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Does theology trump context? - Rev 1:4-5 (Monday with Mounce 172)
In the first chapter of Revelation, “grace. . . and peace”
is sent from three different sources: from God (“the one who is, and who was,
and who is to come”), from “Jesus Christ,” and from “the seven spirits before
[God’s] throne” (1:4-5). And who are the “seven spirits?” That‘s the question.
The customary answer is, “The Holy Spirit, of course.” The Trinity
is expected because “Father, Son and Holy Ghost” is such a well- known
ecclesiastical expression. However, the three-fold designation, “Father, Son
and Holy Spirit” occurs only once in the entire Bible (Matt 28:19). The
question is, to understand a Biblical word or phrase shall we turn to theology
The view that the “seven spirits” is a symbolic
representation of the Holy Spirit (seven being a number of completeness)
normally turns to the LXX rendering of Isa 11:2 for support. But the MT has
three couplets of two virtues each for a total of six, not seven. The NIV
refers to these six virtues as wisdom and understanding, counsel and might,
knowledge and fear of the Lord. Not a convincing exegetical base. The argument
that it would be improper to bracket anyone less with the Father and the Son is
weakened by passages such as Luke 9:26 and 1 Tim 5:21 where “holy/elect angels”
are found to serve that purpose.
So let’s turn to the larger context of Revelation and see
what we find. In 3:1 the seven spirits are coupled with the “seven stars” and
said to be held in the hand of Christ (cf. 1:20). It is difficult to see the
Holy Spirit in that role. In 4:5 the seven spirits are “seven torches of fire .
. . burning before the throne.” Again, a strange representation of the Holy
Spirit. And finally, in 5:6 the seven spirits are identified as “seven horns
and seven eyes.” Only if concern for theological precision is allowed to trump
the rather straight forward teaching of the text can it be said that “seven
spirits” are not seven spirits.
So who are the seven spirits? What we do know is that they
join the Father and the Son in expressing grace and peace to the churches, they
are under the control of the Son, they are torches of fire burning before the
throne, and they are the horns and eyes of the Lamb, sent out into all the
earth. The conclusion to which I came in my commentary on Revelation is that
they are best understood as “part of a heavenly entourage that has a special
ministry in connection with the Lamb” (p. 48).
The larger point that I want to support is that in biblical
matters, it is wise to begin with what is said rather than with the theological
structure we are building. If there is any “trumping” to be done, let it be
what God has said.
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