Advent Christians in the 21st Century Part 2 - Living Forward

Advent Christians in the 21st Century Part 2 - Living Forward

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The passionate, zealous, spirit of the Second Advent movement is still sought today by many in the Advent Christian denomination who pant with drought stricken desperation for the same radical demonstrations of faith as our early brethren.  David Platt’s challenging call in Radical: Taking Back Your Faith From The American Dream, and John Piper’s Don’t Waste Your Life capture the essence of this spirit many seek while avoiding the pitfalls of fanaticism and abuse.

The determination of an uneducated man to take seriously the charge of Sola Scriptura (the Scriptures Alone as the only rule of faith and conduct) and revive both the study of prophecy (see The Final Prophecy of Jesus by the late Dr. Oral Collins) and the ardent study of the Word are also held out as ideals for every Christian, young and old, man and woman, sitting in the pew.  One need not go to college or Seminary in order to be an Advent Christian pastor, nor carry scholarly credentials to get published in the Adventist literature, merely “present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15).

Furthermore, before New Testament heavy weight N.T. Wright published his widely popular Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, or Randy Alcorn put forth his wildfire idea that the saints will dwell forever on earth in a restored paradise in his book HeavenSecond Adventists had already been beating that drum of resurrection glory in a restored kingdom on this earth a hundred and sixty years prior.

Perhaps more than anything else, today’s Advent Christians want to keep raising that resurrection flag as the Day dawns on the horizon of the eschatological reign of King Jesus on earth.  While the world grows comfortable and Christians grow complacent, amusing ourselves to death or driven by the tyranny of the urgent, many new Advent Christians are teaching, preaching, fasting, praying, seeking, striving, for fresh fillings of the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 5:18).  “For where the Spirit of the Lord is there is freedom,” and in His presence we behold the glory of the Lord (1 Cor. 3:17-18).  But how do we re-capture the same fervency of our past without it being merely lip service?  Without hollow revival meetings that lead nowhere.  Without endless sermons aimed only at convicting our people and ourselves?    

One way to get to an answer is by asking a key question:  Should Advent Christians be committed to the imminent return of Christ or to making His return imminent?  The answer, I believe, will determine the success or failure of our denomination in the 21st century.

The phrase, “the imminent return of Christ,” is so familiar and used so often that to raise questions about its biblical veracity may be seen as harboring a tendentious attitude that desires to tear down instead of buildup.  Our motive is quite the opposite, to build unity we must pursue biblical truth.  Here are five key reasons why Advent Christians should re-consider this popular notion and instead focus on “making the return of Christ imminent” the distinctive ethos of their commitment to the Gospel in the 21st Century.  None are meant to stand on their own, but to roll forward gaining momentum.  From least to greatest they are:                      

#1 Been there, done that, got the T-Shirt.  In the context of the Milleritie movement the imminent return of Jesus Christ, i.e. the any moment return of the Lord to this earth to claim His saints and usher in the millennial kingdom, makes a good deal of sense.  William Miller did not just believe Christ would come “soon” as we use the word today in some nebulous fashion.  Rather, for him the Parousia was intimately tied to the fulfillment of his prophetic calendar (esp. Dan. 8:14 and the climax of the 2300 days) and the conviction that while he could not know the day or hour, he could nonetheless know the year.  When a comet unexpectedly blazed across the sky leading up to his prediction everyone seemed to know that the signs of the times were upon them, or so they thought.  Miller’s Reformed hermeneutic caused him to deny the Roman Catholic claims of the Jesuit Alcasar and his form of Preterism on the one hand, and to reject Manuel de Lacunza, the catholic priest who pretended to be a converted Jew, who tried to smuggle his form of futurism into the Protestant faith on the other.  Rather, Miller would stake his ground on the immediate pre-millennial return of Christ between March 21, 1843 – March 21, 1844.  Prophecy, a particular outworking of prophecy that is, was the impetus for the entire movement.  Without this prophetic insight to anchor the doctrine of the imminent return, it eventually just drifted away into something that could happen today…or tomorrow….or 10,000 years from now.  Hardly what Miller meant by “imminent”!  We need to realize that we do not use the word the same way or with the same connotations as the early Adventist.        

#2 Can You Smell What I’m Stepping In?  Today the imminent return of Christ is a doctrine held by nearly the entire Evangelical world from Baptists, to Presbyterians, to Congregationalist, to everything within and without.  Not only is it not a distinctive in that respect, but everyone does not mean the same thing by the term either.  Dispensationalists are by far the foremost defenders and promoters of the doctrine of imminence.  But for them the imminent return of Jesus Christ does not refer to His Second Coming, rather it refers to their unique doctrine of the rapture.[1] This allows a two stage return of our Lord, the first to come for his saints which can happen at any moment, and the second to come with his saints which takes place only after the prophetic calendar has been fulfilled.  As Dr. Gordon Isaac, Advent Christian Chair at Gordon-Conwell, points out, the reason this is so controversial is because up until the 1830s all references to the apostle Paul’s words about being “caught up” in the clouds (1 Thess. 4) meant only one thing – the second and final return of Jesus Christ.            

So, when Advent Christians choose to rally around this doctrinal flag of the “imminent return” we (a) are not claiming anything particularly distinguishable, and (b) simply cannot escape the connotations of the modern usage tied to Darby and his followers and his “peekaboo” Jesus (see chp. 6 of Dr. Isaac’s book for an outworking of the subtle dangers of this view). 

Now, I understand that neither of these appeal to the post-modern mind - who cares about being distinguishable from others after all?  And the second objection only really matters to those with a distaste for most forms of dispensational theology so all around this is certainly not an all-encompassing argument.  It’s not meant to be, just a needed observation.           

#3 Inigo Montoya says, “I don’t think it means what you think it means.”  The English word “imminent” has been taken to mean the “any moment return of Jesus Christ.”  Is that accurate to the actual definition of the word and the biblical concept of the Parousia tied to it?    

First, there is a difference between something that is imminent and something that is immediate.  To tell someone they are in immediate danger is to say that the danger does not delay in coming to them but is upon them instantly.  To tell them they are in imminent danger is to say there is some separation of time and space between the danger and the person.  A drug user who is seen as an imminent threat to others may find help to enroll in a program, fill out the application, go through an interview process, etc.  If the same person is seen as an immediate threat they need to be locked up without delay. 

The return of Christ may or may not be in the immediate future, but it always looms as an imminent reality.  This is born out in the etymology of the word as well.  It traces to the Latin imminentem meaning “overhanging; impending.” 

Second, to say the return of Christ is impending is not to say that it can happen at any moment in the present, but to say that it will happen soon and it will be sudden and unexpected when it does happen.  This is the testimony of Scripture.  Listen to Paul’s emphasis to the Thessalonian Christians explaining what “thief in the night” actually connotes: 

1 Thess. 5:2 For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. 3 While people are saying, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. 4 But you are not in darkness, brothers, for that day to surprise you like a thief.

The main idea is not that the thief in the night will come at any hour, but that he will come at an unexpected hour catching the inhabitants off guard.  Labor pains do not come upon a pregnant woman at any moment of her pregnancy, but as she gets closer to birth the labor pains do come suddenly and without warning.  It’s the shocking nature of the day of the Lord that Paul highlights here not the “any momentness” of it.  Interestingly, Christians are NOT to be shocked or surprised by the suddenness at all since they do not dwell in dark ignorance (also Lk 21:25-28), but instead wait on the Ark who is Christ with prepared hearts for the rains of His judgments and rewards to come.    

This was Jesus’ intentional emphasis as well, namely, the idea of being caught off guard and the need to be prepared (Lk 12:39-44; 21:34-36; also Rev. 16:15).  In addition, Jesus warned that certain things had to happen before He would return thus he could not have possibly taught the any moment ParousiaSome things He mentions are:

·      Jesus told Peter he would grow old and die so Jesus could not have come back before that time (Jn 21:18-19; 2 Pet. 1:14).  Peter did not believe in the “any moment” return of Christ since he knew it would not happen in his lifetime. 

·      Jesus told Paul he was commissioned to go to Rome so Jesus could not have come back before Paul had fulfilled his apostolic mission (Acts 22:21; 23:11).  Paul did not believe in the “any moment” return of Christ either (as he made clear in 2 Thess. 2:1-12 stipulating certain prophetic fulfillments that needed to take place before His return could occur).

·      Jesus taught parables indicating His return would not be any-moment (Lk. 19:11-15; Matt. 25:5, 19) as well as citing specific things such as the great tribulation which must first take place before the end could come (Matt. 24; Rev. 16:15).  So, Jesus did not believe His own return would be imminent.

·      Jesus told all the disciples He would not return until the Gospel had been preached to every “nation” (ethnos) in the world (Matt. 24:14; Acts 1:8).  So, thus far, neither Jesus nor the disciples nor the early church in Acts believed in the “any moment” return of Christ.  Their focus was on expanding the Gospel to fulfill the Great Commission to bring the end to completion.

·      The early church fathers often followed the historical exemplar laid down by Daniel expecting certain things in the book of Revelation to take place first (e.g. rise of the Anti-Christ, apostasy, tribulation) before Christ could manifestly return (e.g. Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Hippolytus).  So, most of them did not believe in the “any moment” return of Christ either.  In fact, it was usually heretical groups that pronounced some form of imminence to which these fathers often battled (e.g. Montanists).      

More could be said, this is just to make the point that for the New Testament era and beyond Jesus’ return was not “any moment”. 

But what about us today?  Much depends on the outworking of one’s own eschatological framework in order to answer that question.  Will Christ return at “any moment”?  If you believe all prophecies have been fulfilled and nothing is left at all on the prophetic calendar, then YES (e.g. Preterists).  If you believe there are still prophecies that need to be fulfilled and you do not hold to the rapture doctrine then NO (e.g. historicist, historical Premillennialism, Amillennialism, Postmillennialism).  If you believe there are still prophecies that need to be fulfilled and you adhere to the rapture doctrine then YES (e.g. Dispensationalism, though not all forms of it).[2]   In each case “imminent” will either be discarded or come to mean something different (sudden/unexpected vs. any moment).  

#4 The lazier a man is, the more he plans to do tomorrow (Norwegian proverb).  The fervency and zeal that characterized Miller and his movement was precisely because he and his followers did not just believe in the “any moment” return of Christ, they didn’t after all, but in the real, visible, imminently impending return of Christ within a specific time frame.  Without this prophetic engine to drive the doctrine it has little power to create the same kind of white hot zeal that resulted in the movement in the first place.  It leaves us always speaking of a belief, but seemingly always lacking in our actionable response to it.  For when have we in mass sold houses, farms, businesses, poured out our savings, or cashed in our retirement fund in actual response to the imminent return of Christ?   

My point is this, either we claim the imminent return of Christ as our clarion call and with it the fervency of its expression as our distinguishable characteristic as a body (similar to say, the attitude of the Moravian missionaries and their world renown sacrifice for the Gospel), or, we discard it as something that in practice only creates the rotten fruit of hypocrisy.

Far more often the doctrine as it stands, as it is preached, as it is practiced, seems to allow us to go about our lives waiting….waiting…waiting, for Jesus to come back.  For some perhaps, it gets all twisted up into a kind of, “Why put any energy into that new work of evangelism, missions, etc., Jesus will be back soon anyway.”  Articles proliferate online titled, “Do we really believe in the imminent return of Christ?”  People feel guilty for going about their lives, but nothing seems to change the apathy of the hour.  When I confronted one congregant about his lack of zeal he told me it didn’t really matter, Jesus would make all things new soon anyway.  When I asked him about Gospel fruit in his life he took me to 1 Corinthians 3 and reminded me that he would be the person who got into the kingdom by the skin of his teeth even though all his works be burned up in the fire.  His reasoning is not actually that bizarre.  If someone gave you an old beater of a car and told you to drive it and take care of it until they got back at which time they were going to give you a brand-new Mercedes, why on earth would you kill yourself polishing it and putting time, effort, and energy into fixing it?  Rather, you would do the minimum you had to do until they returned.  Such is the sad state of affairs with the imminent return of Christ in many Christian hearts too. 

In response pastors often preach the idea of a “day of accountability” before the Lord in which every sin is evidently dragged out and hung up before each, apparently, not fully forgiven saint as God then acts as inquisitor, judge, and jury to elicit shame and instill fear for all their sins and tasks left undone.[3]  Surely, we can scare the people into zealous acts of righteousness!  Yet, there is a more excellent way.  There is a doctrine that is far more motivational and one worth sacrificing all we have to live out.  

#5 The church does not have a mission; the mission has a church!  This is the call of the missional church that issues from an evangelical definition of the Missio Dei (Mission of God).  It says we are thinking about this whole discipleship-to-the-ends-of-the-earth thing the wrong way as though it originates from the church, issues forth with the church’s authority, and ultimately is something we do for God because it’s our responsibility, it’s our mission.  Rather, God is on mission and has been on mission since He created Adam and Eve, since he chose Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, since He spoke messianic prophecy and threaded it through the tapestry of His word, since He sent Jesus who sent the Spirit who sent the church to participate in God’s will through God’s work in God’s world.  John G. Flett writes in A theology of missio Dei:

…missio Dei remains an action of God’s own perfect life. He has not simply handed this over to the human, to the Christian community, or to history as such. The missionary sending of the church, in other words, cannot be a detached page from the work of the Spirit and the Son. We follow and witness to their work in the world, and we do this as reconciled communities engaging in active reconciliation with those afar off (p. 75-76).            

God prophesied through Isaiah that the Messiah would not only restore Israel, but God says to the anointed one, “I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth” (Is. 49:6).  Before Jesus’ public ministry Simeon declared that this infant king was a “light to reveal God to the nations and the glory of your people Israel” (Lk 2:32).  During his public ministry Jesus reminded his followers that he was the “light of the world” (Jn. 8:12) who came to seek and save the lost (Lk 19:10).  After his public ministry the Apostles picked up Isaiah’s mantle and preached the death and resurrection of Jesus as “light to the Jews and Gentiles” (Acts 26:23).  

The Gospel light – hide it under a bushel NO!  It must shine far and wide, Jesus prophesied clearly in Matthew 24:14 (also Mk 13:10):

12 Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, 13 but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved. 14 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.

Has the Gospel gone to all the whole world and all nations?  If these are defined as all the large-scale nations then yes, or, as all the continents then yes, or, as all the major cities then yes.  Yet, the end has not come and therefore, Jesus is a liar?[4]  But there are compelling reasons to believe that Jesus means more than these general definitions, but in fact he means all the different people groups within the world.  John’s vision is paramount for a correct understanding of God’s missionary heart (Rev 7:9-10; also 5:9):

9 After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, 10 and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

It is almost as though God demands a spiritual tithe from all the people groups of the world to represent His image as a multi-colored kingdom of priests (Rev. 5:9-10) – these are the ones He is already ardently seeking for after all, those who worship Him in Spirit and in truth (Jn. 4:23).  Jesus told us he has other sheep not of the original fold, “I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, and one shepherd” (Jn. 10:16).  Paul’s lightening flashing zeal did not come from merely obeying the command of Christ to go, but from a heart pounding passion to “endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory” (2 Tim. 2:10).  Paul knew without a doubt that God’s elect were out there, that they needed to be found, and that only by throwing the Gospel net into every community could he find them and bring them into the boat of redemption. 

If Christ will not return until the Gospel light is shone to all people groups, tribes and tongues in all the world then joining His mission and accomplishing the task is the only thing that will make His return possible and tangible, real and visible.  In other words, Jesus speaks of his return in the way that God speaks of so many promises in the Old Testament, i.e. as conditional promises that require the people of God to do something, to respond, to act, in order to bring them about.  The longer they delay, the longer the promise takes to come to fulfillment.  Thus, contrary to popular opinion then, there is not a “set” time that cannot be changed when it comes to the return of Christ.  Instead, the midnight hour rings forth when the Gospels goes forth to all peoples, and those hearts pour forth the confession that Jesus Christ is Lord of all (Acts 4:12; Rom. 10:9).  This is why Peter tells us not only to LOOK for the Day of the Lord, but even to “hasten” it (2 Peter 3:12; ESV), to “hurry it along” (NLT), to “speed its coming” (NIV).  This cannot be overstated.  We do not “hasten unto the coming of the day of God” (KJV) which implies we are merely speeding on the subway of time towards our final destination with us sitting and waiting to arrive.  There is no “unto” in the text.  Peter says that we ought rather to be about the business of actually,“hastening the coming of the day of God.”[5]            

That is not even the most shocking truth about the return of Christ.  The great messianic prophesy in Isaiah 49:6 is picked up by the Apostle Paul and used as the foundation text and rational for why his core mission turned away from the Jews and turned to the Gentiles: 

46 And Paul and Barnabas spoke out boldly, saying, "It was necessary that the word of God be spoken first to you. Since you thrust it aside and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we are turning to the Gentiles. 47 For so the Lord has commanded us, saying, "' I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.'" 48 And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord, and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed.

Astonishingly, the Apostle Paul takes a clear messianic reference and applies it to the apostolic mission, “us”, and ultimately then to the church (all of us).  If the church is the spiritual body of Christ then this makes sense.  While Christ’s physical body has ascended to the right hand of God, there remains a spiritual incarnation of His presence left behind, “the church of the living God, which is the pillar and foundation of truth” (1 Tim. 3:15), and the church which is the “fullness of him who fills all in all” (Eph. 1:23). 

So in commissioning the church to bring about his return Jesus rightly begins with “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me, therefore go…”  The idea of sending authority is deeply rooted in the Triune Godhead.    

·      The Father sends Jesus into the world to establish His church (Jn 17) which is why Jesus can be called our “apostle” (Heb. 3:1; i.e. one sent with authority). 

·      Father & Son send the Spirit into the disciples to empower (Jn 14:16; 15:26) His church.

·      The Son & Spirit send the church to all nations to expand His church (Jn. 20:21; Acts)

The nature of the church is supposed to be a reflection of the nature of the Triune Godhead; a community of persons living in love, harmony, joy, sharing all things and shining bright transformation for those who step into its light (i.e. perichoresis). 

Jesus is on mission and invites the church to join Him and sends them out to “compel,” “persuade,” “insist,” and “urge” others to come to the banquet feast “that my house may be filled” (Lk 14:15-24).  Jesus loves his church and wants to fill it to overflowing.    

We too often read Ephesians 5 backwards.  Human marriage is not the model of Jesus’ love for the church.  Jesus’ love for the church is the model and ideal for all human marriage.  As in any healthy marriage there is a division of labor, so it is with Christ and His church.  He assigns three main tasks that will speed His return with haste:   

Matt. 28:18 “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

We summarize these by alliteration saying the task given to the church is to make, mature, and multiply discipleship communities to the ends of the earth. 

Here then lies the key to unity in Christ’s church, when all of God’s people jump into the mighty rolling river of His mission and are swept away by the current of His glory.  Knowing the mission, being on mission, staying on mission, then becomes the unifying factor and litmus test of faithfulness rather than agreement to secondary doctrines.

The end of the matter is this:  God invites His church to pull hard on the Gospel rope to bring up the bucket of eschatological salvation from the well of life.  How fast and how hard the church pulls determines how quickly she can drink from its refreshing waters.  With this conviction then we can reclaim the Millerite fever of fervency and cut out programs that do not support this mission, and fund programs that do, and give generously to God’s mission, and raise up missionary leaders, and send out missionary leaders to new tribes, new tongues, new peoples, that all may cry out with one voice in joyful adulation, OUR GOD REIGNS! 

Our God reigns over the mountains and deep in the sea,

Our God reigns from Mt. Carmel, to Sinai, to under my feet.

Our God reigns in the morning, in the noon, in the night,

He reigns in the bloody battle in the midst of the fight.

He reigns o’er the meadows of rolling green hills,

in cracks, and in crevice, of rocks laid so still.

Over murderers and rapists all evil beguiled,

Over death and disease, I am His child.

Nothing can stop Him, no wisdom of sages,

Our God reigns! Our God reigns! To the end of the ages!

 

[1] While I stand firmly against the rapture, I do think we have to be careful not to slander those within the camp with un-critical claims about its origin, as some argue, tied to a teenage prophet.  See my previous blog The False Origin Of The Rapture Doctrine.   

[2] We just simplified a far more complex topic.  Partial preterists can be amillennial (e.g. Kim Riddlebarger, Jay Adams) or postmillennial (Ken Gentry, Gary DeMar).  Within dispensationalism there are mid-tribulation dispensationalist who deny the imminent rapture of Christ since they believe the church must endure at least 3 ½ years of the 7-year tribulation before being taken.  In fact, there are at least five views that deny imminency scattered throughout three different millennial positions

[3] While I firmly believe such a day exists, I also firmly believe 1 Corinthians 3 indicates it will be a positive day for the Christian not a day of shaming them for works left undone which were already forgiven in Christ long ago!  Much like rummaging through the junk draw to find a diamond ring, God is not looking for the junk in order to tear His people down, but searching for the things they did well to reward them before the Bema Seat of Christ.  See this handy 16 page write up Judgment Seat of Christ:  Of Sins or Service? Where he correctly, I believe, concludes that the judgment seat is about our service (so Macarthur who gives all the exegetical details as well).  For more depth see Judgment Seat of Christ Biblical and Theological Study by Hoyt.  Online articles from Hoyt The Judgment Seat Part 1:  Unconfessed Sins, Part 2:  Negative Aspects, Part 3 Rewards.

[4] Preterists argue that in the context of Matthew 24 that the “end” that would come to fulfillment was not the end time, but the end of Jerusalem i.e. it’s destruction which took place in AD 70.  This necessitates that the Gospel went to all nations prior to that date, a claim that is hard to fathom especially in light of global nations that no one even knew existed (i.e. Indian nations in the Americas).  Others take a different approach arguing that the Gospel did in fact reach the whole “world” to which Jesus referred.  One author writing in Enrichment Journal points out, “According to Acts 2:5, there were Jews in Jerusalem for the Feast of Pentecost from “every nation under heaven” (NASB). After 3,000 of these accepted Christ as their Savior, the vast majority of these new believers eventually returned to their country taking the gospel to “every nation under heaven.”  Was this really God’s heart, to only reach the Mediterranean world with the Gospel?  Does that do justice to all the texts of Scripture OT and NT that emphasize the idea of taking the Gospel to the very ends of the earth?  They argue it does citing Rom. 1:8; 10:18; Col. 1:6 where Paul refers to the Gospel going to the whole “world” but clearly means the “known world.”  This hardly qualifies as “every tongue and nation and tribe”!  Plus, if this was fulfilled by the closing of the NT canon, the question nonetheless remains, why hasn’t Jesus returned when He said He would?  Others, such as many dispensationalists, try to (unconnivingly) bifurcate the Gospel saying, “This refers to the gospel of the kingdom (Matt. 24:14) which will go out to all the world during the Tribulation Period” (Believer’s Bible Commentary, 2066). 

[5] I would take the transitive meaning of the verb here i.e. causing the day of the Lord to come more quickly [by fulfilling the conditions to bring it about]. Greek scholar Dr. Marvin R. Vincent Acts 3:19, “Repent and be converted…that so there may come seasons of refreshing.” 

Putting to Death the Flesh

Putting to Death the Flesh

Advent Christians in the 21st Century Part 1 - Looking Back

Advent Christians in the 21st Century Part 1 - Looking Back