So far in this series, we have come to grips with two facts about Adventism in North America:
1. Adventist Bible-based evangelism is less and less effective in bringing people into the Adventist church.
2. New converts discover that they do not experience the transformational benefits and connection with God that were explicitly and implicitly promised to them when they decided to join the Adventist church. And, it appears to them, most veteran Adventist members do not have the vibrant relationship with God nor have experienced great personal transformation either.
Therefore, I proposed that we replace what has been the recipient of our first love and the basis of our evangelistic methodology. Intentionally or unintentionally, Adventism’s high reverence for scripture devolved into a high reverence for being right and a conviction that, in order to remain faithful to scripture, sometimes you give up on people or push people out the door. When our love for others conflicted with our love for our scriptural understanding, we, at times, sacrificed others and continued to bow down at the altar of our doctrinal inerrancy. It is time to follow the incarnated-and-crucified Jesus in putting other people first no matter what, even when it means sacrificing something core to our understanding of scripture.
I believe that this crucial value shift will help us read scripture and historic Christian and Adventist doctrines with new eyes. Last week, I shared how, for me, the Sabbath doctrine is now Christ’s bringing-rest-to-others manifesto rather than an obligatory ritual required by God to prove my allegiance. This week, I want to look at how the doctrine of Jesus’ high priestly ministry can become a driver of mission in our quest to love others more.
I won’t go in-depth explaining the development of the Adventist doctrine of Christ’s ministry in the heavenly sanctuary, nor discuss the challenges that have been brought against it.1 But at the heart of our belief in Jesus ministering as our high priest is his action of bringing his offerings of his sacrificial death and victorious resurrection into the presence of the Father and offering them as humanity’s cleansing from the guilt and shame of sin and releasing us from the subsequent penalty of eternal death. God establishes Christ’s actions as the new covenant between the Godhead and humanity.2
There has been an unfortunate, and I believe unintentional, side-effect of the Adventist development of the sanctuary doctrine and the belief that Jesus moved from the holy place in the heavenly sanctuary into the most holy place on October 22, 1844. Because we have taught that from that date up to this very moment, Jesus and the Father are now judging the quick and the dead, we have communicated to both our members and to those we are evangelizing that this is a very treacherous time to be alive. One’s eternal status hangs in the balance. Our traditional interpretation of the divine courtroom scene in Daniel 7:9-10 perpetuates the idea that this investigative judgment is like the ancient Day of Atonement experience where the Hebrew nation waits soberly and breathlessly to see whether they will survive God’s wrath for one more year. This has been, along with our usage of the unpardonable sin concept, an incredibly useful tool in our evangelistic series and Bible studies to convince potential converts that if they reject the truth they are learning from us, they may very well seal their doom. The problem is that if they follow through and convert to Adventism, they do not feel freed from God’s wrath. This pernicious Atonement Psychology never lets go and keeps them in limbo about their status with God.
The resulting insecurity and spiritual depression that pervades the collective Adventist mind is unfortunate and, I believe, could be resolved to a great degree if we understood the revolutionary shift in not having just any old high priest go into heaven but in having Jesus himself step up. And I think understanding the power of Jesus in the priestly role radically changes the impact of either view of the atonement.
Romans 8 has been very helpful to me in understanding how crucial Jesus is to the atonement process:
Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death.3
But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.4
What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? . . . No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.5
I think the traditional Adventist teaching on Christ’s ministry in the heavenly sanctuary forgets that it is not just anyone going into the most holy place: it is Jesus! And according to Paul, John, et al, there is no doubt of the outcome for those who accept Jesus. Jesus and the Father are not impartial, objective third-party judges to this. They are not from the independent accounting firm of Elohim, Yahweh, and Yeshua. They are passionately biased and obnoxiously on our side.
If Adventist pastors and evangelists could only change one thing about their message, I would ask them to do this: whether you believe the atonement process is complete or almost complete, give Jesus the credit he deserves for making us right with God. Do not communicate the unbiblical concept that we are still waiting to find out whether Jesus will make us right with God. You do not need to manipulate people with guilt and the fear of Damocle’s sword hanging over their heads. Whether it is done or almost done, the same result is guaranteed.
But by now you should know that, for me, clearing up theological concepts is not going to solve our evangelism problem, and while helpful, it will not fundamentally change the timid and depressed culture in many of our congregations. The sanctuary message has to shift from a mere intellectual understanding to a call to love each other as brothers and sisters and to radically and actively love people outside the doors of our churches. For this call to love, two passages, one from 1 John and one from Hebrews are helpful:
1 John 2:1, 2 uses the word “advocate” and Hebrews 7:24-25 uses the word “intercede” to describe Jesus’ high priestly ministry. This awakens me to the actions that Jesus takes on my behalf. He advocates for my acceptance by the Father. He intercedes to the Father on my behalf to protect me from the Accuser. Do these actions teach me how to do priestly ministry right here and right now? I know they do. I see the priestly ministry of Jesus happening all around me and for me by many people in my life. Let me share three examples:
- My friend, Ben Garcia, an academy bible teacher and chaplain at Glendale Adventist Academy, spends many of his Sabbaths at Los Angeles County’s Central Juvenile Hall. The adolescent kids he meets with each week have already been written off by almost everyone. For many of them, Ben may be the only person they see all week who tells them that God has not given up on them yet. And Ben steps into the most holy place of the prison ward and shares bible stories, like the story of Joseph in Pharaoh’s prison, that show these kids that their dreams are not dead.
- My friend and colleague, Arleene Chow, our church’s pastor for youth and young adults, has spent countless hours advocating for students who are strggling: trying to break free from drugs; being condemned for unplanned pregnancies; being told by family, academy faculty and church leaders that their desires for same-sex companionship are of the devil; or are so depressed that they are ready to call it quits and end their lives. As a priest, Arleene boldly intercedes for these kids with their teachers, pastors, and family members to give them another chance, to forgive them, and to give them new life.
- Back in the 1980s, our congregation’s senior pastor, Rudy Torres, became Carlos Martinez’s priest which ultimately led to a whole brigade of church ladies becoming priests for Carlos and many others like him. When Carlos told his church bible study group that he had contracted HIV through a gay relationship, these ladies, rather than whispering and turning away, got up and hugged all over Carlos. When his HIV turned to AIDS and he had to be hospitalized, Carlos was one of the few patients in his ward to get daily visitors. One day, when Pastor Rudy was visiting him, a nurse asked him, “Who ARE you people?” Rudy put on his priestly vestments and responded, “We’re from the Glendale City Seventh-day Adventist Church and Carlos is one of ours.”
What has often been one of the most confusing and obscure doctrines of the Seventh-day Adventist Church has the potential to become one of our most powerful forces for love. If we embraced the 1 Peter 2:9 declaration that we, Jesus’ followers, are a “royal priesthood” and began advocating for people who have been written off by the powers-that-be in society and religion, we could show people the love of God and the passionate advocacy and intercession of Jesus. When we become the people who put our reputations on the line for those of no reputation, who speak up for the voiceless, and who pour out our un-objective and obnoxiously-biased blood, sweat, and tears for those who have no more to give—that’s when the sanctuary is cleansed and the camp is made whole again.
Imagine what would happen if Adventist churches would take these actions:
- Stand up for ex-felons and help them get jobs and housing
- Welcome and include LGBTQ individuals in their congregation’s community and ministry
- Teach undocumented immigrants their rights and help them get work permits, visa extensions, and green cards
- Welcome and provide homes for refugees from war-torn parts of the world
- Build strong, mutually-supportive relationships with Muslims in their neighborhoods
- Get into the trenches with veterans returning to their cities who are not being given the support they need by our government to integrate back into society
- Fight for affordable housing in their cities so low-income families can find a place to live
- Go the extra mile to make their facilities, ministries, and worship gatherings completely accessible and hospitable to anyone with physical or mental disabilities
- Intercede between their city’s residents and law enforcement to create dialogue and bring reform to how they relate to one another
These congregations would be on the cutting edge of carrying out the high priestly ministry of Jesus. Imagine.
Todd J. Leonard is senior pastor at Glendale City Seventh-day Adventist Church and president of Glendale Communitas Initiative, a local non-profit organization devoted to families working their way out of poverty. He shares life with his wife, Robin, and three daughters, Halle, Abigail, and Emma.
Notes & References:
1. You can read the Adventist doctrinal statement here. A good study on the classical Adventist sanctuary doctrine is Leslie Hardinge’s book, With Jesus in His Sanctuary. To learn about the challenges to this doctrine raised by Adventist theologian Desmond Ford, you can read his book, Daniel 8:14, the Day of Atonement and the Investigative Judgment.
2. See Hebrews 9.
3. Romans 8:1-2 (NIV)
4. Romans 8:9-11 (NRSV)
5. Romans 8:31-35, 37-39 (NRSV)
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