Mission accomplished – the book of Revelation

We’ve reached the astonishing vision of Rev. 7 in Redcliffe’s module on Revelation. I’ve posted before on this chapter when considering what James Brownson describes as the multicultural presence of God. This time Chris Wright provides the insights in a chapter on Particularity and Universality in the Bible, in his The Mission of God (pp249-251, his italics):

Revelation 4-7 is a comprehensive single vision-a neck-searching, mind-boggling vision-in which John “sees” the whole universe from the vantage point of God’s throne at its center. The meaning of the history of the world is symbolized in a scroll in God’s right hand, which was slain. In other words, the cross of Christ is the key to the unfolding purposes of history; or, in terms of our argument here, the unfolding mission of God. Why is Christ worthy to govern history? Because he was slain. And what difference has that made? The song of the living creatures and twenty-four elders explain it for John, and for us.

You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals,
because you were slain,
and with your blood you purchased men for God
from every tribe and language and people and nation.
You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God,
and they will reign on the earth. (Rev 5:9-10)

The song gives three reasons why the cross is the key to history.

• First, it is redemptive. People who were lost, defeated, or enslaved in sin have been “purchased” for God. Humanity will not go down the drainpipe of history into the abyss.

• Second, it is universal. Those who have been so redeemed will come from “every tribe and language and people and nation.”

• Third, it is victorious. The Lamb wins! He and his redeemed people will reign on the earth.

The echoes of Old Testament Scripture are clear. The universality of the Abrahamic promise is captured in the list of tribe, language, people and nation. And the specific calling on Israel in Exodus 19:5-6, to be God’s kingdom of priests in the midst of all the nations of the whole earth, has now itself been internationalized and projected into an eternal future of serving God (as priests) and reigning on earth (as kings). The rightful place of redeemed humanity is that they are restored to their original status and role within creation: under God and over creation, serving and ruling. This is the wonderful combination of priesthood and kingship that redeemed humanity will exercise in the redeemed creation.

The climax of this vision, with the sixth seal, brings together the 144,000 crowd, representative of the historic twelve tribes of Israel, with the immediately following panorama of that innumerable multinational host of the redeemed, the final fulfillment of what God promised Abraham:

After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people, and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice:

“Salvation belongs to our God,
who sits on the throne,
and to the Lamb.” (Rev 7:7-9)

If, when God first called Abraham and designated him and his barren wide in their old age to be the fountainhead of his whole mission to rescue creation and humanity from the woes of Genesis 3-11, we imagined the sharp intake of breath among the astonished heavenly hosts, then in John’s vision we are not left merely to our own imagination. For he goes on to tell us:

All the angels were standing round the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures. They fell down on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying:

“Amen! Praise and glory
and wisdom and thanks and honor
and power and strength
be to our God for ever and ever. Amen!” (Rev 7:11-12)

And God, in the midst of the resounding praises, will turn to Abraham and say, “There you are. I kept my promise. Mission accomplished.”

David Bosch on the international hermeneutical community

Biblical interpretation is a community business. In a previous post I drew on our need for each other (i.e., the whole people of God in all its multicultural wonder) to worship God wholly. I drew on the words of James Brownson who said, “no single culture has a monopoly on understanding or describing God. We, the multiethnic Church must try to understand and worship God together, embracing our cultural diversity rather than constantly seeking our common denominators” (p.485 of ‘Speaking the Truth in Love’, International Review of Mission, Vol 83, No. 330 (1994), pp.479-504).

A similar point is made by David Bosch in the context of theological interpretation, which I think could also be applied to biblical interpretation:

Instead of viewing my interpretation as absolutely correct and all others by definition as wrong, I recognize that different theological interpretations, including my own, reflect different contexts, perspectives, and biases. This is not to say, however, that I regard all theological positions as equally valid or that it does not matter what people believe; rather, I shall do my utmost to share my understanding of the faith with others while granting them the right to do the same. I realise that my theological approach is a “map”, and that a map is never actual “territory” (cf Hiebert 1985b:15; Martin 1987:373). Although I believe that my map is the best, I accept that there are other types of maps and also that, at least in theory, one of those may be better than mine since I can only know in part (cf 1 Cor 13:12).

For the Christian this means that any paradigm shift [this subject matter of Bosch’s current chapter] can only be carried out on the basis of the gospel and because of the gospel, never, however, against the gospel (cf. Küng 1987:194). Contrary to the natural sciences, theology relates not only to the present and the future, but also to the past, to tradition, to God’s primary witness to humans (:19f). Theology must undoubtedly always be relevant and contextual (:200-203), but this may never be pursued at the expense of God’s revelation in and through the history of Israel and, supremely, the event of Jesus Christ (:203-206). Christians take seriously the epistemological priority of their classical text, the Scriptures.

I realize that, in stating the above, I have hardly solved any problems. Scripture comes to us in the shape of human words, which are already “contextual” (in the sense of being written for very specific historical contexts) and are, moreover, open to different interpretations. In making the affirmation above I am, however, suggesting a “point of orientation” all Christians (should) share on the basis of which dialogue between them becomes possible. No individual or group has a monopoly here. So, the Christian church should function as an “international hermeneutical community” (Hiebert 1985b:16) in which Christians (and theologians) from different contexts challenge one another’s cultural, social and ideological biases. This presupposes, however, that we see fellow-Christians not as rivals or opponents but as partners (Küng 1987:198), even if we may be passionately convinced that their views are in need of major corrections.” (D. Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission, Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1991, p.187) 

I think this is very helpful because it avoids relativism and maintains a commitment to the Scriptures, yet acknowledges that our interpretations are just that, interpretations. We, the church, need each other to understand God and his Word together. And we, the church, are a multilingual, multicultural interpretive community.

So we need to do our theology together, as well as worship together. Which reminds me of J.I. Packer oft-quoted phrase, which I tweak here in the light of the above “The purpose of theology is doxology. We study [together] in order to praise [together].”

The multicultural presence of God

We are half way through the first week of term at Redcliffe. Wednesday mornings see the College community coming together for a corporate time of devotions.

Today our new Principal, Rob Hay, delivered part two of his introductory preach. Part one, on Sunday, focused on the foretaste of heaven we see reflected in our community, which is comprised of around 30 different nationalities. Rob read from Rev. 7:9-12 which describes the multiethnic, multilingual multitude assembled and worshipping before the thrown of God.

It reminded me of something I read recently in an article by James Brownson (‘Speaking the Truth in Love’, International Review of Mission, Vol 83, No. 330 (1994), pp.479-504):

“All of humanity is called to glorify God, not by suppressing diversity and particularity, but by sanctifying it. The universal bond of humanity appears not so much in its set of common responses to its creator and sustainer, but rather by humanity’s diverse responses to the singular vision of God disclosed in the story of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.” (p.485)

Brownson then suggests that, “a missional hermeneutic begins with the assumption that the mode in which God is present among the faithful is irreducibly multi-cultural.” (p.485) So, he says, no single culture has a monopoly on understanding or describing God. We, the multiethnic Church must try to understand and worship God together, embracing our cultural diversity rather than constantly seeking our common denominators.

So, yes, it is and exciting and extraordinary privilege to be part of this multicultural community called Redcliffe College. But, yes, we are also a gathering of sinners still in need of God’s grace every day. Which is why Rob’s text for today’s talk was Eph. 5:15-21. We need to walk with integrity, forgiving and being forgiven, cultivating thankfulness and seeing God at work in the nitty-gritty of life. This will be the true test of our spirituality this year: will we seek to love one another when the going gets tough?