Sabbath School Today
With the 1888 Message Dynamic
Lesson 12: "The Cosmic Conflict Over God's Character"
When a prominent leader we trust is arraigned in court, the case attracts front-page or prime-time TV coverage. Can you think of a case that would attract more attention than the trial of the century? What kind of publicity would there be if God Himself were on trial?
Prophecy calls for a message to rivet the attention of the billions who "dwell on the earth." The phrase implies that while mundane matters absorb people's attention, an announcement will startle them and command their attention: "Fear God, and give glory to Him, for the hour of His judgment is come" (Rev. 14:6).
Whose Judgment? Ours, or His? We have long thought it was only ours, and have seen the message as bad news, a stern warning of being taken to court unless we shape up. We tremble with terror at the idea.
But the original language of the first angel's message allows a different understanding. The "hour of His judgment" can also mean the hour when God Himself is to be judged. Rather than being the Accuser, He has become the Accused in the dock. And He needs a defense.
The idea of God being on trial is not as wild as it may appear. It's no secret that the vast majority of those who "dwell on the earth" are angry with Him. It's natural, because they have a carnal mind which "is enmity against God" (Rom. 8:7). They blame Him for their troubles, and especially for the horrendous injustices that plague the world at large. Our very legal terminology describes killer earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, tidal waves, and other natural disasters as "acts of God."
Alienated People Are a Problem to God. He could act as boss and zap them out of existence, but He is fair and even generous to subject Himself to their accusations and to stand trial on their charges. Any other solution to the problem would be unwise, for it would foment further rebellion.
It has often been said that God won His case in court when Christ died on His cross 2000 years ago. In a sense He did. But humanity has kept on suffering and sinning ever since. If God completely won the war at the cross, why does the agony go on and on? If Christ would only come the second time, He could end all this misery. Even the saints, who aren't supposed to be angry with Him, can raise serious questions in court: Why does the Lord wait so long to come? Doesn't He feel for the world's woes? Why doesn't He do something?
The only way that God can defend Himself against a charge of indifference is to plead some circumstance beyond His control which has delayed His intervention. Such a circumstance exists; the problem is for Him to prove it in court. The cosmic prosecution and jury, the world's inhabitants and the unfallen beings of the universe, yes, even the devil and his cohorts, must see the evidence and be convinced.
Paul saw that God will have to go in the dock, and was confident "that You may be justified in Your words, and may overcome when You are judged" (Rom. 3:4). Goodspeed says, "And win your case."
If all that's important is their own case, people might go blithely on, unconcerned about their appearance in court, nonchalant, indifferent to their own personal fate. But they will sit up and take notice when God goes on trial. They will realize that they are character witnesses in His trial, the greatest court case of all history. Thus an entirely new motivation will transcend the hitherto supreme concern they have felt for their own personal security (the root cause of lukewarmness). They actually find it possible to be concerned for Him. That would be a miracle!
The good news in the first angel's "everlasting gospel" is, therefore, much better news than we have thought. It gives every believer in Christ something all-absorbing to live for--he/she can make a significant contribution to God's acquittal. We need not enter the judgment shrinking in terror because of our own insecurity, but go in joyfully honoring Him. To "fear" Him is not to cower in dread of a confrontation with Him, but to thrill with tingled delight that our individual testimony for Him will be effective evidence in court. Only this can "give glory to Him."
How Can God Be Vindicated? The sacrifice of Christ on the cross was complete in that it guaranteed a final victory. But that victory has yet to be realized and demonstrated in His people. What is the problem?
Satan and millions of people press the point that God's professed people are little better than those who make no profession of devotion to the "third angel's message." He can say that they are still lukewarm (that's true; their lukewarmness is sin); they are often worldly and self-caring; their divorce rate is almost as high as that of the world; and they do not demonstrate any significantly higher motivation of love than do the religious adherents of "Babylon." Satan thinks he has a case.
Every one of us is in a special sense an exhibit in God's great trial, giving either glory or shame to Him. Not one of us can evade the merciless spotlight of the cosmic TV lens. The serious problem that God faces is that Laodicea's continued lukewarmness 2000 years after the cross tells the world and the universe that something doesn't work. Legally or theoretically, His plan of salvation is OK; but practically, it fails. Sin itself is not being vanquished.
Suppose we kid ourselves into thinking that everything is fine. Then the alternative charge comes into focus: Why is Christ so slow in coming the second time? If God's people are as ready as they will ever be, why doesn't He come? They continue to sin and Christ as High Priest continues to "cover" for them. Satan charges that this has become unfair, and hundreds of millions of Muslims protest that the Christian doctrine of substitution is unethical and even immoral. But Revelation 3:17 says that Laodicea seems satisfied with this and apparently "has need of nothing" while God in the dock must blush with shame. Meanwhile, the world's misery keeps getting worse.
In fact, Jesus says that the situation with the seventh and last church is so serious that it makes Him so sick at His stomach that He feels like throwing up (that's what verse 16 says in the Greek). If we could see His face as it really is, we would not see the frozen smile of mindless approbation that artists paint; we would see a divine face that registers the acute pain of nausea. How can we bring healing to Him?
The answer is not a more rigid works program. Neither is it a fear-oriented spiritual terrorism--straighten up or else face the plagues. We've heard that for decades, too. Neither will it help any longer to anaesthetize our spiritual nerve, blocking out the Holy Spirit's painful conviction that something is terribly wrong. Jeremiah reproves the false shepherds who tell the people that "all's well, all's well, when all is not well" (Jer. 6:14, Moffatt).
The Bible says that the answer is a special message of much more abounding grace, a message that has the power built into it that delivers from the addiction of continued sin, self-centeredness, and worldliness. Rightly understood, "the gospel of Christ is the power of God to salvation" here and now, salvation from sin (Rom. 1:16). And the message of the three angels about "the hour of God's judgment" has that power inherent within it, for it is to produce a people who truly (not supposedly) "keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus." They "are without fault before the throne of God" (Rev. 14:12, 5).
By supplying a wholly Christ-centered motivation, the third angel's message in verity accomplishes what has never been accomplished by any generation of saints in history. "All these, having obtained a good testimony through faith, did not receive the promise, God having provided something better for us, that they should not be made perfect apart from us" (Heb. 11:39, 40). A far clearer understanding of the message must come when "another angel," a fourth, comes "down from heaven having great authority" so that the earth can be "illuminated with his glory" (Rev. 18:1).
Only then can "another voice from heaven" speak with heart-convincing authority to the millions of honest souls in "Babylon," "Come out of her, My people" (Rev. 18:4). They will respond, in numbers far beyond our present comprehension. Once the great court case is settled and God has clearly won His case, the gospel commission will be quickly finished.
When Will Such a Message Come? The proper question is not in the future tense, but past. Not when will it come, but when did it come? According to Ellen White, its "beginning" came in the 1888 message of Christ's righteousness. Only God, not the angels, knows when Christ will come. Consider then how, over a century ago, they hoped for the final victory in the crisis in the government of God, and how disappointed they were that His people on earth "in a great degree" rejected that "most precious message." Untold suffering has been the result for billions of people. And no human mind can imagine the suffering that has accrued to the heart of God.
A profound insight was recognized by Ellen White during the 1888 era: "Something great and decisive is to take place, and that right early. If any delay, the character of God and His throne will be compromised" (An Appeal to Our Ministers and Conference Committees (1892). There has been a delay of a full century: the crisis could not be more serious.
Can we be content to be indifferent? Is it enough to remain little children in understanding and experience, willing for more decades to grind by through the 21st century while these great issues remain unresolved?
What is the 1888 message? How does it differ from what we think we already understand ("I-am-rich"?) of the gospel? Is it the same message of "justification by faith" proclaimed by popular Sunday-keeping Evangelicals? Or is it somehow uniquely Adventist? Does it have power to deliver from self-centeredness and lukewarmness? How can it arrest world attention so that the world can be lightened with its glory?
"The hour ... is come." Thousands of loyal Seventh-day Adventists worldwide are discovering the power of the much more abounding grace inherent in that message.
--Robert J. Wieland
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