Behold, I come quickly; and my reward is with me, to give to every man according as his works shall be.  I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last.Revelation 22:12-13 KJV

Getting older is an interesting (wait, is interesting the right word? Perhaps disconcerting?  disturbing?  deconstructing?  disheveling?) experience, not just for the body and the mind, but for the constructs of the body and the mind.  For one thing, certain texts in the Bible just don’t seem to say the same things they did when I read them years ago.  And yet it doesn’t strike me as though I was wrong in my past reading, but rather that I was as right, generally speaking, as I could be at the time, and I am as right, Lord willing, as I can be now.  All of which is not to automatically make the judgment that my “now” view is superior to my “then” view—only that in many ways life experience makes the “now” view inevitable, or maybe better, unavoidable.

“New occasions teach new duties,
Time makes ancient good uncouth;
They must upward still and onward,
Who would keep abreast of truth.”*

But perhaps all this is a minor problem since there will always be people ready and eager to tell you what Jesus requires of you.  Sometimes they might even be right.  Yet even if they are right in the hour of their speaking, are the specific requirements of Jesus in the moment the unchanging requirements through time?  Or is it possible James Lowell got it right, that new occasions do teach new duties, and time does makes ancient good uncouth?

Can we keep doing the same things we always did and still be faithful?  Can we keep saying the same things we always said and still be telling the truth?  Are we sliding into error if, when we read the Bible, it doesn’t seem to say the same thing to us now that we heard it saying to us then?  Is it possible we could be right “now” without having been wrong “then”, even if “now” and “then” don’t agree?

Ours is not the first time when believers struggled to deal with disagreement regarding what things still mattered and what things had served their purpose for their day.  Remember the whole circumcision controversy in the early church?  Circumcision was the divine sign given to Abraham to serve as the definitive mark of God’s people, an irrevocable indicator in the flesh delineating the chosen people from the unchosen, an act so indispensable that according to Exodus 4:24-25 it was the LORD’s intention to put Moses to death for breaking this rule by not circumcising his sons (a situation Zipporah speedily rectified, but not without denoting Moses as a “bridegroom of blood” over the incident).

Yet in the New Testament we find Paul making this rather confusing statement:  “Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing. Keeping God’s commands is what counts”  (1 Corinthians 7:19 NIV), causing one to rightly reflect, “Wasn’t circumcision God’s command?”  Paul seeks to fix any misunderstanding in the next verse by saying, “Each person should remain in the situation they were in when God called them” (v. 20), which is true enough if taken in the narrow context of circumcision, but not a position we traditionally would be inclined to encourage if the situation in which one was called was “living together out of wedlock.”

Back to Paul:

“Watch out for those dogs, those evildoers, those mutilators of the flesh. For it is we who are the circumcision, we who serve God by his Spirit, who boast in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh.”  Philippians 3:2-3 NIV

How could circumcision, the sign given to Abraham, the definitive mark of the people of God, suddenly, without any divine statement [beyond that of the indirect implication that a new reality had begun when the Holy Spirit fell upon Cornelius and his family prior to them being circumcised (see Acts 10)], be now considered unnecessary?  You think traditions regarding ordination are hard to give up, imagine if we had had to make the decision on circumcision (not to make trouble, but isn’t it ironic how most of us in America who are male are, in fact, circumcised?).  Yet Paul, in describing those who were still trying to remain faithful to the standard passed down from Abraham, refers to them as “dogs” and “mutilators of the flesh”, while stating this about himself and the others who have moved on from what in the past was held as unchallengeable truth:  “we … are the circumcision, we who serve God by his Spirit, who boast in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh.”

“New occasions teach new duties
Time makes ancient good uncouth;
They must upward still and onward,
Who would keep abreast of truth.”

Are we moving ever upward and onward?  Are we keeping abreast of truth?  I’m pretty sure I have a decent idea what it meant to be a faithful Adventist in Ellen White’s day.  Does it mean the same thing now?  What is Present Truth, not for the 19th Century, but for the 21st?

Five generations ago my great-great grandfather, Ernst Schoepflin, moved with his wife and children from a region in Germany just north of Basil, Switzerland, to eastern Washington state, where he and his family (which grew to 12 children) would become Seventh-day Adventists at meetings held in the region, as family lore has it, by none other than A. T. Jones.  Today, I find myself the son and grandson of lifelong Adventist pastors from that Schoepflin line, and myself a pastor of the Boulder Seventh-day Adventist Church, the current incarnation of a community of believers bearing this name on Mapleton Hill since the church’s founding here in 1879, probably within a few years of when my ancestors were themselves first becoming Adventist.

My ancestors were fervent in the faith, as we should all hope to be, seeking to be faithful to what they understood to be their duty in their day.  And for the most part, I think they succeeded, considering that five generations later I am still a believer.  Yet so much has changed.  When my grandfather was born, his parents made the statement, “He will never be old enough to bring in wood,” meaning Jesus would come before he could even do chores.  He died in 2006 at the age of 96, having served as an Adventist pastor for all his working years.  His son, my father, now in his eighties, also spent his working years as an Adventist pastor.  Now here I am, 57, having pastored for 26 years.  But it doesn’t stop with me.  I have, as of today, a granddaughter, a seventh-generation proclaimer of the soon coming of Jesus.  And to that you might at first be inclined to say, “Amen”, but then follow that up with, “Wait, what?”

As I said at the beginning, certain texts in the Bible sometimes just don’t seem to say the same thing they said the first time I read them.  And life experience ought to make a “now” view sometimes inevitable, or even unavoidable.  What new duty does today’s new occasion teach?

If we would remain God’s people, we must, I think, continue ever onward and upward, with one eye on the road down which our Lord has led us (the beginning), and the other on the unknown future (the end), for which of us can say with certainty my granddaughter will “never be old enough to bring in wood”, or if one day her 7th-generation descendent will write fondly of her?

I have in a sense always envied this one thing about first generation Adventists: they are able to speak of the expectation of the imminent return of Jesus without any hint of irony, something I cannot do.  And please, don’t come at me with the trite phrase, “imagine how much closer the return is now!”  That means nothing, you know, because sure, I know exactly how much closer the return is now (seven generations, based upon my family history).  But knowing that tells me exactly nothing about how close it is until Jesus actually appears.

Based on the Matthew chronology of the coming of the Messiah the first time, my family spans roughly Jeconiah to Zadok (see Matthew 1:12-16).  Are we willing to wait, even if it means seven more generations, until the Christ appears again?

New occasions teach new duties…

Luke 12:42-43 says: “Who then is the faithful and wise manager, whom the master puts in charge of his servants to give them their food allowance at the proper time? It will be good for that servant whom the master finds doing so when he returns.”

It is not the timing of the beginning and the end that matters as much as it is the One who is The Beginning and The End.  May God give us the wisdom to be faithful in our day.

 Geoff Patterson is senior pastor at Boulder Adventist Church, Boulder, Colorado. Email him at [email protected]

*James Russell Lowell, “Once to Every Man and Nations”, quoted from the Church Hymnal (otherwise known as the “Old” Hymnal), song number 513, verse 3.