When they opened their eyes and looked around all they saw was Jesus, only Jesus” (Matt. 17:8, Message). Is this simple gospel message still prevalent and relevant today? We live in volatile times when almost everything is being critically assessed and subjectively redefined from both personal and cultural perspectives. Within this context, many often see God’s prophetic messages as obsolete and in need of being updated to become more relevant to our generation. Undeniably, if we want to communicate those messages more effectively, we must speak the language of our own time. But are the messages themselves outdated, and do they need to be updated?
In dealing with this controversial subject from a biblical perspective, we should recognize two basic realities. One is the sociocultural settings to which the messages have been delivered over time and which can vary significantly from each other, thus requiring new approaches (1 Cor. 9:19–23). The other reality is the sinful human nature—in constant need of God’s transforming and sanctifying grace—that has remained the same through the ages (Rom. 3:23). Indeed, an ongoing tension exists between the varying expositions of the prophetic messages and their unchangeable content.
Old Testament times
In his insightful article “The Old Testament Prophets as Social Reformers,” George Stibitz explained that “all the prophets, named or unnamed, who appear[ed] in the course of Israel’s history were in like manner God-sent ambassadors to the kings and citizens of Israel” and addressed “man, but as a citizen, not as an individual.”1 Yet, they “were less concerned with a reformation of the conduct of man toward his fellow-man than with the regeneration of the heart by urging the people and their rulers to return to God, the fountain of spiritual life, and its fruit of social purity and righteousness.”2 Such was the case in all the different sociocultural settings in which the prophets delivered their divinely inspired messages.
The antediluvian civilization had degraded itself in an unprecedented apostasy (Gen. 6:5; Matt. 24:38), and God called Noah as His “preacher of righteousness” to that generation
(2 Pet. 2:5).3 The warning of an impending flood was limited to that time (Gen. 9:8–17), but the call to repentance from sin would be echoed by all later prophets. Jesus not only regarded the Flood as a historical event but also foretold that “ ‘as it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man’ ” (Matt. 24:37–39, NIV).
The pilgrimage of the Israelites in the wilderness for 40 years was a unique experience (Acts 13:18), but Moses’ instructions at Sinai were of an enduring nature (Exod. 20:1–17; Deut. 5:1–22). At the border of the Promised Land, Joshua advised the Israelites, “ ‘Remember the word which Moses the servant of the LORD commanded you’ ” (Josh. 1:13). No wonder that King Josiah based his religious reforms on the Book of the Law (2 Chron. 34:14–33). The book of Malachi reminded God’s people, “ ‘Remember the Law of Moses, My servant, which I commanded him in Horeb for all Israel, with the statutes and judgments’ ” (Mal. 4:4).
Elijah’s confrontation with the false prophets on Mount Carmel in northern Israel was a singular event (1 Kings 18), but the reproach for forsaking “the commandments of the LORD” and the call for the restoration of true worship (1 Kings 18:18, 21, 22, 36–40) were repeated by John the Baptist and by the end-time Adventist movement (Mal. 4:5, 6; Matt. 17:9–13).4 Daniel made similar calls for repentance and reformation in Babylon (Dan. 4) as did Jonah in Nineveh (Jonah 3). In each case, the speech addressed the local needs, but the message itself remained essentially the same.
As already mentioned, later prophets often referred to the writings of earlier ones (like Moses) as the abiding word of God. Daniel, for example, trusted “the word of the LORD through Jeremiah the prophet” (Dan. 9:2). Isaiah highlighted the abiding nature of the prophetic word in his classic statement, “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God stands forever” (Isa. 40:8).
New Testament times
Jesus exercised His prophetic ministry when Palestine was under Roman rule, which generated a new sociocultural and political setting. But instead of replacing the teachings of Moses, He told the Jews who were persecuting Him, “ ‘For if you believed Moses, you would believe Me; for he wrote about Me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe My words?’ ” (John 5:46, 47). Later, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus declared, “ ‘Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill’ ” (Matt. 5:17). Then He cited several commandments, unveiling their deeper spiritual implications (vv. 17–48).
The apostle Paul took a similar stand. To the Corinthians, he evoked some adverse incidents of the Israelites in the wilderness, warning them that “all these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come” (1 Cor. 10:1–11). He emphasized the enduring nature of the prophetic word when he stated to the Galatians, “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse!” (Gal. 1:8, NIV). And to the Roman procurator Festus, the apostle affirmed, “ ‘I have done nothing wrong against the Jewish law or against the temple or against Caesar’ ” (Acts 25:8, NIV).
The way the New Testament writers used the Old Testament confirms the abiding nature of the prophetic word.5 Typological fulfillments did replace the shadow with the reality. But even so, “there is no such contrast as is often claimed to exist between the Old and the New Testament, the law of God and the gospel of Christ, the requirements of the Jewish and those of the Christian dispensation. Every soul saved in the former dispensation was saved by Christ as verily as we are saved by Him today.”6 “The Old Testament is the gospel in figures and symbols. The New Testament is the substance. One is as essential as the other.”7
The Protestant Reformation
The Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century rescued the Scriptures from the medieval antibiblical traditions. In his commentary on Genesis 37:9, Martin Luther stated, “I have concluded a pact with my Lord God that He should not send me visions or dreams or even angels. For I am content with this gift which I have, Holy Scripture, which abundantly teaches and supplies all things necessary both for this life and also for the life to come.”8 Actually, the Protestant sola Scripture and tota Scriptura principles acknowledge the abiding nature of the prophetic messages.
John Calvin affirmed that “God did not bring forth his Word among men for the sake of a momentary display, intending at the coming of his Spirit to abolish it. Rather, he sent down the same Spirit by whose power he had dispensed the Word, to complete his work by the efficacious confirmation of the Word.”9 Reflecting on Ephesians 4:11, Calvin distinguished between extraordinary/temporary officers (apostles, prophets, and evangelists) and ordinary/permanent offices (pastors and teachers). But he admitted that the Lord raised up the first three officers “at the beginning of his Kingdom, and now and again revives them as the need of the times demands.” In his view, a prophet “either does not exist today or is less commonly seen.”10
The time of the end
The New Testament teaches that Jesus’ departure ushered in the Holy Spirit (John 16:17; Eph. 4:8) and the Holy Spirit bestowed gifts on believers, including the gift of prophecy (Rom. 12:6; 1 Cor. 12:28; Eph. 4:11). Daniel (8:17; 11:35, 40; and 12:4, 9) had referred to the “time of the end” as an occasion in which “the times demand[ed]” a special prophetic assistance (as stated by Calvin).11 Revelation announces that in the last days there will be a manifestation of the spirit of prophecy, illuminating “the truth revealed by Jesus” (Rev 19: 10, AMPC).
Seventh-day Adventists believe that this spiritual gift was manifested in the life and ministry of Ellen G. White.12 In illuminating “the truth revealed by Jesus,” her prophetic role sought “to serve three basic purposes: (1) to direct attention to the Bible, (2) to aid in understanding the Bible, and (3) to help in applying Bible principles in our lives.”13
Her prophetic assistance was not only fundamental in the early days of the Seventh-day Adventist movement but plays a very crucial role for the church as we near the end of human history on earth. Actually, we live today in a time when “nothing stands out in clear and distinct lines”14 and many Christians believe that “the requirements of Christ are less strict than they once believed, and that by conformity to the world they would exert a greater influence with worldlings.”15 In this context, we are reminded that “the word of God is the only fixed, changeless thing that the world knows. Like its Author in character, it is ‘the same yesterday, today, and forever.’ ”16
Consistent with the gift of prophecy, Ellen White addressed many unique situations, but her teachings are timeless and remain relevant for us today. She was conscious of that reality when she wrote in 1906, “Abundant light has been given to our people in these last days. Whether or not my life is spared, my writings will constantly speak, and their work will go forward as long as time shall last.”17
God still speaks
Prophetic writings comprise ongoing dialogues between universal principles and particulars of time and place. But even those particulars are backed up by universal principles that make those writings relevant across time. Since all of us are sinners (Rom. 3:23) and Christ’s unchangeable mission has always been to “ ‘save His people from their sins’ ” (Matt. 1:21), the prophetic appeals to the people of old are still pertinent for us today. Indeed, the form can change over time, but the essence remains the same. We affirm with Paul, “You may as well know now that it was my secret determination to concentrate entirely on Jesus Christ and the fact of his death upon the cross” (1 Cor. 2:2, Phillips). Our challenging times require new approaches to communicate the gospel message more efficiently, but those approaches should never undermine our whole commitment to the prophetic word itself, whose message is all about Jesus.
- Geo[rge] Stibitz, “The Old Testament Prophets as Social Reformers,” Biblical World 12, no. 1 (July 1898): 20, 22 (emphasis original).
- Stibitz, 22.
- Unless otherwise noted, Scripture is from the New King James Version.
- Hans K. LaRondelle, Chariots of Salvation: The Biblical Drama of Armageddon (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald, 1986), 174–185.
- See, e.g., G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson, eds., Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007).
- Ellen G. White, “Ellen G. White Comments—Acts,” in The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary, ed. Francis D. Nichol, vol. 6 (Washington, DC: Review and Herald, 1957), 1061.
- Ellen G. White, Selected Messages, bk. 2 (Washington, DC: Review and Herald, 1958), 104.
- Martin Luther, Luther’s Works (Albany, OR: Books for the Ages AGES Software, 1997), 6:329.
- Calvin, Institutes, 1.9.3.
- Calvin., 4.3.4–5.
- See Gerhard Pfandl, The Time of the End in the Book of Daniel, Adventist Theological Society Dissertation Series, vol. 1 (Berrien Springs, MI: Adventist Theological Society Publications, 1992).
- Denis Fortin, "Ellen G. White and the Gift of Prophecy: The Test of a Prophet" (lecture notes, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, MI), https://www.andrews.edu/~fortind/EGWTest.htm.
- T. Housel Jemison, A Prophet Among You (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press, 1955), 371. See also Merlin D. Burt, “The Foundational Orientation of Ellen White’s Prophetic Ministry,” in The Gift of Prophecy in Scripture and History, ed. Alberto R. Timm and Dwain N. Esmond (Silver Spring, MD: Review and Herald, 2015), 270–288.
- Ellen G. White, Selected Messages, bk. 1 (Washington, DC: Review and Herald, 1958), 15.
- Ellen G. White, The Spirit of Prophecy, vol. 4 (Battle Creek, MI: Review and Herald, 1884), 339, 340.
- Ellen G. White, “Preach in Regions Beyond,” Bible Echo, May 28, 1894, 164.
- White, Selected Messages, bk. 1, 55.