The image of the beast is mentioned in passing in Revelation 16:2. The first bowl-plague falls on those who worshiped the image of the beast. Babylon is parallel to the Great City in 16:19, but no direct connection is made within the chapter between Babylon and the image of the beast. However, there are strong parallels between Revelation 16:13-16 and Revelation 13. Revelation 16:13 picks up on the motif of an unholy trinity, which work together in both passages for a common cause, to cause the inhabitants of the earth to worship the beast and its image (Rev 13:8, 14, 15). In order to achieve that, the dragon gives his authority to the sea beast (Rev 13:2). The land beast exercises its authority in behalf of the sea beast (13:12). The land beast then breathes life into the image of the beast (13:15). So there is a chain of authority running from the dragon to the image of the beast.
An additional parallel between Revelation 16 and 13 is the mouth motif.
The three frogs come out of the mouths of the dragon, beast and false prophet (16:13). Earlier, the dragon uses its mouth to accuse the faithful before God (Rev 12:10). Similarly, the sea beast uses its mouth to speak blasphemies (Rev 13:5), the land beast uses its mouth to breathe life into the image of the beast (13:15), and the image uses its mouth to order the death of all who will not worship the image (13:15). Through all these mouths, the dragon is able to gather the inhabitants of the earth before the image to worship it. A further parallel between Revelation 16 and 13 is the concept of worldwide deception through miraculous signs (Rev 16:14; 13:13-14). The demonic spirits work signs to lead the rulers of the earth into battle against God (16:14). In Revelation 13:13-15, the land beast/false prophet uses miraculous signs to gather the people of earth for the worship of the image of the beast. These passages (16:13-16 and 13:15-17) also share a number of verbal parallels with scene on the Plain of Dura in Daniel 3.
This all suggests that while the Battle of Armageddon makes no direct reference to the image of the beast, whether or not to worship the image is a part of that spiritual conflict. The worldwide worshiping of the image of the beast is likely the same event as the worldwide gathering for the battle of Armageddon, in which Babylon falls (Rev 16:16, 19). Revelation 13 and 16, then, are describing the same eschatological event, the last worldwide deception concerning worship. People are making decisions whether to worship God (Rev 14:7) or worship the image (13:15-17), someone/something other than God. Since Babylon is mentioned in the context of Revelation 16 and the image of the beast is mentioned in the context of Revelation 13, it is very possible, even likely, that Babylon and the image of the beast are one and the same entity.
The big challenge for interpreters of the image of the beast is the fact that the image is mentioned repeatedly in Revelation 14-20, yet is never explicitly portrayed. Is it to be equated with Babylon? With the beast of Revelation 17? With both of them together? Is there some other symbol in chapters 14-20 that plays the role of the image? Or is it acting only in 13:13-17 and does not appear again? Another challenge is the fact that the image of the beast is mentioned in every chapter from Revelation 14-20 except chapters 17 and 18, which center on Babylon. What is there about Babylon that might cause the author of Revelation not to mention the image of the beast in the same chapter? Rebekah Liu’s dissertation goes chapter by chapter through Revelation 14-20, looking for clues to solve the identity of the image of the beast in those chapters.
Revelation 14 provides a “divine perspective” on the activities of the two beasts and the image in Revelation 13. It provides insights into the fate of those who resist the worship of the beast and its image. Chapter 14 continues the theme of worship, which was central to chapter 13. But it adds a new theme, the theme of Babylon, introduced for the first time in 14:8. The fact that it appears without a visual description or a historical background suggests it has appeared in the book before in some form. The readers are expected to already know who this is. That an entity could appear in a variety of forms is already clear in Revelation. The dragon is identified as the devil and Satan, the ancient serpent and the deceiver of the world. Satan is also called Apollyon and Abaddon in Rev 9:11. Jesus is called the Son of Man, the Lamb and Michael. Is there a character earlier in the book of Revelation who corresponds to the Babylon of Revelation 14?
Since the first appearance of Babylon the Great is in chapter 14, it is possible that the previous action of Babylon is found in chapter 13. Rebekah Liu notices four pairs of parallel passages in Revelation 13 and 14. I won’t be offering the detailed observations that led to this structure, the reader will need to consult the dissertation itself for that. Revelation 13:1-6 is parallel with 14:1-5. The second pair is found in Rev 13:11-14 and 14:6-7. The fourth pair of parallels is Rev 13:16 and 14:9. That outline leaves a third pair unaccounted for, Rev 13:15 and 14:8. The figure in Revelation 13 most parallel to Babylon in Revelation 14 is the image of the beast. Both the image of the beast and Babylon are at the front line of the conflict between the dragon and God. If they are identified with each other, then drinking the wine of Babylon is identified with worshipping the beast and its image (Rev 13:15-17; 14:8-11). Identifying them as the same character, therefore, is not only logically possible, it would simplify the argument of the book and give it dramatic punch.
Revelation 15 is relatively brief. The image of the beast is mentioned in passing in 15:2. Those on the sea of glass had gained the victory over the beast and his image. Chapter 15 introduces the themes of temple and the seven bowl-plagues. But while the image of the beast is clearly a key component of the forces opposed to God and His faithful ones, seven-bowl-plagues do not specifically target the image of the beast in chapters 15 or 16. Where is the judgment of the image in Revelation?
A major surprise for me in Rebekah Liu’s research was what she discovered about the pagan background to the image of the beast. The Greek term eikôn and its Hebrew/Aramaic equivalents were used in pagan worship to denote a cult statue or what we call an idol. Pagans knew that wood and stone weren’t gods. But they believed that, when the idol/statue was completed, they could attract the presence of the deity to the statue by a ritual of consecration called the mouth-opening or mouth-washing ceremony. Upon completion of the rite, the manmade object was filled with the life of the god and became an extension of the god’s personality on earth. This act transformed a manufactured icon into a living deity in their minds. Its origin as a human construction could now be ignored and their creation could be attributed solely to the god.
Ceremonies and beliefs like this were found all over the ancient world, from Mesopotamia to Egypt to Greece and to Rome. And they seem to have had a long history, going back at least a thousand years before the writing of Revelation. And the evidence is that these beliefs and practices had not changed much over the centuries, by New Testament times they were rooted deeply in common tradition. Everybody, so to speak, knew about them.
Pagans believed that through these rituals, the idol/statue was animated, it was not just standing there, it became an actual manifestation of the god it represented. When the mouth of the idol was washed or opened, it allowed the image to breath and thus come to life. Ancient idols and temples became major centers of power. As the earthly manifestation of the deity, the image was fully identified with it, even though distinct from the god. If the idol was destroyed the god was not destroyed with it. But while it existed and was fully consecrated, it was the deity’s medium of revelation or self-disclosure. As such the image carried the highest level of religious authority for its community. The idol was also associated with political authority. In ancient Babylon, for example, the king was also the high priest of Marduk. He owed his kingship to the god. So the temple and its priests had a great deal of influence in the politics of the nation. Ancient temples often also served as banks, where people could deposit treasure or secure loans. They were also a place of economic redistribution when the nation sought to care for the neediest among them.
The parallels between Revelation 13:14-15 and these ancient religious practices are quite striking. In verse 14 the beast from the earth orders the inhabitants of the earth to construct an image to the beast. He then provides breath to the image of the beast. This echos the ancient Near Eastern ritual of mouth-opening or mouth-washing of the idol/statue. Through this ritual images received the breath of life and began to speak, revealing the god and making decisions for the people. These idol images assume religious, political and economic authority over the cities where they are housed. The image of the beast calls for worship (Rev 13:15–religious authority), exerts political power with the land beast (13:15– enforcing decrees, legal power to kill) and it has the economic power to boycott those who do not worship the beast or its image (13:17). So the parallels between the image of the beast vision and local cultic practices are truly striking. Rebekah will see this worked out in more detail in Revelation 17. She sees the image of the beast as Babylon and the sea beast as the beast of Revelation 17. Together they are the end-time equivalent of the role the sea beast playing in earlier human history. But in Revelation 17 they have much in common, yet are distinct from each other, just as the god and the idol are similar yet distinct.
The author of Revelation seems to be using both creation and some familiar popular practices as metaphorical models to make a powerful spiritual point about readiness for the final crisis. The sea beast is in the image of the dragon/Satan (Rev 13:1). The dragon is its god. Likewise in 13:15, the beast serves as the model for the image of the beast. The two are not the same, yet they are intimately related in the narrative. The image of the beast is an end-time religious entity/institution wielding religious, political and economic power. It embodies the principles of the sea beast and ultimately of Satan, using deception and force to accomplish its mission. It ends up reflecting the character of its creator (ultimately Satan). The world is given a choice between two pictures of God and two models of character. In the end, all will become like the God they choose to worship.
The context of the image of the beast passage (Rev 13:14-15) is a counterfeit trinity, made up of the dragon (beginning with Rev 12:4), the beast from the sea (beginning with 13:1), and the beast from the earth (beginning with 13:11). The dragon is a parody of God the Father. The sea beast is a parody of Jesus Christ, who looks like the dragon (Rev 13:1; John 14:9), receives authority from the dragon (Rev 13:2; Matt 28:18), has a “ministry” that lasts for 42 months (Rev 13:5), and undergoes a death and resurrection like that of Jesus (Rev 13:3, 8). The beast from the earth is a parody of the Holy Spirit, who speaks not about himself (John 16:13), brings fire down from heaven (Acts 2), and brings life to the image of the beast. In the context of Revelation 13, this counterfeit trinity has set itself up as an alternative to the God of Revelation in the end-time battle between the dragon and the remnant (Rev 12:17). The formation of the image of the beast is the crucial development in the counterfeit trinity’s war with the saints and the God they worship (Rev 13:5-7).
Within chapter 13 itself, there are three themes that come together in the image of the beast. One major theme of the chapter is that of beasts, the chapter begins with a beast (13:1) and ends with a beast (13:18), making an envelope structure surrounding the rise of the two beasts from the sea and the earth. The concept of sea and land monsters has a long background in the OT and early Jewish literature, particularly Daniel 7, which is clearly alluded to in the rise of the sea beast. Another theme of chapter thirteen is worship; five times the inhabitants of the world are urged to worship the dragon, the sea beast or the image of the beast (13:4, 8, 12, 15). That call to worship becomes the decisive event of the conflict. Another theme in chapter 13, already explored, is image-making. The Bible starts (Gen 1:26-27) and ends (Rev 13:14-15) with the making of an image. The ideas of beast, worship and image-making all come together in the image of the beast figure.
When one explores the allusions to biblical texts in Revelation 13:14-15, the allusion to Genesis 1 has already been mentioned. But to that one needs to add Genesis 2. Giving breath to the image of the beast (13:15) recalls the creation of Adam in the Garden (Gen 2:7). The allusion is particularly strong in the Aramaic translation of Genesis 2:7, where the breath of life becomes in Adam a spirit capable of speech. Another allusion in Revelation 13:14-15 is to Isaiah 40:18-20. That passage extols the uniqueness of God in contrast with the nothingness of idols. The beasts parody that claim, but the author of Revelation suggests that because of the beasts unlikeness to God, the image of the beast project is doomed to fail from the start. A third powerful allusion is to Daniel 3. The demand for worship of the image of the beast is modeled on Nebuchadnezzar’s call to worship his image, on pain of death. Finally, the language of Revelation 13:14-15 parallels that of Acts 2:2-6. The bestowing of breath (spirit) on the image of the beast recalls the outpouring of the spirit (fire from heaven—13:14) on the disciples at Pentecost. A counterfeit spiritual revival falls on those who worship the image of the beast.
This coming together of images from the entire Bible paints a picture of the image of the beast as an end-time attempt to undermine God’s plan to reverse the consequences of the Fall by restoring the image of God in human beings. God’s plan is not only resisted by the beasts, they offer a counterfeit image and a counterfeit Pentecost to deceive the world into thinking they are the true God and the true objects of worship. What is not obvious, on the basis of the Bible alone, is how big a role the theme of idol-making played in the ancient world. The next part of Rebekah Liu’s third chapter turns to the evidence for idol-making in the ancient Mediterranean world.
When Rebekah Liu of China was in the New Testament doctoral program at Andrews University, she came to me one day to talk about the topic of her dissertation. She suggested exploring the image of the beast of Revelation 13:14-15. She noted that the topic had not been widely explored by scholars and that it would be of great interest to Seventh-day Adventists around the world, two good reasons for the choice. I noted that “image of the beast” is introduced in chapter thirteen, but is not described. While the phrase occurs several times more, it is not directly identified with any later beast or symbol in Revelation. For me, the best candidate was the beast of Revelation 17, which looks like the beast of Revelation 13, hence could be termed the “image of the (sea) beast”. In any case, I was delighted to work with her on that topic and she commenced work almost immediately. What I am sharing here is a summary of key points in her dissertation, with particular focus on the implications of the topic for Revelation 17. I do not imply that this is the best summary or even the best I could do with more time. I am sharing this summary for the sake of those followers who have requested such a summary. With Rebekah’s permission, I may one day add it as an excursis to my commentary on Revelation 17.
After an Introduction and a chapter exploring the literature on previous attempts to interpret the image of the beast, chapter 3 reports on Rebekah’s exegesis of Revelation 13:14-15. She begins with a word study of “image” (Greek: eikôn) and “beast” (Greek: thȇrion) in the Bible and the ancient world. Since both words occur in the creation story of Genesis, creation seems to be one of the primary sources of Revelation 13:15. The main meaning of eikôn is as a similitude of another figure, basically an idol. In a metaphorical and positive sense human beings are portrayed as idol-images of God. To be in the image of God means to bear enough resemblance to God to be God’s representative to the creation. In Second Temple Judaism (the period between the Testaments) and the pagan Greco-Roman world, the meaning of eikôn is similar. It can mean a likeness or portrait, a copy of something else, the cult statue of a god, or the same form as something else. In the New Testament, “image” also means a likeness/portait and a living image, like the original Adam or like Jesus Christ, who is the visible image of God. In summary, eikôn seems to have three primary meanings in the ancient world; 1) the image or likeness of a prototype (like the idol image of a god), 2) it can refer to outward forms and appearances, or 3) it can be a living representation of someone or something else.
When human beings were created in the image of God, it meant God’s image lies in human beings and nowhere else (therefore the second commandment). Because of the Fall, the image of God was damaged or marred in human beings, requiring a restoration of God’s image in humanity, beginning with Jesus Christ. That future restoration implies an eschatological meaning for “image”. While the “image of God” is never mentioned in Revelation, the “image of the beast” is an obverse allusion to the original image and the problem of sin. In Revelation, the beasts of Revelation are setting in motion a counterfeit of the image of God. People who have lost the image of God are recreated into the image of the beast. In the end, human beings become like the gods they worship. They will either embrace the restoration of God’s image and character in their lives or become more and more like the dragon (Satan). The image of the beast is more than just an identifying mark, it represents a change of character in the assembly of the unfaithful. The image of the beast is a composite of all who end up serving Satan in the final era of earth’s history.
The primary meaning of “beast” (Greek: thȇrion) in the Bible and the Greco-Roman world is “wild animal,” especially the kind of wild animal that is hostile to human beings. Metaphorically, it can represent people who are cruel. As part of creation, the wild animals were placed under the dominion of human beings which were created in the image of God. It was after the Fall that the beasts became hostile to human beings. So the dominion over the animals proved to be conditional on human obedience to God. King Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel 4 represented how far from the image of God human beings could fall. In Revelation 13 the beasts are hostile to God and appear as allies of the dragon/Satan. Given the background, the image of the beast recalls the king of Babylon’s fall and represents a counter-attack against God’s end-time plan to restore His image in the human race.
The following is a rewrite of the conclusion of my paper on the mark of the beast. I have concluded that Sunday laws in our future remain the likely reading of Revelation 13 and certainly that of the Great Controversy. But given what we know about fulfilled prophecies in the Bible, they may well come from a surprising direction. For example, Clifford Goldstein offers a path to international Sunday laws that would make sense in today’s world. All the world religions anticipate some future figure that will dramatically impact the course of history. For the Christians, his name is Jesus. For the Jews, he is the Messiah. For the Muslims, he is the Mahdi (although many Muslims also anticipate a major role for Jesus). For the Hindus, he is Kalki. For the Buddhists, he is Matreiya. Second Thessalonians (2:8-10) and Revelation (13:13-14; 16:13-14) anticipate a great end-time deception in which Satan impersonates Christ before the world (GC affirms this idea). His dazzling, end-time appearance could evoke the hopes and dreams of people of all faiths. Seizing upon these expectations, Satan could call the world to worship God on Sunday as a sign of loyalty to Jesus/Messiah/Mahdi/Kalki/Matreiya and the highest hopes of their faiths. Such an outcome would fulfill Great Controversy and Revelation 13, but in an unexpected way, something fulfilled prophecy in the Bible would lead us to expect.
Ellen White herself hints at something like this in the following statement: “As we near the close of time, there will be greater and still greater external parade of heathen power; heathen deities will manifest their signal power, and will exhibit themselves before the cities of the world. . . .” In the same context she also says, “. . . the Lord has called His people and has given them a message to bear. He has called them to expose the wickedness of the man of sin who has made the Sunday law a distinctive power, who has thought to change times and laws, and to oppress the people of God who stand firmly to honor Him by keeping the only true Sabbath, the Sabbath of creation. . . .” Maranatha, 140. To me this statement suggests the possibility that a movement toward Sunday will not be a natural philosophical progression from where the world is today, but the result of dramatic shifts in the popular mindset, grounded in miraculous displays that transform popular opinion almost overnight, much as Goldstein suggests. But for those who are waiting for some “sign of the End” to get serious about their faith, such rapid movements may not signal themselves the way we might hope, and also may not leave any time for spiritual preparation. “The final movements will be rapid ones.” Testimonies for the Church, volume 9, page 11.
My concern, and the main point of the whole treatise on the mark of the beast, is that by focusing on a prediction that seems as specific and measurable as a national Sunday law in Congress, we could distract ourselves from the real thing when it happens. In a changing world things could come from a different direction and in a different way. We need hearts that are open to revelation and open to the Holy Spirit as we navigate the challenging waters ahead. The desire for certainty causes us to focus on specific details rather than on understanding the larger picture of prophecy. That understanding is difficult work, but it will keep us safe in the perplexing times ahead of us. Prophecy was not given to satisfy our curiosity about the future, it was given to prepare our hearts to meet the one that we worship and adore. I suggest we prioritize that task.
It is often assumed that when Ellen White makes a “clear” statement about either the meaning of the Bible or about the unfulfilled future, all issues are settled and discussion on the topic should be closed. And statements are often produced that seem to imply that as well. But I would humbly suggest that such statements should be balanced by her own expressions of uncertainty. These are not often given their full weight in the discussion. One example is found in Testimonies for the Church, volume 6, page 17: “The mark of the beast is exactly what it has been proclaimed to be. Not all in regard to this matter is yet understood nor will it be understood until the unrolling of the scroll.” This statement was published in 1900, twelve years after the two key Sunday law statements of 1888. I understand her to be saying that one can have confidence in the broad outline of the mark of the beast, yet allow God freedom of action at the time of fulfillment. Prophecies are most clearly understood at or after the time of fulfillment (John 14:29). What is a little unclear to me in this statement is whether or not she includes herself in the admission “Not all in regard to this matter is yet understood. . . .”
Perhaps clearer is a statement she wrote a year later: “We are not now able to describe with accuracy the scenes to be enacted in our world in the future, but this we do know, that this is a time when we must watch unto prayer, for the great day of the Lord is at hand.” Selected Messages, volume 2, page 35. In describing the great day of the Lord as being at hand, I would understand her to be speaking of the future in the classical sense rather than the apocalyptic sense. In classical prophecy “the Day of the Lord” was always portrayed as near, to motivate earnest faithfulness among those awaiting the End. It seems to me that in using the pronoun “we”, Ellen White is explicitly including herself among those who are not able to describe the future “with accuracy”, as she puts it, or as I have been saying, in every detail. While God is consistent, He is not always predictable, and she seems to allow for that here. The broad outlines are clear enough to live by, especially where they have explicit exegetical support in Scripture, but there are things about the future it would not be good for us to know (Acts 1:6-7) and we should not presume to know them ahead of the fulfillment.
There is one further statement from 1901 that seems pertinent to the principles being outlined here. “It is not (God’s) will that (believers) shall get into controversy over questions which will not help them spiritually, such as, Who is to compose the hundred and forty-four thousand? This those who are the elect of God will in a short time know without question.” Selected Messages, volume one, page 174. In developing a series on the mark of the beast I was seeking to be helpful to those who are confused about the issue. But in responding to requests to present this issue, the topic seems to have produced more heat than light. The details of just how the mark of the beast will work out is not the crucial issue in our walk with God. I believe it is wise for us to become familiar with the way God works in the world, to understand Revelation 13 as far as we can, and to become familiar with what Ellen White has to say about the mark of the beast. But if debating about the exact outcome of these predictions becomes the central focus and divides people into opposing camps, this topic may do more harm than good.
The previous paragraph underlines that the Sabbath is a crucial issue in the final conflict. It also suggests that some counterfeit of the Sabbath will be central to the beast’s actions in the same conflict. What is less clear in the text is exactly what form that counterfeit will take. I can think of four options: 1) Another day (as in Sunday), 2) no day is a Sabbath (abolished), 3) every day is a Sabbath (not much different than two), and 4) force work or forbid worship on Sabbath. When dealing with Revelation 13 Ellen White normally works from number 1) above, but on at least one occasion mentions number 4). Is it possible to narrow these options further on the basis of the Bible alone?
The mark of the beast passage (Rev 13:13-17) is found in the larger context of Revelation 13 with its two beasts, one from the sea and one from the earth. The sea beast is introduced in the first two verses of the chapter. “And I saw a beast rising out of the sea, with ten horns and seven heads, with ten diadems on its horns and blasphemous names on its heads. And the beast that I saw was like a leopard; its feet were like a bear’s, and its mouth was like a lion’s mouth. And to it the dragon gave his power and his throne and great authority.” Rev 13:1-2. This is clearly an allusion to Daniel 7. You have a beast coming up out of the sea. You have mention of a leopard, a bear and a lion. You have seven heads and ten horns (the four beasts of Daniel 7:3-8 have seven heads and ten horns combined). So it is plain that John had Daniel 7 in mind as he wrote out his vision.
The connection with Daniel 7 becomes even stronger when you consider verses 5-7 of Revelation 13. “And a mouth was given to him (the beast from the sea), speaking great things and blasphemies, and he was given authority to operate for forty-two months. He opened his mouth in order to speak blasphemies against God, to blaspheme His name and His tabernacle, those who are in heaven. And to him it was given to make war with the saints and to conquer them. And to him was given authority over every tribe and people and language and nation.” This clearly looks back to the little horn of Daniel 7:20-25. The little horn is a religious power that persecutes the saints for a period of three and a half prophetic years.
But there is one aspect of the little horn that may be particularly relevant to the meaning of the mark of the beast. This found in Daniel 7:25. “He shall speak words against the Most High, and shall wear out the saints of the Most High, and shall think to change the times (Aramaic: tzimnîn; Greek: kairous) and the law (Aramaic: dath; Greek: nomon); and they shall be given into his hand for a time, times, and half a time.” The times of Daniel 7:25 are sacred appointed times and the term law generally has to do with the law of God in the Old Testament. The little horn power would seek to change laws related to appointed times. Since the ten commandments are a crucial background to Revelation 13 and 14, the allusion to Daniel 7 suggests that a change of the Sabbath day itself is the counterfeit John would have had in mind.
The mark of the beast as an alternate Sabbath day is further supported by the recognition that the Sabbath is a “sign commandment”. According to Anthony MacPherson, “sign commandments,” like circumcision and the Sabbath, are specific practices that God designates as “signs”. What is significant for our purpose about these sign commandments is that they involve the active performance of laws specific to Yahweh and not simply the prohibition of immoral conduct. They function as a sign because they are actionable and observable and identify a person as specifically loyal to Yahweh, as opposed to other gods. It is a specific worship practice that distinguishes the followers of Yahweh from others. MacPherson points out that that the mark of the beast in Revelation has several similarities to a sign commandment. The mark involves participation in some form of ritualized worship practice. Identifying it with Sunday fits that idea better than the other options for a Sabbath counterfeit.
Having said that, the word “Sunday” is obviously not in the book of Revelation. Not even “the first day of the week.” Here it is important to remember that if Adventist doctrines had to be exegetically compelling in order to be accepted, Adventists would not have many doctrines at all. A church’s doctrines combine what can be learned from Scripture with tradition, reason and experience. Such doctrines must be exegetically defensible. In other words, they cannot be in clear contradiction to Scripture, they must be compatible with an honest reading of Scripture. But not everything Adventists believe is compelling on the basis of exegesis alone.
This is relevant to the issue of Sunday laws in Revelation. The idea of a Christian power that would one day change the Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday is exegetically defensible from Revelation 13, it is compatible with the evidence of the text. I would even say it is the most likely option, from a purely exegetical perspective. But for even greater clarity and certainty, Seventh-day Adventists look to the counsel of Ellen G. White, not as the primary authority, but as a supplemental witness in determining the right reading of the Scriptural text where exegesis is not definitive. In the following we will look at the evidence of Ellen White herself in the context of American religious history.
The way prophecy is fulfilled is impacted by the distinction between classical and apocalyptic prophecy. Apocalyptic prophecy is seen in the visions of Daniel 2 and 7 and in passages like Revelation 12. Biblical apocalyptic is filled with chains of unusual imagery, like multi-layered metal statues, a series of fantastic beasts with features unlike those normally seen in nature, and horns and vultures that speak. Apocalyptic tends to involve a series of historical events running one after another from the prophet’s day until the End. Dual or multiple fulfillments should not be expected, because the prophecy covers the whole span of history from the prophet’s day until the End. Apocalyptic prophecies tend to be unconditional, God sharing the large strokes of history that He foresees will take place, regardless of human response.
In contrast, classical prophecy is seen in books like Isaiah, Hosea and Jeremiah. There is a strong focus on the immediate situation, and if the end of all things is in view, the End is seen as a natural extension of the prophet’s situation, time and place. So immediate and end-time events are often mixed together. There are strong conditional elements, as the fulfillment of such prophecies is dependent on human response. Since such prophecies combine the immediate situation with a glimpse of the further future, such prophecies can have dual or multiple fulfillments as the centuries roll by and various aspects of the prophecy fit various situations.
In scholarly terms, the distinction between the two types of prophecies can be seen in their genre. They are different types or styles of literature. From that perspective, I have always understood the writings of Ellen White to fit the classical style of prophecy. This is self-evident, for example, in regard to the Testimonies for the Church. There she speaks to her immediate situation, encouraging fidelity to God and to Scripture. Where she speaks of the future, she describes it as a natural extension of the immediate situation (we will see this in part 3), rather than clear predictions of things that don’t exist in her day. For example, she does not foresee nuclear war or power, she doesn’t speak of cell phones, computers, the internet, Islamic terrorism, space travel, World Wars I and II, or the rise of secularism and post-modernism. When she describes police action at the end of time, the police are wearing swords, something more common in her day than today! When she described the Second Coming of Jesus to Joseph Bates (Letter 7, 1847), she saw “the pious slave rise in triumph and victory, and shake off the chains that bound him, while his wicked master was in confusion.” That view was in perfect harmony with a future grounded in her time and place. But slavery was abolished in America in June of 1865. It was abolished in the whole world in 1890 (with a few lingering exceptions). Circumstances alter cases. Prophecy is not given to satisfy our curiosity about the future in every detail. It is given to inspire a faithful response on the part of the reader.
It does not mean God was incapable of sharing the 20th Century or our present and future with her, only that such a revelation was evidently not central to His purpose for her prophetic ministry, encouraging faithfulness to God and careful attention to the Scriptures. And regarding prophecy she herself says, “The promises and threatenings of God are alike conditional.” Last-Day Events, 38. A good example of conditional prophecy is perhaps her declaration in 1856 that some with her that day would live to see Jesus come. Obviously, the conditions for that prophecy were never met and we are still here in 2021. Critics have often used that prediction to accuse her of being a false prophet, but the accusation is based instead on an unbiblical understanding of how prophecy works, or, in other words, how God works in the world.
Recently, in response to questions arising out of discussion of these issues, the Biblical Research Institute surprised me by declaring that when Ellen White speaks about end-time events, her comments are to be taken as unconditional, in that they are interpreting apocalyptic prophecies. This is a direction I have not heard in thirty-five years of interactions with the church’s leaders and scholars. Since the document was very brief, it is hard to know on what basis the assertion was made. Ellen White herself did not write in apocalyptic style and she did not give a clear chain of events from her day to the end, as apocalyptic prophets did. So to be fair, I will give those who proposed this approach time to elaborate the biblical and Spirit of Prophecy grounds on which such a claim is made. I encourage readers to withhold judgment on this issue until the church’s scholars can give the topic closer attention. As a scholar, I do not want anyone to take my proposals here as a final word, but I am seeking to expose evidence that will help the church draw the best conclusions possible. In that conversation, I trust that principles drawn from fulfilled prophecy will play a major role in developing the church’s position on unfulfilled prophecies.
I am interrupting my series on What If Jesus Had Never Been Born? to share some updates on the Sunday Law article I posted as blogs some time ago. I will continue the Jesus series very soon. But first I want to share some thoughts on the role of scholarship in relation to faith.
When I explore controversial topics, I come at them from two different angles, and I don’t always distinguish them clearly, which can lead to confusion. First of all, I am a believer. As a lifelong Seventh-day Adventist and a loyal son of the church, I believe in the inspiration of the Bible. I believe and teach the 28 Fundamentals of Adventist faith. I believe that God spoke to Ellen G. White in ways He does not speak to me, which gives her important authority to guide me. I have made strong personal commitments to the above, and that means my default position on the issue of Sunday laws in the final period of earth’s history is grounded in Adventist understandings of the book of Revelation and in the book The Great Controversy and its many predecessors. This is what I believe, and I am not ashamed of it.
I also come to topics like this as a scholar. My role as a scholar of faith is to test and probe what I believe on the basis of the best biblical, historical and experiential evidence available. And I do this not only for myself, but also for the church I love. I am motivated to do this by a powerful statement from the pen of Ellen G. White. “It is important that in defending the doctrines which we consider fundamental articles of faith we should never allow ourselves to employ arguments that are not wholly sound. These may avail to silence an opposer but they do not honor the truth. We should present sound arguments, that will not only silence our opponents, but will bear the closest and most searching scrutiny.” Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church, vol. 5, p. 708. This is my goal in the following. I do not write this to trouble the saints, but to strengthen and clarify what the Scriptures and the Spirit of Prophecy teach. On the other hand, the saints sometimes need a little troubling, and I’ll leave the outcome in God’s hands.
An example of how good scholarship can clarify and strengthen faith happened in the Daniel and Revelation Committee of the General Conference, which met from 1981-1992. As the youngest member of that committee, I am in a good position to tell the story. When we came to Revelation 13 (from 1988-1991) we noticed that Uriah Smith saw parts of Revelation 13 as historical (occurring during the Middle Ages primarily) and parts of it as eschatological (occurring at the very End). But it was not clear that this distinction could be based on the text itself, it seemed more intuitive than exegetical. As we looked at the chapter carefully in the original Greek, I believe God guided us to look carefully at the main verb tenses in the chapter. We discovered that Revelation 13:1-7 and 13:11 were all in past tenses, while 13:8-10 and 13:12-18 were all in present and future tenses. These tenses coincided with the divisions Smith had made on theological grounds. The parts of chapter 13 Smith had placed in the Middle Ages were all in past tenses in the Greek! And the parts he had placed in the future were all in present and future tenses in the Greek. None of us would probably have noticed this shift alone, but studying together, we were able to greatly strengthen an important Adventist understanding. What Adventists had earlier taught and Great Controversy had affirmed, proved to be supported by careful Greek exegesis.
In addition to the Greek tenses, we also came to notice that when John (or Jesus) introduced a new character into a vision, he usually gave a visual description of that character and also a summary of that character’s history or back story before continuing the vision. When the beast is seen coming up out of the sea, there is a visual description (Rev 13:1-2), followed by the beast’s previous history (13:3-7). Then the beast acts in the context of the vision itself (13:8-10). After this a beast from the earth arises. There is a brief visual description and back story (13:11). Then comes a vision of that beast’s collaboration with the first beast in the final crisis (13:12-18). If you will check the previous paragraph, this distinction tracks exactly with the tense shifts in the passage. This is exegetically compelling and gives strong support to the way Uriah Smith and other Adventists have read Revelation 13 in the past, even if they did not based their understandings on exegesis of the original text.
So godly scholarship, while testing, probing and sometimes challenging what we have believed, is done in service to the church. When such scholarship supports what the church has always believed and taught, such scholars can become quite popular. On the other hand, when the basis for a teaching proves not as strong as we had hoped, the scholar who points that out is often vilified as an unbeliever. Yet both processes are necessary if we are to “honor the truth”. Misuse of Scripture has a major reason many become atheists. Misuse of Ellen White is a major reason people reject her ministry. Godly scholarship can help protect church from underplaying things that are actually solid or overplaying things that are not. Either way, the process is necessary and important.