Basic theme: The Prologue of Revelation (1:1-8)
Much of my intention for this week’s lesson came through, although editing was heavy in places, with some interesting theological implications. In the “Lesson Themes III” portion of the Introduction (see previous blog for my version of the teacher’s notes being analyzed), “Vision” was changed to “Visions.” As we will see later (in the analysis of the Week 2 lesson), this has to do with how one interprets Revelation 1:11 and 1:19. I think of Revelation as a single vision, received during John’s experience in chapter one (Rev. 1:12-18), which has many parts. The editorial team seems to prefer the idea that Revelation is a collection of many different visions, as was the case with Daniel, Isaiah or Jeremiah. This is an interesting difference, but not very significant to interpretation.
Potentially more significant is the removal of my phrase “triple trinity” in Lesson Themes IV, replacing it with “threefold description of the Trinity.” In the Commentary portion of this lesson (section IV. The Threeness of God), the language of “triple trinity” is removed several times. My first impression was that the final editor must be anti-trinitarian, but then noticed the editorial insertion of the word “Trinity” in two places of this lesson. Early on in the Advent movement many leaders were not Trinitarian, but the church came to the place where the concept of Trinity is clearly expressed in Fundamental Belief number two. Anti-trinitarianism is making something of a comeback in some Adventist circles, but is firmly rejected by church leadership. Since the word “trinity” is not a biblical word, there was sentiment among church leaders to remove it from the title of Fundamental 2, but it was left there due to the concern that removing it would provide encouragement to the anti-trinitarians in the church. I am disappointed in the removal of my phrase “triple trinity” because it clearly expresses what is going on in Revelation 1:4-6 (three three-fold descriptions), I don’t think the editor(s) understood that, this change had to do with a preference in wording, it does not seem to have been theologically driven.
A more significant issue has to do with the prophetic interpretation of the messages to the seven churches (Revelation 2:1- 3:22). Seventh-day Adventists, along with many protestant Christians, have long interpreted the seven churches as a prophecy of Christian history, treating them much like Daniel 2 and 7. But the biblical form of these messages is not overtly apocalyptic, they read more like letters of Paul than apocalyptic visions. And there is no statement within them that clearly identifies them as prophetic of future churches in the course of history. So I prefer to see them on the surface as “prophetic letters” written to seven churches in John’s day (1:11; 2:1, 8, 12, 18; 3:1, 7, 14; 22:16) that have value for all readers of the book (Rev 2:7, 11, 17, 29; 3:6, 13, 22). I believe, however, that there is good evidence that the church history interpretation of these seven messages was intended by John as an extended meaning. Many, especially non-scholars of Revelation, find such an approach inadequate and prefer to assert an overt prophetic or apocalyptic meaning as the primary intention of the messages to the seven churches. The changes made to the Teacher’s Edition of this lesson seem to reflect such a preference.
This brings me to an important observation. I speak and write in two different roles, as a believer and as a scholar. As a Seventh-day Adventist, I believe in the teachings of the church and seek to support them whenever I can. But as a scholar, I recognize that some SDA teachings have a more solid biblical basis than others. Such a dual stance allows me to live with conviction and commitment as a believer while at the same time being open to learning and growth in understanding. Such a dual commitment, I believe, is healthy and authentic. But many people have difficulty maintaining such a tension in their lives and the editors of the lesson in this case were acting to protect such from doubt and uncertainty. Whether such a move will ultimately support belief or work against it, time will tell.
A very small but important change occurred in the opening part of the Commentary section. I believe the seven trumpets end with Revelation 11:18 rather than 11:19. In my view, 11:19 is the “sanctuary introduction” for chapters 12-14. The editors shifted the end-point of the trumpets to 11:19, removing the sanctuary introduction from the following section. I think this move is wrong exegetically, but there are good scholars on both sides of the issue, so I suspect no serious harm is done by this change.
In section I of the Commentary section, a number of changes suggest the final editor did not understand the Greek text of Revelation 1:1-3. In the Greek there is a chain of revelation from “what God gave” (1:1) to “what John saw” (1:2) to “what John wrote” (1:3). This observation (removed from the lesson) serves two purposes: 1) it does not limit the “testimony of Jesus” to the Book of Revelation, as some opponents of Adventism claim, and 2) it equates John’s visionary experience with that which the end-time remnant will have in 12:17. The editors left in the claim that 12:17 looks forward to future prophetic revelations, but took out the best Greek evidence for that claim. Since I had to be brief, it is understandable if editors did not fully understand what I was doing here.
Finally, the last section of Part III: Life Application had the most numerous and significant editorial changes. I have observed that many Seventh-day Adventist believers today, especially younger ones, feel a tension between traditional historicist readings of Revelation and the book’s claim to be a “revelation of Jesus Christ” and the gospel. I sought to acknowledge that tension and offer reasons why a both/and approach is better than an either/or approach. The editors seemed uncomfortable with that concession and removed the language of “tension” and “value added” that I had placed there. The motive, I am sure, was to protect believers from doubt, and that is important to do. But if the younger generation perceives a tension here, ignoring that reality won’t persuade them to embrace the historicist perspective. I prefer candor and openness to protectiveness, but I hope, in this case, that people above my pay grade have made the best decision for the church.
For those who don’t have access to the standard printed edition of the Adult Sabbath School Bible Study Guide or the Teacher’s Edition for this quarter, you can access them online week by week at https://www.absg.adventist.org/. My original pre-edited Teacher’s Edition manuscript for this week is provided in the previous blog. You can also download audio of me teaching the lesson ahead of time each week at http://pineknoll.org/sabbath-school-lessons.