by Alberto R. Timm
Jesus' warnings regarding how we treat the prophets speak powerfully to us today.
How will a prophet’s messages be received? Some people think that non-believers might distort or even reject a prophet’s message, but certainly God’s own people would never do so. The message, after all, bears the divine credentials. Yet the reality is that even God’s sincere people can unconsciously use unrealistic approaches toward the prophets and their messages.
Describing the attitude of God’s people before their Babylonian captivity, 2 Chronicles 36:15, 16 tells us that “the Lord God of their fathers sent warnings to them by His messengers . . . because He had compassion on His people and on His dwelling place. But they mocked the messengers of God, despised His words, and scoffed at His prophets, until the wrath of the Lord arose against His people, till there was no remedy” (NKJV, throughout this article).
During Christ’s earthly ministry He faced at least five major unbalanced approaches to the prophetic gift. We will briefly consider each misguided approach as well as the way in which Christ tried to correct it. What we discover should help us to avoid repeating the mistakes of past generations.
1. Christ reproved the human tendency to praise ancient prophets while rejecting contemporary ones.
The Bible records many instances where God’s people resisted accepting a contemporary prophet. While praising an ancient prophet for having rebuked the sins of a past generation, God’s people were reluctant to accept the prophetic rebukes that dealt specifically with their own unsuitable behavior.
Jesus addressed this problem when He stated, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! Because you build the tombs of the prophets and adorn the monuments of the righteous, and say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets.’ . . . Therefore, indeed, I send you prophets, wise men, and scribes: some of them you will kill and crucify, and some of them you will scourge in your synagogues and persecute from city to city” (Mt 23:29, 30, 34).
Faithful to Scripture?
Some people today echo this same way of thinking. They undermine the prophetic gift’s modern manifestation in the life and work of Ellen G. White, claiming that by so doing they are “more faithful” to the established canon of Scripture. However, faithfulness to the Bible requires us to reject only those prophets who prove to be false, not all extra-canonical prophets. The apostle John wrote: “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 Jn 4:1). Scripture gives us a positive command concerning those who pass the tests: “Do not despise prophecies. Test all things; hold fast what is good” (1 Thess 5:20, 21).
Though today we see people abandoning or downplaying faith in the Lord’s messenger, such activities in the Seventh-day Adventist church are not new. Ellen G. White and our pioneers faced similar challenges to her work in the early days of our movement. In response, James White wrote, “The position that the Bible and the Bible alone, is the rule of faith and duty, does not shut out the gifts which God set in the church. To reject them is shutting out that part of the Bible which presents them [such as 1 Cor 12; Eph 4:8, 11-16; Rev 14:12, 19:10]. We say, Let us have a whole Bible, and let that, and that alone, be our rule of faith and duty. Place the gifts where they belong, and all is harmony” (Review and Herald, Oct. 3, 1854, emphasis original).
Uriah Smith devoted an editorial to the topic in the Review of January 13, 1863, titling it, “Do We Discard the Bible by Endorsing the Visions?” In brief, he answered, “When we claim to stand on the Bible and the Bible alone, we bind ourselves to receive, unequivocally and fully, all that the Bible teaches,” including its teaching on spiritual gifts in the last days, which Smith went on to set forth.
Similarly, in a five-part series in the Review on the gift of prophecy in the Seventh-day Adventist movement, General Conference president George I. Butler wrote about the objection that the Bible is sufficient, and that therefore we do not need the gifts: “If all Scripture is profitable, we suppose that those portions are [also profitable] which teach the perpetuity of spiritual gifts, and that tell us they will be in the church in the last days, and tell us how to distinguish between the false and genuine” (Review and Herald, June 9, 1874).
These representative statements will suffice to show that the situation today is not unique or new. Though we may be dismayed to see such views in the church, we should be neither surprised nor disheartened by them.
Jesus Himself warned us when He declared to His disciples, “He who hears you hears Me, he who rejects you rejects Me, and he who rejects Me rejects him who sent Me” (Lk 10:16). With this in mind, it is clear that if Ellen White was a true prophetess, as we believe she was, any conscious attempt to undermine confidence in her prophetic messages is a direct reproach upon God who sent her to be a prophetic voice in our midst.
2. Christ reproved the human tendency to elevate the human messenger at the expense of the divine message.
Those who profess to accept contemporary prophets run the very real risk of replacing necessary faithfulness to the divine message with their personal admiration for the human messenger. In many cases, that admiration can end up overshadowing, intentionally or unintentionally, personal commitment to the prophetic message.
During His earthly ministry Christ encountered people who claimed to be sons and daughters of Abraham without being willing to follow Abraham’s example (see Jn 8:39). Similarly, He noted that some people pretended to be followers of Moses without living in harmony with that great leader’s teachings (see Jn 5:45-47). Christ rebuked such show-off hypocrisy in the following words: “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven” (Mt 7:21).
Badge of Allegiance
Similarly, we may encounter people today who proclaim their devotion to Ellen G. White but whose lives are out of harmony in significant ways with the teachings, standards, and attitudes she upheld. It is not enough to talk much of Ellen White or even to adopt certain aspects of diet, dress, or behavior as a “badge of allegiance” to her if our characters are not transformed, if we do not give evidence that the love of Jesus illuminates our hearts and shines out in our actions. Mrs. White wrote, “By the power of His grace manifested in the transformation of character the world is to be convinced that God has sent His Son as its Redeemer. No other influence that can surround the human soul has such power as the influence of an unselfish life. The strongest argument in favor of the gospel is a loving and lovable Christian” (The Ministry of Healing, p. 470).
Contemporary biographical studies of Ellen White may be of great value in helping us better to appreciate her writings, but there is always the danger of making even this a substitute for applying her teachings in our lives. We run the risk of emphasizing the person over and above the divine messages God communicated through her. Far more important than just knowing whether she was tall or short, fat or thin, is the experiential knowledge of the saving message revealed throughout her writings.
3. Christ reproved the human tendency to emphasize what one likes in a prophetic message while ignoring or rejecting what one does not like.
Even if one accepts the existence of both ancient and modern prophetic messages, there still remains the very real danger of losing their overall thematic balance by emphasizing only those topics that are most attractive and appealing to us while overlooking those that we do not like so well.
In Christ’s day, the most widespread example of this distorted method of interpretation was a one-sided understanding of the Old Testament messianic prophecies. Without paying sufficient attention to those prophecies that spoke of the suffering of the Messiah (Ps 22; Isa 52:13-53:12; Dan 9:26; etc.), Jesus’ contemporaries placed their hope quite exclusively in the prophecies that portrayed Him as a victorious King (Ps 24; Isa 9:1-7; etc.).
Unfortunately, even some of His closest disciples believed in this one-sided messianic expectation. For instance, when Jesus spoke to His disciples about His approaching death and resurrection, “Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him, saying, ‘Far be it from You, Lord; this shall not happen to You!’” But Peter’s rejection of the divine testimony brought Jesus’ strong rebuke: “Get behind Me, Satan! You are an offense to Me, for you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men” (Mt 16:21-23; see also Mk 9:31, 32; Lk 18:31-34; etc.).
Today, we can find the same interpretive imbalance in two major trends. First, there is the temptation to emphasize one doctrine while excluding others of equal importance. Some argue only for righteousness by faith; others only for health reform; and still others for end-time events. As important as all three of these doctrines are, no one of them can be regarded as being the message. Rather, they are all parts of one whole, inseparable message. This suggests that we must take inspired writings as a whole. In response to Satan’s temptation, Jesus answered, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God’” (Mt 4:4, my emphasis). We must take all of God’s instruction to us, allowing the inspired writings themselves, and not us, to determine the range and scope of our doctrinal beliefs.
Second, some exhibit imbalance when studying inspired writings by allowing their own feelings to decide what is relevant today versus what is cultural. Usually, what one likes is accepted as pertinent and useful, while what one does not like is regarded as just cultural and no longer applicable. We see a similar expression of the same problem in those who try to set aside some instructions of inspired writings by saying that these were merely the human expressions of the writer.
Mrs. White wrote specifically of this problem in connection with her writings: “Many times in my experience I have been called upon to meet the attitude of a certain class, who acknowledged that the testimonies were from God, but took the position that this matter and that matter were Sister White’s opinion and judgment. This suits those who do not love reproof and correction, and who, if their ideas are crossed, have occasion to explain the difference between the human and the divine.
“If the preconceived opinions or particular ideas of some are crossed in being reproved by testimonies, they have a burden at once to make plain their position to discriminate between the testimonies, defining what is Sister White’s human judgment, and what is the word of the Lord. Everything that sustains their cherished ideas is divine, and the testimonies to correct their errors are human—Sister White’s opinions. They make of none effect the counsel of God by their tradition” (Selected Messages, 3:68, my emphasis).
Without question, we can see in inspired writings a constant tension between universal principles and their application in a particular time and place. And we feel the tension in our own souls when the instruction we read crosses the grain of our own ideas and inclinations. But we cannot play with these writings as children play on a teeter-totter. We must never forget that universal principles always apply, even if we do not like them or if the inspired writings in which they came were speaking to a specific cultural setting.
If we take seriously Jesus’ advice to live “by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Mt 4:4), then we cannot allow our own personal biases and feelings to be the final judges of Scripture.
4. Christ reproved the human tendency to be satisfied with a superficial reading of inspired writings.
Another major distortion in understanding inspired writings is the possibility of not going far enough in the truth-searching process. Satisfied with only a superficial knowledge, many people are inclined either to think that they already know all that can be known or to imagine that there is no real need for them to search further.
Jesus called for more than a superficial reading of the Scriptures when He warned in His Sermon on the Mount: “For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 5:20). He pointed to the deeper meaning of Scripture by stating time and again, “You have heard that it was said to those of old . . . . But I say to you . . . “ (see vv. 21-48).
A Great Sin
Shallowness in understanding the content of inspired writings is one of the greatest sins of our generation. Ellen White observed: “We are living in an age when almost everything is superficial. There is but little stability and firmness of character, because the training and education of children from their cradle is superficial. Their character is built upon sliding sand. Self-denial and self-control have not been molded into their characters” (Child Guidance, p. 184). Busy with numerous time-consuming options provided by technology and modern communication, contemporary Christians are tempted today more than ever before to lean towards a philosophical, anti-doctrinal form of religion.
Ellen White warned us against trusting a mere “intellectual religion” (Steps to Christ, p. 35; see also Evangelism, p. 682). But she also declared that “ignorance will not increase the humility or spirituality of any professed follower of Christ” (Testimonies for the Church, 3:160). This is why we are encouraged “to reach the very height of intellectual greatness,” becoming “giants in the understanding of Bible doctrines and the practical lessons of Christ” (ibid., 4:413, 415).
Thorough Study Needed
To become a “giant” in understanding inspired writings, one must try not to overlook any of the counsel on the particular point one may be studying. It is altogether too easy for sincere people to read one statement and think they have the entire truth of the matter, as in this passage from Mrs. White about kneeling for prayer:
“I have received letters questioning me in regard to the proper attitude to be taken by a person offering prayer to the Sovereign of the universe. Where have our brethren obtained the idea that they should stand upon their feet when praying to God? One who has been educated for about five years in Battle Creek was asked to lead in prayer before Sister White should speak to the people. But as I beheld him standing upright upon his feet while his lips were about to open in prayer to God, my soul was stirred within me to give him an open rebuke. Calling him by name, I said, ‘Get down upon your knees.’ This is the proper position always” (Selected Messages, 2:311).
Does this mean that every prayer must be offered on one’s knees? Mrs. White herself evidently did not think so, for she offered certain consecration prayers after preaching while she and the congregation were on their feet or the congregation was seated (see Selected Messages, 3:268-270). She noted that one could pray while walking or working (ibid., 2:316). Her family sat, not knelt, at the table for the blessing on the food, and she followed rather than rebuked the common Adventist practice of her day for the congregation at church to stand, not kneel, for the benediction. But for the major prayers in which we offer our petitions to God—in private prayer at home, and in the main prayer at church, as in the statement quoted above—she urged that we kneel before our Lord.
Earnestness and a heart quick to obey do not relieve us of the responsibility to be thorough in our study of the Lord’s instructions to us. Jesus calls us to be more than superficial students. Whether the matter under study is a point of behavior or of doctrinal understanding, we should be deep students who take to heart Paul’s admonition to be among those “rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Tim 2:15).
5. Christ reproved the human tendency to accept the theory of truth as revealed in inspired writings but not to live in harmony with it.
Perhaps the most dangerous situation in which people can place themselves is to profess to believe inspired writings without allowing those writings to sanctify their lives. This generates a serious division between the theoretical basis of religion and its practical outworking in the daily life. Those in such a situation usually become more critical of other people’s behavior than of their own and thus do not feel any real need to change their own lives.
During Jesus’ day, many of the teachers of the law, as well as the Pharisees, were in a hopeless state, humanly speaking (see Mt 23). Describing them several times as “hypocrites,” the Lord also compared them to cups cleaned on the outside but dirty on the inside (vv. 25, 26) and to tombs “whitewashed” on the outside but “full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness” on the inside (v. 27).
God’s message to the end-time Laodicean church reveals a similar problem. The book of Revelation portrays the Laodiceans as people unconsciously deluded by their own situation. Revelation 3:17 declares: “You say, ‘I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing’—and do not know that you are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked.”
In both 1857 and 1859 Ellen White published Testimony tracts (numbers 3 and 5) in which the first article was about the Laodicean message, applying it to the sabbath-keeping Adventist believers. (These now appear in Testimonies for the Church, 1:141-146, 185-195.) Many had felt secure in their knowledge of “the truth,” but they had not let the truth change them. Some made money their god, others fashion; some were so consumed with criticizing the faults of others that they had no time or inclination to consider their own shortcomings. Their greatest need was to hear the counsel of the True Witness and turn to Him to fulfill their lack—of which they were scarcely aware!
For all her privileges, is the church today in a better condition? Do our lives reflect the glory and the urgency of the truths we profess to believe? Or do we exhibit even more compromise with the world than ever before?
The only hope for those who nourish such a muddled approach to prophetic messages is for them, with humility of heart, to ground their spiritual lives upon Christ’s unfailing words (see Mt 7:24-27; Jn 5:39). Such individuals must allow Christ’s words to sanctify their own lives: “Sanctify them by Your truth; Your word is truth” (Jn 17:17, my emphasis). This implies, according to the apostle Paul, that we both “confess” and “believe” the mighty Savior revealed in the Scriptures (Rom 10:8-13). When we truly do this, our lives will testify to the power of the message we proclaim.
As sons and daughters of God, we must develop a consistent approach to inspired writings. That approach must be based upon the principles expressed in two passages of Scripture—Matthew 4:4: “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God,” and Deuteronomy 4:2: “You shall not add to the word which I command you, nor take anything from it, that you may keep the commands of the Lord your God which I command you.” This requires that we overcome, by God’s grace, our human tendencies to (1) praise the ancient prophets while at the same time rejecting contemporary ones; (2) replace the divine message by the human messenger; (3) emphasize what we like about the prophetic message while ignoring or rejecting what we do not like; (4) be satisfied with a superficial reading of the inspired writings; and (5) accept the theory of truth revealed in the inspired writings without living in harmony with it.
Unconditional faithfulness to God , obeying the inspired writings, might not be the easiest way to live, but it is the only way we can actually claim the promise of 2 Chronicles 20:20: “Believe in the Lord your God, and you shall be established; believe His prophets, and you shall prosper.” May the Lord strengthen us to live today, and every day of our lives, in faithfulness to Him and to His Word.