Swedenborg Study.com

Online works based on the Writings of Emanuel Swedenborg


The Apostolic Writings

by Rev. Hugo Lj. Odhner

The Writings of the New Church compare the Apostolic Church to a new star appearing in the starry heaven. (See TCR 176) Darkness still lingered over the world - a night of spiritual ignorance, when the truths of the ancient religions had degenerated into polytheism, superstition and magical claims; when philosophy had soured into a supercilious skepticism; and when such fashionable perversities as murder, homosexuality, slavery and cruelties of all kinds debased the codes of society.

Christianity itself could not begin to dawn until a much later time - when the Lord came again to reveal the spiritual teachings for a New Church. (See TCR 700) Yet the morning star of the Apostolic Age shone feebly throughout the Dark Ages of Rome and the cold winter of Protestant reforms. For the gospel of the Lord was committed to writing, and the fervor of early Christian faith still breathed in the pages of the New Testament.

The New Testament includes five books which are inspired by the Holy Spirit and are so written that their letter contains a continuous spiritual sense of infinite profundity. These books are the four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and the prophetical Apocalypse or book of Revelation. But as received by the Christian Church, the New Testament also includes a historical book called the Acts of the Apostles, and a group of twenty-one pastoral letters or Epistles - fourteen purporting to be written by Paul, one by James, two by Peter, three by John, and one by Jude.

The Christian Church was founded on the Gospels as well as on the Epistles. But it is notable that for the elucidation of doctrine Christians have depended, and still depend, on the Epistles, especially those of Paul. This is the more strange since Paul was not one of the twelve apostles, nor did he follow the Lord or receive the Christian doctrine from the apostles. In fact, Paul does not cite a single parable or teaching from the Lord's sayings, but "took all things from himself." (SD 4824) "He received nothing from the life and discourse of the Lord." (SD 4412) He was converted to Christianity by a miracle while he was on an errand to persecute the Christians! It was revealed to Swedenborg that Paul's pious preaching did not emanate from an angelic character. "The love of self with which he had been filled before he preached the gospel remained with him also afterwards." (SD 4412) The rest of the apostles rejected him from their company in the other life, even as they had been reluctant to recognize him on earth.

Yet his epistles were, by a permission of Providence, made the chief source of doctrine in the Christian Church lest the Word itself be used by evil men to confirm their falsities. (SD 4824) This does not imply that Paul did not teach the general truths of Christianity and teach them powerfully. The meaning is that his epistles did not contain a spiritual sense, were not sacred scripture. Instead, they were "doctrinal writings," written with the purpose of establishing Christianity, and thus written in a clearer and more intimate style.( See Docu. 224)

All the Epistles, including Paul's, are therefore called "good books of the Church." "They insist," Swedenborg wrote in a private letter, "upon the doctrine of charity and its faith as strongly as the Lord Himself has done in the Gospels and the Book of Revelation; as may be seen and found evident by anyone who in reading them directs his attention to these points." (Ibid.) And this is what we are now proposing to do.

In the earliest Greek manuscripts of the New Testament, the Epistle of James takes the first place after Acts. This was, perhaps, because the author was believed to be the brother of the Lord according to the flesh, James the brother of John having been killed by King Herod about the year A.D. 44.

In accord with the fact that the apostle James had represented charity, the Epistle of James significantly stresses that side of the Christian teachings. It may also be significant that the Christian Church later placed the Pauline letters before that of James. Luther, whose doctrine of salvation by "faith alone" could not be reconciled with that of James, excluded this epistle from his canon of the Word. (See LJ Post. 198, 33e. Cf. SD 6042e; AR 675: 7)

James addressed his letter to Christian Jews in every land, (Cf. Acts 15: 13-30 for another such epistle) encouraging them: "Be ye doers of the Word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves." "What does it profit, my brethren," he wrote, "though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? Can faith save him?" "Faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone." "Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar? . . . Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith alone. . . . As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also."

James preached poverty both in spirit and in fact, warning against the corruptions that riches bring. He counseled joyful patience in temptations, and stated with spiritual insight that God tempteth no man, but man is enticed by his own lust. But he gave a special warning that religion is vain if a man bridle not his tongue. "The tongue is a little member and boasteth great things. Behold, how much wood a small fire can kindle! and the tongue is a fire - a world of iniquity. . . . It defiles the whole body . . . and is set on fire of hell." "All kinds of beasts have been tamed by mankind; but the tongue," he complains, "no body can tame." Yet out of the same mouth there proceed both blessing and cursing. If you have wisdom, show it by good conversation and meekness of wisdom. But do not glory in wisdom if your heart is full of bitter envy and strife; such wisdom is sensual, devilish. Real wisdom, which comes from above, is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, easily entreated, full of mercy, without partiality or hypocrisy.

And be patient. "For the coming of the Lord draweth nigh!" Pray! "The prayer of faith shall save the sick." "Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed." "The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much."

We have cited this Epistle first because it displays the simple-hearted spirit among the early Christians.

How Christianity spread is known to us chiefly through the book called Acts of the Apostles. It is generally admitted as written by Luke, (See Luke 1: 1-3, Acts 1: 1) who was an early member of the church at Antioch, where he followed the profession of physician.( See Colossians 4: 14, Acts 11) Both the Gospel of Luke and the Acts were written as letters addressed to one Theophilus. The Gospel was avowedly a continuous narrative based on the testimony of eyewitnesses, while Acts is partly also Luke's own account of his journeys in Paul's company. A better title for the book would be "Acts of Peter and Paul."

The book opens with an account of the Lord's ascension and the first public preaching of Christianity at Pentecost, the organization of the Christian community at Jerusalem, the conflicts with the Sanhedrin, and the martyrdom of Stephen. Then it tells of the spread of the Christian faith in neighboring districts. Saul of Tarsus is converted by a vision even while bent on persecuting the infant church. Peter is sent to baptize Gentiles, and the apostles meet and approve this policy. Saul sets out on various missionary journeys, mostly to Asia Minor, but also to Greece. His relations with the apostles, his preaching and his arrest in Jerusalem by the Romans, his shipwreck at Malta, and his advent in Rome occupy the main portion of the Acts of the Apostles.

The story of the spread of Christianity thus naturally centers in the strange, colorful and compelling figure of Saul of Tarsus, who, after his conversion, called himself Paul - "the little one." His personal appearance did not command admiration. He was short in stature, bald, with a hooked nose and poor eyesight. His preaching was rather dull and un attractive, at least to his critical Greek audience. (See II Corinthians 10: 10) Yet he had the bearing and dignity of a man who was fearless and energetic, keen of apprehension, and able to arrange his thoughts into forcible and logical array; and he convinced Christian posterity that his moral character was everything that was great and noble.

But even his worst critics seem to agree that what he wrote ranks with the most vital and suggestive books that have ever been written, and certainly with the most influential. If we would understand the thoughts and ideals of Christendom from its beginnings, and the phases and turns of Protestant literature, we must become familiar with the Pauline epistles.

Letters are the least studied forms of writing, and this gives them unusual historical value. This is true of all the Epistles. But Paul's epistles are most carefully constructed, every phrase weighted with a significance that is often lost to the modern reader. They were usually pastoral letters to churches he had visited or which he had organized. They were written with specific problems in mind: to answer questions, to allay dissention or unrest, to settle controversies, or to urge patience and fortitude and give moral advice. But not infrequently he writes in his own defense, whether to express his right to the title of apostle or to put himself up as an example for all to follow.

The meaning of the Pauline theology would be obscure unless his claim as apostle is clarified. In the Epistle to the Galatians, where he gives his autobiography, he rests his claim on the fact that he had been directly called by Jesus Christ, and not by men. He admitted having visited Peter for fifteen days and having seen James the brother of Jesus, but he stoutly maintained that the gospel he preached was "not after man." "For," he wrote, "I neither received it of man, neither was I taught it, but by the revelation of Jesus Christ." (See Galatians 1: 1, 11, 12, 16ff.) He claimed to have had later revelations, once being caught up to the third heaven, (See Verbo 6) and thus was "in nothing behind the very chiefest apostles." (II Corinthians 12) It was natural that the apostles should be cautious in accepting their former persecutor officially as a full colleague, for they considered their office as belonging only to "eyewitnesses" of the Lord's resurrection. Moreover, this self-styled "apostle of the Gentiles" - although he was a Jew, a Benjamite, a former Pharisee, pupil of the renowned Rabbi Gamaliel - was now doing away with the barriers between Jews and Gentiles and baptizing and accepting converts from among the uncircumcised, excusing them from the Mosaic Law and its ritual requirements. Not until Peter had been instructed by a vision to accept Gentiles, and Paul and the apostles had had a conference on the subject in Jerusalem, was Paul recognized officially; (See Acts 15) and even so, Peter and the others leaned toward encouraging the converted Jewish Christians to keep up the practices of ritual worship.

Undoubtedly, Paul was raised up to make it clear that Christianity was in no sense a sect of the Jewish Church. But in his zeal Paul shows considerable intolerance with those who, like Peter, differed from him. (Even in the spiritual world, Paul had contempt for Peter as a simpleton. See SD min. 4631) To the Galatians he writes, hinting at Peter "Though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed!" He accuses Peter of dissembling. (See Galatians 11: 11ff) "A man, he writes, "is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ." "I am crucified in Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God who loved me and gave Himself for me. I do not frustrate the grace of God: for if righteousness came by the law, then Christ is dead in vain." "Behold I, Paul, say unto you, that if ye be circumcised, Christ shall profit you nothing."

Yet Paul recognized the circumcision of the heart, spoken of by the prophets; a circumcision in the spirit, not in the letter. (See Romans 2: 29. 21) "The letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life." "Where the spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty." (II Corinthians 3: 6, 17)

Therefore Paul felt that Christians should not be bound to the dietary laws of the Hebrews. "To the pure all things are pure," he said. (Titus 1: 15, Romans 14: 1, I Corinthians 8, 10: 23-33) He went beyond his agreement with the apostles and permitted that Christians eat even meat "offered to an idol" - which probably meant bought from the meat market of a pagan temple or offered in a pagan home. Cautiously he adds that if such practice makes a brother to offend, he would, of course, abstain. "All things are lawful for me, but all things are not expedient." (I Corinthians 10: 23)

Since Luther relied upon the epistles of Paul for his doctrine of salvation by "faith alone," without the works of charity, it is well to note that Paul, when he said, "A man is justified by faith without the works of the law," was plainly referring to the works of the Jewish ceremonial law. For he continues: "Is God the God of the Jews only? Is He not also of the Gentiles?" (Romans 3: 28, 29)

Paul never said, as did Luther, that good works, and especially works of repentance, do not contribute to salvation. But neither did he clearly state, as did James, that faith without such works is dead. Yet Paul preached that Christians should not conform to the world, but be "transformed by the renewing of their minds" and present their bodies a living and holy sacrifice in service acceptable to God. Give with simplicity, show mercy with cheerfulness, love without dissimulation, he urged. "Abhor that which is evil, cleave to that which is good. Be kindly affectioned one to another, with brotherly love; in honor preferring one another; be not slothful in business; be fervent in spirit, serving the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, continuing instant in prayer. Distribute to the needs of the saints; be disposed to hospitality. Bless them that persecute you, bless and curse not. . . . Recompense no man evil for evil." "Be not wise in your own conceits." "Provide things honest in the sight of all men." "Avenge not yourselves." "If thine enemy hunger, feed him . . . for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head. Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good." "Love worketh no evil to his neighbor: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law." (Romans 12, 13: 10)

The new Christian life here advocated is certainly not contrary to the Lord's Sermon on the Mount. It does not enter systematically into the doctrine of regeneration, but it suggests the essentials of repentance. In speaking of the sacrament of the Holy Supper, Paul goes somewhat further. He says: "Let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread and drink of that cup. For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord's body. . . . If we would judge ourselves we would not be judged. . . . But if any man hunger, let him eat at home!" (I Corinthians 11: 28-31)

One of the most beautiful descriptions of Christian charity - or love, brotherly love, agapé - comes to us through the pen of Paul. "Though I speak with the tongue of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as a sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge (gnosis) ; and though I have all faith so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profits me nothing. Charity suffers long; it is kind; it envieth not. Charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own [advantage], is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil. It rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth. It beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. Charity never faileth; but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away. For we know, in part, and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away. When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass - as in an enigma - but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as I also am known. And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity." (I Corinthians 13)

The high tone of this discourse contrasts strangely with some of the more practical moral advice which Paul gives to the neophyte Christians of his widespread parishes. We must, of course, interpret his applications in the light of his times. Some of the epistles attributed to Paul are written personally and informally. To Timothy, one of his supervisors, he wrote: "Drink no longer water, but use a little wine for thy stomach's sake and for thy frequent infirmities." "Bodily exercise profiteth little: but godliness is profitable unto all things." "Flee fornication. . . . Know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit . . . and that ye are not your own?" (I Corinthians 6: 18, 19) In Hebrews we find the renowned saying: "Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares." (13: 2) In various epistles there are precepts for different classes of people. Servants are warned to obey their masters, and

not to talk back or do eye-service as man-pleasers.( See I Timothy 6: 2, Titus 2: 9, Ephesians 6: 5, Colossians 3: 22) Children must honor their parents. Fathers should not provoke and discourage their children, but bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. Young men must be exhorted to be soberminded, sincere in doctrine and sound of speech, beyond reproach. Young women must be discreet, sober, chaste; must keep at home and love their husbands and children, and not run around like "busybodies." Old men should be temperate, sound in faith and charity, and be grave and sober. Aged women should cultivate holiness of behavior and be teachers of good things, avoiding wine and gossip.

Women were in a special category. Eve was formed from Adam's rib, and she was responsible for man's fall. Woman's salvation lay in child bearing, provided she was virtuous. Man need not cover his head, for he is the image and glory of God; but woman was created for man, as his glory. A woman must not broider her hair or wear jewelry. She should cover her head when she prayed as a sign that she is under authority. "Let your women keep silence in the churches," wrote Paul. "I suffer not a woman to teach nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence. If they will learn anything, let them ask their husbands at home." (I Corinthians 11, 14, I Timothy 2) Husbands should, however, love their wives as they love their own bodies; for even so Christ loves His church, and gave Himself for it. And wives must submit themselves in all things to their husbands, for the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church.

In this statement of the relation of husband and wife, Paul leaves much to be desired. To Paul, the corresponding relation of Christ to the church was a sacred "mystery"; and since he himself was unmarried, a celibate by conviction, and confessedly had no revelation on the subject, we may infer that marriage itself also remained a mystery to him.

Paul, a Roman citizen by birth, believed in obeying lawful authority. Civil rulers were "the powers that be ordained of God." (Romans 3: 1) This statement was often cited by later Christians to support the Divine right of kings. He also accepted the institution of slavery without protest; for even a slave could be the Lord's freeman, redeemed without a price. (See I Corinthians 7: 22)

But to be a ruler in the church was to be a steward of God. A bishop must be blameless, vigilant, sober, hospitable, a monogamist, an able teacher; "no striker, nor greedy of filthy lucre" - for "the love of money is the root of all evil"; (I Timothy 6: 10) not covetous; not a brawler, but patient; "one who ruleth well his own house, having his children in subjection with all gravity; for if a man know not how to rule his own house, how shall he take care of the church of God?" He must be able by sound doctrine to defend the church. No novice will do, lest pride infest him; but only a man of good report. Deacons also must be proven and blameless, not double-tongued, not given to much wine, nor to greed; and their wives also must be sober and faithful, shunning slander and flippancy.( I Timothy 3, Titus 1)

Perhaps it may appear from the preceding sketch that the Epistles contain much that is suggestive and useful, that they were "good books for the church." But in addition to the practical aspects there is a side of the Apostolic Writings which needs also to be considered, for the early Christians lived only half on earth. They lived - as John shows in the Apocalypse - "in the patience and expectation of Jesus Christ." They believed that they lived in the "last times."

When the Lord promised that after many tribulations the Son of Man would come in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory, the disciples took this to mean a personal return of the Lord to earth. Both they and the early converts to Christianity also believed that this second advent of the Christ was to be accomplished within the lifetime of the apostles, yet not before they had published the gospel in all nations and endured many persecutions. It was probably expected to coincide with the predicted destruction of Jerusalem. (See Matthew 24)

Yet the Lord had warned against the thought that the kingdom of God should appear "immediately." (See Luke 19: 11) He had also said: "The kingdom of God cometh not with observation: neither shall they say, Lo here! or, to there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you." (Luke 17: 21) "My kingdom is not of this world" - not of this cosmos. (John 18: 36)

So certain were the early Christian teachers of the imminence of the Lord's return that Paul writes to the Thessalonians, praying that they may be preserved blameless, as to spirit, soul and body, until the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ., (I Thessalonians 5: 23) "We which are alive and remain," he writes, "shall be caught up together with them [the saints who are asleep], to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord." (Ibid.) And the saints would then judge the world! "Know ye not," wrote Paul, "that we shall then judge angels?" (I Corinthians 6:3)

But as the years rolled by and the great Day of Jehovah had not yet come, certain explanations were in order. Paul again writes to the Thessalonians, telling them not to be shaken or troubled by the more restless souls, and reminding them that before the great coming of the Lord there will first appear apostasy and a falling away and a revelation of "the man of sin, the son of perdition." (II Thessalonians 2: 1-3) James writes: "Be patient, brethren, unto the coming of the Lord. . . . Stablish your hearts: for the coming of the Lord draweth nigh." (James 5: 7, 8) Peter, in his second epistle, warns against scoffers who say, "Where is the promise of His coming? for since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation." (11 Peter 3: 4) He reasserts that the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night. The Lord is not slack in His promise, but is long-suffering, willing that all should come to repentance.(Ibid. 3: 9) "And," he continues, "account the long-suffering of our Lord as salvation; even as our beloved brother Paul also according to the wisdom given unto him hath written unto you; as also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things; in which are some things hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other scriptures, unto their own destruction." (Ibid. 3: 15, 16)

Peter here loyally defends Paul, but indicates that in Paul's writings there are some things hard to understand, hard to "swallow." For one thing, Peter was a simple, warmhearted man with no claims to particular religious merit, no ambitions to pose as an ascetic. He was a married man. He must have had difficulty in understanding why Paul, who was single, should take a pride in his celibacy, and tell his people: "I would that all men were even as I myself." "It is good for a man not to touch a woman." "To the unmarried and widows I therefore say, It is good for them if they abide even as I. But if they cannot contain, let them marry; for it is better to marry than to burn." "If a virgin marry, she has not sinned. Nevertheless, such shall have trouble in the flesh. . . . He that is unmarried cares for the things of the Lord . . . but he that is married cares for the things of the world, how he may please his wife." A widow "is happier if she so abide, after my judgment: and I think also that I have the Spirit of God." (I Corinthians 7)

Paul did not lay actual claim to any Divine sanction in this his plea for the glories of the celibate life. "I speak this by permission, not by command," he admits. "As to virgins, I have no commandment of the Lord, but I give my opinion as one who has obtained mercy of the Lord to be faithful." "The time is short," he adds. (Ibid.) It was in his mind that the time was short before the Lord would return to judgment. This was not the time to think of marriage and offspring. The end of all things was nigh upon them.

But let us note that since the expected end did not come, there is no stress laid on celibacy in the later epistles. Even bishops were selected from among married men. (I Timothy 3: 2) "Marriage is honorable in all," says the Epistle to the Hebrews. (Hebrews 13: 4) To forbid marriage is listed with vegetarianism as heresy in I Timothy, where Paul also succinctly says: "I will that the younger women marry, bear children, guide the house, and give no occasion for the adversary to reproach them." (I Timothy 4: 3, 5: 14)

There are, of course, many other things in Paul that are not easily understood. What is meant, for instance, by Christians undergoing a "baptism for the dead"? Seemingly it meant a vicarious baptism in which a living friend was baptized for one who had died before being baptized. (See I Corinthians 15: 29)

Several things in Paul's teachings mystified some of the other apostles. To Peter, Christianity had always meant the preaching of the Lord Jesus as the Christ, the son of God come to provide redemption in fulfillment of the Hebrew Scriptures. Paul, on the other hand, was a cosmopolite - born with the rank of a Roman citizen, bred on Jewish lore, but also versed in the world concepts that had been shaping popular Greek thinking. Paul wanted to be "all things to all men" - a Jew to the Jews, a Greek to the Gentiles. He translated Christianity into the terms of the world's thought and thus carried its message to the Hellenistic mind. Thus, where the Jews were quite satisfied with the promise that on the last day their souls would be awakened from sleep and their material bodies rise from the grave, the Greeks were not so easily convinced. "The Jews require a sign," Paul noted, "and the Greeks seek after wisdom. . . . But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, the hidden wisdom which God ordained before the world unto our glory . . . which things we speak, not in the words which man's wisdom teaches, but which the Holy Spirit teaches, comparing spiritual things with spiritual. But the natural man does not receive the things of the spirit of God, for they are foolishness unto him; neither can he know them, for they are spiritually discerned." (I Corinthians 1, 2) When some in the church at Corinth began to say that there is no resurrection of the dead, Paul argued that as there are all sorts of bodies, those of men and of beasts and of birds and of fishes, so also there are "celestial bodies and bodies terrestrial." The body of man at death is sown in corruption, but it is raised in glory. "It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. There is a natural body and there is a spiritual body." "Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God." "Behold, I tell you a mystery: we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed." (Ibid. 15)

Even those who, as Paul thought, would survive to the last day would have their bodies metamorphosed into spiritual bodies - "Changed in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed." The mortal would put on immortality. "O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?"

This doctrine of a refined, purified or spiritualized resurrection body did indeed take away some of the doubts of the Greeks. For they were accustomed to think of the material body as a prison-house of the soul, and of the surviving soul as a pure spirit or abstract mind; and many had identified matter with evil, in line with the dualistic Persian tradition.

But the pagan world was in a state of religious flux at this time. The Orient had become Hellenized and the West had been flooded with the esoteric and speculative ideas of the Orient. Above the earth men generally pictured the revolving heavens as seven concentric "spheres" ruled by fearful spiritual powers - planetary demons, brutal gods who cut off the souls of men from the source of life or the land of eternal happiness. An increasing number of mystery cults, with large popular followings, claimed to hold the secret of how to appease these hostile powers. Each promised to transmit to its initiates the magical name of their savior god, or at least reveal the way to defeat or circumvent the demons of the spheres; some by simple magic, some by rituals and sacrifices, others by ascetic abstentions, celibacy, vegetarianism, or mystical contemplation.

And now Paul began to explain Christianity in somewhat similar terms - weeding out all polytheistic ideas. We might imagine that it would be startling to Peter to find that the beloved brother Paul called baptism an "initiation" and the Christian brotherhood a "mystery." But Paul claimed that God "by revelation" had made known unto him the mystery of Christ, "to make all men see what is the fellowship of the mystery which from the eons had been hid in God, who created all things by Jesus Christ: to the intent that the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known by the church unto the principalities and powers in heavenly places, according to the purpose of the eons which He accomplished in Jesus Christ our Lord." (Ephesians 3: 9-11)

"We wrestle not," he explained to the Ephesians, "against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world - rulers of this dark age, against wicked spirits in heavenly places." (Ephesians 6: 12) "Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present or things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord." (Romans 8: 38, 39)

It is to be noted that Paul here refers to the various names which the pre-Christian gnostics used to describe the powers of the spheres. These powers they also personified as "eons" - emanations from the original unknowable infinite Source.

Paul, as did also John in his Gospel, realized that the Lord was the incarnation of the Divine wisdom which some of the Greek philosophers, and lately Philo Judaeus, had called the Logos - the Word or Reason that created the universe and ruled it. The Platonic tradition was that the Logos was the origin of a purely spiritual world of "ideas" or archetypal patterns or substantial forms, according to which all the worldly things perceived by our senses had been formed. In this world of ideas all the attributes and qualities of God stood forth distinctly; and by a fusion with the notions derived from Greek mythology, the various gods became identified in the popular mind with the various elements in this world of ideas, and with the emanating eons of this Logos-world. Without denying the separate gods, philosophers began to refer to the sum-total of the divinities and prototypes as the "pleroma" or the "fullness."

Paul in no wise meant to give any complete endorsement to these pagan beliefs. "Beware," he cautioned the Colossians, "lest any man spoil you through philosophy and empty deceit, after the tradition of men, after the elements of the cosmos, and not after Christ. For in Him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily." (Colossians 2: 8, 9. [Italics added.]) He is "the head of all principality and power." He has spoiled principalities and powers, "triumphing over them." (Colossians 2: 10, 15) He is "the image of the invisible God," and "by Him were all things created that are in heaven and in earth, both visible and invisible, whether they be thrones or dominions, or principalities or powers: all things were created by Him and for Him. He is before all things, and by Him all things consist." He is the beginning, and also the Firstborn from the dead. In Him dwells the whole Pleroma, the fullness of Divinity. (Colossians 1: 15-19, 2: 9) So inclusive is this statement, when rightly understood, that True Christian Religion cites it as containing the essence or summary of the teachings of the Word, which is the "crown of revelations." (TCR 11)

Paul's understanding of the Divine Human was by no means perfect. In the manner of all Christians he speaks of Christ as the Son of God and as the "mediator between God and men." (I Timothy 2: 5) Redemption over, Christ would return all His authority to the Father, to whom He would then become subject. (I Corinthians 15: 24, 28) "I bow my knees," Paul writes, "unto the Father of our Lord." (Ephesians 3: 14) Yet the mystical unity of Christ with the Father is often stressed. "God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto Himself." (II Corinthians 5: 19) Christ was far above the angels, for it was He that made the eons and He was the express image of God's person. He sat on the right hand of majesty on high, and was worshiped by the angels as their God. (Hebrews 1) God had "given Him a name which is above every name: that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven and in earth, and those under the earth." (Philippians 2: 9, 10) And "Jesus Christ, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God." (Ibid. 6)

A similar lack of clarity marks Paul's discussion of the relation of the Lord to His church. The church, Paul said, is the body of Christ, "the fullness of Him that filleth all in all." "We are members of His body, of His flesh and of His bones." "Ye are the body of Christ," he wrote, "and members in particular." (Ephesians 1: 23, 5: 30; 1 Corinthians 12) There should therefore be no schism, no ambition or rivalry. The foot cannot say: "Because I am not the hand, I am not of the body." All the diverse functions are needed; all share in the suffering and the rejoicing. The unifying thing is charity. But Christ is at the same time said to be the Head and Savior of the church, even as the husband is the head of the wife; and, Paul confesses, "This is a great mystery." It was a mystery which was never explained to the Christian Church. Yet Paul's doctrine is cited with approval in the Writings; for it confirms the ancient truths concerning the heavens as a Grand Man which had come to Paul by way of Greek tradition. In the Writings, however, clear teachings are given which show that it is not men that compose the body of the Lord, but the uses which the Lord provides for men to enter into and perform.

From these extracts it may be seen that Paul, although more learned and brilliant than the other apostles, still remained in the twilight of a literal understanding of the teachings which he had absorbed at secondhand from the Christians with whom he had lived and from the gospel which was by degrees being reduced to writing. He, like the rest of the Christians, could not enter into the spiritual sense of the Lord's teachings except in so far as genuine truths were revealed in the letter. He confesses: "Now we see through a glass [a mirror], in an enigma [in dark symbols]."

Yet the Lord had opened the Hebrew Scriptures unto His disciples after His resurrection. "Beginning at Moses and all the prophets, He expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning Himself." (Luke 24: 27) This instruction, which is not recorded in the Gospels, no doubt was circulated among the early Christians by word of mouth; and Paul, in his epistles, preserves something of this tradition. He states plainly that the Jewish rites of sacrifice and sabbath observance were but "a shadow of things to come." (Colossians 2: 17) To the Galatians he explains that the story of Abraham's two sons, one by Hagar the bondmaid and the other by Sarah the freewoman, is an "allegory" contrasting the two covenants. Ishmael was cast out because he represented the covenant of the law, the ritual law given in the desert. Isaac, the true heir, represented "the Jerusalem which is above," which is "free and the mother of us all"; that is, the Christian covenant of grace. (Galatians 4: 22-31)

Thus Paul considered himself a minister of the new testament, the new covenant; "yet not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter killeth," he wrote, "but the spirit giveth life." (II Corinthians 3: 6) But the most elaborate attempt to find an allegorical meaning in the Old Testament occurs in the Epistle to the Hebrews. It has often been doubted whether this epistle was really written by Paul, as it differs from his usual style.

It is there shown by the writer that Jesus Christ at His advent assumed not the nature of angels, but was born of a woman of Abraham's race, and was "in all points tempted like as we, yet without sin." (Hebrews 4: 15) The Redeemer had been called, in the Psalms, a high priest "after the order of Melchizedec." Now the epistle points out that Christ need not offer up sacrifices, for He offered of His own blood for all the world. The priests of the tabernacle of Israel only served for the "example and shadow of heavenly things," even as Moses had made the tabernacle "according to the pattern" shown him by the Lord on Mount Sinai. (Ibid. 8: 5, 9: 23) Being sprinkled with the blood of bulls and goats did not make those who sacrificed them perfect. The law was but a "shadow of good things to come." "The blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God," should purge the conscience of Christians from "dead works" to serve the living God. The "patterns of the things in the heavens" had to be purified through the Mosaic rituals. But the heavenly things themselves could be purified only by Christ; who entered into heaven itself, while the high priests had only once a year entered into the holy places made with hands. The Christian brethren were now to enter boldly into the holy of holies, through the veil which was the flesh of Christ given in the Holy Supper. (Ibid. 9: 21-25, 10: 19, 20)

Christians must not waver in their faith. "Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." (Ibid. 11: 1) It was by faith that Israel passed through the Red Sea and possessed its earthly inheritance. But Christians seek a better country. They stand not with dread before a smoking Sinai, but are come unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to an innumerable company of angels - to the assembly of those that are "written in heaven." (Ibid. 12: 22, 23) Here, the epistle adds, we have no enduring city, but we seek one to come.

Peter also, in his epistles, pictures the Christian Church as a new chosen people, a holy priesthood; as living stones built up as a spiritual house, redeemed through spiritual sacrifices. He shows how Christ, "being put to death in the flesh, had been quickened by the Spirit, by which He also went and preached unto the spirits in prison"; and then had risen and ascended, so that angels and principalities and powers were made subject unto Him. (I Peter 3: 18-22) He preaches faith, but also, "above all things, fervent charity. For charity shall cover a multitude of sins." (Ibid. 4: 8)

Peter warns against false teachers among the Christians. He warns of the sudden coming of the day "in which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up. Yet we look," he says, "for new heavens and a new earth, wherein justice shall dwell." (II Peter 3: 12, 13)

The signs of those "last times" and the judgment upon apostate Christians are further described by Jude in his brief message. He cites, as the Apocalypse Explained observes, "from ancient books that were written in correspondences." (AE 735: 4, 740: 16) These books have no spiritual sense, but were composed "in imitation" (Cf. AC 1756) of the style of the ancients, and purported to have various patriarchs as their authors. They belonged to the "apocalyptic literature" of the Jews, new samples of which were recently found among the Dead Sea Scrolls. The book of Enoch referred to by Jude dates in part from pre-Maccabean times, when the coming of a Messiah was hoped for urgently. It must be noted that this book is in no wise connected with the book of Enoch which was included in the lost Ancient Word. In fact, it did not become known in Europe until 1773, when the traveler Bruce brought an Ethiopic version to England. (See NEW CHURCH LIFE, 1944, pp. 221-2)

But our hasty review of the Apostolic Writings would not be complete without a glance at the Epistles of John, the apostle whom the Lord loved. For these letters reveal in a personal fashion the spirit of John, now ripe in age and wisdom and in the love that has been purified in the fire. He speaks as one of those whose eyes have seen and whose hands have touched the Word of life - the eternal Word which was with the Father and was manifested unto men.( I John 1: 1, 2) Though the blood of Christ cleanses us from all sin, he shows, yet, "if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves." (I John 1: 8) "He that says he is in light, and hates his brother, is in darkness . . . and knoweth not whither he goeth." (I John 2: 9, 11) "Love not the world, for the world passeth away and the lust thereof. . . . Little children, it is the last time." (I John 2: 15ff.)

His particular polemic was directed against those Christian teachers who indeed emphasized the Deity of Christ, yet claimed that He had never been born on earth and that His presence before men had been a phantasm. "Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits, whether they be of God. . . . Every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God, but is that Antichrist which . . . already is in the world." (I John 4: 1, 3. Cf. II John 7)

"Let us love one another. . . . He that loveth not, knoweth not God; for God is love. . . . If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar." (I John 4: 7, 8, 20)

"There are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit: and these three are one. . . . And we know that the Son of God cometh, and hath given us an understanding, that we may know the true one, and we are in Him that is true, in His Son Jesus Christ. This is the true God, and eternal life. Little children, keep yourselves from idols." (I John 5: 7, 20)

-New Church Life 1961;81:449-456,510-518

Back to Further Reading


Swedenborg Biography
Heavenly Doctrines
The revelation process
Who is God?
The Word of God
Bible & the Writings
Time and Eternity
History of Religion
On Being Useful
Providence and  Evil
Getting Rid of Evil
The Death Process
Life after Death
Life on Other Planets
The Second Coming
Spiritual Marriage
Art & Literature


• Back • Home • Up •

Apostolic Writings

Webmaster: IJT@swedenborgstudy.com