A Sermon by Rev. James P. Cooper
Our sufficiency is from God, who also made us sufficient as ministers of the new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. (2CO 3:5,6)
Our text, from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, was selected because it briefly and clearly states the essential doctrine of the New Church regarding our understanding of the Sacred Scripture. The central theme of the Old Testament is the Covenant between God and His people, His promise of protection and safety for those who obey His commandments. In our text, Paul identifies the new ideas taught by Jesus Christ as the “new covenant,” and further states that as Christians we are to become ministers of this new covenant, not serving the letter, but serving and teaching the spirit contained within, for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life (text).
A tenet of the Christian faith is the reverence for the Sacred Scripture, but there is a great division among Christians as to how they should regard the Word. In some denominations they hold that every word and phrase is literally true. Others hold to the view that while the Bible is “true,” there are places that are recognized as being symbolic, rather than strictly, literally true. And there are groups who regard themselves as Christians, yet still disregard most of the Bible as being a collection of ancient folk tales that are both internally inconsistent and essentially irrelevant to life in the modern world.
The reason there is such a diversity of views is because there is a basic misunderstanding of the structure of the Word — but that is not really surprising when we think that the Word was actually written in the way it was to hide and protect its true nature until the human race had reached sufficient maturity for the truth about the Word to be revealed.
The Old Testament is harsh, full of threats and punishments, and especially the command, “Thou Shalt Not!” It reads like a father or mother speaking sharply to a naughty child, and it is not too difficult for us to see that in those days, the human race was in its childhood.
But just as the stern father must take a new approach as his children become young adults and begin to lead them through their developing moral sense, so God presented Himself to mankind quite differently in the New Testament — appealing to their innate desire for fairness, and a spirit of justice in their dealings with others. Jesus speaks to this when He said,
You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart (MAT 5:27,28).
There are many other examples like this, especially in the Sermon on the Mount. The point He was trying to make was that the Jewish Church had known the commandments, and had, at least in their own minds, kept to the letter of the agreement, but they had not really turned away from the evil, as they continued to enjoy it in their fantasies and imagination.
Just as He once taught the Jews that sacrifice was not enough, that He required obedience to His laws (1SA 15:22), He was now giving further instruction to a more mature audience, that it was no longer enough just to obey the letter of the law, but that the spirit of the law had to be obeyed as well. This is an important concept, because when the sacred books of the Old Testament were merged with the gospels and the epistles of the New to create our Bible some 600 years ago, the new work was filled with apparent contradictions in the letter. The Old Testament teaches the doctrine of revenge (eye for eye, and tooth for tooth, [EXO 21:24-25, LEV 24:19,20]) while the New Testament teaches forgiveness (seventy times seven [MAT 18:22]). The Old Testament says, Happy shall he be who takes and dashes Your little ones against the rock (PSA 137:9), while the New Testament teaches, Even so it is not the will of your Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish (MAT 18:14). The Old and New Testaments were written in different times for different kinds of people, and therefore, in the literal sense, they seem to contradict each other in a number of ways.
There is the additional problem that there are things in Scripture that are impossible to reconcile with our understanding of the nature of the universe: the creation of the universe in six days some 6000 years ago is one example; the idea that the stars could fall to earth (as described in the book of Revelation) is another.
A final problem with the letter of scripture is that there are a number of people who want to follow God’s Word as presented in the Bible, but who also find it very difficult to understand how the lists of dietary regulations for the ancient Hebrews are going to help them cope with life in the modern world.
The heavenly doctrines of the New Church help us to see beyond these external considerations, beyond the husk to the kernel of spiritual truth hidden within. The fact is that the Word has been written so that many things in the sense of the letter of the Word are appearances of truth, which conceal within them genuine truths (TCR 257).
We all know that the rising of the sun each morning is an appearance of truth, based on the early idea that the earth was the center of the universe and that all else moved around it. But there is nothing wrong with us referring to this common misconception as a manner of speaking–as long as we all recognize that it is not literally true. The problem arises when we read in the Word that the sun rises, and therefore, out of a sense of loyalty to the holiness of the Word, try to use passages from scripture to prove that scientific observations must be wrong because the Word says that the sun rises. To use the truths of the Word in this way weaken them and destroy them. (See TCR 257).
In the New Church, we believe that the Word has been Divinely inspired, and every verse of Scripture contains within it truths about the Lord, and about His kingdom in heaven and on the earth, but we also believe that these truths have been hidden within the literal sense in such a way that anyone who seeks them in humility can find them, while those who are skeptics, and who would use the Word for evil purposes cannot find them at all.
The spiritual sense is not the sense that shines forth from the sense of the letter of the Word when one is studying it and so construing it as to confirm some dogma of the church. That may be called the literal and ecclesiastical sense of the Word. The spiritual sense is not apparent in the sense of the letter; it is interiorly within it as the soul is in the body, as the thought of the understanding is in the eyes, or the love’s affection in the face. It is that sense chiefly that makes the Word spiritual, not only for men but for angels also; and therefore by means of that sense the Word has communication with the heavens.
As the Word is inwardly spiritual it was written purely by correspondences; and because it was written by correspondences in its outmost sense it was written in a style like that of the Prophets, the Gospels, and the Apocalypse, which, although commonplace in appearance, still conceals within it Divine wisdom and all angelic wisdom. (TCR 194)
When the Lord came into the world, one of the things He did was to reveal the inner meaning, or moral spirit of the Old Testament. Mankind had reached a point where they could learn and understand more of what He had to say, and yet, it was not enough. There was so much more that He wanted to say, but there had to be time for the things He had already said to be absorbed, and understood. He said, I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now (JOH 16:12), and promised that He would return to explain further, When … the Spirit of truth has come, He will guide you into all truth (JOH 16:13).
Throughout His life in the world, the Lord taught people about the spiritual world, but the concept was so alien to them, that He had to compare it to things that were familiar to them, farms, vineyards, marriage feasts, and the like. Teaching in this way is known as teaching by parable, and the Word tells us that without a parable He did not speak to them (MAR 4:34, MAT 13:34). It is our belief that for us to truly understand the nature of the Lord’s Word, we need to understand that the whole of it, both the Old and the New Testaments, is a parable, a story that has an inner meaning, a moral, a spirit. All that was needed was for the Lord to reveal a key that would unlock the parables of scripture and reveal the glories hidden within.
Unless the spiritual sense were at some time opened, the Word as to this and all other things in the Revelation would be so completely closed that at last no one would know wherein its Divine holiness lies. (WORD 12)
Eventually the human race reached the point where they could receive the key that would open the Word, that would reveal that the Sacred Scriptures are completely consistent from beginning to end when regarded from their spirit, or inner meaning, to demonstrate the truth of Paul’s statement that the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life (text).
Just as each of the other books of the Scripture had been written by a prophet who had been specifically inspired to write in a certain way so that the words he chose would carry a hidden, spiritual meaning within them, so once again the Lord called on a man to write down His message to mankind. Emanuel Swedenborg was called by the Lord to write down a new revelation that would provide the key to understanding the message that God had put in the Word from the beginning, but that mankind was only now prepared to understand.
This new revelation had to take place in a new way, because it was aimed at a new kind of mind. The prophets of the Old Testament were simply told what to write. The gospel writers at least had the opportunity to know Jesus personally so their works, although inspired as to every word, yet reflect something of their own character and interest — Matthew wrote for the Jews and so repeatedly showed how Jesus was fulfilling the prophecies, while Luke wrote as the educated man he was, and told the story from Mary’s point of view because he knew her well. Swedenborg was called because the new revelation was to be for the new man who lived after the so-called “Age of Enlightenment,” a man who was a student of both religion and science, and who demanded that his world view be consistent, that his religion and his science must each compliment each other to form a non-contradictory view of both matter and spirit.
After accepting the Lord’s call, Swedenborg spent the next twenty-seven years recording the things that were revealed to him out of heaven by the Lord. These Writings, which form the doctrinal basis of the New Church, demonstrate how the spiritual sense of the Word can be systematically drawn out of the letter in such a way as to provide a beautiful, consistent message of hope and love from any part of the Bible, a message that has immediate relevance to the struggles we face in our daily lives. The Writings do not change the Bible, nor do they add to it. They simply serve as the key, which the Lord Himself promised to send, that will unlock the spirit of truth that will lead to all truth (JOH 16:13).
For example, the science of Correspondences revealed in the Writings of Emanuel Swedenborg reveal that the main subject of the Word is the spiritual, not the natural, and so when we read of the seven days of creation in Genesis, we are not to wonder how there could be light on the first day, and plants on the third when the sun and moon and stars were not created until the fourth. Instead, we can see a beautiful description of the creation of the human mind from its first consciousness (the separation of light from darkness on the first day) through various stages of learning and developing maturity (days two through six), until, reaching heaven, it finds the rest of the seventh day.
As we learn the keys to understanding the message hidden within the sacred scripture, the message that will help us find our way to heaven, we can see that the letter, taken by itself with its contradictions and strange historical references, kills, while the spirit, the Divine Truth within, leads us to heaven, and thus brings us eternal, spiritual life. AMEN.
LESSONS: 1SA 15:13-23, MAT 5:38-48, WORD 18
Word 18. iii. From the spiritual sense it is that the Word is divinely inspired, and is holy in every word. It is said in the church that the Word is holy, and this because Jehovah God spoke it; but as its holiness is not apparent from the letter alone, he who on this account once doubts its holiness, afterwards confirms his doubt when reading the Word by many things in it, for he then thinks, Can this be holy? can this be Divine? Therefore lest such a thought should flow in with many, and should afterwards prevail, and thereby the conjunction of the Lord with the church, in which is the Word, should perish, it has now pleased the Lord to reveal the spiritual sense, in order that it may be known where in the Word this holiness lies hid.  This again may be illustrated by examples. The Word treats sometimes of Egypt, sometimes of Asshur, sometimes of Edom, of Moab, of the sons of Ammon, of Tyre and Sidon, of Gog; and one who does not know that these names signify things of heaven and the church may be led into the error that the Word treats much of nations and peoples, and but little of heaven and the church; thus much of earthly, and little of heavenly things. But when he knows what is signified by them, or by their names, he can come out of error into truth.
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Page constructed by James P. Cooper
Page last modified September 27, 2009