A time to remember, a call to press on
As the General Conference marks its 150th anniversary, the president of the world church issues a call to remember and a need to press on to the ultimate goal of redemptive history
The great day of disappointment left many in despair and disarray. But a small band of believers continued to affirm the certainty of the second coming of Jesus and the unfailing certainty of the prophetic word. They were driven not to depression but to a deeper study of God’s Word, earnest and continued sessions of prayer both individually and in groups, and a mission to discover God’s will for their faith and community. Such a coming together and seeking after God’s way led them to some of the great truths that set them apart as a special people with a special message for the last days: the seventh-day Sabbath, the heavenly sanctuary, the gift of the spirit of prophecy, the three angels’ messages, conditional immortality, and a concept of the remnant church with an emerging worldwide mission, to name a few. Discovery of unique truths and the need to share them with people everywhere led this small group of Sabbatarian Adventists to organize themselves as the Seventh-day Adventist Church. That first organizational session took place on May 20-21, 1863, in Battle Creek, Michigan – 19 years after the disappointment in 1844.
Now we are in 2013 – a year that marks the 150th anniversary of the organization of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. What began as a church, based in the United States with 125 churches and 3,500 members, has grown into a worldwide family of faith and mission with, according to 2011 statistics, 72,144 churches and 67,078 companies in 208 countries and an adult membership of 17.5 million, still waiting for the breaking of the dawn.
Recently, the General Conference Executive Committee met for its spring meeting in Battle Creek, Michigan, to recount God’s blessing during these 150 years of prayer and study, sacrifice and stewardship, growth and development, local and worldwide mission and ministry – all within that orbit of eternal hope: our Lord shall come soon.
As a world church, we must never forget what God has done for us as His people, so that our journey ahead will remain buoyant with hope. God’s faithfulness so demands. Our mission so expects. Our history so directs. Our road, therefore, must ever be upward.
It is an axiom of the Christian journey that God expects us to be faithful to Him. But this expectation is always based on His past faithfulness to us. When God gave His law to Israel and expected its obedience, He personally admonished His chosen people that His expectation is rooted in His historic action: “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage” (Exodus 20:2).1
Later in its history, Joshua charged Israel to “hold fast to the Lord your God” (Joshua 23:8), because the Lord was faithful in His promise that He would bring Israel to the promised land. Israel responded to Joshua’s stirring appeal by declaring, “Far be it from us that we should forsake the Lord to serve other gods; for the Lord our God is He who brought us and our fathers up out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage, who did those great signs in our sight, and preserved us in all the way that we went and among all the people through whom we passed” (Joshua 24:16, 17).
Still later in its history, Samuel charged Israel to remember the nexus between what the Lord did in history and what He expects in return in the present: “Only fear the Lord, and serve Him in truth with all your heart; for consider what great things He has done for you” (1 Samuel 12:24). Indeed, what great things the Lord did for His people! But the word of God records how terrible was their fall when the generations that followed failed to be mindful of the Lord’s leading: “When all that generation had been gathered to their fathers, another generation arose after them who did not know the Lord nor the work which He had done for Israel. Then the children of Israel did evil in the sight of the Lord and served the Baals; and they forsook the Lord God of their fathers” (Joshua 2:10-12).
Years later Jeremiah, God’s spokesman, summarized Israel’s persistent neglect to recall the leading of the Lord and the inevitable apostasies that followed: “But this is what I commanded them saying, ‘Obey My voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be My people. And walk in all the ways that I have commanded you, that it may be well with you.’ Yet they did not obey or incline their ear, but followed the counsels and the dictates of their evil hearts, and went backward and not forward” (Jeremiah 7:23-24).
The tragic history of Israel in not remembering God’s leading and indeed forsaking His expectations is not a story to be read and forgotten. The Apostle Paul explicitly explains that the rebellion of ancient Israel is recorded as a warning to us as spiritual Israel living just prior to the return of Jesus. After reviewing the mistakes of Israel’s past, the apostle warns us: “Now all these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come” (1 Corinthians 10:11).
Likewise, to those of us who live in the “end of the age,” the Lord’s counsel comes: “In reviewing our past history, having traveled over every step of advance to our present standing, I can say, Praise God! As I see what the Lord has wrought, I am filled with astonishment, and with confidence in Christ as leader. 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.”2
History so directs us
As we celebrate the 150th anniversary of our organization as a church of unique mission and ministry, we must never neglect the sacred duty of bringing to mind the Lord’s leading and His teaching in our past history. Today, as it was for ancient Israel, God expects our faithfulness to be built on confidence in His past leading and teaching.
A few months ago, the representatives of the world church assembled in Battle Creek, Michigan, to celebrate and recount 150 years of God’s blessing and leading. One hundred fifty years of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. It was a wonderful weekend of special celebration, with excellent sessions telling about our fascinating history and God’s incredible blessing on His people. Inspiring stories, thoughtful seminars, unforgettable visits to historic sites, and great devotionals brought us to the altar of sacred memory – to remember and never to forget who we are and why we are here.
To be sure, we are grateful that we can celebrate 150 years of history. But in fact this is a sad anniversary. We should have been home by now! The Lord has wanted to come long before this. Why celebrate any more anniversaries when we could be in heaven? Why are we not there yet? Could it be that we keep forgetting? Have we neglected that most sacred responsibility of keeping fresh in our minds the Lord’s leading and teaching in our past history, and moving forward in obedience to His calling?
Mission so directs us
Recently, while in the city of Zagreb in Croatia, we visited a fascinating museum with an unusual name: “Museum of Broken Relationships.” It is a museum that recounts individuals’ romantic relationships that went sour; it is a museum that marks broken lives and broken people. It had little souvenirs displaying broken hearts and broken promises, and it won the 2011 award for the most innovative museum in Europe. I wonder what God’s Museum of Broken Relationships looks like in heaven: broken covenants and relationships between Himself and His people down through the ages until today? I don’t want to be part of that museum. I am sure you don’t either.
Unfortunately, there are voices even in the church today that want to break with the strong historical-biblical understanding of God’s precious Word. There are those who want to reinterpret what God plainly said in order to make it conform to their own personal understanding and thus break God’s covenant with His people. Leaders and members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, stand firm for God’s Word and a “Thus saith the Lord!” Do not become part of “God’s Museum of Broken Relationships.” I want to maintain my personal relationship with the Lord, and I want His precious church to maintain its covenant to be His last-day church, a remnant people “who keep the commandments of God and have the testimony of Jesus Christ” (Revelation 12:17).
God is calling us today to remember His leading and teaching in our past history. Remember:
- How God led the Seventh-day Adventist movement from the beginnings of the early 19th century.
- The understanding of Daniel 8:14 and how it led to the sanctuary message, including the investigative judgment.
- The establishment of the Michigan Conference in 1861.
- The establishment of the General Conference on May 21, 1863, in Battle Creek.
- The enormous expansion of God’s church in almost 210 countries of the world, with hundreds of languages used and more than 17 million members.
- God, His Word, His Spirit of Prophecy, and His plan to proclaim the three angels’ messages through His chosen people.
- That we are a unique people with a unique message at a unique time in earth’s history.
- That all the signs point to the climax of earth’s history and that Jesus is coming soon.
- That it is time to proclaim the three angels’ messages with the power of the Holy Spirit.
- That it is time to reap the results from The Great Controversy distribution project.
- That it is time to enter the large cities of the world with the power of the loud cry with our “Mission to the Cities” project!
- That it is time to utilize fully comprehensive health ministry to act as the right arm of the gospel message.
- That it is time to “Tell the World.”
This call to remember is also a call never to forget:
As we look back at 150 years of God’s leading, we are certain that by God’s grace, the General Conference as the overall supervising body of God’s worldwide work will continue to stand firm for God’s truth. It will not lessen its strong guiding and nurturing role over all Seventh-day Adventists worldwide until the very final events of history occur, when ultimately religious persecution would prevent organizations from functioning. Even at that time, God will never leave us and will guide His people, regardless of events. This is the kind of God we serve. His promise in Matthew 28:20 to never leave us is sure.
The journey is ever upward and onward
Five years after the founding of the General Conference, Ellen White had a fascinating dream,3 interestingly in Battle Creek itself. She dreamed of being with a large group of people, part of whom started out prepared for a journey. They had heavily-loaded wagons, and the road they traveled went up. On one side was a deep gorge, and on the other a high, smooth, white wall. The road grew narrower and steeper, and finally they could take the wagons no further. They took some of the luggage out of the wagons, put it on the horses, and continued on horseback. The path grew increasingly narrower, and people were forced to press close to the wall to save themselves from falling down the steep precipice. As they did this, the luggage on the horses pressed against the wall, and caused the travelers to veer toward the drop- off. Finally, in desperation, they cut the luggage from the horses, and it fell over the precipice. They continued on horseback without their luggage, fearing that they would lose their balance and fall off the narrow road and to their death below. Mrs. White says that “at such times a hand seemed to take the bridle and guide us over the perilous way.”
As the path grew even more narrow, the travelers decided they could no longer use the horses and went ahead by foot in single file, with one following the other. At this time, something very unusual happened: small cords were let down from the top of the white wall, which they eagerly grasped in order to keep their balance. The cords moved along with them. The path kept getting narrower, and to be safe they took off their shoes, and walked without them. Soon they took off their socks and journeyed on in bare feet. They thought of those who were not used to hardship and looked around to find them, but they were not in the small company of believers. At every point of difficulty, some were left behind, and only those who had become used to enduring hardship were left to push on. The difficulties had made these godly travelers even more eager to press on to the end.
The danger of falling off the pathway increased. They leaned heavily on the wall, but could not completely put their feet fully on the path, since it was so narrow. She says, “We then suspended nearly our whole weight upon the cords, exclaiming: ‘We have hold from above! We have hold from above!’” All those in the company of believers on the narrow way said the same thing! As they walked further, they could hear sounds coming from below in the deep canyon – sounds of revelry, vulgar jesting, vile singing, war songs, dance songs, instrumental music, loud laughter, cursing, cries of anguish, and bitter wailing. The travelers on the narrow way, however, were more anxious than ever to keep on the narrow pathway. Much of the time they had to put their whole weight on the suspended cords, which increased in size as they progressed.
Ellen White remarked, “I noticed that the beautiful white wall was stained with blood.” She realized that this could be a sign of encouragement for others who would follow, since they would realize that those who had gone before had gone through difficulty but had persevered, and it would encourage those to keep pressing on.
Finally, they came to a large chasm where the path ended. There was nothing to guide their feet or to rest on. Their whole reliance had to be on the cords, which had increased in size until the cords were as large as their bodies. They became anxious, because they didn’t know what the cords were attached to. In the dream, James White was in front of Ellen White, and she could see large drops of sweat falling from his head ... the veins in his neck and temples were double their normal size. Agonizing groans came from his lips. Sweat was dropping from Ellen White’s face, and she felt anguish like never before, since a very dangerous struggle was ahead of them. If they failed here, their journey would have been useless.
On the other side of the large chasm was a beautiful field of green grass, with bright, soft beams of light looking like fine gold resting on the field. It did not compare with anything she had ever seen on this earth. She wondered if they could reach that beautiful field of grass, or would the cord break and they would die. She explains the final part in these moving words, “Again, in whispered anguish, the words were breathed: ‘What holds the cord?’ For a moment we hesitated to venture. Then we exclaimed: ‘Our only hope is to trust wholly to the cord. It has been our dependence all the difficult way. It will not fail us now.’ Still we were hesitating and distressed. The words were then spoken: ‘God holds the cord. We need not fear.’ These words were then repeated by those behind us, accompanied with: ‘He will not fail us now. He has brought us thus far in safety.’ My husband then swung himself over the fearful abyss into the beautiful field beyond. I immediately followed. And, oh, what a sense of relief and gratitude to God we felt! I heard voices raised in triumphant praise to God. I was happy, perfectly happy. I awoke, and found that from the anxiety I had experienced in passing over the difficult route, every nerve in my body seemed to be in a tremor. This dream needs no comment. It made such an impression upon my mind that probably every item in it will be vivid before me while my memory shall continue.”
Our journey today
Today, as we progress in our journey ahead, we must do so with complete confidence in the God who has led us in the past and who extends the “cords” of guidance and safety for us. We must lean completely on Jesus Christ and His righteousness for our every need as we confidently journey on through His power. God wants us to realize that even as we celebrate the 150 years of His leading, we have nothing to fear for the future. We can proclaim the Advent message with power because we are God’s remnant church, with a strong history of God’s leading in His church and a special call to proclaim the three angels’ messages of Revelation 14.
This Advent message will not pass to another group or church. There will not be another remnant church. You and I are part of the final church God has prepared. One hundred and fifty years of the General Conference is simply a call to move forward on that great narrow pathway-journey, allowing God to make revival and reformation real in our lives and in the church – to reform our selfish ways and to plant our dreams and hopes on the Holy Word and on the Living Word, Jesus Christ.
God calls us today to never forget or be fearful – God will carry us through if we will rely completely on Him and allow the Holy Spirit to take full control of our every thought and action. He wants to claim us as His own. He wants to return to take us home soon. No more anniversaries. Have faith in God!
Ted N.C. Wilson (Ph.D., New York University) is the world president of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
- All Scripture passages are from the New King James Version.
- Ellen G. White, Life Sketches (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1943), p. 196.
- ---------, Testimonies for the Church (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1948), 2:594-597.