On Rejecting the Spirit of Prophecy

When a community misreads the Bible, it warps the Gospel, a little or a lot. When it misreads a signature Bible passage — one by which it defines itself — the damage is worse, and is also deeply inexcusable. Defining passages, after all, receive constant attention, so when misreading persists you wonder how such attention can be so unquestioning and self-satisfied.

Revelation 19:10 has been precious to Adventism from the beginning. The “testimony of Jesus,” it declares, “is the spirit of prophecy,” and this verse has usually been paired with the description of the remnant, in Revelation 12:17, as “those who keep the commandments of God and hold the testimony of Jesus.” For Adventists these words, taken together, evoke a movement shaped by the prophetic presence of Ellen White, and Ellen White’s ministry is what we have emphasized.

But if we actually attend to the Bible, we will see that, for Jesus, the spirit of prophecy was very much the spirit of the Hebrew prophets. Two compelling examples are Luke 4 and Matthew 11, where he invokes Isaiah as fundamental to his entire ministry. The first of these is a record of Jesus’ inaugural sermon. His vocation, Jesus declared, is “to bring good news to the poor.” God’s Spirit “has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free….” He was quoting Isaiah, one of the greatest of the prophets, and his identification with the prophetic tradition becomes clear again when, according to Matthew 11, the disciples of John the Baptist ask him if he is the “one who is to come.” Alluding again to Isaiah, Jesus “answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.’” Then Matthew himself, in chapter 12, declares that Jesus fulfills Isaiah 42:1-4. Part of what he quotes from Isaiah is this: “Here is my servant…he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles,” or “nations”; Matthew then says that Jesus will persevere “until he brings justice to victory.”

Although such echoes of Hebrew prophecy occur frequently in the Gospels, two recent episodes show unmistakably that both official and Americanized lay Adventism fail to grasp what this means. At Annual Council in October 2018, General Conference President Ted Wilson expressed disapproval for those who “overemphasize social issues while downplaying or neglecting biblical truth and its relevance for today’s society.” When precisely parsed, the sentence seems to deflate social concern into something minor and distracting. Do not let such a thing “overshadow” proclamation of “God’s last-day message,” the president said.

Whether or not he meant to go this far in his effort to keep all attention focused on “God’s last-day warning” instead of “social issues,” all nine presidents of historically black conferences in North America objected. The Gospel, they said in a statement, addresses “social injustices.” They could not, they said further, “condone, under any circumstances, any attempt to silence or demoralize any who seek to follow in the footsteps of the Savior who spoke on the issues of social injustice — ‘If you have done it unto the least of these you have done it unto me’ (Matthew 25:40). It is the Gospel of love that demands we speak from the pulpit to the streets and from the streets to anywhere where injustice is tolerated, and to be a voice for those who have no voice.”

These conference presidents sought and received a private meeting with the General Conference president, where, according to their report, he was cordial and allowed that he “could have found a better way of expressing what he was trying to say.” But he was not even trying to say what the New Testament declares, namely, that the concerns of the Hebrew prophets are central to Jesus’ entire testimony. During the American Civil Rights Movement, the White men at the church’s official magazine, then called the Review and Herald, claimed that concern for civil rights was an interruption of Adventist mission. Then, as now, Black Adventist ministers, among them the iconic E. E. Cleveland, objected. So what happened this past fall repeats what has happened before. White leaders tend to minimize, or ignore altogether, what the Hebrew prophets emphasize; Black leaders, or some of them, try to correct the oversight.

It seems clear that until official (and still largely White) Adventism repents of the constricted meaning it ascribes to Revelation 19:10, it will, with respect to justice and injustice, continue to falsify the Gospel. “For the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy” — this is a signature passage for us, and misrepresenting it is disastrous. The prophet Amos (5:16) even takes “justice in the gate” — institutional justice; justice at the political level — as a proper concern of the “remnant”; but such a convention-blasting remark continues to have little effect on official sensibility. If a Black minister, Carlton P. Byrd, of the Oakwood University Church and the Breath of Life Telecast, has this very month affirmed Adventist social “activism,” our White General Conference president has again, this very month, defined Adventist mission as a “message,” not as prophetic engagement of poverty, injustice, and oppression.*

Since at least the time of the American Civil Rights Movement, a few Adventist scholars, pastors, and journalists (from a variety of races) have been attempting to nudge the church toward the embrace of Hebrew prophecy that Jesus himself epitomized. Just weeks ago, a pastor in the Netherlands, J. A. O’Rourke, chimed in with a heavily footnoted argument, replete with references to the prophets, for what he called a “theology of social justice.” It was published on this website, and comments on the article, some affirming and some not, climbed to more than 200. The first was entirely negative. The commenter, who entered the conversation numerous times, said that O’Rourke was reading Scripture through the lens of “Liberal-Socialism,” and that the “concept of social justice’” has little to do, in fact, with “treating others according to the principles of God’s laws.”

Although he had a political agenda familiar (or all too familiar) in the American context, this commenter did emphasize the Christian obligation to do, in the here and now, “the good works Jesus commanded us to do…” But the telltale point came in several remarks that would surely seem odd to anyone not steeped in official Adventism. Why, he wondered, all the preoccupation with “prophecy”? “Through almost my entire life,” he explained, “we’ve had an overwhelming emphasis on prophecy to the exclusion of actually doing” what Jesus wants us to do.

But Jesus himself emphasized prophecy, so what gives? The answer is that official Adventism has construed Revelation 19:10 as pointing exclusively to Ellen White — and to her reading, in particular, of last-day events. This is a misconstrual — prophecy is by no means merely predictive; it is divinely ordained speech against heedless power. The consequences of the misconstrual worsen, moreover, when official Adventism largely overlooks Ellen White’s own attunement to prophecy as passion for the poor, the brokenhearted, the captive and the bruised. Prophecy is about justice, and in prophetic perspective justice is bias for underdogs. Ellen White got that.

The commenter who objected to J. A. O’Rourke’s argument may be assured that no contemporary take on social justice, whether socialist, libertarian, or otherwise, exactly replicates the biblical vision. That vision came to expression, after all, before modern political institutions were invented, and its applicability in today’s circumstances must stir us to urgent conversation, not cocksureness. But it is a gross betrayal of what Jesus stood for — a gross betrayal of the Gospel — to pretend that Revelation 19:10 or any other passage of Scripture exempts the church from obligations the Hebrew prophets put at the center of covenant responsibility. If we cannot interpret our eschatology in such a way as to buttress, not weaken, passion for social justice, we cannot legitimately call ourselves Christian, let alone indulge the fantasy that we, and we alone, are the bearers of God’s last word to the world.

*Byrd’s comment appeared in the February 2019 issue of Adventist Journey, and the General Conference president’s in the February 2019 issue of Adventist World. These magazines arrive in North American Division homes bound together as one.

Charles Scriven is the former board chair of Adventist Forum, the organization that publishes Spectrum.

Photo by Gift Habeshaw on Unsplash

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/9389

Sort of a fatal error here in that the spirit of prophecy is the holy spirit, it is the spirit that inspires the prophets. That is the Spirit of God not the spirit of Hebrew prophets! The second problem is how all those social justice people constantly equate justice with social justice. If they really were the same thing than there would be no need to add social to the word justice. They are not the same thing however. There is a political bent that likes to pretend that their beliefs are just justice even though they are not. So they modify justice to be “social justice”, “economic justice” “racial justice”, “environmental justice”. Learning to see past the language manipulation is more important today than ever before.


@RonCorson I’m curious, what are your definitions of “justice” and “social justice?” Perhaps my perspective is overly simplistic, but I always understood that justice was a broad term for “fairness” or “equity.” Additional modifiers could be used to specify the context where we are applying or talking about justice. So we might have “legal justice,” “social justice,” “racial justice,” “environmental justice” etc. Each is simply a specific application of justice. Social fairness, racial fairness, environmental equity and so forth. It seems to me that throughout history groups which have concerns about unfair or unjust treatment have often had to work extra hard to get those in power to even acknowledge that an injustice or inequity exists. Adding the extra modifier helps us understand what specific type of injustice or justice we’re talking about. That seems pretty simple to me.

I guess I’m not sure how these concepts are pretending to be something else… What makes “just justice” distinct from justice under the law or justice for individuals or groups in society? If I use the term “racial justice” to refer to fair treatment for people of different ethnic backgrounds or appearances, how am I losing the concept of “pure justice” to which you seem to be alluding? Or maybe I’m just hopelessly lost in semantics?


Not a fatal error. The Holy Spirit inspired both Old and New Testament writers and continues to inspire to this day writers and communication professionals.

Social justice = justice. Pure and simple. No problem. Using an adjective to talk about a specific form of justice is not a political use of language. It’s quite straightforward.


If what you mean by Racial Justice could be equally applied to all people, then there is no problem at all. If what you mean by Racial Justice is preferential treatment of people of color in modern context as means of leveling the field of outcome, then you are no longer talking about justice. That would be punishing Bob for what Larry did to Steve 50 years ago and calling that “justice”.

And such is generally the difference between the modified brands of justice. It generally implies preferential treatment of some group of people at expense of other.


1 Corinthians 14, the Apostle Paul wishes that ALL Believers should desire the
special abilities the Spirit gives — especially the ability to PROPHECY.
He goes on to give a DEFINITION of Prophecying. vs3 – one who prophecies
strengthens others, encourages them, comforts them. A word of prophecy
strengthens the entire church.
One who Prophecies gives the Good News.
THIS is the Spirit of Prophecy. As Rev 19:10 says, For the essence of prophecy
is to give a clear witness for Jesus.
Rev 12:17 – Who…maintain their testimony [witness] for Jesus.

Perhaps these verses of John and of Paul is talking about ALL True Believers,
and not just members of Denominations or a Particular end time Denomination.
But ALL Believers in Christ regardless of the Community with whom they worship.
God had 2 Commandments – 1. Love God with all heart, mind, soul, spirit.
2. Love one’s neighbor as one self.


I disagree with the utmost vigor because “social justice” gets claimed as meaning so many things that it is impossible to define it as anything specific. In scripture, justice is simply a judicial term of fairness that is compliant with God’s law and that concept should be the basis for our behavior in society. It has NOTHING to do with a guaranteed living wage, access to the Internet, the payment of damages because of historic discrimination committed generations ago, or anything of the sort. Jesus gave us as His followers clear instructions to go and minister God’s love and perform life-changing miracles in the power of the Holy Spirit. By doing that we will be turning hearts toward God and preparing people to meet Jesus. That is the ultimate “social justice” issue we should be seeking.


We’re still trying to manipulate these words to coincide with the “issue of the day”. When Adventist first combined Rev. 19:10 with 12:17 the object was to situate our prophet (EGW) into the actual wording in the Bible. As a result they created an awkward flow from 12:17, where the saved are described as being "those who keep the commandments of God (primarily the 4th)"; and “hold the testimony of Jesus”. This was translated to mean as - having the same testimony as Jesus (again, Jesus being an example of our BEHAVIOR).

We then skipped to Rev. 19:10 to find out what that testimony was. Here we read “the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophesy”. Now it was time to grab the words SPIRIT OF PROPHESY and make it the name for all of EGW writings. So what we ended up with was that the THE SAVED ARE THOSE WHO KEEP THE SABBATH AND HOLD TO ELLEN WHITE (through her writings). One problem: they left out Jesus as our SAVIOR.

Today we’re trying to ascribe that “SPIRIT OF PROPHESY” to zero in on our need to be more active in the social Gospel (as it’s sometimes called).

Both uses of the verses in Revelation are a hijacking them from their actual point, when read in context.
Rev.12:17 describes the saved as "those who keep the commandments (IN THE SPIRIT OF THE SERMON ON THE MOUNT); and have a faith IN Jesus - His death and resurrection - and all that that event meant - Jesus as our SAVIOR.

Rev. 19:10 comes from the mouth of the angel speaking to John. When the angel appeared, John bowed down to worship the angel. The angel admonishes John “to not do that.” - “I am a fellow servant of yours and your brethren who hold the testimony of Jesus. Worship God for the testimony of Jesus is the spirit (essence of) prophesy.” What the angel said was an admonishment not to worship the messenger; but worship God since Jesus is the basis of prophesy - not the angel (or the prophet).

We have corrupted these verses by making them say something they do not say. In fact, the message of these verses say quite the opposite to what we have done with them.


Therein lies the tragedy of Adventism: we’ve defined an attribute God by the ministry of a single person. Through spiritual history God has always sent prophets to deliver His messages. While we tend to think of prophecy as focusing on end-time events when the majority of their mission was delivering intimate and often personal instruction to individuals and groups. Indeed, that was the bulk of Ellen White’s ministry. Another aspect of prophecy that we overlook is how often God sent multiple prophets and a succession of prophets. So, why do we focus on the writings of a single prophet who died more than a century ago instead of focusing on finding the new prophets God wants to send? Could it be we’re not receiving the blessing of additional prophets among us because we’re so devoted to Ellen White that we would reject anyone else God sent? I think so.


I just hope your friends and family learn from your “greatly dividing the word” as you do. I mean that sincerely. The stolen identity of the spirit of prophecy is what took Adventists off the track.


While never claiming to be a prophet of receiving visions, I feel J Gresham Machen had a “prophetic message” in his book " Christianity vs. Liberalism."
Great read for many issues in our day from a Princeton/Westminster bibical scholar contemporary of EGW.

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In Luke 4 Jesus announced His Ministry at His home church.
To bring Good News to the poor.
To proclaim the release to the captives.
To announce and provide recovery of sight to the blind.
To let the oppressed go free.
To proclaim the YEAR of the Lord’s favor – the Year of Jubilee and what that meant.

If we witness [proclaim] the Testimony of Jesus, we will carry on His work.

PS-- WHY did Jesus NOT mention the Rich?

  1. In Mary’s Song [Luke 1:53.] “…and sent the rich away with empty hands”.
  2. Psalm 138:6 - Though the Lord is on high, yet He regards and cares for the
    lowly [humble], but the proud He keeps His distance and knows from afar."
    The proud do NOT feel a need so feel no need for a relationship with God, in
    order to receive anything – as they already “have” everything.

Another example of the typical Christian denigration of the “social Gospel.” Believers have long insisted that the great commission was to “win souls” - an enterprise, clearly, that excludes any material concern for the common good. Thankfully, religion evolves.


I would pertinent to this subject draw attention to Machen’s chapter on the church. Modern Liberalism/religion makes that society, a fatal error!

I think we tend unnecessarily elevate the meaning of “prophet” to that of a “fortune-teller” as opposed to “interpretive educator”. Essentially, a prophet is someone who interprets the meaning of spiritual wisdom with some contextual warning for disastrous behavior of any-given generation.

I think there are plentiful prophets who posses a certain comprehensive degree of understanding to nudge humanity in a proper direction. For example:

Of course, few would think of JP as a prophet, and he himself may think it a bit too “grand” of a status… but I think the status of the prophet is something that other recognize. It’s not a self-ascribed title.

Amen! This crass co-opting of the phrase ‘spirit of prophecy’ has long been perhaps my biggest pet peeve with the church. And I suspect it will remain in place for a long time to come. It is rather ironic that the very verse that brings us this phrase first firmly urges us away from worshiping the messenger: “And I fell at his feet to worship him. And he said unto me, See thou do it not: …worship God…


He was primarily talking to the Jewish nation. However, even going north to the “lost tribes” , which was a part of His covenant mission, He was encountering Gentiles along with the Centurian.

A living wage?
Access to information, news, sources, etc.?
Erasing discrimination that has set back several generations who were forced to create the wealth for our grandfathers and great grandfathers (passed down to us or used by our ancestors)?

These aren’t of concern to Jesus Christ?


I would ask this taboo question. How is it that Ben Carson, many Asians, Hispanics and others have come to this country with little means and earned a comfortable, howbeit, not usually an opulent living?
Is it possible that with all Bill Cosby’s mistakes, he was correct in asking if a community might consider looking inward?
Asking the political correct unaskable. How long must we rely on injustices of the past as ones message?

Pat –
What we have to DEFINE is “What is the Good News about the Kingdom
will be preached throughout the whole world, so that all nations will hear
it, and then the end will come.” – Matt 24:14.
IS the Good News Jesus’ Opening Declaration of His Mission and Ministry??
And what ALL does that encompass, include, and promote in bringing
the request of Jesus in Matt 6:10 ,“May Your will be done on earth as it is
done in heaven.” that He asks His followers to pray for and encourage.

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