When I lived in England and watched the part of the BBC news in which the results of the day’s cricket matches were announced, I was totally lost. I had (and have) no idea what is meant by “wickets,” “innings,” and “overs.” Many people likewise feel totally excluded when computer nerds discuss their current cyber activities, since they have no idea what is meant by such terms as “cloud,” “cookies,” “IP- address,” “terabytes,” or “spyware.” Although I am using my laptop very intensely, I must confess I have only a vague idea what most computer terms mean. 

For most of the people in today’s secular society, religious language is just as mysterious as the cricket lingo is for me, and the cyber language is for most seniors. Terms like “atonement,” “justification,” “sanctification,” “covenant,” and “salvation” often mean very little, if anything, to them. And many do not have a clue about the difference between imputed and imparted righteousness, nor do they have any idea who Jacob, David, Solomon, James, or Nicodemus might have been. 

Unfortunately, many Adventist communicators have not adequately mastered the art of communicating to secular people who have little or no knowledge of the Bible. No genuine communication can take place when the language used by one party is “foreign” to the other. Communication is a complicated process in any case, and much of what is “sent” by the “speaker” is often lost in the “noise” of the communication process, and not “heard” by the “receiver.” It is vital that, at the very least, the speaker and the hearer use the same language. However, the fact that both may use a form of English, Dutch, or Spanish is no guarantee that communication actually takes place.

Language Games

Experts in linguistics have pointed out that groups of people tend to create their own language, with its own peculiar vocabulary, in which words may acquire a meaning that is unknown to outsiders. This applies to members of a particular profession, to those who study a particular discipline, or have the same hobby. But it is also true for people who share a body of religious teachings. Such groups, philosophers of language tell us, “play” their own “language game.” 

The famous Austrian-British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) developed this concept and argued that words, and even sentences, have a meaning that results from “rules” which have been agreed upon by the members of such a group. I would certainly not agree with Wittgenstein’s view that our words are nothing more than that, and that they do not actually refer to any kind of reality behind them. I simply want to stress the point that a religious community, like that of Seventh-day Adventists, creates its own language.

The fact that Adventists have their own peculiar jargon can be a serious obstacle, not only when we connect with non-believers, but also in our contacts with other Christians and even with new Adventist Christians or those who are on the fringe of the church. Let me mention just a few examples of words and expressions that seem like gobbledygook to “outsiders”:

Adventists are called to help “finish the work.” The “loud cry” must be heard, and the “latter rain” must fall before Christ can come. Of course, the world will have to face the “great tribulation” and “the time of Jacob’s trouble,” before the believers can ever hope to stand on “the sea of glass.” The “pioneers” have given a bright example in “stewardship” and “health reform,” but the core of the “present truth” is found in ‘the ‘three angels’ messages.” We are guided by the “Spirit of Prophecy” and are expected to know all about the “seal of God” and the “mark of the beast,” about the “dragon” and the “little horn.” 

And so on. Most non-Adventists wonder what this is all about.

The Three Angels’ Messages

Lately, Adventists hear frequent appeals that they must “go” and share “the three angels’ messages” as widely as possible with other people. For many of us, the term has become so common that we hardly stop to think what it actually means. We are accustomed to pictures of three angels flying in close formation, with trumpets, or hands cupped around their mouths, indicating that they raise their voices with their important messages. 

When I worked in the office of the European regional office of the Adventist Church in St. Albans (UK), our family doctor had his office right across the street. One day, he asked me where I worked, and when I told him it was in the building he could see from his office window, he said: “That’s a nice place, but what do these three rabbits on the front mean?” He referred to a sculpture of the three angels but had no idea what this symbolized. Until a few decades ago the official logo of the church featured the three angels, but in 1996 the denomination decided to adopt a different logo, since it was clear that the former one was quite meaningless for the public at large.

Yet, the concept of the three angels’ messages remains an essential part of the identity of our church—regardless of whether the denominational logo refers to it. During a recent important meeting of the executive committee of the world church, it was linked to all aspects of Adventism. The expression is found in virtually all mission statements of denominational entities. We read in the Mission Statement of the General Conference—Our Mission is:

Make disciples of Jesus Christ who live as His loving witnesses and proclaim to all people the everlasting gospel of the Three Angels’ Messages in preparation for His soon return (Matthew 28:18-20, Acts 1:8, Rev 14:6-12).

But let’s be honest: Do most Adventists understand what the words “three angels’ messages” actually mean, or is this expression for most members just part of traditional Adventist jargon and of the Adventist language game? Do they know what they must tell people when they want to respond to the appeal to “go” and “proclaim the three angel’s messages”?  

Effective communication presupposes that you know what you are talking about. And, also, that you know the language of your audience and can express yourself in that language. And, equally important, that you are able to translate the message in words and images that are part the other person’s world and fit with his/her level of understanding. It seems that many leaders, who emphasize the “total involvement” of all church members, ignore these fundamental principles. As a result, no real communication can take place. Preachers who ignore these basic elements will soon discover that most people fail to respond. Moreover, many church publications do not use the kind of language that most of the intended audience understands.

I have from time to time tried to find out how much the average church member actually knows about the “three angels’ messages” by asking some questions before I embarked on my sermon. Simple questions, such as: Can you summarize the message of angel number one? And of angel number two and angel number three? In each case the response was quite disappointing. Most church members know that the expression refers to a few texts in John’s Revelation. A fair number connect the words “everlasting gospel” with the message of the first angel. But knowledge about the content of the messages of the three angels is very meagre indeed. 

Communicating What the Angels Say

How can we get beyond the stage of simply using Adventist jargon? How can we intelligently talk about this topic with those who do not know the rules of our language game? First, we must understand what we talk about. At this point, the church faces a momentous challenge: How do we make sure that the people in the pew not only know that they can find the passage of the three angels in the book of Revelation 14:6-12, but also in what broader context this passage is situated. And how do they learn to explain in twenty-first century language what these messages mean for our times—and why other people must know about their content.

What is the core of these three messages? What is the essence of what we must share with others once we understand it ourselves? This, I believe, is the core:

  1. The gospel of Christ has abiding significance: Followers of Christ are called to worship God as their Creator and must therefore show themselves conscientious stewards of the environment which He has created and entrusted to their care.

  2. Coming out of Babylon means: Followers of Christ must be very selective in what they believe and preach, as well as in the lifestyle they adopt. They must resolutely turn their back on everything that clashes with sound biblical teachings.

  3. Following Christ means: Making a clear choice, for or against a life with, and in, Christ. Followers of the Lord must know where their ultimate loyalty lies, with all the concrete implications this involves.

We can only hope to communicate the messages of the three angels if we have truly understood them ourselves and have grasped how they impact the way we live and worship. If we decide to spend time and creative energy in translating the message of the three angels into realities of the twenty-first century, we may trust that the Holy Spirit will guide us in our endeavor.

Reinder Bruinsma, PhD, has served the Seventh-day Adventist Church in publishing, education, and church administration on three continents. He writes from the Netherlands where he lives with his wife Aafie. Among his latest books is I Have a Future: Christ’s Resurrection and Mine. Email him at: [email protected]