“Till I See Jesus”: Looking for Jesus and Finding Him Near

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The sun rose as usual on October 23, 1844, but received no welcome from the disappointed ones who had waited all night for the coming of Jesus. Now, they found themselves the objects of ridicule as both deceivers and deceived, in the undeniable certainty that Christ had not come. These believers in the Advent Near had based their expectations on the study of biblical prophecies and prophetic charts, but they had also immersed themselves in the apocalyptic descriptions of the New Earth and lived in the parables of Jesus. These texts, too, provided the imagery that shaped their hopes. Their disappointment was not so much in getting the date wrong but in not seeing Jesus. The hope of the second coming was the hope of seeing the Lord they loved coming to take them home. In her letter to the Review, Tryphena Elliot described her expectations:

I then expected to see my Saviour coming with clouds, in power and great glory, to take the throne of his father David, and reign forever and ever; but the two thousand and three hundred days ended, and the Lord did not come. But as I had come out of Babylon, I had no desire to return again, therefore the last five verses of the 10th of Hebrews were very precious to me. “Cast not away therefore your confidence, which hath great recompense of reward; for ye have need of patience, that after ye have done the will of God, ye might receive the promise. For yet a little while, and he that shall come will come and will not tarry.1

The phrase, “He that shall come will come, and will not tarry,” was a frequent refrain. The hope remained firm. God’s people remained steadfast. The Lord would return as he had promised, in his own good time.

In the meantime, God’s people continued to prepare for his return. J. B. and Charlotte S. Bezzo encouraged the scattered flock in the work at hand and reassured them of the blessed hope awaiting them:

We are still holding fast to the truth, and endeavoring to learn the doctrines of the Bible as fast as we can. We take great pleasure in searching the Word of God, in which there are such hidden stores of knowledge, and we rejoice in the prospect of the soon coming of Christ; when the saints’ blessed hope will be realized.2

Although many deserted the Advent movement after the Great Disappointment, a faithful, if scattered, band clung to their belief that Jesus would be coming soon. The “little flock” grew to treasure the communications with “those of like precious faith” found in the pages of the Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, their weekly meeting place. They continued their immersion in biblical study with the dual purpose of discovering where they had misinterpreted the prophecies and identifying previously overlooked scriptural insights. They expanded their investigation to review all major aspects of their belief and praxis. They were determined to test their beliefs by Scripture, to ensure that they were grounded in Scripture alone, rather than simply following the traditions of men. R. F. Cottrell explained it this way:

The only way open before us is to return to the fountain of living waters, the written word which God has given us, and no longer hew out to ourselves cisterns, broken cisterns that can hold no water. Let vain traditions go, and embrace and heartily obey the truth, and it is possible that we may yet be saved. Who will do so? Who will renounce the false traditions of men, and cleave to God alone and obey his word?3

Renouncing the traditions of men meant in many cases renouncing their church homes and communities. E. A. Poole described his long struggle to identify with the Advent movement even though he was attracted to its teachings. He wrote,

Our trials, in separating from cherished friends and associations, have been severe, and still more ensnaring; but if we are not deceived, we are in some measure getting the victory….The line is being drawn between those who keep the commandments of God, on the one hand, and those who reject them that they may keep their own tradition, on the other.4

J. Clarke placed the discussion on a larger stage when he connected the Adventist effort to uncover the basic truths of the Bible, uncontaminated by human traditions, with the work of the reformation. He said, “The reformers only began the work: it falls to the lot of the present generation to fully complete what was then so gloriously begun.”5

The focus on discovering Bible truth necessarily compelled self-examination as believers sought to conform their lives to the will of God. This was what they meant by preparing to meet Jesus. God’s truth is not just to be understood; it must be lived out in their daily lives. Years after the Great Disappointment, the faithful ones harkened back to the imagery of the second coming and their longing to see Jesus. In words rich with biblical allusions, Emma C. Downer wrote:

For some time past I have had a desire to say to the brethren and sisters through the Review that I too am striving to keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus, in order to be prepared to meet Jesus when he comes to make up his jewels, and have a part in his glorious kingdom….I would not exchange the hope I have in Christ for all the world and its momentary pleasures. I want to be one of that happy company whose motto and watchword is, Here are they that keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus.

 

Time is hasting to its close. Prophecy has been fulfilled. Jesus soon is coming with all the holy angels to take his people home; and oh, I want to be ready. It is a great question, Who shall be able to stand? I want the protection of the almighty arm, that I may have a place of refuge when the time of trouble comes upon the world. I hope that it may be my privilege to stand on mount Zion with the 144,000, and sing the song of Moses and the Lamb, and have an inheritance in the earth made new.6

The letters of the Review frequently expressedthe longing for heaven, the longing to be with Jesus, the longing for the kingdom of God to be established in the earth made new. Whatever the form used to articulate the heart-felt longing, at its core it was a longing for the presence of God. Lois J. Richmond evoked much of that imagery in her determination to stand firm in the last days. She showed the vital role of an active spiritual life in fulfilling that desire when she wrote, “But we must see to it that we are shielded with the word of God; for the enemy is on the alert, and if possible will hinder our prayers, and draw us away from God.”7

Sr. Richmond realized that a thorough knowledge of “the truth” is not enough to live a holy life. A cognitive understanding of God is not enough to satisfy the soul. We must also experience a relationship with God and resist the temptations of “the enemy” to “draw us away.” J. N. Pike explained the importance of experience to those who are “almost persuaded” to keep his commandments. “Make a trial,” he urged. He then described his own experience:

Do not delay as I have done, in matters that interest the eternal welfare of the soul. I was brought to see the necessity of a change of heart when a youth, but got into a backslidden state, and remained there some five and thirty years; not without some strivings of the Spirit at different times, and often would I resolve anew to start and serve God, yet remained where I was until I was led to see and put in practice the keeping of God’s Sabbath, since which time a flood of light has shown in upon my soul that I never before saw, for which I feel to praise and bless God.8

Sr. Richmond and Br. Pike understood that learning the theory of truth is not enough. It must lead to an encounter with God and a subsequent transformation of the heart to be complete. The pilgrim was to proceed in faith, experience what it means to keep the Sabbath fully, and then watch the “flood of light” shine upon the soul.

In this way, through an understanding of God’s law and a commitment to obey it fully, the soul draws near to God. In these letters recounting their own spiritual experience, these faithful believers described the path of spiritual growth. E. W Darling marveled that anything could find a higher place in our affections than the love of God. “Strive to change the channel of thy thoughts and thy affections, and let them center more on thy Creator,”9 he said. The more we draw near to God, the more we see the love and holiness of his character. The clearest description of what it means to draw near to God appeared in an article in 1857, which we include here in its entirety:

Drawing Near to God

 

The spiritual Psalmist said that it was good for him to draw near to God. He spoke from experience. Some of my readers have had a similar experience. It is a comfort to believe that this article will be read by some who know that it is good to draw near to God. What are some of the effects of so doing—effects which led the Psalmist to pronounce it good?

 

By drawing near to God, we are made to feel that he is love. It is not difficult to form some conception of the power, wisdom and justice of God. We can do all this while we remain at a distance from him. But to know the meaning of the expression, God is love, we must draw near to him. When we are near to him, we are in an atmosphere of love. We feel that God is love. All dread and distrust are banished. We see the propriety of the expression, God is love. We have some knowledge of its meaning. It is the most precious knowledge that we can possess.

 

By drawing nearer to God, the love of sin is destroyed. No man feels any desire to sin when the love of God is shed abroad in his soul as it must needs be, when he really draws near to God. The love of sin still remaining in the converted soul, is the great obstacle to progress, and the great source of sorrow. It is the great business of Satan to multiply occasion for exciting that love, and causing it to lead to action. In repressing it and subduing it, consists the warfare that is carried on by every regenerate soul. While we are near to God, sin has no power. The soul is absorbed in an object so lovely that it can see no beauty in sin. So long as the soul is near to God, so long is the love of sin in abeyance.

 

By drawing near to God, we forget the world, its distracting cares, and its tendency to mar our peace, and to lead us astray from duty. We are constrained to have daily intercourse with the world, and it is impossible for us not to be influenced by the scenes and circumstances by which we are surrounded. So far as those influences are unfavorable to holiness, we need at times to withdraw from them, and to fortify ourselves against them. This can be effectually done, only by drawing near to God. Then the world is no longer seen in a false light, and its influence for evil is destroyed.

 

By drawing near to God, we get clearer views of the beauty of holiness. This is the great end of life, the great end of our being, to be holy as God is holy. When we are near to God, we are near to the great exemplar of holiness. We see its beauty and desirableness as we can see it no where else. Being thus in the immediate presence of perfect and infinite holiness, we are, in a measure, transformed into the same image. The more we draw near to God, the more holy we shall become. Truly it is good for us to draw near to God.10

To draw near to God is to know him as a God of love, a transforming knowledge that banishes all dread, destroys the power of sin, negates the appeal of the world, and draws us into the beauty of holiness. As we draw nearer, God transforms us more fully into his image. For the believers who waited all night to see Jesus, finding this growing nearness to God was a foretaste of heaven. For them, obedience to the law brought with it the joy of increasing knowledge of God’s will. The Sabbath, especially, brought the joy of intimate connection with God and with each other. Elizabeth Degarmo, a lonely believer in keeping the fourth commandment, wrote that “it brings such sweet peace that I often in the night, while meditating on the beauty of the commandments am led to speak out in praise to God.”11 Letters frequently included salutes to fellow Sabbath-keepers who shared the commitment to keep the commandments whatever the cost. Cornelia A. Hilton, for instance, wrote:

I praise God for the light of the present truth, which shines forth from the sacred page and the prophetic chart. I have been trying for the past year to keep all of God’s commandments and the faith of Jesus….My heart is drawn out in love toward God’s dear people who are looking for the coming of Christ on the white cloud. I love to read the letters from the dear brethren and sisters in the Review. It gives me new courage to press my way on to that glorious city.12

The writers of these letters, using the imagery of pilgrimage, continued to press on to the glorious city. Though they were no longer concerned about when Christ would return, their goal was ultimately to see him. Elizabeth Degarmo expressed it well, “My course I mean shall be onward and upward till I see Jesus.”13 But what is also clear from their testimonies is that they are already basking in the presence of Jesus. Their hopes have been realized, not yet in the Second Coming, but in drawing near to God and experiencing directly, as David did, that God is love and that near him, “we are in an atmosphere of love” and participate in a community of love. We have the companionship of Jesus now when we reach out in love to our brothers and sisters. We are with Jesus when we trust in God’s love and transforming power and when we are drawn to the beauty of holiness. It is important to remember that as we focus on Christ’s coming in a future time, we run the risk of not seeing Jesus now, and miss the joy of drawing near to God. We, too, as the spiritual heirs of those living in the “patient waiting time,”14 can look forward to the future when “he that shall come will come,” while currently rejoicing in the peace, fulfillment, and satisfaction of living in the presence of God.

 

Notes & References:
1. Tryphena N. Elliot, “From Sister Elliot,” Review and Herald 12, no. 10 (July 22, 1858):  79.         
2. J. B. & Charlotte S. Bezzo, “From Bro. & Sr. Bezzo,” Review and Herald 4, no. 18 (November 8, 1853): 142-43.
3. R. F. Cottrell, “Tradition Preferred to Truth,” Review and Herald  31, no. 17 (April 7, 1868): 268.
4. E. A. Poole, “From Bro. Poole,” Review and Herald 3, no. 5 (July 8, 1852): 39.
5. J. Clarke, “The Reformation,” Review and Herald 19, no. 6 (January 7, 1862): 46-47.
6. Emma C. Downer, “From Sister Downer,” Review and Herald 23, no. 7 (January 12, 1864): 54-55.
7. Lois J. Richmond, “From Sister Richmond,” Review and Herald 5, no 11 (April 4, 1854): 87.
8. J. N. Pike, “Begin New:  Spoken from Experience,” Review and Herald 9, no. 25 (April 23, 1857): 198. 
9. E. W.  Darling, “Love to God,” Review and Herald 24, no. 12 (August 16, 1864): 91.
10. “Drawing Near to God,” Review and Herald 10, no. 25 (October 22, 1857): 195
11. Elizabeth Degarmo, “From Sister Degarmo,” Review and Herald 6, no. 2 (August 22, 1854): 15.
12. Cornelia A. Hilton, “From Sister Hilton,” Review and Herald 13, no. 17 (April 7, 1868): 267.
13. Degarmo, 15.
14. Sister Betsey E. Sage, “From Sister Sage,” Review and Herald 3, no. 18 (January 20, 1853): 143.

 

Beverly Beem from Walla Walla University (ret.) and Ginger Hanks Harwood from La Sierra University (ret.) have worked together in mining the nineteenth-century Review and Herald to find what our pioneers said about their spiritual experience. They have published their work in Spectrum and Andrews University Seminary Studies. They wish to acknowledge the generous support given by Walla Walla University and La Sierra University for the research behind this article.

Photo by eberhard grossgasteiger on Unsplash.

 

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