July 21: Revelation 1:4, etc

Revelation 1:4; 3:1; 4:5; 5:6

In these notes on the development of traditions regarding the Spirit of God in the New Testament, all that remains is to consider the Johannine writings—the Gospel and Letters of John—along with the book of Revelation. The references to the Spirit in the Gospel and Letters were discussed, at great length, in an earlier study series entitled …Spirit and Life (taken from Jn 6:63). I will not attempt to repeat that extensive word study and exegesis here, limiting myself to a closing (summary) note. However, in the case of the book of Revelation, it is perhaps worth giving a little more attention to the way this writing refers to the Spirit. I am thus including here portions of an earlier article from the aforementioned study series. In the book of Revelation, the word pneu=ma (“spirit”) is used in two distinctive ways which differ markedly from the Gospel and Letters: (1) references to “seven Spirits” of God, and (2) the prophetic role and work of the Spirit. The first of these will be discussed today, the second in the note following.

Four times in the book (1:4; 3:1; 4:5; 5:6), we read of “seven Spirits”, an idea that is unique to the book of Revelation among the New Testament writings. Christians have variously sought to associate this number seven with the Holy Spirit, often in terms of seven “gifts” or “attributes”, such as the traits listed in Isa 11:2-3. However, it would seem that these seven “Spirits” should be considered as distinct from the Holy Spirit, and identified instead with heavenly beings (i.e. “angels”). The evidence for this is:

    • Psalm 104:4 refers to God’s Messengers (“angels”) as “Spirits” and also as “flames of fire” (much like the seven Spirits in 4:5)
    • These “Spirits” are located in heaven, surrounding the throne of God, similar to the fiery/heavenly beings in Isa 6:1ff and Ezek 1:4-28, as well as the “living creatures” elsewhere in the book of Revelation. The image seems to be drawn most directly from Zech 4:2, 10, where the the seven lamps are said to function as God’s “eyes” (Rev 5:6, messengers sent out into the world). The idea of seven angels surrounding God’s throne generally follows Jewish tradition (cf. Tobit 12:15; 1 Enoch 20:1-7, etc).
    • These “Spirits” are treated as distinct from Jesus Christ in a way that would be most unusual if it were meant to refer to the Holy Spirit (cf. 1:4)
    • They are clearly connected with the “seven congregations” of chaps. 2-3, each of which has a Messenger (“Angel”) associated with it. In Israelite/Jewish tradition, certain heavenly Messengers were assigned to particular nations, groups or individuals (for protection, etc). This interpretation is more or less made explicit in 2:20.

How should this be understood in terms of the traditions regarding the Spirit of God in early Christianity? By all accounts, it appears to be unique, reflecting a kind of imagery that is present here in the book of Revelation only as a result of the various apocalyptic traditions that have been preserved in the book. Probably the closest, and most relevant, parallel is to be found is several visionary texts from Qumran—most notably the so-called “Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice”. This fascinating work (discussed in an earlier article) involves a detailed visionary description of the heavenly sanctuary, within which many different “spirits” are present; indeed, the sanctuary itself is depicted as a living entity, made up of divine/heavenly spirits. As in the book of Revelation, the number seven also plays a key role in the visionary landscape.

According to these Songs, especially in and around the inner sanctuary, there are “holy spirits” —spirits of God, and even those holiest of the holy ones (“spirits of the holy of holies”). It would seem that these spirits all appear in bright, fiery colors, drawing their life and energy from the spirit of God Himself. This last point is not entirely clear, but it is suggested by the fascinating wording at the beginning of one fragment: “…complete [i.e. perfect] light, multi-colored(ness) of (the) spirit of the holy of holies”. In any case, they are depicted as colorful flames that surround God’s throne in the inner chamber. The spirits of the inner shrine all praise God together. This depiction of the spirits before God’s throne in the inner sanctuary is reasonably close to the imagery in Revelation 1:4, etc; certainly, there is no other known Jewish or early Christian source from the period that contains comparable imagery.

In the remainder of the book, pneu=ma specifically refers to the activity and role of the Spirit (of God) in prophecy—the revealing of God’s word and will, to be communicated to God’s people (believers) by a chosen representative. This will be discussed in the next daily note.