Adventists are a pilgrim people, journeying from the counterpart of Egypt to the real Canaan. On such a journey through a vast landscape, landmarks are essential. The Bible gives us the significant truths that meet this need.
Some years ago, I was one of a party of four that hiked in the Warrumbungle National Park where volcanoes and time have shaped fantastic mountains. Colourful names for various peaks reflect human perceptions and experience: Crater Bluff, Split Rock, Needle Mountain. And Mount Exmouth, reaching 1206 metres into the clear sky of New South Wales, beyond the Great Dividing Range.
Let’s press Mount Exmouth into service as a symbol of an Adventist teaching, the message of the First Angel. See Revelation, chapter 14, especially verses 6 and 7.
Even though it towers over other impressive tors like the Breadknife and Bluff Mountain, Exmouth cannot be seen from Blackman’s Camp. From that angle, other peaks hide Exmouth.
From part of the walking track Exmouth looks like a single, rounded mass of rock.
When at last we reached its crest, we found Exmouth is a small range with a number of rocky outcrops.
How similar is the “range” we call the First Angel’s message: proclaiming the everlasting gospel for earth-dwellers, announcing judgment in the present tense, calling for worship of the Creator. Each of these “outcrops” is an important truth; our spiritual journey is orientated by all of them.
But each aspect of this teaching has been viewed very differently from various vantage points during the sixteen decades of the Adventist journey. Let’s test that statement with respect to just one feature: the gospel, for everyone.
In 1845 when William Miller read in his King James Version about preaching “the everlasting gospel unto them that dwell on the earth, and to every nation, and kindred, and tongue, and people” he wrote: “We have done our work in warning sinners, and in trying to awake a formal church. God in his providence has shut the door; we can only stir one another up to be patient, and to be diligent in making our calling and election sure.”
No sense of continuing mission there!
When Uriah Smith read those same words in 1859, he wrote that the United States “is composed of people from almost every nation.” He mused that it may not be necessary, then, for Adventists to go everywhere preaching the gospel; and probably there wasn’t time for them to do so, anyway, because Jesus was coming so soon.
That was an improved but short-sighted concept of mission! Jesus declares in Matthew 24:14 (NIV) that “this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.”
The concept of mission that we cherish from Revelation 14:6-7 propelled earnest folk from North America to every continent, beginning with John Andrews and his two motherless children who went to Europe in 1874. By 1885, that message was moving Stephen Haskell and his ten companions past Samoa and Auckland to Melbourne, to begin their Australian mission.
By the 1950s some Adventists were beginning to ask whether our mission should target non-Christians more effectively. Rather than a main emphasis on re-converting believers, shouldn’t we go more intentionally to those who had never heard the name of Jesus? That line of thinking would help to develop research centres focused on how best to present Adventism to Muslims, Jews, Buddhists and so on.
Late in the 1960s a fresh concept of mission was forming in the minds of people like Gottfried Oosterwal of Andrews University, formerly a pioneer missionary in what was called Dutch New Guinea. By the 1980s for Oosterwal and the church the necessity was clear, Adventists must consciously plan what is now named “Global Mission,” a way of reaching every people group within every nation. For instance, it will never do to tell the story of salvation to just Anglo-Saxon Australians: our Aborigines must hear the Good News, as must immigrants from India, China, Cambodia and everywhere else. God is “not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance,” 2 Peter 3:9.
The New International Version expresses the task of Adventist mission in unmistakable terms: the gospel must go to “every nation, tribe, language and people.” Currently Adventists are working over 200 of the geographical divisions of the world. The other countries are in their minds, as is every people group in every nation under heaven.
So much for a brief account of 160-plus years of Adventist mission. Of course, like Exmouth, the vital truths of the First Angel’s Message were there even when we failed to see them at all, or when we peered at some of them as through a dark glass. And as our vantage point changed, so did the substance of what we saw.
All of us need to take responsibility for understanding the truths of the Bible in the light of history. Ellen White’s memorable words reassure us: “We have nothing to fear for the future, except as we shall forget the way the Lord has led us, and His teaching in our past history,” Life Sketches, page 196. One of the deepest problems Adventists face is that we can so easily forget what God has taught us so clearly in the past. That’s like paying for experience but failing to keep the receipt.
To summarise: the concept of world mission was crucial in Millerite Adventism. It was put on hold in the era of transition when Millerites were becoming Sabbatarian Adventists. After the theological foundation of the new movement was laid effectively, Seventh-day Adventists developed an understanding of their mission in several stages, matching the capacity of the movement to engage with an ever-enlarging task. Thus believers were challenged progressively to better perceive and implement the biblical ideal: God’s Good News is for everyone.
Undergraduate students study such conceptual change in classes focused on Seventh-day Adventist (SDA) history and the life and writings of Ellen White. Seminary or graduate students go into it all, in far greater depth, when they study the development of SDA theology. But all of us need to benefit from understanding how God has led Adventists during their pilgrimage. Not all of us can sit in college or seminary classrooms. But all of us can learn a lot about the essentials with the help of books, journals and magazines, plus valuable information we can access at the push of a computer button.
More later, when this website focuses further on the fascinating theme of mission.
Arthur Patrick, posted 3 November 2011