Relevant Verses: 1 Kings 18:1-40; Revelation 16:12-16
Leading Question: How can one explain the sharp distinction between the Old Testament perspective on Jesus’ return and that of the New Testament?
Coming to this last lesson in a quarterly dedicated to the theme, “Preparation for the End Time,” opened up some interesting questions for me. Immediately I thought of those passages that had fueled my Advent hope ever since I was a child. Here are the references and the key phrases as I remember them: John 14:1-3: “In my father’s house are many mansions.”; Acts 1:11, “This same Jesus will come in like manner”; 1 Thess. 4:16-17: “Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air”; Rev. 1:7: “Behold he cometh with clouds, and every eye shall see him.”
Then I went to my Nave’s Topical Bible. There the Second Coming is listed under the general heading, “Jesus, the Christ.” Some 92 pages are dedicated to Jesus; “Second Coming,” has six columns, spread over four pages. Interestingly enough, those six columns include only one Old Testament passage; Job 19:25, “I know that my redeemer liveth.”
And that reference triggered a vivid classroom memory. The Hebrew word for “Redeemer,” is Goel, the “near-kinsman who comes to rescue the family name, honor, and property.” That is the word that refers to Boaz, the near-kinsman who “redeemed” Ruth; it is also the word that refers to the avenger of blood in the law that defines God’s plan for the Cities of Refuge (Numbers 35:6-34).
The classroom memory was triggered by my statement to a group of ministerial students that the Redeemer/Goel in Job 19:25 was, in the first instance, most likely not a reference to Jesus, but to the near-kinsman/Redeemer that Job was hoping could come to defend him from the accusations of his three friends. I told the students that in a secondary sense it could refer to Jesus. One young woman blurted out in distress, “The size of our preachable Bible gets smaller and smaller!”
What she was reflecting was the deeply embedded conviction that if God said something, it really should apply to all people at all times and in all places. But her theological training at Walla Walla College/University had been nibbling away at that conviction. In that connection it is worth noting that the book of Job gives no clue that Job hoped for the second coming of Jesus. The book closes with the blunt statement: “Job died, old and full of days.” That’s it. The Greek translation of Job, however, prepared just shortly before the New Testament era, adds this notable comment: “And he will live again with those whom the Lord raises up” (Job 42.17).
But there is more to this story. Ellen White’s commentary on the role of the Redeemer/Goel in the plan for the cities of refuge in Patriarchs and Prophets, 515, is the only passage I know of in the writings of Ellen White that clearly indicates the process of “accommodation,” the means whereby God adapts his ideal to limited human understanding, a process that is strongly resisted by many devout conservatives. In fact, David Wright, the left-of-center Inter-Varsity Fellowship church historian at the University of Edinburgh, who paved the way for my book Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God? to be published in the UK by Paternoster Press, told me that Inter-Varsity Press UK would never touch the book because the emphasis on “divine accommodation” was far too strong. Interestingly enough, the one passage where Ellen White clearly revealed “accommodation” was published late in her life:1890 in Patriarchs and Prophets:
The appointment of these cities had been commanded by Moses, “that the slayer may flee thither, which killeth any person at unawares. And they shall be unto you cities for refuge,” he said, “that the manslayer die not, until he stand before the congregation in judgment.” [Num. 35:11-12] This merciful provision was rendered necessary by the ancient custom of private vengeance, by which the punishment of the murderer devolved on the nearest relative or the next heir of the deceased. In cases where guilt was clearly evident, it was not necessary to wait for a trial by the magistrates. The avenger might pursue the criminal anywhere, and put him to death wherever he should be found. The Lord did not see fit to abolish this custom at that time; but he made provision to insure the safety of those who should take life unintentionally. – Patriarchs and Prophets, 515
But if the Old Testament does not teach a second coming in the same way as the new, what is the eschatology of the Old Testament? J. Paul Grove, my mentor at Walla Walla College while I was a student (1961-1965), pointed us to a seminal article in the Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary, 4:25-38, “The Role of Israel in Old Testament Prophecy.” By drawing on such passages as Isaiah 65, 66, and Zechariah 14, the article sketched out an “original” plan for ancient Israel which called for the gradual elimination of evil and the acceptance of the Messiah by his people. A key Ellen White quote was part of the framework for the article, one that she wrote in 1883 in response to an inquiry about the post 1844 delay:
The angels of God in their messages to men represent time as very short. Thus it has always been presented to me. It is true that time has continued longer than we expected in the early days of this message. Our Saviour did not appear as soon as we hoped. But has the Word of the Lord failed? Never! It should be remembered that the promises and the threatenings of God are alike conditional. – MS 4, 1883, unpublished until Evangelism, 695 , and then more completely in 1 SM 67 .
Such a plan sets up a tension between the traditional historicist end-time plan which takes earth’s history to 1844 and beyond. If Christ had been accepted by his people in the first century as the article implied, no one would have even dreamed about 1844.
When I wrote my book Inspiration: Hard Questions, Honest Answers (RH 1991), I included a narrative about an experience I had had with two students who had been shocked by the Old Testament passages in Isaiah 65-66 and Zechariah 14. That story is included in the second edition of Inspiration (Energion, 2016) and is worth including here. It is chapter 21 in both editions.
It’s All So Very Plain
Inspiration: Hard Questions, Honest Answers
By Alden Thompson
In this concluding chapter we return to our starting point, and take another look at the interplay between Christian experience and sacred text.
The year was 1982. I was teaching a new upper-division college course, Inspiration and Revelation. Over a period of 10 weeks, we would spend forty 50-minute sessions together. Since events in Adventism had thrust the topic into the limelight, our work was cut out for us.
My own goals for the class were clear: I wanted my students to learn to read their Bibles reverently, but without fear. And I wanted them to appreciate the ministry of Ellen White. To that end, we would empty the skeletons from the closet one by one and explore ways of turning potential stumbling blocks into stepping stones.
We would study Ellen White’s experience and writings, but our first interest would be Scripture. The menu would be varied: prophetic experiences, proverbs, prayers, parallel passages, to mention some of the appetizers; the entree (that is, the tougher problems) would come towards the end of term: the use of the Old Testament in the New, the distinction between what is literal and symbolic in visions, and the analysis of enduring elements in eschatological passages. Finally, a choice morsel for dessert: Ellen White’s classic statements on inspiration from Selected Messages, book 1, pp. 15-58, and the Introduction to The Great Controversy, pp. v-xii.
For some time I had been experimenting with assignments which would expose students to
Scripture and encourage them to arrive at their own thoughtful conclusions, allowing me to monitor their spiritual pulse at the same time.
Thus a typical assignment simply required the student to react to reading material in a meaningful way. Any thoughtful response submitted on time received full credit. Tests were graded rigorously; but the assignments enabled the students to respond freely without risking their grade. This approach encouraged them to stay current with their reading and it allowed me to keep in touch with their thinking.
For the “Inspiration and Revelation” course, my choice of dessert (the Ellen White statements) was deliberate. After the students had worked their way through some twenty assignments and grappled with various problems, I wanted them to experience the remarkable blending of realism and reassurance which these statements offer. Pedagogically, the plan seemed sound – answers always make more sense after you see the problems. But I was in for a jolt.
The class was a delight to teach. A sprinkling of new Christians injected a certain simplicity and vibrancy into our discussions, a helpful counterbalance to the probing questions of the more skeptically inclined. Often, when students were surprised at their discoveries in Scripture, I referred to Ellen White’s statements, pointing out how this godly woman was able to put the surprises in their place – and still believe. But through the term, these references were always secondhand. Even my most glowing recommendations failed to move these typical American college students to read the relevant passages before they absolutely had to. That turned out to be crucial.
During that term our School of Theology staff was also dealing with the inspiration issue in several local churches in our union. In those areas where members had left to join independent “Adventist” fellowships, inspiration had been a key issue.
As I took my turn at these off-campus appointments, I was impressed with the urgency of our task at the college. The churches were torn and bleeding; loved ones and friends had been wrenched apart; anger, hostility, fear, and sorrow were very much in evidence. To what extent were we at the college to blame for failing to educate the church? It was a gnawing and persistent question.
When away from campus we generally packed the Sabbath hours full of formal meetings and question-and-answer sessions. And the members were eager to meet informally on Saturday night as well. Again and again we worked over the questions of “Why?” and “Where do we go from here?”
The members weren’t shy about expressing themselves. One brother declared, “If you had told me those things eight years ago, I would have tossed you right out of the church.” That, of course, made it easier to explain the reputed “cover-up.” A pastor or teacher wants to share material in a way which will help the members grow. But if they aren’t ready, what should he do?
As the academic term was drawing to a close, I made a final week-end trip to one of the troubled churches. It was a good visit. And as I retired late Saturday evening at the home of a church family, I fell asleep with an oft-repeated line ringing in my ears – “If only we could have had meetings like these six months ago, we might have saved our church family.”
Sunday morning I awoke early. With plenty of time before breakfast and the flight home, I reached for the stack of “Inspiration/Revelation” assignments which I had tucked into my briefcase. Still snuggled comfortably in bed, I began to read. This was the assignment dealing with eschatological passages, the last “tough” one of the term. The students were to compare the Old Testament eschatological passages, Isaiah 65, 66 and Zechariah 14, with a New Testament passage, Revelation 21, 22, and comment on how one determines which elements from the Old Testament have permanent value.”
The first few responses were unexceptional. But suddenly I was wide awake, jarred by the following response: “In Zechariah it seems like the day of the Lord is an establishing of an earthly kingdom, not a heavenly one so much and it also seems like the people of that time looked for its soon fulfillment in their day. The question I have is why Adventists have taken some texts and left others to suit their own interpretation. It is the same in Isaiah, too. Can you be justified in taking some and leaving the rest? How do you really tell if there is a permanent or lasting value in them? I’m really mixed up and my faith in Adventism dwindles a bit here, because it seems we have misused the Scriptures or have greatly misunderstood them and used them in the wrong way. So many things have been uprooted that I need some stable evidence that I can trust. What do we have to stand on?”
Then came a break in the handwritten copy; a question mark and a single word cried out from the middle of the page:
The text resumed: “If we can’t trust in a prophet’s words because they aren’t direct or directed word-for-word inspired and we can’t tell whether something has lasting value for us today, how do we personally apply the Bible to us if we don’t know? Are the promises for others, with no thought of today? Has the Adventist tradition simply pulled texts out of context so that we have a totally made up theology? Please bring back our confidence or explain why.”
Hardly a ringing confirmation of my course objectives! I picked up the next paper. More of the same (the students were roommates): “As I read the passages listed I was almost shocked to find those texts that our church has always believed to be about the kingdom/heaven. . . . Somehow over these past weeks of this quarter, I’ve come up with the idea that the Holy Bible isn’t all that I had it cracked up to be. Ideas have been presented in this class that have made me wonder – is there any validity in what ‘the inspired men of old’ have written? And yet this is probably not what I was supposed to learn from this class (hopefully).”
Continuing, the student admitted to being “frightened” at some of her thoughts. “Maybe I’m not the kind who can handle the real truth.” But then came a postscript with a ray of hope: “After reading what I had written above, I noticed quite a sharp note to it, maybe too sharp. This class has been a real strength to my overall view of the Bible, helping me to realize that the men of the Scripture were humans like we are and not so infallible. This may seem a contradiction to what I just wrote above. I guess I’m just a little confused. I have enjoyed this class immensely and would hope that the views stated above would not necessarily reflect any fault on the teacher.”
Taking the two assignments to breakfast, I read them to my hosts. The contrast between Saturday night gratitude and Sunday morning panic was almost more than I could handle. We discussed the challenge of educating the church. And we prayed. How can we build a faith that endures? I knew the two young ladies who had expressed their alarm. They were committed Christians and a positive influence on campus. Why was their house of faith in trouble?
Monday morning the final assignment of the term was due. This was the dessert: “Read the Introduction to The Great Controversy, pp. v-xii and Selected Messages, vol. 1, pp. 15-58. Give your personal reaction.” I collected the papers; then I told them what had happened over the week-end. The discussion which followed was sobering, but helpful. After class I headed back to my office, pondering the tantalizing set of papers in my hand.
Joy and relief! The Spirit had been at work. While I was away the two roommates had read the assignment. With no coaching from me, this is what the first one wrote: “I wish we had read both of these at the beginning. They made it so plain about everything we have studied so far. It was like a compact writing of the whole quarter. EGW told exactly how to use her writings and the Bible. She made it so plain. I wish that everyone would read it so that there wouldn’t be so many problems today about the whole controversy.”
And from her roommate: “As I read those books I wondered why they weren’t required at the beginning of the quarter. I was very impressed. It answered a lot of my questions about dealing with her writings and the Scriptures. Why has there been so much hassle about her writings when she has the answers right there?”
You probably guessed. My students now read those passages at the beginning of the term and at the end. And the second time through they still see a great deal they didn’t appreciate the first time around.
But why are these statements so powerful? For the two students in my class, Ellen White didn’t even address the issues raised by Zechariah 14 and Isaiah 65, 66. Nevertheless, they were reassured. Perhaps doubt gives birth to doubt; and faith multiplies faith. That great Christian apologist, C. S. Lewis, hinted at our vulnerability in this respect as he reflected on his own experience: “The society of unbelievers makes Faith harder, even when they are people whose opinions, on any other subject, are known to be worthless” (Lewis, p. 42).
The company we keep does have a bearing on our spiritual life. And when we read Ellen White’s statements on inspiration, we are in the company of a believer. She actually doesn’t tell us anything we couldn’t discover for ourselves through a careful reading of Scripture. But should we run across an unsettling “surprise” in God’s Word, she reassures us, telling us that she has been there before – and that she still believes. In an age of skepticism, we need that kind of help.
This experience has left its mark on me and my teaching; I believe I have learned three lessons that can benefit the church. Both the happy ending and the pain along the way have something to tell us.
First, the study of the Bible brings joy and light. But it can also be frightening and dangerous. We dare not proceed without imploring God to send His Spirit to guide and bless.
Second, complacency in our study of the Word may mean that we will have to learn our lessons in difficult times, through tears and heartache. At the peak of the 1888 crisis, Ellen White described the danger in a testimony to the church: “As real spiritual life declines, it has ever been the tendency to cease to advance in the knowledge of the truth. Men rest satisfied with the light already received from God’s word and discourage any further investigation of the Scripture. They become conservative and seek to avoid discussion.
“The fact that there is no controversy or agitation among God’s people should not be regarded as conclusive evidence that they are holding fast to sound doctrine. There is reason to fear that they may not be clearly discriminating between truth and error. When no new questions are started by investigation of the Scriptures, when no difference of opinion arises which will set men to searching the Bible for themselves to make sure that they have the truth, there will be many now, as in ancient times, who will hold to tradition and worship they know not what” (5T, pp. 706, 707).
The third lesson I believe we should learn is the great value of Ellen White’s writings on inspiration. God gave her the remarkable ability to be realistic about the humanity of the authors of Scripture while reassuring us of God’s presence in His Word. In an age reeking of skepticism, we must treasure this gift from God.
But if Ellen White held such a practical and balanced view of Scripture, why has such a view not been more widely held in the church? Perhaps because the church has not been ready to listen. And if the church is not ready, even if God’s messenger speaks, the words will not find their way home.
In God’s great Providence we can learn from her now. I know that I will be eternally grateful for what she has done for me. At a time when Adventists are struggling to know how to relate to the ministry of Ellen White and seem to be neglecting Scripture at the same time, maybe those of us who have been blessed by her ministry need to be more vocal in giving our testimony.
Initially, I was a bit startled when one of my friends who read this book in manuscript form described it as “an act of gratitude to Ellen White and as a gift of support to others wrestling with questions that arise in our secular and pluralistic culture.” The more I think about it, the more I like what he wrote. Indeed, I would be grateful if the church I love could see this book in that light.
Some may be unsettled by the forthrightness of my discussion. And those who may not have been touched by her ministry in the way that I have been touched may be puzzled by the intensity of my convictions. We are not capable of understanding all the mysteries of why we are able to believe and how. But as I have watched friends and students struggle with issues of faith, I have longed for them to find a meaningful relationship with God. Ours is a cruel and bitter world. Not without reason have Abraham and a host of others looked for “a city which has foundations whose builder and maker is God” (Heb. 11:10).
Are you tired of being alone in the world? “No intangible principle, no impersonal essence or mere abstraction, can satisfy the needs and longings of human beings in this life of struggle with sin and sorrow and pain. It is not enough to believe in law and force, in things that have no pity, and never hear the cry for help. We need to know of an almighty arm that will hold us up, of an infinite Friend that pities us. We need to clasp a hand that is warm, to trust in a heart full of tenderness. And even so God has in His word revealed Himself” (Ed., p. 133).
Do you need strength to keep on keeping on? “As the student of the Bible beholds the Redeemer, there is awakened in the soul the mysterious power of faith, adoration, and love. Upon the vision of Christ the gaze is fixed, and the beholder grows into the likeness of that which he adores. The words of the apostle Paul become the language of the soul: ‘I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord; . . . that I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings (Phil. 3:8-10)” (Ed., p. 192).
Finally, my prayer is that Ellen White’s model for studying Scripture could become ours. The goal is a daunting one, but it is one worth praying for. And when it happens, we give each other wisdom and strength as He designed that we should: “It would greatly benefit our schools if regular meetings were held frequently in which all the teachers could unite in the study of the word of God. They should search the Scriptures as did the noble Bereans. They should subordinate all preconceived opinions, and taking the Bible as their lesson Book, comparing Scripture with Scripture, they should learn what to teach their students, and how to train them for acceptable service” (CT, p. 433).
I like that picture. It is a marvelous model for a community of believers who plan to spend eternity together. Scripture, in all its richness and diversity, is God’s means for binding our hearts together in a mysterious union with Him and with each other. Let’s pray that He will make it happen.
Question: How is the best way to address the differences between the Old Testament teaching about God’s kingdom and the “blessed” hope that is so much a part of the New Testament?
Question: Is it possible to grow in the knowledge of God without new and hard questions?
By God’s grace we can explore his Word and be absolutely honest with everything we see, knowing and trusting that his spirit will guide us.