By Reinder Bruinsma

Seventh-day Adventists are a people of prophecy. Or would it be more correct to say “were” a people of prophecy? Admittedly, many evangelistic “campaigns” still feature topics of prophetic “truth.” But where past generations of Advent believers could explain the prophetic symbols, point to their historic application and explain the time prophecies, the majority of church members today do not have that kind of knowledge.

On the one hand, there is mostly silence when it comes to prophetic issues. But on the other hand, there is still a vocal minority that is deeply interested in—and at times even obsessed by—the apocalyptic prophecies, in particular Daniel and the Revelation.

In our postmodern times (or whatever label is given to the way of thinking that has developed in the past few decades) many people hesitate to accept a complete system of interpretation that makes absolute statements, in great detail, about future events. After all, as time went by, earlier interpretations often had to be revised and developments did not always follow the path that the “students of prophecy” had projected! And for many, the conspiracy theories and enemy-think that tends to be part and parcel of end-time seminars and of the sensational DVDs and printed materials that mostly originate in independent ministries, are no longer palatable.

Is there perhaps another way of looking at the prophetic books of the Bible that not only make sense to us as twenty-first century men and women but also nourishes us spiritually? I think so.

Experience it

I am a firm believer that diligent Bible reading is the basis for any Bible study. When I (occasionally) present a seminar on Daniel and the Revelation, I challenge the people to first read those Bible books, not once but several times, from beginning to end—preferably in one sitting. I tell them: Do not worry about symbols and statements that you do not readily understand, but get the main gist of what you read. These Bible books tell you about God—how he operates; they tell you about Christ; about sin and victory over sin; they also tell you about radical living, making choices and being committed. And they tell you about belonging to God’s people and about true worship.

Revelation, in particular, is like a multimedia show with sounds, lights, angels, demons, dragons, and beasts. It is a story about good and evil, but victory over evil is a constantly recurring theme. It is pregnant with urgency and calls for endurance.

Catch the message

Before focusing on the details of the symbols and numbers in the prophecies of Daniel and Revelation, try to catch the overall message. You will only succeed in this when you do not read isolated texts, but allow the underlying message to overwhelm you, as you read long passages. Let me point you to the main elements of the message:

God is in control. This is the overarching theme in both Daniel and the Revelation.
God is at work behind the scenes. This is an essential aspect of the “great controversy” that is still raging.
History is a tale of two cities: Babylon versus Jerusalem. We have the choice where we want our citizenship to be.
Evil is real and ugly but will be totally defeated. The Lamb will triumph over all the beasts!
God’s kingdom will come. Christ is the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.
While history continues, God looks after his church. It goes through periods of great difficulty but God always pulls his people through.

Present truth

The early Adventist believers were convinced that there was a direct link between the main tenets of their faith and the concrete world in which they lived. That is why they referred to their message as present truth.

When we read Daniel and the Revelation mostly as a record of how these prophetic portions applied to past historic events, and then further speculate what future events may look like, the message of these Bible books is no longer “present truth.” But when we look at the most pressing concerns of people today, and read Daniel and Revelation with those concerns in mind, we discover how the content of these books is indeed “present truth” for contemporary people.

The hope of earlier generations has given place to a widespread pessimism. Daniel and Revelation paint a realistic picture of “troubles and tribulations,” but the last word is always a word of hope. The Revelation opens with a vision of Jesus Christ walking amidst seven candlesticks—symbols for the Christian churches of the first century. The book ends with the hope of a new world, where Christ is amidst his redeemed people. Postmodern people look for a balance between head and heart. The apocalyptic Bible books definitely appeal to the intellect, but also to all senses and to our emotions. Truth is not primarily understood as doctrine, but foremost in relational terms. The problem of sin and escape from sin continues to trouble men and women of the twenty-first century—even though they often have a warped concept of sin. Daniel and Revelation shout at us: the sin problem is solved! Just wait and see!

Daniel and Revelation affirm the fact that life demands tough individual choices, but also emphasize that believing and belonging go together. Different metaphors tell us that God has a people! He has counted them. No one who has made the right choice will go missing! And in the end we all can have the privilege of being part of the great multitude that will populate a brand new world. The emphasis is constantly on authenticity and integrity— values that are also top of the list for postmodern people. The keywords are: suffering, obedience, loyalty, purity, stead- fastness, and commitment Both Daniel and John are role models for us on our way to the kingdom. And, the “present truth” provides us with our mission.

Adventist Christians have found their mission most clearly enunciated in Revelation 14. Key elements are: (a) calling people to worship their Creator; (b) warning them to say “no” to “Babylon,” i.e. to everything that attempts to keep us away from the new Jerusalem; and (3) a total commitment to God, whatever the cost.

Still want to count the potatoes?

When I speak about these prophetic books, I often begin by showing a painting of the famous nineteenth-century Dutch artist Vincent van Gogh. I ask my audience to look at the painting of five ordinary farm people in a poorly-lit, sparsely furnished room. They sit around a table, eating from a dish with potatoes. After a few minutes, I turn the projector off and ask, “How many potatoes did you see?” No one has ever been able to answer that question correctly. For what did they see? Most people reply, “Poverty! Misery! Hopelessness!” And indeed, that is the message of the picture. Viewing it is not an exercise in potato counting but an experience of hopelessness and poverty.

Read Daniel and Revelation as you would view an impressionist painting. Try to absorb the overall message. And only after having “caught” the message, feel free to also count the potatoes!

Reinder Bruinsma is a theologian, writer and former church administrator. He writes from the Netherlands.