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.

Flemming-Recovering-Full-Mission-of-God

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).

 

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Revelation, the Lamb and the reign of God (Michael Gorman)

Many would agree that Michael Gorman’s Reading Revelation Responsibly (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2010) is a good book. Here are few excerpts from the book.

Professor Gorman suggests five concrete strategies to approach the Book of Revelation. Here are two of them.

Recognize that the central and centering image of Revelation is the Lamb that was slaughtered. In Revelation, Christ dies for our sins, but he dies also, even primarily, as the incarnation and paradigm of faithfulness to God in the face of anti-God powers. Christ is Lord, Christ is victorious, and Christ conquers by cruciform faithful resistance… (page 78)

Focus on the book’s call to public worship and discipleship. Revelation calls Christians to a difficult discipleship of discernment – a non-conformist cruciform faithfulness – that may lead to marginalization or even persecution now, but ultimately to a place in God’s new heaven and new earth. Revelation calls believers to nonretaliation and nonviolence, and not to a literal war of any sort, present or future. By its very nature as resistance, faithful nonconformity is not absolute withdrawal but rather critical engagement on very different terms from those of the status quo. This is all birthed and nurtured in worship. (page 79)

Here is something that will cause us to worship the Crucified Christ.

The Throne: The Reign of God and the Lamb [as a theological theme in Revelation]. God the creator reigns! Jesus the redeemer, the slaughtered Lamb, is Lord! The reign of the eternal God, the beginning and the end, is not merely future or past but present, and it is manifested in – of all things – the slaughtered Lamb. God is inseparable from the Lamb, and vice versa. Each can be called the Alpha and Omega, and they rule together on one throne. This is a cruciform (cross-centred and cross-shaped) understanding of divine power. (page 75)

(See Nijay Gupta’s review of the book here.)

Revelation as a prophetic and pastoral guide to follow Jesus

In my last post I quoted a few helpful comments by Michael Gorman in his Reading Revelation Responsibly (Eugene: Cascade, 2011). As an American, Gorman also has interesting things to say about how the message of Revelation may be relevant to his country (in comparison with the Roman Empire when Revelation was written).

More broadly, then, Revelation is a critique of civil religion (first of all, but not only, Roman civil religion), that is, the sacralization of secular political, economic, and military power through various mythologies and practices—creeds and liturgies, we might say—and the corollary demand for allegiance to that power. (p 47)

I am not American and so I won’t comment further on the above, except to say that Gorman’s book is really worth reading for us who live in the West.

At any rate, the following words in Gorman’s book regarding Revelation are well noting.

Revelation is a sustained stripping of the sacred from secular power—military, political, economic—and a parallel sustained recognition of God and the Lamb as the rightful bearers of sacred claims, the only worthy recipients of divine accolades… Thus one of the main purposes of Revelation is to challenge sacralized imperial power—and its seductive allure—with an alternative vision of power that will give believers comfort, assurance, hope, and especially courage to resist in accord with the paradigm of Jesus… Revelation is therefore a prophetic, pastoral, visionary guide to worshiping and following the Lamb, a template for faithful witness against civil religion and for true worship of the true God. (p. 55)

Revelation as 3D big-screen colour fantasy

I really enjoy reading Michael Gorman’s Reading Revelation Responsibly (Eugene: Cascade, 2011). For students of the New Testament, Revelation may be daunting. One of the reasons is that Revelation is an apocalyptic literature (as well as a letter and prophecy). The following description of apocalyptic literature by Gorman can be of great help.

Apocalyptic literature gives expression to apocalyptic theology. At the core of this kind of theology is a cosmic dualism, the belief that there are two opposing forces at work in the universe, one for evil (usually Satan and his demons) and one for good (usually God and the angels). This cosmic dualism gets embodied in real-life struggles between good and evil on earth, resulting in a more historical dualism of conflict between the children of God or light and the children of Satan or darkness. The reality of this cosmic and historical struggle means that every human must choose sides; one is historical struggle means that every human must choose sides; one is either on the side of good and God or of evil and Satan. We might label this ethical dualism. (p 15–16)

Apocalyptic theology includes another kind of dualism, a temporal dualism. It divides history into two ages, this age and the age to come. This present age is characterized by evil, injustice, oppression, and persecution, while the coming age will be a time of goodness, justice, and peace. Since these two ages are so antithetical, and since the current age is so completely infested with the power of Satan and evil, apocalyptic theology is marked by pessimism; there is no hope for a human solution to the crisis of this age. Only God can—and will!—intervene to set things right. Therefore, apocalyptic pessimism does not have the final word; it gives way to optimism. (p. 16)

Gorman also has some helpful words to say about Revelation itself (not apocalyptic literature in general). I will highlight a few things in blue.

Some scholars have compared the images in Revelation to political cartoons, full of symbolism, exaggeration, and fantasy. They are in vivid HD, 3D, big-screen color. Apocalyptic “employs a science-fiction-like idiom to describe events that exceed human capacities of expression.” [1] The vision “expands his [John’s] readers’ world, both spatially (into heaven) and temporally (into the eschatological future),… open[ing] their world to divine transcendence.” [2] (p. 19–20)

This all works together, almost like a sustained single vision, to express deeply held convictions about God and the world-stage on which the forces of good and of evil are at odds with each other. Thus apocalyptic theology and literature are inherently theopolitical in nature,… In Revelation, the cosmic struggle of God and the Lamb versus Satan (the dragon of ch. 12) manifests itself in the earthly struggle between God’s people redeemed by the Lamb and Satan’s agents, the beasts from the sea and the land—probably meant to signify the emperor and those who promote his cult. (p. 20)

Symbolic language is evocative and expressive; it is not the language of the newspaper but the language of poetry. Yet this symbolism points to actual, though transcendent, reality, so the language can be called “literal non-literalism.” “[T]he world created by symbols is not fictive; it is a non-literal real world.” [3] ”Furthermore, the “special genius of apocalyptic” literature, according to David Aune, is “its ability to universalize the harsh realities of particular historical situations by transposing them into a new key using archaic symbols of conflict and victory, suffering and vindication. Thus the beast form the sea [on Rev. 13] represents Rome—yet more than Rome.” [4] (p. 20)

 

Sources that Gorman cites above:

[1] George Beasley-Murray. The Book of Revelation (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974), 16–17.

[2] Richard Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation (Cambridge: CUP, 1993), 7.

[3] Wall. Revelation (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1991) 16.

[4] David Aune,  “Revelation.”  in The HarperCollins Bible Commentary.  Edited by J.  L. Mays.  (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2000), 1188.

Reading Revelation is somewhat like attending a good play

I really enjoy reading Michael Pahl’s The Beginning and the End (Eugene, Ore.: Cascade, 2011). In the following I will quote a few things he says about Revelation. What I like about what Pahl says is that he talks about the suffering of the followers of Jesus and God’s faithfulness to them. We fail to read Revelation probably if we miss these. The other great suggestion Pahl has is that we can read Revelation as if we are attending a play. (I will highlight some sentences in blue in the quotes below.)

Revelation is not so much concerned with the precise when and how questions of the future as much as the who and what and why sorts of questions of human – and especially Christian – existence in this present age: Why do we suffer in this world, especially as God’s people? Is God faithful to his people and his creation? What is our role as God’s people in this oppressive world? What is wrong with the world? How will things be made right? (p. 51)
 
[I]n a real sense, reading Revelation is a lot like attending a good play – which brings us back to the importance of stories in shaping our collective identity and purpose and values. We have narrators (John and his angelic interpreter) guiding us through the story. We have a series of scenes (apocalyptic visions) unfolding before us, which are visually and verbally stimulating, even provocative, critiquing the world in which we live even as they present for us the world as it could be, as it will be. And, just like a good play, if we fully engage the strange world of this dramatic story we call Revelation, we will come out of the theater changed, seeing the real world – and our place in it – in a radically new way. (p. 51)