April 28, 2012

Why Do Angels Come in Threes?

 The messages of the “three angels of Revelation 14” are a mere half-dozen sentences amid the stories, prophecies, symbols, drama, warnings, and promises of Revelation. But wandering around our churches, it’s obvious that these “three angels” are significant to our identity and mission. From stained-glass windows in our largest churches to overphotocopied bulletin covers, from fading church signs to freshly painted logos, the symbol of three angels is a recurring motif of Adventism around the world.
The three angels are also an important part of our history and heritage. Writing more than 50 years after the initial urgent preaching that sparked the Adventist movement, Ellen White insisted on the continuing relevance of the three angels: “All three of the messages are still to be proclaimed. It is just as essential now as ever before that they shall be repeated to those who are seeking for the truth.”1 And the proclamation of the messages of these three angels continues to be central to the Adventist Church’s mission.2
But like many aspects of our spiritual lives, ubiquity can degenerate to cliché, proclamation loses urgency with repetition, and “present truth” fades into settled “understandings.” Every so often we need to spend time asking ourselves both old and new questions. Without necessarily abandoning our inherited understandings, we also need to look back at the texts themselves to see if there is something more for us to add to our picture of God’s message and plan for our world and for His people. One such question of the three angels story was simply why angels come in threes. Of course, there are angels before and after Revelation 14:6-12, but these three angels are specifically introduced together, with three specific messages that fit together. So why three?
2012 1511 page18One possibility is that this is a literary device known as trebling. Remembered from my first-year university English classes, this is a way of telling a story or explaining a truth that can be seen across a variety of literary forms. In many stories we see this three-part pattern repeated. In the language of logic we have a thesis, an antithesis, and a synthesis.
While some might be hesitant to read the three angels by a pattern “borrowed from” storytelling, we should recognize that the Bible itself is primarily the story of God and His dealings with people, from Creation to re-creation. When we learn to read in this way, we soon realize we are part of the story. It is also this story in which we can engage others, connecting them with God’s story for their lives.
So how might this help us read the story of the three angels?
One of the constant refrains of the Bible story is God’s call for His people to remember Him, to return to Him, to give Him the proper priority in their lives, particularly in this urgent end-time message as Creator and Judge. It is partly a reflection of the fickleness of human nature that we are always in need of repentance and reformation, always slipping back from our best intentions. It is also a reminder that God reaches out to each generation in new ways, meeting people in their time, place, and circumstances.
But it is also an indication that the claims of God on our lives and our world always call us beyond our current commitment and choices, however good they might be. This seems particularly so as this call to “fear God” and “give glory to him”3 is repeated by Revelation 14’s first angel. Verse 6 puts this message in the context of the “eternal Good News”—the gospel—and this gives assurance, without leaving room for complacency.
The angel calls us to a life of perpetually learning to live, love, and worship better. On occasions, we have spent so much time and energy on the “rights” and “wrongs” of worship, forgetting—as a musician friend commented to me—that our worship is as finger painting to God. He accepts it graciously, but not because of its merit, correctness, or artistic value. It is not what we do that makes our interactions with God special and eternally worthwhile, but what God has done (see 1 John 4:10).
But the question almost asks itself: If all creation, redemption, and re-?creation emanate from God and, according to the Bible, God spends the whole of human history trying to get that through to us, why does God seem to be so preoccupied with us telling that back to Him? If God is who He says He is, why is He seemingly so focused on us worshipping Him?
Of course, this call to worship God is yet another expression of God’s love: “God’s jealousy for God’s glory is not so much about God’s own good as about the good of creation.”4 Few people with any appreciation of the larger purposes of God would argue that the world would not be a better place if more of us heeded the call to fear and worship God. The light of this message demands a radical reinvention of how we interact with each other and the world around us. That’s why the call goes out to “every nation, tribe, language, and people” (Rev. 14:6). It’s not about making God feel better about Himself, if that was possible or necessary; it is God wanting the best for His people and His creation.

In this way, the message of the first angel is also an assertion of the fundamental goodness of our world. Fallen and darkened though it is, the world still reflects the glory, goodness, and greatness of God. In the natural world, in the cultures of the nations, in the best humanity has to offer, we can perceive fingerprints and echoes of the Creator Himself.
Sadly, we as the people of God have not always done well at seeing and celebrating this present reality and expression of God in our midst. Revelation 14’s first angel calls us to do that better. “Central to reclaiming creation and being a resurrection community is the affirmation that when God made the world, God said it was ‘good.’ And it still is.”5
2012 1511 page18So, built on the assurance of the gospel and with the urgency of judgment, the angel repeats God’s call to worship Him as Creator, Lord, and Redeemer, for our good and for the good of our world.
In his book Life After God, Douglas Coupland describes TV footage of a zoo in Miami, Florida, in the flooded aftermath of a hurricane: “There were pictures of ducks and tall elegant birds swimming in the wreckage except they didn’t know it was wreckage. It was just the world.”6 He describes the situation in which we find ourselves. Most of the time we swim placidly amid the wreckage of the world in which we live. We are surrounded by the brokenness, tragedy, sorrow, and evil, and are tempted to assume it’s “just the world.” Indeed, we find it almost impossible to imagine life without the influence of evil. We begin to take evil for granted, ignoring the fact that so much with which we are superficially comfortable is profoundly wrong.
Then we are surprised by an obvious outburst that reminds us of the underlying malevolence of what evil has made of our world. A personal loss or grief, a national tragedy, a humanitarian disaster, or some violent outrage lays bare the fallenness and brokenness. From the terrifying and heartbreaking headlines to the quiet desperation of our individual disappointments and despair, our eyes are opened again to the wreckage.
The message of Revelation 14’s second angel calls our attention to this reality. All is not right with the world. In fact, something is desperately, dangerously, and diabolically wrong. Evil has entered the story, and we live among the fallout. The inevitable result of this trajectory is utter hopelessness and self-destruction.
In the context of the gospel story, this is what we need saving from. In our honest moments, we recognize this fallenness within ourselves. We can readily name the evil elsewhere, but before turning our attention to righting the wrongs around us, we must confess our own failings and admit we see the seeds of that same evil in our thoughts and actions.
But this story is also played out in the big picture of our world. In the presence of evil the power structures of our world tend to work against God, His people, and His intentions for this world. The political, economic, religious, and social systems of our world are biased toward brokenness. The oppression, tragedy, outrage, and injustice of human history are the all-too-obvious results. As people of God, we must resist and actively work to counter the forces in our world that seek to co-opt, subvert, exploit, and destroy all the goodness that God created.
Yet the systems of this world also seek to hijack our allegiance, styling themselves in the position that belongs only to God as Creator and Redeemer. The Bible regularly employs two images to describe the way evil works in the world. The prostitute or adulterer whispers seductively, tempting us to a life of self-centered pleasure and luxury, picking the best the world has to offer for our own gain and amusement. Alternatively, the beast demands attention, threatening and often using violence to try to force its will, embodying a regime in which only the strong survive and are valued.
But another voice calls from heaven: “Come away from her, my people. Do not take part in her sins, or you will be punished with her” (Rev. 18:4). God is not threatening so much as—in His love—alerting us to what the end result of evil must be.
When we are tempted to complacency in the face of the horrific reality of our world, the second angel calls us to awareness of the fallenness in which we live and to lift our eyes beyond the wreckage we have mistaken for the real world.
The story of the first and second angels succinctly draws a stark distinction between the claims and call of God and the brokenness of this world and its systems—between good and evil. The third part of this story presents an unambiguous choice. Do we give our allegiance to the kingdom of God or to the kingdoms of this world? Are we part of the problem, or are we part of God’s solution?
2012 1511 page18So many times through the Bible story, God calls people—and groups of people—to be His agents. They become participants in the continuing story of the gospel, to work for the good of the world and for the good of God’s kingdom in the world, standing for truth and goodness in the face of evil. This is the call repeated by Revelation 14’s third angel.
And the outcomes of this choice are similarly divergent. While in verse 12 God’s people are called to “endure” and “remain” (NIV)7 in the face of the challenges of life, trials, and persecution for a time, the fate of those who choose “fallenness” is grim.
We often shy away from reflecting on the “wrath of God,” but this is a symptom of our casual familiarity with evil. Confronted by the horror of war in his home country, one writer comments: “I came to think that I would have to rebel against a God who wasn’t wrathful at the sight of the world’s evil. God isn’t wrathful in spite of being love. God is wrathful because God is love.”8 When we begin to understand evil, we understand that for goodness to reign completely, evil—and, tragically, all who choose evil—must be destroyed completely.
Revelation 14’s third angel gives us the eternal perspective. Because even the worst evil is only ever temporary, we are called to stand against it in all its forms. Interestingly, the angel does not contrast wrath with glory, but with present patient endurance and faithfulness. Our first concern is not “escape,” but to discover what it means to live as the faithful people of God. Sometimes the call to “remain”—to be “remnant”—has been misconstrued as a call to sanctified exclusivity or steadfast passivity. Instead, it is a call to servanthood, seeking the good of others amid the evil, injustice, and tragedy of our world. This “patience”—living God’s commands and following in the way of Jesus—should even be marked by a prophetic impatience with the fallen powers, systems, and evils of our world.
For God’s people—and for all people and places they can influence—the kingdom of God starts now. Of course, it will only be completed when the world is re-created by God Himself (see Rev. 21:1-5). But we are called to be agents of restoration and re-creation, here and now—and by so doing to alert others to the eternal choice they must make.
In the context of the “eternal Good News” and God’s promise of judgment, in light of the assurance of the gospel and the warnings against complacency and the many other temptations of evil, we are called to seek and stand for goodness—and to serve as Jesus did (see Luke 4:18, 19).
1 Ellen G. White, Counsels to Writers and Editors (Nashville: Southern Pub. Assn., 1946), pp. 26, 27.
2 See the mission statement of the Seventh-day Adventist Church at www.adventist.org/mission-and-service/index.html.
3 Unless otherwise indicated, Scripture quotations in the article have been taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.
4 Miroslav Volf, Free of Charge (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), p. 62.
5 Rob Bell, Velvet Elvis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), p. 170.
6 Douglas Coupland, Life After God (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994), p. 85.
7 Texts credited to NIV are from the Holy Bible, New International Version. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
8 Volf, p. 139.

Nathan Brown is editor of the Signs Publishing Company and lives in Melbourne, Australia. This article was published April 19, 2012.