The University Christian Movement, with offices at Interchurch Center, New York City, voted itself out of existence in 1968. On their door was posted this sign: “Gone out of business--didn’t know what our business was.” God has assigned a vital mission to His church: to be Elijah the prophet, to be John the Baptist, to prepare the way for the Second Coming of Jesus. This assignment was given us in the 1840s. We are still here.
For a Bible answer to this kind of question, we should review a comparable Bible situation. In some places the Bible speaks of God’s people speeding the return of Jesus; in others, of their hindering and delaying God’s purposes. Today then is it possible to bring about a delay of God’s purposes? Consider a fascinating example at Numbers, chapters 13 and 14.
Spying out the Land
Recall the story. Moses has led the people from their captivity in Egypt to the edge of the promised land. He is instructed by God to send a group to scout the land before the entry. One leader is chosen from each of the twelve tribes; they traverse the land, south to north and then back. Forty days pass. They return. Excitement is high; everyone is listening. Then... the report of the spies.
First, it’s show and tell. A blanket is laid out, and on it is piled the colorful and aromatic fruit of the land (vs 26). There is a cluster of grapes so large it required two men and a pole to carry it. There are pomegranates, figs, and more; the report is wonderful! Truly, “it flows with milk and honey!” All agree. But there are 12 reporting, and now they begin to share the reconnaissance about the local inhabitants. The people are many. The people are strong. The cities are large. They cities are fortified. Not only are the people strong, but some of the people are descendants of the Philistine giants!
A nervous chatter stirs among the people; concern is rising. Caleb sees their furrowed brows, hears the uncertainty in their voices, and he leaps into the discussion. “Let us go up at once,” he says, “and take possession, for we are well able to overcome it!” But ten of his fellow travelers raise now their voices. “We are not able,” they claim. Now they twist the story sharply, claiming even that the land devours its inhabitants. Yet there, before the camp assembled are tarps laden with grapes, pomegranates and figs. And now the assembly is told that all the men in the land are giants. Now they say that they themselves were like grasshoppers in comparison. This is high exaggeration. Leaving God out of the discussion, they are calculating as though all will need to be accomplished by force of arms.
The deed is done. Virtually the whole of the congregation has fallen under an influence of distortion. They are in a delusion. The reaction sets in, and all that night they cry and shout and weep. The next day is worse. It now seems as though everyone in camp is murmuring against Moses and Aaron, complaining, talking nonsense. The camp is in such a lather that they begin to say to each other that they would have been better off to have died in Egypt or in the wilderness. They see themselves as victims of God. They claim He was trying to kill their women and children. Finally, they even determine to return to Egypt, and begin to appoint themselves new leaders.
In humiliation, Moses and Aaron fall to their knees before the assembly. Joshua and Caleb tear their clothes. They begin to speak to the people, whoever will hear: “It is an exceedingly good land.” “If the Lord delights in us, then He will bring us into this land and give it to us.” “Only do not rebel against the Lord, nor fear the people of the land, for they are our bread; their protection has departed from them, and the Lord is with us. Do not fear them.” But the people are in a frenzy. They have lost their minds. Now under Satan’s control, they rush about scooping up rocks to stone God’s chosen leaders to death…
Divine Intervention and a Fateful Conversation
Satan is rejoicing but now God intervenes. The blinding whiteness of the divine glory appears at the tabernacle, and God starts a conversation with Moses. “How long will these people despise Me?” He asks, “How long will they not believe Me, with all the signs which I have performed among them?”
Thus begins the conversation which will decide their fate. God proposes that He disinherit them and start over with Moses, making a great nation with Moses instead. Moses responds with an appeal not to disinherit them, running seven long verses (13-19). Moses’ appeal is, God, you are too powerful not to succeed. The nations will hear that You were unable to bring this people into the promised land. And consider Moses’ next move. This is right on the money: Moses argues that God’s character is right and that God should judge the people on that basis.
When God told His name to Moses (Exodus 33:13, 18-19; 34:5-7) the impression He made was indelible. God showed His way to Moses, caused His goodness to pass before Moses, and showed His name to Moses. To Moses He showed exactly who and what He was. Moses saw then that God’s name, God’s character, is built into His Ten Commandment law. You might have missed it; I might have missed it, Moses didn’t miss it. He makes this His argument. See it at verses 14:18:
The Lord is longsuffering and abundant in mercy, forgiving iniquity and transgression; but He by no means clears the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation.
“Pardon the iniquity of this people, I pray,” pleads Moses. God agrees. But His pardon will not be according to one part of His name but according to the whole of His name. If we sort the features of God’s name mentioned in verse 8, we see five basic aspects. Here, in a list:
- Merciful and gracious/keeping mercy for thousands
- Abounding in goodness and truth
- Forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin
- By no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children...
Here is a question: do we sometimes highlight certain features while not highlighting others? We tend to hear a great deal more about God’s mercy and forgiveness than about His “by no means clearing the guilty,” or His “visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generation.”
Here is the problem: somehow we think God is being loving and kind when He is merciful and forgiving, but we are confused or troubled when He punishes the unrepentant guilty. Are we really accepting God’s character, or picking and choosing certain elements and neglecting others?
If we are neglecting parts of His character, are we misrepresenting His character? God has one whole character; not just bits and pieces. We accept Him fully or we are not accepting Him. I can only agree with something former editor of the Adventist Review, Herb Douglass wrote in His book, The End:
Regarding the end of the world and the return of Jesus, God has no contingency plans but to be true to Himself and to His way of dealing with sin as He has since the beginning of the great controversy (The End, p. 20).
Which is another way of saying that we accept all of the Bible, all of God’s dealings with sin and sinners; that we are accepting all of God’s character; that we desire and emulate all of His character, not just certain parts. We’ll take the peas and the carrots and the squash and the lima beans--not just the cherry pie. And in the end, we’ll agree that all these bits are as good as all the other bits. If this is true, then we will not be surprised by how the wilderness journey worked out.
Let’s return to the story where we left off. The spies have gone out, returned, and told a distorted version of the facts. The camp has rejected Moses’ leadership, is electing new leadership, and is come to the point of stoning the faithful spies and Moses and Aaron. Then God intervened. God proposed dumping this unfaithful crew and starting over with Moses. Then Moses argued instead for God’s being true to Himself and continuing to labor to bring Israel home to the land of promise.
So, here is what happens. God agrees! But He tells Moses plainly that He will not clear the guilty. The very leaders of Israel have conspired to replace God. Now God tells Moses that those rebels “certainly shall not see the land of which I swore to their fathers, nor shall any of those who rejected Me see it” (vs. 23). But God will see to it that Joshua and Caleb enter, because they had a different spirit and followed God fully.
The command is given. They are to break camp tomorrow and return back into the wilderness. And here where we get the 40 years, a year-for-a-day business. Here it is, at Numbers 14:26-35:
And the LORD spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying, “How long shall I bear with this evil congregation who complain against Me? I have heard the complaints which the children of Israel make against Me.“Say to them, ‘As I live,’ says the LORD, ‘just as you have spoken in My hearing, so I will do to you: ‘The carcasses of you who have complained against Me shall fall in this wilderness, all of you who were numbered, according to your entire number, from twenty years old and above. ‘Except for Caleb the son of Jephunneh and Joshua the son of Nun, you shall by no means enter the land which I swore I would make you dwell in. ‘But your little ones, whom you said would be victims, I will bring in, and they shall know the land which you have despised. ‘But as for you, your carcasses shall fall in this wilderness. ‘And your sons shall be wanderers in the wilderness forty years, and bear the brunt of your infidelity, until your carcasses are consumed in the wilderness. ‘According to the number of the days in which you spied out the land, forty days, for each day you shall bear your guilt one year, namely forty years, and you shall know My rejection. ‘I the Lord have spoken this. I will surely do so to all this evil congregation who are gathered together against Me. In this wilderness they shall be consumed, and there they shall die.’”
Some have regarded the pronouncement of this sentence as strange, as not recommending God’s love. But it was clearly God’s plan to bring them into the land at that time. He knew the character of the men who would be chosen. So was this all a play? Or was it an actual delay caused by the decisions of His people?
Until they rebelled there was no guilt. But they spied out the land and then rejected God’s plan to enter the land. In His judgment against them, He assigns them a year for each day. The children are not responsible for the unbelief of the adults. They will go in. But the adults are responsible. They will not go in. God will not clear the guilty. How much repentance did you read about in Numbers 14? Not very much! Remember, they even said that they wished they had died in Egypt or in the wilderness (14:2). They are going to receive that wish. Is it such a strange thing that God would do this? Have we thought about what would have happened had they gone into the land and sought to conquer it?
What Would Have Happened
They were filled with unbelief. They demonstrated cowardice. How then could God manifest His power to subdue their enemies if they were deep in unbelief? They had not begun in unbelief but they worked themselves into a condition of unbelief. Most of what God had done to bring them into a position of belief had been thrown away in the influence of the spies and in the way they had nurtured unbelief.
He would remove their influence from Israel; they would die in the wilderness. Not because of God but because of themselves. They had manifested unbelief. They delayed their own entrance by choosing not to believe. In the space of less than two years God had done miracle after miracle for them. Think of it: the plagues of Egypt, the Passover, their deliverance, crossing the Red Sea, manna in the wilderness, and so on, up to this moment in time. But here they regressed. Indulging unbelief, they could not enter in. What God had nurtured, they had squandered.
Now a generation would die in the wilderness.
Yes, it is possible to delay God’s purposes. There is no clearer Bible example than this one. Study more about it in the New Testament book of Hebrews 3:7 to 4:13.
And what about Seventh-day Adventists? You may have heard these three short paragraphs before, from Selected Messages, vol. 1, pp. 68-69 (emphasis added):
Had Adventists, after the great disappointment in 1844, held fast their faith, and followed on unitedly in the opening providence of God, receiving the message of the third angel and in the power of the Holy Spirit proclaiming it to the world, they would have seen the salvation of God, the Lord would have wrought mightily with their efforts, the work would have been completed, and Christ would have come ere this to receive His people to their reward.
It was not the will of God that the coming of Christ should be thus delayed. God did not design that His people, Israel, should wander forty years in the wilderness. He promised to lead them directly to the land of Canaan, and establish them there a holy, healthy, happy people. But those to whom it was first preached, went not in ‘because of unbelief’ (Hebrews 3:19). Their hearts were filled with murmuring, rebellion, and hatred, and He could not fulfill His covenant with them.
For forty years did unbelief, murmuring, and rebellion shut out ancient Israel from the land of Canaan. The same sins have delayed the entrance of modern Israel into the heavenly Canaan. In neither case were the promises of God at fault. It is the unbelief, the worldliness, unconsecration, and strife among the Lord’s professed people that have kept us in this world of sin and sorrow so many years.(Selected Messages, vol. 1, p. 68).
We are still here after all these years. Why? Because, like Israel, we have manifested unbelief, worldliness, unconsecration, and strife among ourselves.
We have fought over matters that are clear. For example, the Scripture evidence is that primary church leadership in the Bible is always the responsibility of spiritually qualified males. Yet many among us have pressed and pressed for the ordination of women as pastors over congregations, even when we know the history of this and its connection with cultural changes in the 1960s and 1970s. We have addressed this in three General Conference sessions and today open rebellion continues. Strife in support of truth is approved, even demanded, but this is a matter that should be resolved by strong means if necessary.
We have manifested unconsecration by other worldly compromises. How many of us are following health principles we know to be sound applications of the Bible truth that our bodies are the temples of the Holy Spirit? How many of us are earnestly striving to give our bodies proper rest? How many of us are eating as we should? How many of us are drugging ourselves by what we drink? How many of us have anything remotely resembling an exercise plan? All of these are cases of unconseration if we are not in earnest.
Then there is worldliness. What we watch, what we listen to, what we set our desires upon, in many cases are things we know are not right. How far will we go in worldliness? Then we wonder that it seems that God’s power is missing in our own experience. Is it any wonder then that it is missing in the local church where we hold our membership?
And all these are manifestations of unbelief, the great master heading under which these sins, and murmuring, and rebellion fit also under.
And still it is true:
“Because of their unbelief and cowardice He could not manifest His power to subdue their enemies” (Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 391).
I say to you again, regarding the end of the world and the return of Jesus, God has no contingency plans but to be true to Himself and to His way of dealing with sin as He has since the beginning of the great controversy. To repeat again the words of Herb Douglass:
One day good will triumph over evil--finally and irrevocably--by a specific, particular, historical act. . . . God will wait for the maturing of Christian character in a significant number of people as the chief condition determining those events which affect the time when probation for the world will close, and thus the time of the advent (The End, pp. 34, 65).
He will not close probation for the world until a significant portion of His remnant vindicates His government, proves that His way of life can be lived on earth, and proclaims a credible witness to all nations (Ibid., p. 73).
Is it not true that today when someone says that we cannot overcome, theirs is an echo of the ten spies who said that they could not overcome then? Is it not true that when we teach that our message and mission is in all practical aspects identical to that of other denominations, we are like the spies who said, “let us select a leader and return to Egypt” (Numbers 14:4)? When we say that we can’t do evangelism right now “because covid,” isn’t it true that we are like that congregation in the wilderness complaining that God has given us an impossible task?
Successful Entry Awaits
Friends, we’ve been called to success. If the Lord delights in us, He will bring us into success in living and giving the third angel’s message.
It seems fitting to turn again to Jesus. He was leading Israel in the wilderness years, but were there also times in the gospels when Jesus was hindered in achieving what He desired to by the spiritual condition of the people? For example, upon Jesus’ return to Nazareth. Matthew 13:58 tells us that “He did not do many mighty works there because of their unbelief.” Mark, referring to the same situation, writes that “He could do no mighty works there, except that He laid hands on a few sick people and healed them” (Mark 6:5).
We see then that even in Jesus first-coming ministry at times He was hindered by the unbelief of the people. A famous Michigander once said, “If you think you can or think you can’t, you’re right.” But in spiritual matters, it is similarly true, that if you think He can or He can’t, you’re right, because the opposite of unbelief is faith, and how many times did Jesus say, “according to your faith be it unto you”?
Jesus is waiting with longing desire for us to regroup and team with him to draw hearts to himself through the special end-time message He has assigned us. It is accurate to say that, “The Adventist mission is to remove the conditions that keep Jesus waiting” (The End, p. 19).
We are not still here after all these years not because God is dilly-dallying, but because we have done that. Tomorrow we will begin to address some theological specifics.
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