Revelation 13: (ESV) 11 Then I saw another beast rising out of the earth. It had two horns like a lamb and it spoke like a dragon. 12 It exercises all the authority of the first beast in its presence, and makes the earth and its inhabitants worship the first beast, whose mortal wound was healed. 13 It performs great signs, even making fire come down from heaven to earth in front of people, 14 and by the signs that it is allowed to work in the presence of the beast it deceives those who dwell on earth, telling them to make an image for the beast that was wounded by the sword and yet lived. 15 And it was allowed to give breath to the image of the beast, so that the image of the beast might even speak and might cause those who would not worship the image of the beast to be slain. 16 Also it causes all, both small and great, both rich and poor, both free and slave, to be marked on the right hand or the forehead, 17 so that no one can buy or sell unless he has the mark, that is, the name of the beast or the number of its name. 18 This calls for wisdom: let the one who has Understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man, and his number is 666.
As time endures it is the tendency of any movement to begin to question its relevancy. Adventism is no different. What is it that will keep our church relevant within the context of an ever-changing society? The Adventism of the past had no problem changing, even to the point of revising some of its previously believed theology and eschatology, to adapt to the surrounding culture, especially as the Holy Spirit provided further light. So, it should force us to examine what we believe, even in an area where we think we have the truth locked. We could even ask the question: "is our prophetic picture complete?" I don't confess to have the answer but in this short message I feel I must at least raise the question and point out some areas that may at least require further thought and study in the context of contemporary culture; that is, the post-modern world in which we live.
My recent read-through of the New Testament, concluding with the book of Revelation, has led me to ponder this question even more. If we follow Revelation’s model of repeat-expand and enlarge, is it possible to conclude that the Bible is big enough to encompass world events that even our fore-bearers in the faith did not anticipate? Could it be that prophecy is sort of a moving target, at least from the perspective of we who are bound by time and space? Certainly Ellen White leaves room for this possibility:
Had the purpose of God been carried out by His people in giving the message of mercy, Christ would, ere this, have come to the earth, and the saints would have received their welcome into the city of God. (Selected Messages Book 1, page 82, paragraph 4)
Ellen White raises the possibility that Jesus could have returned to the earth long ago, had His people been more faithful in proclaiming the message for their time. This should at least raise the question as to whether the return of Jesus is a fixed point on God's timetable or is it possible that we could, based on our own faithfulness or lack thereof, hasten or delay the second coming of our Lord. The apostle Peter addressed this very question:
2 Peter 3: (NKJV) 11 Therefore, since all these things will be dissolved, what manner of persons ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness, 12 looking for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be dissolved, being on fire, and the elements will melt with fervent heat?
Why should we wonder at this? Are there not conditional prophecies in the Old Testament? Would we not expect God to deal with His people similarly in the present as He dealt with them in the past? Could not our understanding of prophecy also be repeated, expanded and enlarged upon, especially as time continues and Christ's coming is delayed? Our nineteenth century pioneers could probably not have imagined us still being here in the year 2018. So it is just possible that they could not have foreseen a prophetic picture other than that which was revealed to them. Does that mean that we in the 21st century are limited by their understanding of the unfolding of prophetic events? Is it possible that God revealed to them just what they needed for their time and He may have something to reveal to us just for our time?
Let's review where the prophetic picture we hold today originated. The reformers lived in a day when Papal Rome was at the height of its power. It was not difficult for them to image that this power fit all the waymarks of the beast described in Revelation 13. In their day Rome was poised to control the world. This was the perspective of the end time that our Adventist pioneers inherited. In our day does the papacy wield that same power? It might even be reasonable to conclude that the Papacy is actually competing with the United States for global dominance, and losing I might add. If anything, with all the charges of pedophilia, the lawsuits and the many diocese across the world being forced into bankruptcy, the papacy seems to actually be waning in power. In this age of multiculturalism and religious pluralism, is it even reasonable to expect that all the Christian denominations, much less all the religions of the world, would unite under one banner? Which raises the question; if not the Papacy than what? Is there something in a different guise, still functioning like a religion; that already unites these groups? Let's frame the question in the extreme: Is there anything you can think of that the industrial barons of the West, with their patrician Christian roots, already hold in common with the oil sheiks of the East, who are so staunchly Muslim? I'm going to let you ponder that question for a moment and we'll come back to it. I'll say this though, it is a human tendency to keep the beast at arm's length while all the while it may be dwelling in our midst. It is easy for us to point our fingers at the beast "out there" while ignoring the beast within.
For instance, what is it about our end time eschatology that allows us to go about our comfortable lives of plenty, safety and security while turning a blind eye, a deaf ear, and a stony heart to the poverty, suffering and pain of the vast majority of the world's population? As long as we identify the evil as something external, then we can stay ignorant of the real evil that touches all of us.
We understand that the beast of Revelation 13: 1-10 represents the papacy. That it had the authority and power to persecute the saints of God for 42 months or 1260 prophetic years is its most compelling identifying mark. We understand that verse to cover a time period from 538 to 1798 AD, when the papacy enjoyed the height of its ascendency. And during that period of time it enjoyed unparalleled political, economic and religious power. But where does the Bible say that it will be restored to that dominance? All the bible reveals is that it's deadly wound is healed. It survives, but that is a far cry from being in charge again. It's clear from our scripture verse that the two-horned beast, which we as Adventists have historically identified as the United States, is the power that gives the image to the beast its authority. It's the two-horned beast that calls the shots from this point forward. We further read in this chapter that this two-horned beast commands all that dwell on the earth that they should make an image of the first beast with the seven heads and ten horns, and that it has the power to give life to that image. It's interesting that all those living who are following after the beast are complicit in creating this image. So, whatever this image represents, ordinary people working together have the power to create it. Now an image is something that closely resembles the characteristics of something else, yet is not that thing. Let me pose a question; if we have determined that the papacy is the beast how can it also be the image to the beast? What, then, is the image to the beast?
First, I must pose the question; does this image have to be overtly religious in nature? What constitutes a religion anyway? Can something be like a religion if it upholds an object of worship, like an idol? The amalgamation of political, economic and religious, like the papacy, is enough to identify the image, but does it have to declare itself a religion if by its very nature it behaves like one? Case in point, the idol of materialism that is worshiped by most of the western world today and is envied by much of the rest of the world is, in my mind, enough to classify it as a "religion". Jesus words help us define an idol:
Luke 16: (ESV) 13 No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money."
What can we conclude from the fact that one of the few things that Jesus set in opposition to the service and love of God was the service and love of money? Do we have idols today? An idol is something that is worshipped. To worship something is devout your time and energy in pursuit of it. To worship something is to depend on it for your survival and sustenance. To worship something is rely on it for your provision in life. Is it possible that Jesus is identifying an idol for us today? Could he be showing us the thing that we devout our worship to? Does something have to have religious trappings to be worshipped; in the mind of Jesus; clearly not. Jesus also warns us not to give our devotion to just anyone that appears to be working miracles.
And we don’t have to completely abandon our understanding of what constitutes the mark of the beast, just consider that it may be a bit more nuanced than we once understood. If we can just consider that Sabbath worship and Sunday worship are representative of a deeper reality; Sabbath being a symbol of putting your entire faith and reliance on God and Sunday being a symbol of putting your entire faith and reliance on the corrupt systems of man.
Matthew 24: (ESV) 24 For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect.
Here's a question: if this end-time delusion is so powerful that if it were possible it could deceive those closest to God; how could that delusion be something we've known and preached against for over 160 years? How is it possible for us to be deceived about something that is so obviously clear to us? It leads me to wonder whether the actual delusion could be something else entirely, something we are not so clear on. Something that will take powerful discernment on our part in order to avoid being deceived. Is it possible we are looking in the wrong direction? That is, could it be staring us in the face and we are missing it completely? Another clue in the mounting evidence pointing to this religion is that, according to Revelation, it has a mark associated with it. A mark is an identifying feature. This identifying feature is that it conveys the right to buy and sell. So, one characteristic of this religion is that it seems to control commerce. This mark is defined by the "name of the beast or by the number of his name."(verse 17) We know that name in the Bible refers to a character trait or characteristic. So that participants in this religion will take on the very characteristics of the system itself. This mark comes with the permission to participate in commerce. It just so happens that our modern consumer culture is all about controlling commerce. It is not too much of a stretch to conclude that the mark not only has to do with commerce but is the way that commerce is conducted. People will be compelled to take this mark on pain of death (see verse 15). It should be obvious that if someone cannot even buy food and water, that would be a life-threatening situation. Is it possible that accepting or rejecting this mark will be a matter of conscience? Those who refuse the mark will not, for conscience sake, participate in perpetuating a corrupt economic system based on injustice and inequity.
If we conclude at least the possibility that modern materialism, consumerism and the corrupt economic system that perpetuates it, could be considered a religion. And if it meets the test of a religion, as well as being political and economic, could we identify it as the image to the beast? What other man-made system has such world-wide influence and power. Remember I asked the question earlier about what the western Christian industrialist and the middle-eastern Muslim oil sheik have in common? They may never agree on a single religion as the one true, but they do agree in their common worship of wealth. Because if the materialism, the culture of consumerism, and the corrupt economic system of the world today is the image to the beast; then we are all a part of it. Could that be why Jesus, referring to Babylon, warns us to: "come out of her my people." Such a revelation would have implications for each and every one of us. Even the last day church of Laodicea has a problem with materialism saying, “I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing’—and do not know that you are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked”. One of the signs of the end will be that the end-time church itself will become complicit in the corrupt economic system.
How can God's people possibly stand in opposition to the prevailing current and the predominant mindset of the culture?
Acts 2: (NKJV) 44 Now all who believed were together, and had all things in common, 45 and sold their possessions and goods, and divided them among all, as anyone had need. Acts 4: (NKJV) 32 Now the multitude of those who believed were of one heart and one soul; neither did anyone say that any of the things he possessed was his own, but they had all things in common. 33 And with great power the apostles gave witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And great grace was upon them all.
I wonder if the early church had any less difficulty standing against the tide of the popular culture. Do you think living under the influence of pagan Rome was an easier than we have it today? And yet the Bible reveals that they "had all things in come, sold their possessions and divided them as anyone had need." I once heard a television preacher comment on this verse saying that one of the reasons the early church failed is because they were practicing communism. That to me is the epitome of arrogance and twisting the scriptures to fit your particular political perspective. Far from painting this as their downfall, these verses are upheld as one of the main virtues of the early church and part of the reason for their phenomenal success. The Book of Acts is full of examples where the apostles are taking collections for those among them in need, particularly orphans and widows. The churches in one area would open their hearts to provide for those of another area whenever the need arose. What this TV preacher failed to understand was the difference between communism and communalism. Under communism people are compelled to share the wealth, which breeds envy and indolence. By contrast, communalism is a spirit of sharing that proceeds from the heart. People give because they are motivated by the love of Jesus and they see Jesus in everyone that is in want.
The next question is; if all this is true what can we do about it? First, we must be aware of the danger if we ever hope to avoid be entrapped by it. Next, once we have our eyes wide open, we can look for ways to fight against the corrupt system. None of us can do it alone, but a people working together to fight injustice is a powerful force to be reckoned with. We don't have to be complicit in perpetuating the injustice.
How does the Bible instruct us to live? To what things are we to give the most priority?
Micah 6: (ESV) 8 He has told you, 0 man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
This verse so simply captures God's expectations for His people: do justice, love kindness (mercy) and to walk humbly before God. You'll notice that it does not say that God requires that we emphasize the identity of the antichrist. It does not say that we should warn people about accepting the mark of the beast. Our task, our calling is to seek to promote
justice on the earth. And if that is true, what does it say that we live in a world where justice and equity are so rare, that kindness and mercy are so absent? That genuine humility is in such short supply? To me, it says we have a lot of work to do.
In his book Everything Must Change, Brian McLaren issues the following challenge:
"Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you." Jesus is not interested in the geographical rearrangement of mountains. It is the societal map of greed, lust, arrogance, fear, racism, domination, oppression, revenge, and injustice that he wants to redraw. He wants his disciples to move mountains of injustice and make new rivers of creativity and compassion flow... It is interesting—astonishing, really—that Jesus doesn't simply say, "Nothing will be impossible for me," or "Nothing will be impossible with God." Instead he says, "Nothing will be impossible for you." This is our call to action, our invitation to move mountains and so reshape the social and spiritual landscape of our world. Yes, change is impossible through human effort alone. But faith brings God's creative power into our global crises, so the impossible first becomes possible and then inevitable for those who believe. Mountains can be moved and everything can change, beginning with our stories, beginning with faith, beginning now, beginning with us."-Brian McLaren, Everything Must Change (Thomas Nelson, 2007)
If you think the problems are insurmountable, believe Jesus when He promises:
John 16: (NKJV) 33 These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world."
-John Schneider, member of the Raymond Seventh-day Adventist Church