Misgivings of Systematic Theology

Something to Think About: Misgivings of Systematic Theology. Systematic theology is like GPS. If not fed with truthful information it will take us to a wrong destination. What example of a misconstructed systematic theology comes to your mind? 

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Mind the Prophets Lest You Be Deceived

Why are so many dismissing lying prophets as something Biblically acceptable? This is why I am trying to address the following questions in this short presentation:

Can a true prophet declare publicly under a divine inspiration a questionable prophecy or a false statement about the last days events, or political or private or doctrinal matters, or anything else, and then change his or her mind, either by later editing out the embarrassing parts, or simply by deleting altogether a prophecy that failed to materialize? Can plagiarism, confusing theological inconsistencies, far stretched claims, failed prophecies, or vague or contradicting statements be excused under the claims of divine inspiration? 

My apologies for a somewhat blurred picture. Try to focus on the message and let me know your thoughts about this matter. 

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The Unfortunate Spiritual Legacy

Waco 30 – Lessons from the Waco Tragedy, part 2

Author: Tihomir Kukolja

“In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son.” Hebrews 1:1.2. NIV “But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away.” 2. Corinthians 3:16. NIV

Read here part one, The Truth that will Blow Your Mind 

Rev. Ed Trevors, an Anglican priest from Canada, recently shared a sobering message: “A fake teacher is nothing without a congregation, without a group of people who want to hear their message. A fake teacher is nothing without the itching ears (reference to 2. Timothy 4:3). It’s not about sharing the truth anymore. It is about sharing what is soothing to those who are watching, to those who are listening, to those who are reading.” 1.  Who was the fertile audience with “itching ears” eager to embrace David Koresh and his message? 

David Thibodeau, one of the few survivors of the Waco inferno 30 years ago and the author of “Waco – A Survivor’s Story”, stated in his book that “apart from a few people, most of the Mount Carmelites had a Seventh-day Adventist background.” 2. More recently Dr. Stephen Currow, the Principal at Newbold College in England, seemed to agree: “There can be no denying that there are points of connection between Koresh’s Branch Davidians and the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Koresh himself had been a Seventh-day Adventist for a couple of years before joining the Branch Davidians.  The Branch Davidians trace their roots to the teachings of Victor Houteff, whose teachings were rejected by both his local Seventh-day Adventist church in Los Angeles (1930) and the corporate church (1934).” 3.

Was it a coincidence that all except one or two who died in the Waco fires on April 19, 1993 had very strong ties with the Seventh-day Adventist Church? How come the teachings of David Koresh attracted predominantly a certain brand of Adventists?

Advancing in the Light

There was much more to the conversion story of David Koresh’s followers than their fragile social and emotional makeup. Koresh and his key evangelist and manager Steve Schneider, who in the summer of 1988 converted a group of students from Newbold College in England – and through their influence recruited 30 other British Adventists – knew how to use a familiar, “prophetic” language and imagery, which they held in common with traditional Adventists? Albert A.C. White, a Newbold College Physics lecturer, wrote in his detailed report “From Seventh-day Adventism to David Koresh – The British Connection”: “Fanatical adherence to anything, even the Bible, is unhealthy. They (British followers of Koresh) were examples of Britons who were fanatical about the writings of Ellen G. White.” 4.

Most of Koresh’s new followers did not see their ideological transition as a radical change in their spiritual makeup. They thought that they were only advancing further, maturing spiritually, and upgrading their journey of faith. They believed that they were receiving “more light” and digging deeper into the already received “Present Truth.” Joining David Koresh, in their view, meant arriving at the final destination in their restless but honest search for the “Truth”.

This was certainly true about my friend and fellow student at Newbold College in 1988, Cliff Sellors (read part 1, The Truth that will Blow Your Mindwho would spend many hours each day reading the writings of Ellen G. White and listening to the recordings of her messages and assessing the inadequacies of his life in the light of her “inspired” statements. In his mind she was not “a lesser light that led to the greater light”, in the way Adventists like to neutralize her input into the formation of the Adventist belief system or deny that her statements are their final spiritual authority. For every practical purpose she was all the light that mattered. 

Once Cliff and other traditional Adventists, who were fanatical about their devotion to Ellen G. White, discovered David Koresh, they applied themselves to following him with the same kind of loyalty and devotion. And once they were in Koresh’s embrace, they believed he was the only true light that mattered. By identifying with Koresh’s teachings, they came to believe that they finally belonged to the truest “Remnant”. Ultimately “once a person thought Koresh was a prophet, he had them. Once a person thought he was God, there was no turning back”, wrote MarcBreault, once Koresh’s right-hand man who defected in 1989, in his book “Preacher of Death.” 5.

So, why were the traditional Ellen G. White-loving Adventists – including my friend Cliff Sellors and a few Newbold friends, and almost all of the 30 British followers who moved to Waco, Texas in the years before 1993 – willing to give their unconditional loyalty to a new prophet-messiah, the same kind of loyalty they had until recently given only to Ellen G. White?

When they heard familiar language, concepts, and imagery – which they loved very much and which, in their view, the mainstream Adventism had betrayed – their conversion was easy and quick. Although “the new light” brought into their lives plenty of misery and beliefs that were previously foreign and appalling to them, in their hearts they believed that they had finally become part of a superior movement that was restoring them back to their lost Adventist roots. 

Marc Breault described the reasoning behind his decision to join the Branch Davidians: “Well, the Seventh-day Adventist Church was founded by a prophet. Who says God can’t raise up another one!” 6. David Bunds, another former Branch Davidian who left the cult three years ahead of the deadly siege in April 1993, described recently in one of his YouTube releases, the link connecting the Branch Davidians and the Seventh-day Adventists: “We believed everything the Adventists believed, but we had additional doctrines (too). We felt superior.” 7.  Moreover, the overly committed and restless followers of Ellen G. White within the circles of the Adventist community, who were craving “more light” and “more truth”, shifted their allegiances because they believed that the absolute prophetic word of Ellen G. White was now upgraded and vindicated by the absolute prophetic word of a more radical prophet, David Koresh.

A Skeleton in the Closet

What was the skeleton in the closet shared by both groups, that made such a transition possible?

In the days when the Adventist movement was still in its infancy, it desperately sought to make sense out of the Great Disappointment. Thousands in the United States were expecting in vain for the Second Coming of Jesus to take place on October 22, 1844. A prophetic hand was needed to provide divine guidance out of the confusion and give the disappointed group a sense of new beginning, identity, and purpose. Ultimately, it was found in the dreams and visions of Ellen G. White, a young woman of Methodist pietistic upbringing, who would soon be recognized by the Adventists as their legitimate prophetic voice announced by the Book of Revelation as “the Spirit of Prophecy” (reference Revelation 19:10).

Although most of the early Adventists were either former Baptists or pietist Methodists, in order to maintain the credibility of the new movement, they had to shape their theology around a very flexible concept of revelation and inspiration, which by default had to provide a space for some new truths required to transform a defeat of the 1844 Great Disappointment into a new prophetically purposed beginning. This construct of Biblical interpretation had to be big enough to embrace the prophetic statements of Ellen G. White with which it would be hard to argue, such as “I was shown” or “the Lord told me”, or “thus saith the Lord”.

In 1882 Ellen G. White warned: “You are rebelling against God as certainly as were Korah, Dathan and Abiram. You know how stubborn they were in their own opinions. They decided that their judgment was better than that of Moses. I am presenting to you that which the Lord has presented to me.” 8. On another occasion she used the opening statement of the Letter to the Hebrews and applied it to herself: “In ancient times God spoke to men by the mouth of prophets and apostles. In these days He speaks to them by the Testimonies of His Spirit.” 9.  

Consequently, into existence came the teachings never heard before. The most notable one was “The Shut Door Doctrine.” It declared that only the Adventists who were expecting Jesus to return in 1844 were worthy of salvation. They believed that the door of mercy had been closed to everyone else, including the “backsliding” Adventists who were not willing to accept “the new truth”.  “The light behind them went out leaving their feet in perfect darkness… It was just as impossible for them to get on the path again and go to the City, as all the wicked world which God had rejected” – wrote Ellen G. White in the Word to the Little Flock in 1846. 10.

Then, thanks to the graphic dreams and visions of Ellen G. White that followed shortly thereafter, this doctrine evolved into the “Doctrine of Investigative Judgment”, more recently rebranded into “The Sanctuary Doctrine”. This doctrine continues to claim even today, but in an ever-softer way, that October 22, 1844 was indeed a Biblical date of distinctive importance, but misunderstood by the pre-Adventist movement of William Miller. The 24th statement of the current version of Adventist Fundamental Beliefs (Christ’s Ministry in the Heavenly Sanctuary) states: “In 1844, at the end of the prophetic period of 2300 days, He entered the second and last phase of His atoning ministry.” 11.

According to the gradually rebranded doctrine, instead of coming to the Earth on October 22, 1844 Jesus entered the Most Holy Place in Heaven to begin the investigative judgment of all “professed Christians” who have ever lived on this planet. However, the part that previously claimed “under the inspiration” that the door of grace gradually disappeared as if it had never existed.

At the same time many other concepts were developed in those early days of Adventist formation, before they became an organized denomination in 1864. Adventists came to believe that they were the only ones who mattered to God in his plan of salvation, and that all culminating events at the end of human history would revolve around them, because only Adventists who emerged victorious out of the Great Disappointment represented the true Remnant acceptable to Christ. 

They also believed that at the very end, just before Jesus Christ comes again, they would remain to be the only true believers, persecuted under the beastly “Sunday Law”. They believed that their distinctive doctrines were the mark of the true and remnant Church of God, and that the only trustworthy interpreter of the word of God was their prophet Ellen G. White. They also believed that they were “The Third Angel” of the book of Revelation (chapter 14), destined to give the final call to all true Christians in other denominations “to come out of the Babylon” (Revelation 18:4).  For many decades the Adventist Church acted as if it needed no one else but itself. If today many modern Adventists do not appear so rigid, this is only because the Church has over the years softened considerably its shield of exclusivity and self-righteousness.  

None of those peculiar beliefs would have ever survived if it were not for the solidifying visions of Ellen G. White, and the application of an elastic view of inspiration and revelation. Even today, many Adventist pastors never preach a sermon without stating multiple times “sister White said” this or that. Even today, in the eyes of traditional Adventists, any truth of the Bible is only as true and as clear as it is validated through the interpretations of her many Testimonies. Even today many Adventists reason: “If sister White said it, who am I to dispute it”. 

Here a Little and There a Little

The Branch Davidians – an Adventist breakout group dating back to the 1930s (The Shepherd’s Rod) – picked up on the kind of Adventism described above, which they believed to be a true, historic kind of Adventism. They too claimed Ellen G. White was their first prophet. Along with her they inherited the same flexible view of inspiration and revelation. The difference between the two was that the Davidians – and David Koresh especially – radicalized the entire Adventist spiritual inheritance beyond the wildest imagination of Adventist pioneers.

It is important to notice that both groups believed that God, despite the fact that they were living under the age of the New Covenant, continued to reveal himself and his plans progressively through the ministry of his modern-day prophets. According to the words of Ellen G. White, God continued to reveal his plans to his “Church” through the administration of her prophetic gift “here a little and there a little”, as the church was “ready” to receive. “I do not write one article in the paper, expressing merely my own ideas. They are what God has opened before me in vision – the precious rays of light shining from the throne” – wrote Ellen G. White. 12.

David Koresh radicalized the inherited concept of the progressive revelation of truth. David Thibodeau, one of the survivors of the Waco siege, wrote in his book: “We understood that David’s truth was progressive, always evolving, revealing more and more of itself.” 13. Branch Davidians gladly inherited and embraced the Adventist view of progressive revelation, and then made out of it their own, wild thing. 

When visiting the Mount Carmel Center in Waco today, on the walls of the church hall – built on the same ground where fire consumed almost an entire generation of Branch Davidians 30 years ago – one will find photographs, maps and descriptions depicting a dialectic progression of how, in their view, God was progressively leading “his Church” through many centuries, always revealing “more truth” and “more light”. The progressive prophetic line leads from the days of the apostles, across the Reformation and Martin Luther and John Wesley, until the days of the Baptist preacher William Miller and the Seventh-day Adventist Movement – when, according to the monument displayed at the entrance of the camp, the baton of truth was passed on to the Davidians and “the seven shepherds of the Advent Movement”, of which – according to the Davidians – the first one was Ellen G. White and the last one was David Koresh. 

Frontline on PBS shared online an interesting article written by playwright and former Adventist David Valdes Greenwood in 1993, under the title “Waco – The Fire Next Time”. He writes, “When Koresh looked at Adventism, he saw a church that did not adhere strictly enough to White’s teachings and, moreover, adhered too strictly to the dogma that she was the only prophet. Koresh co-opted White’s theory of “Present Truth”, which holds that not all of God’s truths were made clear in the Bible, so the revelation of additional meanings must be made manifest in a living prophet. Koresh saw himself and White as being on a continuum.” 14.

It needs to be said, however, that it was not the size of the shared platform of beliefs that attracted Koresh’s converts from within Adventist circles. The Seventh-day Adventist Church, like most other Christian churches, finds most of his teachings disgusting, pathological and blasphemous. Whatever one might think of the Adventist Church and some of its distinctive beliefs, theologically speaking the Church today is largely in tune with the mainstream Protestant theology. The perversions of Koresh’s prophetic interpretations, his messianic claims, his twisted teachings, and polygamist practices that included sexual relationships with underage girls, and his belief in the literal Armageddon in which he and his followers would fight a real physical war with real guns against the wicked earthly and spiritual powers – none of those had anything in common with the teachings of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. 

In fact, the militant apocalyptic teachings of Koresh, his obsession with guns and desperate desire to physically fight against the ungodly powers, and his own identification with the Old Testament figure of the liberating Persian king Cyrus, alias Koresh, resonate today much closer with the conspiratorial and militant beliefs and teachings of various hybrid evangelical, dispensationalist, dominionist, Christian supremacist and so called NAR – New Apostolic Reformation teachers, apostles and prophets whose influence has skyrocketed during the years of the presidency of the former US president Donald Trump. It ought not to be surprising then that the current Branch Pastor Charles Pace, who is currently serving as The Branch – The Lord Our Righteousness Church leader, was thrilled when he saw that Donald Trump was bringing his first presidential campaign to Waco right at the time of the Waco Siege 30th anniversary. Apparently, he called Donald Trump “the anointed of God”, and “the battering ram that God is using to bring down the Deep State of Babylon.” 15.

On the other hand, The Seventh-day Adventist Church of today would undersign without any difficulty all the creeds of the historical Christian faith. When compared with the Branch Davidian Seventh-day Adventists, still a cult numbering only a handful, the Seventh-day Adventist Church is a well-organized worldwide denomination of 25 million members worldwide. 16.

Not a Coincidence

However, it must be noted, it was not a coincidence that most of Koresh’s followers, however few in numbers, were of Seventh-day Adventist background. The late Roy Branson, a former editor of Spectrum, reflected in his May 1993 editorial: “We began to learn more about the people who died at Ranch Apocalypse: sisters in their 20s from an Adventist family in California; a former student at Andrews University; young adults from Australia; several former ministerial students from Newbold College and their lifelong Adventist relatives. These were not third-generation children of the Shepherd’s Rods (Branch Davidians). We didn’t start the fire, but the tinder was ours.” 17.

The tinder was Adventist not only in that at least 90 percent of the deceased victims of the Waco tragedy came directly from Seventh-day Adventist churches, but that much of the Branch Davidian spiritual software was made of the metastasized mutations of traditional Adventist material. The early eschatological and theological wonderings of the Adventist pioneers, as they were seeking to format their new identity and purpose out of a disappointing non-arrival of Jesus Christ on October 22, 1844, introduced a culture of modern-day American prophets as the most authoritative voice in Biblical interpretations, and developed very flexible and uniquely progressive concepts of revelation. Soon some new beliefs and concepts, official and not-so-official, were born about the spiritual superiority of the “exclusive truths” given to Adventists, and their central place in the final days of the world’s history. 

In short, the early Adventists, by the dictate of their survival, created a special brand of eschatology that affected their understanding of Christology, ecclesiology, and missiology. Thanks to their elitist and self-centered approach to Christian faith, for many years many other Christians could not make up their minds what to make of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. 

Today, and especially in the days of a prolonged Covid-19 Pandemic, the Seventh-day Adventist Church faces a serious crisis of identity, still balancing its walk along the lines of cognitive dissonance, trying to rebrand itself as an historic Christian denomination rooted in the Reformation. At the same time it is trying to pursue an impossible task of trying not to offend its conservative and traditional constituency that fights with all its might to conform the church to what it believes to be the only true Adventism – the one of its confusing infancy years.

A challenge remains worthy of our pondering: as long as a church denomination or movement is not firmly rooted in the truth that God has spoken conclusively, with finality and without strings attached through His Son Jesus Christ, once and for all, but instead intently seeks to deliver “new truths” and “new light”, or seeks new demonstrations of truth guided by some tense and subjective experiences, it will eventually witness someone opening a Pandora’s box of the most extreme Biblical interpretations and beliefs, and its followers will become an easy target for any deception and delusion under the hijacked but powerful claim: “Thus saith the Lord!”


David Koresh and his Branch Davidian predecessors harvested the Adventist view of elastic or progressive revelation. Initially, to the Adventists this kind of view of revelation provided a very much needed opportunity for theological maneuvering to blend together the historical Christian doctrines with their new doctrines designed to justify the initial disappointment with the non-appearance of Jesus in the clouds of Heaven on October 22, 1844. 

David Koresh applied and radicalized the shared theological fallacy about the supposed continuation of the progressive character of God’s revelation and inspiration, and gradually created a theological monster. His followers never stopped seeing themselves anything else but Adventists of a superior status. In the mind of Koresh and the minds of his followers they were sent to be the reformers of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, with a mission to bring it back to its original roots and mission. In the eyes of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, Branch Davidians and their messiah Koresh were an embarrassing nuisance who had nothing in common with the official worldwide Adventist Church. 

While the Seventh-day Adventist Church cannot be blamed for the tragic outcome of the Waco siege in 1993 just because David Koresh applied a shared progressive concept of revelation, the tragic outcome of the Branch Davidian’s drama thirty years ago ought to serve as a wakeup call that even the most innocent artificially created theological constructs may be lethal in the hands of charismatic, narcissistic, seductive and manipulating lunatics weaponized by false prophetic or messianic claims. 

Watch the part one here – The Truth that Will Blow Your Mind


1.      https://youtu.be/GeEZRLnK7nE, Rev. Ed Trevors, Jordan and Trump and Itchy Ears, April 12, 2023.

Spectrum Magazine.https://spectrummagazine.org/article/2018/01/31/we-didnt-start-fire-tinder-was-ours

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The Truth that will Blow Your Mind

“If anyone tells you, ‘There he is, out in the desert,’ do not go out; or ‘Here he is, in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it.” Matthew 24:25. NIV

Lessons from the Waco Tragedy, Part 1


At the time of the 51-day long siege the Branch Davidian compound, otherwise known as Mount Carmel in Waco Texas – orchestrated by the ATF law enforcement Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and the American Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) – was home to around 120 followers of the self-declared prophet and messiah David Koresh, whose real name was Vernon Howell.

According to various sources at the violent end on April 19, 1993, of the longest siege of the kind on the US soil on April 19, 1993, more than 80 people, including four federal agents and at least 20 children,died as a result of two violent encounters involving federal law enforcement and the Branch Davidian Christian sect near Waco, Texas.” 1. Debate still goes on if the deadly fire was caused by the Branch Davidians or the FBI’s action. Was it a tragic accident or deliberately planted?

Most of the living survivors continue to remain loyal followers of David Koresh. They believe that one day they will see David Koresh return victoriously in the clouds of Heaven to defeat the enemies of God and to reign in Jerusalem over the entire world as the new King David. For example, Graeme Craddock, an Australian and the longest prison serving survivor of the 1993 Waco siege, continues to believe that “David Koresh will one day return to Earth as the son of God.” 2. So does Livingstone Fagan, a British survivor, who seem to be continuing to promote the teachings of Koresh through his limited social media activities. 3

The more I read about Vernon Howell, who assumed his “prophetic” name David Koresh in 1989, believed by his followers to be a prophet and the Son of God, the more I am disgusted by his controlling, deceiving, sociopathic and toxic personality. One wonders how he was capable of building a following of fanatically loyal people, willing to go as far as to surrender their own wives and daughters to him – eventually their lives too. Considering the perverse character of his teachings and lifestyle, one wonders indeed how was he able to deceive people with sophisticated levels of education? Some of them were teachers, nurses, business-people, retired military men. Others were theology students, professors, musicians, and artists.

On the other hand, I find almost equally unacceptable the methods the US government used against David Koresh and his followers during the days of the long siege, and especially on the final hellish day of the siege. Their use of psychological warfare and excessive deadly force against a community of people looked more like an out-of-control war scene in a far-removed war-torn country than a police action on American soil. Even now, 30 years later, I am remaining unconvinced that it was necessary for the ATF to attack the compound, and for the FBI to use brutal militarized force which ultimately led to the death of more than 80 people, many of whom were children. In the most recent Netflex documentary Waco – American Apocalypse, Blenda Ganem, mother of a survivor Dave Thibodeau made a statement with which I tend to agree (from memory): “David Koresh had a power, and he knew how to abuse it. FBI had a power, and it knew how to abuse it.” 

My focus will be on people caught up in the cultish environment that led them across the line of no return. Some of the people who died a horrific death at the end of the Waco siege were people I knew. They were my college friends who had five years earlier embraced David Koresh as their prophet and messiah. I remember them as good and devout people, in many ways not unlike many of us. Most certainly they did not have criminal intentions. None of them joined the Branch Davidian’s cult because they were desperately seeking to kill and die in the pursuit of some violent apocalyptic adventure. Nevertheless, they all paid a heavy price for their gullibility and falling for a deadly deception. Five years earlier we studied together at Newbold College, England, at the time a leading and sophisticated Seventh-day Adventist educational institution in Europe.

Ever since I’ve been asking a question: What makes a good and devout person embrace a dangerous religious or political ideology? This will be a guiding question today. In the follow up episode we will talk about the spiritual roots and makeup of the Branch Davidian’s theology. Finally, we need to talk about the political and cultural legacy and implications of the Waco tragedy. I agree with the statement introducing the latest Netflix documentary on the Waco tragedy (Waco: American Apocalypse) which suggests that “the seeds of political polarization that roil our culture today were planted at Waco”.

An Ominous Visitor

I first heard about David Koresh in the summer of 1988. At the time, he was still known by his real name, Vernon Howell. Steve Schneider, Koresh’s right-hand man and his liaison officer, visited Binfield, a tranquil English village close to the town of Bracknell.  He was on a recruitment mission to England, and his plan for the summer was to bring the “new truth” about “the prophetic and messianic call” of Vernon Howell (David Koresh) to the students at Newbold College. Since those were the summer months, free from any academic activities, only a small group of unsuspecting students, professors and staff members remained on the college grounds. I was there too, working several summer jobs in anticipation of securing some income that would help me move on with my education.

Steve Schneider used to study at Newbold College too, fifteen years earlier, but was expelled due to some behavioral issues. When the college administration realized that Steve did not come back to Newbold for a brief nostalgic visit – a common practice among many former students – but that he was on a recruitment mission, they denied him the privilege of staying and “evangelizing” within the college boundaries. Steve was then welcome into the home of a sympathizing staff member. The home of an assistant college cook became his teaching sanctuary and the base for all his outreach activities on behalf of David Koresh.

For several weeks a group of curious students, some staff members and a few locals gathered every day, in the late evening hours after they had finished work for the day, to listen to Steve Schneider. His teaching sessions went on for many hours, reaching into the early morning of the following day. While initially most attended the meetings out of sheer curiosity, some were undergoing a steady and visible process of conversion.

Roger Flalokken, a Newbold theology student from Norway was invited to attend Steve’s Bible study meetings too. He described his memories of the meetings he had attended: “I was invited to listen to Steve Schneider. It happened in the late evening, going on for hours. Schneider said he had new light on important biblical truths. He introduced himself as a messenger, a prophetic voice, preparing a group to meet the leader of the movement at a later stage. It was impressive to hear how he knew so many Bible verses by heart. He would talk and talk, intensely, painting his picture of this important new light, always quoting the Scripture to validate his claims. Questions from the listeners were not answered, but he said he would come back to them. For me it was frustrating that questions were not answered. It must have been after two or three gatherings I stopped attending. I also questioned the fact that we had to meet so late at night, going on till well after midnight.” 5

The rumor about the unusual visitor from Waco spread quickly within the Newbold community. The fact that the overnight meetings lasted for many long hours every night, and that almost all attending went without adequate sleep, although each one of them had to work early the following morning, was a good enough warning for me that a cultic-style brainwashing was in progress in our neighborhood. One day we heard that “the prophet” Vernon himself had arrived with his guitar to harvest the fruit of Steve’s labor.

The Lesser Light 

Although I did not have any desire to join the group, I remember having several conversations with a few who could not hide that the conversion of their hearts and minds was very much in progress. I was the most directly aware of a serious shift in belief in the life of a college friend, Cliff Sellors, a recent convert to Adventism. A video production project that we shared as a communication class requirement brought us closer a few months earlier.

Even before Cliff met Steve Schneider and David Koresh, I knew that he had the exaggerated passion for the writings of the Adventist prophetess Ellen G. White. In the formative years of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, in the mid 19th century in America, her dreams and visions had a crucial role in shaping the identity of the emerging church. Since then, in traditional Adventist circles, she has been called “the Inspired Pen”, “the Lord’s Messenger”, “the lesser light leading to the greater light”, and the most often “The Spirit of Prophecy”.

On several occasions Cliff and I discussed various topics related to the inspiration of the message and writings of Ellen G. White. We were good friends who did not share the same conviction about the importance of the Adventist prophetess. Cliff was a very good, modest and humble young man, who in the writings of Ellen G. White constantly sought to find “more truth” and “new light”. I believe he read her writings more than he read the Bible.

Cliff was a genuinely gifted artist. In those days he was painting a beautiful mural named “Genesis”, depicting the seven days of creation on the front wall of the college Science Room. Whenever he worked on the painting, he would listen to audio recordings of her prophetic messages. He was deeply dissatisfied with his spiritual condition and imperfections, as well as with the “backsliding” of his church. In the writings of Ellen G. White, he sought the truths that would elevate his obedience to the Law of God, ever closer to the perfection that had been eluding him all the time. In his eyes the truth of God was progressive, and there was always room for “the new light”, granted only to God’s “faithful Remnant” – those who “keep God’s commandments, and hold to the testimony of Jesus,” and believe in “the Spirit of Prophecy”, the pictures presented in the Book of Revelation for which traditional Adventists still believe to apply to Ellen G. White. 

A former Newbold student pastor David Neal, currently serving as a denominational Communication and Media Director at the Trans-European division remembers Cliff’s spiritual restlessness very well from his own personal encounters. “In the few conversations I had with him in the college cafeteria, it wasn’t long before he would express disappointment about the college environment. He wondered why we played five-a-side football in the college gym when Ellen White,  in his opinion, condemned competitive sports. He suggested that some of the teachers were not as fervent as he was about proclaiming the Adventist message, the perilous condition of the world, end-time events, and the very soon return of Christ. He was questioning why some of the theology staff seemed to be teaching a ‘new theology’ of salvation, one that emphasized the love, grace, and mercy of God. In his opinion, it was judgment time, a time when our actions, both personal and corporate, would demonstrate whether or not we were ready for Christ’s soon return” – wrote David Neal for the UK Adventist News recently. 6

In contrast to Cliff, I was satisfied that all truth and light that mattered for my salvation was contained to the fullest in the person of Jesus, and that no relevant truth existed outside Him. I wanted Cliff to see too that the beauty and simplicity of the Gospel of Christ did not require the pursuit of any kind of complicated doctrinal or prophetic gymnastics. I did not believe that the role of the post-canonical New Testament prophets was to be the revealers or upgraders of any God given truth, let alone the saving truth since all of it had already been revealed once and for all, and to the fullest, in the person of Jesus Christ. I shared with Cliff that I believed that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus gave complete meaning to the whole prophetic ministry of the Old Testament, and there existed no other truth that would ever reach beyond or outside Jesus.

When in the summer of 1988 Steve Schneider begun his mission of indoctrination in the UK, Cliff became hooked by his message almost instantly. He would share with me the fragments of what was happening at the meetings. I thought for a moment that his commitment to Ellen G. White would keep him away from the prophetic claims of anyone else. But this was not to be. He, and a few other Newbold students, were impressed with the apparent ease by which Steve was “interpreting” the Old and New Testament Bible prophecies and blending them with the writings of Ellen G. White. For Steve’s Newbold audience, mostly made of traditional Adventists who revered their prophetess, Steve prepared a familiar, irresistible platform. He quoted Amos 3:7. – “The Sovereign Lord does nothing without revealing his plan to his servants the prophets.” Steve knew that his audience would be willing to receive a “new light” only if it appears to be Ellen G. White friendly. 

“They believe in Ellen G. White!” These were some of the very first remarks Cliff shared with me after one of the first of Steve’s classes that he attended. To Cliff it mattered that this “new truth” he was hearing from Steve affirmed the prophetic authority of Ellen G. White. And Steve worked hard to impress the emerging disciples that Ellen G. White was very much revered by both, Vernon Howell (David Koresh) and himself.

For Steve however, setting a common ground was only a means of moving forward from a familiar ground into a new uncharted territory. He argued that if “God hand-picked” Ellen G. White to fulfill a special prophetic mission in the 19thcentury, he certainly did not stop there. Steve reasoned that just as much as God appointed Ellen G. White as his “special messenger”, God had now chosen another inspired vehicle to upgrade his “last message”. And, sure enough, the name of the prophet was Vernon Howell, soon to be revered by his followers as David Koresh. It did not take too long for Cliff and a group of other converts to feel reassured that believing in the prophetic mission of a new prophet would not contradict their faith in the prophetic gift of Ellen G. White. In fact, they were led to believe in the complementarity of both, Ellen G. White and Vernon Howell.

The Mind-Blowing New Truth

But their arrival at this “new light” only meant the beginning of a journey that would thereafter become filled with one surprise after another.

Steve then proceeded to teach that David Koresh was more than a prophet. He was soon to be received by the new converts, one step at the time, as the “antitypical David”, “the antitypical Cyrus”, “the Lamb of God”, and “the Son of God” – the only one to whom it was given to open the mysteries of “the seven seals” of the Book of Revelation. Moreover, he was to be received as “the new Messiah of the House of David”, “God’s anointed”, “God in sinful human flesh” sent into the world to complete the saving work of Jesus by becoming the “Sinful Messiah”. Since the first Jesus was the spotless and sinless Lamb of God – the reasoning followed – Jesus could not have completely identified with the human race. To complete his saving work, God had to send another Messiah – the second Jesus – namely David Koresh to complete the work of redemption by radically indulging in the sins of the world. Salvation now required that one believed not only in Jesus Christ, but even more in David Koresh.

Each time Steve was stepping onto a new, more preposterous ground, he would enthusiastically declare: “This truth will blow your mind!” Whenever anyone in the attending group would dare ask a critical or disagreeing question, Steve would respond: “You are not ready to receive this new light yet!”

Consequently, one of the “mind blowing truths” Steve delivered to the new converts was that David Koresh would have to marry many virgins to bring into the world a new race of God’s perfect children, who will together with him reign in Jerusalem over the new world. Apparently, he would need to marry many virgins, the number that went beyond any reasonable expectancy even in the circles of the most unrestrained polygamists. Another “mind blowing truth” I remember Cliff sharing with me was that David Koresh, as the new messiah, was going to be killed in 1993 by the wicked people, and like the first Jesus 2000 years earlier he would be raised from the dead three days later. 7

As the summer weeks of 1988 were advancing, I remember that several of us, who were concerned for the wellbeing of our friends caught up with David Koresh, were warning them that their newly discovered prophet and messiah was a charlatan, and one of those false Christs whom the real Christ warned us against when He said: “Watch out that no one deceives you. Many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am the Christ, and will deceive many’” (Matthew 24:4 NIV).Although all of us knew next to nothing about Branch Davidians at the time, what we heard about the character of Steve’s “Bible studies” was enough to make us see the gravity of deception that was claiming the hearts and minds of our friends.

We wanted to help them see that this “new truth” was so preposterous by challenging them with questions like: “What if David Koresh, unable to find for himself so many virgins, decides ‘under a divine command’ to make advances on your own wives?” (We did not know David Koresh apparently already had several unofficial wives by that time. Apparently, the “revelation” by which God officially “authorized” him to claim the wives and daughters of his followers came one year later, in 1989.) 

We also asked: “What if on the day the wicked people decide to take David’s life, your ‘messiah’ decides that all of you, his followers, would have to share in his sacrifice, by giving up your lives too?” We were oblivious at the time that our cynical questions, designed to shake the new converts out of their intoxicating dreams, were unintentional prophetic statements.

But no question, or criticism or joke could make sense to our friends anymore, who were sinking ever deeper in justifying the new teachings they were receiving from Steve Schneider, the ambassador of David Koresh. Their responses were: “Whoever said that we’ve received all the light? More is coming. We need to be open to receiving new truths! Why should we believe that Ellen G. White was the only one entrusted with ‘the Present Truth’”? Such was a comment made by John McBean, another Newbold theology student, in response to a discussion shared between the critics and the emerging group of followers of “the new light” about David Koresh one afternoon at Newbold College in the summer of 1988. 


So, by the end of the summer 1988 my friend Cliff Sellors, and another two students, John McBean and Livingstone Fagan, all of them advanced theology students, passionately embraced “the new light”. All three were British students who in the months following the visitation of Steve Schneider and David Koresh decided they would evangelize their families, friends and local church communities. 8

Some who attended the summer 1988 midnight meetings listened to the advice of friends, or on their own they decided to break their connections with the new charismatic prophet and his teachings. One of the former students who used to attend the group wrote soon after the release of my earlier article on the Waco deception: “I attended the ‘Bible study group’ that Steve Schneider let at the assistant cook’s home that summer of 1988. I even met Vernon Howell in person. I’m so thankful I was impressed to leave the group study after an experience I had one night after a study, and also after Vernon (Koresh) showed up. Long story, but it wasn’t without much fervent prayer.” 9 But for my friends who embraced “the new light” and moved to Wacothis “new light” would turn into hellish darkness five years later.

On April 19, 1993 Cliff Sellors was consumed by the fiery inferno that completely destroyed the Branch Davidian compound in Waco.  John McBean died too. Livingstone Fagan survived the siege. His wife and mother did not. 10 The casualty toll directly linked to their conversion multiplied several times over since all of them actively recruited others, their family members, cousins, friends. In total 24 Britons died in the Waco fire as the result of their recruitment activities. 11 All of them were good and devout people, in many ways not unlike many of us. Most certainly they did not have criminal intentions. None of them joined the Branch Davidians because they were desperately seeking to kill and die in the pursuit of some violent apocalyptic adventure. Yet they all paid a heavy price for their gullibility and falling for a deadly deception.

But more than for anyone else who died in Waco 30 years ago I mourn my friend Cliff Sellors. I believe he was sincerely thirsty for “more truth” and “more light”, which tragically he decided to quench from a poisoned and broken cistern. From the day he left Newbold College and the time he joined Koresh’s cult in Waco, until the fatal Monday on April 19, 1993 I did not hear anything about my friend. It was only several years later that I started picking up scarce bits of information here and there.

Apparently, with the same passion he used to paint the big Genesis mural in the Science Lab of Newbold College, in the years that followed he used his talent in service to his new-found messiah Koresh. According to the David Thibodeau’s book “Waco – A Survivor’s Story” Cliff was the official artist at the Branch Davidian’s compound. He artistically customized Koresh’s guitars with his explicit apocalyptic themes. Cliff also painted murals, posters and other illustrations depicting Koresh’s vision of the Apocalypse.12

According to the book “Preacher of Death,” co-authored by Marc Brault, who in the initial years of Koresh’s prophetic advancements served as his right-hand man (Marc left Branch Davidians in 1989), that Robyn Bunds, one of Koresh’s many wives married Cliff Sellors in a phony marriage, arranged by David Koresh. Apparently,this became a common practice within the Branch Davidian cult, intended to create a cover-up for Koresh’s polygamist practices, and for the children born out of the Koresh’s polygamist unions. Robin Bunds abandoned the cult in 1990. 13, 14

I remember reading that Cliff too either left the cult for a period or intended to leave because the Koresh’s promiscuity bothered him. While he studied at Newbold College several years earlier, Cliff was known as a person of “high personal morals”. Albert A.C. Waite, a professor in Physics and Sciences, who was also a good friend of Cliff’s – and who tried hard to discourage him from joining Davidians – wrote about Cliff: “He was more interested in showing a young lady the beauty of nature than in holding her hand”. 15

I wish I was more diligent in trying to persuade Cliff not to join the cult. But at that time, five years before the tragic end of the Waco siege, we (his friends) were all oblivious about the true lethality of the Koresh’s “messianic” cult. To us who watched from a distance the whole summer conversion episode of 1988 looked ridiculous and insane. We saw our friends turning into some weird, but harmless fanatics. We hoped they would grow out of it eventually. Until, five years later, when we all watched the CNN’s live reporting on the blazing Waco fire on April 19, 1993.

How I wish Cliff Sellors was strong enough to break away from David Koresh completely. Unfortunately, a small plaque that bears his name, next to the plaques of other victims of the inferno that form a modest monument at the Mount Carmel property near Waco, reminds me today that this amazingly gifted artist died too soon in the fires of Waco “with his music still in him” (Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr).

Lessons to Learn

It is all right to be spiritually hungry and thirsty, but it matters how you go about satisfying your spiritual hunger. Jesus said to the woman at the well: “Whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” John 4:14. NIV Jesus said also: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry.” John 6:35. NIV What Jesus meant was that He alone, and nothing or no one else, can satisfy our spiritual hunger and thrust. We need to separate our legitimate spiritual hunger after Jesus from the urge to hunt for some new truth or new light, or new revelation, or a new prophet.

The message of the Bible is clear that there exists no truth beyond and outside the revelation of Jesus Christ. The opening statement of the Letter to the Hebrews states that “in these last day God has fully spoken to us by His Son.” Hebrews 1:2 What does this statement mean? It means that after and beyond Jesus God does not have any new truth of relevance to be delivered to us. This also means that whoever would come after the redemptive work of Jesus was completed in his life, death and resurrection, claiming to be a bearer of the new light or to be a prophet or messiah – that such a person is either an insane person, or a con artist, a deceiver, or a false prophet or a false messiah, definitely a liar. 

And about these kind of prophets and messiahs Jesus warned sternly: “If anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Messiah!’ or, ‘There he is!’ do not believe it. For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect. See, I have told you ahead of time. So if anyone tells you, ‘There he is, out in the wilderness,’ do not go out; or, ‘Here he is, in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it. For as lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.” Matthew 24:23-25. NIV

The New Testament writers also warned that in the final days of human history prior to Jesus’ Second Coming a mastermind deceiver, a false Christ known also as the Antichrist will emerge and will try to falsify everything the true Christ represents. He will deceive many people, including many who profess that they are the followers of Jesus. Most likely this will be the last Satan’s attempt to deceive, perfected throughout many centuries through many trials and errors. David Koresh was yet another one of Satan’s experimental testing exercises. Apparently, there are at this time at least seven self-declared messiahs with some following who too are claiming that they are Jesus Christ. 16

I share no sympathy for the late Branch Davidian’s deceiver David Koresh. But my heart goes to the deceived, men, women and especially children who paid the ultimate price for following Koresh’s deception to their deaths. And I empathize the most with the friends I knew personally whose lives ended in the fiery furnace on the Mount Carmel in Waco Texas on Monday, April 19, 1993. 

And as I continue to wonder how come they were so gullible, and how come they were not able to see though the deception once they had encountered it, I am being reminded of the millions of Christians today, who are professing to be born again, and who are falling for all kinds of deceptions not unlike the one embodied in the teachings of David Koresh thirty years ago. Too many Christians today enthusiastically follow militant forms of Christian nationalism, dominionism, supremacism, hysterical proclamations of the multitudes of self-proclaimed prophets, apostles, and deliverance charlatans. Too many have blended their Christian faith with the New Age teachings and all kinds of preposterous conspiracy narratives. We have to ask: are they not falling for the same kind of deception but on a much larger scale, and potentially more lethal. This is a theme which I am planning to address towards the end of this series of presentations.

Meanwhile, let’s be shielded from any kind of deception and from any self-appointed messiah by adhering to the warning of Jesus: “If anyone tells you, ‘There he is, out in the desert,’ do not go out; or ‘Here he is, in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it.” Matthew 24:25. NIV

Go to part two: The Unfortunate Spiritual Legacy


1 Dave Davies, NPR, Jan 25, 2023: 30 years after the siege, ‘Waco’ examines what led to the catastrophe. https://www.npr.org/2023/01/25/1151283229/waco-branch-davidian-david-koresh-jeff-guinn

 2. 60 Minutes Australia, February 28, 2019, Sole Australian survivor of Waco siege breaks silence,https://youtu.be/VfQjNzJzlZo

3. Livingstone Fagan’s Facebook activities. https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100009550941051 

4. Reason TV, March 21, 2023, What really happened at Waco, https://youtu.be/XTx8E9kLDYQ

5. The Truth That Will Blow Your Mind, Tihomir Kukolja, August 2018, https://kukolja.wordpress.com/2018/04/16/the-truth-that-will-blow-your-mind/

 6. WACO 30th Anniversary: Cliff – A Personal Reflection, David Neal, 


 7. Independent, Cal McCrystal, The “Lamb of God” predicted he would die in 1993, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/waco-seventhday-adventists-used-spies-in-the-battle-to-halt-koresh-s-crusade-evidence-gathered-three-years-ago-by-a-church-in-britain-shows-that-the-lamb-of-god-predicted-he-would-die-in-1993-cal-mccrystal-reports-1457215.html

8. WACO 30th Anniversary: Continuities and Discontinuities, Dr. Steve Currow


 9. The Truth That Will Blow Your Mind, Tihomir Kukolja, August 2018, https://kukolja.wordpress.com/2018/04/16/the-truth-that-will-blow-your-mind/

 10. The Sun, Feb 28, 2018, 25 YEARS ON Brit survivor of tragic Waco cult reveals he STILL believes in coming apocalypse and recalls harrowing 1993 siege that left 86 dead, https://www.thesun.co.uk/news/5672656/british-survivor-waco-cult-david-koresh-still-believes-apocalypse-coming/

 11. The Washington Post, April 21, 1993, Death of 24 Britons Stuns UK, https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/1993/04/21/deaths-of-24-britons-stuns-uk/34a991b5-95a8-4afd-9a46-bc5b49734444/

12. David Thibodeau, Waco A Survivor’s Story: Hachette Books, Hachette Book Group, New York, US, Revised edition 2018.

13. Martin King and Marc Breault, Preached of Death, Pinguin Books Ltd, London, England, 1993.

14. https://wacotrib.com/news/branch_davidians/cult-planned-sham-marriages-for-members-former-wife-says-howell/article_de76356c-92fa-5ee3-bd9b-aab1728270e7.html

15. Spectrum, Albert A.C. Waite, The British Connection – Remembering Waco, March 14, 2018, spectrummagazine.org/article/2018/03/14/british-connection

 16. Seven men around the world who each claim to be Jesus Christ, news.com.au, Dec. 25, 2017, https://www.news.com.au/lifestyle/real-life/seven-men-around-the-world-who-each-claim-to-be-jesus-christ/news-story/563e56671b7c9931b6606619df6be4c8

Read also in Spectrum Magazine.

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Jesus Is the End of Every Religion

The Book of Hebrews, one of the most ignored and seldom studied New Testament books, powerfully argues that Jesus is the final destination and the retirement place for every religion, including yours and mine.

The book progressively argues that the entire Old Testament’s religious spectrum, with its beliefs, practices and institutions served only one purpose – to direct human history, its communities, and people to Jesus Christ. Known also as the Old Covenant, with its religion and prophetic mission, laws, tabernacle, priestly duties, sacrifices and festivals, observances, liturgy and rituals – all of those were only a shadow of Jesus destined to vanish once Jesus was revealed. 

The author of the Book of Hebrews illustrates the supremacy of Jesus over religion with precision. In it Jesus stands for – a better Moses (3:2), a better Sabbath (4:9), a better priesthood (7:12.24), a better law (7:12), a better high priest (7:, a better sacrifice (7:27, 9:26, 10:12), a better ministry (8:6), a better hope (7:18), a better promise (8:6.7), a better covenant (7:22, 8:13, 9:13), a better order (9:10.11), a better tabernacle (chapter 9), a better access to the Father (6:19, 10:19-22), a better mediator (9:18). No element of the Old Covenant religion is left untouched. Finally only Jesus remains, seated at the right hand of the Father, as the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords, and the only and ultimate authority, object and focus of our adoration.

The New Testament supports the picture of a limited and temporary use of religion. It speaks of the Old Covenant as something that is fading away, disappearing and becoming obsolete in Jesus. Religion is “a veil taken away whenever anyone turns to the Lord”, and a “guardian put in charge to lead us to Christ” (2. Corinthians 3:7-18, Hebrews 8:13, Galatians 3:24). Jesus himself is everything and much more than what any religion can offer. Therefore, Jesus is the end of religion, any religion, yours and mine too.

This was powerfully illustrated by the transfiguration account recorded by Luke (Luke 9:28-36). In the presence of Peter, James and John for a moment Jesus transformed into his glorious nature and met with Moses and Elijah. Shaken, Peter offered to build a shrine in honor to Jesus, Moses and Elijah. “Let us put up three shelters – one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah” (Luke 9:33). At that time Peter and his disciples did not understand the supremacy of Jesus over whatever was considered religiously important up to that point. “He did not know what he was saying”, wrote Luke, so they needed to be corrected. “A voice came from the cloud, saying, ‘This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to Him” (Luke 9:35). As if the voice from Heaven was saying: “From now on listen to Him, and to Him alone, because no one else matters any more, not even Moses or Elijah.” Matthew, who later also recorded the event stated at the end of the account: “When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus” (Matthew 17:8).

Following His life, death and resurrection Jesus Christ did not upgrade the old Jewish religion to a new level. He was not a “new patch placed on the old garment”, or “a new wine poured into old wineskins” (Mark 2:21.22).Nowhere does He suggest that He was a founder of a new religion either. The Four Gospels and the rest of the New Testament are uncomfortably quiet about Jesus leaving behind any instruction about how to turn his legacy into a religious system. Instead, He called people to follow and trust Him, suggesting that if we do a new worshiping, caring and serving community will emerge. It is made of people who, having been embraced in Jesus, are embracing each other in love. And thus, this new Kingdom community of his followers will be the light and the salt to the world (Matthew 5:13-16). The New Testament calls this community His church or His body and defines it relationally rather than institutionally. 

I suspect that not much of what many of us today identify as Christian religion was ever intended by Jesus or his immediate followers. I fear that much of our colorful religious heritage, spiritual folklore, including many cherished teachings and beliefs, are nothing more than ancient or more recent accumulation of superstition that is continuously drugging us back into the shadowland of religion outgrown in Jesus. 

The Old Testament religion, or the Old Covenant, with all its religious décor, had only one legitimate purpose: to surrender people, communities, and history to Jesus Christ. This is no less true of any other religion. They are only as useful as they eventually capitulate to the One who transcends them all. And Jesus’ intention was never to return his followers back to religion, but to keep them in His embrace. 

In their book Re-Jesus Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch described the supremacy of Christ, not only in all matters of the Old Testament religion but regarding any religion in the following way: “We cannot deduce anything about Jesus from what we think we know about God; we must deduce everything about God from what we do know about Jesus. We must reinterpret the Old Testament from Jesus’ point of view and try to understand the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the way in which Jesus did. Martin Luther insisted that if we want to truly see God, we need only to look at Jesus, for in Jesus we have received the fullness of God, and we need look no further. It is Jesus who sets Christianity apart from the other two monotheistic faiths, Judaism and Islam. Our understanding of God is now always filtered through the prism of Jesus Christ. We cannot understand God if we don’t engage him through Jesus. He is the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:4).” Re-Jesus, Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch, published by Hendrickson Publishers Inc., Massachusetts, 2009.

Previous editions: 2/11/2009, May 22, 2014.

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God Has Not Forgotten Sarajevo

Exactly 30 years ago, in February and March 1993, Tihomir Kukolja paid a month long visit to the besieged city of Sarajevo in a war-torn Bosnia-Herzegovina. Spending the unintended four weeks in a city subjected to a continuing shelling and sniper fire from the surrounding hills had a transformative impact on him. The original version of this article was released first in April 1993.

A sudden burst of sunshine heralds the arrival of a new day. “Who would say this is war?!” says Detlef Riemarzik, a photojournalist from Germany. The two of us are sharing a room in the home of Radomir and Mira Nikolic. Radomir is the director of ADRA (Adventist Development and Relief Agency) in Sarajevo. 

Through the window of our room our eyes scan over the authentic mixture of European and Ottoman buildings, and roofs around us. The last patches of snow are melting, revealing the ugly nakedness of the wounded city. The surrounding hills that hold Sarajevo in a deadly embrace appear cunningly still. It is 8 o’clock in the morning, March 1993 — only a few days before Easter. The rooms and corridors of ADRA’s offices in Sarajevo resemble a beehive. The chief coordinating team is meeting to discuss the priorities of the day. Today 120 volunteers will be busy distributing humanitarian aid, preparing an additional warehouse for the arrival of 30,000 food packages from several European countries. They will also distribute hundreds of letters that have arrived in the city with the latest ADRA convoy. In the first year of the Sarajevo siege ADRA provided the city’s only efficient postal service, delivering close to 50,000 letters to its citizens cut off from the rest of the world.

Detlef checks his cameras, lenses, films. Stepping out of the sheltered ADRA residence into the open is a hazardous adventure. A group of people at the street gate ask for a handful of any kind of food. “Just a potato or two, please,” pleads one of them. Then, suddenly a sharp, metallic, thunder-like sound splits the air. Mortars — one, two, three hit the nearby houses. Heavy machine guns rattle. Sniper bullets shriek through the air. Metal fences and gates ring. Heavy dust rains upon the gardens, houses, streets. Detlef and I hide behind a wall. There, together with another 50 people, we wait for another round of deadly blasts to pass.

An hour later we are visiting Kosevo Hospital — overcrowded with the wounded and dying. Mufita Lazovic, a doctor, takes us around. People who have been disabled are telling us their stories. Hasan and Hana Camdzic were wounded by an air missile while asleep in their bedroom. Hasan has lost both, and Hana one of her legs. 

A tank missile badly wounded Elizabeta Krasni. She may never walk again. “Children suffer the most,” explains the doctor while escorting us out of the hospital. “Not long ago we had to amputate both legs from a 6-year-old boy. After the surgery he begged his parents to give him back his legs.”

Only a few minutes’ walk from the hospital lies Bare Cemetery with no more space to receive the dead. Kosevo Football Stadium has been turned into its extension. In reverence we stand still and observe the thousands of orderly aligned graves. Detlef reluctantly decides that he must take a few pictures — for the record. Next to one grave, three men support a collapsing woman. She is sobbing bitterly. There lies the dead body of her 19-year-old daughter, buried only a few days earlier.

A couple of hours later we arrive at the main ADRA warehouse in the city. Hundreds of people slide patiently toward the entrance that leads to four huge storage rooms packed with thousands of recently arrived humanitarian parcels. It seems as if the endless hours of queuing do not bother people doomed to waiting.

Through the eyes of his cameras, Detlef captures every moment worth remembering: an elderly woman with trembling hands placing her food parcel into something that used to be a baby stroller; two young men loading their received goods onto bicycles; a man immersed in reading the only newspaper published daily in Sarajevo; two women in tears embracing each other; a cat with a broken tail gliding through a jungle of human legs; and a man slowly drifting forward through the long queue, saying “Thank you ADRA!”

In Sarajevo every moment, every movement, and every picture tells another story.

Later in the day I joined Senad Vranic, one of 50 ADRA postmen in Sarajevo. Not long ago one of his colleagues was killed while delivering letters to the homes of people not far from where we are. Although a volunteer, like any professional postman, Senad brings the letters right to the doorsteps of involuntarily separated mothers, fathers, children, grandparents, friends.

“There are hazardous days, too! Sudden blasts, snipers! Not a safe place to be! Still, I go because I know how much hope these letters bring to people separated from those they love the most,” explains Senad as we reach the gates of a small house occupied by a young couple. As we enter their home, we hear an exciting welcome: “Our ADRA, our friends have come to us!”

It is getting dark and we are back at the ADRA offices in Tepebasina 7. Hedviga Jirota, a cheerful lady in her 80s, prepared a delicious supper using various donated ingredients: blended cheese from Czechoslovakia; macaroni from Italy; rice and tinned corned beef from England; hot powder milk, enriched with white coffee powder from Germany. She invites Radomir, Mira, Detlef, me and a few others to take our places around the table. Could we ever expect a more delightful feast in an undernourished Sarajevo?

“It is not easy. Many eyes are upon us. They think that ADRA can do what others can’t,” reflects pastor Nikolic at the dinner table. “In fact, we could do more if we only had more trucks,” he adds.

Soon it is almost midnight. Detlef and I are staring again through the window of our room. The engines of the U.N. planes shake the dark sky above the city. They are bound for eastern Bosnia where they will parachute several tons of food into the night. A sudden burst of machine guns echoes through the streets somewhere close by. We hear angry shouts, screams and more firing. A couple of distant explosions break in the night. And then everything is quiet.

The moonlit houses look strange with all the lights out. The city, which appears to have fallen into a deep sleep, with only a few distant and dimmed lights creeping through the blankets stretched over the darkened windows, remind me of the romanticized pictures of Bethlehem the night when Jesus was born.

I wonder if in 1993, in more than a metaphorical way, Jesus walks the streets of an imprisoned and wounded Sarajevo? I cannot help but love those 120 dedicated volunteers of ADRA, Muslims and Christians together, who against all odds fed the hungry, distributed humanitarian aid, delivered the letters and gave medicines to the sick. In their own way they are fulfilling Jesus’ commission: “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” Through them God is sending His message to the besieged people of Sarajevo: “I have not forgotten you.”

All photos taken by Tihomir Kukolja

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Honoring the Life of Our Brother Allen Belton

It saddens our hearts to hear of the passing (Monday, September 26, 2022) of our brother, friend and mentor Rev. Allen A. Belton (1939-2022), a man, counselor and teacher who for many years taught us how to love, forgive, reconcile and build lasting friendships.

Since 2001 one ROM (Renewing Our Minds) generation after another of young people from many countries have been blessed by Allen’s radiating presence, listening ear, patience in counseling, and his faith in Jesus which he passed on to others with ease and so naturally. His teaching, singing, warm smile, humor and patient counseling has had only one purpose – to teach us to love God and embrace each other with all our hearts. 

Two things, among many, will every member of the ROM family of friends remember as long as we live. One was his missional message that “loved people love people”, and the other his personal message which he loved to remind us often about: “You know what? I love you. And, you know what else? You can’t do anything about it even if you try.” 

Today when I think of our brother and friend Allen Belton I remember the life statement of Paul the apostle:  “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.” 2. Timothy 4:7.8. Two weeks ago, when we spoke the last time this side of eternity, in a simple way but true to Allen’s character he echoed the assurance of the apostle Paul. He said: “I know where I am going.”

Allen Belton genuinely loved people, and he loved his international ROM family of friends very much. His legacy will continue to live on in our hearts for as long as we live, and will last beyond this moment of temporary departure into and throughout the eternity. 

At this difficult time our prayers are with Allen’s wife Margaret, and his children and the entire family. May the Lord give you comfort, peace and strength which you need at this time.

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They Must Know the Truth

They Must Know the Truth, SALT Feature. Follow the summer 2022 journey of the SALT team in Romania, Moldova and Ukraine. It mattered to our team that we not only deliver a meaningful and helpful content to the Ukrainian refugees, but that we also learn through the process how to serve and empathize better. 

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A Diagram of Hate, Camilla Bocaniala

Camilla Bocaniala speaks in Cluj-Napoca, România

A DIAGRAM OF HATE, An Honest Conversation about Hate and its Alternatives, Camilla Bocaniala, a SALT 2022 presentation, Cluj-Napoca, Romania, July 2022. Delivered also at the ROM – Renewing Our Minds 2022 Gathering, Trebinje, Bosnia-Herzegovina. SALT- Sustainable Action for Leadership and Truth is a multicultural truth and reconciliation initiative. We are dedicated to building a new generation of leaders via the model of leadership through service, as taught by the historical person of Jesus.

Camilla Bocaniala serves as the SALT Strategy Director. Camilla’s experience with applying and organizing ideas turns conceptual into an organized program. She makes sure that the various program ideas and elements flow purposefully and seamlessly. Camilla is emerging motivational speaker with a message that makes a difference. With her husband Liviu Bocaniala they represent a team of artists, and they are cofounders and leaders of a leadership development organization Polylogos Association. You would not want to miss her latest presentation

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Healing Through Hospitality

Violeta Altmann

HEALING THROUGH HOSPITALITY, Violeta Altmann, a SALT ( Sustainable Action for Leadership and Truth) 2022 presentation, Cluj-Napoca, Romania, July 2022.

Violeta Altmann delivered an opening message at the SALT 2022 Gathering in Cluj-Napoca, Romania. Having become an adoptive mother Violeta has also experienced a new dimension of openness towards refugees.  At the beginning of her presentation Violeta shares a letter written by a Ukrainian refugee stationed in Romania: “You are a nation with a huge heart!.. Now we will carry our stories about such a great country as Romania through the generations!.. Romania will go down in history as a country that saved many children’s souls, and this was not done by aid funds, not by the government, but by you – the Romanian People… Thank you for everything you are doing for us!” Listen, watch, recommend. Read more

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