John, to the seven churches in Asia. Grace to you and peace from the One who is and who was and who is coming, and from the seven spirits that are before His throne.
Having looked at the “preface” to the book (1:1-3), we now turn to John’s introduction (1:4-8). Here he identifies himself, his audience, makes some references to the Old Testament, and prepares his readers for the rest of the book. There are some key principles John has in mind that he wants us all to remember as we read.
In our introduction, we discussed the authorship of Revelation, and we decided there’s no reason to doubt it was written by John the Apostle, the writer of the Gospel. Not only have we seen similarities between the writing style, but there are other factors that lead us to this conclusion. First, if “John” is a pseudonym, it’s a pretty lousy pseudonym. In the early centuries AD, writers might ascribe their work to someone well-known in order to give their work a sense of importance, or to make sure it was widely received (e.g., The Epistle of Barnabas, or The Gospel of Thomas–more than likely not written by these people). John was a very popular name, so to say this is from “John” is about as meaningless in that time as it would be in ours. John who? The fact John doesn’t specify further (the Baptist? the Beloved Disciple?) indicates his readers knew him. Given the early tradition concerning the Apostle and his close association with the church in Ephesus, it seems likely these churches knew him as the Apostle. Indeed, given the subject matter, it’s even more likely, I think, that his readers accepted his Apostolic authority.
We then encounter our first “seven” reference: John writes to “the seven churches in Asia.” I think it’s safe to assume these are the seven churches mentioned in chapters 2 and 3 (Ephesus, Smyrna, Sardis, Pergamum, Thyatira, Philadelphia, and Laodicia). We know there were more than seven churches in Asia Minor (he doesn’t mention Colossae), so why these seven? Why only seven? There are a couple of possible reasons, and more than one of these could be true. First, I think there’s no doubt that we are to understand “seven” in its symbolic sense as well as in the literal sense. We talked last week about how the number seven was the number of completion, fullness, or even perfection, based on the fact that God finished His work of creation in seven days (Genesis 2). Besides this, it’s possible these seven churches were the main communication centers of Asia Minor: letters to these churches would be sure to travel to other places. These may also have been the churches John knew best, or the churches that were most in need of this letter. It’s clear, however, that the intention was for this book to travel beyond those seven churches, and even beyond Asia Minor. If the use of “seven” isn’t convincing enough, we can note the fact that each letter in chapters 2 and 3 ends with an exhortation to hear what the Spirit is saying “to the churches”–not just the church addressed by that letter.
“Grace and peace” was a common greeting in letters of the period. Not that the sentiment isn’t sincere, but we should note that John is conforming to the letter standards of the time. This grace and peace is from “the One is and who was and who is coming.” In the original Greek, it appears John forgot Greek grammar 101, since he makes the elementary error of following the preposition apo with a series of nouns in the nominative case, not the genitive case. This is even more intriguing since he follows this with “from [apo] the seven spirits…” using the correct grammatical form, showing that he knew better. Rather than looking at this as a grammatical error, we should perhaps look at this as John’s way of drawing our attention to something. In the Greek translation of Exodus 3:14, God tells Moses, “I am the One who is…” using the same Greek word John used for “the One who is,” and using it in the nominative case, just as John did. In Isaiah 41:4 we see God speak of himself as “the one coming” using the same word that John uses. Also, there is evidence that these three terms were often grouped together in Jewish literature and used when speaking of God. So, John may well have preserved the original forms of the words, even going against the rules of grammar to do so, in order that his readers might make the connection between this phrase, Exodus 3:14, Isaiah 41:4, and what they may well have known from Jewish tradition. In other words, John isn’t making things up, and he’s not drawing from pagan ideas: the God he serves, the God who has communicated with him, is the same God as in the Old Testament, believed on by the Jews.
We then come to our second “seven” reference: “… and from the seven spirits that are before the throne of God.” Who are these seven spirits? Once again, I think we need to acknowledge that John intends the symbolic meaning of seven. And note that while the number is used symbolically, that doesn’t necessarily mean he doesn’t also refer to a physical, or actual seven (there were actually seven churches in Asia that he addressed, for example). In this case, however, we might have reason to believe “seven” is purely symbolic. Among the more popular ways this has been understood are:
- These seven spirits are the seven angels mentioned later with bowls and trumpets.
- The seven spirits are associated with each of the seven churches in the letters–i.e., they represent the Spirit working in each church.
- The seven spirits are symbolic of the complete and effectual working of the one Holy Spirit
I’m not convinced by the first option, but I see merit with the other two. Isaiah 11 speaks of the Messiah, and verse 2 describes the Spirit that will rest upon this “shoot of Jesse.” The Spirit is described as “The Spirit of the Lord… the Spirit of wisdom… of understanding… the Spirit of counsel… of might… the Spirit of knowledge… of the fear of the Lord.” It’s possible that these are the seven spirits before the throne: they are seven aspects of the one Spirit–the seven-fold Spirit of God. We’ll see in Revelation 3:1 where Christ is said to have “the seven spirits of God,” and 4:5 associates the lampstand of fire burning before the throne with “the seven spirits of God.” Also, 5:6 describes the Lamb with seven horns and seven eyes that it says are “the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth.” This recalls to mind John 14, where Jesus says he will pray to the Father, and he’ll send the Advocate, the Spirit of truth.
If we pull these strands together, what I think we get is a picture of the Holy Spirit who works in the lives of individual believers, but also in the life of the church. Among the many attributes of the Spirit are the seven described in Isaiah 11:2, which are all attributes the church needs. We as a church, as well as each of us individually, need the Spirit of the Lord, wisdom, understanding, godly counsel, might, knowledge, and fear of the Lord. The Spirit who is before the throne, our Advocate before the Father, is at work in the life of the church. He’s the one who empowers us, and the one we can call on to give us strength and wisdom. Not only is he the one sent out to us, but his is the strength by which we go out into the world. John’s audience certainly needed to draw strength and comfort from this reminder that they have an Advocate before the throne who greets them with grace and peace. Since we have the same Advocate, we too should also draw strength and comfort from this.
Another indicator that John intends the “seven spirits” to symbolize the Holy Spirit is the fact that verse 5 speaks of Jesus. And it’s with verse 5 that we’ll pick up next time.