Seventh-day Adventists have always believed that the “Time of the End” (Dan. 12:4) began in 1844. We have seen ourselves, therefore, as living on borrowed time. Toward the end of World War I, my father believed that the end surely could not be more than five or ten years away, and I felt the same way at the end of World War II.
But now, sixty-four years later, I am not so sure about those five to ten years. Furthermore, we have discovered that New Testament writers saw the last days as beginning in their day. Hebrews 1:2 says “in these last days God has spoken to us by His Son.” Peter wrote that Jesus was “revealed in these last times for your sake” (1 Pet. 1:20), and John saw the presence of “many antichrists” as characteristic of “the last hour” (1 John 2:18).
How should Adventists now speak about the last days? The year 1844 marked the beginning of the modern emphasis on the second coming of Christ. The Oxford English Dictionary found the word eschatology appearing first in that year. (Our fathers rediscovered the first coming of Christ in the year 1888.) But what should be our stance toward these lengthening “last days”?
All of us older folks now face the probability that we shall die before Jesus comes. It seems to me that the healthy position to take is that I should live every day as though it were my last. For it may be–for me, if not for the world. Ever since Christ’s first coming, all time has been “last days” time. The “last hour” describes not chronology but theology.
In our lesson for this week, John refers to antichrists as characteristic of the last days. He describes people who denied that Jesus had come in the flesh (1 John 4:2, 3; see also chapter 2:18, 19, 22; and 2 John 7). This was the teaching of the “Docetists,” who in honoring the divinity of Christ denied his humanity. They maintained that Christ only seemed to have a human body. Some said his feet never left a footprint, for he was always half an inch above the dust.
John saw this teaching as a threat to the church because views of Christ always affect views of salvation. If Christ is only divine and not really human, then Jacob’s ladder is short on the earthly end. Christ’s temptations become a mere charade and he does not really share our experiences. He is not a complete Savior. There remains something we must do to save ourselves. One of the early Greek theologians, Gregory of Nazianus, well said, “What he did not assume he did not heal.”
In the twenty-first century, the danger is not denial of the humanity of Christ, but his divinity. It is held that he was a good man, even a perfect man, but not God. Some Adventists emphasize his humanity so much that they believe Jesus took the nature of Adam after his fall, but without sin. His perfection provided the example for us to follow. We can become perfect also if we depend on God as he did. But again there is something left for us to do to save ourselves.
These beliefs about the nature of Christ illustrate the fact that heretics tend to adopt one truth at the expense of others. Often the answer to such questions is a “Yes,” which takes both sides into account. Martin Luther compared us to a drunken peasant trying to mount his donkey. First he falls off on the right, then on the left. It is hard to be balanced.
Through the centuries, there have been many such conflicts. There have been the paradoxes of law and grace, justification and sanctification. Today we have vigorous discussions over science and faith, which are related to inspiration of Scripture and methods of Bible study.
Finally, John tells his readers to test the spirits to see whether they are from God (1 John 4:1). One test is that “they went out from us, but they did not really belong to us” (1 John 2:19). We can apply this to subversive elements today. We call them offshoots. With their unique emphases, they tend to separate from the main body of the church and criticize it. True believers, on the other hand, press together in love for Christ and each other.
Next, John says “you have an anointing from the Holy One, and all of you know the truth” (1 John 2:20-21). The anointing is the Holy Spirit, whom Jesus promised to guide us into all truth. Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 2:21, 22, “He anointed us, set his seal of ownership on us, and put His Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.” And he repeated his idea of the Spirit as a deposit, a down payment, in Ephesians 1:14, saying the Spirit “is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession–to the praise of his glory.”
While we wait for the promised inheritance with the Spirit as our guarantee, he also guides into the truth. Truth has a double meaning. First, it is Jesus, “the way, the truth, and the life.” And second, it is the gospel about Jesus. The Spirit takes what is Christ’s and makes it known to us. He helps us distinguish between Christ and antichrist. But his guidance is given to the church, to all true believers, not to individuals in separation from their brothers and sisters in Christ. Those whose private interpretations pull them apart from the body are likely to have the spirit of antichrist.
Last of all, John calls the church to remain in Christ. The great temptation today in North America, Europe, and Australia is to not so much opposing Christ as drifting away from him. In John’s Gospel, Jesus compared his disciples to branches of the vine–himself. “Without Me,” he said, “you can do nothing.” We are to eat his flesh and drink his blood–which means to live by his word (John 6:63). Those who abide in him will be safe from the delusions of the last days.
Ralph Neall taught Bible in Singapore for three years and Union College in Lincoln, Nebraska, for seventeen years before retiring in 1994. He and his wife, Beatrice, were missionaries in Cambodia, Vietnam, and Singapore before their return to the United States. They now live in Collegedale, Tennessee.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/1778