Category Archives: The Word

Finding Relevance In The Old Testament

By Rev. Michael Gladish

Our theme this morning is the relevance of the laws of the Old Testament to our lives now. It is not a question of whether they are relevant or not, but how they are relevant. And there are two reasons why I believe this is an important topic for us to consider: first, as I hope to show, the misunderstanding or misuse of passages from this part of the Word can get us into a lot of trouble–and not only us but others, too, as far as the credibility and power of the Word itself is concerned. Just the same, if we can understand and use the passages correctly we may get real opportunities to help people overcome negative attitudes about the Word–and religion in general–so that we can all grow in love and faith.

Second, seeing the relevance of the Old Testament laws in our own lives we may not only enjoy a more lively sense of respect for the Word in general but we may actually learn things that are vital for our spiritual health or salvation. Furthermore, when we see this principle at work in the Old Testament it may also give us food for thought about the New Testament and even the Writings for the New Church, as these also can be seen and used in more or less helpful ways.

For instance–and this is just an analogy–suppose you have a list of items with no particular distinction between one or another as to their importance, and someone tells you to get all these items for a wilderness survival hike. Included on the list are water, matches, a knife, a blanket, food, clothing and a cribbage board game. You could be forgiven for wondering why in the world a cribbage game was included on the list. In fact, unless you really liked cribbage or were a very strict literalist you could be forgiven for thinking you didn’t really need it. And in the end you probably wouldn’t take it on the hike. Worst of all, though, if when you saw “cribbage board” on the list you began to doubt the value of the entire list or even to think that the whole thing was just a joke, you might not get any of the items on the list and so begin your walk totally unprepared.

There is a sense in which the Word itself appears this way to people setting out on the path of life. They look at a list such as we read for our second lesson and they see rules like not profaning God’s name, not defrauding your neighbor, not hating your brother in your heart and not taking vengeance, which all seem pretty important, and then they see something like this: “You shall not shave around the sides of your head, nor shall you disfigure the edges of your beard” (Lev. 19:27). Or this: “You shall not sow your field with mixed seed. Nor shall a garment of mixed linen and wool come upon you” (Lev. 19:19). And then they wonder.

First of all they wonder about the relevance of these peculiar items in the list, then they begin to realize that many of the laws that worked or even were necessary for the simple, nomadic tribes of Israel 3 or 4 thousand years ago just won’t work today, and even if they did work they wouldn’t seem to have much meaning. So finally they begin to pick and choose according to their own culture and intelligence what they should obey from the Word and what they should ignore. Some end up treating the whole Word with contempt because it makes no sense to them. And worst of all in the case of the Word, there are those who pick and choose in the deliberate, conscious effort to justify some evil. This is extremely dangerous, not only for those who are misled by it but even more for those who do it, since it causes truth and evil to be linked in the mind, corrupting the soul.

Here is another example: in the same series of statutes and judgments that we read today, in the preceding chapter, there are a number of teachings condemning illicit sex and especially homosexuality, which is called “an abomination.” But since there is no distinction between the importance of this law and the importance of the law about shaving around the head or beard, or wearing linen mixed with wool, many claim that the laws against homosexuality are simply frivolous and, like a lot of Old Testament laws, irrelevant today. I’ve heard this argument and I know: it’s a tough one to beat unless you know something about the spiritual sense of the Word. And even then, it’s important to realize that the sanctions against homosexuality in the literal sense may have nothing to do with our sexual life when they are understood in the spiritual sense. Most likely we will have to look elsewhere for instruction on that issue.

So the first point that I hope you will take from this lesson is that we all need to be very careful how we use the teachings of the Word and how we understand them. They are not always what they seem to be. And in a list of things that seem incongruous together or inconsistent in their level of importance it may be especially necessary to look deeper–into the spiritual sense–to get any real feeling for what these things may mean. In fact, if we are alert we might take these odd looking teachings as keys or clues to lead us into the spiritual meaning of all the passages in the series, including the ones that seem to be perfectly reasonable in the literal sense. Then we can enjoy the blessing of a more profound enlightenment overall, including helpful insights into the progress of our own regeneration.

But now let’s look specifically at that passage about shaving the head and beard. What does that have to do with anything moral or spiritual, or of any lasting importance? Why is it included in a list of teachings that, on the whole, seem much more weighty and significant? Well, in the spiritual sense the hair of the head represents what is natural or external. Only if you look carefully at the passage you will see that the first phrase doesn’t actually mention hair, it just says that the Jews were not to shave around the sides (or corners!) of the head. Only in the second phrase do we see specific reference to the edges (or again, corners) of the hair itself in the beard.

We should have no trouble recognizing the head as a symbol of the most important things or, in spiritual matters, the more interior things within the mind. All the parts of the body from the head to the toes represent aspects of the mind, and so the head is that of the highest priority. Generally in the Word this means the good that is of the will or affection because this takes priority over anything else in defining the quality of a person’s spiritual life. The hair that is implied, and certainly the “corners” of the head that are actually mentioned represent the last or least or outermost reaches of that will or affection, namely the will to do, the determination to act according to what seems good. And it is this external will, this determination to do what is good that must not be lost or given up, for all the wonderful affections that flow into our minds from the Lord ultimately rest on this foundation–as we may well know simply by reflecting on those times in our own lives when we just didn’t care about anything, didn’t feel motivated to do anything..

But then there is the beard. Just as the corners of the head were not to be shaved, so the corners of the beard were not to be trimmed. Here again the external aspects of the mind are represented, but now by means of the hair around the mouth, jaws and chin. Of course these parts of the face are not specifically mentioned in the verse, but meaning in the Word always comes in its context, and the use of these parts has to do with eating, especially chewing, and with speech. These actions clearly relate within the mind to understanding and thought about the truth. (You know how you learn something or you get an idea and then you “chew on it” for awhile before you “swallow” it and make it your own..) So the hair of the jaw and chin represents the most natural, external outgrowth of thought, which is planning and figuring out how or what to do.

Next to the will itself taking form in some specific wish, this determination of thought into real plans is the most important human quality we can imagine. Without it (operating together with the love) there would be no focus, no freedom, no sense of ownership, no real sense of identity or personal responsibility. In fact the Writings tell us this ability to make plans is so important that it can give us more delight than the doing itself, as we read in DP 178:

“Mankind is not granted a knowledge of future events … for the reason that he may be able to act from freedom according to reason. For it is well known that a person desires to have in effect whatever he loves, and he leads himself to this end by his reason. It is also known that everything a person contemplates in his reason arises from the love of bringing it into effect by means of his thought. Therefore if he knew the effect or result from Divine prediction his reason would come to rest, and with it his love; for love with reason comes to an end in the effect, and from that point it begins anew. It is the very delight of reason to see from love the effect in thought–not the effect in its attainment, but before it, that is, not in the present but in the future. Hence man has what is called hope, which increases and decreases in the reason as he sees or looks forward to the event.”

So now we find that a simple, curious, even odd statement in the midst of a long series of spiritual, moral and ethical teachings–and also, incidentally, teachings about diet, cleanliness and animal sacrifices–actually has meaning that cuts to the heart of what it means to be human and to enjoy the blessings of eternal life. Now also we see how it applies to women (who don’t have beards) as well as men! And we understand that–in this verse at least, in the internal sense–the Lord has no particular concerns about haircuts at all.

And it’s the same with the teaching about not mixing linen with wool. In literal fact, who cares? They might actually make a nice combination. But when we understand the spiritual sense we see the problem, and the reason for this rule: without going into all the details, let’s just observe that wool generally comes from sheep, which represent innocence, the good of the will. As a material for clothing, wool represents truth, but the truth that comes from the good of love, in effect a sort of inward perception of the truth from a celestial state. Linen comes from flax, and is a totally different kind of fibre representing the truth of faith in a spiritual state, that is, the truth that comes from reasoning and understanding (AC 9470:4-6). These two ways of coming at the truth are so totally different that they simply cannot function together ordinarily in one mind at the same time.

Of course we can go through a radical change of state, growing through the spiritual way of life into the celestial. Then we might be seen as angels changing our clothing from linen to wool. But we would not be seen wearing mixed garments. Either we are spiritual or we are celestial in our grasp of the truth: when we are spiritual the celestial way is totally foreign to us, and when we are celestial it is beneath us.

But let’s not become too concerned about this or that specific rule. The purpose of this exposition mainly is to show how and where we find the true and lasting relevance of the Old Testament with all its peculiar statutes, judgments and ordinances.

It’s not always a simple matter to see exactly what is meant by an obscure teaching of the Word, whether it is in the Old Testament, the New Testament or even the Writings. In some cases it may not even matter much whether we really understand it or not–as long as we recognize that there is relevance there, and not only relevance but the most profound holiness and power from the Lord through the angels who, if we read with a sense of real reverence, are actually present with us through their recognition of the spiritual sense as we read. Of course the more we understand the better, since the more we understand the better we are able to co-operate with the Lord in the work of our regeneration. It is NOT true as some people think that the angels get more out of our reading when we don’t understand it than when we do, although there is a teaching (AC 1776) to the effect that they get more out of it when children read with innocence than when adults read in a state of faith separated from charity.

Many other examples could be given from the New Testament AND from the Writings to illustrate this point. It is, perhaps, not too hard to see the spiritual meaning of the lessons in Matthew about the internal quality of murder and revenge (as in the children’s talk). But what about the literal aspects of the teachings, such as “turning the other cheek,” or giving away anything that someone might ask of us? What about the teaching in the same context that if the right hand or eye offends we ought to pluck it out or cut it off and cast it from us? Does the Lord really teach pacifism or ask us to mutilate our bodies? Of course not! Yet the appearance may be so strong if we don’t know the spiritual meaning of these words that we might get in a lot of trouble–and not only we but those who depend on us for help and support–if we try to follow them only with the heart.

In fact, as we read in the third lesson, there are many teachings in the Word that we do NOT have to obey in the literal sense. “Some of them have been abrogated in respect to present use where the church is, which is an internal church. Some of them however are of such a nature that they may serve a use if one so pleases; and some of them are to be altogether observed and done (AC 9349:3).”

So how do we know which are which? Simple: the Lord has told us. Although much of the Old Testament concerns the laws of animal sacrifice, even in the Old Testament itself–in the Prophets–the Lord made it very clear that animal sacrifices were not the real issue, but rather the sacrifices of the heart. It’s just that the people then were too simple, stubborn and materialistic to get this point, and so they had to be compelled just to obey representative rules. Again, in the New Testament the Lord brings out the spiritual sense of many difficult passages. And finally in the Writings He discloses even more details about what is really required for spiritual life. The reading for the third lesson goes on, for example, to list the specific verses of the passages in Exodus 21 through 23 that must be obeyed, those that may be obeyed, and those that don’t really matter anymore. “And yet,” we read, “those which have been abrogated in respect to use where the church is, and those which may serve a use if one so pleases, and also those which are to be altogether observed and done, are equally holy in their internal; for in its bosom the whole Word is Divine. This holy internal is that which the internal sense teaches..”

And now a final question–just something to think about as we go home: How does all this apply to the Writings themselves? Do the Writings have an internal sense? Generally speaking we would say “No, not in the way that the Old and New Testaments do.” But on the other hand anything that comes from the Lord is bound to be far more profound and meaningful than we may realize in one or two readings–or even in a lifetime of study! For instance, what is this business about people on other planets? What are these “memorable relations?” How can we understand the teachings about the Jews, the Dutch, the English, the Germans, Catholics, Protestants, and many other groups or even individuals who are said to be in heaven or in hell?

What does it all mean? How can we discover the relevance and application of these things in our lives today? Fundamentally the Lord tells us that there is only one way, and it is the same for all revelation, namely, to approach the Lord Himself in humility and prayer, to read His Word with thoughtful reverence–not blindly but with an open, affirmative mind, and to live according to our understanding of what we read there. We may not get it right the first time, indeed the Lord knows we won’t get it right. But He also knows and patiently reminds us that it is in the process of trying that we gain enlightenment and wisdom–gradually, step by step–from Him. If we don’t use it we will lose it. But if we do the best we can the Lord will reward our efforts. Just remember, this “best” includes our best effort to understand. If we put our doctrinal lives on automatic pilot, or try to cruise through life on the fuel of simple knowledge that we may have acquired as children, sooner or later we are going to find ourselves coming into a wilderness, running on empty. We won’t know what to think when we face the tough questions, we won’t know what to do, and worst of all we’ll probably begin to feel bitter, disappointed and resentful about what the Lord has given or taken away from us.

On the other hand, if we can appreciate, even in some small measure, that His Word is full of life and love and wisdom for whatever journey we may take, and if we can be content to search this Word as we would search a field full of buried treasure–eagerly, confidently, and with a love for the useful things that we may do with it, why then, every challenge can become an opportunity, and every opportunity a blessing.


A Deeper Meaning To The Bible

By Rev. Peter M. Buss, Jr.

Our subject today is the Word, and the way the Lord reveals His truth to us by means of it. For guidance we turn to an interchange that the Lord had with His disciples about how He chose to teach. The Lord had just finished speaking the Parable of the Sower to a large crowd of people-about seeds which were scattered by the Sower onto different kinds of ground. When He finished, it says:

The disciples came and said to Him, “Why do You speak to them in parables?” He answered and said to them, “Because it has been given to you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given.” (Matthew 13:10-11)

The most simple definition of the Word that I am aware of is: “The Word is what God has revealed” (New Jerusalem and Its Heavenly Doctrine 251). What we have in the Bible is the Lord speaking to us. It is His Word, or the things He chose to teach us.

Imagine for a moment if you knew nothing about the stories of the Bible, and just knew that God’s Word was a written document about what He wanted us to know. What subjects would it contain? Wouldn’t we expect to find teachings about spiritual life within its pages? Wouldn’t we trust we’d hear about the Lord God Himself-the kind of God He is, how He leads us, and what He expects from us? Wouldn’t we assume we’d find teachings about how to live a good life-instructions on how to treat each other, how to worship and pray, and what principles of life we should follow? Wouldn’t we hope to hear about heaven-the Kingdom to which the Lord is leading us-the promised reward for our obedience and faithfulness?

Another teaching in the New Church says that the Word teaches just that. It says:

Without the Word no one would possess spiritual intelligence, which consists in having knowledge of a God, of heaven and hell, and of a life after death; nor would they know anything whatever about the Lord [Jesus Christ], about faith in Him and love to Him, nor anything about redemption, by means of which comes salvation. (Doctrine of the Sacred Scripture 114)

And yet, when we look at the way the Bible was put together, and the subject matter it contains, we don’t primarily see these spiritual concepts. Most of the Bible is a history of people who lived thousands of years ago-of Abraham, Moses, Daniel, Elijah, Peter, John and the other Disciples. Why would the Lord choose to reveal His essential spiritual truth by means of stories? Why would He give us details about journeys and choices people made throughout the ages-sometimes stupid choices with disastrous consequences? In the passage we read earlier in the service this sentiment was expressed:

Taken literally the Word appears like any ordinary book, written in a strange style which is neither so sublime nor so brilliant as secular books appear to be. For this reason a person…may easily fall into error concerning the Word, and come to despise it. While reading it he may say to himself, “What is this? What is that? Can this be Divine? Could God, whose wisdom is infinite, speak like this? Where is there anything holy in it, and where does this holiness come from?” (Doctrine of the Sacred Scripture 1)

But we know the answer to these concerns. Most of us who have spent time with the Bible perceive its holiness, and realize that it does teach powerful spiritual truths by means of all those stories. Still another teaching in the New Church about the Bible says, “The Word of the Lord is like a body which has a living soul within it” (Arcana Coelestia 1408). Or as Jesus Himself put it, “The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life (John 6:63). People throughout the ages have seen the truth of these statements, and know that the Bible is the most holy book every written-not only because God wrote it, but because they have seen its power to teach them about how to be good people.

In the New Church we call this deeper meaning of the Bible “the internal sense” of the Word. The whole Word is written with carefully chosen words and images. When we to understand the meaning, or the reason those words and images were chosen, the Bible comes to life for us-we see some of that living soul beneath the stories, and we feel fed by the straight-forward spiritual guidance it offers.

A Symbolic Meaning. “The internal sense of the Word.” Perhaps the best way to begin our discussion is to look at some of the images or symbols of the Word to see how they contain hidden messages within them. And what better symbols to look at than symbols for the Word itself.

In several places the Lord referred to the Word as “living water” or “the water of life.” In the book of Revelation He says,

“I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. I will give of the fountain of the water of life freely to him who thirsts.” (Revelation 21:6; Cf. Zechariah 14:8-9; Revelation 22:1,17)

Water is a very common symbol in the Bible. Everywhere it represents the truth which the Lord offers (or its opposite-the false ideas which can destroy). Add the adjective “living” to that symbol, and you see what the Lord is describing-the spiritual life He offers within the pages of His Word. Think of the woman at the well in Samaria to whom the Lord offered “living water.” To her He said,

“Whoever drinks of this water [from the well] will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst. But the water that I shall give him will become in him a fountain of water springing up into everlasting life.” (John 4:13-14)

Even that well, next to which the Lord spoke these words to this woman, symbolizes the Bible. Think of how water is drawn from a well, like truth is drawn from the Word, and think of the depths of a well-the bottom of which is unknown, like the depths of the Bible which contain more spiritual truth than any person can learn, even in a lifetime.

The Word is also referred to as “treasure hidden in a field” which a man found and delighted over (Matthew 13:44; Cf. Psalm 119:162). It is even symbolized by a “seed,” as in the Parable of the Sower which we’ll look at in a minute (Matthew 13:1-23).

Many symbols for the Bible itself. And that’s true of every single image or detail in any story of the Bible. Each detail contains levels of meaning within it. Each one of them encapsulates a spiritual idea, and when we see all those spiritual ideas connected together by means of the story, the spiritual messages come pouring out. In the New Church these symbols are called “correspondences.” Of them we read:

Interiorly the Word is spiritual and celestial. It is written exclusively by correspondences, which conceal within [them] all angelic wisdom.. The style of the Word is such that there is holiness in every sentence, and in every word, and in some places even in the very letters. (Doctrine of the Sacred Scripture 3,8)

The Word is a Parable. One way to see the power of correspondences, or how these correspondential symbols all fit together is to look at one of the Lord’s parables. His disciples asked Him why He chose to teach people by means of parables, and this was right after He had taught the Parable of the Sower. He went on to teach them some of its symbolic meaning, which is exactly what we are able to do with any part of the Lord’s Word.

There is a whole list of details which the Lord chose to include His parable of the Sower: there’s the sower himself, the seeds, the wayside, the birds, the stony places, earth in general, the sun, roots, withering plants, thorns, good ground, crops of a hundred-fold, sixty-fold, and thirty-fold. All of these details encapsulate spiritual truths, and all of them are tied together in the story. The Sower is the Lord, the seed is His Word, or the teachings which He wants to give to the people of His church. The different types of ground are symbols for the different types of people in the church-people who either receive or reject what the Lord teaches. The wayside is a picture of a person who is hardened with false ideas, which do not allow the Lord’s teachings to penetrate; such a person is much more interested in being busy or getting on with things in this world to care about heaven and preparing for it. The stony ground is representative of the person who hears all these teachings, but does not act on them; they just sit in his or her mind and do not cause any change in the patterns of life. The thorny ground stands for people who have made some evil choices, who lash out at others instead of serving them. And the good ground symbolizes good people who hear the Lord’s Word, and live according to it. These are people whose lives bear fruit (see Arcana Coelestia 3310:2). Gathering all these symbols (the few we’ve discussed) together into the story shows us the kind of attitude we should have to the Lord’s teachings-to beware of thorny evil tendencies, of false ideas, of spiritual complacency, and remember to receive those teachings and allow them to shape our lives. Such a person is led by the Lord through His Word.

Now it might be argued that this is a relatively easy parable to understand. The internal meaning is not that hidden below the images. But there are many places in the Bible where the meaning is not so clear. What do we do with the following from the prophet Isaiah, for example:

And the LORD of hosts will stir up a scourge for him like the slaughter of Midian at the rock of Oreb; as His rod was on the sea, so will He lift it up in the manner of Egypt. It shall come to pass in that day that his burden will be taken away from your shoulder.. He has come to Aiath, He has passed Migron; at Michmash he has attended to his equipment. They have gone along the ridge, they have taken up lodging at Geba. Ramah is afraid, Gibeah of Saul has fled.. (Isaiah 10:26-29)

On and on it goes with names of places and people. Speaking of this section, the Writings for the New Church say:

Here we meet with mere names, from which nothing can be drawn except by the aid of the internal sense, in which all the names in the Word symbolize things of heaven and the church. (Doctrine of the Sacred Scripture 15)

There is an internal meaning, but it’s almost impossible to see in the way the prophecy has been written. Much the Word has a similar character, as for example the lists of genealogies which occur from time to time.

All this begs the question which we haven’t addressed yet. Why did the Lord choose to reveal His truth in this manner? It’s all well and good that we can see spiritual truths in some places by means of the symbols, but why does He make some parts virtually unintelligible?

This brings us back to the interchange between the Lord and His disciples during which the Lord explained to them why He taught by means of parables.

“It has been given to you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven but to them it has not been given.. Therefore I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.” (Matthew 13:11,3)

The Lord teaches His Word in ways that people can understand (see Arcana Coelestia 2520:5). To the ancient Israelites the Lord played out their rewards and punishment in terms that meant something to them: a secure life in a land of their own in exchange for their obedience, and a miserable life, plagued by their enemies if they failed to obey. Whatever their other qualities the ancient Israelites were not sophisticated scholars. When the Lord came on earth and spoke to them He expanded their horizons considerably. He taught them about the kingdom of heaven, about love towards their neighbors, about justice and mercy. These were new concepts to them. But He would have blown them away if He revealed the full scope of spiritual ideas He wants us to know. Even His disciples had difficulty understanding most of what He tried to explain to them, much less why He had come to earth in the first place, and how He was setting up a church which could be a means of leading all people to heaven for centuries to come. As He said to them before He left them,

“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. However, when He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth.” (John 16:12-13)

The time has come for us to be guided into “all truth”-to see within those stories more spiritual wisdom than has been available to people ever before. The Lord our God wants us to believe in Him, and obey Him. He wants us to understand not only what He commands, but why. He longs for us to see what kind of God He is-the Creator and Redeemer of the Word, who is intimately aware of each and every detail of our lives, who is a close and personal God, using countless Divine means to lead us to make wise choices. This is the core message of His Holy Bible, which strives in so many ways to show us His Divine qualities-through all His names, and the many, many times He forgave the people He sought to lead. He wants us to know about heaven-that it is a real place where we will continue to live as men and women, where we will live out a life of usefulness together with a husband or wife whom we love most tenderly, in a community of other people who love the Lord and desire to serve Him by means of their lives. All these truths are contained in His portrayal of the Land of Canaan as a land flowing with milk and honey-a paradise to which He led the people of His church-the Israelites. He want us to be aware of that other place, called hell, and the terrible life which people live there-people who have chosen to love self-serving lives with little or no care for spiritual things or the feelings of the people whose lives they ruin. These are all encapsulated in the repeated warnings of fire and brimstone, of dire punishments, of calls to repentance which fill the Bible. Our Lord yearns for us to know the steps towards heaven-the spiritual development He can lead us through, how He can help us to tackle our larger evil tendencies, symbolized by the enemies in the Land of Canaan, and develop strong spiritual characteristics of trust and charity, symbolized by such people as Daniel and Joseph.

All this is why He has revealed this truth to His church-the internal sense of His Word, in the books which we call the Writings for the New Church. He has opened up the Bible. He has given us an understanding of the way it was written. He has listed the meaning of so many of the correspondential images within it. He has drawn together principles of doctrine which form a philosophy of religion-a rationale about life and the way things work which takes away “the mysteries of faith.”

We are the people He calls to become His disciples to whom it is “given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 13:11). He will enlighten us, if we approach the Word with a sense of awe at the holiness which is packed into it-if we seek to be led by Him to live the life which leads to heaven. This is His promise. This is the message which waits to be seen within the images and stories of the Bible-the internal sense, the spirit and life of the Word, which can allow the Lord to bring His life and His love to us.