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.
9828. 'And a belt' means a common bond to ensure that everything has the same end in view. This is clear from the meaning of 'a belt' or girdle as a common bond; for it gathers together, encloses, holds in connection within itself, and strengthens everything within, which without it would fall apart and drift away. The reason why it is a common bond whose purpose is to ensure that everything has the same end in view is that in the spiritual world the end in view holds sway, so much so that everything there should be called an end. For the Lord's kingdom, which is a spiritual world, is a kingdom of useful services, and such services there are ends in view, so that it is a kingdom of ends. But the ends there follow one another in various order, and they also stand in association with one another. The ends which follow one another are called middle ends, but those which stand in association with one another are called associate ends. All these ends have been so linked together and made subordinate to one another that without exception they have one end in view. This end is the Lord; and in heaven, among those who accept it, it is a love of and faith in Him. Love there is the end in view of all the powers of the will there, and faith is the end in view of all the powers of thought, which are those of the understanding.
 When every single thing has the same end in view all things are then held in uninterrupted connection and make one; for everything is then under the eye, government, and providence of the One who, acting in accord with the laws of subordination and association, turns everyone towards Himself, and thereby joins them to Himself. At the same time He turns all to face their companions, and thereby joins them to one another. This explains why the faces of all who are in heaven are kept turned towards the Lord, who is the Sun there, and so is the centre point in front of everyone's eyes; and the marvel is that He is there in whatever direction angels turn round to face, Arcana Coelestia 3638. And since the Lord is present within the good of mutual love and within the good of charity towards the neighbour - for all are loved by Him, and are joined to one another by Him through love - their regard for their companions, which that love gives them, also serves to turn them towards the Lord.
 Those things therefore on last and lowest levels, gathering others together and enclosing them so they may be held, every single one, in such connection, were represented by belts or girdles, which in the spiritual world are nothing other than the forms of good and the truths present on lowest or outermost levels which enclose more internal ones. Celestial forms of good on lowest or outermost levels were represented by girdles that went around the loins, and spiritual forms of good and truths on those levels by girdles that went around the thighs and also around the breast.
 Such things are meant by 'girdles around the loins' in the following places: In Jeremiah,
Jehovah said to the prophet, Buy yourself a linen girdle, and place it over your loins; but you are not to pass it through water. I therefore bought a girdle, and placed it over my loins. Then the word of Jehovah came to me, saying, Take the girdle, and go away to the Euphrates, and hide it in the cleft of a rock. At the end of many days I went away to the Euphrates, and took the girdle, and behold, it was ruined; it was profitable for nothing. Then Jehovah said, This people is evil, refusing to hear My words; and they have gone after other gods. Therefore they will be just like this girdle that is profitable for nothing. Jeremiah 13:1-12.
'A linen girdle' here is used to mean in the spiritual sense the Church's good, which encloses the truths there and holds them in connection within itself. The non-existence of the Church's good at that time, and the consequent dispersal of its truths, are the reason for its being said that the girdle was not to be passed through water; for 'water' means truth that purifies and thereby restores. 'The cleft of a rock' in which it was hidden is falsified truth; 'the Euphrates' is the full extent and boundary of the celestial realities that belong to good on its lowest level. Anyone unacquainted with the essential nature of the Word may think that the passage is no more than a comparison of the people and their ruination with a girdle and its ruination. But in the Word all comparisons and metaphorical ways of speaking are real correspondences, Arcana Coelestia 3579, 8989. Unless each detail in this description were of a correspondential nature the prophet would never have been told not to pass the girdle through water, or to place it over his loins, or to go to the Euphrates and hide it there in the cleft of a rock. The reason why it says that the girdle should be placed over his loins is that by 'the loins', because of their correspondence, is meant the good of celestial love, Arcana Coelestia 3021, 4280, 5050-5062. A girdle placed over the loins accordingly means being joined to the Lord through the good of love, the Word serving as the intermediary.
 The meaning of 'a girdle' as good that acts as a boundary and holds things together is also evident in Isaiah,
There will come forth a shoot from the trunk of Jesse. Righteousness will be the girdle of His loins, and truth the girdle of His thighs. Isaiah 11:1, 5.
This refers to the Lord. 'Righteousness' that will be 'the girdle of His loins' is the good of His love, which protects heaven and the Church. The requirement stated in Exodus 12:11 that when the children of Israel ate the Passover their loins were to be girded means that all things should be present in their proper order, made ready to receive good from the Lord and to take action, Arcana Coelestia 7863. This explains why those who have been made ready are said to be 'girded', as is also said of the seven angels in the Book of Revelation,
Out of the temple came the seven angels having the seven plagues, clothed in linen, white and splendid, and girded around their breasts with golden girdles. Revelation 15:6.
 It is said of Elijah in 2 Kings 1:8 that he was a hairy man and wore a girdle of skin around his loins. Much the same is said of John,
John had a garment of camel hair and a skin girdle around his waist. Matthew 3:4.
The reason why Elijah and John were clothed and girded in this way was that both men represented the Word, and therefore their clothes mean the Word in its external sense, which is the natural sense. For 'hair' means the natural, Arcana Coelestia 3301, 5247, 5569-5573, and 'camels' general facts within the natural, Arcana Coelestia 3048, 3071, 3143, 3145. And 'skin' means the external, Arcana Coelestia 3540, so that 'a girdle of skin' means that which collects together, encloses, and holds in connection the things within itself. For the representation of Elijah as the Word, see Preface to Genesis 18, and Arcana Coelestia 2762, 5247 (end), and John the Baptist similarly, Arcana Coelestia 9372.
(References: Arcana Coelestia 2135)
 Since truths and forms of good are dissolved and dispersed by wicked deeds it says of Joab that after he had tricked and killed Abner he put the blood of war on his girdle that was on his loins, 1 Kings 2:5. This means that he dispersed and destroyed such truths and forms of good. This accounts for its being said, when truths have been dispersed and destroyed, that instead of a girdle there will be a falling apart, and instead of well-set hair, baldness, Isaiah 3:24. This refers to the daughters of Zion, by whom forms of good belonging to the celestial Church are meant. 'Instead of a girdle, a falling apart' stands for the dispersal of celestial good.
 It is also said in Ezekiel of Oholibah, who is Jerusalem, that when she looked at men portrayed on the wall, images of Chaldeans portrayed in vermilion, girded with girdles on their loins, she fell in love with them, Ezekiel 23:14-16. Here truths which have been rendered profane are meant, for 'the Chaldeans' are those who outwardly claim to believe in truths but inwardly repudiate them, and in so doing render them profane. 'Men portrayed on the wall' are the appearances of truth in outward things, as in like manner are 'images portrayed in vermilion'. 'Girdles' with which their loins were girded are the forms of good which they fake to induce belief in their truths.
 From all this it may now be clear what it was that girdles gathering garments into one served to mean in the representative Church. Yet the natural man can scarcely be brought to believe that such things were meant, because he finds it difficult to put aside the natural idea of a girdle, and in general of garments, and instead adopt a spiritual idea, which is that of good holding truths in connection within itself. For the natural level on which a person sees things holds the mind down on that level, and it is not removed from there unless the sight of the understanding is able to be raised right up into the light of heaven and the person is for this reason able to think on a level virtually divorced from natural things. When this happens to a person spiritual ideas of the truth of faith and of the good of love, which the merely natural man cannot understand, enter in.
(References: Exodus 28:4)