"For the former things are passed away" (Revelation xxi. verse 4)
The wonderful incidents recorded in the Book of the Revelation were witnessed, it must be borne in mind, while John was in the spirit. They present in rich and varied imagery vicissitudes of the spiritual life of man; and an understanding of the prophecies is denied if the interpretation given them is a material and natural one. The Word of the Lord is concerned primarily with principles of spiritual life - the burden of the Lord's message to mankind is precept and doctrine for the strengthening and enlightenment of the soul - and the whole dignity of the Divine Word is destroyed when man, by the pale candlelight of his own ingenuity, seeks to draw parallels between John's visions and the affairs of the nations on earth. The light of genuine, serviceable truth begins to shine through the symbolism so soon as it is realised that the Word deals with man's spiritual life. Although the vision may have been of cities and nations, of men and beasts, of plagues and earthquakes, yet all is symbolism, relating to things of the spirit. Man would be no happier, no better, no more enlightened for living in a city of precious stones - their abundance would at once take from their economic value and if vice and selfishness remained in the heart the jasper of the walls would still conceal slums and the beggar would ask for bread in the gold of the gutter.
This city, the New Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God, is a symbol. John saw it in the spirit. It typifies the spiritual life of man when that life is inspired by truth revealed from heaven. It is called " Jerusalem " because, in the olden days of Jewish history, the city Jerusalem was the centre of worship - the source of all Israel's instruction in spiritual matters - the place of its temple and of its sacred feasts and the focus of its whole religious life. John, in the spirit, saw a new city descend from God out of heaven. A new worship - a new religious life - a new Church - is thus foretold. This is not the only occasion on which the term Jerusalem is employed symbolically. The prophecies of Old Testament Scripture are honeycombed with such instances. The day was to come, it was foretold, when the Lord would rejoice in Jerusalem, when the wolf and lamb would feed together, when the city would put on beautiful garments, when the Lord would rest in her love and joy over her, and when her name would be a praise in the earth. How sluggish the mind, how unseeing the eyes, when this is thought to relate to the stones and alleys and courtyards of the ancient city of Judea! The name of the old place of worship becomes the symbolic term of worship. But like all true worship it must not be man-made. In spite of all that is professed by scientist and philosopher, there can be no man-made creed in spiritual concerns. The destiny of man and the way that destiny is achieved can be known only as it is revealed by the Lord out of heaven. And this revelation is by means of the Lord's own Word of truth. Whether the reader be in the white-washed butt and ben of far-off Shetland, whether he be in the timber shanty on the African veld, if he approaches the Divine Word of the Lord for precepts of spiritual life and exercises those precepts in his conduct and dealings with fellow-man, the city Jerusalem is putting on her garments of beauty in his life - and that city, the life of spiritual precept, has descended from the Lord, out of heaven. John's vision related to a more universal worship, but the universal can come only as individuals, the wide world over, approach the Word and seek to draw therefrom the precepts that shall control their life. And, as further testimony that this city descending from heaven is symbolical of man's worship, we read later that it was prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. So is all true worship. Such is every true Church. The love of the Lord in man, man's loyal regard and desire for the precept of Divine Truth, man's perpetual looking to the Lord for the inspiration and guidance of his life, that is the Bride, the Lamb's Wife, the true Church - seeking ever closer communion and conjunction with her Lord.
With the descent of this city, which is a coming among men of true and enlightened spiritual worship, tears, sorrow, death and toil are to be no more, " for the former things are passed away ". It should be evident at once that this is no promise of complete, immediate happiness and immunity for those on earth who enter into true worship. John is prophesying truly, but his real burden is concerned with the things of spirit. In this natural life these things remain - sorrow is not escaped; toil remains - death must be experienced by all. The fact that death is included in this promise proves at once the purely spiritual character of the promise. It is no reference to physical death. Though many may allow themselves to be deluded by the hope that death is not part of the necessary order of things, it is nevertheless in the providence of the Lord that all will pass on from this life to the spiritual world, and the better for all will it be when physical death loses its horror and superstition, and sad misunderstanding. Physical death itself is perfectly normal - though through the present state of humanity it is attended often by pain. That pain, and the disease which causes it, are not inseparable from death. In orderly states of human existence, the transition would become a falling to sleep and a joyous awakening. There is, of course, a "death", frequently spoken of in the Word, from which the Lord seeks perpetually to rescue man. That is spiritual death, the rejection of the life which He unceasingly offers. This other life is not physical. It is not mere organic life either of the physical or of the spiritual body. It is that into which a man is reborn - the life of regeneration in which man is born into the love of what is good and true. That is the dawn of angelhood in man; the promise of his particular perfection; the realisation of that especial quality and use for which he was made. To reject the offer of this truly spiritual life is to court what is called in the Word "death". It means the perversion of all spiritual powers; the complete misappropriation and distortion of Divinely given life. The heart grows cold in the sense that the man is foreign to all the warmth of genuine affection. The eyes fail to discern the light of truth, the ears to perceive its dictate. The man exists, but for himself alone. His self-interest detaches him from the communion of fellow-man. He is "dead" to all that true spiritual life implies and effects.
Now the descent of the Holy City promises for man an end of death such as this, and with it of tears and sorrow, pain and toil. Like all prophecies of the Word, these are to be understood, first of all, spiritually. That is the real burden of the message. If all on earth entered, in their thought and life and purpose, into this Holy City, lived perfectly the life declared by the heavenly doctrines of the New-Church, then as a result of the spiritual excellence of all human endeavour much of the world's toil and sorrow would unquestionably disappear. If there were less selfishness in the world - toil, as it blights and curses the whole life of many men, would be unknown. But that would be the effect of the prophecy's fulfilment - not the fulfilment itself. The subject of the prophecy, as of all prophecies in the Word, is spiritual. The toil and sorrow spoken of are the toil of temptation conflict and the sorrow is the fear and the grief of mind which attend upon the temptation because such assaults threaten man's truest life. Every temptation is a challenge to man's spiritual development. Over each such assault the Providence of the Lord rules with far-seeing eye - and each one is controlled only that it may be the means of strengthening fibres and tissues of our spiritual organism which demand such trial. Spiritually, as physically, we cannot develop without discipline and effort; and the fear inherent in temptation assault is disclosed in the prayer we are given
"Lead us not into temptation". It finds utterance in the Lord's own words in Gethsemane that the cup might pass from Him. The whole catalogue of distresses in this passage is of those anxieties and griefs which assail the regenerating life of man, which would deny man the hope of perfect spiritual achievement.
And so it is that the passing of these afflictions is promised through the descent of the Holy City. This city, be it remembered, is the Bride, the Lamb's Wife. It is explicitly so called in this chapter. To enter this city is to come into the life and love of those doctrines revealed to the New Church and which are the very form of life in the new heaven. It is to establish perfect worship in thought and purpose and deed. It is to know truth in its inner spirit and import - it is to understand what the Lord has revealed of the duties which attend upon our existence as creatures fashioned by His Love and Wisdom and it is to make those precepts the foundation and the protecting bulwarks of our life. To be thus taught and disciplined by the heavenly doctrines, intelligently apprehended and sincerely loved, is to secure oneself against every assault of the spirit. It is to find peace in the borders of Jerusalem, it is to dwell in the holy hill of the Lord, under the shadow of the Almighty. Nothing unclean can enter in those gatesfor those gates are truths themselves, and the truth of heaven is utterly opposed to what is evil. In the security of that city "the former things are passed away ". The things which afflict spiritual life before Divine Truth is made the one exclusive guide are clearly desires of the heart and thoughts of the mind which are essentially antagonistic to Divine Truth. Such desires will centre around self and the world, will impel - under a thousand disguises - to self-aggrandisement, self-magnification, and will ride rough-shod to their goal to the utter ruin of human charity and love. The " former things" which exist and flourish in human life before the real spirit of truth is accepted are the brood of selfishness. They are purposes and ambitions which corrupt all human endeavour, policies and creeds whose inner spirit defies the will of God. And while this lasts man is the victim of perpetual affliction. Outwardly, he may flourish, inwardly, as to his real manhood, he is diseased, impoverished, lame, blind, perilously near to death. Neither the individual, nor society as a whole, can hope for a passing of its griefs until the gates of the Holy City are entered. Behind all human endeavour and beneath all human institutions must be the stability and security of Divine Truth. And Divine Truth is never merely a formula - never a mere naked code of conduct. It is a spirit and a purpose, as well as a way. Mere morality may not even be in sight of the descending city. Morality of conduct, like dress, can be merely Pharisaic, and reek inwardly as a whited sepulchre. The life of heavenly doctrine demands more. For heavenly doctrine is divine only so long as it embodies Divine Love. When the purposes of Divine Love are rejected by man, the principles of truth lose their efficacy and become warped into policies of self-love.
That man might find spiritual health and peace, the Lord has revealed to us the richer implications of His own Divine Wisdom - the principles of perfect love. This wisdom is here pictured as a city - as Jerusalem - for it promises a Church, or a worship, inspired by the spirit of wisdom, which is Love. Relinquishing our own endeavours and overturning our own local, secret altars, we are summoned into this city to learn and to live the truth of love. Within those gates alone there is security from spiritual tribulation and death, for the "former things have passed away". Man's life, then, and for the first time, grows in beauty and strength, for love inspires it, wisdom divine directs it and the dignity of perfect service adorns it.