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The number twelve has deep spiritual significance in the Bible, but what does that mean for us? In this episode, hosts Curtis Childs and Jonathan Rose reveal what eighteenth-century theologian Emanuel Swedenborg learned about the twelve disciples in each of us.
This theme was inspired by a viewer question that came up during two of our Good Question! shows: “Karma, Communication from Angels, and the Lake of Fire?” and “The Origin of Evil, Praying to Spirits, and Competition?”.
Does Swedenborg offer any explanation for Matthew 16:19? What is loosed and bound on earth is loosed and bound in heaven?
Before we go further, let’s break the ice with a question of our own.
Almost every concept Swedenborg offers helps to answer this question. Humility is one fundamental concept, for instance. When it comes to feelings, everyone tends to connect heaven to happiness. Swedenborg defines heavenly happiness as a love of being useful to the whole human race, or pursuing the common good in every moment.
According to Swedenborg, the whole Bible is an allegorical story about spiritual development and rebirth. Every single biblical story was designed by God to reflect spiritual truths, and there’s a reason the number twelve shows up so many times.
When Jesus gathered his disciples, he chose twelve of them for a reason. They weren’t perfect people, but they were perfect representations of the ideas that the Bible needed to communicate.
The Lord’s twelve disciples, like the twelve tribes of Israel, represented all aspects of faith and love. (Secrets of Heaven §9410:3)
For instance, Jesus instructed Peter, whose name literally means “rock,” which represents being the foundation of the church. Jesus wasn’t instructing Peter the person; he was acknowledging what Peter represented.
“Peter” in the Word means the truth of the church’s faith that teaches good actions done out of caring. (Last Judgment §57)
So Jesus wasn’t passing the torch to one man; he was passing it to one part of all of us: the truth of faith.
People who stress the literal meaning think that these words have to do with Peter and that he was personally given this immense power. Yet they know that Peter lived an extremely simple life, that he never exercised this kind of power, and that to do so would be an assault on God’s divinity. . . . In reality, the inner meaning of the words is that it is faith in the Lord that has this power (and such faith exists only in people who love the Lord and show kindness to their neighbor). Even at that, it is not faith but the Lord, the source of faith, who has the power. (Secrets of Heaven §2760 (Preface))
The fact that Peter, a very humble and “human” sort of person, seemed an odd recipient for all that power is exactly why God trusted him with it.
“Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” (Matthew 18:18–20)
Jesus seems like he’s talking to his disciples, but he’s really talking about spiritual qualities that we have in us that bind us to the Lord.
These things were said to the disciples because they represented all truths and goods from the Lord in the aggregate. (Apocalypse Explained §206:4)
We know that Jesus doesn’t play favorites between people, but three of the disciples seem to be closer to him than the others are. The concepts these three represent are especially significant.
So the idea that three disciples are gathered in God’s name represents the gathering together of these spiritual concepts in service to him. When you want what God wants, you get what you want.
The following words . . . make it clear that God’s name (or the Lord’s) is everything faith teaches about love and charity—a theology symbolized by “believing in his name”: “As many as did accept him, to them he gave the power to be God’s children, to those believing in his name” (John 1:12). “If you ask anything in my name, I will do it; if you love me, keep my commandments” (John 14:13, 14, 15). “Whatever you ask the Father in my name, he gives to you. These things I am commanding you, to love one another” (John 15:16, 17). In Matthew: “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in their midst” (Matthew 18:20). People gathered in the Lord’s name mean those who live by faith’s teachings on love and charity and therefore have love and charity themselves. (Secrets of Heaven §2009:11)
With that foundation, let’s dig deeper into what Jesus meant by binding and loosing. The qualities represented by the disciples represent qualities we should embrace (binding) or let go of (loosing).
The Word says that twenty-four elders will sit on thrones and judge nations and peoples, and that the twelve apostles will likewise sit on thrones and judge the twelve tribes of Israel. Anyone who does not know the Word’s inner meaning has to believe this is what will happen. The way to understand it, though, becomes clear when one learns the symbolism from the inner meaning. The twenty-four elders, twelve apostles, and thrones symbolize all truth, taken together, that provides a standard of judgment. Something similar is meant here by judging the people as one of the tribes of Israel. Not that judgment will be passed by . . . any elders of theirs but by truth itself, which they symbolize, and consequently by the Lord alone, since all truth emanates from him. . . . Here is what Matthew says about the twelve apostles: Jesus said, “You who have followed me—in the rebirth, when the Son of Humankind sits on his glorious throne, you too will sit on twelve thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Matthew 19:28). And in Luke: “I myself am arranging for you—as my Father arranged for me—a kingdom, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom, and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Luke 22:29, 30). Of course this is not about twenty-four elders or twelve apostles but about everything true and good in general, since no human, not even an angel, can judge anyone. None but the Lord alone can know a person’s inner depths or the nature of those depths, in the present or in the future, to eternity. (Secrets of Heaven §6397)
Judgment from God isn’t scary; it’s the very definition of justice and mercy. If you listen to God’s guidance to help you be your best self, you’ll be able to better free yourself from frustration.
The earth symbolizes the outer self and heaven the inner self . . . [and] reformation begins in the earth, or outer self. (Secrets of Heaven §89)
So binding and loosing on the outside has an effect on the inside. This process isn’t about perfection; it’s about making choices that move you in the right direction.
Through the divine physical form the Lord added on in the world, he enlightens not only our inner spiritual self but also our outer physical self. If both of these are not enlightened at the same time, we are in shadow, but when they are both enlightened at once we are in daylight. If just our inner self is enlightened but not our outer self, or if just our outer self is enlightened but not our inner self, we are like people who are asleep and dreaming; soon after they wake up they remember their dream and make various false inferences based on it. We are also like sleepwalkers who think the things they see are in broad daylight. (True Christianity §109)
Both our higher and lower selves need to be in sync, and our better qualities provide guidance for the rest of us. It’s part of the plan that we’re not perfect, so we just need to commit and stick to it.
A great deal of my experience has testified to the fact that we are our love or intention after death. All heaven is differentiated into communities on the basis of differences in the quality of love, and every spirit who is raised up into heaven and becomes an angel is taken to the community where her or his love is. When we arrive there we feel as though we are in our own element, at home, back to our birthplace, so to speak. Angels sense this and associate there with kindred spirits. When they leave and go somewhere else, they feel a constant pull, a longing to go back to their kindred and therefore to their dominant love. This is how people gather together in heaven. The same applies in hell. . . . We may also gather that we are our love after death from the fact that anything that does not agree with our dominant love is then removed and apparently taken away from us. For good people, what is removed and apparently taken away is everything that disagrees and conflicts, with the result that they are admitted to their love. It is much the same for evil people. . . . Once this has happened, we constantly turn our faces toward our love and have it constantly before our eyes no matter which way we face. (Heaven and Hell §479:1–2)
All we have to do on earth is make a start.
Regeneration continues all the way to the end of a person’s life in the world and afterward to eternity. (Secrets of Heaven §9410:4)
Having planted those three seeds in our minds, let’s take a moment to meditate on these ideas.
Even the most complex and confusing Bible passages have real, practical implications once you understand their deeper meanings. The qualities represented by the twelve disciples live in all of us, and we can choose to embrace them.
Thanks for joining us—we’ll see you next week!
Related Swedenborg & Life Videos
“Karma, Communication from Angels, and the Lake of Fire?” (Good Question!)
“The Origin of Evil, Praying to Spirits, and Competition?” (Good Question!)
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In a lighthearted and interactive webcast format, host Curtis Childs from the Swedenborg Foundation and featured guests explore topics from Swedenborg’s eighteenth-century writings about his spiritual experiences and afterlife explorations and discuss how they relate to modern-day life and death.
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