As a child I grew up hearing our church was different. Not just in keeping the Sabbath or in refraining from unclean foods, but in mission. Our existence had a uniqueness. We weren't just the run-of-the-mill church on the block. Somewhere back then I heard that it had something to do with a few angels in the sky.
Now, as a minister in the church in which I grew up, I should understand our mission. Everybody knows what it is, don't they the Great Commission! Tell the world the gospel of Jesus Christ, and make disciples of every nation, kindred, tongue, and people. But does a glib rehearsal of this commission really do it justice, especially if you are an Adventist?
Christianity's global commission
For 2,000 years the Christian church has taken literally Matthew 28:19, 20 as its commission. "Making disciples" has been the mission of Christianity. Making disciples is to proclaim Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit, that men and women may come to put their trust in God through Jesus Christ so that they will (1) accept Jesus as their Saviour, (2) serve Jesus as their Lord, and (3) live in the fellowship of His church. This must be the mission of all Christians.
Yet through the years we Adventists have insisted that our message and mission are unique in the Christian community. Is the Adventist gospel commission different from the rest of Christianity's? How does our challenge to make disciples differ from other churches'? Do the angels flying "in the midst of heaven" (Rev. 14:6-12) have any bearing anymore? If so, what is it?
The three angels' context
I can hear the old-timers saying, "Absolutely! Our mission is different. Our message is preaching the everlasting gospel of Jesus in the context of the three angels' messages." That sounds good. I've heard it at workers' meetings, lay training seminars, Sabbath school classes. I've seen it scattered church-wide on paper. Yet what about this prophetic message of three angels we have been preaching for 150 years? Does our average member in the pew care anymore about the "everlasting gospel in the context of the three angels' messages"? As ministers, do we?
It is fascinating to travel widely and visit all kinds of Adventist churches. During my short ministry I must have visited about 300 Adventist churches. Almost always I find some reference to the "three angels" either on stationery, church signs, bulletins, or even stained-glass windows. Some feel more comfortable with just three trumpets! In one form or the other we have chosen the three angels as our logo. It didn't start out as a logo, but as mission!
The three angels' messages were the uniqueness that caused the Adventist birth. "The message of Revelation 14 is the message that we are to bear to the world."1 "The third angel's message is most solemn, fearful, and important. To us God has entrusted it, and we are accountable for the way we handle this sacred testing truth."2 "In a special sense Seventh-day Adventists have been set in the world as sentinels and light bearers. To them has been entrusted the last warning for a perishing world. On them is shining wonderful light from the Word of God. They have been given a work of the most solemn import the proclamation of the first, second, and third angels' messages. There is no other work of so great importance. They are to allow nothing else to absorb their attention."3
Early Adventists understood this movement as a prophetic movement, occupying a specific place in prophetic time, with a specific message to go to the world in a short, loud, and powerful burst just before the return of Jesus. In the middle and late nineteenth century the impact of the beginning of God's judgment was overwhelming! In those days America and Europe were composed mainly of practicing Christian people. The mainline churches, in comparison with today's, were full. Clergy were looked up to for moral and spiritual leadership. Therefore, when people heard the words "Babylon is fallen," they cut deep. Sweeping away traditions contrary to the Bible affected many people profoundly. The Adventist Church boasted of no located or settled pastors, because all were evangelists, busy preaching, teaching, and organizing churches the world over.
Now, a century or so later, America is almost as secular as it once was religious. The idea of following the Bible doesn't have the same impact that it used to have, even for Christians. If ever there was a time the everlasting gospel of Jesus needed to be heard in the context of the three angels' messages, it is now as we approach the twenty-first century.
Why is it then that in so many places the preaching of the three angels' mes sages is so distasteful, even to many multigenerational Adventists? The perception of many Adventists is that evangelism does not center upon Christ. On the contrary, the "everlasting gospel" stands at the head of the three angels' messages (Rev. 14:6). The context of these three messages makes them pure Christ! The book of Revelation is Christ revealed. It is His good news that He has come, that He is the Lamb before the throne, that He holds the destiny of the earth in His hands, that He was here, and that He will return soon.
Shying away from the message
Upon arriving in any city, I hear such things as "I hope you are not going to present the mark of the beast." Or "Why can't we just preach about Jesus and His love?" Or "You are not going to preach on the judgment, are you?" There seems to be a drawing back by many in the church on the distinctive messages in prophecy that fueled the early Advent people.
Proclaiming the three angels is a dirty job to many of our pastors and members. Why? I would like to suggest three reasons. First, when the everlasting gospel of Jesus is shared in the context of the three angels, by its nature it ultimately comes down to drawing a line in the sand. Drawing that line has the potential of separating relationships and profoundly disturbing apparently secure lives. For instance, let's say you are a professional and have worked in an office for years. You have wonderful friends at work, and they accept you. For the most part your distinctive Advent faith and your work are kept separate. One day the church board votes evangelistic meetings. The pastor urges you to "invite your friends." "Oh, no!" says an inner voice. "Some of my good friends at the office belong to other confessions. What if I invite them, and they come and hear the message but don't accept it, or feel disturbed by it?" In many cases when people reject the message, they also pull away from those associated with it. In other words, many of us are afraid that by inviting our friends to such meetings we could lose our friends and our relationships at work or elsewhere could become strained.
Second, the manner in which evangelists present the three angels' messages have burned many members, as well as some of the public. ("You should have heard the last evangelist who came in here!") If that is the case, why don't pastors and members have their own evangelistic meetings separate from a public evangelist? Some do, but the majority don't. Why? Because sooner or later up pop Daniel 7-9 and Revelation 12-18! We can't clear our throat through them all. "People will misunderstand!" we rationalize. "They will think we are weird. When I enter the pastors' association meeting, they will whisper to each other, 'cultist,' 'sheep stealer,' 'Catholic basher.' Let the evangelist be the bad guy! Let's grit our teeth and have him present our angel logo in a couple nights and then be done with it until the next evangelistic meeting, say in four or five years!"
Last, no one wants to be different. We cry out to be accepted. No other church is proclaiming the prophetic aspects of the sanctuary message as Adventists do, so that it announces the judgment hour in progress. No other church understands or preaches Babylon as we do. No other Christians understand the prophetic meaning of the seventh-day Sabbath in the context of Revelation 14:9-12. We are different, unique. Courageous to some. Kooks to others. So for the most part, we try to look, sound, worship, and act as though we are like the rest of Christianity.
Three angels' victory celebration
So where does this leave us? Yes, it is the three angels' messages that make us Seventh-day Adventists. Our church was born to proclaim them. Our mission is to announce that in the context of living on the verge of Jesus' second coming, Christ is victor in the great controversy! We are to call every nation, tongue, and people on earth to come out of fallacy and falsity, accepting Christ as the only source of salvation, and swelling the celebration of victory by worshiping Him in loving obedience to all His commandments, embracing truth as it is found in the Bible.
We are living in the last moments of the game, even though it was won 2,000 years ago at the cross. It is now our opportunity to proclaim victory in the context of the last few seconds that are left. In the stadium of humanity, our church-like cheerleaders announce to the world, "Jesus has entered into final phases of judgment in the Most Holy. There is no condemnation to those in Christ." It is ours to shout, "Come over to the winning side! Join the ranks of the victors in Jesus! Jesus is coming!" Satan knows the score. He has lost. He desperately continues his losing battle against God, waging his war against God's people (see Rev. 12:17). But there is no fear for those in Christ. The beast has already been defeated. The promise of standing on the sea of glass in victory over the beast is assured. Then a small, unusual cloud appears on the eastern horizon. It's Jesus! It's over!
Our message? Yes! There is no other like it!
1 Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church
(Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn.,
1948), vol. 8, p. 27.
2 Ellen G. White, Manuscript Releases (Silver
Spring, Md.: Ellen G. White Estate, 1990), vol.
5, p. 313.
3 Ellen G. White, Testimonies, vol. 9, p. 19.