Scripture and the Great Controversy
By Gerhard Pfandl
The Book of Romans is Paul’s textbook of salvation. Everything one needs to know about how to be saved is found in this letter to the church in Rome. In chapter 1, Paul explains that the heathen are sinners and lost (vss. 24, 26, 28). When he hears the Jews applauding him, he turns around and in Romans 2, he tells them that they are no better than the heathen—they are also sinners and lost (vss. 1, 5). And in chapter three, he declares that all human beings are sinners and lost (vs. 23). Then he presents the good news that all are saved the same way: “being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (vs. 24).1
The underlying reason for Paul’s statements is the great controversy between Christ and Satan. The great controversy theme not only explains why humankind is lost and in need of a Savior, it also provides a coherent explanation for all other events in history. It is the paradigm that helps Seventh-day Adventists to understand the message and mission of their church.
According to Revelation 12:7–9, the Great Controversy began in heaven with a war between Michael (Christ) and the great red dragon, which in verse 9 is identified as Satan. He, we are told, “was cast to the earth, and his angels were cast out with him” (vs. 9). Ellen G. White in vision saw that the original expulsion of Satan from heaven took place before the creation of Adam and Eve. “When Adam and Eve were placed in the beautiful garden, Satan was laying plans to destroy them.”2 He succeeded in leading Adam and Eve astray, and ever since, the Great Controversy has been carried on here on earth.
In Genesis 3:15 God promised to put enmity between the woman and the serpent and their respective seeds, and the history of the world bears witness to this fact. Abel was the first victim of this enmity (Gen. 4:8), then came the great flood (Genesis 6–9) which left only eight people on this Earth. Nevertheless, their descendants too yielded to Satan’s temptations, and the history of Israel is replete of examples of the great controversy between Christ and Satan. The worship of the golden calf at Sinai (Exodus 32), the rebellion at Kadesh Barnea (Numbers 13, 14), and the repeated rejection of God during the period of the judges and the kings of Israel and Judah illustrate Satan’s strategy of leading astray as many people as possible.
If there is one Bible book that exemplifies the Great Controversy more than any other, it is the Book of Job. In this book, Satan is shown as the cause of humanity’s troubles, yet at the same time, it also reveals that there are limits imposed on Satan’s ability to afflict those who are loyal to God. Through Job’s friends, Satan accuses Job falsely, thereby manifesting his role as “‘the accuser of our brethren’” (Rev. 12:10). In the end, however, God vindicates Job, just as He vindicates His saints in the pre-Advent judgment.
In Revelation 12:1–5, the woman, symbolizing the people of God, brings forth the child (Christ) “who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron” (vs. 5). The great red dragon (Satan) tries to destroy the Christ child, but He is “caught up to God and His throne” (vs. 5).
These five verses describe in terse language the climax of the great controversy. Soon after Christ’s birth, Satan attempted to kill Him by means of Herod’s massacre of the children of Bethlehem (Matt. 2:16), but Jesus was led to safety in Egypt. After Jesus’ baptism, Satan tempted Him in the wilderness to lead Him into sin and thereby destroy the plan of redemption, but Jesus resisted all his temptations (Matthew 4). Then, as Jesus was visiting Nazareth, Satan incited His own people to kill him, but Jesus “passing through the midst of them, . . . went His way” (Luke 4:30). Finally, when Jesus was nailed to the cross, Satan thought he had achieved his goal, but in dying on the Cross, Jesus fulfilled the plan of redemption and achieved the decisive victory over Satan (John 19:30).
“All heaven,” wrote Ellen G. White, “triumphed in the Saviour’s victory. Satan was defeated, and knew that his kingdom was lost.”3 But beyond the redemption of humanity, the death of Christ had also revelatory significance. “Not until the death of Christ was the character of Satan clearly revealed to the angels or to the unfallen worlds. The archapostate had so clothed himself with deception that even holy beings had not understood his principles. They had not clearly seen the nature of his rebellion.”4 But when they saw Jesus hanging on the Cross, they understood the true meaning of what Satan had done.
Thus, the death of Christ not only achieved the salvation of humanity, it also revealed the true characters of God and Satan. While the decisive phase of the plan of redemption was completed at Calvary, the Great Controversy did not end there. Paul explained in Ephesians 6:11–18 that the Christian has to fight not against flesh and blood but “against the rulers of the darkness of this age” (vs. 12). He himself attributed hindrances to his travel plans to Satan (1 Thess. 2:18), and in 1 Corinthians 4:9, he observed that in this controversy between God and Satan, he and the apostles “have been made a spectacle to the world, both to angels and to men.”
In Revelation 12:6, 14, the woman, i.e., the church (after the time of Jesus), is persecuted by the dragon (Satan) and flees into the wilderness for 1,260 years. Throughout the Christian era Satan tried to wipe out the church. First, he used the pagan Roman Empire to persecute the church. When this failed, he elevated the church, led it into apostasy, and then used it to persecute God’s faithful people.
The best-known example of this is the Inquisition. In the Middle Ages, the growing threat of heretical groups led to the acceptance by the church of the use of the secular authority and an inquisitorial method as a means for their suppression. Pope Alexander III (1159–1181) at the Council of Tours (1163) urged secular princes to prosecute heretics, to imprison them, and to confiscate their property. When their half-hearted attempts did not lead to the desired end, Pope Gregory IX (1227–1241) in 1231 formally entrusted the Inquisition to the Dominicans, who in popular parlance became known as the domini canes (“the Lord’s dogs”).
Throughout the Middle Ages and the early Renaissance, hundreds of thousands of Christians were brought before an inquisitorial tribunal, many of them losing their lives as a result. “The number of those who were put to death for their religion in the Netherlands alone, in the reign of Charles V, has been estimated by a very high authority at 50,000, and at least half as many perished under his son [Philip II of Spain].”5
Unable to wipe out the church during the 1,260 years, Satan then began “to make war with the rest of her offspring, who keep the commandments of God and have the testimony of Jesus Christ” (Rev. 12:17). As Seventh-day Adventists, we have always identified our church with this “remnant of her seed.” It should not surprise us, therefore, that Satan is attacking this church from the outside as well as from the inside. However, the promise has been given, “The church may appear as about to fall, but it does not fall. It remains, while the sinners in Zion will be sifted out.”6
The outcome of the Great Controversy is not in doubt. Scripture repeatedly tells us that Christ’s coming at the end of time will bring to an end evil and wickedness on this earth (2 Thess. 2:8; Rev. 19:11–21; 20:7–10). Then God will re-create this earth as a place where “‘there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away’” (Rev. 21:4).
Gerhard Pfandl is an associate editor for Perspective Digest, a publication of the Adventist Theological Society. This article has been reprinted with permission.
NOTES AND REFERENCES
1. Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture references in this article are quoted from The New King James Version of the Bible.
2. Early Writings, 146.
3. The Desire of Ages, 758.
5. W. E. H. Lecky, History of the Rise and Influence of the Spirit of Rationalism in Europe (New York: Braziller, 1955), 2:40, 41.
6. Selected Messages, Book 2, 380.