The Apocalypse’s second vision (Revelation 4-16) has a well-defined literary structure. The structure shapes the plot and progression of the drama’s movement. Below is a way of picturing this structural development:
The Heavenly Throne Room: The Sealed Scroll is Seized (4-5)
The Seven Seals are Opened (6:1-8:1)
The Seven Trumpets Herald the Opening of the Scroll (8:1-11:19)
Pause: Seven Participants in the Drama are Identified (12-14)
The Seven Bowls are Poured Out (15-16)
John watches this drama from the setting of the heavenly throne room. He is taken up into the heavenlies in order to observe how God will defeat the kingdom of the beast (world) and at the same time redeem the followers of the Lamb. John has a “God’s eye view” of the events–he sees them from above rather than from below (he sees the third vision in Revelation 17:1-21:8 from below; he is taken to the wilderness to experience the brokenness of the world).
The sevens, a number that symbolizes wholeness or completeness, link the drama together. This begins in the throne room where the “seven spirits of God” (Revelation 4:5; a reference to the Holy Spirit, I think, given the parallel with Revelation 1:4) are present before the throne of God. Then there are seven seals, seven trumpets, seven thunders (which are silenced), seven actors in the drama and seven bowls. The number unites the vision.
Further, the drama is progressive. The judgments associated with the opening of the seals affect only one-fourth of the earth (Revelation 6:8), but the judgments associated with the heralding of the trumpets affects one-third of the earth (Revelation 8:12). The seven bowls, however, envelop the whole earth (Revelation 16:14). The transitions between the scenes are headed/ended by the language of “thunders, voices, lightnings, and an earthquake” (Revelation 4:5; 8:5; 11:19; 16:18). This is language of divine presence and action; it is the language of Sinai (Exodus 19:16-19). The covenant God reigns and acts. The God of Sinai is still active in the world.
Some, at least in my experience, tend to think that the God of the Old Testament was more involved in the history of the world than is the God of the New Testament. In the Hebrew Scriptures, for example, God raises up kings and brings them down. Yahweh moves nations, orchestrates their boundaries and times, and is actively purusing a divine agenda in their relationships (even when those relations are hostile). The God of the Greek Scriptures, it is said, is no longer involved in that way. Indeed, perhaps God is not involved at all except for encouraging the spread of the gospel.
The Apocalypse undermines any such Marcionite dichotomy. History–the scroll–is in the hand of God and the one who sits on the throne is calling the shots in the unfolding drama of the Apocalypse. Like Yahweh, the God of Jesus Christ uses nations, kings and powers for a divine agenda. They serve God; God does not serve them.
The throne in heaven initiates the drama within human history that will culminate in the kingdom of God. The Lamb opens the seals, seven angels who stand before God sound the trumpets, and the seven plagues (bowls) come from the heavenly temple itself. The beasts of the Apocalypse are given power–empowered but also limited by the one who sits on the throne.
God is an active agent and power within human history. Yahweh still sits on the throne and rules the cosmos. That reign, within the drama of the second vision, is increasingly and progressively manifested until Babylon (the kingdom of the beast) falls and the Lamb is enthroned on Mount Zion (e.g., the New Jerusalem).
The Lamb is God’s agent in the world. The Lion is a slain Lamb who has overcome or triumphed over evil. The followers of the Lamb overcome as well. Followers of the Lamb overcome through faithful witness (including martyrdom) rather than through violent revolution. The Kingdom of God shows up through a suffering lamb and slaughtered followers.
God will avenge the blood of the saints, but the saints follow the Lamb as faithful witnesses in a hostile world. God protects those who have the Father’s name stamped on their forehead and God will defeat the kingdom of the beast. God will fully realize his kingdom just as we pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is heaven.” The followers of the Lamb overcome through endurance, faithfulness, and prophetic witness.
This does not mean that followers of the Lamb are passive in their relation to the kingdom of the beast. They actively pursue the agenda of the heavenly kingdom in terms of righteousness, peace and joy, but they are not violent revolutionaries. They follow the Lamb that was slain and leave the rest to God.
We are followers of the Lamb. We follow him wherever he goes (Revelation 14:4). We follow him to martyrdom, to self-sacrifice. Indeed, we are the sacrifical firstfruits that God has purchased and offered (Revelation14:4). We follow the Lamb to the slaughter, but also into a new life. We follow the Lamb into the grave but into a new creation. We follow the Lamb to the cross and into the joy of the New Jerusalem.
We are lambs–just as Jesus was as he walked upon the earth suffering for our sakes. We follow the path of sacrifical suffering, redemptive suffering. But God has not forgotten. God will redeem and avenge his lambs. Though lambs are still led to the slaughter, the kingdom of God is coming and will come. God will remember his covenant.