For much of my life, I treated the Book of Revelation like foul-tasting medicine. I knew it was probably good for me, but if you gave me the chance, I’d avoid it.

That had a lot to do with the way I was taught to read Revelation. As a teenager, my youth group watched a movie that graphically pictured the horrors of being left behind on earth after true Christians escaped to heaven. It scared me. Later, I explored prophecy books that tried to connect the dots between current events in the Middle East and the Bible’s script for the end times. They confused me. So I gave up trying to understand Revelation. In effect, it became the appendix in the body of my Bible. Generally, I could happily ignore it; but if it caused too much trouble, I could live without it.

Even after training for Christian ministry, I lacked the confidence to preach or teach on Revelation. It was too mystifying, too violent, too weird. Its fantasy-like visions seemed to have little to say to the practical issues of daily Christian living. At most, they warned, “You’d better be ready, because the end could happen at any time!”

I wasn’t alone. Over the years, I’ve heard only small smatterings of preaching on Revelation, except occasionally on the “safer” parts, like Christ’s messages to the churches in chapters 2 and 3. Largely, Revelation’s life-giving message remains on mute for the church.

Correcting our lens

Like someone trying to wear the wrong glasses, I had a lens problem. My default setting involved reading Revelation through a prediction lens. Like many Christians, I viewed the Apocalypse primarily as a book of forecasts about what was going to happen in the future. John’s visions served as a kind of screenplay for end-times events, like the Battle of Armageddon or the rule of the Antichrist on earth. Reading through that lens, I struggled to find Revelation’s good news for God’s people today.

But what if we read Revelation through a different lens? What if, instead of using a prediction lens, we read it through a missional lens? Let me explain. Reading Scripture through a missional lens isn’t fundamentally about locating individual passages that support the cross-cultural mission of the church. Rather, it concerns what God is doing in the world to bring about salvation and healing at every level and how God’s people participate in that sweeping purpose.

Applying this principle to Revelation means that, instead of trying to decipher a game plan for the end times, we need to discover how Revelation bears witness to God’s massive mission to redeem and restore the whole creation—including people—through Christ, the slain and risen Lamb. Revelation shows us the ultimate goal of God’s loving purpose for the world, which is “making everything new” (Rev. 21:5).

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But that’s not all. Revelation also seeks to equip and energize God’s people to get caught up in what God is doing to bring about wholeness and redemption in the world. Instead of primarily foretelling the future, Revelation calls us to live as a foretaste of the future here and now. It enables Christian communities to embody God’s loving mission within our various life circumstances, even as we anticipate the time when God finally makes everything new.

As New Testament scholar Michael Gorman puts it, we need to read Revelation “not as a script for the future but as a script for the church.” The rest of this article will try to show that a missional reading of Revelation is more faithful to the form in which it appears, the context it addresses, the message it proclaims, and the hope it promises.

Image: Illustration by Jeffrey Kam
Reimagining the world

Let’s first consider the form in which Revelation comes to us. Like any book of the Bible, we need to ask: “What kind of writing is this?” Although Revelation shares aspects of both biblical prophecy (see Rev. 1:3) and letters (1:4, 9), above all, it belongs to a form of ancient writing known as apocalyptic literature. Far more familiar to John’s first readers than to us, apocalyptic literature runs thick with visions, symbols, and stories. It forces us to use our imaginations, something that many of us in the West, including myself, struggle to do.

Here’s the point: Revelation’s images and symbols are not intended to be read literally. This exposes one of the chief weaknesses of a predictive lens for interpreting Revelation. Those using it might assume, for example, that the infamous “mark of the beast” (Rev. 13:16–17) must refer to some physical implant or sign.

But in Revelation, the beast’s mark on the hand or forehead represents the opposite of God’s seal on the foreheads of his servants (Rev. 7:3; 9:4). Both are signs of ownership, symbolizing our allegiance to God and the Lamb or to Satan and the beast. Rather than a brand visible to the eye, our loyalties and lifestyles show whose name we bear.

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Revelation’s poetic visions are less about describing end-times events than calling Christian communities to reimagine their world. John draws from the popular apocalyptic symbols of his time to give Christians a transformed vision of the world they inhabit. This new way of seeing reveals what God is doing in the world (God’s mission) and how we can participate in what God is up to (the church’s mission). Revelation scholar Richard Bauckham wisely explains that John’s visions reveal God’s final purpose for human history so that God’s people, then and now, can reimagine the present from that perspective. In effect, John says, “This is the way things really are, from the vantage point of God’s end-time future and God’s heavenly throne.”

Here’s an example. In chapter 7, John envisions a vast multitude of people from every tribe, tongue, and nation standing before God’s throne, worshiping God day and night (vv. 9–17). That isn’t simply a projection of what it will look like someday, “when we all get to heaven.” It’s a picture that shapes who we are and why we’re here in the present. It calls the church to become a community in which barriers separating nation, tribe, race, and culture dissolve, despite the polarizing forces that surround us. It also hands us a vocation of inviting people of every language and nation to join the choir of worshipers of God and the Lamb, in anticipation of what we will someday be. We live as a sneak preview of God’s future now.

Reading in context

If John invited his readers to see their world differently, then we need to take seriously the context he addressed. In the first place, Revelation came as a word on target for local churches in specific missional settings in Roman Asia Minor. It called them to embody the good news of the slain and risen Lamb where they were.

And where they were wasn’t easy. These Christians lived in a world dominated by a Roman Empire that demanded ultimate allegiance, a world saturated with the civil religion of the emperor cult and the worship of the local gods that gave Caesar legitimacy. Everything from citywide festivals to private birthday parties became opportunities to honor the emperor. The imperial cult functioned like a contract with the populace of Asia Minor: Give Caesar his due, and the gods will grant you peace, security, and prosperity. Failure to conform was considered “unpatriotic” and disloyal. Christians who resisted faced the potential of persecution, ranging from social and economic exclusion to violent death (Rev. 2:10, 13).

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But an even greater threat bubbled up from the inside—the temptation to accommodate to the ways of the empire, perhaps to avoid pushback from the culture. Not every church responded to these outside and inside pressures in the same way. Some remained faithful in the face of suffering (Smyrna and Philadelphia), but the majority did not. For example, Christians in Pergamum and Thyatira compromised with the idolatrous practices of the prevailing Roman culture (2:14–15; 20–21). Those in Sardis and Laodicea were guilty of complacency, because of their own pride and prosperity (“I am rich…and do not need a thing”—Rev. 3:17).

Each of these churches, then, must read the rest of Revelation in light of its situation. Some need assurance that God who will defeat all powers that oppose him in the end. But for other, compromising communities, the remainder of Revelation jolts like an electric shock. John warns them to repent and embrace the way of the suffering Lamb—or risk facing “the wrath of the Lamb” (6:16).

The same is true for us. How we hear Revelation depends in part on our spiritual condition and need. Revelation still calls Christian communities across the globe to renounce the ways of worldly empires and faithfully bear witness to God and his loving mission.

John’s in-your-face symbol of Babylon in chapters 17 and 18 offers a prime example of how Revelation speaks a targeted word into its world. John uses this symbol to fix his crosshairs resolutely on Rome. Babylon, like Rome, sits on “seven hills” (17:9), and it fits the profile as “the great city” that rules over the earth (17:18). In chapter 18, John visualizes Rome’s economic exploitation of the empire to satisfy the expensive tastes of the elite. At the very bottom of a list of actual Roman imports, John names “human beings sold as slaves” (v. 13). Rome gets rich by treating human beings as mere commodities. No wonder God calls his people to “come out of [Babylon]” (v. 4)—to leave behind Babylon’s ways of thinking and living.

Babylon, however, is by no means chained to ancient Rome. No less than the affluent and arrogant Laodiceans, we must ask, “Where is Babylon today?” and “What does it mean for us to come out of Babylon?” Where do we bow to the idol of consumerism or participate in systems that exploit the weak to benefit the powerful? These aren’t simply matters of individual ethics; they are also part of our witness to a watching world.

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Keeping the right focus

Reading Revelation in light of God’s mission lifts the burden of having to don a prognosticator’s hat and figure out how John’s visions fit into some end-times script. Instead, we can focus on the big themes in Revelation’s story of God’s life-giving purpose for the world. These include the master symbols of Revelation—the heavenly throne and the slaughtered Lamb.

Both symbols find their sharpest focus in the theological heart of the book, chapters 4 and 5. There, God’s throne represents, in New Testament scholar Eugene Boring’s words, the “mission control of the universe.” If God rules every corner of creation, then no other powers, human or spiritual, can sabotage God’s redeeming purpose for all people and the whole world.

How does God accomplish this universal mission? Against all expectations, by a wounded Lamb! The slaughtered Lamb becomes Revelation’s defining symbol and the lens by which we are to understand the entire book, including its visions of judgment. The Lamb unlocks God’s magnificent plan to redeem every tribe and nation precisely because he suffers and dies (Rev. 5:9–10).

This symbol doesn’t tell us simply that God brings restoration to all creation through the crucified Jesus. It also shows us how that happens. God’s mission is lamb-like. God defeats all opposing powers, not by brute force and violence, like Caesar, but by self-giving love (Rev. 12:11). Today, Christians may be tempted to carry out God’s purposes by means of coercion and “othering” others—for example, by “taking our country back for God.” But such pressure techniques remain irreconcilable with a book that makes the center of universal worship a bleeding Lamb.

Where hope lies

Mass school shootings. A planet in crisis. Racially motivated attacks. A deadly pandemic. Floods of refugees from senseless wars. Not surprisingly, many Christians are tempted to feel pessimistic about the future.

Revelation offers genuine hope amid overwhelming circumstances. But that hope lies not in escaping this world and its tribulations by being raptured to heaven, nor simply in the promise of “a home in the sky when we die.” If we read John’s climactic vision of New Jerusalem (Rev. 21–22) in light of God’s mission, we see a future that profoundly shapes the present, extending hope in a fractured world.

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John’s picture of the New Jerusalem reveals God’s ultimate purpose for the world—the flourishing of humanity and all creation when God’s presence drenches the whole earth. But the new creation casts its light into the present, calling us to embody the life of New Jerusalem on the very streets of Babylon. What does New Jerusalem hope look like? Here are two examples.

First, New Jerusalem represents a healing community. The mission of the new creation is to bring about “the healing of the nations” (Rev. 22:2). That wholeness touches every wound that sin and evil have inflicted on humanity. But living as a trailer of the future calls us to become communities of hope and healing in and among the world’s nations today. I’ve seen one of my former students help start a network of such communities in his home area in Germany. They bring hope in a multitude of ways to refugees, urban youth, the elderly, the homeless, the unreligious. They recently intervened on behalf of a sex worker named Emanuela, helping her to complete desperately needed forms for health insurance, connecting her to a debt counselor, and giving her something even greater: unconditional love and friendship. In such acts, new creation breaks into the city.

Second, John envisions a restored creation. Revelation pictures New Jerusalem coming down to merge with a transformed earth (Rev. 21:2, 10). The city to come signifies ecological harmony and the flourishing of all creation. If God has a future for the earth, we cannot ignore massive threats to the environment and their harm to the world’s most vulnerable people.

Our response surely includes not only rethinking our lifestyles in view of their effect on God’s earth but also recognizing that advocacy on behalf of creation represents a legitimate missional calling, worthy of our prayer and support. A Rocha International, for example, makes a difference in places like Ghana’s Atewa Forest, where mining, illegal logging, and farm encroachment threaten the area’s huge biodiversity. Simultaneously, the organization helps ensure access to safe drinking water for five million Ghanaians. Revelation invites us to be agents of hope for people and for creation.

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We need to unmute Revelation. If we settle for reading it through a prediction lens, we likely will blur this book’s probing, hope-filled message for the church in mission, both then and now. Reading Revelation in light of God’s loving mission helps us hear the book’s call for our time—a call to become contrast communities of worship and witness, living out the pattern of the slaughtered Lamb. A call to forsake our cozy comfort with the consumerism, injustice, and idolatries of Babylon. A call to live as a foretaste of the future, caught up in God’s purpose to make everything new.

Dean Flemming is professor emeritus of New Testament and missions at MidAmerica Nazarene University. He is the author of Foretaste of the Future: Reading Revelation in Light of God’s Mission.

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Foretaste of the Future: Reading Revelation in Light of God's Mission
Foretaste of the Future: Reading Revelation in Light of God's Mission
IVP Academic
256 pp., 28.0
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