March 1, 2021

The Anatomy of Change

Change has been with us since “in the beginning.”

Gerald A. Klingbeil

A biblical perspective

In the beginning—there was change.

Darkness became light; chaos was miraculously transformed into order; emptiness turned into fullness—and beauty and wonder and life.

The Creation account found in Genesis offers a startling introit to the topic of change. It gives us a prime view of God’s ability to change. Day and night, dry land and sea, flowers, trees, grasses, and all other types of vegetation, together with myriads of different animal species, illustrate God’s attention to detail and aesthetics. Have you ever looked at the colorful wheel a peacock makes to impress his mate and wondered if all this splendor was really necessary—for peacocks?

Creation, however, also offers us a good perspective on God’s unchangeable nature, the life and love that are the very essence of the Creator and the foundation that Creation is built upon. Later biblical authors return to this point repeatedly: “God is not human, that he should lie, not a human being, that he should change his mind. Does he speak and then not act? Does he promise and not fulfill?” (Num. 23:19; cf. Mal. 1:6James 1:17).

The Bible unapologetically makes the case that God does not change. Yet something profound changed after Creation, and it wasn’t a good change. While Genesis 1 and 2 communicate to us the wonder of God’s creation, Genesis 3 hints at the mystery of sin. Free choice is the evidence of God’s goodness and His love, and it makes humanity distinct from plants and animals and everything else created. First Eve, then Adam, chose to distrust the motives of their perfect Creator. Their choice introduced a profound change into God’s creation, expressed in falling leaves, growing distrust, increasing enmity, and—ultimately—death.

God’s perfect creation was suddenly changed into an imperfect reality hurtling on a downward bent toward ultimate (self-) destruction. God, however, did not leave His creation in free fall. His grace becomes visible again and again as He engages with humanity—on a mountain as floodwaters are receding (Gen. 8:15–9:17); on the shore of the Red Sea with a well-equipped Egyptian army pounding toward them (Ex. 14); on another mountain where He reveals Himself and offers to Moses a tangible representation of His character (Ex. 1920). This list could be added to significantly. But it was another dark moment that ushered in the ultimate change.

Change That Matters

The coming of Jesus as a helpless babe in a dirty manger in Bethlehem represents this ultimate turning point in history. Neither heaven nor earth could really understand it. How could God become human, grow up in a sin-sick world yearning for change, and then offer Himself as the ultimate sacrifice to destroy sin and the dark forces behind it?

Change can also be painful. Change requires us to open ourselves to something new.

The Gospels offer a window into the dire lack of comprehension of the real nature of the Messiah. When Jesus spoke plainly to His disciples about His death and resurrection, Peter rebuked Him with strong words: “Never, Lord! This shall never happen to you!” (Matt. 16:22). Jesus’ response is as shocking as Peter’s assertion: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns” (verse 23).

Jesus Himself spoke often about change. This change began with individual hearts and would penetrate societies and cultures and, ultimately, the entire world. “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again” (John 3:3), He said to Nicodemus. On a scale measuring change, a birth from above must rate very high. While rebirth is personal, the resulting change affects every aspect of society. Jesus’ followers, while living and serving in the often-dark places of this world, recognize their changed citizenship (Phil. 3:20). They are “in the world,” but not “of the world” (see John 17:15-21). They have become committed game-changers, for their hearts are anchored in Jesus.

Painful Change

Sometimes change is painful. Change requires us to open ourselves to something new. We have to step out, not knowing the outcome, and often have to leave long-cherished ideas and concepts behind. Jesus Himself recognized that His kingdom was different from the values espoused by Pharisees and Sadducees. In response to a question about fasting, He used two images to illustrate the radical change He envisioned: “No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. Otherwise, the new piece will pull away from the old, making the tear worse. And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins” (Mark 2:2122). Jesus didn’t come to do quick fixes on hearts and minds. He came to make them new. He was no “patchwork Messiah,” but invited (and sometimes demanded) radical change.

Even following His ascension, change became one of the guiding principles of Jesus’ followers. Prodded by the Spirit, the early Christians soon realized that mission was not cipher for staying at home and focusing on Israel only. Salvation was for Gentiles, too, they realized, even though it took them time and serious mental recalibration to catch this vision. We often struggle to understand the radical nature of Peter’s experience described in Acts 10. “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism,” Peter told a mostly Gentile audience, “but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right” (verses 34, 35).

Change doesn’t come easy. In fact, conflict and change seem to be two melodies constantly intertwining. There are a number of illustrations of conflicts as the result of impending change in the New Testament. Acts 15 describes what has been termed the Jerusalem Council, when the early Christian church found itself in conflict about the issue of circumcision as a prerequisite of membership for Gentiles joining the movement. Verse 7 tells us that there was “much discussion.” The Greek term used here suggests a dispute or a controversial debate. However, led by the Spirit (verse 28), a dispute becomes the vehicle for a clearer vision of God’s mission and His inclusive grace.

Continuous Change

Conversations about change often reference terms such as truth, tradition, or renewal. The biblical concept of change does not stand in opposition to truth, especially absolute truth. The God who changes chaos into order and darkness into light also reveals His character in the Word—both the written and the living. Biblical truth is based on the self-revelation of God and is unchangeable and eternal. It is possible, however, that this truth is forgotten or overlaid by levels of tradition.

Consider the truth of righteousness by faith. The sacrificial system of the Hebrew Bible clearly illustrated daily that salvation was not to be found in what we do for God or what we bring as an offering. Each sacrifice ultimately pointed to the true “Lamb of God” (John 1:29), the Messiah, whose sacrifice brought atonement and redemption. Righteousness by faith was a key part of the transformative message of early Christianity that distinguished it from all other religions.

The next centuries, however, introduced layers of tradition, emphasizing works, alms, prayers, and much more, resulting in a warped understanding of the character of God and His plan of salvation. Luther’s rediscovery of this truth in Scripture represented a marked change from prevailing theology and interpretation—but it didn’t embody new truth.

Theologians speak about the concept of “progressive revelation,” which is well illustrated by Hebrews 1:1-3’s suggesting a progress of revelation from Old Testament prophets to God’s own Son. This doesn’t mean that God’s continued revelation throughout the ages contradicted or nullified previous revelation. Rather, it highlights the fact that “later revelation illuminates, clarifies, or amplifies truths presented previously.”1 Jesus’ discussion of some of the laws of the Decalogue in His sermon on the mount (Matt. 5) offers a good example of progressive revelation.

The Need for Change

We live in troubled times. We knew that already before the arrival of COVID-19 and the turmoil associated with this pandemic. Can we speak about change right now? We knew that living in history’s last period would mean facing serious challenges. We experience these challenges daily—individually and corporately. Fear and turmoil are part of this world’s DNA. We are afraid of getting sick, of losing loved ones, of finding ourselves jobless, of being alone, of death and dying—and some of us also worry about living in these last days of history.

Jesus knew about fear. He Himself faced fear, especially the ultimate fear of being separated from His Father.2 While fear is real, Jesus diagnoses something more sinister in His end-time church: “I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth. You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked” (Rev. 3:15-17).

Do we recognize that we are truly “wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked”? Do we know that we are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold? Jesus offers only one solution—and it involves change: “I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see” (verse 18). Gold, white clothes, and eyesalve all point to our dire need of His righteousness instead of our own; His goodness instead of our own; His recognition instead of our own perception.

If change marked the beginning, change will also characterize the end. As we permit Him, God’s Spirit will work a change in a lukewarm church so that we can joyously anticipate our “blessed hope”—the glorious appearing of our God and Savior, Jesus Christ (cf. Titus 2:13).

  1. Richard M. Davidson, “Biblical Interpretation,” in Handbook of Seventh-day Adventist Theology, ed. Raoul Dederen, Commentary Reference Series (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 2000), vol. 12, p. 66.
  2. I have written about this in more detail in “The One Fear,” Adventist World, July 2020, pp. 11-14.

Gerald A. Klingbeil serves as an associate editor of Adventist Review.