Visions of Hope (Zechariah)
Theme: Visions of hope
Leading Question: How can an intercessor be helpful as we stand before God?
The study guides for the two lessons on Zechariah will focus on two significant passages, the story of Joshua and the Angel in Zechariah 3:1-10, and the sketch of last day events in the last chapter of the book, Zechariah 14, a sketch that differs dramatically from the view of the New Testament as laid out in Revelation 21-22. This lesson focuses on Joshua and the angel.
Theology as autobiography. The story of Joshua and the angel is viewed here from three different perspectives, each with a significant autobiographical flavor. The text is the same, but the insights – though interrelated – are still unique. My own story comes into play in all three, with my Adventist heritage playing a key role in each. My apologies to those using this study guide who may less familiar with Adventism. Even for you, however, it might clear up some mysteries of Adventist faith and practice and shed light on some common human dilemmas. So here are the three perspectives, distinct, but interrelated and interactive:
In my experience, Zechariah 3 played a key role in reversing the effects of that demonic plot.
Now let’s look more closely at these three perspectives.
The Student. At the close of this lesson I will include an autobiographical narrative of how I made the stunning discovery that in the Old Testament, the figure of Satan as a supernatural opponent of Yahweh only appears in three books in Jesus’ Bible – the Hebrew Bible – all written or canonized toward the end of the Old Testament; Job 1 and 2 – in the third and final section of Hebrew canon; 1 Chronicles 21 – the very last book of the Hebrew canon; and Zechariah 3, a post-exilic prophet. A more thorough account of the biblical data, minus the autobiographical elements, can be found in chapter 3 – “Whatever happened to Satan in the Old Testament?” – of my book, Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God? (Paternoster, 1988; Zondervan, 1989; Pacesetters, 2000, 2003; Energion, 2011).
The short version of this story is that God assumed full responsibility for evil in order to prevent Israel from worshiping Satan as another deity. Satan still haunts the Old Testament story but is simply is not identified until it was “safe” for the people to see the real truth. Amazingly, in Genesis 3:1, for example, the serpent is simply “more crafty than any other wild animal that the LORD God had made” (NRSV). The first passage anywhere in Scripture to identify the serpent as Satan is Revelation 12:9, in the very last book of the Bible. Yet what was safe for Israel is potentially deadly for us since in most of the Old Testament all evil is said to come directly from God.
The Christian. The narrative of Zechariah 3 teaches quite clearly that Satan, not God, is the accuser. That was a truth emphasized by one of my seminary professors, Edward Heppenstall. The biblical text may be perfectly clear, but if you have grown up believing that God is the accuser, you will need lots of help to reverse the story. As one sociologist quipped, “If I hadn’t believed it, I never would have seen it with my own eyes.”
Another truth from Heppenstall that struck home for me is this one: “Satan doesn’t have to tell any lies about us; all he has to tell is the truth.” But the truth of our sin doesn’t really matter because Yahweh commands that our filthy clothes – like Joshua’s – be taken away and that we be clothed in clean white garments. The doctrine of grace couldn’t be any clearer.
The Adventist. In the setting of the great struggle between Christ and Satan, one of the terrors that can haunt those who believe in free well is the call to perfection, a perfection that would enable us to stand before a holy God in our own righteousness. In that connection, studying Ellen White’s experience helped me to understand that I don’t need to stand in judgment as the accused, but as a witness for what God has done. Here the story of Zechariah 3 played a two-step role in Ellen White’s experience. First, in 1880, she blurted out her feelings of helplessness to God, and an angel pointed her to Zechariah 3, a passage that she had never quoted in any of her writings before that date. She wrote up the story in Testimonies for the Church, vol. 5, 467-476 (1885). But the revision in Prophets and Kings (1915/1917) in the chapter entitled “Joshua and the Angel” (582-592) is the real masterpiece, for there she fine-tunes the account to perfection, deleting a problematic passage from the earlier version: “No sin can be tolerated in those who shall walk with Christ in white” (5T 472); and adding these key lines, omitted from the earlier version: “After claiming His people as His own, the Lord declares: ‘They may have imperfections of character; they may have failed in their endeavors; but they have repented, and I have forgiven and accepted them’” (PK 589).
Alden Thompson, Escape from the Flames: How Ellen White grew from fear to joy and helped me do it too (PPPA, 2005)
Violent God? – More Help from the University
In several different ways I have already pointed to a key principle in my understanding of Scripture and Ellen White, namely, that a good and gentle God, the one we see most clearly in Jesus, the one who wants to win our hearts, is willing to be violent and appeal to fear in order to win over violent people. Indeed, God must use violence if He is going to reach such people at all.
But that conclusion might make more sense in the light of an event that happened at the University of Edinburgh while we were in Scotland. It looms large over everything else that happened during our Scottish sojourn as the key to my understanding of the God of the Old Testament. Simply put, it is the story about Satan in the Old Testament.
A more complete discussion of the biblical passages – minus personal autobiographical details – is found in chapter three of my book, Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God? [“Whatever Happened to Satan in the Old Testament?”] But here I want to tell briefly how the pieces of the puzzle first came together for me.
The Crucial Lecture
The focus of my PhD dissertation was on the “responsibility for evil” in IV Ezra, a Jewish book in the Protestant Apocrypha, dating from about AD100. The book consists of a running debate over the fate of Israel, with the complaining scribe Ezra on one side and the dogmatic angel Uriel on the other. For purposes of my doctoral work, my task was to determine whether the author’s view was represented by the complaining Ezra or by the dogmatic Uriel (Ezra wins, I decided.) In the process, I was also exploring the various approaches to evil in the Old Testament and in Jewish intertestamental sources, documents written during the time between the Old and New Testaments.
One day my professor called to alert me to a lecture he would be giving to the divinity students: “The Demonic Element in Yahweh.” He thought it would be helpful to me in my research. He was right – but he didn’t know that it would also play a key role in my personal perspectives on Scripture and in my own religious experience. But, somehow, as a result of that lecture, the pieces came together for me in a way which has enabled me to see how a good God could allow Himself to be portrayed as doing evil things in the Old Testament.
I didn’t – and still don’t – put the pieces together in the same way the professor did. In fact, our major assumptions remain quite different. For him, the Old Testament is strictly a human production; God is nowhere in sight. For me, God is lurking everywhere, working hand-in-hand with the human – the “incarnational” approach suggested by Ellen White. [GC vi: “But the Bible, with its God-given truths expressed in the language of men, presents a union of the divine and the human. Such a union existed in the nature of Christ, who was the Son of God and the Son of man. Thus it is true of the Bible, as it was of Christ, that ‘the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.’ John 1:14.”]
The point of his lecture was that the God of the Old Testament was a combination of a desert demon and a good God. To make that clear, he ticked off the key Old Testament stories which portray a “violent” God. I was familiar with most of them: The hardening of Pharaoh’s heart (e.g. Exod. 4:21; 7:3; 14:4); the destruction of the first born in Egypt (Exod. 11-12); the evil spirit which rushed upon King Saul ( Sam. 18:10); Uzzah and the “electric” ark – as the professor put it (2 Sam. 6); the two she-bears that mauled the 42 boys (2 Kings 2).
But he also came up with some surprises, passages which I had somehow overlooked. The most startling ones for me were the Lord’s threat to kill Moses on the road back to Egypt (Exod. 4:24) and God’s claim to have masterminded child sacrifice in order to horrify Israel (Ezek. 20:25-26).
Also surprising (and very helpful) was the insight that only three passages in all the Old Testament actually come right out and identify Satan as a supernatural being opposed to God. And all three were either written or canonized (became fully authoritative), toward the end of the Old Testament: Job 1-2 (Job’s tormenter); Zechariah 3 (the accuser of Joshua the high priest); and 1 Chronicles 21:1 (the instigator of David’s census). Furthermore, some of the traditional passages which I had thought were perfectly clear, only tantalizingly point toward the presence of Satan, never mentioning him by name. According to Genesis 3:1, for example, the serpent was simply “more subtle than any other wild creature that the LORD God had made” (RSV). Not until Revelation 12:9 is the serpent explicitly identified as Satan.
But it is the story of David’s census in 1 Chronicles 21 which is perhaps most significant, for it is the “later” re-telling – Chronicles is the last book in the Hebrew Bible – of the “earlier” story found in 2 Samuel 24, but with notable differences, the most dramatic being the shift from God to Satan as the one who triggered the census (2 Sam. 24:1//1 Chron. 21:1).
“Present Truth” to the Rescue
That note about the two versions of David’s census ties in with a key idea in Adventist history, one well-known among early Adventists and given specific emphasis by Ellen White, namely, the idea of “present truth.” For our Adventist pioneers, the words “present truth” referred to the cutting-edge truth for the present hour, standing in tension with the “landmarks,” the enduring truths from the past. Ellen White’s most forceful use of the phrase was in connection with the “new” emphasis on righteousness by faith in 1888. In her view, Adventists had become so wrapped up in the law that they couldn’t see Jesus. “Let the law take care of itself,” she exclaimed in 1890. “We have been at work on the law until we get as dry as the hills of Gilboa, without dew or rain. Let us trust in the merits of Jesus Christ of Nazareth” (Ms 10, 1890, EGW1888 2:557).
That’s why she spoke so forcefully about “present truth” at the 1888 General Conference. Referring to the fresh emphasis on Christ’s righteousness as presented by A. T. Jones and E. J. Waggoner, she said, “That which God gives His servants to speak today would not perhaps have been present truth twenty years ago, but it is God's message for this time” (MS 8a 1888, address to ministers on October 21, 1888, cited in A. V. Olson, Thirteen Crisis Years [Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald, 1981], 282).
As applied to the professor’s lecture, the principle of “present truth” allowed me to see the following picture: The catastrophic results of sin meant that the truth about God was becoming increasingly garbled. Pagan nations were developing polytheistic religions (religions with more than one God) to explain their world. In polytheism, evil deities typically are responsible for evil. And since evil deities are the ones who could hurt you, believers did everything they could to manipulate and control them through elaborate magic rituals.
When the true God stepped more actively into history again with Abraham, He chose to take full responsibility for evil, thus preventing the possible worship of Satan as a competing (evil) deity. And when this true God led Israel out of Egypt, one of His first tasks was to establish the conviction in the hearts of His people that their God was the only one worthy of the name and powerful enough to rule the universe.
But given Israel’s immersion in a polytheistic culture, it would have been virtually impossible to bring the people to the one-God-over-all conviction all at once. God must first establish Israel’s loyalty to Him. Let the other nations worship their gods, but Israel must worship Yahweh, Yahweh alone (Yahweh = the LORD). Note how carefully the first of the ten commandments is stated: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exod. 20:3). There may be other gods out there, but not in Israel. Israel was to worship only Yahweh.
Recognizing this half-way house in the people’s understanding about God sheds fascinating light on several Old Testament stories. On Mt. Carmel, for example, Elijah confronted Israel over the worship of the foreign god Baal, whom Jezebel brought into Israel from Tyre when she became Ahab’s wife. The prophets in Israel could almost shrug when the people of Tyre worshiped Baal; but they were horrified when he was worshiped in Israel. Elijah responded accordingly (1 Kings 17-19). [The idea that other gods were assigned to other nations is reflected in Deut. 32:8 in many modern translations: “When the Most High apportioned the nations, when he divided humankind, he fixed the boundaries of the people according to the number of the gods.” See chapter 3 in Who’s Afraid? “Whatever happened to Satan in the Old Testament?”)
The story of Naaman in 2 Kings 5 illustrates the same truth from another angle: A Syrian commander, Naaman, had to travel to Israel if he wanted Israel’s God to heal him of his leprosy. Naaman’s confession after he was healed is stunning: “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel” (2 Kings 5:15). He even asked for two mule-loads of Israel’s dirt to take back with him. Why? “For your servant will no longer offer burnt offering or sacrifice to any god except the LORD” (2 Kings 5:17). If you want to worship Israel’s God in Syria, you must stand or kneel on some of Israel’s dirt!
But Naaman wasn’t finished yet: “May the LORD pardon your servant on one count,” he continued, “when my master goes into the house of Rimmon to worship there, leaning on my arm, and I bow down in the house of Rimmon, when I do bow down in the house of Rimmon, may the LORD pardon your servant on this one count” (2 Kings 5:18). Elisha’s answer was probably too much for Uncle Arthur, for he never mentions it in The Bible Story (he also misses the two mule-loads of earth.). But let this soak in: Naaman, the new enthusiastic convert to the truth of Israel’s God is asking for permission to go into the temple of Rimmon, the Syrian national god, and to bow down there on the arm of his master. What does the prophet say? “Go in peace” (2 Kings 5:19). Yes, this is the great prophet Elisha, granting Naaman permission to bow down before the god Rimmon. Naaman is not budging an inch from his new conviction that there is “No God in all the earth except in Israel” (2 Kings 5:15). But he is concerned about how to deal with his master back home for his master has not yet seen the light.
I am stressing this point for three reasons. First, it was probably as shocking for me to “discover” the conclusion to the Naaman story as it was for M. L. Andreasen to discover Ellen White’s statement in The Desire of Ages (noted in the last chapter) that “in Christ is life, original, unborrowed, underived” (DA 530 ). [See George Knight, A Search for Identity (RH, 2000), 116-117; “revolutionary,” Andreasen called it; “We could hardly believe it.”] I discovered the rest of the Naaman story one day in Scotland during family worship when we were reading “A Ladybird Book,” a children’s Bible story, to our two girls [Lucy Diamond, Naaman and the Little Maid. A Ladybird Book (Loughborough, England: Wills and Hepworth, 1959]. I think (I hope?) I veiled my surprise from Karin and Krista (they were 3 and 5 at the time, as I recall). But as soon as worship was over, I went straight to my Bible to check it out. The “Ladybird Book” was right. There it was, staring at me from 2 Kings 5. When I got back to my own library in the US, I checked out Uncle Arthur and Sister White: Not there. And now, whenever anyone mentions this part of the Naaman story, I ask them when and how they discovered it. The response is often fascinating.
As I have watched this phenomenon now for many years, I am convinced that the Lord opens eyes and ears and closes them. Thus we don’t see or hear things until the time is right. I’ve seen it in my own life; I see it in the lives of my students. Who knows how many more surprises there may be in the Bible, surprises that I have read over many times, but have never “heard”?
My second reason for highlighting this story is to emphasize again how patient God is in opening new truths to His children. Naaman was no backslidden Jew moving away from the worship of Yahweh. He was a brand new convert, hanging on for dear life. And Elisha, God’s messenger, was led by the Spirit to address Naaman’s need.
The third reason is remarkably similar to the other two, but has to do specifically with Ellen White: If God was patient with Naaman (and with Alden Thompson), isn’t He also likely to be patient with Ellen White? Just because well-intentioned and frightened people – perhaps along with some evil-minded and manipulating people – have abused her writings, should we not try to understand her as one of God’s struggling saints, too? He wants all of us to grow as fast as we possibly can. But “we must go no faster than we can take those with us whose consciences and intellects are convinced of the truths we advocate. We must meet the people where they are” (3T 20 ).
Returning to Sinai, we see God taking the necessary steps to nudge Israel toward the one-God conviction: Not only did he assume full responsibility for everything – and I mean everything – but He also reinforced the idea of His lordship by forbidding Israel to have anything to do with magic (cf. Lev. 19:31; Isa. 8:19). Practicing magic would imply that Israel’s God was volatile and unreliable, a God you could manipulate. That would deny the very essence of His character. Yahweh, Israel’s God, was reliable and true. He could always be trusted to do the right and the good.
All that made good sense for Israel – but does make the Old Testament more difficult for us to read, for the Old Testament writers portray the “evil” which we would typically attribute to Satan as coming directly from the hand of God. Still, within the framework of the great controversy between good and evil, the absence of Satan in the Old Testament can make very good sense to us if we understand the issues facing God and Israel at that time. Indeed, knowing about the absence of Satan in the Old Testament explains much in the Bible that we would otherwise consider puzzling if not horrifying.
As I sat listening to the conclusion of the lecture that day, the pieces of the puzzle suddenly fell into place. I almost had to hold on to my chair to keep from standing up and preaching the good news in a sermon! The professor’s lecture had concluded with the line: “So there you have it: the God of the Old Testament is a combination of a good deity and a desert demon.”
The Pieces Fall Together
By contrast, the alternative perspective which snapped clear for me that day can be summarized as follows: A gracious God assumed full responsibility for evil until Israel could learn that there was only one God worthy of the name. When the one-God conviction finally took root, God could then reveal more clearly the great struggle between good and evil and the nature of God’s great opponent.
The battle comes clearest in the Gospels, and then in the rest of the New Testament. But the signs of transition are there in the Old Testament itself, in particular, the comparison between the early and late versions of the story of David’s census noted above: the earlier one says God did it (2 Sam. 24), the later credits Satan (1 Chron. 21).
The short version of all this is that the violent God of the Old Testament is really the same gracious God who reveals himself more fully in Jesus. Maybe we could even say that God was graciously violent with the Old Testament people in order to meet their expectations of violence. That was His way of starting them on the path away from violence. Ultimately, God’s people would understand that God didn’t just come to threaten sinners with death, but to die for them. Making that truth believable would be incredibly difficult. But when the pieces fall together, it is very good news indeed.
With that model in place in my thinking, a model which sees God leading His people from fear to joy, from an emphasis on His power to an emphasis on His goodness, it would not be many months before that model would help me make sense of Ellen White’s experience, for God led her, too, from fear to joy and to a more buoyant experience in the Lord.
Why So Long?
I want to return once more to that crucial question which our stay in Scotland helped me to answer, a question which can be asked in several ways: Why didn’t God just tell “the truth” in the first place? Why the seemingly endless violence and mayhem? Why didn’t Jesus just come right at the beginning and tell it like it really is? For most of us, the longer we survive in this troubled world, the more urgent such questions can become.
As noted in the last chapter, “time” is the short answer – time, with freedom to choose. At the heart of the Great Controversy story lies the conviction that the essence of God’s goodness is His love of freedom and His desire that His creatures choose to love Him, won by His goodness, not frightened by His power. Such a freedom-loving God is willing to – one could even say must – allow rebels a chance to show their stuff, to demonstrate to the universe what the world would be like if they had their way. As the story unfolds in Scripture, the choice begins to come clear: love or selfishness? The climactic event which presents that choice to the universe comes at the cross. As Ellen White put it: “At the cross of Calvary, love and selfishness stood face to face. Here was their crowning manifestation” (DA 57).
Put bluntly, we could say that Satan went so far in his rebellion that he was even willing to kill God; God went so far in seeking to win back the rebels, that He was even willing to die.
A Long Ways Down, a Slow Road Back
But the cross is the climax. In drama, there is a build up to the climax. And that’s where the rest of the Old Testament comes into play in what may seem to us to be a long, drawn-out drama. The story begins with God’s good world. But soon the news turns bad. The steep downhill road is described in Genesis 3-11: Adam and Eve fall for the serpent’s lies; Cain murders his brother Abel; a wicked world is washed clean by a flood; yet another wicked world is dispersed at the Tower of Babel.
After all that deadly mayhem, Genesis 12 tells how God steps more actively into human history again at the time of Abraham). But the fall had been so catastrophic that even Abraham’s own family “served other gods” (Josh. 24:2). That’s how bad things were. Whatever was told to our first parents in the Garden had been thoroughly mangled and distorted by the time it got to Abraham. God has His work cut out for Him.
But if, for the sake of love’s victory in the end, God was willing to allow enough time to let things get that bad, He was also willing to take enough time to patiently win His people back. A freedom-loving God will not push His creatures faster than they are able to grow. They must be won over; they must be able to see and to choose the next step toward the good.
And that’s where living in Scotland opened my eyes. I had come from the American West where change is a regular feature of life and fixed traditions are rare. I found myself unprepared for the resistance to change we found in Scotland. “We don’t do it that way here,” was almost a standard response to anything new and different. We were guests in that fine land, and in no position to “force” change. Even small attempts at change could easily reinforce the “ugly American” image.
Suddenly it dawned on me: If I wanted to convince the Scots to change anything at all, I had to be very patient, meeting them on common ground and inching my way forward from there. Then I began applying that same principle to the Old Testament: Shouldn’t a freedom-loving God be as patient with the Old Testament saints as He was with the Scotts? In short, living in Scotland opened my mind to the idea of “radical divine accommodation.” Another word might work better for you: “condescension,” “adaptation,” or “contextualization.” But they all mean roughly the same: God meets people where they are. He’s urgent with the good news, but must be patient if He’s going to win people’s hearts.
Living in Scotland convinced me that the God of the Old Testament was a very patient God, indeed, the same God we see in Jesus. He took great risks in order to reach the people where they were. But a God of love is willing to take such risks. That was good news for them and it’s good news for us.
And Now for Ellen White
To sum up with reference to Ellen White, the story about Satan’s seeming absence from the Old Testament is significant for two reasons. The first one I have emphasized again and again: God’s patience. However misused and abused her writings may have been – and there has been plenty of that – we will certainly fall short of the truth if we can’t make room for God to be patient with Ellen White, too. I hope that does not sound condescending, and it may, especially for those who have experienced her as an absolute authority in Adventism. But if we seek to understand the Bible in its day, shouldn’t we do the same for the writings of Ellen White and look at them from the perspective of her day? If, as she said in 1888, there can be a turn-round in “present truth” in just twenty years (Ms 8a 1888, M. E. Olson, Thirteen Crisis Years, 282), shouldn’t we be willing to take a fresh look at her experience and her writings some ninety years after her death? I think so.
Second, and this point is at least as crucial for understanding Ellen White’s writings and experience: Without an awareness of Satan’s apparent absence from the Old Testament, the God of the Old Testament would appear to be anything but patient. Violent, brutal, quick with the trigger, insensitive to animal and human life – that’s the picture of the God of the Old Testament if you just read it straight off the page without seeing the larger picture. Now I happen to believe, with tenacity even, that Satan was fully as alive and well in the Old Testament as he is today. But for pastoral reasons, God chose to keep Satan under wraps, assuming full responsibility for everything lest the people worship Satan as another deity. Yes, God was willing to be seen as violent, brutal, quick with the trigger, insensitive to animal and human life, because that was what the people had come to expect from their gods. And that was where God had to start.
But if you can believe that gentle Jesus is God in the flesh, “the same yesterday and today and forever,” Heb.13:8), and if you can believe that He was and is the God of the Old Testament (cf. John 8:58) – and all that is perfectly clear in the New Testament – then we must go back to the Old Testament and look again. With careful reading, we can begin to see why God would be willing to portray Himself as the violent one and to keep Satan under cover until it was safe for the people to know more about the “Great Controversy” between Christ and Satan.
But Ellen White was not part of a community that believed Jesus was God in the flesh. For early Adventists, Jesus may have been kind, sweet, and gentle, but He was not God. Even with the knowledge that Jesus was and is God, the Old Testament is still heavy weather for gentle people. We can scarcely believe that God was willing to do what He did, even if it was for good pastoral reasons.
In short, young Ellen was a conscientious, devout, and obedient Christian. But she had grown up with the terrors of an eternally burning hell etched into her soul. And reading the Old Testament straight from the page would make it easy to believe that the God of the Old Testament would not hesitate to be in charge of such a hell. Then, as she became a young adult, though the eternal hell had disappeared, she still belonged to a community which had not yet seen the truth about the divinity of Jesus Christ.
So when we read some of her early writings, it will not be hard to recognize when she has been reading the Old Testament straight from the page – without the saving knowledge that the God who revealed Himself in Jesus Christ had veiled His gentle nature in order to reach violent people.
The laws of change – especially the necessity of gradual change if one wants change to be stable – apply to all people everywhere. We can see those laws at work in the Bible. Then we can apply them to our own experience. And we can apply them to Ellen White’s experience. It may seem scary at times, but it will also be reassuring. If we’re not afraid to let Jesus help us, He will guide us into all truth. He has promised.
In the next chapter, I’ll give you some glimpses of the other side of our life in Scotland. I was awakening to issues of change in the Bible and observing how hard it was for the Scots to change. But on the home front, we were tussling mightily with change, too. Wanda and I had both been imprinted by our conservative Adventist upbringing with a life-style very much shaped by the writings of Ellen White. All that made pretty good sense in a largely Adventist community in the American west. But we were in for a cold shower when we took some of our Adventist habits to Scotland and tried to live them out there. That’s all part of this story, too, as you will see.
“Even the Investigative Judgment Can Be Good News”
In a world of sin, the specter of judgment raises both our hopes and our fears. Scripture portrays the human family as playing several roles within the framework of the judgment concept: the role of the plaintiff, who cries out against oppression, injustice, and the suffering of innocent people; the role of the accused, who stands before the divine tribunal as one guilty of contributing to the agony and pain in the world; and the role of the witness, who has experienced salvation and speaks on behalf of the goodness of God and His law. An adequate doctrine of judgment should account for all three elements.
In the Adventist community, recent discussion has centered on the concept of the investigative judgment – its biblical foundation and its impact on Christian experience. A complicating factor is the variety of ways in which the imagery of the heavenly courtroom can be interpreted. Some interpret the symbols very literally, while others tend to think in more abstract terms. The result is a certain tension that the Adventist community simply must learn to live with.
As is the case with many Christian doctrines, the biblical foundation of the Adventist doctrine of judgment is not found complete in a single context, but requires a synthesis of biblical data in the light of the Adventist experience. Furthermore, the community's understanding of the doctrine has been a growing one, revealing shifts in emphasis and the integration of new elements. Leviticus 16, Daniel 7 to 9, Zechariah 3, and Revelation 14 are key passages. The book of Job also contributes to the larger picture, providing the cosmic setting highlighting the motives of the adversary.
But of paramount importance in Adventism is the way in which the believer has experienced judgment. If God is seen as both distant and reluctant, we may feel overwhelmed by the sense of our own unworthiness. The gulf between God and the sinner may seem too deep to bridge and God may be viewed as throwing down impossible demands.
If we find ourselves trembling and shaking before a reluctant God, we are hardly in a position to witness joyfully and confidently to His goodness. Yet, that is the ultimate goal of the judgment. In the words of Ellen White, “Ye are My witnesses, saith the Lord, that I am God” (Isaiah 43:12) – “witnesses that He is good and that goodness is supreme” (Education, 154).
The only time that I could conceive of going to court gladly would be to witness for a good friend, one that I know and trust. In the context of the investigative judgment, that friend is God. To see the investigative judgment culminating in such a witness does not detract from the seriousness of the judgment for human beings, but rather enables us to look through the process of judgment to its goal and to sing the praises of the God who has redeemed us.
But, is it really possible to envision a joyful conclusion within the framework of the investigative judgment? If we take seriously Ellen White's growing experience, we can indeed. In the course of her experience, she traveled the road from fear to love, from command to invitation, from Sinai to Golgotha. Such a shift in emphasis in no way lessens the ethical demands of God's law. A response out of love actually intensifies our sense of responsibility because it flows from within.
This article describes the shift in emphasis in the concept of the investigative judgment that is reflected in the writings of Ellen White, a shift which enables the believer to live in the assurance that God is both willing and able to save those who come to him.
Perhaps a quick synopsis of the two different emphases would provide a simple comparison between the Sinai and Golgotha views of the investigative judgment.
From a Sinai perspective, the judgment accentuates the gulf between a holy God and a sinful people. The thought of standing in the presence of a holy God without a mediator brings terror just as it did for ancient Israel (cf. Exodus 20:18, 19).
By contrast, a Golgotha perspective emphasizes the union between God and the believer. The believer has fully recognized his own status as a sinner, but has also fully accepted the sacrifice of Christ on his behalf. As a result, the believer no longer sees God simply as Judge, but as Father; he no longer trembles in God’s presence as the accused, for he stands acquitted in Christ Jesus. The fear of judgment is gone. God has claimed him as His own.
No longer preoccupied with his own survival, the believer now recognizes that judgment has a much greater purpose, namely the vindication of God and His law against the attacks of Satan.
Confidently, the believer now stands in court as a witness to the goodness of God and His law.
In Ellen White’s experience, the roots of that more positive view of judgment go back to a vision of 1880. Its fruit appeared in mature form in Prophets and Kings (1915/17). We shall look at the details shortly, but the 35 years between point to a significant question, namely, why was the “better” explanation so long in coming? My own conviction is that the early Adventists would never have believed it. I would use a similar argument in explaining the long “delay” before God sent His Son. Among the ex-slaves at Sinai, the gentle man from Nazareth would have been trampled in the dust. Sinai had to come before Golgotha; the impact of sin made it necessary.
But a shift in emphasis in the understanding of the investigative judgment also requires a willingness to see God in a particular way, as a God who is not afraid to allow the universe to put His law and His government to the test. Now for some reason, I have had no great difficulty accepting the idea of God putting His law and government on trial before the universe. Yet, I have occasionally wondered why some Adventists, and very loyal ones at that, simply did not get very excited about the idea. I caught a clearer glimpse into that kind of thinking in connection with the Sabbath School lessons on Job a few quarters ago. Some of the believers were very uncomfortable with the way Satan talked with God (cf. Job 1:9-12; 2:3-6). Such talk was inappropriate and ought not to have been allowed! They firmly believed in the Bible but they did not know what to do with the book of Job.
Behind that kind of thinking lie two significant convictions that play a powerful role, especially in the lives of religious people: First, that sinners cannot exist in the presence of a holy God, and second, that created beings dare not question God. Both statements are terribly true, terribly dangerous, and very easily misunderstood.
The first statement has biblical support (e.g., Exodus 33:21-23; Deuteronomy 4:24; I Timothy 6:16; cf. Revelation 6:17) and expresses the fundamental truth that sin and holiness are ultimately incompatible. The second statement likewise has biblical support (esp. Romans 9:9-23; cf. Isaiah 45:9-11) and expresses the fundamental truth that God is the ultimate authority.
Why then are such statements so dangerous? Because a guilty conscience can distort them, imagining horrible things about God, things which the mind can come to believe as truth. Thus, the incompatibility of holiness and sin can be exaggerated to the point where God is seen as angry and disgusted with this race of rebels, annoyed that He has to have any contact with sinners at all, and demanding that every sin be fully punished.
As for God's ultimate authority, an over-emphasis can lead to the total exclusion of human freedom. Thus God becomes, at best, a benevolent dictator, at worse, a cruel despot.
The natural results of sin tend to encourage both exaggerations. That is precisely why sin is so sinister and devastating. We see the first clear example in the experience of Adam and Eve where their own sense of guilt drove them to hide from God and even to blame Him for their failure, though there had been no display of “divine wrath” (cf. Genesis 3:8-13). Even fully repentant sinners have difficulty believing that God wishes full restoration as the cry of the prodigal son poignantly reveals: “I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants” (Luke 15:19). Most assuredly, sonship does not depend on worthiness, yet the adversary plays on the guilt feelings which naturally follow sin, tempting us to believe that God has turned His back on us in anger.
Thus, there is a fierce struggle within as we long to be with God and yet fear His presence. We are torn between the cry of Jacob: “I will not let you go, unless you bless me” (Genesis 32:26), and the cry of Peter: “Depart from me for I am a sinful man” (Luke 5:8). Only a new world and a new heart will still that battle forever. In the meantime, God seeks to convince us that sin is indeed a dangerous enemy, but that He loves us even when we sin.
In Scripture, we find interesting traces of that tension between the human longing to be reunited with God and the human horror of coming into His presence at all. Some passages suggest that seeing God is not possible (cf. Genesis 3:8-13), while others clearly demonstrate that not only is it possible, but that it has already happened, though the human participants were amazed that they had survived. Jacob exclaimed: “I have seen God face to face and yet my life is preserved” (Genesis 32:30). A similar reflection appears in that fascinating passage describing the meeting between God and the elders of Israel: “They saw the God of Israel... and He did not lay his hand on the chief men of the people of Israel; they beheld God, and ate and drank” (Exodus 24:10, 11). The biblical passage hints that by all rights He should have laid hands on them. But no, “they beheld God, and ate and drank.”
One way of resolving the tension between these two feelings is to emphasize the role of the mediator as our protection against the wrath of God. In Jesus Christ we find peace with God, for He paid the price of our sin. The wrath of God which we deserve has been poured out on our substitute. Thus, we keep our distance from God the Father, but find in Jesus Christ the friendly face of God. Such a view emphasizes the sovereignty and authority of God and is often attractive to those who keenly sense the gulf between God and man.
The emphasis on the sovereignty of God finds its most thorough development in John Calvin's doctrine of predestination, a teaching which Adventists clearly reject. We believe it is our privilege to serve God out of love and by our own free choice.
A typical Calvinist would not be very enthusiastic about the “Great Controversy” story, at least not in the way Ellen White told it in her later years, for God is much too approachable and much too willing to put Himself and his law on trial before the universe. Interestingly enough, early Adventists would have sided very easily with the Calvinists when it came to their view of God. God, as they saw Him, would never open Himself to scrutiny; He is to be obeyed, not questioned.
But I am convinced that God was preparing Adventists to reach quite another audience than the Calvinists, namely modern skeptics who cannot believe that a good God has willed all the strife and trouble in this world. Adventists have been called to stand in that noble tradition of believing skeptics who are concerned about God’s reputation and are not afraid to say so, even to God Himself. Like Abraham, for example: “You can't do that. You are the judge of all the earth!” (Genesis 18:25). Or like Moses: “If you do that what will the Egyptians say?” (Exodus 32:12). To be able to talk with God like that, however, one has to be on very good terms with Him. God must be known to be friendly, fair and open. But that is exactly what our forefathers had difficulty believing. It would take time before they could see the friendly face of God and even then, the possibility for confusion would not entirely disappear.
And that brings us to our modern problem as we attempt to resolve the tension between a reluctant God and a friendly one. In my own experience, the tension focused on the first chapter in Steps to Christ and the one on the investigative judgment in The Great Controversy (pp. 479-90). In Steps to Christ I learned that the view of God as a “severe judge” was a deception of satanic origin. It was Satan who “pictured the Creator as a being who is watching with jealous eye to discern the errors and mistakes of men” (SC 10-11).
But when I turned to The Great Controversy and read about the investigative judgment, I was in trouble again, for I was tempted to believe that God was, after all, looking for a way to keep me out of His kingdom, rather than trying to get me in: every word and deed is recorded with “terrible exactness” (GC, 481); every case is closely investigated and when any are found with a sin unrepented of, “their names are blotted out of the book of life” (GC, 483); even things that we have forgotten “will bear their testimony to justify or condemn” (GC, 487). The impression one can get from these passages is that even diligent effort in seeking forgiveness can all be for nought if we happen to “forget” a sin that we have committed at some point in our life. Now I know that the passages cited do not actually say that, but they do give that impression. I now recognize that these passages refer to cherished sins, an emphasis that puts quite a different complexion on the whole matter. But even then, whenever we think of the investigative judgment as the last hurdle before we can be saved, uncertainty can still haunt us.
An important first step for resolving the difficulty in my own experience came while I was a seminary student at Andrews University. I decided I must settle in my own mind the matter of the mediator: Why did I need one if God loved me? The answer came from John 14-17 where I discovered that the purpose of the mediator was to introduce us to a friendly God, not to protect us from a reluctant one. As Jesus put it: “If you have seen me you have seen the Father” (John 14:9). But perhaps even more significant in the Adventist context is John 16:26-27, where I found a fresh possibility for interpreting Ellen White's statement that “we must stand in the sight of a holy God without a mediator” (GC, 425): “In that day you will ask in my name, and I do not say that I shall pray the Father for you; for the Father himself loves you.” In the context of Ellen White’s original statement I still detect a trace of fear, but on the basis of John's Gospel I would say that fear is unnecessary. As long as we are afraid, the mediator is there, for God knows the powerful impact of sin and guilt. But the goal of Christian experience is to live once again in God’s presence without fear. That is a promise, not a threat.
The next step in my search for a solution to the experiential difficulties connected with the investigative judgment came in the spring of 1980. After preparing a study document on the development of Ellen White's theology, I commented to a colleague: “The only missing piece in the Golgotha picture is eschatology. That is one place where fear still lurks. Wouldn't it be interesting if we could see how Ellen White would re-write The Great Controversy again if she had the chance?”
Of the five books in the Conflict series, The Great Controversy was the only one that was not written or totally re-written after 1888. The standard edition today (1911) differs only slightly from the 1888 edition, i.e., some historical quotations were changed and references were added. (See Arthur White, Ellen G. White, Messenger to the Remnant, Washington, D.C.: Ellen G. White Estate, 1954, p. 58.) I suspected how Ellen White would have told the story, but was concerned how far we could go without prophetic authority.
And then I found it – with the aid of a student who wrongly quoted a passage from Prophets and Kings. In checking his quotation I suddenly realized that here was an entire chapter dealing with the investigative judgment: “Joshua and the Angel” (pp. 582-592). With great eagerness I read it through, looking for traces of the reluctant God. I found none. The whole chapter is the story of the investigative judgment written from the perspective of a loving God who wants to save sinners. Further research revealed some fascinating background.
The seed that was to bear such rich fruit was apparently sown in 1880. As told in Life Sketches, Ellen White inquired in vision, “Where is the security for the people of God in these days of peril?” In response, God referred her to Zechariah 3:1-2 and declared that Jesus was our security against Satan. “Jesus will lead all who are willing to be led” (Life Sketches, 324) Prior to this vision Ellen White apparently had not realized the significance of Zechariah 3:1-2 for the Great Controversy story. [The printed Index to the Writings of Ellen G. White lists no occurrences of the text before 1880.] But now God had sown the seed; it would be only a matter of time until it would germinate and bear fruit.
The Index to the Writings of E. G. White lists four passages where Ellen White comments significantly on Zechariah 3:1, 2; Testimonies, vol. 5, 467-476 (1885), Thoughts from the Mount of Blessing, 116, 117 (1896), Christ's Object Lessons, 166-170 (1900), and Prophets and Kings, 582-592 (1917). All four of the contexts discuss the text in the setting of the “Great Controversy.” Thoughts from the Mount of Blessing (p. 117) states that Satan accuses us, not in some obscure courtroom, but “before the universe.” Christ's Object Lessons (p.168) indicates that, not only is Satan accusing the believers, but God himself. Furthermore, when Christ speaks for his people, he confesses them, not before a reluctant Father, but “before the universe” (Christ's Object Lessons, 170). Clearly the Father and the Son are united in their love for man and in their desire to rebuke the adversary.
But what I find most fascinating about Ellen White's use of Zechariah 3:1-2 is the way she takes the article in the Testimonies and further refines it 30 years later for use in Prophets and Kings. In effect, she softens those aspects that could discourage and expands on those that encourage. The result is a masterful integration of the investigative judgment into the picture of a loving God. And it happens in her very last book.
When compared with the Testimonies article, the account in Prophets and Kings reveals one addition and one deletion that are particularly significant. The addition is found in Prophets and Kings (p. 589) as part of the Lord’s rebuke of the adversary. After claiming His people as His own, the Lord declares: “They may have imperfections of character; they may have failed in their endeavors; but they have repented, and I have forgiven and accepted them.” What an encouragement! We may slip and fall, but if we have given our hearts to God, He will rebuke the adversary. No reluctance here to save those who are still suffering growing pains; their hearts are with God and He claims them as His.
The significant deletion is a more delicate matter, for it is terribly true – but if seen from the viewpoint of Mt. Sinai it could so easily be misunderstood. Prophets and Kings omits two paragraphs from pages 471-72 of Testimonies, vol. 5. Both paragraphs admonish the Christian to strive to overcome every defect. That, of course, should be the goal of every Christian. But the one sentence that could cause problems runs as follows: “No sin can be tolerated in those who shall walk with Christ in white” (p. 472). If that statement is seen as describing the Christian's deep desire to obey Christ, then all is well. But if it is linked with a view of God which sees Him looking for excuses to catch sinners, then the Christian who slips and falls will flee in terror. So even though the statement is certainly true, no doubt Ellen White's heightened concern for struggling sinners led her to delete it when she was preparing the material for Prophets and Kings.
Once we recognize that God has justified us in Christ, then we can joyfully go into judgment prepared to witness for God and His law. That joy, I have found, is the strongest motivation possible for obedience, for now I want to obey because He has saved me. It is no longer a matter of earning salvation or of simply avoiding punishment. Obedience is the fruit of salvation.
Now whenever I find someone struggling with the investigative judgment, I recommend without hesitation the chapter on “Joshua and the Angel” in Prophets and Kings. The “Great Controversy” story has come a long way since it was first published in 1858, but what a testimony it is to God’s care for His people. He was preparing the way for His people, not only to find acceptance in Him, but also to demonstrate the goodness of God and His law to a skeptical world. God would have liked to have given the full message right at the beginning, but the beams of truth had to come gradually or His people would have turned away from light.
Because of man's fallen condition God has been willing to use both commands and invitations, fear and love; but there is no question as to which He prefers. He has shown us His love “that we may have confidence in the day of judgment” (I John 4:17). “Perfect love casts out fear” (verse 18). In the sunshine of that love, even the investigative judgment is good news, for we stand no longer accused, but acquitted in Christ Jesus. Before the universe we are witnesses to the goodness of God.