Traveling without documents is risky; sometimes impossible: traveling without proper documentation is an invitation to problems.
Why is having an ID so important? An ID says who we are, where we are from, and where we belong. Our permission to act is based on such identification. Being without ID can be one of two extremes: it can be like not existing, since there’s no confirming documentation of a person’s existence. Or it can be a form of imprisonment, with its severe restriction of movement, particularly between countries and across borders.
And if ID is so important on this planet, what would it be like if we needed some equivalent document to travel beyond Planet Earth? Might there be some interplanetary or intergalactic document that grants us permission for travel beyond this planet—for visiting beings from other planets and living without known space-time limitations?
Remarkably enough, the book of Revelation gives answers to precisely these questions.
The book of Revelation transports us to intergalactic realities while expanding our wonder at grace. First of all, the person in charge at the interplanetary ID office is phenomenal, one “who is, and who was, and who is to come” (Rev. 1:4, 8), eternal and wonderfully generous. Against intense resistance to our obtaining our intergalactic identity document (IID), He sacrificed His life to guarantee that our ID document comes free to us.
The head of the resistance “was, now is not, and yet will come up out of the Abyss and go to its destruction” (Rev. 17:8). This powerful being destroyed his identity document, refusing to accept the reigning government and bear an ID that would imply acknowledgment of that government. He also organized a war against God, its King, to prevent others from obtaining their eternal ID. The story of the war includes explanations of how IIDs are obtained.
Distribution of IIDs involves a judgment to determine who has the characteristics as represented in the IID. The process is so serious that voices are heard crying out “Who can stand?” (see Rev. 6:17). In response to this question, candidates with the correct characteristics are identified.
It turns out that at the end of time on earth there will be “servants of God” (see Rev. 7:3), whose traits of character confirm their right to own IIDs. And there will be multitudes of them. The size of their group is expressed in a symbolic number, 144,000—12 x 12 x 1,000—that points to both external and internal, physical and spiritual, dimensions.
The Bible associates the number 12 with such significant issues as divine election and full authority. Though more than 12 tribes of Israel existed, beginning with Jacob claiming Joseph’s two sons (Gen. 48:5), the nation is consistently said to comprise 12 tribes (Gen. 49:28; Ex. 24:4; Eze. 47:13; Matt. 19:28).
IIDs rest on three simple points: source, authority and power, and ID design.
Then in Jesus’ recapitulation of the history of Israel, He chose 12 of His faithful followers as apostles in His first step “in the organization of the church that after Christ’s departure was to be His representative on earth.”1 Interestingly, in reference to His intergalactic government, Jesus mentioned having 12 legions of angels at His disposal (Matt. 26:53).
Other examples of the number’s biblical value include the 12 stars crowning the pure woman who represents the church that is the locus of God’s government on earth (Rev. 12:1). Also, the number is the basis for expressing the dimensions of the wall of the Holy City, New Jerusalem, in terms of length, breadth, and height, each of which is 12,000 furlongs (Rev. 21:16, KJV).2
One thousand was the largest Roman numeral—there was no million, billion, or quintillion. The size of the group deemed by God to be deserving of IIDs is stated symbolically as the square of the great number 12 (144) multiplied by the largest Roman numeral, 1000, hence 144,000. Evidently God’s government has end-time representatives on earth on a large scale. Their mission, the same as that of ancient Israel and the New Testament church, is both to proclaim and to represent God’s kingdom on earth.
The book of Revelation declares that God’s kingdom will spread across the earth despite all opposition. It will guard the truth of God’s plan of salvation in Christ as represented in the sanctuary.3 The IID thus marks both the place where they belong and the role they play in announcing God’s sanctuary-based salvation program (Rev. 1:6; 1 Peter 2:9). And yes, they are a great multitude (Rev. 7:9) who come from all the ages of humanity, a glorious fruit of the gospel of salvation.
As John’s vision proceeds through a scene of seven trumpets announcing important points in the future of God’s salvation program, a parenthesis occurs between the two woes of the sixth and seventh trumpets (Rev. 10:1-11:14). It comes just as the conflict for gaining control of earth reaches its climax. As God explains how He will frustrate persecution against His truth He gives John two scenes that illustrate this. These scenes show that those who receive their IID will have various problems to overcome.
Their first problem appears in Revelation 10, where something seems to go wrong when God’s IID-bearing servants preach enthusiastically the good news of salvation indicated in the prophecy John is receiving. A voice from heaven instructs John to take from the hand of the angel standing on land and sea “the little book” that is open in his hand (verse 8, KJV). But as John does so, the angel handing over the book warns him, “It will turn your stomach sour, but in your mouth it will be as sweet as honey” (verse 9).
This description of the book’s effect is called metonymy, in which the book stands for something closely associated with it, namely, the book’s message. Once preached, the message produces a thoroughly awkward result for its proclaimers. Jesus presents the scene on sour stomachs and bitter embarrassment before He lays out the message that will produce such a problem.
Chapter 11 makes things plainer. Its opening command is that John “measure the temple of God and the altar” (verse 1), focusing directly on the location of Christ’s high-priestly ministry (verse 1). In “the outer court” beyond this sacred precinct, “the Gentiles” will fight against God’s program and His two witnesses for more than a millennium, 42 months, or 1,260 prophetic days (verses 2, 3). For a while they are even slain, their dead bodies left lying in the disgrace of public exposure (verses 7-10). Later God “revives” His witnesses whose word lays out the instructions for obtaining valid IIDs (verse 11). Restoring them to life validates the truth of their witness, a validation that climaxes when God transports them to glory (verse 12).
This scene tells us that God will restore the truth about His kingdom and His salvation, though they seemed stifled for centuries. When revived, His witnesses continue announcing that He soon will finish the conflict over the rightful rule of Earth and the universe (Rev. 11:3-14).
The problem of Revelation 10 follows from the problem of chapter 11, which shows that God’s Word suffered wrong interpretations and mistreatment for centuries until a great awakening, the product of the study of the prophecies of DanielandRevelation. In the United States in the 1830s to 1840s William Miller’s preaching on the sanctuary and the Bible’s end-time prophecies brought great spiritual revival. But believers failed to interpret some details correctly, and the sweet message of Jesus’ soon coming became a bitter disappointment when He did not appear as preached and expected. Still, that disappointment led to a restudy of the prophecies. While many Bible students and observers concluded that Bible study—particularly using it to set dates for important events—was a bad idea after all, others appreciated that their misinterpretations did not mean that the Bible was at fault.
These IID-bearing “servants” of God would have to preach the message again, but this time with a better understanding of the salvation program operated by Christ in His heavenly sanctuary. The identity of the 144,000 would have to be well founded by the guidance of God’s two “witnesses,” the Old and New Testaments, known together as the Bible. Through further and excruciatingly careful study they would better understand and more accurately proclaim the work of Christ in the heavenly sanctuary.
The three angels’ messages of Revelation 14 are God’s final word on Christ’s ministry in the heavenly sanctuary. They show what He designs His IID-bearing servants to preach and practice as the ultimate witness to His character. These highly important messages appear as a parenthesis between the second and third of three signs that are part of John’s extended vision (Rev. 12:3; 15:1).
The first two signs (Rev. 12:1, 3) describe the intensity of the long struggle between those who have the valid IID (the “descendants” or followers, literally, “seed” of the woman, see verse 17, KJV) and those who have a fake ID (“descendants” of the dragon). Then, before God appears with His judgments to separate the true from the false, another parenthesis is divided into three scenes.
The first scene, Revelation 14:1-5, gives advanced insight into the result of the two scenes that follow (verses 6-11 and 14-20). Its message of hope inspires those caught up in the terror-filled conflict of the two previous chapters (chaps. 12 and 13). It shows the 144,000 who bear the valid IID enjoying their final destination, having completed their earthly tasks. As often in Revelation, the future is shown before telling how it is reached.
In scene two, God’s end-time servants give their message accurately this time. The message dwells on how to get the valid IID. The true identity (Rev. 14:6-11) contrasts with the false identity conferred by representatives of the triple “6” series (Rev. 13:18). For many centuries this alliance has sought to prevent access to a valid ID by obscuring the instructions that rest on three simple points: source, authority and power, and ID design.
Issue 1: source—who supplies the document. At the end of time, the rebel who has led the war against God is engaged in an intense campaign, using the force of earthly governments where possible to force-feed fake IDs to the public (Rev. 13:4, 8, 12). Meanwhile, God’s IDs only go to those who choose for themselves to receive the valid ID. While there is no compulsion involved, He warns that it is decisive for future participation in intergalactic travel.
Issue 2: who reigns. The dragon exposes his pretense of authority by having to forcibly impose his fake identity (Rev. 12:5, 13-15). With God, it is a matter of recognizing Him as the original ruler of life, and also the one who singlehandedly saves human beings from their situation in the cosmic conflict (Rev. 11:1). God will finally manifest His power by destroying the dragon’s headquarters, known as Babylon (Rev. 14:8).
Issue 3: ID design. Valid IDs bear a specific logo, the seal of God (verses 9-11). No document missing this seal will serve as an intergalactic pass or guarantor of eternal life. But missing the valid ID will not be God’s fault: He has made it clear that whosoever wishes may freely receive it (John 3:16).
Individuals who receive IIDs spend themselves continuously in trying to attract others. Using IID recipients is God’s principal strategy. Thus those who hear their appeal constantly experience the powerful attractiveness of God’s salvation program as they marvel at what it has done to their brothers, sisters, enemies, and friends. They see what God’s miracle of grace can do. They can join in and become His ambassadors too, beseeching others to claim their own IID, having experienced the wonder and joy of testifying to the new ID that is theirs, yet not theirs, but Christ’s who lives in them. Truly IIDs testify to a wondrous and never-ending miracle.
Silvia C. Scholtus de Roscher is a New Testament scholar who coordinates the Adventist Heritage Center at River Plate Adventist University in Argentina, South America.
The story of a German monk nailing theses to a church door on October 31, 1517, is the story of the start of the great theological debate that brought us the Protestant Reformation. Paul’s epistle to the Romans bears fair blame for this.
Paul’s Letter to the Romans
Texts such as Romans 1:17 and 5:1, 2 were key to Martin Luther’s theological understanding, of vital importance to his theological argument. In the preface of his commentary to Romans, Luther points out the need to apprehend certain key terms such as justification, faith, peace, grace, hope, and glory, before tackling a study of the epistle.1 These terms, all found in the passages mentioned above, are just so many key words for describing the process of salvation from beginning to end.
According to Romans 5, God can make us different people: “Being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ: by whom also we have access by faith into this grace wherein we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God” (Rom. 5:1, 2, KJV). Believers can be at peace with God, though for some, finding peace may take a lifetime.
Luther’s wondrous new light that he was driven to shine upon the whole world was how sinners may access grace: not by circumcision; not by our meritorious works; but just by faith in Jesus Christ.
Why the focus on Jesus Christ? Because He makes all the difference: we are “justified freely . . . through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 3:24, KJV).
Justification is a judicial term. To be justified is the opposite of being condemned. The gospel message is that though sin condemns us, accepting Christ’s sacrifice by faith absolves us. The final judgment permits only two possibilities: justification or condemnation. Without Christ all stand condemned; but everyone who is in Christ is justified. For them there is no more condemnation; they are at peace with God (Rom 5:1; 8:1). This is our understanding from the Bible, which explains itself, and whose explanation is self-sufficient. God would have us apprehend from His Word everything related to our salvation, including such key terms as:
Propitiation—a cultic term, the sacrifice God offered to satisfy justice: God sacrifices His Son as “a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past” (Rom. 3:25, KJV).
Redemption—a business term, the price God paid for our ransom: we are “justified freely by his [God’s] grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus (Rom. 3:24, KJV; see also Col. 1:14).
Justification—a judicial term, God’s legal defense that declares us innocent (as above, Rom. 3:24).
Reconciliation—a family-based term, God’s embrace to restore us to a relationship with Himself: God has “reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 5:18, KJV).
Understanding God’s use of these biblical terms is reason for profuse thanksgiving: we can thank God for His sacrifice; for the price He paid for our ransom; for declaring us innocent when we know we are not, and for His restoring embrace.
In Jesus’ parable about the prodigal son, we hear, in the story of that father’s embrace of his once lost son, Jesus’ narration of the story of our salvation.
Luther was not the only one interested in the topics discussed in his theses. But he was a masterful interpreter of the pervasive feeling among other scholars of his time. Others had attempted to introduce changes,2 often through church councils, but also through individual and collective efforts.3 Luther’s theses impacted the society of the late Middle Ages the way they did because they embodied the sentiments of many Germans of the day.
Religious motivations powerfully influenced Luther’s internal journey and external action; the Augustinian monk had experienced distressing anxiety about securing his salvation. But then Paul’s categorical declaration, “the just shall live by faith” (Rom. 1:17), brought him out of his deep crisis. He understood that a merciful God justifies us through faith. In light of this principle, all Scripture took on a new meaning. Everyone—indulgence salespeople, indulgence purchasers, preachers (in fact, especially preachers)—was interested in the “how” of salvation. Luther was “scratching where it itched.” His writings spread.
Starting in 1514, Luther preached against the abuse of indulgences, and how they made grace cheap instead of leading to true repentance. In 1517 his parishioners were returning from buying Tetzel’s indulgences, believing that they did not need to repent and change their lives to receive forgiveness of sins. Luther deepened his study on the topic, and sought expert advice. He preached on the topic several times in 1517, explaining that true repentance was better than buying indulgences. He even taught that buying indulgences presupposed true repentance and confession, otherwise it was useless.
Faith had become a mere commodity linked to purchases of righteousness and shortened stays in purgatory.
Between April and October 1517 Luther stopped preaching these sermons, perhaps because he was preparing himself for writing his theses.
On November 1, at the Church of All Saints in Wittenberg, many relics collected by Federick III, elector of Saxony would be distributed. People who visited the church on November 1, “All Saints’ Day,” had been promised indulgences, something the church offered as “a way to reduce the amount of punishment one has to undergo for sins,”4 or even a system of convertibility.5 October 31 was the eve of a day when the church would be full of people attending celebrations, seeing and procuring holy relics, and, in exchange, dispensing with sins.
With much hesitation and anguish, Luther posted the theses. A few friends encouraged him. The theses were an academic proposition expressed in Latin, not German. Luther intended for them to be discussed at the University of Wittenberg, where he taught. Initially, he had nothing else in mind. The document began:
“Out of love for the truth and from a desire to elucidate it, the Reverend Father Martin Luther, Master of Arts and Sacred Theology, and ordinary lecturer therein at Wittenberg, intends to defend the following statements and to dispute on them in that place. Therefore, he asks that those who cannot be present and dispute with him orally shall do so in their absence by letter.” His introduction concluded, “In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, amen.”
Then followed the 95 theses. After the document was printed in Latin, fixed on the whiteboard of the university, and sent to the authorities, people began to make and share copies of Luther’s theses.
The theses first address the biblical basis of forgiveness. Discussing the value of indulgences, they probe the grounds on which human beings are forgiven their sins. What does the Bible say about it?
Second, they focus on indulgences and the authority to administer them; also, on the possibility of doing favors for those who have already died, and on the efficacy of such means. God’s granting of complete freedom and forgiveness to the truly repentant Christian makes it a blasphemy to consider indulgences as a gift from God.
Third, Luther addresses the relations of these indulgences to Christian ethics, exploring the possibility of abuse from religious leaders.
Of his 95 theses, two in particular, 1 and 62, express Luther’s thought. Both are brief statements. In the first thesis he writes, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’ (Matt. 4:17), he w
illed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” Luther quotes Matthew 4:17 from the Vulgate [Latin version]. He insists that the true repentance Christ requires for experiencing the forgiveness of sins is an inner, spiritual action rather than an external sacramental confession. Indulgences led Christians to avoid true repentance and pain for sin, believing that purchased indulgences could replace true repentance. Indulgences discouraged Christians from giving to the poor and performing other acts of mercy, since they believed that indulgences were of more spiritual value.
Luther’s own struggles with penance gave him clear understanding of the anxieties and worries of his audiences. In his own life he had fought hard to distinguish between contrition and sincere repentance, a contrition born of fear of hellfire. Following years of torment in which faith had become a mere commodity linked to purchases of righteousness and shortened stays in purgatory, he found the gospel renewing, refreshing, liberating, incomparable. His thesis 62 declares, “The true treasure of the church is the most holy gospel of God’s glory and grace.”
Luther quotes Jesus, who begins His ministry by saying, “Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 4:17, KJV). In true Christianity the solution to the problem of sin implies repentance. But in the Middle Ages, other elements were added: spiritual efforts, material substitutes, monetary sacrifices. And there were abuses of the system that Luther felt were affecting priestly service. Some people stopped confessing their sins, mistakenly thinking that indulgences had solved their problems.
But living a Christian life requires us to change the wrong course that leads us to sin, turn back to God, and accept His effort to embrace and restore us. It is impossible to purchase entrance into Christ’s spiritual kingdom, or experience “no regrets” about our previous status and conduct in life. Jesus says that entering His kingdom begins with repentance—regretting our past—itself a gift from God, along with His forgiveness of our sins (Acts 5:31).
Another striking point of thesis 62 is that the church has a treasure. Luther discusses merit theology, the treasure chest of merits that could be offered. He writes, “Do not forget that the greatest treasure of the church is the holy gospel of glory and grace.” The treasure of the church is the gospel, that is, the good news of Jesus Christ. There is no other treasure besides Christ and the good news of His grace—the undeserved favor He extends to us to extract us from our disastrous state and condition, and offer us the security of His forgiveness, peace, and hope of eternal glory. In His parable of the treasure, the man who finds it sells everything to purchase the field where the treasure is buried. The treasure of the gospel is worth more than anything else on earth.
Are Luther’s theses from 1517 relevant for us, 500 years later? Can we learn from them a thing or two about salvation? Yes, we can: Luther’s theses explain how Christians can achieve forgiveness, justification, and salvation by faith in Jesus. Even more, they lead us to a better understanding of the God of the Bible.
Luther’s reflections continue to point to the importance of individual study of Scripture. Study of the Bible on its own terms introduces us to the unique God of love who offers forgiveness and eternal life through Christ. Meeting Him through Scripture eliminates all those barriers erected by false teachers and twisted doctrines that stand between God and us, children of His selfless, all-sacrificing love. Hearing His Word tell how He feels about us helps us to respect and value ourselves and each other as God values us.
Luther’s mission continues far beyond his time. His work made the Bible more accessible; religious freedom became important; and many discriminatory social structures were abolished. But too many people still do not know that “being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5:1, KJV).6 Many have yet to be inspired by this foundational text so important for Luther and the Reformers. We who have heard now share his duty of spreading the gospel’s light so that men and women everywhere may savor peace from God that passes all human understanding. The privilege of such work is a debt we owe to the medieval messenger God used to bring us the truth of our own reconciliation.
Silvia Scholtus de Roscher teaches New Testament theology at River Plate University, Argentina.