by Steven Siciliano | 5 July 2018
Readers of Adventist Today are no doubt familiar with topical Bible studies, in which the goal is to trace one teaching through the entire Bible and formulate a comprehensive view of what the scriptures say about it. That kind of cross-referential approach is a common method that has also been used to interpret the book of Revelation, by comparing it with other Bible books in order to form a grand picture of salvation history. Within the Adventist milieu, this method has yielded an understanding of God’s work that is known as The Great Controversy perspective.
What can easily get lost in that kind of approach are the subtle details revealed by individual passages when taken in their own right. This installment of “Reading What’s There” will analyze the first angel’s message of Revelation 14, focusing on the good news it presents in its own context. It says,
“And I saw another angel fly in the midst of heaven, having the everlasting gospel to preach unto them that dwell on the earth, and to every nation, and kindred, and tongue, and people, Saying with a loud voice, Fear God, and give glory to him; for the hour of his judgment is come: and worship him that made heaven, and earth, and the sea, and the fountains of waters.” —Revelation 14:6-7, KJV
To get an idea of how to read this passage on its own terms, take a look at two fictitious paragraphs. Notice how the meaning of each comes through in the wording of sentences themselves, without importing or resorting to outside assumptions.
The defendant provided the court with an alibi, saying “you can check the flight and hotel records, look at our pictures, and ask the other tourists in our group. They will attest that I was traveling in Spain the whole week during which the crime happened.”
The setting for this statement is a trial in which someone on the witness stand is being accused of a crime and has “provided the court with an alibi, saying…” It is highly unlikely that anyone in the courtroom listening to the defendant’s testimony would think the alibi was anything other than the explanation that immediately followed, about being on tour in Europe when the crime was committed. That’s the natural way to understand the statement as a whole.
Here’s another example:
The soccer coach gave the team a heartfelt pep talk, saying, “Players, this is your senior year, and you’ve reached the championship game. The team has worked hard together and you’ve accomplished more than anyone expected. Let’s pull together one more time to bring home the trophy.”
The same reading skills apply to this second paragraph as to the first. It says, “the soccer coach gave a heartfelt pep talk, saying…” and there’s no reason to think that the pep talk consisted of anything other than what the coach said then and there.
When most Seventh-day Adventists read Revelation 14:6-7, however, they almost invariably jump outside the passage and define the word “gospel” in line with what they think it means in other parts of the Bible. It’s as if they already know what the everlasting gospel is and therefore assume that the proclamation of the first angel in this chapter must mean that too. But it would seem better to take verses 6 and 7 on their own terms, first deriving the meaning of the words “everlasting gospel” from the angel’s own statement and then determining how that may help clarify their broader biblical meaning.
Good News vs. Instruction
To be able to do that, however, two more sample paragraphs are in order.
- The dentist said, “I have good news. Continue brushing and flossing regularly, and your teeth will last a long time.
- “Mom said, “Children, I have good news. You need to vacuum and clean up your rooms because grandma is coming.”
In both of these statements someone first announces that they have good news and then gives a command or instruction regarding something that needs to be done (“continue brushing and flossing …” and “clean up your rooms …”). The “good news” in both of these statements is not conveyed by the commands but by the promises that follow the commands. In the dentist’s case, the good news is that the patient’s teeth are in shape to last a long time. In the mom’s case, the good news is that grandma is coming. The commands simply say what the listeners need to do in light of the good news.
It’s the same with Revelation 14:7. The evident good news that comes through in the passage is not the command to fear God and give Him glory but the promise which follows—that “the hour of His judgment has come.”
That’s right. A normal and natural reading of the passage shows that the announcement of judgment and the prediction of Babylon’s downfall (verses 8-11) are indeed the everlasting good news heralded in this passage.
Is That All?
By now some readers may be wondering why this explanation of how to read in context needed to take so long, since the end result seems basic enough for a middle school student to have figured out. It was necessary because few Seventh-day Adventists approach the passage in such a simple and straightforward manner. Even the denomination’s official statement of fundamental beliefs explicitly inserts into the passage a meaning of the word gospel that comes from somewhere else:
“This gospel is the same good news of God’s infinite love that the ancient prophets and apostles proclaimed (Heb. 4:2). The remnant do not present a different gospel—in view of the judgment they reaffirm that everlasting gospel that sinners can be justified by faith and receive Christ’s righteousness.”
An approach like that can be helpful for constructing a big theological system but it carries two drawbacks. It does a disservice to the clear meaning conveyed by the individual texts themselves and, in so doing, can constrict or even distort our understanding of the topic to which a given text is thought to contribute.
Is Judgment Good News?
In the present instance, the idea that judgment comprises good news may seem incongruous, for three reasons. First, when people hear the word judgment they tend to apply it to themselves, as if their own destiny was still uncertain. Second, contemporary Christians have been indoctrinated into the idea that the gospel is about forgiveness and the new life they receive through faith in Jesus. Third, many believers in western countries have lived in relative freedom from Babylon-like persecution, so the idea that the gospel involves the overthrow of tyrannical powers doesn’t make intuitive sense.
In terms of the Bible as a whole, however, the downfall of oppressors has been a mainstay of God’s good news, a theme that runs from the book of Exodus on. Even the creation story in Genesis 1 can be viewed as a deliverance from the disorder that impeded life.
In the context of Revelation, however, the promise of judgment makes consummate sense. Not only was the book written to fledgling congregations threatened by more powerful religious and political institutions, but early in the book a doleful yet thematically pivotal plea goes up to God from martyred souls who cry out, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, will You refrain from judging and avenging our blood on those who dwell on the earth? (Revelation 6:9-10 NASB)”
Besides that, the immediate scenario leading up to the three angels’ appearance in chapter 14 involved the persecution of God’s people by the dragon and his agents. It should be no surprise then, that the promise of deliverance from enemies constitutes a main aspect of God’s good news.
Assuming that this more natural reading of the passage is correct, and that judgment is a core aspect of the gospel, a couple of follow-up questions immediately come to mind. First, does the message of judgment really deserve to be called “everlasting good news”? If so, how might that conclusion relate to other definitions typically associated with the word gospel, such as justification and sanctification?
These are big and important questions that should be studied in the context of other parts of the Bible that touch on additional aspects of the gospel. For now one thing seems clear to me: the “everlasting gospel” of judgment which shouts out from this passage should not be obscured or overshadowed by conclusions drawn from those other parts of the Bible. Instead, the theological process should go in reverse. The evident message conveyed by this passage should be allowed to exert its due weight in helping us understand the meaning of the gospel in its totality.
Steven Siciliano is pastor of the Jackson Heights, Hartsdale, and New York Filipino Churches in the Greater New York Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. He holds a Master of Divinity degree from Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan, and an M.A. in Community Health Education from Adelphi University in Garden City, New York.