Relevant Verses: Revelation 14:6-12
Leading Question: How does one know if a person has received the mark of the beast or the seal of God?
Behind the theme for this week’s lesson (“God’s Seal or the Beast’s Mark”) is the assumption that the situation today in America is similar to that of the late 19th century. The fact that we are still distributing the book The Great Controversy indicates that Adventists have difficulty in admitting the change.
So let me summarize the changes as clearly as possible under three headings:
1. Sunday Legislation. The national Sunday law movement was born in 1879; Congress debated Sunday laws in 1888 and 1889. Senator Blair, author of the 1888 bill declared, “Only a homogeneous people can be great. No nation can exist with more than one religion.” Between 1885 and 1896 Adventists spent a total of 1438 days in jail and 455 days on chain gangs for working on Sunday. See Dennis Pettibone, “The Sunday Law Movement,” in The World of Ellen G. White, Gary Land, ed. (Washington DC: Review and Herald, 1987), 113-28.
2. Stance of the Roman Catholic Church. In 1854 the pope denounced liberty of conscience as a “most pestilential error” (GC 564). In 1870 the First Vatican Council declared papal infallibility. Though Sunday law agitation virtually vanished at the turn of the century, Catholic zeal increased. Between 1906 and 1910 membership in the US doubled to 3 million. In 1908 Rome decreed that America was no longer a missionary country but a Roman Catholic Christian nation. Rome vowed to “win America for the church.” The era spawned more than 20 anti- Catholic journals. See Gilbert Valentine, The Shaping of Adventism: The Case of W. W. Prescott (Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University Press, 1992), 216-219.
3. Rampant secularization. Several quotes from the 1990s on indicate some of the challenges that Adventism faces in our changing world. Just last year a former Adventist with a remarkable grasp of the American religious scene told me, “Nobody out there has any idea of sacred time.” In 1990 the Adventist Review quoted Charles Bradford, former General Conference Vice President: “Today there are fewer Sunday laws being enforced than at any time in recent years” (Charles Bradford, Adventist Review, Vol. 167, No. 34, July 17, 1990, p. 12). Roland Hegstad, former editor of Liberty, stated in a 1993 Liberty Alert insert in the Adventist Review: “Over the past 30 years the growing secularization of society has been a greater threat to our church than have Sunday laws” See Roland Hegstad, Liberty Alert, Vol. 2, No. 1 (Jan/Feb 1993), p. 4; insert in Adventist Review, January 7, 1993).
Outside of Adventism, the rushing onslaught of secularization continues. When I was dean at WWC/WWU, the academic dean at Whitworth told me that Whitworth was the only Presbyterian college established in the 19th century that still maintained a Christian identity. All the others had become fully secularized. And several years ago I slipped into an AAR session at the national convention, on “Methods of Teaching Bible to Undergraduates.” The presenter, from William Jewell College in Missouri, said that his primary goal was to strike up enough interest in the Bible “….so that my students won’t sell their Bible back to the bookstore at the end of the term. . . .”
Comments from William Jewell web site underscore the subtle inroads of secularization at this one-time Baptist institution:
William Jewell College’s religious heritage is of the Baptist tradition. The College does not require its students to embrace this heritage or any particular faith expression. The faculty and staff of the College are committed to the mission, promise, values and vision of the College including intellectual and spiritual growth, leadership and service. Because it is committed to spiritual values and Christian maturity, the College offers students many opportunities to explore and express faith in ways unique to their own needs and individual interests.
In the late 19th century one could preach Sunday closing laws from the front page of any newspaper. Now the only way to do it is from the pages of The Great Controversy or the Sabbath School Bible Study Guide.
So what do the Mark of the Beast and the Seal of God mean in these dramatically changed circumstances? Ellen White may have pointed us in the right direction with these comments at the opening of the 20th century: “Just as soon as the people of God are sealed in their foreheads – it is not any seal or mark that can be seen, but a settling into the truth, both intellectually and spiritually, so they cannot be moved – just as soon as God’s people are sealed and prepared for the shaking, it will come. Indeed, it has begun already; the judgments of God are now upon the land, to give us warning, that we may know what is coming” ( Ms 173, 1902).
Question: If the seal of God is “a settling into the truth, both intellectually and spiritually, so they cannot be moved,” might it also be true that a similar phenomenon may be true of the followers of the beast? They are intellectually and spiritually settled into opposition against God and his people, so that they, too, cannot be moved.
According to Revelation 13, the essence of beastly activity is coercion and deception. Wherever that shoe fits, wear it! And the principles of “Applied Historicism” (Beyond Common Ground, 194- 220) give us wide latitude so that the shoe can be worn anywhere in the world.
And just as beastly coercion and deception may be more subtle these days, so our reverence for the Sabbath may be motivated more by genuine love for God rather than by a raging battle that includes the threat of deadly forc.