As times get harder and the issues become more and more extreme, the Church of God needs wisdom and godly counsel now more than ever. What have we learned from two-and-a-half years of unprecedented challenges—and as we prepare for the Holy Day season, how can we apply these lessons to the days ahead?
All of God’s Festivals are times for self-examination, even as they foreshadow events in God’s master plan. It is evident that God wants us to remember lessons from the past as well as look forward to the future. The Festivals of the seventh month remind us of what to expect in the future: Christ’s return at the end of seven earth-shattering trumpet blasts, the great deceiver Satan removed from influencing mankind for a thousand years, the glorious reign of Jesus Christ on earth during those thousand years, and the second resurrection—when God will open the minds of all to have a genuine opportunity to be in God’s Kingdom as His sons and daughters.
Sermons will be given on these Festival days, reviewing and deeply examining their meanings. Members will discuss these future events as they fellowship over shared meals and gatherings. “Then those who feared the Lord spoke to one another, and the Lord listened and heard them; so a book of remembrance was written before Him for those who fear the Lord and who meditate on His name” (Malachi 3:16). While we eagerly look forward to the fulfillment of these Feasts, we are also instructed to learn important lessons by looking back.
The Passover is a reminder of God sparing Israel’s firstborn as they, so to speak, “locked down” in their homes on what must have been a night full of mixed emotions, anticipating the sunrise on a new day bringing freedom at last. We are to meditate on what that must have been like, as well as consider our own emancipation made possible by the death of our Savior (Exodus 12:26–27; Matthew 26:28). We are also to consider what it means to repent and come out of the bondage of sin—our response to Jesus Christ’s sacrifice (Exodus 13:3; 1 Corinthians 5:8). God wants us to learn lessons, whether we look back or look forward. There are important lessons in both directions.
When we look back over the last two-and-a-half years, it is hardly news to say that our world changed dramatically as we faced many challenges individually and collectively. It was not as though we were never warned about disease epidemics to come—and we know that much worse is on the horizon—but I think we must admit that the speed with which it happened and the extent of its ramifications took us somewhat by surprise. During our Council of Elders discussions this past June, we explored lessons we may apply going forward into the uncertain times prophesied for the end of this age, as God wants us to learn from past times of stress. Much has yet to happen before the trumpets sound, and we must look to Him in obedient faith (1 Corinthians 10:1–13). I’d like to share with you some of the lessons we discussed.
Change Came Suddenly
One important lesson is in how quickly our world turned upside down. When warnings came out of China about a new disease, it was human nature to minimize such a threat. Another contemporary example of self-deception is that, despite all the warning signs of a Russian invasion, many Ukrainians were caught off-guard and took no action until it was too late. We know difficult times are on the horizon, but will we be ready? Have we learned anything?
Some events leading up to Christ’s return will almost certainly happen more quickly than we expect. We cannot control the future, but we can prepare ourselves mentally, physically, and spiritually—the last being the most important. The parable of the ten virgins in Matthew 25 serves as a warning for those upon whom the ends of the ages will come. All ten are invited to the wedding, but only five prepare for the bridegroom’s delay. The other five do not plan and are caught off guard. Another related warning is found in Matthew 24. The return of Christ may seem to be delayed, but He will come sooner than some expect.
But if that evil servant says in his heart, “My master is delaying his coming,” and begins to beat his fellow servants, and to eat and drink with the drunkards, the master of that servant will come on a day when he is not looking for him and at an hour that he is not aware of, and will cut him in two and appoint him his portion with the hypocrites. There shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matthew 24:48–51).
It is easy to procrastinate in making necessary changes in one’s life; to fall asleep spiritually, thinking there will be time to react when the day finally comes. But the pandemic, like many other circumstances in life, shouts loud and clear, Act now while there is time! Expect the unexpected. And, more than anything else, develop a close relationship with God the Father and Jesus Christ, for They provide our only hope for deliverance.
As a Church, when the COVID-19 pandemic arrived, we congregated online for several weeks, months, or more, depending on where we lived. And when governments and venues allowed, we often met with something called “social distancing.” Most of us found that this brought some advantages, especially during the Feasts, as we did not have to squeeze by people to find a seat. It was as though everyone had an aisle seat. There were many more changes thrust upon us, but the point is that there are lessons in this for all who are willing to learn.
People are easily influenced by emotions, and it was remarkable how the media and governments fueled fear. It is not wrong to have fear—an emotion that God gave us. It is good to have a sudden shot of adrenaline when you see a poisonous snake in your path. It is also good for a woman to have a healthy fear of walking down a dark and lonely city street at night.
At the very beginning of the pandemic, many of us were careful about “sanitizing” our groceries before bringing them into our homes. We were careful about gathering in crowded places. But as we learned more about the nature of the threat, we realized some fears were unnecessary or even irrational. We have seen plenty of irrational fear over the past months as governments and media whipped it up to force vaccination upon everyone, including small children. We could dispute whether governments used fear in good conscience to protect citizens or whether there was more to it—but, clearly, credibility was an early casualty of the pandemic.
While fear is normal and even helpful at times, love and courage must overcome fear and we must never be paralyzed by it. “God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind” (2 Timothy 1:7).
Irrational Rabbit Holes
Speaking of the irrational, Mr. Wallace Smith pointed out that “we are seeing extremes. People are more and more taking sides,” depending on where they get their news. Sadly, many look to sources that can hardly be called reliable. Instead of searching for the truth, many search for sources that validate what they already think—and there is no lack of sources to help one plunge down the proverbial rabbit hole. The result is “Internet wars” as emotions soar and people accuse each other of being duped or failing to do their civic duty.
Once again, remember what the Apostle Paul tells us about the Spirit of God: It is a spirit “of power and of love and of a sound mind.” The idea that the vaccines injected into our arms are “nanobots” that come together to form a transmitter that is picked up on the 5G network does not come from a sound mind any more than the flat-earth theory or QAnon. And are Bill Gates and other globalists really trying to eliminate 90 percent of the earth’s population? Does this square with a 200-million-man army at the end of the age?
Conspiracies and squabbles have abounded over the last few years, with some members judging others’ intelligence or faith. Yet the Bible admonishes humility and minding our own business. “Therefore let us pursue the things which make for peace and the things by which one may edify another…. Do you have faith? Have it to yourself before God. Happy is he who does not condemn himself in what he approves... for whatever is not from faith is sin” (Romans 14:19, 22–23).
Government and Counsel
Government is easy to follow when people agree—not so easy when they do not. One point I like to express about the Council of Elders is that there would be no need for a council if we all thought exactly the same way. When God tells us through His word in the Proverbs—multiple times—that seeking wise counsel is important, we ought to take this seriously. And seeking a multitude of counsel does not mean shopping around for those who agree with you. It is often more important to find those who may disagree with you! Consider these proverbs and internalize them:
Where there is no counsel, the people fall; but in the multitude of counselors there is safety (Proverbs 11:14).
The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but he who heeds counsel is wise (Proverbs 12:15).
Without counsel, plans go awry, but in the multitude of counselors they are established (Proverbs 15:22).
Listen to counsel and receive instruction, that you may be wise in your latter days (Proverbs 19:20).
How easy it is to think we understand this—until we don’t like the counsel given. The last couple of years have revealed that some did not accept counsel or government. Understanding right government, how the word of God reveals the mind of God, and the importance of wise counsel will become even more important in the years ahead. The days leading to Christ’s return are going to be traumatic. We will face situations we cannot at this time imagine. Some decisions, such as whether to be vaccinated, are personal. Other decisions, such as how to conduct Sabbath services, involve more than you individually, and of necessity are left for the Church to decide (Ephesians 4:11–16).
Mr. Jonathan McNair explained how “we went through an exercise in government and how important it is in a time of crisis. We must communicate and work together.” The pandemic (some would dispute that it is a pandemic, but we will leave that for others to debate) is something the Church has not previously faced in modern times. We have made decisions based on the available knowledge and on the reality in which we find ourselves. Part of that reality is that we are a worldwide Work with hundreds of congregations. Thankfully, the Bible is not silent on how the Church is to deal with matters that are not clear to everyone. Deuteronomy 17:8–13 has taken on greater significance in the past two years for those willing to let the Bible speak.
Mr. Dan Hall rightly brought out that the issue that caused some to separate from the Church was never about masks or singing, but rather that No one is going to tell me what to do. That assessment fits well with Proverbs 18:1–2: “A man who isolates himself seeks his own desire; he rages against all wise judgment. A fool has no delight in understanding, but in expressing his own heart.” Mr. Rod McNair reminded us that “God allows the tree to be shaken from time to time.”
One field-based Council member mentioned how he and many of you members appreciated the balance the Church has had throughout these difficult times. Those of us at Headquarters thank you in return for your loyal support and faithfulness. This is especially true for those who may have held a different opinion at times, but nevertheless feared God enough to support the decisions of the Church.
The Big Picture
Dr. Douglas Winnail often emphasizes the need to keep the big picture in mind—and an important part of that big picture is doing the Work. We can lose sight of this by getting caught up in the politics of our day. That was evident even before, but politics was put “on steroids” during the pandemic. Some lost sight of the need to do the Work and lost their way over minutiae in comparison. As Mr. Rick Stafford pointed out, “People who left do not understand the need to do the Work.”
Satan has not been removed. That will not happen until the Day of Atonement is fulfilled. He is the god of this world, the prince of the power of the air, and the one directing the course of this present evil age. How many have forgotten that, if only temporarily?
As mentioned earlier, some scriptures have taken on greater significance in these troubling times. One that jumped out at me was John 14:30, where Jesus said, “I will no longer talk much with you, for the ruler of this world is coming, and he has nothing in Me.” A great lesson in retrospect is how easy it is for the current ruler of this world to have something in us, to catch us up in the course of his world! If you look back and see that this happened to you, ask for God’s forgiveness, which He is eager to give, and learn from the experience to avoid Satan’s devices in the future.
Council members put forward many other lessons. Dr. Jeffrey Fall pointed out that distinguished doctors hold strong opinions but disagree among themselves on matters regarding COVID. He also reminded us that many people view mainstream medicine with the same faith as others might a religion. I would add that there are also those who view non-mainstream medicine with a religious fervor. Medicine—mainstream or otherwise—has its place, but we must never forget that God is our Healer and the One to whom our faith must be directed. This will be even more important as we come closer to the fulfillment of the Feast of Trumpets.
Mr. Rand Millich made an encouraging point when he mentioned how members displayed leadership in local areas in coming forward to get things done, such as setting up livestreaming and helping one another. Mr. Paul Shumway, who during lockdown was in the Caribbean where meetings were prohibited or greatly limited, pointed out that livestreamed services are no substitute for meeting in person. Historically, outside forces have made it a challenge for members of God’s Church to meet. Throughout past centuries, some met in homes, some hid in caves, and others were scattered and had to keep the Sabbath by themselves. During COVID lockdowns, brethren in many areas of the world had to meet online for a time, but that should never be the standard for most members.
Mr. Dexter Wakefield reminded us that, through it all, “Christ is in charge of the Work,” and that is made clear by the way He has blessed us. One of Mr. Richard Ames’ favorite scriptures is Ephesians 3:20, which certainly applies here: God is “able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us.”
God’s Festivals and Holy Days give us lessons from past events and look forward to the future. Consider—is that not also the record of the Bible in general? Genesis gives us ancient history, but also a glimpse into our time with its prophecies of Israel’s sons in the latter days. Much of what we know about the Millennium and Last Great Day is found in the writings of the prophets. We also learn from how the Israelites reacted to challenging times. May we look back and be wiser for what we have been through. And may we remember these poetic words from Mr. Mario Hernandez: “You sail with serenity when you walk with God and follow His lead.”