? Jeremiah 13:22-23.
Here 'skirts' means external truths, 'heels' the lowest goods - 'the heel' and 'shoes' being the lowest natural things, see Arcana Coelestia 259, 1748. And because those truths and goods, as it is said, spring from evil, they are compared to an 'Ethiopian', who was black, and his 'skin', and also to 'a leopard and its spots'.
(References: Arcana Coelestia 3518-3519)
 In Moses,
If you take your neighbour's clothing as a pledge you shall restore it to him before the sun goes down; for this is his only covering; it is his clothing for his skin, in which he will lie down. Exodus 22:26-27.
Inasmuch as all the laws contained in the Word, including civil and judicial ones, have a correspondence with laws in heaven concerning what is good and true, and from this correspondence came to be laid down, so it was with the law just quoted. For why else would it have ever been laid down that they were to restore clothing that had been pledged before the sun went down, and why else is it said that 'it is his clothing for his skin, in which he lies down'? The correspondence is evident from the internal sense, which is that people were not to cheat their neighbour of external truths, which are the matters of doctrine by which they conduct their lives, and also religious observances - 'clothing' meaning such truths, see Arcana Coelestia 297, 1073, 2576, and 'the sun' the good of love or of life that ensues from those truths, Arcana Coelestia 1529, 1530, 2441, 2495. The prevention of that good from perishing is meant by the statement about the restoration of the pledge before the sun went down. And since the things laid down in those laws are the external coverings of interior things, or the outermost aspects of these, the words 'his clothing for his skin in which he lies down' are used.
(References: Arcana Coelestia 1529-1530)
 Because 'skins' meant external things it was commanded that there should be for the tent a covering made of red ram skins and over that a covering of badger skins, Exodus 26:14. For the tent was representative of the three heavens, and so of the celestial and spiritual things of the Lord's kingdom. The curtains enveloping it represented natural things, which are external, Arcana Coelestia 3478; and these are the ram skins and the badger skins. And since external things are those which cover internal, or natural things are those which cover spiritual and celestial, in the way that the body does the soul, that command was therefore given. It was for a like reason commanded that when the camp was on the move Aaron and his sons were to cover the ark of the testimony with the veil and were to place a badger-skin covering over it. And over the table and what was on it they were to spread a twice-dyed scarlet cloth and then cover that with a badger-skin covering. They were likewise required to place the lampstand and all its vessels under a covering made of badger skin - also all the vessels for ministering they were to place under a violet cloth, and then cover them with a badger-skin covering, Numbers 4:5-6, 8, 10-12. Anyone who thinks about the Word in a devout way may see that Divine things were represented by all these objects, such as the ark, the table, the lampstand, and the vessels for ministering, also the coverings of twice-dyed scarlet and of violet, as well as the coverings of badger skin, and that these objects represented Divine things contained within external ones.
(References: Numbers 4:5-12)
 Because the prophets represented those who teach, and therefore represented teaching from the Word concerning what is good and true, Arcana Coelestia 2534; and because Elijah represented the Word itself, Arcana Coelestia 2762, as also did John, who for that reason is called the Elijah who is to come, Matthew 17:10-13; and in order that these might represent the nature of the Word in its external form, that is, in the letter,
Elijah wore a skin girdle around his loins. 2 Kings 1:8. And John had a garment of camel hair and a skin girdle around his waist. Matthew 3:4.
Because animal 'skin' and human 'skin' means external things, which in relation to spiritual and celestial are natural things, and because it was customary in the Ancient Church to speak and to write by means of meaningful signs, reference is also made to both types of skin, and with the same meaning, in Job, a book of the Ancient Church. This becomes clear from a number of places in that book, including the following,
I know my Redeemer; He is alive; and at the last He will rise above the dust; and afterwards these things will be encompassed by my skin, and out of my flesh shall I see God. Job 19:25-26.
'Encompassed by skin' stands for the natural as it exists with someone after he has died, dealt with in Arcana Coelestia 3539. 'Out of one's flesh seeing God' is doing so from a proprium made alive. For the proprium is meant by 'flesh', see 148, 149, 780; and the Book of Job is a book of the Ancient Church, a fact which is evident, as has been stated, from its style which draws on representatives and meaningful signs. It is not however one of the books called the Law and the Prophets, the reason being that it has no internal sense in which the one subject is the Lord and His kingdom. For it is this alone that determines whether any book is a Book of the true Word.