Saturday, October 12, 2013

The Seven Spirits Who Are Before His Throne

4John to the seven churches that are in Asia:
Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, 5and from Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth.
To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood 6and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. 7Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him. Even so. Amen.
8“I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.”
(Revelation 1:4-8)

Not that it bares directly on our study of the Book of Revelation but it is worth noting that the Book of Revelation is also an epistle (or letter). Although Revelation was authored by the Apostle John and considered by him to be an epistle to the churches, today we never classify it among the epistles. Likewise, The Gospel of Luke and The Acts of the Apostles, (both of which were written as letters) are never found numbered among the New Testament epistles. Revelation contains, in fact, seven letters or epistles (all with a common Apostolic introduction)  addressed to "the seven churches that

 are in Asia". In John's time, Asia was a province of the Roman Empire located on the western tip of  the modern day country of Turkey. The seven churches of the Roman Provence of Asia to which the seven letters were addressed were Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea.

1. Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ (Rom 1:7; 1 Cor 1:3; 2 Cor 1:2; Gal 1:3; Eph 1:2: Phil 1:2; Col 1:2; 1 Thess 1:1; 2 Thess 1:2; 1 Tim 1:2; 2 Tim 1:2; Titus 1:4; Phil 1:2; 1 Pet. 1:2; 2 Pet. 1:2; 2 Jn  1:3; Rev 1:4-5) … This phrase or a phrase very similar to it is included in the Apostolic greeting of the writings of Paul, Peter, and John  in 17 of the New Testament books.  The New Testament books that do not include this greeting are the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) Acts, Hebrews, James, 1 John, 3 John, and Jude.

In the apostolic greeting of Revelation, John follows the establish form but also does something quite unusual - (1) instead of using the words "God our Father" he inserts descriptive devices for God, i.e., "from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne,". (2) The second thing John does in this greeting is provide adjectival descriptions of the Son even though Jesus is also named.

2. In this we have our first introduction to the apocalyptic language of Revelation and it is beneficial at this point to ask the question - 'How do we know that the phrase "from him who is and who was and who is to come, …" is really saying the same thing as "God"? The phrase is "churchy" sounding, and perhaps most readers take it for granted that these words do in fact refer to God. But in truth, the reason, we know these "churchy" sounding words refer exclusively to God and never to another is that this is exactly how God referred to Himself in Revelation 1:8: "I am the Alpha and the Omega," says the Lord God, "who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty (emphasis added)." So, rather than just accepting that this phrase is a phrase that means the same thing as God because it sounds "churchy", we used the analogy of faith to compare the unclear wording in verse 4 to the clear passage found in verse 8 to arrive at its intended meaning.

3. John also wrote "Grace and peacefrom the seven spirits who are before his throne,…". What does this phrase mean? We know that God is a Trinity-- Father, Son, and Spirit. Is it possible that John is uniquely recording the only greeting to the church from the Holy Spirit in the New Testament in this part of verse 4? The Book of Revelation is certainly unique so a one of a kind greeting recorded in this book does not seem to be out of bounds. The answer to the question is 'yes', this is a possibility. Many highly qualified, pious, godly, and careful commentators on this passage have made exactly this point.  A brief (but I hope not inaccurate) description of how they arrive at this conclusion comes by way of noting that the number seven is the number of completion and perfection and is always associated with God or the works of God. Thus the phrase "seven spirits" is another way of referring to the Spirit.

I do not however agree with this conclusion for several reasons. Note, however, that I am far less qualified to disagree with these great men of God than most people on this planet. But I do, so first I will provide a negative case as to why I do not agree that an interpretation which makes the seven spirits a synonym for the Holy Spirit is the best interpretation of this passage.   Second, I will build a positive case using the analogy of faith showing that the seven spirits of Rev 1:4 can best be understood as a way of speaking of the omniscience of God.

4. The Negative Case: As will be discussed in more detail below, the seven spirits of God are mentioned in Revelation four times. The Spirit, as in the Holy Spirit, is also specifically mentioned in Revelation 9 times (2:7; 2:11; 2:17; 2:29; 3:6: 3:13; 13:22; 14:13; and 22:17). I do not see a correspondence when comparing the 4 mentions of the seven spirits with the (Holy) Spirit in any of the 9 passages listed above which causes me to think that John intended the seven spirits of God first mentioned in 1:4 to be a synonym for the The Spirit. Further, when there is an unambiguous quote from the Spirit (Rev 14:13 and 22:17) John records "The Spirit says…" and "The Spirit and the Bride say "Come"" (emphasis added).

5. The Positive Case: In the 66 Books of the Bible, the seven spirits (before God's throne) are mentioned 5 times. Four of the 5 mentions are in the Book of Revelation (1:4; 3:1; 4:5; and 5:6), the 6th is found in the Old Testament book of  Zechariah (4:10). The first 2 references in Revelation (1:4 and 3:1) are the same; new information about the seven spirits however is introduced in Rev 4:5 and Rev 5:6. We will discuss Revelation 3:1 and 4:5 a bit later, for now I would like to draw your attention to Revelation 5:6 where John records these words "And between the throne…I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, with seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth (emphasis added). Notice the relationship between the eyes of the lamb and the seven spirits. John says these seven spirits are sent out into all the earth. This is very similar to the mention in Zechariah 4:10 (b) which reads: " "These seven are the eyes of the LORD, which range through the whole earth." Again, the number seven is the sign of completeness or of perfection that is associated with God and His works. It is not unreasonable to conclude that the "seven spirits" introduced in Rev 1:4 "are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth" mentioned in Rev 5:6. Moreover, we saw a similar prophetic usage in Zach 4:10.

The phrase "from him who is and who was and who is to come" refers, as we have seen, to God. It also is another way of referring to the fact that God is omnipresent (meaning present in all places at all times).  Similarly, the phrase "the seven spirits who are before his throne," which are sent out and range through the whole earth refers to the omniscience of God being descriptive of his unlimited understanding and knowledge.

6. Conclusion: Using the analogy of faith, It is as if 1:4 could be rendered in this way - John to the seven churches that are in Asia: Grace to you and peace from the one and only omnipresent and omniscient God...

But what was John's purpose in writing the Apostolic greeting in this manner? The answer to this question is going to have to wait a bit though while we continue examining Revelation when we pick back up at verse 5 of Chapter 1 in the next post. 

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