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The First Angel’s Message: Part 3


Sabbath school commentary for discussion alongside the Adult Bible Study Guide for May 13, 2023.

Editor’s note: To accompany the Sabbath school lesson’s focus this quarter on the three angels’ messages, Spectrum is publishing “Adventist Identity and the Three Angels’ Messages,” a serialized in-depth focus on Revelation by Sigve Tonstad.

One hurdle is left, and it is best seen as critical a fork in the road for the Adventist interpreter of the first angel’s message. This has to do with “the hour” mentioned in the angel’s message, its location in Revelation’s storyline, and its palpable urgency. In my view, this is where some of the most critical matters in these messages come to a head, and they are also a testing ground for the three “rules” I mentioned at the beginning. “For his hour has come—the critical moment [hē hōra tēs kriseōs autou]”—is how I put it in my translation (14:7). “For the hour of his judgment has come,” says the NRSV, and this is the wording of most English translations. A few translations make explicit what the others leave implicit, but the explicit variations fit the impression readers have already. Thus, we have “the time has come for him to sit in judgment” (NJB); “for his time has come to sit in judgment” (NAB); and “because the time has come for him to sit in judgement” (14:7). These translations see “the hour” as a judicial event and God in the capacity of judge.

The traditional Adventist interpretation reflects the broad contours of this view, but it brings specifics into the picture that are uniquely “Adventist.” Two of the presenters at the Conference on Adventist Identity at Andrews University make the Adventist distinctive clear. “The time of God’s ‘judgment has come’ (Revelation 14:7), and we need to announce the last Gospel-message of love to the world that includes the reality of the pre-Advent judgment, which is currently going on in heaven (Daniel 7–9),” says Jiří Moskala, the dean of the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary.[1] His Old Testament colleague, Richard M. Davidson, specifies the point further. “The first two angels’ messages (Rev. 14:6–8) focused upon the termination of the 2300 day-prophecy [Dan. 8:14], fulfilled by Jesus’ work of investigative judgment in the Most Holy Place of the heavenly sanctuary, starting in October 22, 1844, and upon the true worship of God connected to the seventh-day Sabbath, contrasted with counterfeit worship and doctrines of Satan and his earthly representatives.”[2] This is a mouthful by any standard. Key elements in this interpretation owe to how the earliest Adventists read their own experience into this passage, but it retains the tenor of mainstream readings: “The hour of his judgment” is a judicial event. That hour has now come; it has a specific date in the Adventist reading. God is now, from God’s vantage point in high heaven, sitting in judgment of human beings on earth. “The time has come for him to sit in judgment,” as the New Living Translation puts it (14:7).

My translation assumes a different storyline and logic. First, Revelation is the climax of prophecy, as Bauckham puts it, and the three angels’ messages are the climax of the “prophecy” in the book. That climax is best seen not as a judicial event but as “the critical moment” in a process. Second, its focus is something happening on earth—and a lot is happening on earth. Events are moving toward a suspenseful climax. Third, recalling the “rule” that “God is not the only one who is at work in the world,” the pattern of demonic action and divine reaction persists. The first angel is reacting to the activities taking place on the opposing side in the cosmic conflict. Most readings of these messages make the action to which these messages are the reaction disappear—with the result that “God is the only one at work in the world,” and God now faces human beings in the posture of judge. The contrast-and-conflict reading, on the other hand, perceives the angel telling “those who live on the earth” to beware of the danger posed by the other side. The grid below preserves the pattern of action and reaction step by step for the message of the first angel. The third step, to spell it out clearly, captures the intention of the opposing side “to be marked.” Note that the grid depicts re-action to the prior action with respect to the first angel only.

Prior Action Re-Action
#1. It opened its mouth to slander God, slandering his Name and his dwelling (13:6). #1. Another angel . . . saying in a loud voice, “Be in awe of God and speak well of him.” (14:7)
#2. And all the inhabitants of the earth will worship it (13:8). #2. “Worship him who made heaven and earth, the sea and the springs of water” (14:7).
#3. It causes all, both small and great, both rich and poor, both free and slave, to be marked on the right hand or the forehead (13:16). #3. “For his hour has come—the critical moment” (14:7).

Fourth, the Johannine tenor of the message weighs strongly in favor of hearing “the hour” as “the critical moment” and not as a judicial event. This could well be one of the strongest points in favor of my translation. I presented a paper on “the critical moment” in the Gospel of John at the University of St. Andrews in 2006, and I will summarize some elements here.[3] The language of “judgment” (krisis) is even more prominent in John’s Gospel than in Revelation, and the meaning—over and over—is judgment as a “critical moment,” indeed, as revelation (John 3:19; 5:22, 24, 27, 29, 30; 12:31; 16:8, 11). Notice how Jo-Ann Brant translates the key verse in her John commentary—and Revelation for comparison:

Now is the critical moment of this world (nûn krisis estin tou kosmou toutou); now (nûn) the ruler of this world will be exposed (ekblēthēsetai) (John 12:31).[4]

For his hour has come—the critical moment (hē hōra tēs kriseōs autou) (Rev. 14:7)

The key passage in John combines “judgment” (krisis) with the sense of imminence. The temporal aspect is described either by the adverb now (nûn) or by the noun the hour (hē hōra). These phrases recur three times, respectively, at the most crucial stage in John.

The hour (hē hōra) has come for the Son of Man to be glorified (John 12:23).

Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—“Father, save me from this hour (ek tes horas tautēs)”? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour (eis tēn hōran tauten) (John 12:27).

The force of the hour becomes more striking because John has kept his readers abreast from the beginning, first by saying that the hour will come and then pointing out what is not the hour—not yet (John 2:4; 4:6, 21, 23; 7:30; 8:20; 13:1; see also 5:25, 28, 35). The sense of “critical moment” is enhanced by the temporal adverb now (nûn), also repeated three times in the key passage.

Now (nûn) my soul is troubled. And what should I say—“Father, save me from this hour”? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour (John 12:27).

Now (nûn) is the critical moment of this world; now (nûn) the ruler of this world will be exposed (John 12:31).

There is a “garden” in the Gospel of John (18:1, 26); it must be the Garden of Gethsemane. But the intense struggle depicted in the Synoptic Gospels is muted in the Fourth Gospel: “now my soul is troubled.” Nevertheless, the lines leading to the climactic point are crystal clear. John’s krisis is so poorly rendered by the word judgment that it should be avoided. If we choose to keep it, it must be explained. There is a krisis to be sure—this is the word we have—and the krisis has a revelatory character, the moment of truth. For variant translations of the remainder of the critical verse, all lexically legitimate, we can begin with the three options in the figure below. 

The moment to which the Gospel leads us, with Jesus as guide, explainer, and subject, is his death on the cross. He says as much in his own cryptic way and—no surprise—by alluding to the Old Testament. “And I, when I am lifted up (hypsōthō) from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32). His figure of speech seemed too cryptic to the narrator, so he added the explanatory note: “He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die” (12:33).

But the Old Testament background text is cryptic, too, if not full of seeming contradictions. “See, my servant shall succeed; he shall be exalted and lifted up (hypsōthēsetai, LXX), and shall be very high” (Isa. 52:13, my translation). Success? Yes! Lifted up? Yes to that, as well! He shall be lifted up literally and figuratively, lifted up and displayed on the cross for all to see, and then lifted up in the sense of being seen in a new light, as in the prediction, “When I am lifted up . . ., I will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32). The apparent contradictions in this scenario—dying yet winning, crucified yet defeating the opponent, lifted up and yet gruesomely abused and humiliated—continue in the Old Testament background text. “Just as there were many who were astonished at him—so marred was his appearance, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of mortals—so he shall startle many nations; kings shall shut their mouths because of him; for that which had not been told them they shall see, and that which they had not heard they shall contemplate” (Isa. 52:14-15). When this scenario comes to fruition in John, Jesus uses the word krisis. One of the literal meanings of krisis is judgment. Literal meanings, however, will not take us very far in texts that abound in cryptic language, double meanings, and apparent contradictions. The krisis in view is “the critical moment,” and the critical moment has the tenor of revelation. What comes to light, indeed, is something no one could have imagined; it is contrary to conventional ideas; and yet it is capable of changing people’s minds: “that which had not been told”—no earthly mind could think it—“they shall see, and that which they had not heard”—no one could say what no one could think—“they shall understand” (Isa. 52:15). By this criterion, the revelation also works as a form of persuasion.

“The story this Gospel has to tell concerns the battle between God and Satan, a battle acted out in the sphere of human history,” Judith Kovacs says perceptively. “John 12:31, together with the closely related passages in John 14:30-31 and 16:8-11, suggest that the Fourth Evangelist sees the death, resurrection, and ascent of Jesus as the turning point in the conflict between God and the forces of evil.”[5] This is well said, krisis as “critical moment” and as “the turning point.” Jo-Ann Brant echoes a similar thought, with an affirming side-glance at my work on these texts. “In John, Satan is the father of lies (8:44),” she begins. “Jesus’s victory, however, lies not in a cosmic battle (a literal war) but in the revelation that he dies an honorable death, putting to rest the lie that crucifixion is humiliation. As Sigve Tonstad (2008, 201–6) concludes, Jesus’s claim to triumph is theodicy, not soteriology.”[6]                                                               

This is how judgment (krisis) works in the Gospel of John. How does it work in Revelation, especially given that Revelation connects krisis with the hour (hē hōra)? I propose to see it the same way, as the “critical moment” within a scenario of an unfolding revelation that culminates in a moment of truth, finality, and clarity. While few scholars ascribe the Gospel of John and Revelation to the same author, as I do,[7] the linguistic and thematic parallels are incontrovertible. They apply to the essential plot structure of the books; they express the author’s most distinctive thought. Here, again, is an example. 

John: Now is the critical moment of this world, now the ruler of this world will be expelled [ekblēthēsetai] (John 12:31).

Revelation: The great dragon was expelled [ekblēthē], that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was expelled [ekblēthē] to the earth (Rev. 12:9).

In these verses, there is common ground for the theme of cosmic conflict, “the ruler of this world” in John and “the deceiver of this world” in Revelation. In both scenarios, given that “the ruler of this world” has deceit as his calling card, his hegemony will collapse when he is unmasked. The notion of unmasking is intrinsic to revelation as apokalypsis (Rev. 1:1). Here, it is reflected in the verb used in both books—ekballō. The literal meaning of this verb is to throw out or to expel, but it also carries the meaning exposed, laid bare, or stripped naked. When the first angel appears in full flight in mid-heaven, the world is barreling toward the point when the deceiver pulls out all the stops. His design is countered by an urgent, heaven-ordained counter-mission. It is “the critical moment,” indeed; it happens in a series of revelatory events rather than as judicial review. This is how I put it in my Revelation commentary:

The parallel to the Gospel of John is unmistakable (John 12:20–33). There, too, is an “hour of judgment,” but the “hour” is not only the moment in time when God will sit in judgment of humanity (Tonstad 2008b). Judgment is a matter of revelation, the time when forces and phenomena will declare themselves and be exposed for what they are. At the “hour of judgment,” conceived in revelatory terms, “those who live in the earth” face a mortal danger from an enemy who is plotting against them. The notion of a “critical moment” is pertinent to the impending crisis, arising from a scenario of events that differs from judgment conceived in judicial terms.[8]

The notion of judicial review, or “investigative judgment,” as it is called in Adventist theology, misses the Johannine tenor of krisis, and it falls short of the momentum in Revelation’s story. Its greatest weakness, perhaps, is to take the reader’s eyes off the action to which the first angel’s message is the re-action, shifting the focus to the judicial review and away from the danger building in the earthly sphere. To state the problem by means of Revelation’s imagery, this interpretation slows the angel’s flight almost to the point of stalling; it draws a flight path at a lower altitude than mid-heaven; and it mutes the angel’s loud voice.

These are the exegetical and rhetorical concerns. The remaining concern is pedagogical. The Adventist interpretation requires an immersion in complicated passages in Daniel and a detour into Adventist denominational history. Will the sought-after credence materialize if the church continues to go that route? I envision an angel in flight that is not saddled with that burden, with Psalm 96 echoing in the flapping of the angel’s wings: “for he is coming, he is coming” in a theophany where judgment means revelation, liberation, and right-making: “he will judge the world with saving justice, and the nations with constancy” (Psa. 96:13, NJB).[9]


Notes & References:

[1] Jiří Moskala, “The Seventh-day Adventist Identity—Who Are We as the Community of Faith?” Paper presented at the Conference on Adventist Identity, Andrews University, October 14, 2022.

[2] Richard M. Davidson, “The Centrality of Christ in Adventist Doctrine,” Paper presented at the Conference on Adventist Identity, Andrews University, October 14, 2022.

[3] Sigve K. Tonstad, “‘The Father of Lies,’ the Mother of Lies, and the Death of Jesus,” in The Gospel of John and Christian Theology, ed. Richard J. Bauckham and Carl Mosser (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), 193-210.

[4] Translation following Jo-Ann Brant, John (Paideia; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011), 193. 

[5] Judith Kovacs, “Jesus’ Death as Cosmic Battle,” Journal of Biblical Literature (1995), 231, 233.

[6] Brant, John, 198.

[7] Tonstad, Revelation, 30-34.

[8] Tonstad, Revelation, 204.

[9] Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, entry 2443.0.

Previously in this series:

The First Angel’s Message: Part 2 (April 26, 2023).

The First Angel’s Message: Part 1 (April 20, 2023).

The Second Rule of Revelation: Pay Attention to Old Testament Usage (April 12, 2023).

The First Rule of Revelation: Be a Re-Reader (April 5, 2023).

Adventist Identity and the Three Angels’ Messages: Part 1 (March 29, 2023).


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: Apokalipsis Trekhtolkoviy, the first angel proclaiming the judgement, from the book The Three-Sense Apocalypse. A 1909 printing of 17th century manuscript (public domain).

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