I ended my lectures on Revelation at Duke this past term, in both my own class on the book and in Susan Eastman’s NT Intro, where I was a guest lecturer, with the following paragraph:
Revelation concludes the canon; it completes God’s story. It is the last book of the Christian Bible. Perhaps it would not be too bold to suggest that if the church of Jesus Christ is to be faithful to its vocation in the 21st century, the book of Revelation—especially its vision of the slaughtered, victorious, and coming Lamb—needs to become more central to our worship, our spirituality, our practices. Perhaps, in a profound way, the last book of the Bible needs to become the church’s first book.
What would it mean if Revelation were taken as the first book of Christian mission, as the key to a missional hermeneutic? As a working proposal, I think this makes a lot of sense. After all, as I suggest above, the book of Revelation is the telos of the Christian Bible, and it contains the telos of the divine story. In that sense, it is analogous in a way to Christ himself, who is the telos of the Law, according to Paul (Rom 10:4). In both cases, we should take telos to mean “end” in the sense of both conclusion and, more importantly, goal.
If Revelation reveals the goal of the divine, biblical narrative and thus the goal of human existence (salvation), then what we see at the end of the end–that is, in Rev 21:1-22:5 (and related texts)–gives us both a picture of the telos and the contours of Christian mission: bearing witness in the present to the future, the telos.
Revelation 7, one of my favorite NT texts, briefly depicts the
“great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. 10They cried out in a loud voice, saying, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!’ ”
This perpetual multicultural liturgy embodies the universal salvation brought in Christ: the reconciliation (one loud voice) of the peoples of the earth to one another and to their creator and redeemer.
In Rev 21:1-22:5 we find additional images of this salvation: the presence of God the absence of suffering and evil; the lush urban garden with beautiful walls and streets, and trees that have perpetual fruit and leaves for the healing of the nations.
What does it mean to bear witness, in advance, now, to this telos, this salvation? That is, it seems to me, the first, burning missional question that we must face. The answer will by necessity be both “vertical” and “horizontal.” That is, it will involve human-to-God and human-to-human relationships. And it will, I suggest, mean witnessing to the physicality and the beauty of the new creation, which has already begun (2 Cor 5).