Thursday, December 18, 2014

Multinational Worship & Mission in Revelation

The missional aspect of the book is also evident in its portrait of the multinational, multiethnic and multilingual worship before the throne of the Lamb. “After this,” writes John, “I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ’Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’” (Rev.7:9-10). Several details deserve comment.

First, John says the crowd of worshippers is innumerable. Beasley-Murray highlights the contrast between this multitude that defies numeration and the numbered tribes in the previous verses. Citing Farrer he observes, "The contrast of the numbered tribes and the innumerable host gives expression to two antithetical themes of the Scriptures. First, God knows the number of his elect; secondly, those who inherit the blessing of Abraham are numberless as the stars (Gen. 15:5)…Whereas the previous vision originally reflected a particularistic viewpoint, John employed it solely to illustrate God’s concern for his people in the last time, and the second vision shows the effectiveness of that concern. John intends his readers to hear the promises of God to Abraham behind his description of this vision, a promise that his descendants would be as countless as the stars in the heavens (Gen. 15:5) or as the sand on the seashore (Gen 22:17)."

Bauckham writes, “The innumerability of the multitude can scarcely be an empirical observation of the Christian church at the time when Revelation was written. Rather, it echoes God’s promise to the patriarchs that their descendants would be innumerable.” Beale adds, “The multitudes in Rev. 7:9 are the consummate fulfillment of the Abrahamic promise and appear to be another of the manifold ways in which John refers to Christians as Israel.” Knowing the vision did not match the reality of his readers, a battered and beleaguered minority, John paints a picture of the success of God’s mission through his church, humble though its beginnings were.

Second, the host is said to be from “every nation.” Osborne argues “’Every nation’ continues the stress in the book on the universal mission of the church to the ‘nations’ and probably recapitulates the OT stress on the procession of the nations to God.” John has, through the record of his visions, already reminded his readers that the Lamb has “ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation” by his blood (Rev 5:9). He will go on to describe his prophetic ministry as including the task to “prophesy about many peoples and nations and languages and kings” (Rev 10:11); to mention the nations as witnesses to the ministry, death and resurrection of the Two Witnesses (Rev. 11:9); to point out the angelic proclamation of the eternal gospel to “every nation and tribe and language and people” (Rev. 14:6); and, to celebrate nations being liberated from Satanic deception (Rev. 20:3).

All of this multinational activity climaxes with the nations pouring in to the New Jerusalem – “And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb. By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it, and its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. They will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations” (Rev 21:22-26).

Revelation picks up and brings to completion the mission of God and his people to the nations.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Lampstands and the Mission of the Church

In addition to John’s emphasis on saints following Christ’s lead in bearing testimony and serving as witness, John connects the church with an Old Testament image that emphasizes her missional nature. In Revelation 1:12, John turns to find the voice speaking to him and sees Jesus standing among seven golden lampstands. Jesus identifies the seven lampstands for John and the reader – they are the seven churches to which John will address his letter.

The Old Testament background is found first in Exodus 25 and the command to Moses to craft a seven-branched lampstand with seven lamps on it for use in the tabernacle. The more significant background for the lampstand imagery comes from Zechariah 4, a passage John draws upon several other places in his Revelation. Beale contends that the lampstand constructed by Moses for use in the tabernacle/temple becomes for Zechariah a symbol for the whole temple, and consequently for the whole of Israel. The lampstand makes a fitting synecdoche for the temple and, by extension, for Israel, for the temple and Israel shared the common mission to bear light in the world. Wright explains, “This whole David-temple-Zion nexus of theological traditions is at one level highly centralized and particular. After all, this is the place and the sanctuary, where YHWH is to be sought because this is where he has caused his name to dwell. Yet in other respects the temple tradition has a remarkable openness to the rest of the nations and an incipient universality that surfaces in a number of texts.”

The openness of which Wright speaks about is evident, for example, at Solomon’s dedication of the temple. Here we see the anticipation that God’s fame will spread to the nations and they will be draw as inquirers to the city of Jerusalem and to the temple. Solomon petitions God to answer the foreigners prayers so that “all the people of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your people Israel” (I Kgs. 8:41-43).

Later, Isaiah reflects on the (eschatological) temple as a house of prayer for the nations: “And the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD, to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD, and to be his servants, everyone who keeps the Sabbath and does not profane it, and holds fast my covenant — these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples." The Lord GOD, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, declares, "I will gather yet others to him besides those already gathered.” (Isaiah 56: 6-8)

John’s use of the lampstand imagery for the church is an indication that the church, the New Israel, is to carry on the mission of the true and faithful Israel – being a light to the nations. Ladd offers additional insight, A seven branched candelabrum played in important role in Zechariah’s vision, apparently to represent Israel (Zech. 4:2). In John’s vision the lampstands represented the church, which had now become the light of the world. However, John saw seven separate lampstands, representing the different churches. In the New Testament times the church was not, like the nation Israel, outwardly a single people. In the New Testament view each local church is to be viewed as the church universal in all its fullness. That the unity of the church is not found in organization but in its relationship to Christ is pictured in verse 16, where Christ held seven stars in his right hand. The seven stars were the heavenly counterparts of the seven churches, while the seven lamps were the actual churches. It was their function to give light to the world.

That Jesus was seen walking among the lampstands is an echo of Jesus’ promise to the church that accompanies her commission: Matthew 28:18–20, “And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’” While the church can never forget her missional calling, neither can she forget that she is accompanied in it by Jesus.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Witness and Testimony in the Book of Revelation

In the last post a made the case the the placement of Revelation at the close of the canon and it's role in bringing the grand narrative of Scripture to a close highlights the theme of mission in and of itself. But, it is not only Revelation’s place in the canon that alerts the reader to its missional significance. The theme of mission is important, though often overlooked, within the book’s twenty-two chapters.

Three repeated themes in the book of Revelation will serve as examples and alert us to the broader theme of mission in the book: the focus on Christ as the “faithful witness” and the call for the church to follow him in bearing faithful witness, the imagery of the church as lampstands, and the repeated mention of the nations (or people of every tribe, tongue, etc.) participating in heavenly worship and in the life of the New Heavens and New Earth.

Witness and Testimony 

John signals to his readers at the outset that the theme of testimony will be a significant one throughout his book. John states, “He [God] made it [the revelation of Jesus Christ] known by sending his angel to his servant John, who bore witness to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw” (Revelation 1:1-2). In v.2 John draws upon the μάρτυς/μαρτυρέω word group twice: as a verb translated “bore witness” and as a noun “testimony”.

The Greek root martyrion had not, at John’s writing, taken on its nuanced significance of one who dies for the faith. However, it is likely that it began to take on this connotation largely because of how John employed the word throughout the Apocalypse. Saints were not, for John, martyrs because they had been put to death; they were put to death because they were martyrs – because they bore witness to Christ. That Jesus’ followers ought to be witnesses and bear testimony should come as no surprise, for they share in the life and mission of Jesus, the “faithful and true witness” (Rev. 1:5).

This theme was also evident in John’s Gospel. Jesus spoke to Pilate saying, “For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth” (John 18:37). Before Jesus bore witness, John the Baptizer was preparing his way serving as a witness (μαρτυρίαν) – to “bear witness (μαρτυρήσῃ) about the light.” Later, Jesus reminds the crowds that not only did John bear witness to him, but so did Jesus’ own works, the Father, and the Scriptures (John 5:30-46). In addition, the Helper who will come to the disciples after Jesus’ departure will also bear witness to Jesus (John 15:26-27).

After Christ’s ascension, the giving of the Spirit will enable the church in its mission as Jesus’ witnesses. Jesus describes this in Acts 1:7-8, “He said to them, ‘It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.’”

Bearing witness is foundational to the church’s mission. Where she fails to maintain her witness she fails in her God given mission. Michael Goheen asserts, “We would be mistaken if we were to think of Jesus’ call to witness as merely one more assignment added to an otherwise full agenda for the people of God. Witness is not one more task among others: Witness defines the role of this community in this era of God’s story and thus defines its very identity.” Goheen continues, quoting Suzanne De Dietrich, “This witnessing function of the church is not a secondary task, it is her raison d’être, her essential vocation; the missionary task belongs to the esse of the church.”

On this point, the continuity between the church’s mission and that of Old Testament Israel is important to recognize, for many tend to think about mission as going somewhere to do something and of witness as saying or telling. But, beginning with the Old Testament foundations for mission, it’s evident that the going and the doing, saying and telling, are only parts of the mission, and not the most crucial parts at that. Howard Peskett and Vinoth Ramachandra state correctly, “Mission is about being. It is about being a distinctive kind of people, a countercultural, multinational community among the nations. It is modeling before a skeptical world what the living God of the Bible is really like…what was true of Israel’s calling is also true for our calling as the church of Jesus Christ…[we are to be] a ‘display people.’”

Israel and then the New Testament church serve as God’s missional agents primarily by bearing witness to God, his character, his gracious plan of redemption and the nature of the kingdom he is establishing. This bearing witness is not to be conceived of strictly as telling others, but showing and telling.

In beginning his Apocalypse with the repeated emphasis on witness and testimony, John reminds the reader of the importance of witness to the people of God through the ages. John continues making use of this word group throughout Revelation. The souls under the altar have suffered and been put to death because they did what they were called to do – bear witness (Rev 6:9; see also Rev 20:4). Later in the book, the saints gain an ironic victory over Satan (ironic in that they have been victorious even though they have been slain) by the “blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony (μαρτυρίας)” (Rev 12:11). Their testimony has become a weapon used by God in his mission to destroy Satan’s work, undoing the damage he has inflicted on God’s people and God’s world. In Revelation 19 the angel sent to John equates “your brothers” (fellow Christians) with those “who hold the testimony of Jesus.” Holding to the testimony of Jesus is a defining characteristic of true believers.

Revelation 11 makes a significant contribution to the missional thrust of John’s apocalypse. Rather than seeing the two witnesses as two literal end-time prophets, it is more in keeping with the nature of the apocalypse to see them as a symbol of the witnessing church throughout this present age of tribulation and persecution. As argued above, the role of the church as witness is central to the book of Revelation and the two witnesses point to the church’s prophetic role in the world, a role which will certainly give rise to persecution.

Beale makes a compelling case for understanding the two witnesses as symbols for the church corporate. It is significant that John identifies of the witnesses as lampstands, an image which is used elsewhere in Revelation to refer to the church (see Rev. 1:20). In addition, the witnesses are also called olive trees, referring to Zechariah 4. In Zechariah, the olive trees pointed to Zerubbabel, the head of tribe of Judah and to the priest Joshua. The emphasis was on the priestly and kingly nature of Israel, distinctions which now belong to the church, being a kingdom of priests who reign! (5:10).

Third, Rev. 11:7 says the beast makes war with them and conquers them. This is connected to Daniel 7:21 where the last evil kingdom persecutes Israel (now understood to be the church, the true Israel). Moreover, in Rev. 13:5-7 the beast is given authority “to make war on the saints and to conquer them.” The language in 11:7 and 13:5 is nearly identical; hence, it is likely that we’re intended to link the witnesses conquered and the saints conquered.

Finally, in v. 9-13 the entire world witnesses their demise. While some think this refers to TV coverage of their murder and dead bodies lying in the street (i.e. Hal Lindsey), it seems more reasonable to conclude that the witnesses are visible throughout the world because the church is everywhere present. It is before the eyes of the watching world that the church carries on its prophetic activity, bearing witness to Christ and suffering martyrdom as a result. And, it is before the eyes of the world that the church is vindicated by God through resurrection.

Throughout the Apocalypse, John highlights the task of the church to serve as Christ's witnesses, bearing testimony that is faithful and true.  In this we advance God's mission to the world.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Best Books of 2014

I wish I had read more last year, or at least more non-Revelation material (the ThM project sucked up a lot of my reading time).  I did read some really good books though, one's I'd highly recommend. Here's a few:

1. Daniel Taylor Books.  This is a category, not just a single book. Dr. Taylor deserves it. I read three of his books this year leading up to the ECC Seminar; each book was unique, enjoyable, and full of insight.  The Skeptical Believer: Telling Stories to Your Inner Atheist was the first of the three. Dr. Taylor gives useful advice to the Christian who wrestles with doubt.  I wasn't necessarily a fan of all the parenthetical interuptions (Dr. Taylor's inner atheist giving voice to his skepticism), but the book was, to use and overworked phrase, a breath of fresh air. The Myth of Certainty: The Reflective Christian & the Risk of Commitment was the second book. It's shorter and more philosophical, but contains an interesting narrative (biographical?)  that keeps the readers attention.  Letters to My Children: A Father Passes on His Values is what it sounds like - a series of letters Dr. Taylor wrote to his children through the years in an effort to pass on wisdom, convey affection and continue a spiritual legacy. It's wins the prize (no monetary gift forthcoming, sorry) for my favorite book of the year.

2. Michael Kruger's Canon Revisited: Establishing the Origins and Authority of the New Testament Books is a very helpful book.  Through the book Kruger seeks to establish the validity and authority of the NT Canon from the text itself rather than merely looking to the early church, creeds/councils, etc. It is a theological case for the canon rather than a historical case. I smell a future seminar topic!

3. Eric Metaxas' book Seven Men: And the Secret of Their Greatness was a very enjoyable introduction to seven great men and their faith. These certainly aren't deep, extensive biographies, but short introductions to the life and thought (like John Piper's The Swans are Not Silent series).  The book includes one chapter on each of these seven men: George Washington, William Wilberforce, Eric Liddell, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Jackie Robinson, John Paul II, and Charles Colson.

4. My work on Revelation 2&3 raised the issue of perseverance of the saints and how we ought to teach the warnings and conditional promises of Scripture to believers. Thomas Schreiner and Ardel Caneday's book  The Race Set Before Us: A Biblical Theology of Perseverance & Assurance was extremely helpful. It's not an easy read and can get a bit tedious, but I haven't read a better, more balanced approach to these texts yet.

5. Ok, now a fun book (actually, a series of seven books).  I found Taylor Anderson's Destroyermen series completely by accident. I love war novels, and I thought that's what I picked up at the library. And, it is a war novel with a sci-fi kinda twist. Captain Reddy's ship is engaged in the a naval battle with overwhelming Japanese power. In an attempt to escape certain destruction, he seeks refuge in the squall.  The squall transports him, his ship and all the men to a different, but similar world (think Land of the Lost).  There they are pulled into another all-encompassing war. Not up your alley? Pick up and read book one, Into the Storm (Destroyermen), I dare you. You won't be able to put it down. Anderson is a fantastic story teller and his characters, human and otherwise, are so interesting. Best series I've read in a very long time (and I'm not a sci-fi kinda guy). 

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Mission in the Book of Revelation, Part 2

When we come to the book of Revelation, we cannot neglect its place in the canon. Of course this is true of every book of the Bible, but especially true of the book that brings the grand narrative of redemption to its completion. Considered canonically, the book of Revelation unfolds for the reader the culmination on God’s missional activity and the missional activity of his people.

Calvin famously wrote that the world and history are “the theatre of God’s glory”. Revelation brings us to the final act in history. More than a century later, Edwards wrote, “God having professed this end [His glory]…the principal means that he adopted was this great work of redemption.” Again, Revelation brings us to a climactic manifestation of God’s glory as the redemption of all things is completed.

God’s determination to be glorified in the redemption of all things is a central theme of the prophets’ message and the apostles’ understanding of Christ’s work. Yet, it is the book of Revelation that brings this theme to culmination, weaving together lines of Old Testament prophecy, connecting them to the person and work of Christ and extending them into the future New Creation. Beale comments, “The portrayal of the new covenant, new temple, new Israel, and new Jerusalem affirms the future fulfillment of the main prophetic themes of the OT and NT, which all find their ultimate climax in the new creation. The new creation itself is the most overarching of these biblical promises…”

The drama that began in the shalom of the garden culminates in the perfected peace of the New Jerusalem. Beale explains, “The Edenic imagery describing the city-temple in Revelation 22:1-3 also reflects an intention to show that the building of the temple that began in Genesis 2 but was abandoned will be commenced again and completed in Christ and his people, and will encompass the whole new creation.”

Revelation cannot be considered apart from this context. As the book that most fully envisions the culmination of God’s mission through Christ and his people, mission lies at the heart of a proper understanding of John’s Apocalypse. Genesis and Revelation provide the bookends to God’s covenantal self-revelation. The mission of God and of his covenantal people is introduced in the earliest chapters of Genesis, carried on through the historical narratives, given new life and meaning in the prophets, peaks in the person and work of Jesus Christ, continues on through the apostles and the nascent church, and finds completion in the last chapters of the book of Revelation.

Revelation’s placement within the Christian canon alone highlights the theme of mission. Moreover, John gives good indicators that mission is not merely the background to his writing but also essential to it. He is writing to strengthen, encouraged, and equip the church to continue being (or start being) faithful participants in the mission God has created them for. Next week I'll offer three posts on three different but related missional themes in the book of Revelation.