The opening vision of the book of Revelation is a vision of Jesus Christ (Rev. 1:9-20). Having announced that history is moving toward a destined rendezvous with Him, “the ruler of kings on earth” (verse 5), Scripture portrays the cosmic Jesus (verses 12-20).1 He is robed, sashed, white-haired, with fiery feet, a roaring voice, and a sunlike face (verses 13-16). To judge by the conclusion to the vision, though, there are two features that are of particular importance—the position of Jesus and what He holds in His right hand (verse 20).
He is portrayed as “in the midst of the lampstands” (verse 13), which symbolize the seven Christian congregations (verse 20) that are the focus of John the revelator’s pastoral concern—Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. This towering Jesus holds in His right hand “seven stars,” “the angels of the seven churches” (verse 20). So Jesus is church-centered. He walks among Christian congregations, and He treasures and guards—as though holding in His right hand—those who lead and nurture them.
It would seem, then, to be the most natural and appropriate thing for the churches—and the church—to return the favor and be Christ-centered. His attention and care focused on them; their worship and praise directed toward Him. In the letters the risen Christ sends to those seven churches (Rev. 2; 3) we learn that the church can stray from Jesus. And, reviewing our own Seventh-day Adventist history, we acknowledge the same to be true. Especially painful are the chapters of our story where we have forgotten that to be truly Christ-centered we must be just and merciful in our relationships with others (recalling Christ’s portrayal of the final judgment in which the King says, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me” [Matt 25:40]). We are at our best when we are focused on Jesus and extending His grace to others. We are at our worst when we are centered on ourselves.
Is it possible, though, that the mistakes are behind us? Have we, perhaps, accomplished this developmental task of becoming Christ-centered? Under the sway of the gospel focus of past decades, have we made the appropriate theological and cultural adjustments and turned a corner on this challenge? Or is this an essential and ongoing task that must be taken up by every generation of Adventists?
One way to answer that question is to survey Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. In the letter Paul offers an idealistic portrayal of the church as the body of Christ (Eph. 1:22, 23; 2:16; 3:6; 4:1-16, 25; 5:22, 30), a holy temple to the Lord Jesus (Eph. 2:19-22), the bride of Christ (Eph. 5:21-33, esp. verses 25-27), and a unified army (Eph. 6:10-20). In doing so, Paul offers Christ-drenched correspondence to his readers, a letter brimming with the phrase “in Christ” and similar expressions (e.g. , “in Christ Jesus,” “in the Lord,” “in the Beloved,” “in Him,” “in Himself”), which together he uses more than 30 times. Believers are united in such solidarity with Christ that they are co-resurrected, co-ascended, and co-exalted with Jesus (Eph. 2:4-6).
Without Jesus, Seventh-day Adventist beliefs are mere scattered gems or broken spokes.
Early on, Paul shares the great theme of his letter: It is God’s grand, eschatological plan, His “plan for the fullness of time,” to “unite all things in him [in Christ], things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph. 1:10). Christ, says Paul, is not subject to last-day events. He is the subject of last-day events, the goal of God’s culminating, fullness-of-time strategy. The point is this: Ephesians is a Christ-saturated letter that everywhere praises the actions of God in Christ and celebrates the access of believers to the spiritual resources offered to them in Christ. Are we as Christ-centered and Christ-saturated, as Ephesians suggests that we are and should be? If not, we have work to do. Now. In this generation.
Ellen White’s own affirmations of Christ as the center of Adventist faith are numerous and inspiring. She writes, “There is one great central truth to be kept ever before the mind in the searching of the Scriptures—
Christ and Him crucified. Every other truth is invested with influence and power corresponding to its relation to this theme.”2 The “truth for this time” consists of doctrines “united by golden threads, forming a complete whole, with Christ as the living center.”3
She exhorts: “Never should a sermon be preached, or Bible instruction in any line be given, without pointing the hearers to ‘the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world’” (John 1:29). “Every true doctrine makes Christ the center, every precept receives force from His words.”
4 In a similar vein she writes, “Where the people assemble to worship God let not a word be spoken that shall divert the mind from the great central interest—Jesus Christ, and Him crucified.”5
In a two-part 1893 series in the
Review and Herald, “Contemplate Christ’s Perfection, Not Man’s Imperfection,” Ellen White readily admits that we are part of an imperfect church.6 We should avoid focusing on the imperfections so readily on display and instead focus on Christ. We should “turn to the precious Saviour.”7 She cites the positive example of some immigrants to the United States who refused to be dissuaded from their search for truth by the imperfections of Adventist believers. Instead, these believers “studied the doctrines, finding in the links of truth precious things that were like jewels hung upon a golden thread.” She comments, “Christ, His character and work, is the center and circumference of all truth, He is the chain upon which the jewels of doctrine are linked. In him is found the complete system of truth.”8
Rightly understood, Seventh-day Adventist beliefs are like precious jewels joined by “a golden thread” (or “a chain”). That “golden thread” is Jesus, who runs through the center of each valuable gem and joins the whole as one. Alternatively, Seventh-day Adventist beliefs may be thought of as a wheel in which Christ is both hub (or “center”) and rim (“circumference”), with every spoke of truth finding its beginning and end in Christ, who unites the system of truth, holding it together. Without Jesus, Seventh-day Adventist beliefs are mere scattered gems or broken spokes.But when joined together in Jesus they constitute a beautiful and functional system of truth. “Christ is the center of all true doctrine.”
To consider the challenges of living out such a Christ-centered faith, we may turn to the story of the storm on the lake and Peter walking on the water (Matt. 14:22-33). The disciples—the church—face an array of temptations and challenges that follow on a great triumph, the feeding of the 5,000. The fact that Jesus compels the disciples to depart in a boat and dismisses the crowd (verse 22), suggests His worry that the two groups may respond inappropriately in a moment of accomplishment and victory. Strangely, in celebrating the miraculous power of Jesus, they are under threat of diverting their attention away from Him to their own dreams and ambitions about Him.
If temptation threatens in good times, it is present in dark and challenging ones as well. The disciples toil in their journey against a ferocious headwind, and do so for hours. It is in the fourth watch of the night—3:00-6:00 a.m.—that Jesus comes striding across the waves to this church-in-a-boat. Their vision had become so filled in the intervening hours with the wind’s fury and the waves’ lashing that they are ill-prepared to discern Jesus. In the eeriness of the storm they judge Him to be a ghost. In this moment of trauma and stress, the disciples have so thoroughly forgotten Jesus that they turn to folk religion to explain what they see. The disciples, looking out across the waves at their living Lord striding across the sea, perceive instead only a pale, wispy, and menacing presence. “It is a ghost!” they say. And they groan and moan in fear.
Jesus jars them from their ghost-ridden and Christless world with the message, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid” (verse 27). It is likely that Jesus’ words offer “a conscious echo of the divine name of Yahweh” (cf. Ex. 3:14).
10 It is an amazing turnaround moment for the disciples—from fearing a wispy phantom to worshipping the Lord Jesus Christ. It is that very trajectory that the church must retrace today—to turn from our worries and fears, the wispy phantoms that too often dominate our worldview, and center our thoughts, hopes, and dreams on Jesus.
Peter, though, hesitates to be drawn into this turnaround moment. In folk religion, after all, ghosts do speak. He is unwilling to flip the identity of the apparition before him from unidentified ghost to forgotten Lord without further validation. It occurs to him that a deed, a miraculous one that would measure with the wonders he has seen from Jesus, would offer more trustworthy proof than mere words. In a flash he identifies an excellent test close at hand. Responding to the heartening affirmation of Jesus, Peter shouts his proposed test into the storm: “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water” (verse 28). Across the waves, carried by the wind and punctuated by a lightning bolt and a rumbling peal of thunder, comes a one-word command: “Come” (verse 29).
I find it fascinating that Jesus, striding across the waves as the Lord of creation, accepts Peter’s little test. It would seem to be a good moment for a short, storm-blown lecture about taking the Lord—this Lord Jesus—at His word (and at the end of the story Jesus does admonish Peter through a stinging question). To his credit, Peter climbs out of the boat and onto the storm-tossed sea, ready to test the identity of the One who commands him to do so.
One could argue that Peter’s early steps in this test differ from the later ones. At first what is at issue is not the faith of Peter in Jesus but the very identity of Jesus. As Peter begins his trek, he is not sustained by his faith in Jesus. Instead, Jesus sustains him on the waves as miraculous testimony to His own identity. He is who He says He is. His message of hope rings true.
We should avoid focusing on the imperfections so readily on display and instead focus on Christ.
Peter does not begin his singular adventure in faith and then lose faith. He begins by testing the word of an apparition, perhaps fully expecting to end up cold, wet, and disillusioned. But in possession of an important truth: It is a ghost! But after a few steps the spiritual dynamics of the experience shift. He has now confirmed the identity of the One who has commanded him to come. The test mutates into a test of him, of his faith in Jesus, whose identity has just been confirmed. It is just here that the church—our church—is drawn afresh into the story. We face Peter’s test. Having confirmed the identity of Jesus in our shared life and experience, will we keep our vision focused on Him? Will we refuse to be distracted from our essential fixation on Jesus?
Peter fails the next test. He becomes distracted by “the wind.” And when his focus shifts to the gale, He forgets both Jesus and His hope-filled message. The wind blows fear into his heart, and he begins to sink into the roiling deep. Peter “took his eyes off the Master and fixed them on the raging sea. Looking at the storm, he came to believe in its might more than in the might of his Lord. He saw Jesus through his difficulties instead of looking at his difficulties in the light of his Lord. Thus his problems loomed so large that they blinded him altogether to the presence of Christ.”
But Peter does not fail the ultimate test, for in this moment of panicked fear he abandons any trust in himself and cries out, “Lord, save me!” And just here we, the church, learn a vital lesson. Should we lose our focus on Jesus and begin to sink, we can always cry out to Him. And Jesus, our incredible, trustworthy Saviour, will do for us just what He did for Peter. His arm thrust through the hungry waves. His hand, not waiting for our weakening grasp, but firmly gripping us. Lifting. Raising. Resurrecting. Then, eye-to-eye and heart-to-heart, comes the piercing, searching question: “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” Jesus and His drenched disciple “got into the boat” and “the wind ceased” (verse 32). With the last bolt of lightning and peal of thunder fading over the horizon, the windblown waves settle to a calm, glasslike sea and a worship service breaks out in that little boat: “And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God’” (verse 33).
The history of the church—our church—in story form. We will all too often fail our own vision test, allowing someone else or something else other than Jesus to dominate our field of view. But what an ending to the story! And what a grand place for the church’s story to conclude: Eyes on Jesus. Affirming His identity as the Son of God. Worshipping the One who has saved us. I wish to be part of such a Christ-centered church, don’t you?
John K. McVay is president of Walla Walla University, Walla Walla, Washington, United States.