May 2011 marked the 148th anniversary of the formal organization of the Seventh-day Adventist Church; October 2011 will be the 167th anniversary of the disappointment of 1844. As years, decades, and centuries pass, very often groups forget the key moments that shaped them—what once were significant beliefs or practices become traditions, customs, and then mere habits. When that happens, groups can also begin to forget their origins and their very reason for existence. Might this already be happening to the Seventh-day Adventist Church?
This is the first of two articles on why our history matters, urgently, if we want our church to keep proclaiming the gospel and the third angel’s message. This first article, however, focuses on the sacred history of Israel, rather than our denominational history, and it does so because everything we do as Seventh-day Adventist Christians ought to be founded on the Word of God. We will see that Scripture has a clear message: God is interested in history and invites us to be aware of sacred history, because this is one of the greatest potential inspirations for Christians. Knowing our history is not just a human need—
it is a divine command. God, in a sense, is a 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 Israel’s leader, Joshua bade the 12 tribes prepare to cross the Jordan, telling them that “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 . . . set foot in the Jordan, its waters flowing downstream will be cut off and stand in a heap” (Joshua 3:11-13). God was going to bring about a miraculous crossing of the Jordan; yet it wasn’t strictly necessary. As the Bible tells us, the Jordan was “at flood stage” (verse 15)—at this time of year the waters flow from the mountains to the Dead Sea in great volume and with great force, rolling even large stones downstream as though they were pebbles. Yet for most of the year the Jordan is a small stream and easily fordable. God could have had the Israelites cross earlier in the year or later. Crossing at that time allowed Him to demonstrate that their God was all-powerful and was guiding them. However, it also gave an opportunity for concrete commemoration.
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 are standing, and carry them over with you.’ ”
The Lord Himself commands that a representative of each tribe take one of the great stones, washed down the Jordan only when it was in spate, and take it to dry land. Joshua explains further to the chosen men that the stones are “to serve as a sign among you. In the future” “these stones are to be a memorial to the people of Israel forever” (verses 6, 7).
“The Israelites did as Joshua commanded them” (verse 8) and then carried the stones farther on, to Gilgal, more than a mile from the river. “And Joshua set up at Gilgal the twelve stones,” and then said to the people: “In the future when your descendants ask their parents, ‘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” (verses 20-23). He did this so that “you may reverence and fear the Lord your God forever” (verse 24, Amplified).1
If they were aware of the miraculous interventions of providence in their past, God’s people could not help being encouraged and strengthened in their present, and would naturally honor and worship Him. Scholars debate when people first started to establish 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 hand of the Philistines” (1 Sam. 7:3). The 12 tribes gathered at Mizpah to recommit themselves to the true worship of the one God (verse 6). But “the rulers of the Philistines” assumed the Israelites were gathering to wage war, and so they “came up to attack them” (verse 7). Samuel urged the Israelites not to resist, but instead to trust in the Lord, whereupon “the Lord thundered . . . against the Philistines and threw them into such a panic that they were routed” (verse 10).
Samuel wanted to ensure that the Israelites would not again easily fall into idolatry; as Ellen White observes, he hoped that “the occasion might never be forgotten.”2 Samuel therefore “took up a stone and set it up [near] Mizpah” and “named it Ebenezer” (verse 12), which means “stone of help,” for, as he declared, “Thus far has the Lord helped us” (verse 12). 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 (verses 13, 14).3 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.
Knowing the History of Israel
As well as inspiring the construction of physical monuments, God, through 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 closely so that you do not forget
the things your eyes have seen or let them fade from your heart”; “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). Moses also enjoined the Israelites: “Teach [these stories] to your children and to their children after them” (Deut. 4:9). 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 turn memory into history.
This was an ongoing concern for divinely ordained leaders of Israel. Ellen White writes that in the schools of the prophets, established by Samuel, among “the chief subjects of study” were “the records of sacred history.”4 Shortly before his death King David, in his final address to his people, bade them not only to “give thanks to the Lord” (1 Chron. 16:8, NKJV)5 but also to “remember His marvelous works which He has done, His wonders, and the judgments of His mouth” (verse 12, NKJV). When Nehemiah gave his own valedictory address to the returned exiles from Babylon, he recounted to them the entire history of Israel; then he rebuked them because they, like their forefathers, “refused to listen and failed to remember” what God had done for them in the past (Neh. 9:17).
Writing the History of 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 defended himself before the Sanhedrin, he began, as had Nehemiah, by surveying the whole of Israel’s history, which his listeners must have known as well as he. Stephen placed Jesus’ mission in the context of the long history of divine interaction with the Israelites, including their rejection of the prophets. The gospel, in other words, made the best sense when it was understood in historical perspective.
The stories of Stephen and the other very first Christian martyrs and missionaries, which still have a power to move us today, are preserved for us because of Luke’s efforts. What we call the book of Acts is a continuation of the narrative of the life of Jesus that we know as the Gospel of Luke, and it had a similar purpose and method (cf. Acts 1:1-3). In his introduction to that Gospel, Luke declares that he was writing because it seemed good “to write an orderly account for you [the “friends of God”], so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught” (Luke 1:3, 4)—and he tells them that he compiled this “orderly account” from different existing narratives and eyewitness accounts (verse 2). Both Luke’s Gospel and the book of Acts, in other words, were based on historical research. Luke 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), surely approved of Luke’s actions. Not only was Luke his close associate, but additionally, Paul expresses similar ideas. He urged the believers in Thessalonica to “stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter from us” (2 Thess. 2:15, NASB).6 Like Moses, Paul understood that knowing the past required more than reminiscing. It required care and effort, the sort of effort that Luke was making and that still blesses us today.
The second part of this article, appearing in next week’s Adventist Review, will examine Ellen White’s writings on the importance of history for the Christian and especially for Seventh-day Adventists, including the reasons Adventists have not paid more attention to our history, and, building on our knowledge of the scriptural model, show why historical knowledge and understanding is vital to the success of our mission. Stay tuned.
1 Bible texts credited to Amplified are from The Amplified Bible, Old Testament copyright © 1965, 1987 by the Zondervan Corporation. The Amplified New Testament copyright © 1958, 1987 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.
2 Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 591.
4 Ibid., pp. 593, 594; cf. Testimonies for the Church, vol. 8, p. 307.
5 Texts credited to NKJV are from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
6 Scripture quotations marked NASB are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.
David Trim, Ph.D., a native of Australia, was recently appointed as director of archives and statistics at the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. This article was published June 9, 2011.