For the day of vengeance was in my mind, and the year for my redeeming work had come. I looked, but there was no one to help; I was appalled that no one gave support. So my own arm worked salvation for me. (Isaiah 63:4–5)
In the previous post, I responded to the question “What child is this” by saying that this child Jesus was and is “God with us,” as the prophet and the Gospel say. With that as a preface, I would like to introduce a new series on the inner life of Jesus Christ—originally sermons delivered in 2004, during my decade as a pastor. While I may occasionally post articles on other topics as well, my current commitments as a Swedenborg scholar, seminary professor, and graduate student leave very little time to write new material for Spiritual Insights for Everyday Life.
I was inspired to this theme by the beautiful booklet A Life of Jesus Little Known, by the Rev. William L. Worcester, originally published in 1905, and unfortunately now out of print. In this series, we will follow the Lord’s (Jesus’) life as told in the Gospel stories, together with the deepest level of meaning in the Bible story as illuminated by Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772) in his great work Arcana Coelestia, or Secrets of Heaven.
For today’s introduction, I would like to delve a little further into the question of who Jesus was, where he came from, and why he came to earth. Without knowing these things, we cannot possibly understand what was going on in the Lord’s mind and heart during his lifetime here on earth.
The many names of God
Of course, we limited humans can never do more than scratch the surface of the divine depths of the Lord’s mind and heart. And I don’t expect to do any more than that in this series. But on our own human level, we can, with the help of the Bible and Swedenborg’s writings, gain some understanding and appreciation for who the Lord was, what he went through during his life here on earth, and why. My hope is that this will help those of us who are followers of Jesus to increase our understanding of the Lord, and our love for the Lord, so that we may have a closer and deeper relationship with the One who is both our Creator and our Friend.
Our starting point is where we left off in the previous post: that Jesus Christ was “Emmanuel,” which means “God with us.” And as I mentioned in that article, even this has been a matter of debate among Christians ever since the Christian era began. Traditional Christian theology holds that Jesus represented the second Person of a three-person God. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are each seen as distinct persons—and yet, in contradictory fashion, God is said to be one God.
One of the problems that may have led to this irrational belief is a confusion between names and persons. There is a science fiction short story by Arthur C. Clark called “The Nine Billion Names of God” in which a group of monks in a remote monastery buy an advanced computer in order to list all the names of God, believing that once they do, the purpose of Creation will have been fulfilled, and the universe will come to an end. I’m not sure there have been nine billion names used for God. But without too much exaggeration, I think I could say there have probably been a million. And in some parts of the world at some times, each of those million names was considered to be a separate deity.
The Bible, too, has many names for God—Jehovah, God, Lord, and so on—including the ones mentioned in the previous post: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. If each name that the Bible uses for God were a separate person, Christians would be polytheists with the best of ’em! Traditional Christianity has gotten it down to three. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are each considered God by themselves. Swedenborg gets it down to one God—where it belongs—by understanding that a distinct name does not mean a distinct person.
The Son of God
In one section of True Christian Religion, Swedenborg’s great summary of his theology, he mentions three other names of God, each focusing on the “Son” aspect: “the Son of God,” “the Son of Man,” and “the Son of Mary”:
The Son of the God” means Jehovah God in his humanity; “the Son of Man” means the Lord as the Word; and “the Son of Mary” means the actual human nature that he took upon himself. (True Christian Religion #92)
In other words, even though these names sound like they are describing a separate person who is God’s Son, they are, in fact, describing different aspects—or “essentials,” as Swedenborg says—of one Divine Person.
In the case of names that involve the “Son,” it is talking about the human side of the Lord, as compared to the divine side. These are not two, but one, which Swedenborg calls the “Divine Humanity.” Yet we can think of them distinctly in our minds. And when we do, metaphorically speaking, the human side is the “son” of the divine side, since it comes from the divine side. It also expresses the divine side.
Even physically, Jesus Christ was the Son of God, since it was from God that he was conceived, and it was from God that his divine soul came. Yet unlike human souls, which differentiate themselves from their parents, the divine soul is infinitely one, and cannot be divided. That is why in the unique case of the Son of God, rather than separating from the Father as human children do from their parents, the Son remained together with the Father. During his life on earth, Jesus Christ left behind everything that didn’t come from the Father. In the process he become fully one and the same Divine Person as the Father—only with a human nature that he had not possessed before.
(Edit: I should add that “Father” and “Son” are metaphors. God is not exclusively a “man” in the present-day sense of that word. But that is a whole subject of its own. See: “The Mother of All the Living.”)
This is the first and most basic concept we must understand if we are to even begin to grasp the process that Jesus went through inwardly while he was here on earth. Jesus was the Son of God, meaning that his inner soul was God himself, while he, as a human being here on earth, came from that divine soul.
This is not merely an abstract, theoretical idea. It assures the Lord’s followers that the Jesus Christ we pray to, and who comes to us, guides us, strengthens us, and leads us in good times and bad, is indeed both our Creator and our Friend. When we pray to Jesus, we are praying to one who loves us with an infinite love, who understands us with infinite understanding—and with personal experience of what we go through here on earth—and who has infinite power to lift us up and lead us toward heaven.
The Son of Mary
However, Jesus Christ also came from Mary, who was a finite human being. This is also essential to grasp if we wish to understand what he accomplished here on earth. Jesus came to redeem and save humankind, and that he did this by taking on a human nature. The human nature that he took on came partly from the divine soul, as the “Son of God.” But it also came partly from his human mother, as the “Son of Mary.” Where these two human natures met, he was also able to meet all of human evil—and conquer it.
Human evil cannot approach God directly, nor can God approach human evil directly. If God did, it would be like the sun approaching the earth in order to “cleanse” it. The “cleansing” would utterly destroy the earth. In the same way, if God came to us as God’s core divine nature to cleanse us of our evils, we would be destroyed in the process. It would be like encountering the sun by flying directly into it: we would be instantly vaporized! No, God had to come to us in an accommodated form—a form in which God could approach us finite human beings, approach the evil that had accumulated among us, fight against it, and conquer it, without destroying us in the process.
God did this by taking on a finite, fallible human nature from Mary, and using it as a battlefield where the combined human evil that we know of as the Devil, Satan, and hell could approach and attack God, and where God could, from God’s divine power, overcome that evil and bring it into subjection to the divine will once and for all.
This is a second concept that we must understand if we wish to grasp the process Jesus went through here on earth. We see in the Gospel stories Jesus battling the entrenched religious orthodoxy of his time. We also get a few brief glimpses of the corresponding inner battles: his temptations in the desert after his baptism, his agony in the garden of Gethsemane, and the Crucifixion itself. These are brief glimpses of a war that was going on within him throughout his life on earth. Jesus Christ was fighting continual battles against hell and evil almost from birth. And Swedenborg gives us a much more sustained look at these inner battles in Secrets of Heaven.
This, too, is not merely some theoretical concept. It assures us that in all the inner battles we go through in this life, as grievous, painful, and harrowing as they may be, the Lord is with us every step of the way. Jesus went through battles far worse than any we will ever face, and came through them victorious. And he will give us the victory in our spiritual battles, too, if we turn to him, have faith in him, and fight from the power of his truth and his love.
A God of love and truth
And that is a final concept we must understand if we wish to grasp the inner life of Jesus, and the Lord’s relationship with us. Whatever the appearance may be, everything Jesus did, everything God does, comes from love, and is expressed through truth.
Some Christians churches view God the Father as angry and vindictive, imposing harsh penalties on people who do not live up to his standards. If the Bible is interpreted in this way, it becomes the story of God the Father’s “wrath and justice,” eventually tempered by the love of God the Son. Our opening quote from Isaiah then becomes the story of God literally engaging in “a day of vengeance” against all his enemies.
But these words are spoken according to the human appearance of things, to reach us where we are when we are far away from God. In the deeper meaning, God’s wrath becomes what it really is: God’s love. It is a love that motivates and drives everything God has done throughout history, everything God did while on earth as Jesus Christ, and everything God does for each one of us every day of our lives.
(Note: This post is an edited version of a talk originally delivered on December 28, 2003. For the next article in this series, please see: “The Infant Lord.”)
For further reading: