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Adventist Identity and the Three Angels’ Messages: Part 1


Sabbath school commentary for discussion alongside the Adult Bible Study Guide for April 1, 2023.

Editor’s note: After a friendly argument over personified evil, Sigve Tonstad sent me a 50-page manuscript. After reading it, I asked and he granted Spectrum permission to print this in a serialized format as commentary on this quarter’s Adult Bible Study Guide. Mark Finley, a former evangelist and now assistant to the president of the General Conference, is the primary contributor to the Sabbath school lesson, which is focused on the three angels’ messages in the book of Revelation. Sigve Tonstad, MD, PhD, holds two appointments at Loma Linda University, as an assistant professor in the School of Medicine and research professor in the School of Religion.

Tonstad is the author of the widely praised Revelation volume in the Paideia commentary series published by Baker Academic in 2019. "Tonstad's remarkable commentary offers a comprehensive reading of Revelation that is both literarily sensitive and theologically incisive, writes Richard B. Hays, professor emeritus of New Testament at Duke Divinity School.

With careful attention to the text's engagement with Israel's scriptures, Tonstad interprets Revelation as a christologically centered disclosure of the astonishing, counterintuitive triumph of God's love over the cosmic power of evil. This deeply intelligent commentary challenges historicist readings of the book as a simple document of political resistance to the Roman Empire. At the same time, it grapples thoughtfully with pervasive misreadings of Revelation—both in the Christian theological tradition and in Western literary culture more broadly—as a fountainhead of resentment and violence. All who read this commentary will be forced to reconsider what they think they know about the Apocalypse.

For the next quarter, we’ll explore “Adventist Identity and the Three Angels’ Messages” with Tonstad as our guide. To maintain the integrity of his document, each week won’t necessarily map directly to the lesson. If you are teaching the ABSG this quarter, I recommend getting, or asking your church librarian to purchase, Tonstad’s commentary ($35). Between its look over the entire book, and Spectrum’s serialized focus on Revelation 12, as Hays writes, we’re in for a careful, astonishing, counterintuitive reconsideration of the Apocalypse.  —Alexander Carpenter

A pastor friend of mine charged with responsibility for continuing education for Adventist pastors in Norway once contacted me with the following request: Could I compress and simplify my study of Revelation into one or two presentations? “The pastors are busy,” he said, “and they do not read much.”

I said that I could do one or two presentations, but it would not accomplish much, and it would not do justice to Revelation. Anyone wishing to get a handle on the last book of the Bible must prepare for expansion, not compression. The book is already compressed, like a zip file on the computer that expands when we unzip it. Only then, when unpacked and unzipped, will the message come out fully. Consider this statement from my friend and mentor Richard J. Bauckham, one of the most outstanding New Testament scholars of our time: “Revelation has been composed with such meticulous attention to detail of language and structure that scarcely a word can have been chosen without deliberate reflection on its relationship to the work as an integrated, interconnected whole.”[1]

If Bauckham is right, how do you shorten or simplify a text that does not have a single word in it that was not “chosen without deliberate reflection”? It cannot be done, even though attempted shortcuts to this book are legion. Seventh-day Adventist approaches are no exception. There, too, there is a yearning for a compressed approach, with “the three angels’ messages” in the middle of the book as a telling example (Rev. 14:6–12).

For proof that Revelation is compressed as it stands, consider another statement by Bauckham: “Revelation’s use of the Old Testament scriptures is an essential key to its understanding. The pattern of almost continuous allusion to the Old Testament throughout the book is not a haphazard use of the Old Testament that he naturally uses as its language, as some scholars have mistakenly thought.”[2] Here, the key word is “allusion,” verbal snippets from other and older texts. The fancy word for such use is intertextuality. Texts interact with each other, the younger text informed by—and dependent on— an older text. Revelation’s meaning and message are constructed by quotations, allusions, or echoes of texts known to the author and hopefully known to some extent to the author’s audience. Bauckham’s insight amounts to a “user manual for readers of Revelation.” “It is a pattern of disciplined and deliberate allusion to specific Old Testament texts,” he explains. We must acknowledge that Revelation’s author was a reader and not only a person having visions; we distort his achievement if we think of him only as a visionary. And Bauckham does not let up. “Reference to and interpretation of these texts is an extremely important part of the meaning of the text of the Apocalypse,” he says. “It is a book designed to be read in constant intertextual relationship with the Old Testament.” [3]

Such a conception will not be friendly to shortcuts, attempts to compress the book, or selective extractions here and there. If Revelation expects the reader to pay attention to the Old Testament and to explore the Old Testament context of its allusions, there is no quick fix. A “quick fix” approach will be a sure path to misunderstanding.

Let the word “Watergate” serve as an example. “Watergate” is the name of a building near the Potomac in Washington, DC, but its connotation in popular usage is much wider. The word came into use when operatives for President Richard M. Nixon staged a burglary of the offices occupied by his Democratic rival. When their plot unraveled, the president eventually resigned.  “Watergate” is now an effective short term for scandal, first, and for a crime and its attempted cover-up, second. Bauckham’s contention that there is a “pattern of almost continuous allusion to the Old Testament” means that “Watergate-like” words, terms, and phrases are scattered throughout the book. The allusions are a form of verbal compression, enabling the author to say more with few words and, as part of his pedagogy, to engage the reader in meaning construction because the reader’s efforts will fail if he or she does not take the Old Testament background into account. If I were to use the word “Watergate” to a person unacquainted with the term, he or she will not understand me unless I take the time to explain my allusion. For us, readers of an ancient text like Revelation, there will be many such “Watergate moments,” many occasions requiring extended stops to sound out the meaning of the terms used.

“John was writing what he understood to be a work of apocalyptic scripture, the climax of prophetic revelation, which gathered up the prophetic meaning of the Old Testament scriptures and disclosed the way in which it was being and was to be fulfilled in the last days,” Bauckham writes.[4] This point is not contrived. Revelation has many clues that the author sensed his book could be the last one in what is now our Bible.[5] In Bauckham’s perception, Revelation becomes a retrospective on the Bible as a whole.


Notes & References:

[1] Richard Bauckham, The Climax of Prophecy: Studies in the Book of Revelation (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1993), x. 

[2] Bauckham, The Climax of Prophecy, xi.

[3] Bauckham, The Climax of Prophecy, xi.

[4] Bauckham, The Climax of Prophecy, xi.

[5] Külli Tõniste, The Ending of the Canon: A Canonical and Intertextual Reading of Revelation 21–22 (London: Bloomsbury, 2016).


Sigve Tonstad is an assistant professor in the School of Medicine and research professor in the School of Religion at Loma Lind University. Born and raised in Norway, he completed a BA in theology at Middle East College in Lebanon and Andrews University (1974), his MD from Loma Linda University (1979), an MA in biblical studies at LLU (1990), and a PhD in New Testament studies at the University of St. Andrews (2005).

Title image: Sigve Tonstad via Roy Branson Legacy Sabbath School

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