Although I often preach on Sabbath at some distance from where I live, I have made it my practice to attend Sabbath School whenever that is feasible. Sometimes I arrive a little late, when I first drop off my wife in the church where we have our membership and where my wife is quite active. I must admit that attending Sabbath School during the quarter that is now almost ended has not always been an unmitigated pleasure.
This past quarter the worldwide Adventist Church studied the Bible book of the Revelation. The interpretation of Daniel and the Revelation has been very important to the Adventist Church and many Adventists have felt from the very beginning that, besides a few key doctrines (such as the second coming, the Sabbath, the heavenly sanctuary, and the state of the dead) their particular interpretation of the apocalyptic prophecies of the Bible has sustained their identity. There was considerable knowledge of this interpretation among the church members, and even in my youth most Adventist families that I knew possessed a few thick books on the topic, written by such men as Uriah Smith, James White, and Louis R. Conradi, and were also well acqainted with Ellen White’s book The Great Controversy. They knew about the order of last-day events and about how these events would affect the world, but also ‘the remnant’ of the believers who kept the Sabbath and who would have to endure the ‘great tribulation’, before they would ultimately be saved at the return of Christ. They were regularly assured in the Sabbath sermons that all this was going to happen very soon, very possibly even during their lifetime.
The leaders of the world church are keen to keep this sentiment alive and are adamant that the Adventist believers should stay with the traditional Adventist eschatology (literally: doctrine of the last things). The present Sabbath School study guide was intended to reinforce that tradition in the minds of the Adventist believers. Andrews University scholar Ranko Stefanovic was asked to write a study guide for the study of the Revelation for the first quarter of 2019. I imagine that some of the leaders at the church’s headquarters have since regretted this, for, although his manuscript was by no means sensationally different from the traditional Adventist view, the author tried to say a few things differently and to change some of the traditional emphases. Before the translations into the various languages were made and could go to press, significant ‘corrections’ were sent (twice) to all translators around the world. These ‘corrections’ were clearly intended to strengthen the historicist approach and to provide a more ant-Catholic slant to the quarterly than the author had intended.
Protests were heard from around the world. Lots of people indicated they want to hear something else–something that relates more to their twenty-first century than to the situation in nineteenth century America. I count myself among this group and do not want to see the bashing of other Christian churches continued. I also place many question marks behind the application of many of the sections of the Revelation to specific historic events, and today I feel far less sure than I did a few deacades ago about some of the confident predictions regarding the end-time scenario. More and more I try to read the Revelation as a dramatic piece of literature that bolsters the confidence of God’s people–when it was first written as well as in our age–that God’s reign will be established in spite of all the forces, religious and otherwise, that seek the thwart his plans. That is enough for me. And, from what I have heard in quite a few of the sabbath school discussion groups that I have attended, this is enough for many people that participated in these groups. I heard many comments that, after studying this study guide, people felt more confused than ever and that it did very little, if anything, to fortify their faith.
A week ago I visited the beautiful Sainte Chapelle in Paris. I looked intensely at the big rose window that displays over a hundred scenes of the book of Revelation. It struck me that in the very center of this magnificent colorful display is a beautiful stained-glass window of Christ, walking between the golden lampstands, which (as we are told by John) represent the churches (that is: us, the believers!). That is the message of the book of Revelation: Christ is very close to us. I wished I had heard this more often during this almost past quarter!
PS: This phone app gives a marvelous impression of the windows of La Sainte Chapelle: http://www.sainte-chapelle.fr/en/News/App-Unlock-the-secrets-of-the-windows