Monthly Archives: February 2016

Good News to the Muslim world

This is the third in a short series of guest blogs from my friend, Gaby Phillips. I find her perspective extremely helpful in wrestling through the issues of how Adventists can and should relate to Islam. It is tempting to buy into morbidly negative views of Islam, on the one hand, and overly positive ones, on the other. Gaby here cuts through the debate by reframing it with a fresh perspective. Her words follow, I have taken the liberty of editing somewhat for clarity:

If you were God, how would you convince your children that you have always had a place for them in your heart? You would do so by showing them the many ways you were always present in their past history. You would open their eyes to see how you are present now. You would reaffirm your commitment to remain in relationship with them throughout eternity.

Muslims see themselves as the spiritual children of Abraham through Ishmael and his mother Hagar. So it is our privilege to open more deeply to them the story of God’s plan for restoring this world from violence and sin through the seed of Abraham. That story centers on the missional heart of God searching for Hagar to offer her and her progeny promises of blessing and greatness. God hears, this is the promise that God made to Ishmael. And as a perpetual reminder of His mercy, Hagar was bidden to call her child Ishmael, “God shall hear.”

God wanted to make Ishmael great from the beginning, but these promises could only be activated as Ishmael’s descendants remained faithful to God. The ultimate blessing of Abraham comes when the descendants of Ishmael accept Jesus, the One sent from heaven, as Lord and Savior; the way, the truth and the life. Muslims are much, more open to consider the plan of salvation after understanding the way in which God had purposed a life of blessing for their community from the beginning.

Those who only see darkness in Islam’s prophet, book and practices will find it difficult to explain how leaving millions of people in darkness is consistent with the mission and character of God. Why would God preclude millions from the light of truth with no apparent reason other than the fact that there were born into “the wrong family”?

The other extreme is to be avoided is to ignore the worrisome signs of deception in Islam, simply because we also find manifestations of truth there. Affirming what is right and true in Islam cannot be a substitute for Gospel proclamation. In other words, the truth we find in Islam is a platform from which to sensitively launch the Story that challenges every other controlling story. The direction moves from God (found in common ground) to God (as revealed in “higher ground”). God’s story says yes and no. Yes to what is right, no to what does not align itself to the will of God.

How God Seeks to Heal the World

This is the second in a short series of guest blogs from my friend, Gaby Phillips. I find her perspective extremely helpful in wrestling through the issues of how Adventists can and should relate to Islam. It is tempting to buy into morbidly negative views of Islam, on the one hand, and overly positive ones, on the other. Gaby here cuts through the debate by reframing it with a fresh perspective. Her words follow, I have taken the liberty of editing somewhat for clarity:

How is God healing the rift that sin has brought into the world? How is God continuing to be the Creator, and not just the Judge? What was God’s purpose in appointing human diversity (Deut 32:8; Acts 17:26-27)? What is God’s job description? God is in the business of recovering everything that Satan took away, and like the yeast in the dough, he is working from the inside: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” John 1:14.

The path to Abraham (Gen 12) goes through Babel (Gen 11). When God chose Abraham, He chose him for the sake of the broken world that God so loved. When God chose Abraham, it was in order to bless all the families on earth (Gen 12:3). God is the one who blesses, God is the one who curses, and relation to Abraham determines the action that He takes. As Abraham embodies the presence of God amidst pagan nations, the light of God is made known to them, and the Almighty judges the pagan nations in terms of how they respond to Abraham. God’s mission is to seek hosting hearts, willing to live engaged with those God is using to bless them, for in their interaction God becomes known. This mode of divine restoration transforms both the messenger and the host community.

From the time of Abraham on, the God of the Old Testament is pursuing the nations (people groups) with the light of truth, in preparation for the arrival of the Desire of All Nations (Hag 2:7). Later on Paul will tell the Romans that “since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.” Rom 1:20.

People have no excuse. Why? Because there is not a single people group left in utter darkness. At the very least each has been exposed to God’s power and existence and is expected to respond to it, for which they will be judged. How did God communicate this knowledge? In the past we tended to limit this knowledge to what could be learned through the study of nature. But we have come to realize that every people group has engaged with its geographical space (nature), and this has translated into culture, music, rituals, ceremonies, folktales, art, language, etc. And while one can see the working of Satan in every culture, one can also see the working of God, if one discovers where to look.

From the beginning, therefore, it has been God’s purpose to flood the earth with the light that knowing Him brings. That light becomes clearer and clearer as people live in submission to His will and respond in worship. “For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.” Habakkuk 2:14.

Because God has been in the business of pouring light on every people group in order that they might find him (Act 17:26-27), it is our role to seek where that light is present, and that will require us to wade into the mud of confusion in search for truth.

“Christ was the originator of all the ancient gems of truth. Through the work of the enemy these truths had been displaced. They had been disconnected from their true position and placed in the framework of error. Christ’s work was to readjust and establish the precious gems in the framework of truth. The principles of truth that had been given by Himself to bless the world had, through Satan’s agency, been buried and had apparently become extinct. Christ rescued them from the rubbish of error, gave them a new, vital force, and commanded them to shine as precious jewels and stand fast forever.” E. G. White (Christ’s Manner of Instruction, Jan. 9, 1890)

Aware of the reality of the work of Satan, we are also sent out to cast light, not by cursing the darkness (or exposing the work of Satan as our central message), but by upholding the light of God which dispels the darkness of Satan. It is not denunciation of Satan that turns people to Christ, but helping them behold something better.

So what are the implications of all this for our understanding of Islam? Islam, not just individual Muslims, is a platform in which the Great Controversy is being fought, in which light and darkness are fighting for supremacy, in which peace and violence are struggling for the supremacy. The struggle for the soul of Islam today is one of the venues on this earth where the Great Controversy is being fought.

Islam and the Mission of God

I am sharing a short series of guest blogs from my friend, Gabriela Profeta Phillips (Director of the Adventist-Muslim Relations Center for North America), who spoke last night at Loma Linda. I find her perspective extremely helpful in wrestling through the issues of how Adventists can and should relate to Islam. It is tempting to buy into morbidly negative views of Islam, on the one hand, and overly positive ones, on the other. Gaby here cuts through the debate by reframing it with a fresh perspective. Enjoy. Her words follow, I have taken the liberty of editing somewhat for clarity:

Confusion describes the current state of affairs when it comes to understanding Islam. And there are good reasons for feeling this way. Hardly a day goes by without gruesome violence, bloodshed, and anger in the name of Islam. We live against the backdrop of Paris, San Bernardino and ISIS. We are horrified by the war machines of Syria that kill and maim and show no signs of slowing down. Our world has changed since 9/11 and it is hard to get used to this new one.

When teaching I used to be asked: Is Islam peaceful or violent? My response was to say that the answer depends on whose Islam we are inquiring about. Today, nobody asks that question, the answer seems obvious if you watch the news. Yet things are not quite that simple.

All Muslims (adherents to Islam) have five core teachings: believe in God, in angels, in the revelation of God through sacred books, in the prophets, and in the Day of Judgment. Beyond that there is much diversity of interpretation among Muslims. So the more vulnerable the Muslim community feels in any place, the more likely it is to provide new recruits to groups who claim to be fighting in the name of God. When we view our Muslim neighbors through the darkest possible lens, we increase that very sense of vulnerability which can bring out the worst in people.

As Adventists consider the plight of their Muslim neighbors, what is the best starting point for an evaluation of Islam? What is the biblical approach? If we live under the authority of God as revealed in the Bible, the lenses that guide our enquiry have to start with an understanding of God and the way in which he is active in this world. So the most important question for understanding Islam is: How is God working out His purposes among Muslims and what role does Islam play in His purposes? To the degree that we can answer this question, we can also ask: How do we cooperate with what God is doing?

In the end, the question whether Islam is peaceful or not is not the most important one. It is not Islam that drives the way we do mission, it is God. If we can recapture a clear understanding of the mission of God and from there look at Islam, the confusion we feel about Islam resolves itself. When Islam is viewed through the lens of God’s mission for the world, we find that both God and Satan are at work and we can find evidence of their presence.

We have seen that it is perfectly possible to write books on what is right in the Qur’an and books on what is wrong with the Qur’an. Both kinds of books make sense to many people. So is it a matter of choosing which side to pick? Not really… Let’s understand first what God is doing in the world and then there is the chance we may see the issue with more clarity. To be continued. . .

Questions and Answers about the End-Time

I have been asked by a reporter from the Adventist News Service of South America to answer some questions about Revelation, End-Times, and recent speculations. I posted these one by one on Facebook and have been requested to provide the whole in one place. This is that place. 🙂

1. How do you, as a deep student of Revelation, see the current religious and political landscape in which the Vatican has gained increasing prominence with a number of nations, particularly on issues such as promoting world peace and environmental protection?
We live in very interesting times, times full of end-time potential. On the other hand, there is no guarantee that today’s events are immediate fore-runners of the End. Preparation for Jesus’ return is not found in wars, earthquakes, pestilence, and knowledge of papal movements and intentions (Matthew 24:6-8). True preparation is found in relationship with Christ, and is exhibited in how we treat others (Matthew 25:31-46). A focus on the dark side of the spiritual conflict in the world may sometimes be necessary, but is not the basis for true spiritual growth. Focus on Jesus!
I remember a sermon I preached in 1972. Based on some of the latest science, I confidently predicted an environmental apocalypse in 15 -20 years. Jesus was truly about to come! I was well-intentioned but obviously way off. Current events speculation can be very exciting and gather an audience for a time, but when the time passes people are inoculated against the study of prophecy and its true purpose. There is value in paying close attention to current events, and I try to do that, but not at the expense of genuine, spiritual preparation to meet Jesus whenever he does come.

2. Has every apocalyptic prophecy already been understood or there are open gaps that are not understood yet?
In my book What the Bible Says About the End-Time, I studied fulfilled prophecy throughout the Bible, from Genesis through Revelation. The results of that study are also summarized in the second chapter of The Deep Things of God. In short, I learned that the fulfillment of many prophecies was quite surprising to those who had studied them in advance, for a number of reasons. God sometimes fulfills prophecies in a spiritual, rather than a literal way. Sometimes the prophecy is worded in terms of God’s past actions and does not fully disclose God’s plans for the future. Sometimes the prophecy is open-ended and depends to some degree on the human response to the prophecy. Sometimes God simply decides to “do a new thing” (Isa 43:16-19)! Prophecy is best understood at the time of fulfillment, not before (John 13:19; 14:29).
This leads me to believe that even when we have fully understood a particular prophecy, events may not turn out exactly as we expect. There will be surprises in the fulfillment of God’s prophecies at the Second Advent, just as there were when the Messiah came the first time. We need to keep on studying, but anticipate that there will be gaps in our understanding of the future right up to the time of fulfillment (1 Cor 13:9-12). Prophecy was not given to satisfy our curiosity about the future, it was given to teach us how to live today.

3. Can we feel safe in thinking that we know the future because we “understand” the prophecies?
The previous answer applies here as well. The Pharisees felt “safe” that they understood all they needed to know about the coming Messiah. We know this because they left books behind that have been preserved (like 4 Ezra– http://web.archive.org/web/20080830063117/http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/toc/modeng/public/Kjv4Ezr.html). They created “charts” of end-time events leading up to the coming of the Messiah (see 4 Ezra 7:26-31). Yet when the Messiah came most of them rejected him because he didn’t fit their elaborate expectations.
There are two ways to misuse prophecy. One is to ignore it, the other is to be so certain that we have understood it that we miss the real thing when it happens because it doesn’t fit our elaborate expectations. Since no one has more detailed explanations of the future than Adventists do, we are in grave danger of repeating the mistakes of the Pharisees. We would be wise to study the prophecies with great care, study current events with great care, yet have a certain godly tentativeness about our conclusions until the day when we see Him face to face (1 Cor 13:12).

4. What is the key to the interpretation of the prophecies?
My research in fulfilled prophecy demonstrates the principle that God meets people where they are, even when it comes to prophecy. In other words, God communicates with the prophet in terms of the prophet’s time place, language, culture, and circumstances. An important aspect of this is that God uses the language of the prophet’s past to describe the future. So, for example, prophecies about the return from Babylonian exile are usually written up in the language of the Exodus (see Isaiah 11:15-16, for example). The messianic prophecies describe the Messiah as a new David (Jer 23:5), a new Moses (Deut 18:15-18) and a new Cyrus (Isa 45:1-4). The Book of Revelation is full of the language of Old Testament characters, places and events. God uses the language of the prophet’s past to describe the future. Each prophecy is written in the context of the prophet’s time and place.
Each biblical prophecy, therefore, needs to be interpreted first in terms of what the words meant at the time they were written. Whatever meaning we may draw for history or current events, our reading today must not contradict what the text meant then. Each prophecy is a natural extension of the prophet’s own time and place. If it were not so, why would God give a prophecy to one people for the benefit of another people in some other time and place? God gives each message at the right time. Other generations can benefit from that message to the degree that they rightly understand God’s original purpose. God had a reason for giving Revelation in 95 AD rather than 1995. Reading Revelation as if it was written directly to us will inevitably lead to distortion.

5. In your opinion, what can be done so that more people understand the message of hope, love and redemption that is the essence of Revelation and not that of a terrifying future?
When it comes to Revelation, a challenge I often face is that people move directly from the symbols in the text to specific nations, ideas and events of history. So in a sense Adventists no longer read the story of Revelation itself, but rather a parallel story that has come down to them from decades of interpretation. This parallel story has been very inspiring and helpful to many, but it is hard for everyday people to reproduce it from their own study, because it requires knowledge of history, philosophical trends and more to fully piece together (for example, how many people today can explain why the date of 538 AD is important in history?).
A simpler approach is to begin with the story of Revelation itself, what it meant to John, and how the various parts of the story hang together in the text of Revelation. I find that when I share Revelation in this way, contemporary audiences (who are trained in understanding stories through movies and comic books) can follow more easily and see the powerful, spiritual implications of Revelation without difficulty. When read in this way, the centrality of Christ is more readily apparent and the book’s outline of a God of hope, love and redemption is exposed. Graeme Bradford and I have attempted to do this in our published evangelistic materials entitled “Revelation Hope Meaning Purpose” (published by South Pacific Division of SDAs and available from Advent Source). I have also attempted to expose the basic stories of Revelation in my book “Seven Keys.”

6. Why is there a certain alarmism among some who study and read the book of Revelation, seeking answers in newspapers, conspiracy theories and the Internet?
This answer depends to some degree on all of the previous answers. Adventists first studied the prophecies in the Nineteenth Century, and their reading of those prophecies connected powerfully with the Nineteenth Century context, particularly in North America. Ellen White confirmed many of these readings by including them in her powerful book “The Great Controversy.” As with the biblical prophets, her outline of the future made perfect sense in her time and place. When God tells a prophet the future, it is always a natural extension of that prophet’s time and place. But over time each prophet’s picture may speak less and less directly to new situations that arise.
Out of respect for Ellen White, Adventists have been reluctant to revisit and reshape their understandings of prophecy as time passes and the world changes dramatically. The scenario of Great Controversy made powerful sense at the time when the book was written, but that scenario seems more and more foreign in a world of automobiles, air travel, world wars, nuclear weapons, space travel, television, the internet, cell phones, a South American pope (who expected that?), islamic radicalism, Facebook and much, much more that is not described in early Adventist prophetic literature. More change has occurred in the last hundred years than in the previous 6000. In the words of Ron Osborn, the Adventist prophetic scenario (developed in the 19th Century) has become a “degenerating paradigm” that explains less and less of what we experience today (one example is that back then Turkey was a major power in world affairs and was mentioned frequently in Adventist literature, but today plays only a minor role and is largely ignored).
Many Adventist lay people around the world have become frustrated with how little traditional SDA prophecy interpretation seems to speak to a post-Soviet world. They are casting about desperately to find clues that the traditional scenario is still active in the world behind the scenes. Thus the fascination with conspiracy theories and questionable analyses of current events. These conspiracy interpretations are usually based on both poor exegesis of prophecy and poorly substantiated readings of current events, but if they seem to support our traditional readings of prophecy in some way, they can have a powerful impact on Adventist thinking. But while most of such interpretations are well-intended, they will be quickly out of date and can undermine people’s interest in genuine prophetic interpretation.
How should we interpret Great Controversy today then? I have made an attempt to answer this question at length in my book “Armageddon at the Door.” We need a double exegesis, one that looks carefully at the prophecies in their original setting and the other that looks carefully at the realities of today’s world. Careful exegesis of the prophetic stories combined with sound, verifiable analysis of history and current events is the antidote to speculation, conspiracy theories and alarmism. In addition, the difficult texts of the Bible (like the seals, the trumpets and Daniel 11) must be interpreted in light of the clear texts of the Bible (the gospels, for example) or they can easily become an exhilarating ride into nonsense. When Jesus and the gospel are central to prophetic interpretation, there is much more hope that we can get it right.