The deception of Revelation 13:13-14 results in the formation of an image to and of the beast, presumably the first beast of Revelation 13 that came up out of the sea. “And he [the land beast] was permitted to give breath to the image of the beast, in order that the image of the beast might speak and might cause whoever does not worship the image of the beast to be killed.” Rev 13:15. Typical of Jewish apocalyptic literature, the book of Revelation never quotes the Old Testament, but it alludes to it very frequently, using key words, phrases, ideas and structures to signal the reading to incorporate OT knowledge into the interpretation of a passage. We saw such allusions to the OT in 13:13-14: the experience of Elijah on Mount Carmel (fire from heaven) and the deceptive miracles of Pharaoh’s magicians.
The combination of image and breath is an unmistakable allusion to the early chapters of Genesis. God created male and female in His own image (Gen 1:26-27), using His breath to install the software of life into Adam’s earthy body. More than just oxygen, God was installing the life principle, with its unique personality and traits and that life principle included the “image of God.” That phrase is not used for the creation of animals. So there was something very godlike about Adam and Eve. They reflected God’s character in their own.
The beast from the sea is in the image of the dragon (Rev 13:1, cf. 12:4), which is also defined as the ancient serpent, Satan (Rev 12:9). So the phrase “image of the beast” implies a similar relationship to Satan as Adam originally had to God. Revelation 13:15 is telling us that at the end of time Satan will seek to implant his image into the human race in contrast to the image and character of God. Just as God’s breath installed His design into the human race, Satan at the End will seek to install his own design into the human race. The contrast could not be more stark, as noted in the previous blog in this series. Satan’s character prized lies and unreality (deception—Rev 13:13-14), intimidation and force (Rev 13:12, 15-17). Both qualities are summed up by Jesus in John 8:44. In contrast, God always speaks the truth (Rev 3:14; 15:3) and prizes human freedom (Rev 22:17). God never forces anyone. So the two sides in the final conflict grow increasingly apart as they model more and more the character of the God they worship.
The ultimate outcome of the formation of an image to the beast is to exhibit the murderous character of Satan (John 8:44) in a death decree. When the image of the beast comes to life it will “cause whoever does not worship the image of the beast to be killed.” Rev 13:15. This is a clear allusion to the Plain of Dura event in Daniel 3. There an image was set up for worship. All who would not worship Nebuchanezzar’s image would be thrown into the fiery furnace. Likewise, at the end of time, a decree goes forth that all who would not worship the image of the beast, all who will not conform to the beast’s (Satan’s) character, will be killed. Two other OT death decrees may also be in mind here, the lion’s den incident of Daniel 6, and the genocidal decree of Haman in the book of Esther (3:6, 13). The final era of earth’s history will include a replay of earlier attempts to destroy God’s people. But that is not all that Satan has in mind for the End-time.
The portion of Scripture that is widely cited as predicting Sunday laws at the end of time is Revelation 13:13-17. I will take a fresh look at the passage with Adventist beliefs about this element of the future in mind. Let me say first, that a church’s beliefs on a topic should be exegetically defensible, but do not need to be exegetically compelling. Doctrine comes under the heading of systematic theology, where Scripture, tradition, reason and experience all play a role. Not all Adventist and Christian beliefs are grounded in biblical exegesis alone. For Adventists, insights from the pioneers, current understandings, and the teachings of Ellen White all play a role in formulating doctrine. But, in Adventist understanding, doctrine must not contradict Scripture, it must at least be defensible in light of Scripture.
Since Revelation never uses the words Sabbath or Sunday, it is possible that exegetical certainty in the matter of Sunday laws at the End is not available from Scripture alone. But such lack of exegetical clarity is true of many doctrines. For example, the word Trinity does not appear in the Bible, and nowhere does the Bible contain many of the Chalcedonian formulas with regard to Jesus Christ. But while they go beyond the specific data of Scripture, these doctrines can be defended from the evidence of Scripture. They are a contextualization of Scripture in light of the questions and issues raised in the centuries after the New Testament. And that is sufficient for believers to make a commitment to such teachings, even if we “see through a glass darkly.” We will find that the concept of Sunday laws at the end of time does not contradict Scripture, it is compatible with the evidence, even if the evidence is not compelling.
The key text is Revelation 13:13-17 (my translation): “And he [the land beast] does great signs, so much so that he causes fire to come down out of heaven to earth in the presence of men. And he deceives those who live on the earth because of the signs which he was given to do . . . saying to those who live on the earth that they should make an image to the beast. . . . And he [the land beast] was permitted to give breath to the image of the beast, in order that the image of the beast might speak and might cause whoever does not worship the image of the beast to be killed. And he [the land beast] controls everyone . . . so that he might place a mark upon their right hands or upon their foreheads, so that no one might be able to buy or sell except the one who has the mark, the name of the beast or the number of his name.
This passage exhibits the two outstanding characteristics of Satan’s method for persuading people at the end of time. In Revelation 13:13-14 there is the method of deception. Satan brings fire down from heaven in a false Pentecost or a counterfeit Mount Carmel showdown. He uses great signs to persuade the people of earth that he is the true God, the one worthy of worship. He is not so in fact, but he uses “signs and lying wonder” to deceive (see also 2 Thess 2:9) those who live on the earth. In Revelation 13:15-17, however, he uses the method of intimidation or force. Those who refuse to worship the image of the beast are to be killed. Those who refuse to receive the mark of the beast will not be able to buy or sell. So Satan’s methods are force and deception. This is in direct contrast with God’s methods. God always speaks the truth, and never forces anyone to follow or worship him. The final crisis is a showdown between rival claims to be God and two different methods of persuasion.
In the previous two blogs I noted six important principles of prophetic interpretation gleaned from fulfilled prophecies. Taken together, these three principles caution us not to be overly certain of every detail of a divine prediction and encourage us to be very attentive to the prophet’s original time and place. I will share the final two principles here:
Principle Seven (7): Prophetic Fulfillments Are Most Clearly Understood As or After They Occur. The record of future predictions on the basis of prophecy has not been a good one. The earlier six principles help explain that sorry track record. Part of the problem is the very purpose of prophecy. Prophecy was not given to satisfy our curiosity about the future (although that is the way many approach prophecy), it is given to teach us how to live today and to strengthen our faith at the time of fulfillment. Jesus says essentially this in John 14:29: “I have told you now before it happens, so that when it does happen you will believe.” As or after a prophetic fulfillment, it will become evident what God was doing and faith will be strengthened. The same principle should caution us not to expect crystal clarity regarding the future in advance of the fulfillment.
Principle Eight (8): There Are Two Types of Prophecy, Classical and Apocalyptic. The way prophecy is fulfilled is impacted by this distinction. Apocalyptic prophecy is seen in the visions of Daniel 2 and 7 and in passages like Revelation 12. It 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 period 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. 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, it is a natural extension of the prophet’s situation, time and place. There are strong conditional elements, the fulfillment is dependent on human response.
The writings of Ellen White fit the classical style of prophecy. She speaks to her immediate situation, encouraging fidelity to God and to Scripture. Where she speaks of the future, she speaks in terms of a natural extension of the immediate situation, 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! It does not mean God was incapable of sharing our future with her, only that such a revelation was not central to her prophetic purpose, encouraging faithfulness to God and careful attention to the Scriptures. And regarding prophecy she says, “The promises and threatenings of God are alike conditional.” Last-Day Events, 38. A good example of conditional prophecy was 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 2020.
In the next blog we will begin to take a closer look at Revelation 13:13-17, the passage in the Bible that is most often cited in relation to the possibility of Sunday laws in earth’s future. After a fresh exploration of Revelation 13, we will turn to Ellen White’s key statements on the subject.
In the previous blog I noted three important principles of prophetic interpretation gleaned from fulfilled prophecies. God is consistent, God is not always predictable, and God is creative. Taken together, these three principles should caution us not to be overly certain of every detail of a divine prediction before the fulfillment arrives. I will share three more principles here:
Principle Four (4): God Meets People Where They Are. Whenever God reveals Himself to a prophet, He does so within the prophet’s time, place and circumstances. All language is based on the sum total of a people’s experience. So God communicates to the prophets in their vocabulary, not His, for His language would not be understood. This is probably the most biblical principle that is not stated in so many words in the Bible. It is demonstrated, for example, by the four gospels. The one story is told in four different ways to reach a wide variety of minds. And it is demonstrated in the person of Jesus Christ, who came to earth as a First-Century Jew, accustomed to the ways of Galilee. To understand the fulfillment of a prophecy, one must first understand the language, time and place of the prophet. This is true of Ellen White as much as anyone else God has communicated with.
Principle Five (5): God Often Spiritualizes History. Beginning with the Exodus story, we see a spiritualization of God’s historical actions in creation and the Flood (Exod 14:21-22). The basic scenario and language is repeated, but God uses that vocabulary in a figurative or spiritualized way; moving from Adam to Israel, Eden to Canaan, and a chaotic, water-covered world to the spiritual chaos of Israel’s slavery in Egypt. In the prophets, the Exodus story becomes the model for God’s spiritual transformation of His people in the future. The same kind of thing happens in Revelation 13, where Pentecost, Pharaoh’s magicians, Mount Carmel, the creation of Adam, Nebuchanezzar’s image and Solomon’s apostasy provide context for the great spiritual conflict at the end of time. In the New Testament generally, the things of Israel are applied to the spiritual community of the church and the language of Israel’s geography is applied to the whole world. To miss the spiritualization of a prophecy’s roots is to miss the point of the prophecy.
Principle Six (6): God Uses the Language of the Prophet’s Past and Present to Describe the Future. This is related to principle four, but moves from the general to the specific. God meets people where they are. He speaks to prophets in the language of their times, places and circumstances. So divine predictions of the future are framed as natural extensions of the prophet’s time, place and understanding. The Flood would be an unraveling of creation followed by a new creation. The eschatology of Deuteronomy 28 would depend on Israel’s obedience or disobedience to the covenant moving forward. The return from Babylon would be a replay of the Exodus. A classic example of this is Isaiah 11:15-16. It is predicted that Israel will be delivered from Assyria when God uses a wind to dry up the Euphrates River so the Israelites can cross in their sandals. The prophecy was fulfilled in Israel’s return from Babylon, but not a single detail turned out exactly as stated. Instead of Israel, it was Judah that returned. Instead of Assyria, they returned from Babylon. Instead of a wind, it was Cyrus’ engineers that dried up the Euphrates, instead of crossing the dry river bed, God’s people crossed the bridges because Cyrus released them from captivity. The first two are explained by Isaiah’s location in time (Isaiah’s present), when Israel still existed and Assyria dominated the world. God met him where he was. The latter two are explained by the used of Exodus language (Isaiah’s past) to describe God’s future deliverance.
Understanding the original context of Ellen White’s statements regarding a national Sunday law in the US, is critical to rightly anticipating in what way such statements might or might not be fulfilled in our own future. What matters is not what we think a prophecy must mean, but how God actually works in the world, how He moves from prediction to fulfillment.
Unfulfilled prophecy has been the bane of prophetic interpreters for millennia. Even Seventh-day Adventists have a somewhat checkered history with it, as the Great Disappointment indicates. When we talk about Sunday laws in the final events of earth’s history, we are dealing with unfulfilled prophecy. There is a prophetic prediction. The fulfillment has not yet come. So you are dealing with an unfulfilled prophecy. You are projecting from the words of the prophecy to an expected outcome. But history is littered with attempts to do just that, most of which turned out to be false.
So how can or should one be able to speak with confidence about an unfulfilled prophecy? The answer seems obvious once you mention it. You assess the likely outcome of an unfulfilled prophecy on the basis of fulfilled prophecy in the Bible. As you visit the fulfilled prophecies of the Bible you begin to get a sense of how God works in the world, how He moves from prediction to fulfillment, how His earlier actions project what His later actions will be like. Fulfilled prophecy gives us the needed perspective to make educated judgments about unfulfilled prophecy. I have reported on my study of fulfilled prophecy in the book What the Bible Says About the End-Time and in an updated and shortened summary in chapter 2 of my book The Deep Things of God. I will summarize the principles I discovered in that study here, with a brief proof text or two for each principle. The more detailed argument can be found in the above books. But here I will summarize just enough to address the topic at hand.
Principle One (1): God is consistent. This principle should not be controversial. If God is God, one would expect a certain consistency in His words and actions. What God says, He will do. What He does, He tends to repeat. Prophecy is grounded in God’s consistency. Because He is consistent, we anticipate that He will do what He says and repeat what He does. God’s words project how He will act in the future. God’s previous actions project how He will act in the future. Prophecy exists because God can be counted on to do what He says. But this principle needs to be balanced by a second one.
Principle Two (2): God is not always predictable. While God is consistent, sometimes He surprises us. Because God is God, we cannot expect to fully fathom His words and actions. His thoughts are higher than our thoughts and His ways are higher than our ways (Isa 55:8-9). There is a consistency in God’s actions between creation, the Flood and the Exodus, for example. But careful analysis shows that God does not repeat every detail of the earlier actions in the later actions. Fulfilled prophecy also shows that God does not always fulfill every detail of an earlier pattern or prophecy. So a certain amount of sanctified caution is called for in assessing unfulfilled prophecy. “How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways. For who has known the mind of the Lord. . .” (Rom 11:33-34, ESV). The Spirit of God is like the wind, “You cannot tell where it is coming from or where it is going” (John 3:8, NIV). To suggest that God’s consistency requires that He fulfill our understanding of every word and detail of a prophecy is to have failed to observe the actual data of Scripture. When we assert that we have mastered the details of the future on the basis of prophecy, we have opened ourselves up to disappointment and even self-deception.
Principle Three (3): God is creative. God is not limited to the words and actions of the past. The antitype doesn’t simply carry out the type in a point by point correspondence. God can transcend what He has done before, adding new elements not discernable from the prophecy or God’s prior actions. In Isaiah 43:18-19 (NIV) it says, “Forget the former things, do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing!” This passage is in the context of God’s promise to repeat the Exodus experience in Israel’s future deliverance from Babylon. But He is clear that the fulfillment will not be limited to a repeat of the historical details of the Exodus. God will transcend the Exodus by adding unexpected new aspects to the fulfillment. Taken together, these three principles should caution us not to be overly certain of every detail of a divine prediction before the fulfillment arrives. Let God be God!
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.