Flemming, Dean. Foretaste of the Future: Reading Revelation in Light of God’s Mission. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2022. 244 pp. Pb; $28. Link to IVP Academic
Dean Flemming (PhD, University of Aberdeen) is professor emeritus of New Testament and missions at MidAmerica Nazarene University (Olathe, Kansas) and has served as a missionary educator in Asia and Europe. Flemming has published several works on the mission God, including Why Mission? (Reframing New Testament Theology) (Abingdon, 2015) and several academic articles and chapters on missio dei and contextualization of the Gospel.
A missional reading of the Apocalypse leads us to explore the book’s understanding of what God is up to in the world (God’s mission) and how God’s people, both in John’s time and our own, are called to be part of that mission (our mission), in our various global settings” (208). He defines the mission of God at various points in the book, but for a more detailed discussion of what Flemming means by this phrase, see his Recovering the Full Mission of God (IVP, 2013). For many readers, Revelation is not about mission at all, but predictions of future events at the end of the world. Flemming strenuously disagrees: “Revelation is not about scripting future events but revealing God’s great purpose to redeem and restore the whole of creation, including people, through the mission of the slain lamb. At the same time, Revelation seeks to shape Christian communities to take part in God’s saving purpose by living as a foretaste of God’s coming new creation, through their lips and through their lives” (3). This approach grounds Revelation in the social context of the first century Greco-Roman world, but his view is always on how the present church takes part in the mission of God today.
Chapters 2-4 deal with the major characters of Revelation, God, the Lamb, and the Church. Flemming contextualizes Revelation in the culture of first century Asia Minor. This includes the imperial cult and the claims of the empire. For Flemming, “the greatest threat was not persecution as such but rather the temptation to cozy up to the ways of the dominant Roman culture, perhaps to avoid persecution” (39). Revelation must also be set into the context of the whole Old Testament. Revelation extensively uses the Old Testament, John “wallpapers Revelation with biblical echoes and allusions…John re-contextualizes and adapts them” for his theological and pastoral purposes (31). By setting Revelation in the proper context, there are many points in the book where Flemming expresses an anti-imperial reading of Revelation. But this is passive resistance to the Roman Empire. He cites Richard Hays, “A work that places a slaughtered lamb that was slaughtered at the center of its praises and worship can hardly be used to validate violence and coercion” (63).
Focusing on the seven churches in Revelation 2-3, Flemming rightly observes Revelation turns out to be one of the most important sources for ecclesiology in the New Testament. He observes several implications for missional reading of Revelation in these chapters. First, God’s people are to be priests and rulers, with echoes of the exodus. Second, God’s people are sealed and redeemed (Revelation 7:1-8; 14:1-5). Third, God’s people are universal and uncountable. This speaks to the wide ethnic diversity of God’s people. Revelation tells the church of any age and any location, “despite present setbacks or pushbacks, your faithful witness will produce a rich harvest in the end” (93).
The next unit of the book treats major themes of Revelation. First, Revelation describes mission as witness (ch. 5). Revelation has a clear theme of being a faithful witness in the face of suffering (the faithful witness of Antipas; 2:13; cf., 17:6). A faithful testimony of Jesus is “an act of countercultural resistance” (102). For Flemming, the two witnesses symbolize the church (105). The two witnesses are, therefore, “like a parable for the witnessing church in every generation” (110). The fire in Revelation 11:4 is not a literal consuming fire but a symbol of the powerful testimony of the church (109). He does not explain how causing droughts, turning the waters to blood, and striking people with every kind of plague relate to the preaching of the gospel (11:6).
Chapter six deals with reading Revelation missionally and the judgements described in the book. The earth’s inhabitants “must decide either repent and give glory to the maker of everything or continue in your pigheaded pursuit of the worshiping of the beast” (125). John’s descriptions of destruction in Revelation are “symbols of God’s complete victory over sin and evil, and not literal descriptions of how that happens” (132). However, I wonder. The models which John uses from the Old Testament were actual, literal destruction. John models his descriptions on the Exodus, for example, and possibly the great slaughter of the Assyrian armies in 2 Kings 19:35–36. Although Flemming is certainly correct, Revelation does not provide a code for predicting current and near future events. Jewish apocalyptic literature (whether canonical or non-) usually expects real persecution of God’s people and a spectacular slaughter of God’s enemies.
A key theme in Revelation is mission and worship (ch.7). Commentators often observe that worship is an important Revelation; nearly every chapter includes a worship scene. As Flemming says, Revelation “is peppered with ritual acts” (141). Worship in Revelation announces God’s saving purpose. But worship also confronts the world as it is. This takes a political turn: Revelation asks, “who is worthy of worship? God or empire?” Imperial worship served as a social contract for maintaining a stable empire. Revelation is clear: worship of the beast needs to be resisted even if this leads to persecution or death. Christians resist Rome’s claims by non-participation in public liturgical practice” (154).
This leads to mission in politics chapter eight. How can politics be missional? He argues that a missional reading of scripture is always profoundly political (185). Flemming focuses this chapter on Revelation 13. The beast is an anti-imperial parody of the lamb (cf. Revelation 17, the whore of Babylon) Flemming argues that the name of the beast refers to Caesar. This is an excellent opportunity to discuss civil religion in a contemporary context. For Flemming, nationalism is idolatry. Revelation describes Babylon as economically exploitive, arrogant, violent, and dehumanizing of outsiders. He draws clear analogies to contemporary American political discourse. What is Revelation’s solution? Leave Babylon! Get out of the empire by rejecting greed and re-humanizing outsiders such as the poor and refugees. (Essentially, return to Old Testament prophetic social ethics, or the Jesus oriented social ethics found in the Sermon on the Mount, although Flemming does not make the point this way).
He briefly discusses the problem of reconciling Romans 13 with Revelation 13. Flemming says this is a classic example of contextualizing the gospel (171). Paul and John are addressing much different situations. This post on Reading Revelation as anti-imperial cult.
Chapter 9 discusses the new heaven and new earth. Even the new Jerusalem can be read in the context of mission. The new Jerusalem “drenches the whole earth in God’s presence” (190). Therefore, the aim of the church now should be shaped by this goal. Local churches ought to live as a preview and, the real presence of the new world which is to come. Finally, chapter 10 provides a helpful summary of a missional reading of Revelation with thirteen points of application drawn from the theology of the book. Flemming could expand each of these points into another book!
The book is illustrated with images drawn from ancient manuscripts and text boxes with salient quotes from scholars and other literature. Flemming writes for a wide range of readers, often referring to pop-culture (including a reference to Joni Mitchell’s Woodstock when describing the New Jerusalem, something I regularly do in my classes!)
One word of critique. Throughout the book, Flemming is clear that he has no time for any future predictions in the Book of Revelation. This is a common view in scholarship and one with which I do not completely disagree. However, I think he overplays dispensationalism’s view of the Rapture. For example, very few contemporary dispensationalists think Revelation 4:1 is about the Rapture. Quoting musician Larry Norman as a representative of dispensational theology is not at all fair (see page 4, for example). There are dispensational commentaries on Revelation by legitimate dispensational scholars, which would better serve Flemming’s argument. Describing a dispensationalist approach to Revelation as “pie-in-the-sky” by quoting novels and fifty-year-old popular songs is a strawman argument.
Conclusion. Flemming is correct: Revelation is more about unmasking the present than unveiling the future. Throughout the book, his application of Revelation’s symbols to first century world is clear and on point. His application to contemporary culture is challenging for readers in both America and throughout the world.
NB: Thanks to IVP Academic for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.