On January 4,1995, about 70 Republican members of the freshman class of the U.S. Congress, under the direction of their leader Newt Gingrich, began focusing on the Contract With America, a bold plan to change the course of the United States as a nation. Unified, determined, zealous, these men and women were prepared to stage a "revolution" in American government.
Yet today the Republican party is divided, the freshman class seems hardly a factor, the revolution never was, and almost no one talks about the Contract With America.
The answer is easy: As long as they were united, these politicians were effective, but the moment they began arguing about the essence of their message, they fragmented and their enterprise collapsed.
Seventh-day Adventists, of course, have a mandate more explicit and universal than the Contract With America, and we certainly have a more effective Leader than Newt Gingrich. However, unless we remain united in our message, we can become as fragmented, divided, and ineffective as that fateful freshman class of the U.S. Congress.
The three angels' messages
As a church, we have been called to herald the three angels' messages of Revelation 14:6-10. The first angel's message begins, "Then I saw another angel flying in midair, and he had the eternal gospel to proclaim to those who live on the earth to every nation. ... He said in a loud voice, 'Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment has come. Worship him who made the heavens, the earth, the sea and the springs of water' (Rev. 14:6,7, NIV).
At this point the task seems easy: The church should proclaim the good news of the eternal gospel, salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. However, more is involved. In the middle of the next verse this line appears: "The hour of his judgment has come."
Who is being judged, why is there a judgment, and does that harmonize with the gospel? And if those questions aren't complicated enough, the second and third angels come as well. "A second angel fol lowed and said, 'Fallen! Fallen is Babylon the Great.'" "A third angel followed them and said in a loud voice: 'If anyone worships the beast and his image and receives his mark on the forehead or on the hand, he, too, will drink of the wine of God's fury.'" On top of this, all these messages are presented amid the context of an unholy alliance between the Dragon, the Beast, and the False Prophet (called Babylon), which seeks to prevent anyone from receiving salvation and responding by worshiping God.
Thus, Scripture is clear: Our message can't be just one of warm fuzzies, a feel good mixture of pop psychology, sprinkled with a little old-time religion. Instead, if there are, in fact, forces opposing the true worship of God, then people need to be warned. Merely announcing truth is not sufficient; warning against error must be included in what we say, especially because Scripture teaches that deception will be rampant in the last days.
Naturally, obstacles exist. Few things, for instance, can divert us from our path more quickly than legalism. We must guard against the natural human tendency to try to merit eternal life. We must always keep the light of the gospel of salvation by faith in Jesus Christ burning brightly and must ever lift up the assurance of salvation be fore the church and the world.
At the same time, we must avoid antinomianism. As Jesus said: "If you hold to My teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth and the truth will set you free" (John 8:31, 32, NIV). If we forget this admonition to obedience, we have no reason for existing as a unique, distinct church.
Then there are the cultural dangers, such as the question of relevancy. If the message is true but not relevant, then no one will listen. How do we find what is contemporary and integrate it with our message without diluting it? Do we rely on market analysis and opinion polls? If we focus too much on what people say they want, we will be more likely to yield to the temptation to water down the message.
Look at Christ. Was His message relevant? Of course. Was it popular? Only in certain circles. What kind of results would we have discovered had we taken a survey of the vast majority who rejected it? Had Christ merely relied on such surveys He would have changed His message.
Our attempt to be relevant has brought us to a needs-driven ministry. If we can dis cover the needs of the people in the community and minister to those needs, people should be more receptive to the mes sage. This is the model that Jesus gave. We reach the mind through the heart. "Christ's method alone will give true success in reaching the people. The Saviour mingled with men as one who desired their good. He showed His sympathy for them, ministered to their needs, and won their confidence. Then He bade them, 'Follow Me.'"1
The felt-needs approach is biblical and effective; however, it has pitfalls, such as the danger of focusing more on meeting felt needs than proclaiming the message. Our stop-smoking classes, community services, health emphasis, and any other services we offer are to be open doors for proclaiming the three angels' messages. They must not become ends in themselves.
The desire to avoid confrontation
Why can't we just preach the love of Jesus? Why do we have to talk about the beast, the judgment, and the destruction of the wicked? Isn't the love of Jesus enough?
These questions assume that the love of Jesus is one-sided and that God is only merciful and not also just. The three an gels' messages show the deceptive forces at work trying to make ineffective the mes sage of God's love. Sometimes it is necessary to jolt people out of complacency in order to prepare them to hear truth.
The first angel has the everlasting gospel to proclaim to the world. The message is that God loves them and wants all to have abundant eternal life. The cross of Christ is the center of God's final warning message. It calls the world to worship the Creator, who made the world in six days and rested on the seventh. The Sabbath becomes the symbol of the everlasting gospel and the true worship of the Creator. This message is to be preached in the setting of the final judgment hour.
But that's only one angel. There are two more, and together they warn about the dire consequences of false worship. We didn't write these messages, but we are called to proclaim them, and if we consider the fear ful consequences which come to those who make the wrong choice regarding whom they worship, then the only loving thing to do is to present with clarity and boldness these heaven-sent truths.
Back to the Bible
Recently many have questioned Ellen White's The Great Controversy, saying its nineteenth-century interpretation is antiquated. The important question is "What does the Bible say?" Revelation 13 depicts the major powers that will be involved in last-day events. "And the dragon stood on the shore of the sea. And I saw a beast coming out of the sea.... The dragon gave the beast his power and his throne and great authority.... The whole world was astonished and followed the beast. ... He was given authority over every tribe, people, language and nation. All inhabitants of the earth will worship the beast" (Rev. 13:1-3, 7, 8, NIV).
The central points are clear. First, the dragon is Satan (12:9) and Satan gives his political power and authority to the beast from the sea. Next, this beast will be a worldwide power with authority over every nation (including the authority to make war [13:7]). This beast is a religious power that demands worship (verse 8). Everyone, with the exception of God's faithful, will pay him homage.
Verses 11 -15 say that John saw "another beast, coming out of the earth" who "made the earth and its inhabitants worship the first beast." He "set up an image in honor of the beast," and caused "all who refused to worship the image to be killed."
Whatever anyone's interpretation of the second beast, this first worldwide religious power will be joined by a second power who, by means of a death penalty, forces every person to worship according to the dictates of the first beast. However it hap pens, all the world will be subject to this same coercive power.
Scripture also shows that some distinctive act of worship will set apart those who follow the beast from those who worship God. The entire world will unite in sup porting the beast against those who refuse this distinctive worship. In recent years, trends are indeed affirming this prophetic scenario.
For example, in 1852 Pope Pius IX sent a block of granite to be included in the Washington monument, then under construction. So intense was the Protestant reaction that the masons did not dare hoist the stone into place; instead, it was eventually tossed into the nearby Potomac River. Today, about a century and a half later, Catholics and Protestants in America are heralding their "unity in Christ." On March 29,1994, a group of prominent Evangelical and Catholic scholars signed "Evangelicals and Catholics Together: the Christian Mission in the Third Millennium," a document which says essentially that whatever their theological differences, Catholics and Evangelicals have a sufficiently common faith that allows them to unite and bring about constructive political change in America.
The following words of Ellen White are increasingly relevant: "The Protestants of the United States will be foremost in stretching their hands across the gulf to grasp the hand of spiritualism; they will reach over the abyss to clasp hands with the Roman power; and under the influence of this threefold union, this country will fol low in the steps of Rome in trampling on the rights of conscience."2
Patience and courage needed
Today we may feel small, feeble, and helpless when confronted with the task of reaching every living person with the everlasting gospel in the context of present truth. After all, our baptism rate is not even keeping pace with the birth rate. We often feel we are moving backward instead of forward.
Yet, according to prophetic evidence, great changes will take place, and the final movements will be rapid ones. The angels flying through the air symbolize speed and power. Our task is to keep moving forward, seeking the power of God's Spirit as we do so. We must let the light shine brighter and brighter until the whole earth is illuminated by the splendor of Christ.
Unlike the 1994 freshman class of Con gress, we have the assurance that God will ultimately bring success. However, let's not deceive ourselves: Disunity and fragmen tation can threaten that success and make it longer and harder in coming.
1. Ellen G. White, The Ministry of Healing (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1905),143.
2. ____, The Great Controversy Between Christ and Satan (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1888), 588.