Consider the patience of God, as He set about restoring a knowledge of Himself in a world that had nearly forgotten Him.
God called Abraham, a man with a responsive heart, and began to patiently teach him lessons of faith and trust. On two occasions, Abraham’s trust failed. Fearing he would be killed in order to take his beautiful wife Sarah, he lied, both to the Pharaoh of Egypt and Abimilech, king of Gerar, and both times God rescued him.
When God promised him a son, but he remained childless, he followed Sarah’s suggestion to father a child with her maid, a human solution that led to great difficulties, both then and through the centuries since. God did not punish him for this, but provided a son, Isaac, through Sarah in His own time. As God continued to teach and guide, Abraham’s faith grew, and today we know him as the “Father of the Faithful.”
After 400 years of slavery in Egypt, Abraham’s descendents had lost much of their knowledge about the God of their forefather, Abraham. But once again, God called Moses, a man who had learned patience, to deliver them and teach them His ways. Trapped against the Red Sea, God made a path of dry land and led them to the other side. Discouraged by hunger and thirst, God provided their needs. Afraid of facing the inhabitants of Canaan, God promised to send hornets to drive them out, but when they misunderstood, He let them do it their way.
Jesus came to tell people that His Father’s Kingdom of Love was already beginning. He spent three years ministering to people’s needs, showing love to the outcasts, and teaching His disciples as much as He could about a new way of understanding God. Jesus realized that those who followed Him were slow of heart and didn’t understand many of the things He had been telling them. As they ate the Passover Supper together before His death, He tried to prepare His disciples for what was coming, to comfort them in advance of an event that would devastate them.
He promised, “I tell you the truth: it is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Counselor will not come to you, but if I go, I will send him to you. I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when he, the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth. (John 16:12,13) What a precious gift the Holy Spirit was! It would be like having Jesus living in their hearts. The Spirit would be able to open their minds to more truth, when they were able to understand it. And the Spirit would continue to enlighten Jesus’ followers through the ages, even today.
The understanding that Jesus had truly been God, embodied in human flesh, did not fully dawn on His followers at first, but after He returned to heaven and the Holy Spirit had been poured out on them, they were enlightened. Regarding this insight, Peter later wrote, “I will always remind you of these things, even though you know them and are firmly established in the present truth.” (2 Pet. 1:12-13)
“Present truth” is a significant phrase for Seventh-day Adventists, dating back to the founding of the church. This expression implies truth that is revealed at an appropriate time in history, a truth which people are ready or able to understand. In early Adventist history, pioneer Joseph Bates defined “present truth” as the sanctuary and Sabbath doctrines.
Church founder James White wrote, “In Peter’s time there was present truth, or truth applicable to that present time. The Church have [sic] ever had a present truth. The present truth now is that which shows present duty and the right position for us.” It is important for Adventists today to continue to keep our minds open to the guidance of God’s Spirit in discerning “present truth” for our day.
Sometimes it’s not so easy to accept new light when it seems to conflict with the way we’ve always understood something. There are many biblical examples: polygamy, for instance. This practice was accepted as normal in the culture of Old Testament times, if a man was wealthy enough to support more than one wife. We think of Abraham, Jacob, Elkannah, David, and Solomon. God even gave commands to protect the rights of the first wife, when a second wife was taken. (Ex. 21:10, Deut. 21:16,17) If a man died without children, God commanded that his brother take his widow and give her a child to carry on the deceased’s line.
And yet, by the time the early Christian church was established, Paul suggests that the ideal is to be the husband of one wife. (1 Tim. 3:2,12) And today, certainly, this is recognized as God’s ideal.
We find a very strong patriarchal bias in the Old Testament, and the understanding that women were possessions owned by their fathers or husbands. The Ten Commandments even illustrate this: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife…or anything that belongs to your neighbor.” But both Jesus and Paul began the task of elevating women to the status of equals, although that new light has taken much longer to be accepted.
The Old Testament purity laws stipulated that touching a dead person made one unclean, and considered women to be unclean during their periods. Yet Jesus touched a young man and a girl who were dead to bring them back to life, and He was touched by a woman who had been bleeding for 12 years, yet did not consider Himself defiled.
Perhaps one of the most remarkable changes wrought by the Spirit in the early church was its understanding of the new Gentile believers. This story, found in Acts 15, demonstrates how the Spirit guided the church in an amazing transition. Christian believers who were members of the party of Pharisees, stirred up controversy by telling Paul’s Gentile converts that they must be circumcised. Paul and Barnabas disputed sharply with them.
A big argument was going on in the church. Does that sound familiar? The so-called Judaizers couldn’t imagine that there could possibly be any change in the command God had given to Abraham. Why, circumcision was the sign of their covenant with God! It was a foundational part of their lives.
So everyone was called to a big “Jerusalem Council,” where Paul and Barnabas told about all the miracles God had performed among the Gentiles, and Peter added his testimony about how God had sent him to Cornelius and he had seen the Spirit poured out on them. The Pharisee believers voiced their objections. After deliberation, the apostle James announced that circumcision should not be required for the Gentiles, for, as Peter had said, it was “a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear.”
Just think what a tremendous change this was for the Jewish believers! This was their sign of identity. Saying that circumcision was no longer necessary must have seemed as unthinkable for them as it would for Adventists to say that the Sabbath was no longer necessary. But the Holy Spirit worked on their hearts and helped them see a radical new paradigm.
All of these new understandings—doing away with polygamy; accepting the equality of everyone, including women and slaves; doing away with purity laws and circumcision—were “present truth” at various times in history, brought about by the Holy Spirit when people were able to hear and understand them. And through the years since then, the Spirit has continued to bring new light to shine on our minds when we are “able to bear it.”
Think, for example, of Copernicus and Galileo. As human knowledge and powers of observation began to increase, people became away that the earth was not the center of the universe, that the sun did not revolve around a flat earth, but that a round earth revolved around the sun, replacing the cosmic understanding of people in biblical times. This was a very difficult thing for the church to accept, because this new concept appeared to disagree with what was written in the Bible. Today, scientists continue to make amazing new discoveries that challenge our traditional concepts.
The truth about the equality and role of women, hinted at during the still-patriarchal society in Jesus’ day, very gradually began to be accepted in society and, during the past century, has been coming into fruition, even in the church. The Holy Spirit has worked on minds for centuries to bring about this new way of seeing women and it seems to have become “present truth” for our day, with particular significance in our church which was founded by a woman who spoke for God.
In the history of our country, and many others, we have seen the practice of slavery. It was mentioned, condoned, and regulated in the Bible, and practiced by many devout Christians. But it has become recognized as an evil, contrary to the will of God. This, too, was a “present truth” revealed by the Spirit when people, as a society, became ready to hear it.
More and more people are also becoming aware that war is not God’s way of resolving differences. Perhaps, if Jesus doesn’t come back first, we might see changes in the way society handles conflict resolution. Although people of the earth have a long way to go in putting this new light into practice, we today are aware of God’s truth in a way that people long ago were not.
These are difficult times in our church. We are living in a period of great and dramatic changes in our world. Let’s resolve to keep our hearts open to the Spirit as we face these new challenges. Change is never easy, especially when the answers are not clear. It is so much easier to see everything in “black and white” terms, but because our weak human intellect is not able to understand God’s mind, we need to be humble, and also to be grateful when the Spirit brings new light to illuminate our path.
How can we best relate to others who may understand things differently than we do? We need to remember that the Spirit brings new light to each of us at different times, when we are ready, so we should be understanding of where others are in their journeys. True Christian humility reminds us that God’s thoughts and ways are much higher than ours. We see now through a glass, darkly, and we will spend eternity learning the secrets of the universe. But that should not discourage us from studying and learning as much as we can. Humility should keep us from judging each other, knowing that only God can read the heart. We are all weak human beings, sinners at the foot of the cross, and we are called to love each other, not to judge.
In relating to others who see things differently, let’s remember the words of Paul in 1 Cor. 12:22-24, 26: “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’ And the head cannot say to the feet, ‘I don’t need you!’…if one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.” Surely, if we think of each other this way, our churches (and Spectrum blogs) will be havens of love and support for everyone and the Spirit will be able to work in our hearts and minds and reveal “present truth” to us.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/3761