And what about emeritus-angels?

The first chapter of Revelation in one of my favorites Bible passages. I find the first vision of John to be extremely relevant and encouraging.  John sees “One like the Son of Man”.  That “One” is, of course, to be identified as Jesus Christ. This “Someone, like the Son of man” (vs. 13)  walks among seven golden lampstands, while he holds seven stars in his right hand.

Some symbols in the Revelation are hard to decode, but in this case the explanation is given straight away. The lampstands symbolize the churches in Asia Minor to which the message that follows is to be sent. And the stars stand for the “angels” of the seven churches.

I have always doubted whether the traditional application of the letters to the seven churches in the chapters 2 and 3, as seven periods in church history, is correct. There seems to be nothing in the text that brings us to that conclusion. These messages were intended for seven literal congregations in what is now the coastal area of Western Turkey. However, the very fact that Providence has seen to it that the Apocalypse became a part of the Word of God suggests that it has a meaning that goes beyond the first century, and has something to say to Christians, everywhere and in all times. The seven letters in chapters 2 and 3 reflect the diversity in religious experience of the church universal. Therefore, the picture of Jesus walking among the lampstands, while holding seven stars in his right hand, continuous to be meaningful.

What an encouraging thought, that Jesus walks among his churches. He did so in the time of John and he does so today. And when reading the word “churches” we must think of local congregations rather than denominations. Let us hope and pray that Jesus also walks in the corridors and meeting rooms of denominational headquarters, but in Revelation 1 the focus is on local faith communities. I know of no perfect local church. But it is clear from the descriptions of the churches of Ephesus and the other churches that are mentioned by John that none of these churches were perfect either. However, in spite of all their imperfections, Christ walks among them!

But what about the stars?  The stars, we are told, are the “angels” of the churches.  Who are these “angels”?  Are they perhaps guardian angels that each have a specific assignment in watching over one particular church? That does not seem very probable. (In any case, the existence of “guardian angels” has no biblical basis.) The word “angel” is the translation of the Greek word “angelos”. This simply means “messenger” and can refer both to heavenly and human messengers. Clearly, in this passage in Revelation it refers to the leaders of the churches.  Christ holds these in his right hand–the symbolic expression for power and authority.

What a marvelous thought, also for elders and pastors in local churches today. They can feel safe. They may face problems in their churches, perhaps rivalry or opposition. They may at times feel insecure and misunderstood. But they need not have such feelings. Christ holds his “angels” in the churches in his mighty right hand. I take the liberty to assume that this also includes emeritus-”angels” like myself.

Let me just add one further thought. If Christ cares so much for his “angels”, perhaps that should inspire church members also to take greater appreciation for their local leaders. Their job can be difficult and challenging. God’s “angels” in your church need your love and support. Say with words that you support them and show it in tangible ways!

Anxiety or confidence?

During my ministerial internship—now about half a century ago–I visited an Adventist family in Amsterdam. Our brother had just bought a large American car and I wondered what had prompted him to make this unusual purchase. Most Dutch people, if they could afford a car at all, tended to buy small European or Japanese cars. Our brother explained that he needed a large vehicle for the moment (in the near future) when he would have to flee, together with his family, because of the predicted persecution of all Sabbath-keeping Christians..He would then take his family and essential belongings to a wooded area in Sweden, where he felt he would be safer than in the densely populated western part of the Netherlands. (He seemed to have forgotten that this car would need a lot of gas, and that he might “not be able to buy or sell” while en route). Most of his fellow-believers did not take these same precautions, but I remember that, at the time, there was a rather general sense of impending doom among Adventists. Many were afraid that scary times were soon to come.

Even today many Adventist believers are frightened when they think of the difficulties that will be part of the Adventist  of end-time scenario. Will they be able to stand tall during the “time of trouble”? What will happen to them when Sunday laws will make Sabbath-keeping a very risky business? And what about the close of probation and the time when they supposedly can no longer rely on a Mediator?

I am worried that in the coming quarter some of those fears may return or increase, as we study the book of Revelation in our world-wide Bible study hour. I fear that there will once again be a lot of emphasis on the dragon and the beasts, and that the kind of enemy-thinking that (I believed) was beginning to disappear will get a new impetus. Many Sabbath School members may be unaware of the fact that the study guide for this quarter has been significantly changed, at a very late stage, because church administrators discovered “serious theological mistakes” in the manuscript that had already been sent around to all Adventist publishing houses for translation and publication. Unfortunately, these changes were made to ensure that only the traditional viewpoints would be circulated.

Happily, there are a number of initiatives to point members to alternative perspectives and new ways of looking at the last Bible book. In my blog of three week ago I pointed to the weekly comments that are prepared by Pastor Werner Lange, a retired editor of the German Adventist publishing house and that are published in German and English on the website of the Hansa Conference (https://hansa.adventisten.de/aktuelles/offenbarung-diy/). An English version is also published on the website of Adventist Today (https://atoday.org). I also recommend the website of dr. Jon Paulien, who has many inspiring insights in the meaning of Revelation (http://www.thebattleofarmageddon.com).The weekly Sabbath School comments on the Spectrum website may also offer many fresh ideas.

As I study the book of Revelation in the coming months I plan to constantly keep in mind that this book is not a revelation of the dragon and the beast from the sea or the beast from the earth, but of the Lamb—Jesus Christ. I also want to keep in mind that the book begins with a vision of Jesus as he is walking between the candle sticks, which represent his churches. And that it ends with his presence in the midst of his people on the earth made new. Everything else must be related to this overall theme. Everything else is part of the pattern of Christian life that marks our pilgrimage with Christ: individually and collectively. Indeed, it is a story of ups and downs and we will meet challenges, in ever-changing constellations. But whatever happens, the Christian life can be a life of victory. That is the meta-story-line. Revelation should not give us a sense of dread, but rather a sense of destiny and victory. I hope that many who study their weekly lesson during this quarter will see something new and exciting in the Book of Revelation, and that their aim will not be to learn more about their enemies but to become better acquainted their Friend, whose revelation it is.

 

267

Last week the Dutch media reported that in the Netherlands every day 267 persons terminate their membership of the church to which they belonged. In other words, in the period of a year one hundred thousand Dutch men and women leave their church. Unfortunately, this is only part of the sad picture, for there are also many who do not formally give up their membership, but have not been to church in years, or who gradually feel less and less connected with their faith community and are moving ever closer to the back door of the church. And this is not a trend that begun in 2018, but has been going on for years.

What about the Adventist Church? Well, it continues to grow. Per day, worldwide, some 3,500 people are baptized. In some countries in the South, in particular, we see a very substantial growth. However, this growth is not as phenomenal as was predicted some twenty years ago. At that time the prognosis was that around 2020 the number of Adventists would have risen to over thirty million. In reality, the total church membership is presently just under twenty million. For sure, still a respectable number, but quite a bit less than was predicted. Stagnation in the membership increase in the Western world is not the only challenge. The church is confronted with the worrisome fact that it proves very difficult to retain a large percentage of those who are baptized. Last week someone who is well-informed about such matters, told me that the leaders in the African country of Rwanda, where a few years ago over 110.000 people were baptized in a nationwide evangelistic campaign, expect that eventually 93 percent of these new members will disappear.

Nonetheless, the news is not only negative. There are plenty of developments in the Adventist Church that give rise to great concerns, but also many good things are happening, in the Netherlands as well as elsewhere. And while in 2018 once again one hundred thousand Dutch men and women left their church, here and there new faith communities were born and many churches that had suffered a sharp loss of members emerged from this painful process with renewed strength. Leaders of many local churches will tell you that their church can hardly survive, but other churches assert that they may be smaller than before but have a greater vitality and a clearer sense of mission. And in many places the arrival of large groups of immigrants has brought a new sense of purpose to many Christian communties in the Netherlands. It is good to realize that the story of the Dutch church is not only negative.

As, at the end of the year, we take stock of the state of the Christian church, it is important to keep an eye on the broader picture. Through the ages the church has experience good times and periods of decline. It cannot be denied that Christianity is facing many difficulties in this increasingly secular, postmodern period of history. But the Christian church is not about to disappear! We may take courage from the biblical promise that eventually there will be a. “great multitude” before the throne of God, that is so vast that no one can determine its size.

The Bible tells us that there will remain a “remnant”, a “rest” of believers who treasures their relationship with God and are determined to hold on to their faith in Jesus. I believe this “remnant” consists of a multicolored, multicultural, multitude of faithful and committed Lutherans, Roman-Catholics, Calvinists, Baptists, Pentecostals, and a richly diverse collection of other Christians. Adventists are called to be an important part of that “remnant”.  With their specific emphases they can make a major contribution to the proclamation of the gospel of Christ in our present world.

Let us in 2019 focus less on numbers than we often do, but decide  in full confidence to fulfill our mission to spread the gospel in word and action, making Christ known, with the special accents that enable Adventism also to enrich the faith experience of other Christians.

Traditions

A little earlier than in most years the man who delivers early in the morning my newspaper rang our doorbell to give us his card with season greetings. It is long standing tradition to reward this person at Christmas time with a few Euros to express one’s appreciation for his faithful early morning service.

And then there is another important tradition in our home this week. On the twenty-second of December my wife and I go out for dinner to celebrate our wedding anniversary. (This year is the 54th anniversary.)

And I expect that this year the tradition will continue of building the temporary ice skating ring on one of the main squares in our town, and also of the presence of the “oliebollenkraam” (stall for deep-fried raisin buns) nearby.

Traditions are important in our lives, certainly around Christmas time. In most homes (including ours) the Christmas tree has been put up and a large percentage of the people (even of those who are not regular church attenders) plan to go to one of more Christmas services.

Seventh-day Adventists have often had an uneasy relationship with traditions—especially with those that relate to church and religion. But, whether or not we realize it, Adventists also have accepted many traditions. There is absolutely no biblical rule that the Lord’s Supper must be celebrated once in a quarter—it is a tradition that we have simply borrowed from our Methodist brothers and sisters. Many Adventist churches stick to a long-held tradition that the unused communion bread is to be burnt. Our annual week of prayer is characterized by a number of traditions that are very hard to change, as is our traditional order of the weekly worship service. Many other examples of Adventist traditions could be mentioned.

For a long time many Adventist churches in Europe did not want to have special Christmas services, let alone have a Christmas tree. Christmas, it was argued, was a tradition with a pagan origin and, therefore, had no place in a church that based its beliefs and practices on the Bible, rather than man-made traditions.

Life would, however, be extremely impoverished if we tried to do away with all traditions. We need family traditions. We need local traditions in the place where we live, as well as regional and national traditions. And we need traditions in our church. Local churches often have meaningful traditions that give that particular congregation its special character. And there is nothing wrong with having special world-wide Adventist traditions, as long as they do not kill every attempt at needed renewal.

Should we worry about where our traditions come from? Whether they have perhaps pagan or Roman Catholic or Calvinist roots? I do not think so. Traditions may have a long and often unclear history. Admittedly, some traditions may not helpful, and many traditions may change over time. I know of a few traditions in our church that we could well do without! But what counts is whether traditions continue to be meaningful. Not their origin but the present content and meaning is important.

I enjoy the Christmas season and many of its traditions. (In the Netherlands most of the gift-giving has already taken place at St Nicolas on December 5—another old tradition!). Christmas remains special.  I enjoy the carols and the Christmas lights in the streets and in buildingd and the over-all Christmas atmosphere.  As a minister I enjoy preparing a Christmas sermon and participating in Christmas services. And, in spite of the way in which the Christmas season is often over-commercialized, it is good to see how it remains an annual occasion when special attention is given to the coming of our Lord to this world.

I wish all readers of my blog a joyful and blessed Christmas.

How to get more out of your study of the Revelation

During the first quarter of 2019 the Seventh-day Adventist Church around the world will be studying the Book of Revelation. The study guide for the Sabbath School for the January-March period has been written by Dr. Ranko Stevanović, one of the church’s experts on this topic, After an author has submitted his/her manuscript it is evaluated by two committees before it receives its final edit and is sent to the publishing houses that prepare translations in many different languages. This process was also followed after Professor Stevanović had finished his work. But then something surprising happened. The publishing houses were informed that substantial changes were needed, since the manuscript contained serious errors, and then, at a very late stage, another version of the text for the study guide was sent with “major revisions to correct numerous errors throughout the manuscript”.

This process has caused serious concerns on the part of many of the people who have been involved in the preparations of the editions in the various languages. They wonder what is happening here. Apparently, one of our foremost scholars on the Book of Revelation is trusted enough to write a study guide and, apparently, the committees that have been carefully selected to evaluate the script were happy with what they received. But then the church’s administration stepped in and made sure that alleged “errors throughout the manuscript” would be “corrected”, so that it would fully conform to the traditional interpretations and no new ideas would be allowed to circulate. The main objections seem to have focused on ensuring that only a strict historicist interpretation would be followed and that the traditional adversity toward Roman Catholicism would be maintained in full vigor.

Concerned about this development, a friend of mine, Werner Lange, has initiated a very important project. Werner is the retired book-editor of the German Adventist Publishing House. He has edited several books by Jon Paulien about the Revelation. More recently he translated Paulien’s comments on Revelation 12–14, which appeared on Facebook and were also put into book format (German title: Der letzte Kampf).

Now he has started a project called Revelation DIY (Do it yourself). His aim is to make as many church members as possible aware of the fact that the interpretation of the Book of Revelation should not be frozen in time. The pioneers of the church have done a great work in making this Bible book relevant for the people in their time, and much of what they said and wrote remains valuable. But over time new insights have emerged, and it is important that these insights are allowed to augment and enrich the study that is provided by the official quarterly, from which many of these insights have, unfortunately, be excised. Werner Lange has agreed with the leaders of the Hansa Conference in Germany that the weekly contributions that he will provide during the coming quarter will be published in German and English on the conference website (see signet on https://hansa.adventisten.de). Adventist Todayhas enthusiastically welcomed the possibility to also publish abstracts of these weekly articles on their website.

Werner will not present his own verse-by-verse interpretation of Revelation or produce a parallel study guide, but rather wants to show church members the approach whereby they can themselves discover the meaning of the visions of John the Revelator, and are able to judge whether a given interpretation does justice to the text and its context. He will also discuss dead-ends in interpretation and give some explanations to the text. His aim is that church members should no longer simply depend on pastors or evangelists, books or study guides, which present a ready explanation. He contends that the Revelation is easier to understand than many people think—provided that we approach it with the appropriate tools for its interpretation.

The first article already published is the text of a sermon, which would be well suited for church services on January 5 (pastors and other speakers can get the manuscript and the presentation in English from Werner; you can contact him per e-mail: lektorat-wernerlange@t-online.de). Another article is a lecture on specific principles of interpretation for the Revelation, focusing especially on how to detect and apply the allusions to the Old Testament. The PDF’s may be downloaded from https://1drv.ms/f/s!Agfvhk0oak34jZBoDxAbbPJKmCC2JQ.

From December 30 onwards, Adventist Today will publish each Sunday a short article by Werner in which he gives some hints on the interpretational approach for the chapters in Revelation which are the theme of the Sabbath School lesson for that week, and discusses current Adventist interpretations. You can get each week a more thorough elaboration of the subject as a PDF.

I will assist Werner with the editing of the English text. I hope his work (and his considerable expertise with regard of the Book of Revelation), will be a blessing to many Adventists during the first quarter of 2019.  I call upon the readers of this blog to spread the news about the availability of this material through their use of the social media and by word-of-mouth. And maybe someone may be interested to translate the text into their own language. Werner welcomes this; he only asks to be informed so that the news about it can be spread on the website and otherwise.

PS. Readers who know the Dutch language may be interested in a correspondence course I wrote some years ago that deals with the Book of Revelation. It is available in digital form through the ESDA institute for Bible correspondence courses. See: http://www.esda-instituut.nl/lessen/?frontAction=singleCursus&cursusID=6