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The theme of this week’s lesson, “The Promised Revival: God’s Mission Completed,” provides us with an opportunity to reflect on what it might mean for God’s Spirit to be poured out on God’s people, the community of believers that is the Body of Christ before a watching world.

According to one widespread and perhaps still dominant Adventist teaching that may be traced all the way back to the denomination’s founding, Christ’s second coming and the consummation of human history hinges upon the global spread of a set of distinctively Adventist doctrines.  Only after “The Three Angels Message” (the peculiar Adventist interpretation of biblical apocalyptic literature and especially of Revelation 14) is proclaimed to enough people around the world, we are told, will Christ finally return and bring an end to the cosmic conflict between good and evil that continues to ravage the earth with suffering.

However, the fact that Christ has not returned more than 150 years after the formal organization of the church, and the fact that the world’s total population is now growing faster than the Adventist population, has led many Adventists to a sense of great anxiety.  The task is so immense only a supernatural outpouring of the Holy Spirit—the Latter Rain—will enable Adventists to “finish the work” that God has entrusted to us.  Yet we have collectively failed in our calling, these individuals tell us; God has not sent the Latter Rain because we have remained spiritually unprepared to receive it.  We must therefore rededicate ourselves to the distinctive beliefs of the Adventist pioneers and the preaching of the Three Angels Message, and open our hearts to spiritual revival by forming small groups of intense prayer and Bible study as we patiently await and strive to help usher in the unfolding of long-foretold events.

But is this really what the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in the New Testament means?  Or would a true spiritual revival for Adventists require us to begin asking some challenging questions about this familiar Adventist narrative, very much in evidence in the Sabbath School Quarterly? 

Similar to the ancient Gnostics, many Adventists have made hidden knowledge (in theory accessible to all yet in fact penetrable only to an elect few) the key to our salvation; the proclamation of complex eschatological teachings is said to itself catalyze eschatological events simply by being heard and accepted by enough people.  Those who hold to this theology have emphasized the need for greater personal piety in the form of prayer and Bible study but they have said little or nothing about more communal and social spiritual practices that might embody the Gospel in practical ways, such as acts of charity and concern for the welfare of our neighbors.  These “remnant” self-understandings and “Last Generation Theologies” unavoidably foster a strange mixture of both pride and guilt: Adventists are God’s one true church and so can uniquely influence the timing of Christ’s return by their actions, yet Adventists are also responsible for delaying Christ’s return by failing to pray for the Latter Rain with sufficient intensity and devotion, by failing to perfectly reproduce Christ’s character.

In the Book of Acts, by contrast, the outpouring of God’s Holy Spirit at Pentecost has nothing to do with esoteric knowledge about end time events.  And it does not look or sound like anything anyone anticipated, imagined, or predicted.  The Holy Spirit arrives “like a violent rushing wind” (2:2).  It breaks down the barriers between people of every race and ethnicity and produces “amazement and great perplexity” (2:12).  Those who are filled with the Holy Spirit are in fact mistaken as being drunk (2:13).  In fulfillment of the words of the prophet Joel, the Spirit knows no distinctions based upon class, age, or gender:

And your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
And your young men shall see visions,
And your old men shall dream dreams;
Even on My bondslaves, both men and women,
I will in those days pour forth of My Spirit

And they shall prophesy. (2:17-18)

In a society of rigid hierarchies, economic exploitation, and immense inequalities, the fact that the Holy Spirit was present with the followers of the Way was evident not simply in their personal piety, their preaching, or their charismatic gifts, but in their concern for matters of social justice and the material needs of the poor in their midst.  Pentecost immediately led to reordered economic relations and to the ethics of radical communitarianism if not Christian communism. “And all those who had believed were together and had all things in common; and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need” (2:44-45).

Adventists have long been captivated by the symbolic image of tongues of fire over the heads of the early believers in the Book of Acts.  But is it possible, we must ask, that the Holy Spirit will already have powerfully and unexpectedly arrived in our midst when Adventists are less captivated by signs and wonders and far more fired by the New Testament’s vision of a new community of peace and justice in which all find welcome?  As we pray for the outpouring of God’s Spirit, may we also pray that God teaches us what the always dangerous and demanding arrival of the Spirit might actually look like in our own world of poverty, injustice, violence, and inequality.

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