The Bible

Matthew 3:1-12 : John the Baptist (Matthew)

Study the Inner Meaning

1 In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judaea,

2 And saying, Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.

3 For this is he that was spoken of by the prophet Esaias, saying, The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.

4 And the same John had his raiment of camel's hair, and a leathern girdle about his loins; and his meat was locusts and wild honey.

5 Then went out to him Jerusalem, and all Judaea, and all the region round about Jordan,

6 And were baptized of him in Jordan, confessing their sins.

7 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees come to his baptism, he said unto them, O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come?

8 Bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance:

9 And think not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father: for I say unto you, that God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham.

10 And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: therefore every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire.

11 I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance: but he that cometh after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire:

12 Whose fan is in his hand, and he will throughly purge his floor, and gather his wheat into the garner; but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.

Study the Inner Meaning

Commentary on this chapter:

Stories:

Explanation(s) or references from Swedenborg's works:

Arcana Coelestia 794, 1017, 1861, 2371, 2708, 3301, 3540 ...

Apocalypse Revealed 315, 350, 378, 400, 553, 749, 839 ...

Doctrine of the Lord 15, 30, 51

Doctrine of Life 93, 104

Heaven and Hell 570

True Christian Religion 113, 144, 468, 483, 668, 677, 684 ...

Show references from Swedenborg's unpublished works


Commentary

The Kingdom of Heaven is at Hand

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.

From Swedenborg's Works

Arcana Coelestia #9372

Arcana Coelestia (Elliott translation)

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9372. 'And He said to Moses' means something concerning the Word in general. This is clear from the representation of 'Moses' as the Word, dealt with below; and from the meaning of 'He said', which includes all that follows in the present chapter, thus things concerning the Word in general, Arcana Coelestia 9370. The fact that Moses represents the Word may be recognized from what has often been shown already regarding Moses, for instance in the Preface to Genesis 18, and in Arcana Coelestia 4859 (end), Arcana Coelestia 5922, 6723, 6752, 6771, 6827, 7010, 7014, 7089, 7382, 8601, 8760, 8787, 8805, which please see. At present Moses represents the Word in general, because what follows says in reference to him, that he alone was to come near Jehovah, verse 2, and also that he was called from the middle of the cloud, went into it, and went up the mountain, verses 16, 18.

[2] In the Word there are many who represent the Lord in respect of God's truth or the Word; but the chief among them are Moses, Elijah, Elisha, and John the Baptist. The fact that Moses does so may be seen in the explanations referred to just above; the fact that Elijah and Elisha do so may be seen in the Preface to Genesis 18, and in Arcana Coelestia 2762, 5247 (end); and the fact that John the Baptist does so is clear from His being 'the Elijah who is to come'. Anyone who does not know that John the Baptist represented the Lord in respect of the Word cannot know what it is that all the things said about him in the New Testament imply and mean. Therefore to lay bare this arcanum and at the same time the truth that Elijah as well as Moses, who were seen when the Lord was transfigured, meant the Word, let some of the things recorded regarding John the Baptist be introduced here, such as these words in Matthew,

After John's messengers went away Jesus began to speak about John, saying, What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? But what did you go out to see? A person clothed in soft garments? Behold, those who wear soft garments are in kings' houses. But what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one of whom it has been written, Behold, I send My angel before your face, who will prepare your way before you. Truly I say to you, among those born of women there has not been raised up one greater than John the Baptist; but one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. All the prophets and the law prophesied until John. And if you are willing to believe it, he is the Elijah who is to come. He who has an ear to hear, let him hear. Matthew 11:7-15; Luke 7:24-28.

No one can know how to understand these things unless he knows that this John represented the Lord in respect of the Word, and unless he knows from the internal sense what is meant by 'the wilderness' in which he lived, also what is meant by 'a reed shaken by the wind' and by 'soft garments in kings' houses'; then what is meant by the statement that he was 'more than a prophet', and that 'among those born of women' there was none greater than he, and yet 'one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he'; and finally the announcement that he was 'the Elijah'. For without some deeper meaning all this sounds like a mere comparison and not anything more profound.

(References: Arcana Coelestia 2135)


[3] It sounds altogether different however when the Lord in respect of the Word, or one representing the Word, is understood by John. Then 'the wilderness of Judea' in which John lived means the state in which the Word resided at the time when the Lord came into the world, namely in the wilderness, that is, in obscurity so great that the Lord was not acknowledged at all and nothing whatever was known about His heavenly kingdom, even though all the prophets prophesied about Him and about His kingdom which would last forever. The fact that 'the wilderness' means such obscurity, see Arcana Coelestia 2708, 4736, 7313. The Word is therefore compared to 'a reed shaken by the wind' when it is explained at will; for 'a reed' in the internal sense is truth on its last and lowest level, which is what the Word is in the letter.

[4] The Word on the lowest level or in the letter looks to human sight to be rough and dull, but in the internal sense it is soft and shining. This is meant by the words that they did not see 'a person clothed in soft garments. Behold, those who wear soft garments are in kings' houses'. The fact that such things are meant by these words is evident from the meaning of 'garments' or clothes as truths, see Arcana Coelestia 2132, 2576, 4545, 4763, 5248, 6914, 6918, 9093, as a result of which angels appear clothed in garments soft and shining, in keeping with the truths springing from good that reside with them, Arcana Coelestia 5248, 5319, 5954, 9212, 9216; and also from the meaning of 'kings' houses' as the places where angels dwell, and in the universal sense as the heavens. For 'houses' are so called by virtue of good, Arcana Coelestia 2233, 2234, 3128, 3652, 3720, 4622, 4982, 7836, 7891, 7996, 7997, and the word 'kings' is used in regard to truth, Arcana Coelestia 1672, 2015, 2069, 3009, 4575, 4581, 4966, 5044, 6148. Therefore angels are called the children of the kingdom, the king's children, and also kings, by virtue of their reception of truth from the Lord.

(References: Arcana Coelestia 2233-2234, 7996-7997)


[5] The Word is greater than any doctrinal teachings in the world and greater than any truth in the world. This is meant by the words, 'What did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet' and 'among those born of women there has not been raised up one greater than John the Baptist'. For 'a prophet' in the internal sense means doctrinal teachings, Arcana Coelestia 2534, 7269, and 'those born of women' are truths, Arcana Coelestia 489, 491, 533, 1147, 2623, 2803, 2813, 3704, 4257.

[6] The Word in its inward sense or as it exists in heaven is in a degree above the Word in its outward sense or as it exists in the world and as John the Baptist taught it. This is meant by the statement that 'the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he'; for the Word perceived in heaven possesses wisdom so great that it surpasses all human understanding. Prophecies concerning the Lord and His Coming, and things representative of the Lord and His kingdom were brought to an end when the Lord came into the world. This is meant by the words that 'all the prophets and the law prophesied until John'.

[7] The Word was represented by John as it had been by Elijah. This is meant by the statement that he is 'the Elijah who is to come', and also by the following in Matthew,

The disciples asked Jesus, Why do the scribes say that Elijah must come first? He answering said, Elijah will indeed come first and restore all things. I say to you that Elijah has come already, and they did not acknowledge him but did to him whatever they wished. In the same way too will the Son of Man suffer at their hands 1 . And they understood that He had spoken to them about John the Baptist. Matthew 17:10-13.

'Elijah has come, and they did not acknowledge him but did to him whatever they wished' means that the Word indeed taught them that the Lord was going to come, but that they were nevertheless unwilling to have a right understanding of this; they interpreted it as support for their own dominion and in so doing eliminated what was of God within it. The fact that much the same would happen to God's truth itself is meant by the words 'In the same way too will the Son of Man suffer at their hands', 'the Son of Man' being the Lord in respect of God's truth, see Arcana Coelestia 2803, 2813, 3704.

[8] All this now shows how to understand the prophecy regarding John in Malachi,

Behold, I send you Elijah the prophet before the great and terrifying day of Jehovah comes. Malachi 4:5.

The Word on the lowest level or as it is in the outward form seen by people in the world is also described by 'the garments' John the Baptist wore and by 'the food' he ate, in Matthew,

John the Baptist preaching in the wilderness of Judea had a garment of camel hair and a skin girdle around his waist; his food was locusts and field honey. 2 Matthew 3:1, 3, 4.

Much the same is said of Elijah in 2 Kings 1:8, that he was a hairy man, and wore a girdle of skin around his loins. When it has reference to the Word 'a garment' or piece of clothing means God's truth there in its lowest form; 'camel hair' means true factual knowledge such as is seen there by people in the world; 'a skin girdle' means the outward connecting bond, holding all the interiors in order; 'food' means spiritual nourishment derived from cognitions or knowledge of truth and good obtained from the Word; 'locusts' means the lowest or most general truths, and 'field honey' the pleasantness of them.

[9] The origin of these meanings of 'garments' and 'food' lies in representatives in the next life. There all are seen wearing clothes in accord with their truths derived from good; and also food there is represented in accord with their desires to have knowledge and wisdom. So it is that 'a garment' or piece of clothing means truth, see the places referred to above in this paragraph, while 'food' means spiritual nourishment, Arcana Coelestia 3114, 4459, 4792, 5147, 5293, 5340, 5342, 5576, 5579, 5915, 8562, 9003; 'a girdle' means a bond gathering the interiors together and holding them within itself, Arcana Coelestia 9341 (end), 'skin' means what is external, Arcana Coelestia 3540, so that 'a skin girdle' means an external bond; 'hair' means the lowest or most general truths, Arcana Coelestia 3301, 5569-5573, 'camel' means factual knowledge in general, Arcana Coelestia 3048, 3071, 3143, 3145, 4156, consequently 'camel hair' means true factual knowledge obtained from the Word; 'locust' means truth nourishing the outermost levels, Arcana Coelestia 3301(end), 3 and 'honey' its pleasantness, Arcana Coelestia 5620, 6857, 8056, the words 'field honey' being used because 'the field' means the Church, Arcana Coelestia 2971, 3317, 3766, 7502, 7571, 9139, 9295. A person who does not know that such things are meant cannot possibly know why Elijah and John were clothed in that manner; yet anyone with correct ideas about the Word can think that such clothing was a sign of something peculiar to those prophets.

[10] Since John the Baptist represented the Lord in respect of the Word, he also said of himself - when he spoke about the Lord, who was the Word itself - that he was not Elijah, nor the Prophet, and that he was not worthy to untie the latchet of the Lord's shoe, in John,

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us; and we saw His glory. Jews from Jerusalem, priests and Levites, asked John who he was. He confessed, and did not deny, I am not the Christ. They therefore asked him, What then? Are you Elijah? But he said, I am not. Are you the Prophet? He answered, No. Therefore they said to him, Who are you? He said, I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord, as the prophet Isaiah said. They said therefore, Why then do you baptize if you are not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet? He answered, I baptize with water; among you stands One whom you do not know. It is He who will come after me, who was before me, the latchet of whose shoe I am not worthy to untie. When he saw Jesus he said, Behold, the Lamb of God who bears away the sin of the world. This is He of whom I said, After me comes a Man (Vir) who was before me; for He was prior to me. John 1:1, 14, 19-30.

From these words it is evident that when John spoke about the Lord Himself, who was God's truth or the Word itself, he said that he himself was not anything; for when the light itself makes its appearance the shadow disappears, that is, the representative disappears when the image itself makes its appearance. Representatives had regard only to what they represented, namely holy things and the Lord Himself, and no regard whatever to the person who represented them, see Arcana Coelestia 665, 1097 (end), Arcana Coelestia 1361, 3147, 3881, 4208, 4281, 4288, 4292, 4307, 4444, 4500, 6304, 7048, 7439, 8588, 8788, 8806. The person who does not know that representatives vanish as shadows do at the presence of the light cannot know why John said that he was not Elijah or the Prophet.

[11] All this now makes plain what was meant by Moses and Elijah, who were seen in glory, and who spoke to the Lord, when He was transfigured, about His departure which He was about to complete in Jerusalem, Luke 9:29-31. That is to say, the Word was meant by them - the historical section of the Word by 'Moses' and the prophetical part by 'Elijah' - the subject of which everywhere in the internal sense is the Lord, His Coming into the world, and His Departure from the world. This explains why it says that Moses and Elijah 'were seen in glory', for 'the glory' is the inward sense of the Word, and 'the cloud' the outward sense, see Preface to Genesis 18, and Arcana Coelestia 5922, 8427.

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Footnotes:

1. literally, from them
2. i.e. wild honey, honey found in the field
3. This reference is incorrect; possiblyArcana Coelestia 7643 (end) is intended, or Arcana Coelestia 9331 (end).

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(References: Arcana Coelestia 2135; Exodus 24:1-2)

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