John the Baptist

John the Baptist

A Holy Supper Address by the Rev. James P. Cooper

And John was clothed in camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist; and his food was locusts and wild honey. (MAT 3:4)

We are taught that those who approach the Holy Supper worthily are those who prepare themselves beforehand by examining themselves for some evil forbidden by the Lord in the Word, repenting of it, and then, with the Lord’s help, doing it no longer. If we make the effort to prepare ourselves in this way, then the Lord will be able to be conjoined much more closely to us, for we will have made our affections and desires heavenly, the same as His; and we know that it is a law of the spiritual world that when people have similar loves and affections they are drawn closer to one another.

This same principle of preparation in order to receive the Lord can be seen in many places in the Word, especially in the Christmas story. The prophecies of the Lord’s birth begin with the story of Adam and Eve succumbing to the temptation to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and they continue throughout the books of Moses, the histories, and the prophets. It should be clear that the Lord made every effort to make His intentions known so that His people could be prepared to receive Him properly, but we can also see that the Jewish Church ignored all the warnings, preferring to continue on their own way instead. This is why John the Baptist was sent: both his birth and his work served to prepare the way for the Lord, so that those who at heart wanted to hear His teachings would know that the time had come. Through the miracle of John’s birth to Elizabeth and Zacharias, the great silence was broken, and the people were warned to look for angelic messages once again, especially those announcing the birth of the Messiah. Later, by his work, John served to notify people that it was now time for them to look to the course of their lives, to bring themselves into order so that they might receive the new teachings of the Messiah.

In order to understand how John the Baptist was able to fulfil his role in the Lord’s first coming, and to understand his symbolic role in our own states, we need to understand the symbolism of the major events and characteristics of John’s life. John the Baptist represented the Word, but because of his rough and wild appearance, he especially represented the Word as to its letter, its external stories.

John began preaching in the wilderness of Judea to represent how each of us begins life in something of a spiritual wilderness because of our spiritual ignorance. Like John, all we have is our rough clothing and food, the simple basic truths that were given to us by our parents. Everyone is at first introduced to the Word through its stories about Abraham, Joseph, David, Jonah, and Jesus. Many of the stories involve war, other acts of violence, or vivid descriptions of sin and its punishment. Children particularly love such stories for they are exciting and produce powerful mental images, but as we become adults, we begin to wonder how it can be that stories about David’s wars with the Philistines can have much to do with “real life.” As we become more thoughtful, we wonder how to deal with the apparent contradictions that appear between the Old and New Testaments.

We all, at some point in our lives, wonder at the Scriptures. We question whether or not they are true, whether or not we should guide our lives by them, how they can help us in our times of difficulty. Each time our states are such that we no longer trust or understand the Word, we are back in the wilderness state, and we can only return from it by turning to the basic simple truths that are the foundations of our faith.

We also wonder at the scriptures because they are so unlike what we may think they should be. We expect the Word of God to be elegant, and clear, and powerful, just as the Jews wanted and expected their Messiah, their new king to come in purple robes and with great riches, giving gifts to all the people. But instead, their first warning of the coming King came through a man preaching repentance in the wilderness, dressed in camel’s hair clothing, wearing a leather belt, and eating locusts and honey.

John wore camel’s hair clothes in order to represent the Divine Truth of the Word in its external, natural form, as it first appears to men, for the natural sense is like a clothing or covering for the internal sense within. His leather belt was used to hold his garment together, and so it represents the external bond that connects and keeps interior things in order. If, whenever we opened a copy of the Word, it was immediately obvious that it was the Word of God, if the Divine Truth shone forth in such a way that no one could question its Divinity, then we would no longer be spiritually free, for if we could clearly see and understand that the Word was the Divine Truth itself, and we did not follow it to the letter, we would profane, we would become spiritual lepers, and that would be far worse than failing to see the Divine within the Scripture as it presently exists and fumbling along without specific guidance.

As John’s clothing was representative, so was his food, because food represents spiritual nourishment from truths from the Word. The locusts that he ate represent the most general truths (for example, that there is a God, that He created the universe, that He is our Heavenly Father, that the good will be rewarded with eternal life, and so forth), and the wild honey represents the pleasure that one has from knowing these things to be true. That John ate locusts describes our own states when we begin to learn the simplest, most general truths of the Word, and the wild honey stands for the pleasure we feel in making these truths our own. These simple truths form the foundation for our further understanding of spiritual things, and so are extremely important. All the interior things that we will later learn and use to form the spiritual degrees of our mind must rest on these simple, basic truths. All things in the spiritual world must have a foundation in order to continue and subsist. This is another reason why the sense of the letter of the Word is so base and common in its letter, so much so that it is even natural and sensual: it must be so, for it serves as a foundation for all the spiritual and interior truths within. This why John the Baptist ate locusts.

The New Testament tells us that John preached to many people, and we know that he was preaching to them to prepare the way for the Lord, but it is interesting to note that almost nothing of what he said was recorded. All that we know is that he preached repentance in the face of the coming judgement. He was not calling the people to a new church, to a new doctrine, but he was actually calling them to renew their commitment to life in obedience to the Mosaic law – he was challenging them to become good Jews!

In our own lives, the ministry of John the Baptist stands for our attempt to deal with the temptations of the life of faith alone for ourselves. We all are tempted to feel that it is enough to know the truth, and consequently to try to avoid doing what we know to be good. It’s seldom deliberate, though. Usually we avoid charity by finding other things to do instead. We say we are going to call on a sick friend, but something comes up at work that’s less trouble to do, but still gives us an excuse for not going – so we don’t. We must always be aware of this tendency to avoid what we know we should do, because we will be known to others by what we actually do, not what we say we are going to do. It is a valid observation that in general, we all do just what we love to do, that is, our loves become apparent to others by our activities and choices.

This lesson is made very clear by John’s teaching about the tree, that any tree that did not produce good fruits would be cut down and cast into the fire. The “fruits” of the tree signify the goods that a man does out of love or charity, while trees represent man’s internal states. “Fire” means the lust pertaining to love of self and love of the world, and the “smoke” therefrom means falsity from evil.

Perhaps the most important lesson we can learn from our study of John the Baptist and the things that he did to prepare the way for the Lord’s coming on earth is that we don’t need to wait until we understand every detail of the Writings to begin our own repentance: repentance is the actually the very first state, our introduction to the church. The only doctrine we need to begin repentance are those doctrines John himself represents, the simple, external truths of the letter of the Word – stories that we learned in childhood. Learning and understanding more interior truths comes later. There is sufficient depth in the Word for us to learn new things from it to eternity, and the doctrines tell us that the only thing that prevents any person from understanding the deepest secrets of spiritual truth is his own evils. Insofar as anyone shuns evils as sins, the Lord will flow into his mind with an ever growing understanding of spiritual things.

As we prepare ourselves for the sacrament of the Holy Supper, John’s teachings remind us that our first obligation to the Lord, if we wish to enter heaven, is to bring our own lives into order. We need to compare the course of our lives to the path that had been laid out for us by our Creator and where we deviate from His course, we need to repent of our errors and correct our course. Only then can the Lord can enter our minds and hearts and teach us the new truths. And the miracle is that as we begin to live these new truths, as we cease to do evil and learn to do well, as we bring forth the “fruits” of charity towards others, then we are becoming reborn and regenerated; then for the first time the church is being formed within us, and we can be truly called Christian.

We’ll close today with John’s simple exhortation for us to live in simple charity and brotherhood, for that is what prepares the way for the Lord to be present with us, to be born into our hearts.

So the people asked him, saying, “What shall we do then?” He answered and said to them, “He who has two tunics, let him give to him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise.” Then tax collectors also came to be baptized, and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Collect no more than what is appointed for you.” Likewise the soldiers asked him, saying, “And what shall we do?” So he said to them, “Do not intimidate anyone or accuse falsely, and be content with your wages.” (Luke 3:10-14) Amen.

First Lesson: MAT 3:1-12

In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, {2} and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” {3} For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah, saying: “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the LORD; Make His paths straight.’” {4} And John himself was clothed in camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist; and his food was locusts and wild honey. {5} Then Jerusalem, all Judea, and all the region around the Jordan went out to him {6} and were baptized by him in the Jordan, confessing their sins. {7} But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? {8} “Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance, {9} “and do not think to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones. {10} “And even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. {11} “I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. {12} “His winnowing fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clean out His threshing floor, and gather His wheat into the barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” Amen.

Second Lesson: TCR 688-9

It is written in Malachi, Behold, I send My messenger, and he shall prepare the way before Me; and the Lord whom ye seek shall suddenly come to His temple, even the messenger of the covenant, whom ye long for. Who will abide the day of His coming, and who will stand when He shall appear? (iii. 1, 2).

And again, Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet, before the great and terrible day of Jehovah comes; lest I come and smite the earth with a curse (iv. 5, 6).

And Zacharias the father, prophesying of his son John, says, Thou, child, shalt be called the prophet of the Most High; for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to make ready His ways (Luke i. 76).

And the Lord Himself says of this same John, This is he of whom it is written, Behold, I send My angel before Thy face, who shall prepare Thy way before Thee (Luke vii. 27).

From all this it is clear that this John Was the prophet sent to make ready the way of Jehovah God, who should descend into the world and accomplish redemption; and that be made ready that way by baptism, and by announcing the coming of the Lord; and that without such preparation all on earth would have been smitten with a curse and would have perished.

689. The way was prepared by the baptism of John, because by means of that baptism, as shown above, men were introduced into the future church of the Lord, and in heaven were inserted among those who were there looking for and longing for the Messiah; and they were thus guarded by angels, that devils from hell might not break forth and destroy them….

From all this it is clear that unless a way had been made ready for Jehovah when He was descending into the world, by means of baptism, the effect of which in heaven was to close up the hells and guard the Jews against total destruction [they would all have perished]…. Amen.


Copyright © 1982 – 2006 General Church of the New Jerusalem.
Page constructed by James P. Cooper
Page last modified September 27, 2009

The New Understanding of Predestination


A Sermon by the Rev. James P. Cooper

Mitchellville, MD – June 29, 2003

And they shall come from the east, and from the west, and from the north, and from the south, and shall sit down in the kingdom of God. (Luke 13:29)

Our text is taken from a portion of the Gospel of Luke where the Lord was instructing the leaders of the Jewish church about who was entitled to enter His “new” kingdom that was “not of this world.” In order to understand why the Lord said things the way He did, we first have to understand the context in which they were given. The Jews had a heartfelt belief that they were the chosen people, that they had been personally chosen by God to receive special blessings, and that no other people in the world had the right to those blessings. Certainly the Old Testament records that Jehovah frequently reminded them that if they wanted to be His chosen people, they had to keep up their part of the covenant, and the Old Testament also records their regular departure from His ways.

When we look back at this historical period from the context of the Christian era where life after the death of the body in a heavenly paradise is assumed, it is interesting to note that very few of the Jews thought that their special blessing from God would be a reward in heaven. At that time belief in the life after death was not common, even in the Jewish Church. Some people believed in a place called Sheol (related to the Greek concept of Hades), others believed in reincarnation, while the rest believed there was nothing at all after the death of the body.

Their understanding of their covenant with Jehovah was that they would possess the land of Canaan in perpetuity in return for the performance of certain sacrifices and rituals at the temple. So they performed their rituals and lived in contempt of their gentile neighbors.

This was not what was intended, and God sent many prophets to tell them in various ways that their sacrifices and rituals were meaningless if they continued to live in sin. But they ignored the warnings, for they believed they were the “chosen people” and somehow the rules applied to them differently. And so, the Lord came on earth to tell them that they should not be so sure of themselves, that they were in for a big surprise. He told them that “His kingdom was not of this world,” but that He was king of some kind of otherworldly paradise where their forefathers now lived. He told them that there would be weeping and gnashing of teeth when they entered the kingdom of heaven and saw Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob only briefly before they themselves were thrust out as unacceptable because they had failed to put away their evils.

That a Jew would be unacceptable to Jehovah was a concept too radical for them to accept! After all, they were the chosen people! And then Jesus said something that proved to them that they must reject Him as their Messiah: He actually said that people from all kingdoms could enter His otherworldly kingdom, people from the north, south, east, and west – people who were not Jews. No wonder they were angry with Him; He taught that Gentiles and Samaritans could enter the kingdom of heaven, while the Jews would be thrust out. Jesus made no friends among the Jews with such teachings.

Christianity owes much to the Jewish Church. We share the Word of God as written by Moses and the prophets in the Old Testament. The concept of “church” where people gather to listen to experts explain the meaning of Scripture was developed by the Jews during their captivity in Babylon. Since they no longer had access to the temple in Jerusalem they had to do something to take the place of sacrifices. The list goes on and on. Unfortunately, Christianity has also inherited some bad things from the Jewish Church, and prime among them is the concept of the “chosen people,” the idea that heaven is closed to all but a handful of specially chosen people who have received some sign from God, and that God Himself excludes all others from His spiritual kingdom based only on their lack of membership in a particular national or religious group!

This false idea exists under many names and in all churches, and we need to be wary of it because it is not taught anywhere in the Word. What the Lord does teach, however, is that heaven is open to all people and those will find their home there who earn it through the good of life. In the gospel of Matthew He teaches, he makes his sun to rise on the evil and the good (Mat. 5:45), and If you, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more shall your Father in heaven give good things to those that ask Him? (Matte. 7:11, cf. Luke 11:13) And further, The kingdom of God shall be taken from you, and given to a nation bearing the fruits of it (Matte. 21:43).

The Lord was trying to establish a bridge for the Christian Church. He was trying to take the limited and mostly false ideas of the Jewish Church and enfill them with new truths so that they could be of some use to the people of the Christian Church that was about to be established. He taught over and over again that the kingdom of heaven was not for the Jews alone, but it was a gift from a loving and personal God for all those who followed the Mosaic law in both its letter and its spirit. He was trying to teach the truth that all men, of all races and of all nationalities, have been created for heaven, and that only those who deliberately turn away from God do not live there to eternity in blessedness and peace.

Because all people have been created to live to eternity in heaven we say that they are “destined” to heaven, and because this was planned by the Creator from the beginning of time, and certainly far before the individual human’s life began, it is correctly said that every human being is “predestined” for heaven.

Unfortunately, this New Church definition of predestination is not the one commonly used in the world. The traditional doctrine of predestination evolved in the Christian church over a period of many years. Its roots lie in the Jewish concept of the “chosen” people, and it achieved its full growth and flower when combined with the doctrine of the Trinity as invented at the council of Nicea and the question of how if man was totally evil, how could he do anything towards his own salvation?

By dividing God into three persons, the early Christian church laid the foundation for the idea that God the Creator became angry with people when it turned out that they weren’t perfect, withdrew from them, and condemned everyone to hell. Jesus Christ tries to mediate between the angry Jehovah and His created beings, and by allowing Himself to die on the cross, Jesus is sometimes successful in reversing the condemnation of some people. Once that idea was in place, the inevitable question was what would determine whether an individual human being would chosen for heaven, or allowed to continue into hell. The answer was the doctrine of predestination.

In its worst form, called “double” predestination, the doctrine asserts that Jehovah God has selected certain people who will join Him in heaven, no matter how they live their life. Everyone else goes to hell, no matter how they live their life. Every person is nothing but evil, nothing he can do or say can change God’s mind, so the only possible explanation for some people going to heaven and others to hell is that it is the result of God’s own choice. Nothing else has any effect whatsoever.

Not surprisingly, not all Christians could hold to this doctrine. They were unwilling to say that God sent people to hell, so the doctrine was modified to what is now called “single” predestination. In this version of the doctrine, all people are still totally evil and unable to effect anything towards their own salvation and will certainly go to hell. But some are selected by God for salvation, not as a reward for any act or good deed, but just because He wants to. The rest continue on their way to hell.

This doctrine is preferred by many because it delicately avoids actually saying that God actually sends people to hell for no reason other than to punish them for Adam and Eve’s original sin. It just says that He chooses to save some from hell, while allowing the rest to go to hell through His inaction. Those who hold to this doctrine assert that no one may know for certain if they have been chosen for heaven while in the natural world, but that there are indications called the “signs of faith.” They believe that, in general, those who are predestined or “chosen” live a better, more favored life while in this world – although they still hold to the view that even the vilest criminal will go to heaven if he has been chosen, no matter what his life has been.

The Writings of the New Church call the traditional Christian doctrine a “a cruel heresy” because the Lord is the Creator and Savior of all men. How can anyone think that He would will the death or damnation of anyone? It is cruel to think that the vast majority of nations and peoples under His Divine Providence could be callously handed over to the devil even though they were innocent of any sin (See DP 330:8).

We say that God, by definition, is omnipotent, that He has all power and is able to do all things from Himself. His will and His understanding, that is, His love and His power are united, and since He wills nothing but good, therefore He cannot do anything but good. How then can anyone think or believe that He could condemn, curse, or send anyone into hell? How can anyone who understands anything about the loving nature of God the Creator believe that He can send anyone to eternal death? The fact is that He “cannot turn Himself away from any man, nor even look upon him with a stern countenance.” Such things are contrary to His essence. (See TCR 56)

If such views are contrary to His very nature and essence, then what views of the eternal salvation of the human race are consistent with the qualities of God the Creator? God created the universe for one purpose: that there might be a heaven from the human race. That is the only purpose of creation that makes sense. No sane human being creates things for the purpose of hating and destroying them. No sane God would do that either. Since the purpose of creation was for men to be conjoined with God in heaven, we must then say that all people are “predestined” to heaven (See AC 6488), and our concern becomes how some are able to turn away from heaven in spite of the Lord’s efforts to lead them into heaven.

The Lord sees our evils, and it is His constant effort and intent to bend our evils to good. Therefore He governs the world so that nothing is tolerated unless He can turn it to good somewhere, sometime. For example, Joseph’s brothers were permitted to beat him and sell him as a slave into Egypt so that Joseph would be in a position to rise to power in Egypt and be able to save tens of thousands of lives with his program of stockpiling food in preparation for the coming famine. When Jacob died, and his brothers feared that Joseph would then take revenge upon them for their crimes against him, he said, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive (Gen. 50:20). The Lord constantly seeks to turn the evil to good, and if that cannot be done in freedom, then He still seeks to turn the evil to a lesser evil, because He seeks what is best for everyone. (See AC 6489)

Sound reason dictates that all people are predestined to heaven and none to hell, for all people are born in God’s image. God’s image in them consists in their ability to understand truth and to do good. The ability to understand truth comes from the Divine wisdom, and the ability to do good from the Divine love. This ability, which is God’s image, remains in any sane person and is never removed. (See DP 322)

In simple terms, we can summarize the means of salvation in this:

that evils are to be shunned because they are contrary to the Decalogue and that it be acknowledged that God exists.

Everyone can do both if he does not love evils, for the Lord is constantly flowing into his will with power for shunning evils and into his understanding with power to think about God.

Therefore it can be seen that the Lord provides a knowledge of the means by which anyone can be saved, and the power to shun evils if he wants to be saved.

It follows then that all are predestined to heaven and no one to hell. (DP 329)

The Lord is the heavenly Father of all human beings and they are His spiritual children. Therefore He says: Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven (Mt. 23:9), and further, If you, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more shall your Father in heaven give good things to those that ask Him? (Matte. 7:11, cf. Luke 11:13) The Lord cannot act other than as a parent on earth does with his children, only infinitely more loving because His divine love is infinite. Further, He cannot condemn anyone to hell or withdraw from them, because all life is from Him, and if He were to withdraw, spiritual life would end. However, it appears that He withdraws from the evil, although the fact is that it is the evil man who withdraws from Him while the Lord yet continues to lead him from love. (See DP 330:1)

In conclusion we can see that the origins of the traditional doctrine of predestination are in the Jewish concept of a “chosen” people, the doctrine of man’s complete sinfulness and lack of power in spiritual things, and the concept of the trinity incorporating the concept of Jehovah being the Creator who is angry with the failures of His creation and wishing to destroy them all, while the Son strives to convince Him to allow a few into heaven. But we have also seen that nothing in the Word supports such a view, for the Lord tells us that He is our heavenly Father, and we His children. He created heaven so that we could be with Him to eternity, and He has given us the tools and the strength to prepare ourselves for heaven, and we have seen that He wants all men who love Him, no matter what their religion or nationality, to be conjoined with him to eternity.

This is the true meaning of the covenant that He made with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, that all those who obey Him and shun evils as sins, will receive His eternal blessing. Hopefully, we have seen that the true doctrine of predestination, the predestination of all men to heaven, is one that is supported by the teaching of the Word and sound reason. We can have confidence in the Lord’s plan to bring all those who keep His commandments and love Him, to eternal life in heaven, for He Himself said, Many shall come from the east and west, and shall sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven. But the children of the kingdom shall be cast out into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth. AMEN.

First Lesson: Luke 13:22-30

And He went through the cities and villages, teaching, and journeying toward Jerusalem. {23} Then one said to Him, “Lord, are there few who are saved?” And He said to them, {24} “Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I say to you, will seek to enter and will not be able. {25} “When once the Master of the house has risen up and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord, Lord, open for us,’ and He will answer and say to you, ‘I do not know you, where you are from,’ {26} “then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank in Your presence, and You taught in our streets.’ {27} “But He will say, ‘I tell you I do not know you, where you are from. Depart from Me, all you workers of iniquity.’ {28} “There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, and yourselves thrust out. {29} “They will come from the east and the west, from the north and the south, and sit down in the kingdom of God. {30} “And indeed there are last who will be first, and there are first who will be last.”

Second Lesson: TCR 664

Once I looked toward the right in the spiritual world, and observed some of the elect conversing together. I approached them and said, “I saw you at a distance, and there was round about you a sphere of heavenly light, whereby I knew that you belonged to those who in the Word are called ‘the elect;’ therefore I drew near that I might hear what heavenly subject you were talking about.”

They replied, “Why do you call us the elect?”

I answered, “Because in the world, where I am in the body, they have no other idea than that ‘the elect’ in the Word means those who are elected and predestined to heaven by God either before or after they are born, and that to such alone faith is given as a token of their election, and that the rest are held as reprobates, and are left to themselves, to go to hell whichever way they please. And yet I know that no election takes place before birth, nor after birth, but that all are elected and predestined to heaven, because all are called; also that after their death the Lord elects those who have lived well and believed aright; and this takes place after they have been examined. That this is so it has been granted me to learn by much observation. And because I saw that your heads were encircled by a sphere of heavenly light, I had a perception that you belonged to the elect who are preparing for heaven.”

To this they replied, “You are telling things never before heard. Who does not know that there is no man born who is not called to heaven, and that from them after death those are elected who have believed in the Lord and have lived according to His commandments; and that to acknowledge any other election is to accuse the Lord Himself not only of being impotent to save, but also of injustice?”