Monthly Archives: December 2013

Is There a Better Way? Part 3

Christianity as a whole is coming under heavy criticism in media and academia and I’d have to say that as a group we’ve earned it in many ways. Many Christians ignore the criticism or seek to minimize it because much of it comes from post-moderns, atheists and non-Christians. While the best way to clean a house is from inside not the outside, our comfortable familiarity with the inside of the house may blind us to things that are obvious to those who visit us from the outside. People with indoor pets or hygiene issues may be used to certain unpleasant odors that hit strangers the moment they enter. When outsiders think of Christians as arrogant, self-important and over-confident, we are unwise to simply ignore the charges or respond in defensive ways. We have many things to learn and many, many to unlearn.

In light of this I am intrigued by the approach to Revelation 13 by the Voice of Prophecy evangelist, Shawn Boonstra. He shared his approach in an recent article: “Ten Years After the Sky Fell,” Adventist Review, September 8, 2011, 16-21. I hope I do justice to his position in what follows.

Of all Christians, Seventh-day Adventists are the one significant group that is willing to admit publicly that something is wrong with modern Christianity. God couldn’t have prepared our outreach to the final generation better. We live in a world that distrusts organized religion, that continually seeks to dismantle Christianity and the culture it has created. We have a message that answers the general sense that it is a mistake to lay all of the blame for the world’s current woes at the feet of Islam, for example. The world’s biggest problems arise from within Christianity itself. Instinctively, many of the secular people around us know it. Such people are desperate for Christians who will honestly admit that Christianity as it has been practiced is rife with problems. We should be like Daniel and accept corporate responsibility for the sins of Christianity (Dan 9:5).

When we describe the sins of the Middle Ages, we can say, “Do you know who this is? This is us. This is how the church behaved in the Dark Ages. These are the crimes of the Christian church and it is about time that we admit it.” This approach does not ignore the truth, but it wipes away the sins of Christianity as an excuse for people to avoid the Bible. It also takes the blame off God for our horrific behavior and puts the blame where it belongs, on us. It takes away the “we/they” mentality and opens the door to honest examination.

One thing we’ve learned from the war on terror is how ready people are to trade liberty for a little security. The whole conspiracy mentality feeds on the sense that there is something clearly wrong with government. The public is increasingly slow to trust in any form of government at all. Our world seems to be spiraling out of control. We can’t control the economy, we can’t control the terrorists, we can’t control the climate, we don’t trust in religion and we don’t trust government. Sounds like the table is being set for the biggest religio-political tyranny of all time. The world will cry for solutions and Satan has waited for thousands of years to provide them.

We have the ability to show them why they have been soured on both Christian faith and worldly government and show them that the character of God is not at all like they have been told. At the right time, in the right place and in the right way, the message of Revelation 13 is exactly what this world needs right now. September 11, 2001 seems to have set the table for something. Human beings, particularly in the Christian west, have broken the planet and denied the way of Christ by our words and actions. We have broken our own hearts. We have spawned the evil that besets us. But there is good news. Jesus is still the answer.

Is There a Better Way? Part 2

After the sharp comment from my Adventist colleague, the tension in the room hung in the air like a cloud that would never go away. Then a Lutheran colleague, soon to become Bishop of Oslo, spoke slowly and carefully to his Lutheran colleagues. He reminded them of several years of dialogue and mutual growth in understanding with their Adventist colleagues. He reminded them of seasons of prayer, heartfelt testimonies, a common love for Jesus and the gospel, growing friendships and growing appreciation for each other between the two groups. He reminded them of discussions over the Sabbath. Tensions arose then too, but he and his Lutheran colleagues had come to appreciate the beauty of the Sabbath and longed to see something similar happen in their churches. He reminded them of all the learning that had taken place together. Then he challenged them, “Are we willing to throw all that away because we struggle to appreciate one point?” It was one of the most humble and gracious speeches I have ever heard. Instead of reacting to the harsh comment from my colleague, he challenged his own colleagues to manifest the spirit of Jesus and welcome their brothers in spite of the temptation to react.

His comment was followed by similar statements from others on both sides. But as we were coming up to the noon hour and the meal that had been prepared, I could see that the German professor across the table was still distressed. I prayed earnestly that God might give me the right words to say before we broke for lunch. When the time came I asked for the last word (as the one whose paper had started the whole discussion that seemed appropriate to all). I turned to my German colleague and said, “You are worried for the future of your grandchildren. I understand that. I am just as worried for the future of my children. (I am a little younger than him) We wish we could make the right decisions for them, but we realize that in the end they will have to make their own decisions for or against the gospel. We can only watch and pray. Adventists do not believe that the message of the mark of the beast will only split other churches, we believe that it will split us too. We expect many among our ranks to end up on the wrong side at the end. Your grandchildren and my children will face the same decision. Will they follow the radical faith of Jesus no matter what the cost? Or will they take the easy route and follow the path of convenience and worldly approval? In that day Adventists and Lutherans and Catholics will face the same choice. While we Adventists may do it poorly at times, our mission is to prepare the world for that day and for that choice. On that day your grandchildren and my children will face that challenge on the same level.”

His eyes full of tears, the professor nodded and said, “I understand better now. You Adventists ARE being driven by the gospel to say things you feel need to be said. We Lutherans cannot give that message for you, we don’t see the Book of Revelation as you do. But it is clear to me that the unique message you have is one you are driven to present for God. You cannot do otherwise and be true to who you are. Do it wisely, but do it with our blessing. I acknowledge you as brother and sisters in Christ. Your faith in Him is real and it is true. I understand that now.” What a beautiful and gracious spirit the Lutherans extended to us that day. What a gift and a blessing they bestowed on us. Whenever I share the message of Revelation 13, I want to remember my Lutheran friends and their love and concern for us. I want to do it in the same spirit of love and grace toward those who will hear the message as the Lutherans did toward us.

Christians come in many stripes, but they are on a shared journey of discovering and recovering truth. Adventists have certainly taken the lead in the recovering of many truths, but the task is not done and our witness is not perfect. While we must remain true to Scripture, we also have much to learn about kindness, grace and mercy. And other Christians have sometimes been our best teachers in those areas. When it comes to the mark of the beast the key is not so much what we say but how we say it that counts.

To be concluded. . .

Is There a Better Way?

Some of you may be tempted to think, What does he know about presenting messages like Revelation 13? Academics think they know everything, but what they say often doesn’t play where the rubber meets the road. Well in this case I think I can say my rubber meets the road. While it is challenging to share the mark of the beast with an audience of strangers that is unlikely to have a scholar among them, imagine what it would be like the share the mark of the beast with an audience of non-Adventist scholars in Daniel and Revelation! I have been invited to do this on more than one occasion.

A dramatic occasion was a series of dialogues between leaders of the Seventh-day Adventist Church and leaders of the Lutheran World Federation. The Federation provides a loose oversight of more than a hundred church bodies in 79 countries with approximately 70 million adherents. The fourth in a series of week-long dialogues took place near their headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland in 1998. It was on the subject of eschatology, how the two church bodies view the biblical topic of the end of the world. Dr. B. B. Beach of the General Conference public affairs office invited me to represent the Adventist Church’s position on Revelation 13 and the mark of the beast. I would be facing nearly ten Lutheran scholars and officials, several of whom were specialists in Daniel and Revelation. In other words, I couldn’t get away with the kind of easy deductions that uneducated people might accept. I would have to meet the highest standards of logic, reason and biblical exegesis.

What I did not expect was the deep sensitivity among the Lutherans against “Catholic bashing” of any kind. The same group had had a similar series of dialogues with the Vatican and could put the faces of real people into play when I talked about the papal system. It is one thing to talk about the other in the absence of the other. But when the “other” has a face and a name and a shared love for Mozart, the same information can come across pretty lame. While it was very important in a dialogue not to hide unwelcome elements of one’s faith (dialogue is for the purpose of understanding rather than persuasion, and you can’t understand what you don’t know), a great tension entered the room when I shared and we discussed what Adventists believe about Revelation 13.

The tension came to a head when a professor of Revelation from a major German university summed up how he was feeling. “What I hear all of you telling me is that I am OK because the mark of the beast is an end-time concept. But my grandchildren will be lost if they don’t become Seventh-day Adventists! I cannot bear this teaching! I love my grandchildren, and I would rather be lost if it meant they could all be saved. I thought I was dealing with a group of fellow Christians, but now I realize that deep inside you are just another sect or cult (not flattering terms in the German context), you are not really a Christian Church. I am sorry I ever agreed to this dialogue.” He broke into tears and put his head down into his hands.

You could have cut the tension in the room with a knife. A large knot was developing in my lower intestines. After a moment of silence one of the Adventist scholars spoke up and said, “You call us a ‘sect,’ we are no true Christian church. But let me be clear that we don’t care what you think. You can think and say what you want, but we will go on and think and say whatever we want. What you think doesn’t matter.” Somehow that approach didn’t strike me as particularly helpful at that moment! While the German professor was rather abrasive in his own right, he was a sincere follower of Jesus and was truly distressed by the teaching he had heard.

The key perhaps isn’t so much what you share but how you share it. When the mark of the beast message comes across as “We’re better than you and our grandchildren will be better than yours,” there is a prideful aspect to the message that can seem downright wrong to honest, heartfelt followers of Jesus. And in the process we may leave the impression we think God hates Catholics and anyone else that doesn’t toe the line. The reality is that God loves all the creatures He has made and His warnings are designed to redeem not to condemn. The mere fact that the final judgments have been delayed for nearly 2000 years shows God’s love and patience for sinners of all kinds, including Adventist kinds. Perhaps the best way to share the mark of the beast is with the kind of humility that acknowledges how easy it is to lose one’s way. Given enough time, what religious institution has ever avoided putting the institution ahead of the mission? The papacy is the poster child for a problem that has affected all religious institutions to one degree or another.

Story will be concluded in the next blog. . . .

Why Would One Want To? Part 2

For the first two reasons one might want to share the message of Revelation 13, please see the previous blog.

3) A third reason to share this truth at the right time and in the right way is that it is liberating to many people. The truth about the Papacy as a system can bring tremendous freedom to people who have assumed the Papacy was God’s vicar on earth and thus followed every teaching in detail, even those that are disturbing and questionable on the very face of it. Think of the Scala Santa, the holy stairs in Rome. The faithful ascend the stairs on their knees saying an Our Father on every step. Why? Because, as the plaque on the wall says in several languages: “The following indulgences may be received, in accord with the usual conditions: PLENARY INDULGENCE– on all Fridays of Lent, and once more each year on an occasion of one’s choice. PARTIAL INDULGENCE– on all other days of the year, as long as one is sincerely repentant of one’s sins.” This is the very thing that Martin Luther and so many others sought to overthrow 500 years ago. For some this leads to a slavery of righteousness by works. To others it paves the way for  a “do whatever you like” permissiveness. What kind of monstrous picture of God requires sinners to evaluate their salvation by the depth of the callouses on their knees? And these specific indulgences were ordered by the direct authority of various popes.
    I received a taste of the power of indulgences for myself when I was young. After a visit to the Scala Santa, I went to Vatican Square to hear the Easter address of Pope Paul VI on April 4, 1969. To my surprise I heard him say in English (the message was repeated in several languages) that all those present would receive a complete indulgence for all sins past, present and future. So I guess in some sense I’m covered. While that was a whole lot easier than climbing the Scala Santa on my knees, I have to admit that it involved no heart commitment on my part. So if I had taken it as seriously as some in the square probably did, it would likely have led me to a life of carelessness and self-indulgence. Salvation simply by being in the right place at the right time.
    To me it is shocking that in the name of Christ a system that governs the actions of a billion people reduces the gift of the cross to something that can be earned by actions or money. Yet the core teachings of the system they adhere to are seriously flawed. The public face of Catholicism has softened since the Second Vatican Council of 1962-1965, but it has never changed its fundamental teachings on salvation. Notice the following Papal actions in the last fifteen years: 1) expansion of the ways in which believers can earn indulgences, 2) elaboration on the punishments to be meted out to apostates and heretics (those words could well include you and me), 3) exhortation to believers to make sure that civil legislation respects the duty to keep Sunday, and 4) reaffirmation that priests have the power to forgive sin and to re-create their Creator in the mass. This doesn’t sound all that different from the church of the Middle Ages. I’m sure that the people ascending the Scala Santa include some of the nicest and kindest people on earth. But don’t nice and kind Catholics deserve to experience the freedom of the gospel as much as anyone else?
    It remains official teaching that salvation comes only through the Catholic Church and believers can only receive salvation by participating in the sacraments of the church. Those who refuse these sacraments will suffer eternal damnation, no exceptions. It can be such a relief to Catholics to learn for the first time that Jesus died for them personally, that they can go directly to Him without a human intermediary, that they don’t have to earn the love of the Father. As Jesus Himself said, “I do not say to you that I will ask the Father on your behalf; for the Father himself loves you.” (John 16:26-27)  If people are being freed by a message, we cannot let embarrassment prevent us from this sacred work. Pope Benedict XVI made it clear that Vatican II did not make any changes to the historic Catholic doctrine concerning salvation. Ironically, a sizable and growing segment of Catholics now believes that the end-time antichrist will arise from within the Catholic Church, probably a pope.

4) Finally, a good reason to share even unpleasant truth is the fact that Jesus is coming. Oddly enough, since September 11, 2001 many Seventh-day Adventists have lost a sense of the nearness of Christ’s coming. They are losing confidence in prophecy at exactly the time when prophetic events seem closer to fulfillment than ever before. If you want detail on this read my book Armageddon at the Door for a detailed picture of the intersection between Bible prophecy and the kind of events that went down in the context of September 11. What an irony. Losing confidence in prophecy at the very time end-time like events are happening. More and more Adventists today see prophecy as antagonistic rather than liberating. They reason that people have enough fear in their lives already. Why burden them with more by studying scary prophetic beasts?
    The best answer I can think of is this: Being prepared for the end of time is better than not being prepared. Jesus is coming back whether we are calm or nervous. The heart of the end-time gospel is Revelation 14, and it includes a warning against counterfeits. Adventists must present Jesus clearly. That is the heart of our mission. And many people won’t see Jesus clearly or be ready for His return unless the truth about counterfeit forms of salvation and other real issues of the end-time are presented in detail. So that is a fourth reason for sharing this message even though it might not be popular to do so.