Another look at the three angels’ messages

Luther received the baton of righteousness by faith, then passed it on. The final runners are carrying it to the finish line. It’s called the three angels’ messages. It’s the everlasting gospel.

Norman R. Gulley, PhD, serves as research professor in systematic theology, Southern Adventist University, Collegedale, Tennessee, United States.

The Protestant Reformation began on October 31, 1517. Martin Luther adhered his Ninety-Five Theses against indulgences to the Wittenberg church door. The papacy was furious. The Council of Trent (1545–1563) flung anathemas at Protestantism to destroy it. This only hardened Protestants against the papacy. Centuries passed. Then the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965) tried a new tactic. It welcomed other churches as separated brothers. Common doctrines were gradually agreed upon. Differences were swept under the rug. The new tactic worked—so well, in fact, that on October 31, 2017, Pope Francis and many ecumenical leaders desire to pronounce the Reformation over.1

How could this happen? What would the martyrs think, many of whom were burned at the stake because they believed that Christ and Scripture are counterfeited in the Roman system? What would those think who rejected Rome’s theology of salvation through the papal church, where human traditions were placed above divine revelation? In the sixteenth century, the Magisterial Reformers were unanimous in identifying the papacy as the anti-christ—against and in place of Christ. What happened? Has the Reformation lost its identity?

Change and relevance

We live in a post-modern age. Emergent church leaders believe that churches are irrelevant if they do not change to interface with post- modern culture. In other words, they believe changing worldviews dictate the way in which churches operate to be relevant within changing culture. Postmodernity represents a new worldview. It rejects absolutes, including absolutes in Scripture. Yet the Bible is like no other book. God does not change (Mal. 3:6), and “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Heb. 13:8).2

A consistent biblical worldview, found throughout Scripture, is that of the great controversy between Christ and Satan. This is concrete, unchangeable, and relevant. It materially affects church identity. Scripture says, “Here are those who keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus” (Rev. 14:12). This verse immediately follows the three angels’ messages (vv. 6–11). How relevant are these messages in our post-Vatican II, postmodern, ecumenical age? Are they important or merely optional?

Three angels’ messages

One of the main identifying features of Luther’s doctrine is righteousness by faith. This same feature has characterized Seventh-day Adventist teachings through the years, though with varying degrees of conviction. Ellen White states, “The sacrifice of Christ as an atonement for sin is the great truth around which all other truths cluster. . . . I present before you the great, grand monument of mercy and regeneration, salvation and redemption—the Son of God uplifted on the cross. This is to be the foundation of every discourse given by our ministers. . . . Christ and His righteousness—let this be our platform, the very life of our faith.”3

She added, “Several have written to me, inquiring if the message of justification by faith is the third angel’s message, and I have answered, ‘It is the third angel’s message in verity.’ . . . “

This message was to bring more prominently before the world the uplifted Saviour, the sacrifice for the sins of the whole world. It presented justification through faith in the Surety; it invited the people to receive the righteousness of Christ, which is made manifest in obedience to all the commandments of God. . . . It is the third angel’s message, which is to be proclaimed with a loud voice, and attended with the outpouring of His Spirit in a large measure.”4

White concludes, “There must be no toning down of the truth, no muffling of the message for this time.”5 Thus, the three messages constitute the mission of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Adventism’s raison d’être stands in danger of becoming “muffled” if we forget our identity and tone down God’s revelation in Scripture concerning the falsehoods of the historic papacy that reformers like Luther laid down their lives to expose. Adventists’ love for Catholics and Protestants should reflect God’s love for the world (John 3:16). Rightly understood, the three angels’ messages are good news for all, Protestants and Catholics alike, if they are understood in a Christ-centered context. Consider the good news.

The first angel’s message

The first angel has “the everlasting gospel to preach to those who dwell on the earth—to every nation, tribe, tongue, and people” (Rev. 14:6). This clearly indicates that the gospel message is consistent throughout human history. The same gospel is given “to every nation, tribe, tongue, and people.” Therefore, like the biblical worldview, the biblical gospel is relevant to all cultures. Both are unchangeable!

“Fear God . . . , for the hour of His judgment has come” (v. 7a), proclaims the first message. Some fear this judgment, but it is also part of the everlasting gospel. The gospel means that Calvary is the decisive and irreversible judgment day (John 12:31). The pre-Advent judgment (along with the millennial and post-millennial judgments) are not added judgments to the Calvary judgment. Nothing needs to be added to Calvary. The three judgments after Calvary merely reveal who has accepted or rejected Christ’s crucifixion judgment. Those who accept Christ’s death for them have no fear of any subsequent judgment (John 5:24).

So, “Fear God” means to reverence Him. Reverence and “worship Him who made heaven and earth” (Rev. 14:7b). In overflowing gratitude, we worship our Creator and Redeemer—the one who gives us life and eternal life. But there is more: “worship Him who made heaven and earth, the sea and springs of water” (v. 7b). These words are found in the Sabbath commandment: “In six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it” (Exod. 20:11; cf. Gen. 2:1–4).

We worship the Creator, whose “ memorial of creation” is the seventh-day Sabbath.God’s law is immutable, unchangeable. Christ declared, “Till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law” (Matt. 5:18). God’s law stands as “a transcript of His character.”7 God and His law remain relevant to every changing culture. Soon, faithfulness to “the Sabbath will be the great test of loyalty.”8

The second angel’s message

The second angel’s message declares: “Babylon is fallen, is fallen, that great city whose evil influences all nations” (Rev. 14:8).9 The climax of this evil is reached in the third message, which exposes false worship (v. 9). A wild beast (therion, v. 9) is worshiped in place of the Lamb of God, our Creator Redeemer, Christ (first message). This wild beast (therion), introduced in Revelation 13:1a, is blasphemous (v. 1b). “The dragon [Satan, Rev. 12:9] gave him his power, his throne, and great authority” (Rev. 13:2b).

Then “all the world marveled and followed the beast. So, they worshiped the dragon who gave authority to the beast, and they worshiped the beast” (vv. 3b, 4a). A death decree condemns those who refuse to worship the beast (v. 15). In ancient Babylon, king Nebuchadnezzar issued a death decree for refusing to worship his image (Dan. 3:1–28). That was a local type of the global counterfeit worship and decree to come.

“Babylon the Great” is “drunk with the blood of the saints and the blood of the martyrs of Jesus” (Rev. 17:5, 6). No wonder the “wrath of God” will be “poured out full strength” on this wild beast and its followers (Rev. 14:10, 11; 16). By contrast, there are “those who keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus” (Rev. 14:12b); and those “who have the victory over the beast [therion], over his image and over his mark and over the number of his name” (Rev. 15:2b; cf. Rev. 13:14b; 14:9). These are the ones who sing the “song of Moses” (Exod. 15:1–21) and the “song of the Lamb” (Rev. 15:3, 4)—two miraculous deliverances!

The pre-Advent judgment of the first message was predicted in the time of ancient Babylon (Dan. 7:1–28). Daniel 7:1–8 gives the background to Revelation 13:1, 2. The court hands down a decision against the counterfeit salvation system, and “in favor of the saints of the Most High” (Dan. 7:22; cf. vv. 26, 27). The counterfeit system will be destroyed (v. 11, cf. third message, Rev. 14:9–11), and Christ’s kingdom will be everlasting (Dan. 7:14, 27; Rev. 19:11–21; 21; 22:1–7).

Third angel’s message

Prophecy speaks of end-time cultural demands—global Sunday enforcement and a death decree for noncompliance (Rev. 13:1–15; cf. Dan. 3:1–27; 6:6–24). The third angel’s message contains God’s response: His wrath poured out without mercy. Here is the global showdown between the two sides of the cosmic controversy, which includes the second advent of Christ. Where do we find the everlasting gospel in this showdown? We find it in Christ on the cross.

Isaiah spoke of a reality in covenant history: “your iniquities [sins] have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hid his face from you” (Isa. 59:2, RSV). On the cross Christ “who knew no sin” became “sin for us” (2 Cor. 5:21). As such, Christ suffered the greatest separation from His Father’s love ever experienced. White comments: “It was the sense of sin, bringing the Father’s wrath upon Him as man’s substitute, that made the cup He drank so bitter, and broke the heart of the Son of God. . . . “. . .

The guilt of every descendant of Adam of every age was pressing upon His heart; and the wrath of God and the terrible manifestation of His displeasure because of iniquity, filled the soul of His Son with consternation. The withdrawal of the divine countenance from the Saviour in this hour of supreme anguish pierced His heart with a sorrow that can never be fully understood by man. . . . It is for love of thee that the Son of God consents to have these heinous crimes laid upon Him; for thee He spoils the domain of death, and opens the gates of Paradise and immortal life.”10

God’s wrath without mercy will be poured out on Babylon (Rev. 14:9–11). However, all sins of humanity that Christ bore caused God’s wrath without mercy to be poured out on Him as the Sin Bearer. This reveals God’s hatred of sin. Christ, our Sin Bearer, hates sin. No wonder Christ’s life was crushed through the staggering load of global sins. This means that on Calvary, Christ bore the sins of Babylon.

God is “not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9b). For Christ “is the expiation [sacrifice] for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2, RSV). “For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved” (John 3:17). Sadly, the overwhelming majority of sinners refuse to accept Christ’s sin-bearing on their behalf.

Christ paid the awful price for sin so that all could be saved—if they accept the gift. Those who accept are free to enter an everlasting relationship with their loving Redeemer. This “everlasting gospel” message needs to reach professed nonbelievers and sincere believers alike. Ellen White states, “Notwithstanding the spiritual darkness and alienation from God that exist in the churches which constitute Babylon, the great body of Christ’s true followers are still to be found in their communion. There are many of these who have never seen the special truths for this time. Not a few are dissatisfied with their present condition and are longing for clearer light. They look in vain for the image of Christ in the churches with which they are connected. As these bodies depart further and further from the truth, and ally themselves more closely with the world, the difference between the two classes will widen, and it will finally result in separation.”11 To those in Babylon,the invitation pleads: “Come out of her, my people, lest you share in her sins, and lest you receive of her plagues” (Rev. 18:4). Who will bring this invitation to them?

If not us, then who?

Ellen White states, “Those who have held the beginning of their confidence firm unto the end will be wide-awake during the time that the third angel’s message is proclaimed with great power. During the loud cry, the church, aided by the providential interpositions of her exalted Lord, will diffuse the knowledge of salvation so abundantly that light will be communicated to every city and town.”12 Seventh-day Adventists are heirs of the Reformation. We cannot drop the baton or cloud the issues. Luther delivered the message for his time. Now, “in a special sense Seventh-day Adventists have been set in the world as watchmen 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.”13

May God help us all, beginning with us as pastors, to reclaim our Reformation heritage and proclaim our apocalyptic message with compassion but without apology.

1 Harriet Sherwood, “After 500 Years of Schism, Will the Rift of the Reformation Finally Be Healed?” The Observer, October 29, 2016, /world/2016/oct/29/reformation-luther-pope -francis-catholics.

2 Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture texts in this article are from the New King James Version.

3 Ellen G. White, Evangelism (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1970), 190.

4 White, Evangelism, 190, 191.

5 White, Evangelism, 230.

6 Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1907), 437.

7 White, The Great Controversy, 434.

8 White, The Great Controversy, 605.

9 Author’s translation.

10 Ellen G. White, The Story of Redemption (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1980), 224, 225

11 White, The Great Controversy, 390.

12 Ellen G. White, “The Closing Work,” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, Oct. 13, 1904.

13 Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church, vol. 9 (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1948), 19.

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Norman R. Gulley, PhD, serves as research professor in systematic theology, Southern Adventist University, Collegedale, Tennessee, United States.

October 2017

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