Thursday, May 9, 2013

The Three Steps of Spiritual Development


There are three steps of spiritual development which are universal to the spiritual development of all human beings. These three steps of spiritual development are shown in a variety of ways in scripture - including the three main Jewish festivals of the Old Testament. There were three main festivals that were instituted by the Lord among the Jews - the feast of the Passover (unleavened bread), the feast of Pentecost (firstfruits of the harvest - Shavuot), and the feast of Tabernacles (the gathering of the harvest - Sukkot). These are first described in Exodus:
Three times you shall keep a feast to Me in the year:You shall keep the Feast of Unleavened Bread (you shall eat unleavened bread seven days, as I commanded you, at the time appointed in the month of Abib, for in it you came out of Egypt; none shall appear before Me empty);and the Feast of Harvest, the firstfruits of your labors which you have sown in the field; and the Feast of Ingathering at the end of the year, when you have gathered in the fruit of your labors from the field. (Ex. 23:14-16)
Among the Jews, the feast of the Passover commemorates their deliverance out of Egypt: on that night, they were delivered from slavery. The other two at first seem just related to the harvest and providing thanksgiving. However there is more to it than that: Pentecost, which takes place 50 days after Passover, was the actual day in which Moses was given the 10 commandments. This shows there is something spiritual behind each of the festivals. There is a historical event behind Passover and Pentecost, but what is the historical event symbolized by the feast of Tabernacles? This one has puzzled many. It takes place in the month of Tishri, which falls in the months of September and October. The month of Tishri is announced by the blowing of horns: this is known as the feast of Yom Kippur. Tishri was the start of the civil year among the Jews, and their kings would ascend the throne in the month of Tishri. This can be shown in chronological studies, whereas most other countries began their civil year in the spring, the Jews would start theirs in the fall. This provides a clue as to its hidden spiritual meaning.

In Christianity, there is a deeper symbolism to Passover and Pentecost. Passover is now called Easter, for this was when Jesus Christ was crucified, and afterwards He rose from the dead. Just as the Passover is a festival of rememberance among the Jews, so Easter is the highest ritual among Christianity. Likewise, it was on Pentecost in which the apostles and the early church was endowed with the Holy Spirit, and were given the gift of speaking in foreign languages at the time. Many were baptized. As for the feast of Tabernacles (Sukkot) that is not celebrated in the Christian tradition. Some speculate that this is the day of the Last Judgment, or the time of the Second Advent. However, if one carefully examines the gospel of Luke, one can determine that Jesus was probably born during the feast of Sukkot. (See previous blog entry on the true birthday of Jesus) Thus we see that the Jewish festivals were prophetic of significant events in the Christian Church:
1. Passover = Easter. The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
2. Pentecost. The gift of the Holy Spirit is given to the early Church.
3. Tabernacles (Sukkot). The birth of Jesus Christ. 
The reason why the feast of Tabernacles is not celebrated properly, is that His birth is now celebrated on what was originally a pagan holiday (Christmas). In the festival of Sukkot Jews build booths or dwellings and stay in them for a period of seven days. This is symbolic of the incarnation, of how the Word was made flesh by dwelling in a human body. And this is the reason why the Jewish kings ascended the throne in the month of Tishri - for that is the month in which Jesus their Messiah was born, the king of the Jews.  The kings were types of the future Messiah. The fact that this festival is not celebrated in the Christian church may have a hidden meaning: for many within the Church do not acknowledge the human of Jesus as Divine, but instead divide Him into two natures. In the New Church, not only was the human made Divine, but the human form is in itself the "Son of God" - not a separate distinct person as Tritheists believe.

In the New Church, a restoration of true Christianity based on the doctrines revealed to Emanuel Swedenborg, there is a deeper more spiritual understanding of these three festivals. They refer to three steps of spiritual regeneration: the feast of unleavened bread is signified purification from falsities, by the feast of harvest the implanting of truth in good, and by the feast of ingathering the implanting of good thence derived, and thus full deliverance from damnation; for, when a man has been purified from falsities and then introduced by truths into good, and at length when he is in good, he is then in heaven with the Lord, and consequently is then fully liberated. The successive steps of deliverance from damnation are as the successive steps of regeneration, inasmuch as regeneration is deliverance from hell and introduction into heaven by the Lord; for the man who is being regenerated is first purified from falsities, then the truths of faith are implanted with him in the good of charity, and lastly this good itself is implanted, and this being done the man is regenerated, and is then in heaven with the Lord. Wherefore by the three feasts in the year was also signified the worship of the Lord and thanksgiving on account of regeneration. (Heavenly Arcana, n. 9286).
This I find very significant for spiritual development. Among evangelical churches of Christianity, the focus seems to be just on finding converts. The other false belief is that once professes a belief in Jesus, they believe in immediate mercy or salvation. So the thought is, once one converts, you are done with your spiritual development. What to do afterwards? Lip service, prayer, and converting others. This is especially prevalent among Protestant churches. It helps explain why society is becoming increasingly secular, as religion is divorced from one's life, as a result of this theology that one is saved by belief alone. Religion tends to become a matter of outward rituals, with no internal spiritual development. In fact, when you examine most in the church, you can say there is in fact no religion, and there is no knowledge of the truth as the theology has been falsified by the early church councils.

When we look at the three Jewish festivals, they describe a process: the three steps of spiritual regeneration:
1. Purification from evils and falsity. This is the acknowledgment of one's sins after performing a self examination, and turning away from them. It is a period of temptation, accompanied by depression and sadness.
2. Learning the truths of the Church from the Word, and living by them. This is a period of instruction, and living by the truths one has learned. The main truth to learn is living by the 10 commandments. Truth becomes implanted in the mind.
3. Acting from Love. Love now begins to grow in one's heart. God's spirit can now begin to dwell in our heart. And now, things are inverted: from a desire to learn the truth to do good, one now does good from the love in one's heart. There is no need to learn truths, for love has been implanted in one's heart and conscience.
The process is continual and repeats, and it never finishes. There is no such thing as "immediate salvation." It is a life long process of continual improvement. The first stage is one of repentance, and is symbolized by the washing of feet by the apostles by Jesus. The second stage is symbolized by baptism. Is is spiritual truth which washes aways the sins. The third stage: one of love, which is the internal spiritual meaning of communion.

It is this simple process of three steps of spiritual regeneration that underlies many of the principles laid out in the writings of Swedenborg. It can be compared to growing a plant: first a suitable ground must be found and cleared away - this is removing evil and falsity in repentance. Then the seed can be implanted in the ground. This is the implanting of the truth in the mind through learning from scripture. Then the plant bears fruits, ready to be harvested. This is when one starts to act out of love: the good works are the fruits borne from repentance.

How far one progresses in this spiritual path determines one's eternal destiny in heaven. The three stages of spiritual progression are also termed as the Natural, the Spiritual, and the Celestial. Each of these phases creates a "plane" on which the next plane of spiritual development can be built upon. Truth cannot be implanted where there is falsity in the mind, and confirmed in the will. One cannot do good until spiritual truth has been implanted, although it may appear otherwise if people just judge people's actions from the surface. As these spiritual planes are opened in the understanding and the will, one advances from the selfish ego of hell into the higher planes of heaven which consists of humility and mutual love. These three phases, or steps, correspond to three very distinct heavens. The three heavens are mentioned briefly in the writings of Paul:
I will come to visions and revelations of the Lord:I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago - whether in the body I do not know, or whether out of the body I do not know, God knows - such a one was caught up to the third heaven.And I know such a man - whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows -how he was caught up into Paradise and heard inexpressible words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter. (2 Corinthians 12:1-4)
When I first read this passage, the immediate question I had is why are there three heavens? And why did Paul keep this vision a secret? It really did raise my curiosity. I would not know until I read of the accounts of Swedenborg, who was allowed to explore the spiritual world for over 25 years. A summary description of what he saw in the afterlife is described in his work, "Heaven and Hell." And there he describes in detail the three spiritual planes of heaven, and how they are distinct from each other. Opposing these three planes of heaven are three opposite planes of hell. And in between is the world of spirits, where man enters after death. He also speaks of the telepathic communication of the angels, how their thought and language was so much higher than verbal language that at times he could hardly express them in words, and at other times symbolically. The other point Swedenborg made is that while we are living in the body, our spirit is present in one of these planes of heaven or hell, right now. We are just not aware of it, but become more aware when we shed this physical human body. And after that, where the tree falls, there shall it lay. And that is why  it is important to go through these three steps of spiritual regeneration now, in our daily lives.

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