When the seventh angel sounded the seventh trumpet, “voices” (note the plural) announced:
The kingdom of the world has become
the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah,
and he will reign for ever and ever.
This, I believe, is the fundamental agenda of the Apocalypse, that is, to announce the coming of the kingdom of God which consumes the kingdoms of this world. The kingdom of God is breaking into the world and ultimately destroys the principalities and powers (to use Paul’s language) that presently de facto rule the cosmos. God will not let that stand since it de jure belongs to God’s reign.
The Structure of the Apocalypse
Revelation 4-16 is the second of four visions. A superficial reading of the Apocalypse will notice how often John uses the language of “then I saw” or “I looked,” etc. John is a seer–he sees what God will do; he sees the present and coming reign of God.
The four visions in Revelation are highlighted by the four-fold use of “in the Spirit.” This is the language of Ezekiel 37:1 when Ezekiel was carried to the valley of bones. This phrase appears in the following places in Revelation:
- Revelation 1:10 — John sees the risen Christ on the isle of Patmos.
- Revelation 4:2 — John watches events unfold from the heavenly throne room
- Revelation 17:3 — John watches events unfold from an earthly wilderness
- Revelation 21:10 — John inspects the New Jerusalem from a high mountain on the New Earth.
This visionary notation structures the Apocalypse into four visions (a fuller schematic outline is available here):
- Vision One - The Kingdom Begun: Jesus Has Overcome (Revelation 1:9-3:22)
- Vision Two — The Kingdom Comes: The Heavenly Perspective (Revelation 4-16)
- Vision Three – The Kingdom Comes: The Earthly Perspective (Revelation 17-21:8)
- Vision Four — The Kingdom Fully Realized in the New Jerusalem (Revelation 21:9-22:7)
The Structure and Progress of the Second Vision
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 beasts (the world powers) 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 the 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–perhaps symbolized by 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–and then defanged.
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 beasts) 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 beasts. 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.
The Second Vision as the Heart of the Apocalypse
The second vision is the bulk of the book and, in many ways, its heart. This section literally unveils (reveals) the work of God in the world. Sitting on the isle of Patmos and living in the urban centers of Asia Minor, the imperial power of Rome appears dominant and controlling. Who can oppose it? And where is God when the saints are martyred and the church has been placed under a hostile siege? While the first vision encourages the faithful and confronts the problems in the seven churches, the second vision pulls back the curtain to peer into the heavenly throne room. Taken up into that throne room, John sees what is really real, what the true state of affairs is.
The second vision announces that God is on his throne and Ceaser has not deposed him. It announces that the Lamb has made the redeemed a kingdom of priests. It dramatizes the opening of the scroll that contains the destiny of the cosmos itself–the scroll is taken by the Lamb from the hand of the one who sits on the throne, its seven seals are opened, seven trumpets hearld its opening, and the seven bowls of wrath are poured out upon the kingdoms of the world (partial content of the scroll).
The second vision encourages readers to believe what they cannot see. God is enthroned even though the world looks chaotic and hostile. The kingdom of God will fill the earth even though the kingdoms of the world look impregnable. The Lamb is also a Lion–a king–who will defeat the enemies of God and secure the realm for God. The Lamb and his followers will sing a new song, a song of redemption, as they celebrate the victory of God in the world.
The second vision is not simply about Rome but it is the fight (war, struggle) that has been played out within the fallen world ever since the kingdom of darkness first entered God’s good creation. It is the struggle of the children of Seth against the children of Cain in Genesis. It is the struggle of Israel against the nations, the struggle of Yahweh against the gods of the nations. It is the struggle of Jesus against the demons, and it is the struggle in which believers are engaged against principalities and powers (and not simply against flesh and blood). It is a struggle that continues today in multiple forms.
The conflict between the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of this world is embedded in the biblical story from beginning to end. The Apocalypse, through the eyes of John, unveils the progression and conclusion of that struggle. The significance of the Apocalypse for contemporary believers is not the specific prediction of specific historical events but the assurance that the struggle is not in vain. God’s kingdom is coming, is even now present, and will ultimately triumph over the kingdoms of this world.