The Book of Revelation and the call of the church to mission (Dean Flemming)

Sometimes Christians find it hard to understanding the Book of Revelation in the Bible. At the same time, the followers of Jesus don’t always know how to embody the mission of God in their lives. But in his book, Recovering the Full Mission of God, Dean Flemming helps us to read Revelation (and other New Testament books) and understand God’s call for the church to participate in his mission, especially in the Western world.

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Here are a few excerpts from Flemming’s book.

[The] church is to come out of Babylon—“to be a godly community in the midst of the ungodly empire.” (Page 238; emphasis added; see Rev 16:19; 17:5; 18:2, 10, 21.)

From Revelation’s perspective, the church lives out its missional calling in a world dominated by a Roman Empire that had declared its power to be absolute. Rome had hijacked the claim to sovereignty over the world from the one true God. This idolatrous order was demonstrated above all in the emperor cult, which thrived in the cities of Asia. (page 238)

It is a call for God’s people to abandon Babylon-like living. Practically, it means distancing themselves from such ordinary cultural practices as eating food sacrificed to idols (Rev 2:14–15, 20–21). Christians could encounter idol food in a whole variety of settings. These included public festivals, social dinners at the temple, and meetings of the trade guilds, all of which involved honouring the emperor and the traditional pagan gods. But although this might be a “normal” activity in the culture, in John’s prophetic eyes, it is a compromise with state-sponsored idolatry. Leaving Babylon would also involve forsaking unjust economic practices. And, as Christ’s message to the church in Laodicea reveals, it is a departure from self-indulgent consumption, along with the arrogance that fuels it. “I am rich,” boast the Laodiceans, “I have prospered, and I need nothing” (Rev 3:17). In short, exiting Babylon entails leaving behind whatever values and practices support the idolatry of the empire and oppose the claims of the true and living God. (page 239; emphasis added)

God’s people must live as a holy, distinctive community in the public square. Loyalty to the Lamb is no private affair. They have “his [the Lamb’s] name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads” (Rev 14:1; cf. Rec 22:4), for all to see. In Revelation’s symbolism, they bear a divine “seal” (Rev 7:3–8; 9:5) as an outward, visible sign that they belong to God, not to the beast (cf. Rev 13:16–17). The church’s life is not hidden, but on parade before a watching world. As God’s people “Follow the Lamb wherever he goes” (14:4), they become a public embodiment of the narrative of the crucified Lord. And this draws others to the Savior.[1] (page 241; emphasis added, except for “in the public square”)

What would it mean for Christian communities to “come out of Babylon” today? In the first place, we must seek to discern, by the Spirit’s guidance, where “Babylon” is to be found. It may be nearer than we think. Where in the world do governments or corporations increase their own wealth and security at the expense of powerless people? Where do nations use political, military or economic force to promote self-serving policies? Where do political or economic powers act in ways that demand idolatrous allegiance? Where do individuals and societies cuddle the culture-god of consumerism? And in what ways are Christians drawn into being an accomplice to Babylon, whether actively or passively? (page 241; emphasis added)

Source: Dean Flemming, Recovering the Full Mission of God: A Biblical Perspective on Being, Doing and Telling (Downers Grove: IVP, 2013).

 

A quick reflection on reading Romans missionally

I spoke at a mission event recently. Here is a thought I shared, based on Romans 8:3–4, 29; 12:2, 9, 13.

A missional reading of Romans urges us to see God’s purpose of creating a Christ-community that has given its allegiance to Jesus because of his self-sacrificing death. This community seeks to be conformed to the image of the Son, so that it may be transformed into a Christ-centred, love-motivated and stranger-loving missional church.

Holistic mission of CIM

This year OMF International celebrates their 150th anniversary of participating in the mission of God in East Asia.

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As an Asian, this passage from their new book brought me to tears.

Along with perhaps a thousand independent churches planted, and many more embryonic small gatherings of believers, the CIM started schools and Bible colleges, hospitals and clinics, and refuges for opium addicts to detoxify. CIM workers cared for orphans and abandoned babies. They brought love to abused women, to rejected leprosy sufferers and to the outcast. They challenged every power of darkness, the breadth and length of the vast country of China. They often buried their children, their spouses or their colleagues, as so many diseases simply treated today were then beyond the scope of contemporary medical knowledge. Some died a martyr’s death, such as during the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, when many Chinese Christians also lost their live. Many served year after year, trusting that God who is faithful would one day bring a harvest, whether or not they lived to see it.

Source: Rose Dowsett and Chad Berry, God’s Faithfulness, pages 24–25.

Dimensions of incarnational missiology

Some time ago I read the late Ross Langmead’s The Word Made Flesh. I really enjoyed reading it. Here is a summary of the three dimensions of incarnational missiology that he mentioned.

(1) Following Jesus. “This vision of incarnational mission emphasises costly discipleship which involves a whole-of-life response in Christopraxis. It pursues holistic mission . . . It sees mission as being patterned on the life and teaching of Jesus, including solidarity with the poor, a life of vulnerable love, and a socio-religious challenge to the status quo which is likely to lead to suffering (the way of the cross).”

(2) Participation in Christ. This emphasises the “continuing presence and initiative of the risen Christ through the Holy Spirit, without which discipleship is impossible. . . . If mission as following Jesus emphasises the cost, mission as participating in Christ (or conforming to Christ) emphasises grace. Eastern Orthodoxy expresses the transformation which occurs as Christians live in Christ in terms of being drawn into the likeness to God or deified (theosis).

(3) Joining God’s incarnating mission. This dimension, as Langmead understood it, sees “God continually reaching out to the universe and becoming embodied in many ways in it, particularly in the life of humanity . . . The incarnating dynamic of God, therefore, is seen to begin in creation. It is also seen definitively in God’s redemptive self-emptying in Jesus Christ. It moves toward eschatological consummation, when the creator will fully indwell creation. God’s mission of enfleshment, meanwhile, is revealed to be the basis for inculturation . . . In considering this emphasis we [note] . . . that it would be a narrow view of incarnation if it referred only to God’s ‘turn to the world’ and it neglected the challenge to culture represented in the cross and Jesus’ prophetic teaching. Overall, this third dimension provides the basic view of reality in which the incarnation is a natural expression of God’s outgoing and incarnating nature.”

Source: Ross Langmead, The Word Made Flesh: Towards an Incarnational Missiology (Lanham: University Press of America, 2002), 270–1.

Cultural (suburban) captivity of the church

Tim Foster, vice-principal of Ridley College, Melbourne, has written a book, The Suburban Captivity
of the Church: Contextualising the Gospel for
Post-Christian Australia (Melbourne: Acorn, 2014). (The price of the Kindle version is AUD$6.64 today.) Tim Foster studied at Moore College, Sydney, Australia, and did his DMin at Fuller Seminary, US.

I am very interested in this book, but haven’t got the time to read it yet. But I am delighted to read a number of reviews on this book. I will highlight a few things from those reviews and then offer some reflections. Please note that I haven’t read the book myself, and hence the following is not a review of the book as such. Rather, it is a reflection on my observations on the Australian church and the implications to mission in the non-Western world.

Here are the authors of the reviews. Click on his/her name to read his/her review.

Philip Hughes

Tess Holgate

David Burke

Simon Holt

According to Tess Holgate, Foster moved from a suburban parish to an urban one, and there his understanding of the gospel was challenged. Not surprisingly, then, in his book Foster provides the profiles of suburbanites, urbanities, and battlers. I haven’t got the book myself, but I find the following diagram from Philip Hughes’ review helpful. Note that the information in the diagram is from Hughes’ review, not directly from Foster’s book.

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Here is Hughes’ summary of Foster’s understanding of suburban values and how evangelical Christians in Australia may fit into that.

The suburban vision, says Foster, is ‘the pursuit of a comfortable, secure and settled life, in an ordered domain, with one’s family and closest friends, where each individual is free to pursue those interests that will bring happiness with minimal disruption’ (p.75). However, he notes that consumption is conspicuous and functions as a sign of upward mobility in the suburbs. Competition is also inherent in the suburban ethos, not only in consumption, but in spectator sports, cooking and parties, and even giving one’s children private education (p.76). The evangelical churches are strongest in the suburban areas as the values they espouse may be closest to suburban culture in terms of their emphasis on family life. Yet, God often has little place in the suburban vision, Foster says, except to bless the aspirations and assist in their fulfilment (p.77). People sometimes turn to God when things go off the rails.

I haven’t read the book myself. But whether Hughes’ summary reflects accurately Foster’s book, I think the above observation of suburban life is not surprising.

The following from Hughes’ review is also noteworthy. It won’t be new to anyone who has spent some time in an urban church.

Foster notes that, in Australian cities, the working class has diminished as the middle class has grown. Some of the other groups who are at the bottom of the socio-economic range, such as refugees and some non-Western immigrants, some people with disability and mental illness and some on long-term social benefits, share some characteristics of the battlers, but each of these sub-groups is distinct in their own ways (p.116).

In the following I want to offer my own reflections.

(1) Let us not allow the suburban culture to shape our lives. In the Gospels and in Paul’s letters we do not find Jesus or the Jesus-followers living an upwardly mobile life. Middle-class prosperity and aspiration were not the focus of their lives. Rather, the disciples were called to follow Jesus, take up the cross, and embody his life, suffering, death and resurrection in their everyday life. Our value system should be shaped by the cross, not by the values of suburbanites or urbanites, or any other belief or ideology. (It doesn’t mean that we should feel guilty if we were born into a middle-class family, or if we happen to have a high income. What matters is that we live a cross-shaped life.)

(2) We should read the Bible carefully. Anyone who reads the Scriptures carefully would find that individualism, consumerism, and materialism are incompatible with the values of God’s kingdom. We must learn to critique our culture with the Bible.

(3) Let us make the move. It is interesting that Tim Foster’s view of the gospel was challenged when he moved from a suburban parish to an urban one. I am not proposing that we should all move to an inner-city church. But it helps to spend time with people there, so that we can give ourselves the opportunity to discern whether we have unwittingly allowed a suburban mindset to shape our lives. It is important to spend time with the urban poor, the marginalized, the asylum seekers and refugees, and allow their lives to speak to us. There are Christian communities and churches that can assist us to do that. They are not hard to find.

(4) Make sure that we do not export a distorted gospel to the rest of the world. It seems to me that a “gospel message” that is held captive to our culture of materialism and individualism (“me” as the centre, not Christ) is incompatible with the gospel in the Bible. A “gospel message” held captive to the pursuit of upward mobility is not based on the Scripture. A suburban lifestyle that keeps us from the plight of the poor and marginalised is deceptive. It actually keeps us from seeing the Jesus in the Gospels, who identified with the suffering of humankind, not least the pain and affliction of the poor and oppressed. My concern is that western Christians spread a distorted gospel to people in other parts of the world. (I am worried that this may have already happened!)

The best way to avoid this is for western Christians to spend time with the poor and needy in their home country. It is a great preparation for anyone in the West who wants to serve God overseas. This is particularly the case if they spend time in an urban church. Inner-city churches—if and when they are truly missional—are often multicultural, with not a few people coming from low socioeconomic backgrounds. What a great training for those who feel that God may have called them to overseas cross-cultural mission!

N T Wright on image-bearing in the world

I just came across this good quote from N T Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2013).

To put it in shorthand: in a world whose icons had been reflecting non-gods, the renewed iconography which informs and sustains the material symbolic universe of the Messiah-people begins with renewed human behaviour. And this dovetails exactly with the ‘new Temple’ vision … The spirit’s indwelling enables the Messiah’s people to be a dispersed Temple-people, the living presence of the one God launching the project of bringing the true divine life into the whole cosmos.

I often think that the “idols” (the “non-gods,” if you like) of our world today manifest themselves in terms of consumerism, materialism and individualism. It seems to me that the vocation of Christ-followers is to bear God’s image in the world through the empowerment of the Spirit. I would add that this image-bearing is indeed about cross-bearing—to live a life that is shaped by the suffering and death Jesus. As we do so, we bring life into the world. Our “temple” is not so much the physical church buildings per se, but the embodiment of God’s presence in a hurting world.