“The Great Disappointment[s]”
by Alden Thompson
Adventist Review, 24 September 1992, 1016-18
Spring is supposed to be such a happy time. But this spring was different. The year was A.D. 31, the place was Jerusalem, and life was turbulent. The crowds had eagerly thronged about Jesus as He rode triumphantly into Jerusalem. They cheered when He cleansed the Temple. This was their King, their Messiah, and they were ready to march on Rome.
But something went terribly wrong. Within a week their Hero hung helplessly from a Roman cross. His stunned followers stared in disbelief. It was finished. The darkness and thunder, the scorn of the milling throng, the free flowing tears, all threatened to engulf His most devoted friends as they stumbled toward Joseph’s tomb with the body of their Master, their Messiah. Two of His followers dejectedly commented to a stranger near Jerusalem:
“We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:21 RSV). Disappointment Friday had indeed left its mark.
Many centuries later a strikingly similar experience occurred. It was autumn 1844. Thousands of Jesus’ followers had eagerly spread the word that their King was coming. The blessed hope had touched their hearts and quickened their steps. Jesus Himself had promised: “I will come again” (John 14:3). Tuesday, October 22, was the day and His faithful ones were ready.
But something went terribly wrong. The appointed day came and the minutes ticked mercilessly away. The last hour crept upon the believers like some sinister creature that would snatch away their most precious possession, their hope. Never had a clock sounded so ominous as it did when it chimed out the last moments of that fateful day. “Our fondest hopes and expectations were blasted, and such a spirit of weeping came over us as I never experienced before. . . . We wept, and wept, till the day dawn.”*
Disappointment upon disappointment. Why? Must God always bury our most precious seeds in the dark, damp soil before they can burst forth and bear fruit? Why does the Lord kindle such a warm and comforting flame only to spill our oil and break our lamps?
Perhaps He simply wants us to have deep roots. Perhaps we cannot appreciate the light until darkness has truly engulfed us. Only God really knows the answer. Nevertheless, we can still learn from our disappointments. In fact, we must learn. But that is possible only when we remember them and seek understanding.
My own experience has been greatly strengthened by comparing the two great disappointments. The parallels are numerous and striking. Just as God comforted His people, guiding them through the first disappointment, so He comforted and guided them through the second. As the apostle Paul said, these things are “for our instruction, upon whom the end of the ages has come” (1 Cor. 10:11, RSV).
Both disappointments reveal a fascinating interplay between “landmarks” and “present truth.” Every new experience that God brings His people is firmly anchored in the past. But for that very reason the temptation simply to remain in the past is always acute. When God’s people succumb to that temptation, landmarks become roadblocks rather than guideposts on the way to the kingdom. Tradition and custom bar the way of life. The joyous expectations that led up to both disappointments were firmly based on Scripture, but a correct understanding was obscured by traditional views of Scripture. The ease with which tradition can blind God’s people to “present truth” is certainly one of the most important lessons that we should learn from the two disappointments.
For Israel it happened this way. The glories of the Davidic kingdom were a haunting memory in the minds of God’s people. In succession, Babylon, Greece, and Rome had run roughshod over Israel’s dream of a Messianic kingdom. The hope of an anointed one, a Messiah, to restore the fortunes of the house of David became a burning passion in the minds of every Jew. With restless hatred they waited for the “day of vengeance of our God” (Isa. 61:2). Many were convinced that Jesus was the promised deliverer. He Himself shared their conviction, but had a radically different conception of His mission and work: they expected a warrior to deliver them from oppression and humiliation; Jesus promised them deliverance from sin through humiliation – His own humiliation.
But every time Jesus focused on the true nature of His mission, His people refused to listen. Hometown admirers, disciples, priests and rulers, all knew the kind of Messiah they wanted, and it had nothing to do with suffering and humiliation. Unless, of course, it was Roman suffering and humiliation; that they could accept.
Modern Christians are so accustomed to seeing Jesus as the suffering servant of Isaiah 53 that they often forget that the application of this passage to the Messiah came as a brand-new idea to the Jews of Jesus’ day. God intended it to be “present truth” for them, but the truth did not touch their hearts. They knew what they wanted, and nothing could deter them. Even the disciples, after three years with Jesus, still held tenaciously to the traditional view of the warrior Messiah. That explains the tears, the agony, and the darkness on Disappointment Friday. They thought it was finished.
Yet deep in their hearts they knew that God had been with them, so they did not give up. They were perplexed and confused, but they waited on the Lord. When they finally saw Him and began to understand, their enthusiasm knew no bounds. Furthermore, they began to see things in Scripture that they had never seen before.
Theirs had been a one-track mind focused on the warrior Messiah from the house of David. But under the guidance of the Spirit and in the presence of their risen Lord, they began to synthesize an understanding of Jesus’ life and work that has become a Christian landmark. There was no single place in the Old Testament that described the totality of Jesus’ work, but many elements fell together to make up the New Testament understanding. Jesus was not just the Davidic Messiah, but also the prophet promised by Moses (Deut. 18:15-18), the suffering servant (Isa. 53), and the Son of man (Dan. 7). Ultimately, as the book of Hebrews reveals, the believers saw Him as both sacrifice and priest, the fulfillment of the Old Testament sacrificial system.
But the thrust of the book of Hebrews is not clear in the Old Testament. Its message became “present truth” after the cross. That is why Hebrews is in the New Testament, not in the Old. It took time for God’s people to put the pieces together. Significantly enough, only those who experienced the power of Jesus’ presence were prepared to accept this “present truth.” The unbiased observer, the skeptical Jew, saw it not. Only those who had been with Jesus, only those who had felt His power and had agonized for truth allowed this “present truth” to transform their lives. The others remained untouched. And so it is to this present day.
Now let us draw the parallels with Disappointment Tuesday. Just as Jesus’ message and mission developed in the mist of a boiling caldron of Messianic hopes, so the blessed hope of Jesus’ return was preached amid the great religious awakening of the early nineteenth century. The preaching of the blessed hope was solidly based in Scripture, just as the Jewish Messianic hope of Jesus’ day had been. But traditional interpretation led the believers astray: they thought the sanctuary was the earth; they even failed to understand Matthew 24:42: “You do not know on what day your Lord is coming.” That explains the tears, the agony, and the darkness on Disappointment Tuesday. They thought their Lord had failed them.
Yet deep in their hearts they knew that God had been with them, so they did not despair. They were perplexed and confused, but they watched and waited. The Lord did answer their prayer, but He picked such a humble place and such an ordinary man as a means of rekindling the blessed hope: a cornfield and a New England farmer by the name of Hiram Edson. It would have been so much more impressive for the light to shine from a great cathedral or a significant university and through the lips of a learned and renowned scholar. The Lord has indeed used great scholars: Paul, Wycliffe, Luther, Calvin, and Wesley. But often His greatest deeds begin in humble places: an ark of bulrushes, a Bethlehem manger, a dusty road to Emmaus, an upper room, an abandoned cornfield. God does not despise the day of small beginnings.
As hope was rekindled among the early Adventist believers, they returned to Scripture with new vigor and enthusiasm, just as the apostles had. In their preaching before 1844, the believers had already made use of Leviticus 16, Daniel 8-9, and Revelation 14. Now they saw these passages in a fresh new light. Using the analogy based on the Old Testament Day of Atonement, they came to an understanding of the heavenly sanctuary and the investigative judgment, a significant landmark in the Adventist experience.
But this doctrine of the investigative judgment stems from a synthesis of biblical material, a synthesis that could take place only under the guidance of the Holy Spirit and in conjunction with the experience of the Great Disappointment. Just as no individual context in the Old Testament clearly reveals the mission of Jesus, no individual biblical context clearly reveals the doctrine of the investigative judgment. This truth became clear only after the Disappointment. It took time for God’s people to put the pieces together. And significantly enough, only those who had experienced the hand of God through the disappointment were prepared to accept this “present truth.” The unbiased observer, and even the skeptical fellow Christian, could not see it. Only those who were prepared to recognize the hand of God in that disappointment experience allowed this “present truth” to transform their lives. The others remained untouched. And so it is to this present day.
God’s message contains a mysterious element that is open only to the one who wishes to hear and see. Isaiah described this phenomenon in his day (Isa. 6:9-10), and Jesus applied it to His (Matt. 13:14-15). I suspect that it applies with equal cogency to ours. The evidence of the hand of God is clear enough to the one who wishes to believe, but it is never coercive. We may choose to follow Him in the way of truth, or we may choose to turn away. The choice is always ours. God will not force the will.
One further aspect is of great importance in understanding the two great disappointments, and that is the change in perspective with the passage of time. Subconsciously, most of us probably expect everyone to think as we think and to interpret events as we interpret them. But every age is different, and even at any given point in history, a great variety of human thought patterns can be found. God recognizes that even when we don’t. But since He must meet us where we are, God has presented truth “in many and various ways” (Heb.1:1 RSV). Even Scripture is handled differently, depending on the thought patterns of the time. That is why some parts of the Old Testament seem very strange to us. The same is true of the New Testament, though our greater familiarity with it often enables us to overlook most of the problems.
In our own day, the intense interest in “reading in context” is a relatively recent emphasis that can cause difficulties when we turn to Scripture and when we note the use of Scripture in the early Advent movement. To cite an example, I, for one, was rather unhappy when I discovered that Matthew quotes Scripture out of context. Initially I was tempted to insist that God should have made Matthew think like I think. I have since discovered that Matthew was simply using a standard and acceptable Jewish method of his day (Midrash). I am now willing to let Matthew be Matthew and allow him the “privilege” of using first-century methods in the first century. That has always been God’s plan, even though I had been reluctant to admit it.
God has employed a great variety of ways in presenting truth to man. So we must keep searching. We can never assume that our perception of truth is complete. Scripture is always open to new applications. Nevertheless, when we come to a fresh understanding, we must not deny the validity of the treasures that God has bequeathed to His people in ages past. Often God expects us to accept both one and the other, not either one or the other.
In the Adventist experience we have seen this happen with law and righteousness by faith. The fresh emphasis on righteousness by faith in 1888 did not negate the Advent position on law; it simply balanced the picture. It is not God’s will that we choose between “landmarks” and “present truth,” but we need them both. To reject one or the other would simply lead to another disappointment.
We have had enough disappointments. It’s time to go home.
*Hiram Edson as cited by C. Mervyn Maxwell, Tell It to the World (1977), p. 48.