The Great Controversy

“And there was war in heaven” (Revelation 12:7-9).

What an image! In the heavenly kingdom, the kingdom of peace, there was war!

A war that spread to this earth, and engulfed it in conflict, misery, and death.

We refer to this war as “The Great Controversy.” That isn’t merely the title of a book by a famous Adventist author, it a story that brackets and illuminates everything in the Bible—it is a story that we are part of.

A conflict between good and evil, between Christ and Satan, began in heaven and is playing out now on the earth, and will be concluded with the eradication of evil and the creation of a New Heaven and a New Earth after Jesus returns in glory.

That’s the story I would like us to explore today.

How did this war begin?

We read in Isaiah 14:12-14 that it started in the conceited imagination of an angel.

How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! how art thou cut down to the ground, which didst weaken the nations! For thou hast said in thine heart, I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God: I will sit also upon the mount of the congregation, in the sides of the north: I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will be like the most High.

One of the angelic host, described in Ezekiel 28 as one of the covering cherubs, fell in love with his own beauty, and was corrupted, and wanted more. The finest of God’s creatures, he wanted to be like his Creator, and sowed confusion and division among the hosts of heaven. And for that he was expelled, and exiled on this earth.

We read in Genesis 3 how he tempted our first parents:

Now the serpent was more subtle than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made. And he said unto the woman, Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden?

And the woman said unto the serpent, We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden: But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die.

And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die: For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.

You know what happened. The Bible says they sinned, they fell from grace, they brought suffering and death upon us.

But God had mercy upon them. He would not let them die without hope. He gave them the promise of a redeemer, Genesis 3:15, as we see in God’s words to the serpent:

I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.

The serpent’s claims to them were linked to his initial claims in heaven. He wanted to be like God, and now he says that they, too, could be divine. He said they could know and determine right from wrong—that they could make their own decisions apart from God’s revealed will.

And, he added—they would not die.

We see those seeds bearing fruit in the next generation, Genesis 4—the story of Cain’s jealousy towards his brother, Abel. Cain thought God wasn’t being fair, and in his rage he rose up and slew his brother Abel, Gen 4:8.

And continuing in verse 9:

And the Lord said unto Cain, Where is Abel thy brother?

And he said, I know not: Am I my brother’s keeper?

And he said, What hast thou done? the voice of thy brother’s blood crieth unto me from the ground. And now art thou cursed from the earth, which hath opened her mouth to receive thy brother’s blood from thy hand; When thou tillest the ground, it shall not henceforth yield unto thee her strength; a fugitive and a vagabond shalt thou be in the earth.

And Cain said unto the Lord, My punishment is greater than I can bear. Behold, thou hast driven me out this day from the face of the earth; and from thy face shall I be hid; and I shall be a fugitive and a vagabond in the earth; and it shall come to pass, that every one that findeth me shall slay me.

And the Lord said unto him, Therefore whosoever slayeth Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold. And the Lord set a mark upon Cain, lest any finding him should kill him.

Cain’s heart was filled with jealousy and rage, and he took it upon himself to engage in war with his brother, giving excuses for the rightness of his cause.

But God is not like man. Notice his response. He doesn’t kill Cain. Instead, he puts a mark upon him to protect him. So that no one might even accidentally kill him.

That’s an important point. We love vengeance. A famous politician said his favorite Bible text is “An eye for an eye.”

We totally misunderstand that text. That was meant to limit man’s violence and retaliation. It was a response to our demand, which was based on our frustration and unhappiness with God’s way. Like his concession to Israel when they demanded a king.

Here we see God’s way—he refused to execute a killer and refused to allow anyone else to do so, or to even kill him accidentally.

Do you see the progression of Satan’s argument?

He begins by telling man he cannot die. But then turns around and tells man he is justified in hating and killing his brother. If you have an immortal soul, what damage are you really doing when you kill another? None at all, says Krishna to a warrior before battle in the Hindu Bhagavad Gita. Don’t worry about the thousands who will die. They will continue. Death is like changing a shirt.

Moreover, Satan sets up each man as the arbiter of life and death, of right and wrong. Each person is divine. Each person is a law to himself or herself. No one has responsibility to care for anyone else. No one is his brother’s keeper. Ayn Rand pushed that philosophy, saying selfishness is good and compassion is weakness.

Satan has spread these lies throughout history. We see the fruit in every injustice, every act of oppression, every act of violence, every war.

That is the one side of the conflict. Let’s now look at the other side, and see the contrast.

Where Satan was arrogant, Jesus shows humility. Philippians 2, verse 5 and following:

Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross.

Where Satan says we are divine, we have an immortal soul and will live forever, Jesus tells us the truth: We are mortal. We will die. We have life only as a gift from him, and only in relationship to him. “The soul that sinneth, it shall die” (Ezekiel 18:20). “For the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not any thing, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten” (Ecclesiastes 9:5-6). “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).

Where Satan says men have the power of life and death, and right and wrong, and are justified when they are angry or jealous, and when they make war and kill, God undercuts the justifications. He puts a mark on Cain to protect him.

And Jesus says in Matthew 5:

“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be in danger of the judgment.’ But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven

The man under the influence of Satan mocks God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

And Jesus says, “Yes, you are.” He says it in the parable of the Good Samaritan, and in the parable of the Sheep and the Goats. You see a man injured and beaten—care for him. You see someone sick, in prison, naked, hungry, you see a foreigner who is despised—care for them as you would for Jesus himself.

This is the conflict. These are the values that are opposed to one another. These are the ideas proposed by Satan, and those with which Jesus answers.

We see how they play out in the history of the people of God. Satan tries to warp the church’s message, to turn it aside, to infiltrate the church with his servants, to seduce it with temptations of power and prestige. God calls it ever to be faithful and pure.

And all this was foretold in scripture.

Daniel, chapter 7, has a vision of earthly kingdoms represented by beasts. One comes from the sea with seven heads and ten horns. And out of one of them comes a little horn. Verse 24

He shall be different from the first ones,
And shall subdue three kings.
He shall speak pompous words against the Most High,
Shall persecute the saints of the Most High,
And shall intend to change times and law.
Then the saints shall be given into his hand
For a time and times and half a time.

John, in his first letter, chapter four, spoke of “the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming, and now it is already in the world.”

Revelation chapters 2 and 3 speak of churches that have compromised. That are infected with false doctrine. They are seduced by the spirit of Jezebel to commit spiritual adultery.

Revelation 12 speaks of a pure women who fled into the wilderness to escape a dragon. The next time we see a woman in the wilderness she is a harlot. And she is riding a dragon-like beast. “I saw the woman, drunk with the blood of the saints and with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus. And when I saw her, I marveled with great amazement.”

Errors immediately started creeping into the early Christian church, especially Greek dualism, the idea that the spirit is immortal and good and the body is mortal and corrupt. Already in the second century the church not only remembered its martyrs, but started to revere them, and to pray to them.

In decades that followed, Christians wanted to be popular, and when they found pagan leaders who were sympathetic, and offered to be their patron, to protect and care for them, some eagerly embraced it.

There are those in the church of every age who lust after wealth, position, and power and are willing to compromise truth to achieve their ambitions.

In second century Rome, as Samuel Bacchiocchi told the story in his book, From Sabbath to Sunday, they didn’t want to be confused with Jews, so they stopped keeping the Sabbath and worshipped on Sunday. They ate pork during Passover and joined the Romans in condemning Jews, showing how they were, instead, good Romans.

When Constantine offered his protection in the fourth century, they accepted. They accepted the state’s methods, and in the centuries that followed Christians used violence to punish dissenters. They tortured to get false confessions.

I have stood in those torture chambers in European dungeons and imagined the horrors. I have walked in the halls of the corrupt Prince-Archbishops who built pleasure palaces for themselves on the backs of the poor.

There were reformers, but Lutherans and Calvinists and Anglicans all used the sword to kill heretics and to preserve order. Only the Anabaptists, and later the Quakers, said no.

God does not force the conscience. But corrupt Christians through the ages have.

God does not spread his kingdom through force of arms. But politicians have offered to do so, in the name of preserving civilization (that is, their own rule).

Throughout history, the more the church adopted the ways of the world and the protection of the world’s rulers, the greater the darkness spread.

Despite that, God’s light never went out. In each age he has had witnesses to his truth. One after another saw glimpses of Bible truth, and began to teach it and to preach it. Another added to it, year by year, generation by generation. The light grew brighter. Men began to preach of liberty of conscience, and separation of church and state, and truth began to spread quickly. Men like Felix Mans and Conrad Grebel in Zurich, Menno Simons in the Netherlands, and later, the Baptist Roger Williams in New England. They were the true apostles of liberty, who wanted to pull the church and state apart, to let the truth of the Gospel speak for itself without political patronage supporting it or hindering it.

God has always been on the side of freedom. But freedom scares some. It seems like anarchy. Freedom is risky. It made the fall of Lucifer and the fall of man possible.

But God loves freedom. He freely created us. His son freely became one of us. He freely offers his gift of salvation to us.

We are now standing in the time of the end. We know what comes next from Bible prophecy. Religious leaders will answer the call of political leaders to embrace power and corruption. Religious leaders will teach men’s laws instead of God’s. They will try to make an evil world turn back to God through religious legislation. They will unite their version of the Christian message to the state’s manipulation and use of force—and excuse the use of torture and the threat of death against religious minorities in the name of “national security.”

And God’s people will have to decide—which side are you on?

Well, what would you say?

The choice is yours. It always has been.

The Great Controversy is your story. It is the struggle for your life. It is the struggle for your soul.

If you want to know more, I recommend a book called The Great Controversy, which fills out the narrative I have laid out, with lots of historical examples. I recommend that you subscribe to Liberty Magazine, which we promote each year at this time.

Seventh-day Adventists stand for liberty. We advocate for liberty, not just for ourselves, but for all.

We need to learn from history. Only in its light, and the light of Scripture, will we discern the true path in today’s murky times. Only as we ground ourselves in truth, will we be safe from the lie. Only as we ground ourselves in the teachings of Jesus, will we be safe from the teachings of men—which are really the old lies of the ancient serpent, who made angels fall. May God keep you safe as you put your trust in him.