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A Biblical–theological view of history


This week’s lesson does a tremendous service by reminding us of the centrality of history in scripture—not just the historical record of God’s people, but God’s overwhelming desire that His people be aware of that record.[i] This is an issue about which, however, Seventh-day Adventists in practice are ambivalent. One of the most beloved quotations of early Adventist pioneer and prophetess, Ellen White, highlights the importance of our history. “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.”[ii] Yet this, I suggest, is not only one of the most oft-quoted passages in all of Ellen White’s writings, but also one of the least listened to. We know the words, but it is as though, by repeating them, we obviate the need to put into practice the principle embodied in them; at any rate, on the whole we collectively have not acted in accordance with those stirring words. Seventh-day Adventists have forgotten “the way the Lord has led us,” because we have been uninterested in “our past history.”

Adventists and History

Now, sometimes we may feel that history is not very relevant for us as Seventh-day Adventists. After all, our entire reason for existence revolves around looking forward to the imminent end of history. Sometimes we may wonder whether reflection on the past is necessary, or even appropriate for a community of adventists, who believe Christ’s second coming is imminent and whose purpose is to bring it closer by preaching the word throughout the world. We may feel that knowledge of our history might be something nice, for those who are interested, but that it is hardly important for the church as a whole. We may even feel that it might well be a kind of stumbling block—that, in trying to tease out obscure, “dry as dust” details of our past, we will take our eyes off the prize, and end up stumbling in the race of faith that ought to end with a heavenly crown (cf. 1 Co. 9:24-25).

I believe that, in fact, the opposite is true. Paying attention to our history is vital for us, both individually and as a community. The clear message of scripture is that Our Lord wants all Christians to be aware of sacred history, because this is one of the greatest potential inspirations for Christians. We could even say that God, in a sense, is an historian!

God, His people and history

In the Old Testament, God repeatedly draws His people’s attention to their past, in which they could find proof of providential care and divine direction, so that they could draw new courage for their future and the tasks that awaited them. By looking to history they could find grounds for hope—for hope, and for faith in God’s guidance and leading.

One of the most striking examples of God’s desire that His people know their history came at the beginning of the Israelite conquest of Canaan. Having succeeded Moses as their leader, Joshua bade the Twelve Tribes of Israel prepare to cross the Jordan, telling them: “This is how you will know that the living God is among you … the Ark of the Covenant … will go into the Jordan ahead of you. . . .  And as soon as the priests who carry the ark of the Lord—the Lord of all the earth—set foot in the Jordan, its waters flowing downstream will be cut off and stand in a heap” (Jos. 3:9-13 NIV). God was going to bring about a miraculous crossing of the Jordan; but it is clear that the miracle was for a specific purpose—for it wasn’t strictly speaking necessary. As the Bible tells us, the Jordan was “at flood stage” (Jos. 3:15 NIV)—at this time of year the waters flow down from the mountains to the Dead Sea in great volume and with great force, rolling even large stones downstream as though they were pebbles. But for most of the year, the Jordan is actually a small stream, easily fordable. God could have had the Israelites cross earlier in the year, or later.

He had them cross then because it allowed Him to demonstrate to them (and to the peoples of neighboring kingdoms) that God was all-powerful, that He loved the Israelites and was guiding them—and that their leader was His chosen agent (Jos. 3:7). God had given their parents (and the Egyptians) such a demonstration at the crossing of the Red Sea (or Sea of Reeds, which is what the Hebrew actually means), when Moses had led the twelve tribes; now the new generation, who either were unborn or children forty years earlier when the Israelites were miraculously delivered out of Egypt, were to be given a similar material demonstration of the power of the “Lord of all the earth”, by being miraculously conducted into Canaan, under Joshua’s leading. However, whereas the crossing of the Reed Sea was commemorated in the song led by Miriam (Ex. 15:1-22), the Jordan crossing provided an opportunity for more concrete commemoration—and I think this is one reason why God chose to require the Israelites to cross the Jordan while it was in flood.

Stones from the Jordan

As Joshua 4:1-3 tells us,

When the whole nation had finished crossing the Jordan, the Lord said to Joshua, “Choose twelve men from among the people, one from each tribe, and tell them to take up twelve stones from the middle of the Jordan from right where the priests stood and to carry them over with you”. (Jos. 4:1-3 NIV)

Note that the Lord himself commands that a representative of each tribe was to take one of the great stones, that would only be washed down the Jordan when it was in spate, and take it to dry land. Joshua explains to the chosen men that each is to take a stone “to serve as a sign among you in the future. . . . These stones are to be a memorial to the people of Israel forever.” (Jos. 4:6-7 NIV.)

 Having done as God and Joshua had bade them, the Israelites took the stones a mile beyond the river, to Gilgal. “And Joshua set up at Gilgal the twelve stones”, and said to the people: “In the future, when your descendants ask their fathers, ‘What do these stones mean?’ tell them, ‘Israel crossed the Jordan on dry ground.” For the Lord your God dried up the Jordan before you… [He] did to the Jordan just what he had done to the Red Sea…He did this so that all the peoples of the earth may know that the hand of the Lord is mighty and so that you may reverence and fear the Lord your God forever.” (Jos. 4:20–24 NIV, Amplified.)

When recalling the miraculous interventions of providence in their past, God’s people could not help but be encouraged and strengthened in their present. Remembering how God had acted in their history would make it easier for them to reverence and worship Him. As Joshua told the men who took the stones from the Jordan: “These stones are to be a memorial to the people of Israel forever.” Historians debate when and in what culture people first began establishing historical memorials. The Book of Joshua tells us that the first historical monument was created at God’s direct command!

The stone at Mizpah

It was not the last to be erected at divine prompting. When the Prophet Samuel was first recognized as the leader of God’s people, he urged the Israelites to “rid yourselves of … foreign Gods” and to “commit yourselves to the Lord and serve Him only”; and he promised that, if they did so, then God “will deliver you out of the hands of the Philistines” (1 Sam. 7:3 NIV). The twelve tribes gathered at Mizpah to recommit themselves to the true worship of the one God (v. 6). But “the rulers of the Philistines” assumed the Israelites were gathering to wage war and so they “came up to attack them” (v. 7 NIV). Samuel urged the Israelites not to resist, but instead to trust in the Lord. The result was that, while the Philistine army approached, Samuel “cried out to the Lord on Israel’s behalf,” and “the Lord thundered … against the Philistines and threw them into such a panic that they were routed” (v. 10 NIV).

Samuel wanted to ensure that the Israelites would not again easily fall into idolatry; he therefore “took up a stone and set it up [near] Mizpah” and “named it Ebenezer” which means “stone of help”, for, as he declared, “Thus far has the Lord helped us” (7:12 NIV). Thus, a great victory over the Philistines, gained solely by divine intervention, was permanently commemorated with a monument.

For the rest of the time that Samuel was their judge the Israelites were at peace with both the Philistines and the Amorites, and idolatry was rare.[iii] Only when Saul became king did the Philistines trouble Israel again. The memory of the miraculous victory at Mizpah, perpetuated by the Ebenezer stone, helped not only to intimidate the Philistines, but also to keep the Israelites faithful to God.

God and the historical record

As well as inspiring the construction of physical monuments to His role in Israel’s history, God, through His prophets, also repeatedly urged His people to study their history and His role in it.

In Moses’ final address to the Israelites, shortly before his death, he repeatedly urged them to preserve their history. They were to “be careful and watch yourselves so that you do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them slip from your heart”; to be “careful not to forget the covenant of the Lord”; and “careful that you do not forget the Lord, who brought you out of Egypt” (Deut. 4:9, 23, 6:12, NIV, emphases supplied). Nor was this a task only for the generation that had experienced miracles at the Red Sea and in Sinai, for Moses also enjoined the Israelites: “Teach [these stories] to your children and to their children after them.” (Deut. 4:9.) It is striking that Moses portrays remembrance as something that requires care—it takes effort; and it must be passed on to the next generation. He is calling the Israelites to preserve and record their reminiscences, turning memory into history.

This was to be an ongoing concern for divinely ordained leaders of Israel. In Gideon’s day, an unnamed prophet, sent from God to urge the Israelites to repent and return to God, began his message with a reminder of their history (Judges 6:8-10). Ellen White writes that in the schools of the prophets, established by Samuel “to serve as a barrier against … widespread corruption”, among “the chief subjects of study” were “the records of sacred history”.[iv] Shortly before his death, King David, in a valedictory address to his people, bade them not only to “give thanks to the Lord [and] Glory in His holy name” and “Seek the Lord and His strength”, but also to “Remember His marvellous works which He has done, His wonders and the judgments of His mouth” (1 Chron. 16:8–12, NKJV, emphasis supplied).

The failure to follow the frequent injunctions to remember resulted in disaster and divine rebuke. The prophet Micah, rebuking the Israelites for apostasy, highlighted their failure to remember how God “brought you up out of Egypt” through the ministry of “Moses, … Aaron and Miriam”. The prophet, in words presented as God’s own, twice explicitly tells them to “remember” previous flirtations with pagan religion; the second command strikingly references the monument created at Gilgal, which is characterised as the endpoint of a journey from Shittim: the site of one of the most appalling episodes of idolatry and apostasy in the Israelites’ forty years in the wilderness. (Mic. 6: 4, 5, NIV. Cf. Num. chaps 24-25, esp. 25: 1-5.)

When Nehemiah, like Moses and David before him, came to deliver a valedictory address, he recounted to the returned exiles from Babylon the entire history of Israel from the time God chose Abraham. He then rebuked his listeners because they, like their forefathers, “refused to listen and failed to remember” what God had done for them in the past (Neh. 9:17, NIV, emphasis supplied).

History and the early Church

God’s desire that His people know their history and especially the record of His action in their history was not limited to the Old Testament era. When Stephen was charged with “speaking against [the Temple] and against the law” by his constant preaching about Jesus (Acts 6:13 NIV), he began his defense by a summary recitation of all Israel’s history, even though his listeners, member of the Jewish religious elite, must have known it all as well as he. But his point was that Jesus’s mission had to be understood in the long history of divine interaction with the Israelites and the history of their rejection of the prophets, even those who foretold the coming of the Messiah (Acts 7:52). The gospel, in other words, made best sense when understood in historical context.

The stories of Stephen and the other very first Christian martyrs and missionaries, which still have a power to move today by virtue of the faith, heroism and steadfastness they demonstrated, are preserved for us today because of Luke’s efforts. But in writing what we know as the Book of Acts, what was Luke’s purpose? Acts was the continuation of the narrative of Jesus’s life that we know as the Gospel of Luke, and it is evident that it had a similar purpose and method (cf. Acts 1:1–3).In his introduction to the Gospel that bears his name, Luke, writing to the “friends of God”, declares that he was writing because “it seemed good … to write an orderly account for you … so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught” (Luke 1:3-4 NIV, emphasis supplied)—and he tells them that compiled this “orderly account” from different existing narratives and eyewitness accounts (v.2 NIV). Both Luke’s Gospel and Acts, in other words, were based on historical research.

Luke, then, was the first historian of Christianity. Just as God inspired the creation of the first historical monument, so He also inspired historical accounts of the creation of the Church.

Paul, who stood looking on at the stoning of Stephen, approving his death (Acts 8:1), would have approved of Luke’s actions. Not only was Luke Paul’s close associate, but in addition, while the apostle told the gentiles that they were free from the strictures of the Mosaic Law, he did not mean that they therefore could ignore the history of Israel, or the history that Luke at that time was beginning to piece together. Paul urged the believers in Thessalonica: “So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions you were taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter from us” (1 Th. 2:15 NASB, emphasis supplied).

Running the race of faith

It was because of a strong sense of the historical record of God’s people throughout time that the author of Hebrews could encourage the Christian believers of the first century, urging them not only to “recall the former days” of their own journey in faith (Heb. 10:32 NKJV), but also to reflect on the experiences of past generations. And this prompts the author to begin that extraordinary narrative of people of faith and of sacred history from Abel onwards, which makes up the whole of Hebrews chapter 11.

The author emphasizes that even Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham and Sarah “did not receive the things promised”; and so, in faith, they died (11:13 NIV). The promise is still to come! How, then, were Isaac, Jacob, Esau, Joseph, Moses, and all the judges and heroes of the faith, able to continue in that faith, when they “did not see the promise”? It was because each generation has had the example of the previous generation, which has lived by faith, trusting in the promise, but also being empowered by God to confront the terrible challenges that confronted them. We today have the record of so many more generations of faithful believers, who endured torture, mockery, imprisonment, hunger, and all kinds of hardships, but nevertheless “through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, … shut the mouths of lions, quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength” (11:33-34 NIV).

Every believer to whom the book of Hebrews was written was surrounded by a very “great cloud of witnesses”—how much truer is that of us today! Because of their example, we are able to “lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares … and run with endurance the race” that concludes with Christ, “the author and finisher of our faith” in heaven (Heb. 12:1-2 NKJV). Our history is far from a stumbling block—it encourages and energizes us.

History and the Seventh-day Adventist Christian

This, then, is the model we find in Scripture—it is our past that empowers us for the present and for the future. Knowing how God has acted in history reminds us of how much we owe Him—it is humbling; and when we are humble, focused on God, rather than ourselves, then there is no limit to what He can work in us. Knowing how God has acted in the past also gives us confidence that He will enable us to meet the challenges we have to face now and in the future.

Their examples can inspire us and give us new courage as we seek to proclaim the good news of salvation to a world broken by sin. We need to know these stories if we are to pass them on to the next generation—and unless we pass on that which we have received, there is no Church! Knowing our history connects us to all the past generations of God’s followers: from ancient Israelites, to medieval Christians, to Protestant Reformers, to those who founded our denomination in the mid-nineteenth century, and all who have followed them—they are the “great cloud of witnesses surrounding us” (Heb. 12:1 NASB). Their examples remind us of what weak men and women can accomplish when they devote themselves to God, just as the twelve stones from the River Jordan reminded the Children of Israel of all that God had done for them, from taking them through the waters of the Reed Sea out of bondage in Egypt, then through the wilderness of disobedience, to taking them through the floodwaters of Jordan into the promised land of Canaan; and they point us towards the author and finisher of our faith, through whose power alone we will come to the promised land of heaven.


[i]This article is based on, but adapts and expands, two previous articles: ‘Stones of meaning”, part 1, “Why history matters: Sacred history”, part 2, “Why our history matters: Seventh-day Adventists and history”,Adventist Review, 188 (9 and 16 June 2011), 500–2, 527–29.

[ii]                  Life Sketches of Ellen G. White (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press, 1915), 196.

[iii]                  1 Sam. 7: 13-14; Ellen g. White, The Story of Patriarchs and Prophets (Washington, D.C.: Review & Herald, 1958), p. 591.

[iv]                  Patriarchs and Prophets, pp. 594-95 at 595; cf. Testimonies for the Church, 9 vols. (Oakland, Calif: Pacific Press, and Battle Creek, Mich.: Review & Herald, 1901-1909), vol. 8, p. 307.

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