Do you remember when you had some special news or a special story that others did not know? How exciting was it to share that special story with others? Our study this week is about a very special message that we have to share with others. The message has to do with worship, faith and the final judgment. Let's wade into our study of the Bible to learn more about this great news!
Our Prophetic Message
Commentary for the December 14, 2013 Sabbath School Lesson
“But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare. Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat.” 2 Peter 3:10-12, NIV
Perhaps, like me, you have from time to time received a chain letter. In the days before the internet, they would arrive by mail carrier. The letter would have a list of names, and you were asked to send the same letter to each person on the list with some money, usually a dollar. When forwarding the list on to each person, you would add your name to the bottom of the list. The idea was that if the list continued to be forwarded along with a dollar, eventually a lot of money would come back to you in the mail for the one dollar you sent to each person on the list. This was the blessing aspect of the chain letter.
However, chain letters often used the “carrot-and-stick” approach. They would threaten dire consequences if you broke the chain by not forwarding the letters and money as instructed. Sometimes the letters would spell out the consequences. Other times, they would vaguely say “something bad” would happen, often within 24 hours in order to speed the letter, and the money, on its way. In the days before computers when this required typing multiple letters with carbon paper, or later using an available photocopier, it was no small endeavor to copy the chain letter, address the envelopes, affix postage, and send the missives on their way. Perhaps this is why the negative results were important. It would be easy to simply decide not to go to all that work, especially if dollar bills were scarce at the moment, and toss the letter into the trash.
Perhaps after doing so, something bad actually did appear to happen. Even though they knew that just because one event happens after another, this does not prove causation, still, what if…? Maybe they even went to the garbage pail to see if they could resurrect the letter to somehow repair Karma. Those letters that were vague about the consequences would probably be more successful at achieving compliance. The odds of something happening that could be interpreted as a negative result might be much higher if left to the active imagination of the letter recipient.
Now with the internet and e-mail programs with address books, forwarding chain messages is much easier. However, forwarding dollar bills is no longer so easy, so instead a generous blessing to be given by an extremely wealthy celebrity, such as Bill Gates, is sometimes invoked as a reason to forward the message. This of course implies that the celebrity has the time or means to monitor every message forwarded to keep track of who should receive his beneficence.
Since it is so easy to forward the messages now, perhaps the “curse” for not complying is not so vital to get the messages sent on. The hope of reward may be enough. However, as an evidence of chain letter heritage from the days of “snail mail” the negative result is still invoked on occasion. As before, the more nebulous the blessing or curse, the more easily one can manufacture verification of one or the other from subsequent experiences.
Perhaps some look at the Bible in much the same way. They may see the various books of the Bible like so many “chain letters” that must be forwarded to avoid dire results. God becomes the celebrity monitoring their compliance. The apocalyptic passages of Scripture are filled with the negative results of ignoring the message. There are also lists of the rewards to be expected by those who faithfully participate. Is it possible that some fervently forward these biblical messages with similar expectations to the chain letter recipients, and it is simply about expected rewards or punishments?
These individuals may cite particular proof texts to support that perspective. An example might be, “And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.”[i] Here we have a list of addressees: “all nations.” We have the letter to be copied: “this gospel.” We also have the result to be expected: “the end will come.”
We may have heard individuals speak of this passage in exactly those terms. Get this done and this will happen. However, are we making the error of inferring causation from sequence? While one may happen after the other, perhaps we should not assume that one causes the other. When we do we may be in danger of having the wrong focus. Just as the person who, in the past, may have spent a great deal of time and expense copying letters, addressing envelopes and forwarding them on, only to find that they had been tricked into doing something not relevant to what they maybe should have been doing instead with their time.
Some might ask, “What about Matthew 28:19-20? Isn’t that telling us that we need to be forwarding the message from Matthew 24?” It may be possible to read the passage in that light. However it does not give any more emphasis in Matthew 28 to the message of Matthew 24 than it does to the message of Matthew, chapters five through seven, or even the parables of Matthew, chapter 25. It is simply a message to the disciples to teach what they have been taught. Of course we may want to see those instructions as applicable to us as well, but then we must ask what we have been taught? Are we presenting an equivalent message? Is it even possible to do so?
When we look at how that message was interpreted in the first century, A.D., it may seem quite foreign to our “modern” eyes. We find for instance that among the followers of Jesus, property was shared and parceled out according to need.[ii] How would that look, today? Would it play out as a pure influence unaffected by the politics and culture of today, or would it be changed depending on whether a culture was based on capitalism or socialism? Would one “Ism” be more Christian than the other? Or would they simply be affectations distorting what Christianity really is? When we consider the ramifications of the different perspectives, often held very dear by individuals within their societies, it may become obvious that a simplistic “chain letter” understanding of the Bible can fall short in many ways.
Apocalyptic passages may devolve into simply the negative result to be inflicted on another “Ism” which stands in the way of one presenting the perspective of their own “Ism.” It becomes less about actually discovering the original message and more about self-promotion as a way of vindicating a particular perspective that may or may not be right. We have seen examples of different perspective playing out in this way within the Seventh-day Adventist Church throughout its history, and that of the Millerites from which they sprung. The “Shut Door” doctrine[iii] is an early example. Due to the belief that the judgment had ensued in 1844, some of the early believers in the denomination felt that the opportunity for salvation had passed and the door was shut. This being the case, the need for foreign missionary endeavors was not clearly seen until the 1870’s when J. N. Andrews became the denomination’s first overseas missionary.[iv]
There has also been ongoing challenges to the denominational position regarding the Investigative Judgment, a uniquely Seventh-day Adventist understanding that attempts to reconcile the idea of the previously mentioned judgment beginning in the 1844 time frame of the Millerites, yet not preventing the continuing conversion of souls from “lost” to “saved,” thus allowing for the continued growth of the denomination. Notwithstanding, there have been several efforts to question the efficacy of that accommodation. Perhaps notable or maybe more appropriately in some cases, infamously, among those attempting to call for re-examination of the Investigative Judgment were Robert Brinsmead, Desmond Ford, and Raymond Cottrell. There of course have been many others who have urged that the denomination revisit this and other perspectives, but for various reasons these individuals tended to serve more as “lightning rods” for these issues perhaps than others, sometimes at great cost to themselves.
Unfortunately, perhaps, we have tended for too long to continue with the “chain letter” approach to the Bible and have considered it more important to copy the words of the letter than to be concerned with whether or not what we are doing truly makes sense theologically. When Martin Luther, an educated man, began to see that there was disconnect between the church’s theology and the Bible, the church, rather than listen, found it easier to cast him from their fellowship. He was “breaking the chain” of what had been written and copied for centuries. Maybe after over five hundred more centuries, we can finally start to listen to those honest, educated individuals within Christendom who have the gift of discovering these disconnects and guiding our way through them.
[i] Matthew 24:14, NIV
[ii] Acts 2:43-47
[iii] “Shut-door theology,” www.wikipedia.org
[iv] “J. N. Andrews,” Ibid.
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