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Seeking to understand the truth of Jesus’s words can be encouraging and enlightening, but it’s also exactly what he wants us to do. Asking questions is one more way we can do God’s work. In this episode, hosts Curtis Childs and Jonathan Rose work with the writings of eighteenth-century theologian Emanuel Swedenborg to answer the following question:
Does anything in the Bible indicate that there are deeper meanings to Jesus’s teachings?
Before we go further, though, let’s break the ice with one more question.
Jonathan remembers a passage in which people are commanded to eat horses and chariots. Eating horses may sound gross, but eating chariots is just anatomically impossible! Curtis thinks of a few stories where God appears to instruct people to do things that we understand as evil. One army was told they had to kill all the men, women, children, and animals associated with a group of people. That doesn’t sound like what a loving God would want us to do.
Swedenborg holds that all of scripture is written in what are called correspondences—physical containers or symbols of spiritual truths. This internal sense of the Bible is actually supported directly by the Bible itself.
Jesus spoke all these things to the crowd in parables; he did not say anything to them without using a parable. (Matthew 13:34)
This method of instruction is rare today, and it was even more rare in Jesus’s time. But it was the only way he shared the truth. He said as much himself.
Though I have been speaking figuratively, a time is coming when I will no longer use this kind of language but will tell you plainly about my Father. (John 16:25)
The power of an internal sense is that it can be timeless—while the details of a story may seem dependent on the cultural and historical context, the spiritual truths it discusses are relevant even today.
This internal sense becomes most clear in John 6, which we’ll explore now.
Jesus performed miracles and told parables, and it attracted a whole lot of followers. But only twelve really stuck with him—we talk more about them in “The 12 Disciples in Us.”
A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. (John 6:2)
Later in John, we hear about how Jesus fed five thousand people with a very small amount of food.
Seeing these miracles, the masses who followed Jesus wanted to make him their king, but he disagreed.
Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.” . . . So they said to him, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” Then Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.” Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. . . . For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me. . . .” Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” They were saying, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” (John 6:25–42)
Jesus knew his every word would be carried through history to many different audiences, so everything he said had layers of meaning that could connect with everyone.
This made it possible for the Word to be written in such a way that people reading it on earth could grasp it and the angels present with them could truly understand it. The Lord spoke in the same way for the same reason. Had it been otherwise, the message would not have been suited to the grasp of readers—especially at that time—or to the comprehension of angels; people would not have accepted it, and angels would not have understood it. (Secrets of Heaven §3652:5)
For instance, think about the very relatable example of eating or drinking. We’re taking in physical substances to fuel our bodies, and Jesus uses that idea to help us understand spiritual learning.
[Jesus said] “I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” So Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.” He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum. When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, “Does this offend you? . . . It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.” . . . Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” Jesus answered them, “Did I not choose you, the twelve?” (John 6:48–70)
With the way Jesus packages these lessons, it might be easy to take them at face value and turn away. But if we lean into the twelve disciples within us that want to learn, we’ll find useful messages.
Jesus—the Word in flesh—and the Bible speak in much the same way: parables that hold deeper meaning.
The style of the Word is the divine style itself, and no other style, however sublime and excellent it may appear to be, can be compared with it. . . . It is characteristic of the Word’s style that there is something holy in every statement, even in every word, even at times in the letters themselves; so the Word unites us to the Lord and opens heaven. . . . To free people from any doubt that this is the nature of the Word, the Lord has revealed to me an inner meaning of the Word, a meaning that is essentially spiritual and that dwells within the outer meaning, which is earthly, the way a soul dwells within a body. . . . It is primarily [the spiritual] meaning that makes the Word spiritual not only for us but for angels as well; so by means of this meaning the Word is in communication with the heavens. . . . We can tell from the Lord’s parables, which have a spiritual meaning in their very words, that when he was in the world he spoke in correspondences—that is, he was speaking in spiritual terms when he was naming earthly things. . . . We can see from this that the Lord spoke in pure correspondences; and this is because he was speaking from the divine nature that was within him and that was his own. . . . That is why the Lord said that his words were spirit and were life (John 6:63). (Sacred Scripture §§3–5, 17)
There’s nothing wrong with the literal sense of the Word—it’s designed as a starting point.
Absolutely everything in the physical world corresponds to something spiritual, as does absolutely everything in the human body. However, the nature of this correspondence has been unknown until the present time, even though it was common knowledge in ancient times. For the people who lived in those times, the knowledge of how things correspond to each other was the very essence of knowledge. This knowledge was so universal that it governed the writing of all their scrolls and books. . . . And since divine things become manifest in this world by means of correspondences, the Word was written entirely by means of them. That is why the Lord, speaking as he did from his divine nature, spoke in correspondences, since in the physical world whatever comes from the divine nature clothes itself in things that correspond to divine realities and that therefore conceal in their embrace the divine realities that we call heavenly and spiritual. . . . Without its literal meaning the Word would be like a palace without a foundation. . . . The Word without its literal meaning would be like a human body without the coverings called layers of skin and without the structural supports called bones. (Sacred Scripture §§20, 33)
The literal sense of scripture serves as a foundation so that we can get an understanding about something before seeing its deeper meaning.
A body of teaching made up of genuine truth can actually be drawn entirely from the literal meaning of the Word because in that meaning the Word is like a clothed person whose hands and face are bare. Everything that has to do with how we live and therefore with our salvation is bare, while the rest is clothed; and in many places where the meaning is clothed it shows through like a face seen through a thin veil. As the truths of the Word are multiplied by being loved and in this way gain coherence, they shine through their clothing more and more clearly and become more visible. . . . The reason we have union with the Lord through the Word is that the Word is entirely about him. . . . The reason we have companionship with angels of heaven through the literal meaning is that within the literal meaning there are spiritual and heavenly levels of meaning, and those levels are the ones on which angels are focused. . . . Whether or not the Word is the Word depends on our comprehension of it—that is, on how we understand it. If we do not understand it, we may of course call it “the Word,” but for us it is not the Word. The Word is truth depending on how it is understood, for the Word can be nontruth—it can be distorted. The Word is spirit and life depending on how we understand it, for the letter is dead if it is not understood. . . . Further still, we need to realize that the literal meaning of the Word serves to protect the real truths that lie hidden within it. Its protection consists of its being susceptible to being turned in different directions and interpreted to agree with our own grasp of it, so that the inner content is not damaged or transgressed. It does no harm if different people understand the literal meaning of the Word differently. It does do harm, though, if the divine truths that lie hidden within are distorted. This in fact does violence to the Word. To prevent this from happening, the literal meaning offers protection. (Sacred Scripture §§55, 62, 63, 77, 97)
These two layers are important because they work to give us safe access to the truth so that we can have better conversations about spiritual texts.
Having planted those three seeds in our minds, let’s take a moment to meditate on these ideas.
God will use every available opportunity to reach us and help us understand him better.
What’s the Takeaway?
That Jesus communicates to people and angels all at the same time to help bring together heaven and earth. Isn’t it neat to think that we’re hearing the same things that the angels are?
Thanks for joining us—we’ll see you next week!