The Gathering of the Elect
by Hugh L. Odhner
“And He shall send forth His angels with the great voice of a trumpet, and they shall gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other.” (Matthew 24: 31)
The Lord foretold His second advent in several different ways. He was to return to His church as the Son of Man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory; as a King judging from His throne; as a wounded Lamb who would open the seals of Scripture; as a male child born from a celestial woman; as a Harvester with a sickle; as a Divine Bridegroom ready for the marriage supper; and as the conquering Hero mounted on a white horse and having the name of “the Word of God,” and followed by angelic hosts on white horses.
The confusing variety of these prophetic word-pictures was necessary to show that the Lord’s second advent was not a physical or personal coming but a spiritual event – effected by a new revelation of His presence to the minds of men, at a time when the Christian Church had become so alienated from heaven and from the understanding of the Word that it could no longer serve as a source of spiritual enlightenment. And the New Church now sees that this second advent of the Lord was effected in spiritual fact by means of His servant Emanuel Swedenborg, whom He filled with His Spirit to teach from Him the doctrines of the New Church through the Word. (TCR 779)
In the natural world this second advent of the Lord went unperceived except by a few, even as was the case when the Lord was born into the world and only Mary and a few others pondered in their hearts what His birth might mean. It was in the spiritual world that the Lord was seen in great glory. It was there that the clouds which had concealed the way to heaven were dispersed by a great judgment, and angels were sent out to all quarters to gather the “elect” together into the New Heaven.
All men are intended for heaven, in the sense that none are predestined to hell. All men can be saved in the other life, unless they have confirmed themselves in evils of life, and this whether they are pagans or Christians, or whether they die as babes or as adults. All can find salvation if they have acknowledged God and lived well. There are many mansions in the heavenly Father’s house – many heavens with differing degrees of spiritual light. Yet only those spirits who have been in a spiritual affection of truth (AE 732) can intellectually receive the Heavenly Doctrine in the other life, and thus go to compose the New Heaven whence the New Church on earth is to receive its strength. The New Church on earth, our revelation indicates, will at first be among a few. For the falsities of the former church must be removed before truths can be permanently received. (AR 547) The faith of the New Church cannot be together with the faith of the old church, in one house or in one mind, any more than an owl and a dove can be reared in one nest. (BE 102, 103)
And because the state of the Christian world is such that in the official teachings of the churches no truths remain that are not entangled with and steeped in dangerous falsities which annul the power of the Word to enlighten men’s minds and conjoin them with heaven, therefore the New Church is likened to a woman in a wilderness, preserved by a miracle and hidden by God from the persecutions of the “dragon.” (Inv. 38; AR 562) Its growth in both worlds is slow, especially from the Christian world.
A new church, the Writings note, is seldom if ever formed from the people of the former church, but mostly from gentiles or those of other races. It was so also with the Christian Church, which indeed first commenced among the Jews, but was established mainly among former gentiles. Still, each new church or dispensation rests upon the Divine revelation originally given to the previous church. The New Testament rests upon the Law and the Prophets. The Writings rest upon the entire Scriptural Word. And this continuity in the giving of Divine revelation was illustrated when Swedenborg had completed his draft of the True Christian Religion. For he adds the “Memorandum” that when the book was finished, the Lord commissioned His twelve disciples who had followed Him in the world, and who were now angels, to go out into the whole spiritual world and preach the new advent of the Lord God Jesus Christ, whose reign will be eternal. “This was done on the 19th day of June, in the year 1770. And this was meant by these words of the Lord: `He will send forth His angels . . . and they shall gather together His elect . from one end of the heavens to the other.'” (TCR 791)
The spiritual sense of the Word is never confined to persons. The apostles who were sent out on the 19th of June, 1770, were not chosen because of their personal distinctions. In heaven there are many that are more worthy than they. (SD 1330; HH 526) They had entertained many crude ideas as to their Master’s return, and of their own position in His worldly kingdom. But after their death – and again after the Last judgment in 1757 – they had come to see the spiritual truths which were hidden beneath the symbolism of the Lord’s words.
These twelve had seen the Lord in His ultimate Human. The form and features of His personality, His words, the tone of His voice, His touch, had been impressed upon their memories. In their hearts burned His promise to return – a coming long delayed. And their function now in the spiritual world was to testify to His identity: that He Himself had indeed made His second advent, as He had promised, in the clouds of heaven. Only they could confirm that the true Christian religion was the very teaching of Christ, at last clarified and revealed in the Heavenly Doctrine of the New Jerusalem – in the foundations of which were collected all the gems of truth for which these apostles had labored in the world! Truths built by the Lord into a city of celestial life, rising secure above the clouds and obscurities, the conflicts and confusions, of earthly life.
These twelve, who represented each in his own way the cardinal truths of the Lord’s church, were the forerunners of an unending number of evangelists who are to proclaim the new reign of the Lord. The gathering of the “elect” proceeds in both worlds, not suddenly, but slowly and continuously, through the patient work of angels and also of men.
The function of the priesthood in the New Church includes, as its first province, the announcement of the Lord in His second advent. This is the first priestly duty, (TCR 669: 2) for without this new gospel there could be no New Church on earth. It is a work which can be done only by a distinct ministry – by men whose lives emulate those of the apostles in that they are dedicated to the work of the salvation of souls, the ingathering into the kingdom of God.
In one sense, all men are the Lord’s elect, chosen or destined by the Creator for eternal life; and none are born who cannot be saved or find a place in the Lord’s kingdom. In a narrower sense, only those who consent to the Lord’s will, who walk the way of repentance, become His “chosen.” Yet among those who enter heaven some are said to be “called,” while others are said to be “chosen,” and still others “faithful.” (Revelation 17: 14) Those of the natural heaven are said to be “called,” and these are described as a vast multitude. But while “many are called, few are chosen.” (Matthew 20: 16) Only those who have fought the battles of temptation and have embraced the truths of the Word with a spiritual love are chosen as angels of the spiritual heaven. And the celestial, whose hearts are not defiled by hereditary evils, are especially called the “faithful” who never fall from their high estate. (AR 744, 821)
Yet in a relative sense the apostles were singled out as the Lord’s “chosen.” Indeed the Lord had said: “Ye have not chosen Me, but I have chosen you, and ordained you, that ye should go and bring forth fruit, and that your fruit should remain.” (John 15: 16) He had breathed upon them, and said: “Receive ye the Holy Spirit.” (John 20: 22) That these disciples were selected by the Lord in a unique sense, for qualities and characteristics of which they themselves were not aware, is peculiarly true. For they “represented” all the various cardinal things of the church, and thus all things of faith and charity by which the Lord builds the church.
The church is not built by men. Yet the Lord, who judges not by the appearance, sees beyond the personal qualities of men. He chooses His human instruments with Divine foresight, and performs through them the kind of work which is of use in each age and place – uses which are not necessarily foreseen by men, or even consciously intended by them; uses which do not stem from man’s own power or merit, or reflect to his credit; uses which are not visible to man’s dull eyes, but which, through the inscrutable wisdom of Providence, build up agencies which in time permit the Holy Spirit to pass “from the Lord through men to men,” and thus heal and restore His church through spiritual enlightenment.
Among the canons of the New Church we find the statement that the Holy Spirit “flows into men who believe in the Lord, and, if according to order, into the clergy, and thus through them into the laity.” The Spirit of truth “proceeds from the Lord through the clergy to the laity by means of preaching, according to the reception of the doctrine of truth thence.” (Can. HS IV ) The institution of the New Church priesthood, with its threefold function of instruction, worship and government, is an orderly contribution to and ultimation of the work of the apostles which commenced on the nineteenth day of June, 1770, in the spiritual world – the work of “gathering together His elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other.”
This gathering of the “elect” is also called a “harvest.” The final harvest takes place in the spiritual world. But on earth it takes the introductory form of a collection of men who belong to the visible body of the church from their own free choice and conviction. Even the spiritual works of the church must be organized in an external form and order, to withstand the onslaught of its foes and to carry on its uses, which are prescribed in the revelation; and to bear fruit both visible and invisible.
The priest of the New Church must think not only of persons but also of states. What is true of every man in his own sphere is true of the priest in the larger sphere of the church. The first fruit that he must harvest and preserve is found in the Word of God, in its threefold revelations, as truths of doctrine. But a ripening harvest also awaits in every tender state open to the influx of heaven. It is a priestly responsibility to protect and gather into fruitfulness the growing faith of infancy with its innocent charity and obedience; to bend the fancies of childhood and order the budding reasonings of youth with its ideals and its doubts; to watch against the falsities of self-intelligence and to challenge the thinking that stems from passion and sensual appearances or from the illusions of worldly glamour. It is the priest’s work to sound the trumpet on the walls of Zion if falsities of doctrine invade or evils of life encroach. It is the task of the priesthood, as the servant not of men but of God, to guard the sanctities of conjugial love and to keep the holy things of worship from being neglected or violated by human ambition. It is the task of the priesthood to lead – not by own intentions but by revealed truth – to the uses of charity and mutual love, and to see that the freedom of every man’s conscience is respected. In such leadership there must be no blind persuasion or compulsion, for only that which is implanted in freedom will endure.
It is so that, we pray, the kingdom of the Lord may be increasingly established on the soil of earth, and the minds of successive generations of men be interiorly opened to see the spiritual wisdom latent in the Writings of the Lord’s second advent. The priesthood is ordained to inherit the apostolic office, as an assurance that what is Divine may ever find a place among men and that the fruitful states of the church may be gathered together into organic unity in the uses of the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, of which there shall be no end.
–New Church Life 1968:88:261-265