Monthly Archives: August 2020

Sunday Laws and Bible Prophecy: Introduction

COVID-19 has changed many things in this world. Before COVID people who wanted your expertise invited you to get on an airplane and visit their interesting part of the world. After COVID they could invite you to address their people from the comfort of your own office or home. As a result of such invitations I have been able to interact with Seventh-day Adventist people and others in the Bahamas, Newfoundland, Malaysia, the Philippines, Europe and locations I’d rather not mention here. These events have usually involved some question and answer periods and have allowed me to take the pulse of the Seventh-day Adventist movement in ways that might not have been possible otherwise.

The one issue that seems to be on the minds of more SDAs outside the Western world than any other is the concept of future Sunday laws, particularly in the United States. This may come as a surprise to people in the West, who are well aware that Sunday laws are not on the radar in Western public conversation right now. But for many Seventh-day Adventists in the Caribbean, Africa and Asia the concept of Sunday laws is a real and imminent threat of critical importance. The narrative goes something like this: “Ellen White [special messenger to the SDA Church—1827-1915] clearly predicted, based on visions from the Lord, that before the end of time, the US Congress will pass a national Sunday law, enforcing worship on Sunday by all Americans. Laws like this will then be adopted in Europe, and ultimately by the entire world.”

The special appeal of this idea is that it would be the single, clearest, and most measurable sign of the End believers in the Second Coming of Jesus have. The idea that the gospel will be preached in the whole world as a witness to all nations is clear, but would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to verify. The idea that famines, earthquakes and pestilences will increase before the End still leaves open the issue of how bad these events have to be in order to qualify as apocalyptic. How massive and frequent are the earthquakes to come? How severe the pestilences? Determining that the End is at hand on the grounds of any particular earthquake, famine or pestilence has proven to be a fool’s errand through the centuries. But in contrast to these other “signs” a specific law in the halls of Congress of the United States of America, that is a specific, measurable sign of the End! When such a law is being debated in Congress and seems likely to pass, we can all know that the End is at hand. This concept is clear, simple and very attractive for people who like to know how and when things will end up. It gives them something unique to look for in the news cycle. It feels good to have “inside knowledge” in a matter of such importance.

But does this idea conform to biblical principles of prophetic interpretation? Is the purpose of such a prediction to satisfy our curiosity about the timing of the End? Or are we using the gift of prophecy in ways it was never intended to be used? One problem with fixing on a detail like this is that it can blind us to the larger picture of prophecy. We can have an unbalanced focus that causes us to forget prophetic features that are more vital to spiritual survival, like a living relationship with Jesus Christ.

In the blogs that follow, I will seek to explore three lines of evidence in relation to the topic. 1) What can we learn about unfulfilled prophecy from fulfilled prophecy? In anticipating specific Sunday laws, are we paying attention to how the Bible itself moves from prediction to fulfillment? We will review my previous study of fulfilled prophecy in the Bible, seeking guidelines that pertain to the specific prediction of a national Sunday law in the USA. 2) We will take a careful look at Revelation 13:13-17, the source passage in the Bible for the idea of a national/international Sunday law. Is that prediction as clear in the Bible as some have thought? Are there other ways that a counterfeit of the true Sabbath could occur? 3) We will take a close look at the key statements in the writings of Ellen White that are used to support the idea of a national Sunday law. How clear are those statements? What in her time and place was she referring to? Are similar conditions in play today?

I look forward to sharing this research with you and will welcome your feedback.

True Signs of the End of Time

In spite of the challenges described in the previous blog, the subject of End-time signs cannot safely be ignored. The same chapter in which Jesus says that no one knows the day or the hour (Matt 24:36) also offers indications as to when the coming is near (Matt 24:33). But what is Anear@ in actual time? A day? A year? A decade? A century? The author of Revelation considered Jesus’ coming to be near by 95 A.D (Rev 1:3; 22:10,12). So a Western chronological understanding of “nearness” is clearly false in light of the passage of 2000 years since the New Testament was written. From an Eastern perspective nearness seems to be much more a state of mind than a chronological fact.

But is there any sense that the coming of Jesus is chronologically nearer now than it was in the first century? Note Ellen White=s comment on the evidence in Matt 24:33, 36, “One saying of the Saviour must not be made to destroy another. Though no man knoweth the day nor the hour of His coming, we are instructed and required to know when it is near (GC 371, emphasis hers).” For Ellen White the coming was near because by her day the time prophecies leading to the Time of the End had been fulfilled.

Seventh-day Adventist students of Daniel and Revelation are aware that while the “last days” truly began in NT times, the Time of the End is a much more recent phenomenon. With the passing of the great time prophecies of Daniel and Revelation we are now living in the Time of the End. So these are not just ordinary times. The year 2000 is much closer to the End than the year 1000 was. We know that this world’s history is writing its final chapter. While we cannot know with certainty that this is the final generation, we certainly know that things can wind up very soon.

While current events should not be used to encourage date-setting in any of its forms, hard or soft, we are certainly living in times like those the Bible associates with the End. Knowledge is increasing with breathtaking rapidity (Dan 12:4 does not address that issue in general, but exponential increase of knowledge in all areas accompanies increased knowledge of the Bible). The internet and satellite broadcasting make it possible for the whole world to hear the gospel in a short time (Matt 24:14). Divisions among nations are increasing. Weapons of mass destruction are in increasingly unstable hands. Rebellion, profanity, perversions, and violence are increasing (2 Tim 3:1-5). The Bible says, “When these things begin to happen, get up, lift up your heads, for your redemption is drawing near” (Luke 21:28, my translation). One could say that we are living in “end-like times.”

How to Interpret the Signs of the End

It has never been easier to stay informed about world events. With the help of the internet one can amass a huge quantity of information about world affairs in a short period of time. But there are several problems when it comes to analyzing the significance of such information for Christian faith. For one thing, within this enormous mass of information one must distinguish between information which is sound and that which is simply someone’s empty speculation forwarded from computer to computer. It is necessary to become familiar with a news source’s track record over time, with its biases, and with its reasons for offering information on the internet. Christians must be slow to accept the latest report or conspiracy theory, especially when relatively reliable filters like major news organizations or church papers are silent on the subject.

But even when information is reasonably solid, it is imperative to look at the evidence from all sides of the question. Those who emphasize the nearness of the End love to talk about rising crime statistics, catastrophic earthquakes and floods, wars and rumors of wars, imminent economic collapse, and declining morality. But credibility is severely damaged when we ignore solid evidence that points in other directions. For example, many sincere Christian speakers and writers regularly predict the imminent arrival of a national Sunday law in the USA. Yet in my lifetime public attention to the idea of Sunday laws in the USA has been in a steady decline.

But what if your information is unquestionably solid, balanced, and carefully verified? You still have to determine whether that solid information is of any spiritual significance or not. It is all too easy to jump to conclusions about the significance of particular world events. Just because events are taking a course that reminds us of a particular prophecy, doesn’t mean that this particular event is what that prophecy was pointing to. COVID-19 is certainly one of the greatest international crises the world has faced in my lifetime. Yet there is no specific biblical prophecy that tells us a contagious disease will be a definitive mark of the End-time. No matter how solid our reading of the “signs” seems to be, we are expected to stay sober as we approach the End (1 Thess 5:1-11)! We damage the credibility of all preaching about the End when we use inaccurate information, are selective in our use of solid evidence, or make exaggerated claims that are inappropriate to our level of expertise.

A Different Look at “Signs of the End”

If wars, earthquakes and famines are signs of the age, it should not surprise us that what many call the “signs of the end” have been with us from the beginning of the Christian age. There were false messiahs already in Jesus= day (Acts 5:36-37), and plenty more shortly after. While peace characterized the Roman province of Palestine in AD 31, there were “wars and rumors of wars” throughout the 60s. There were famines (Acts 11:28), earthquakes (Laodicea in 60 AD, Pompeii in 63, Jerusalem in 64, and Rome in 68), and heavenly signs. It is reported that the quake in Jerusalem damaged the newly finished temple, just before the Roman sieges began in AD 66. The NT also contains abundant accounts of persecution, false teachers and false prophets in 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Colossians, 2 Peter, 1 and 2 John, Jude and Revelation 2-3 (note 2:20 especially). Paul could even claim that the gospel had gone to the world within his lifetime (Col 1:23; Rom 1:8; 16:26). It is no wonder, then, that the apostles believed that they were living in the last days (Acts 2:14-21; Heb 1:2; 1 Pet 1:20; 1 John 2:18).

Compounding the issue is the question of just how unusual the events of the End will be. There is no question that NT descriptions of the final days are momentous. People develop strange diseases, rivers and seas turn to blood, and humanity is subject to climate change of searing proportions (Rev 16:1-9). Nations are angry (Rev 11:18) and confused (Luke 21:25), and the world is seriously divided over issues of faith (Rev 17:14). Unusual events take place in the sky and earthquakes, storms and disasters become more severe (Luke 21:26; Rev 6:12-15; 16:18-21). There is the deceptive confusion caused by competing claims to truth (Matt 24:24-27; Mark 13:19-23; 2 Thess 2:8-12; Rev 13:13-14) and direct demonic intervention (1 Tim 4:1). Although they were realities already in Paul=s day, social unrest and contempt for faith are expected to increase (2 Tim 3:1-5). The people of God suffer greatly from persecution (John 16:2; Rev 13:15-17; 16:4-7; 17:6). And many more considerations could be given.

But there is another side to NT teaching on this subject that is often ignored. Both Jesus and Paul portray the last days as exceedingly normal times in spite of all the spectacular events that will take place. As in the time just before the Flood (Matt 24:37), people will pursue their normal round of eating and drinking, and weddings will not be postponed (Matt 24:38). As in the days of Lot, there will be buying and selling (Luke 17:28), which suggests that the basic economic structure of the world is still intact. Planting and building continues (Luke 17:28). Most people seem to have no premonition that the End is upon them (Matt 24:39). Believer and unbeliever are working together in the field or in a factory on the day when Jesus comes (Matt 24:40-41).

Paul announces to the Thessalonians that the terrible destructions associated with the Second Coming itself (see 2 Thess 1:5-10) will come at a time when people are proclaiming “peace and safety” (1 Thess 5:2-3). To the average person on the street, the last days may seem like a golden age of peace and prosperity. The troubles, disasters, social disruptions, and persecutions of the End-time will be on the radar screen, but will not seem out of proportion to normal times. The majority, perhaps the vast majority, of people on earth will be surprised to see the ultimate end of history take place when it does. This should make us cautious in our broad and confident pronouncements regarding current events. But at the same time we must not overlook that the same text assures us that God=s true people will not be surprised (1 Thess 5:4-7). The normalcy will only be an apparent one, apparent to those without the eyes of Christian faith.

Signs of the End: Are the Signs Really Signs?

When I was eight years old, I stood with my parents in front of our home and watched Sputnik (the first man-made satellite of earth) move with surprising speed across the night sky. Shortly after that an earnest fellow believer declared, “God will never let man land on the moon, Jesus will come first.” For him, as for many Christians, various events in today’s world provide evidence or signs that the coming of Jesus is truly near. He felt that since it would be inappropriate for human beings to defile another planet (having already messed up this one!), the approach of human exploration of the moon and the planets became a “sign” that the second coming of Jesus was at hand.

A few years later I got up at three in the morning to witness the live broadcast of Neil Armstrong’s first step on the moon. Jesus did not come to intervene. Evidently human occupation of the moon was of less concern to God than my fellow believer had assumed. It turned out not to be a “sign of the End.” Incidents like these make people wonder: Will we ever know with absolute certainty that the return of Jesus is at hand? Are the signs really signs?

When we examine the New Testament, we discover that many world events that Christians take as “signs of the End” are really “signs of the age” instead. Rather than pointing to the timing of the second coming, they confirm that His predicted return at the end of the age is secure. They encourage us to believe that if Jesus knew the character of the whole age in advance, He will not be mistaken about the event that brings it to a close.

For example, when the disciples asked Jesus (Matt 24:3) about the “sign”of His coming and the end of the age, He replied, “You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come.” Matt 24:6 (NIV). Wars and rumors of wars made great signs of the End in the Jewish apocalyptic of Jesus’ day, but in Matt 24 they do not herald the End, they are part of what life is like before the End.

To fully understand what Jesus was doing in Matthew 24, it is helpful understand how the Judaism of Jesus’ day handled the same ideas (an excellent summary of the early Jewish perspective on signs can be found in D. S. Russell, The Method and Message of Jewish Apocalyptic [Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1964], 271-276). The Jewish understanding of signs, which the disciples of Jesus would have shared, was based on the Day of the Lord passages in the OT. It was felt that the near approach of the End would be marked by wars, wickedness, earthquakes, famines, and heavenly portents, among other things. So Jesus is not inventing the concept of signs, He is moderating their impact on the disciples. So it is fascinating that Jesus’ “signs” are generally used for the opposite of the purpose He intended.

Jesus goes on: “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of birth pains.” Matt 24:7-8. Wars, famines and earthquakes do not signal the End, they signal the beginning! The disciples asked for a sign of the End, Jesus gave them signs of the age. These “signs” are not intended to stimulate speculation regarding the timing of the end, they are to remind us of Jesus’ words, which encourage us to be watchful for the End at all times (Matt 24:42).

Jesus does seem to give a measurable sign of the nearness of the End in Matt 24:14. The End will come when the gospel has been preached to the whole world. Yes, the gospel must be preached to the world before the Lord comes, but it is not the kind of sign you can base a calculation on. After all, Paul had the impression that this sign had been fulfilled already in his day (Col 1:23). The only sign that meets the disciples’ intention is the “sign of the son of man” in 24:30. But this appears to be the literal glory that surrounds Jesus Himself at His coming. Those who wait for this sign will be too late.

Jesus’ response to His disciples is disappointing to me in a way. It would seem easier for us if He would have given us all the details about the End, and the events leading up to It, then we could line them all up, see exactly where we are, and know when we have to get ready. But apparently that wasn’t Jesus’ purpose. Apparently that wouldn’t have been the best thing for us. What then was His purpose in this chapter? He gives us that in Matt 24:42. “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come.”

Interpreting Biblical Apocalyptic (26): The Time of Jesus and John

Someone noticed number 26 was missing. I wrote this and somehow never posted it. So here it is, in belated fashion.

The result of the dragon’s attack in 12:4-5 is to split up the woman and the child. He is snatched up to heaven and she flees into the desert, under God’s protection but still on earth (Rev 12:6). When the male child reaches heaven war breaks out there, with the result that the dragon and his angels lose their place in heaven and are hurled down (evblh,qh) to earth (12:7-9). When did this casting out take place? Verse 10 clearly addresses the same point in time as the war of 7-9. “Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God, and the authority of his Christ. For the accuser of our brothers has been hurled down.”

The time of the war in heaven is the time when the kingdom of God and the authority of Christ were clearly established (12:10). In the book of Revelation, this took place at the enthronement of the Lamb in as a result of His overcoming at the cross (Rev 5:5-6, cf. 3:21). Throughout the New Testament the Kingdom of God was seen as a present reality in the person of Jesus (Matt 12:28; Luke 17:20-21, etc.) and was established in force at His ascension when He joined His Father on the heavenly throne (cf. Heb 8:1-2, etc.). “Accuser of our brothers” (12:10) is a play on the Hebrew meaning of the word Satan (12:9), which means “the one who accuses.” Apparently up until the cross, Satan and his accusations still had a certain credibility in heavenly places (Job 1:6; Zech 3:1-2), but now this is all over. The accused can now overcome Satan by “the blood of the Lamb and the word of their testimony” (verse 11). Beale addresses this matter in a fascinating way, “The emphasis on Satan’s accusatorial role in 12:10 reveals that the angelic battle of vv 7-9 was figurative for a courtroom battle between two opposing lawyers, with one losing the argument and being disbarred for employing illegal tactics.”

The language of 12:7-9, however, is also reminiscent of 12:4, where the dragon hurled (e;balen) a third of the stars from heaven to earth. But that event occurred before the birth of Christ, and the war of 12:7-9 occurred after the ascension. So there are two separate events in this chapter in which a hurling down from heaven occurs, one is prior to the birth of Christ (12:4), and the other is after His ascension (12:7-10).

How long before the birth of Christ did the dragon sweep a third of the stars from heaven to earth? The traditional Adventist answer is “before creation.” The exact timing of that action is not addressed in this chapter, but a strong hint is found in Rev 13:8, where the Lamb is described as “slain from the creation of the world” (tou/ evsfagme,nou avpo. katabolh/j ko,smou). This comment finds no context in the entire book unless the dragon’s action in 12:4 represents that primeval attack on the Lamb. If that is the case, the war in heaven of 12:7-9, while clearly in the context of the cross in Revelation 12, nevertheless speaks in the language of that earlier conflict, as noted by scholars such as Adela Yarbro Collins.
In His earthly life, therefore, Jesus was participating in a war that had begun in heaven before His arrival on earth (Rev 12:3-4,7-9). At His ascension, Jesus establishes His kingdom and casts the “accuser of the brothers” (Rev 12:10) out of heaven. Since the dragon had already been cast out of heaven physically, according to the symbolism of 12:4, the language of 12:7-12 implies that after the Christ-event, Satan has no more influence over heavenly deliberations. This casting out is, therefore, more spiritual than physical. It is interesting, that while the dragon appears in all four stages of the conflict in chapter 12, the actions of Jesus, expressed in the images of the male child, the Lamb, Christ, and probably Michael, are confined to the second stage, the time of Jesus’ birth, life, death, resurrection, ascension and heavenly rule (Rev 12:5-10).