Methodist Church

The seven spirits of Revelation

GOD’S word can sometimes be full of puzzles. Those among us who are impatient with these will easily throw up our hands and move on to more mundane things, or walk away thinking that a mystery is a mystery and that’s that, and we are none the wiser.

However, since God is gracious, we believe that He seeks to communicate important things even while puzzling us. Thus, if we work at it with perseverance, we may yet solve the puzzle and behold its beauty. Even when we cannot solve the puzzle, we might still be able to get the point behind the giving of it.

Revelation has one such puzzle. At the beginning of Revelation, the reader is introduced to God — who is described as “the one who is, and who was, and who is to come” — Jesus Christ and the seven spirits before God’s throne (Rev 1.4-5).

The mention of the seven spirits is unique to Revelation. What are these? Do we have here a kind of a “nonanity” (nine-in-one being). If the concept of the trinity is already mentally trying what are we to do with a “nonanity”?

Poring through the commentaries, you would probably have come across the following two explanations. The sevens spirits may refer to seven principal angels. The Jews of John’s day speculated a lot about such heavenly beings (1 Enoch 20.1-8). John might then be joining in and calling them the seven spirits. The trouble with such an explanation is that Scriptures never mention a group of seven principal angels. Furthermore, no angel in the Bible is ever described as standing equal with God in sending grace to God’s people (1.4-5).

Some scholars have also suggested that the number seven refers to the seven functions of the Holy Spirit a là Isa 11.1-2. In the Hebrew text, which our English versions follow, only six functions are given. The Greek version of the Hebrew Bible gives seven instead, adding in the quality of “godliness”. It is true that NT writers often quote from the Greek version of the OT. Is John doing the same here and, by so doing, is he referring to the seven ministries of the Spirit?

A better way forward is to look at the occurrences of the seven spirits in Revelation. They are mentioned again in 3.1; 4.5 and 5.6. In all these occurrences, including 1.4, the seven spirits are connected with the throne of God and the Lamb (Christ). We are also informed that they are to be equated with the seven lamps blazing before God’s throne (4.5) and the seven eyes of the Lamb, and they are sent out into all the earth (5.6).

Seven spirits = seven lamps = seven eyes. The sense of mystery heightens. The only other biblical text where seven lamps, seven eyes and the Spirit are connected is Zechariah 4! Revelation 11 provides evidence that John knows this passage and has appropriated the symbolism of the two olive trees. This strengthens the consideration that John might be alluding to Zechariah 4 when he mentions the seven spirits.

If this is correct, what is John’s description of the Holy Spirit as seven spirits trying to tell us? First of all, seven is the number of fullness in Scripture. Thus, John may be referring to the fullness of the Spirit at work. But he actually wants to say more than that. He wants to lead his readers to consider Zechariah 4 as the proper context for the understanding of their current situation.

Zechariah 4 is well-known to many readers because of the famous quote: “not by might, nor by power but by my Spirit” (v. 6). Behind this pronouncement lay actually an implicit question. How are the promises of God to be realised when Israel is so small when compared to the might of the Persian empire? Israel is not to despise the day of small things, such as the rebuilding of a small temple. More importantly, such promises will be realised, not through might or power, but by God’s Spirit.

Unbeknownst to Israel, God’s Spirit is actually powerfully at work. This message was greatly relevant to John’s first readers because they also constituted the vulnerable and disfranchised minority. How were they to prevail against a Satanic empire? The answer remained the same: do not despise the day of small things and God’s work is to be accomplished not by might nor by power but by God’s Spirit.

How can the Christian church be successful in its work for God when it is the despised minority? The answer is still the same. How can a pastor build up a church when resources are so small? How can a small church ever make an impact for God in this strife-torn and sin-ridden world? The answer remains the same.

Dr Tan Kim Huat has just been appointed the Chen Su Lan Professor of New Testament at Trinity Theological College. He is the Dean of Postgraduate Studies.