In greeting the seven churches, John spends more time speaking about the God Who greets them than he does talking about the churches being greeted because the focus of the church should be on God.
(4) John to the seven churches which are in Asia: Grace be unto you, and peace, from him which is, and which was, and which is to come; and from the seven Spirits which are before his throne;
(5) And from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, and the first begotten of the dead, and the prince of the kings of the earth.
The Greeting “Formula”
“Grace be unto you, and peace…” is a typical form of greeting in the epistles. It was a Hebrew form of greeting that was adopted into the Christian vocabulary. As usual with this sort of greeting, it’s significance is rooted in the One giving the grace and peace. In the Hebrew greeting, that One was always understood to be the God of heaven. Just as in his gospels, John is adamant, even in his greeting, to point out the deity of Christ. Just as God the Father is able to give grace and peace, so is His Son, Jesus Christ and right away he draws parallels between God and Christ.
The Persons Behind the Greeting
God the Father
Our grace and peace come from “him which is, and which was, and which is to come.” This hints at the outline of the book, but more importantly emphasizes the eternality and completeness of God the Father.
God the Holy Spirit
The phrase “and from the seven Spirits which are before his throne” is a controversial one. Some hold that these seven spirits refer to angels, but this presents several problems:
- If these are angels, it puts them on a level with God, since here they are with the Father and the Son giving grace and peace, which everywhere else in the New Testament is a distinction given only to deity.
- It opens the door for angel worship. John attributes the ability to bestow grace and peace to deity. He clearly identifies both the Father and the Son as givers of grace and peace and therefore worthy of our worship. The seven spirits are also in the same verse granting grace and peace and therefore worthy of worship. It cannot be denied that these seven spirits represent deity, but to say they are angels puts at least these seven angels in line for worship. Not to be irreverent, but the last angel who tried that was kicked out of heaven (Isaiah 14).
- The Greek says, “seven spirits,” not “seven angels.” While angels are described as ministering spirits, when angels are referred to in Scripture, they are called angels. Angels are nowhere called “spirits of God.” Such a reference would be improper.
Well, if the “seven Spirits” are not angels, then what are they? That phrase is simply another way of referring to the Holy Spirit. While even this position has arguments against it, it seems to be the most plausible for a number of reasons:
- The only member of the Trinity not otherwise mentioned in this greeting is the Holy Spirit. When Christ was first introduced to the world by John the Baptist, all three members of the Trinity were present. (See Matthew 3) It seems only fitting when the Lord is introduced to us in heaven, that all three members of the Trinity should be there.
- Why “seven Spirits?” Why not? What is wrong with Scripture using figurative language to represent something, or someone?
- Why “seven?” Seven is “God’s number.” It represents completeness. God finished creating on the sixth day and rested on the seventh because His work was complete. That His Spirit should be represented by seven beings (or as a seven-fold Being) is not that much of a stretch.
- To see the “seven Spirits” as a colorful reference to the Holy Spirit solves all the worship problems presented when it is argued they are seven angels. The Holy Spirit is deity. He is worthy of worship. He can and does bestow grace and peace. He is known for that.
- Why is He before the throne? Not to sound irreverent, but He is the most active of the Trinity, in the sense that He is the one who moves the most. He is the one that woos men to Christ, that brings people to conviction, that moves in the hearts and minds of believers. He is the One Who indwells us. It would make sense that He would be before the throne (as opposed to on it) since He is constantly on the move.
God the Son
John is completely unambiguous when referring to Christ in his greeting: “And from Jesus Christ.” The Giver of this message is the Lord Jesus Christ. He is the focus of the book and the primary member of the Trinity that moves the action along. As he introduces us to Christ, there are certain aspects of His character that John points out:
- He is the faithful witness. Faithful in the sense that He has always faithfully communicated the will of His Father to mankind. (John 8:38a. See also John 7:16, 8:28.) Faithful also in the sense that His Word is completely reliable. We can count on the fact that what He is telling us is in fact true. (See passages such as John 14:2.)
- He is the first-begotten of the dead. The Greek word is prototokos which literally means “first to beget.” The word naturally has a chronological element to it, but it also has a positional element to it. This is how it is applied to Christ with regard to His resurrection. The emphasis is on how His resurrection is first in priority and importance. You could argue that the widow’s son raised by Elijah (1 Kings 17:17-24) was first-begotten of the dead, or that Lazarus was first-begotten of the dead (John 11:38-44) since both of these resurrections, chronologically speaking, happened before the resurrection of Christ, but both of those individuals died again. Christ’s resurrection was a resurrection to immortality and the first of its kind. It was prototypical of the resurrection that believers who die in Christ will one day experience. It’s why we call it the His is pre-eminent because since He lives, we live also!
- Prince of the kings of the earth. Just as He is pre-eminent in His resurrection, He is pre-eminent in His authority as well. “All power [authority] is given unto me in heaven and in earth” (Matthew 28:18). This is more than just a claim. He has not just the authority over all princes, He has the might to enforce that authority, too. (Revelation 17:14; 19:16) The Lord raises kingdoms up and puts them down as He pleases. When speaking of the dreaded Assyrian onslaught in Isaiah’s day, God referred to the Assyrians as “the rod of [His] anger, and the staff [representative of authority] in their hand [as His] indignation” (Isaiah 10:5). To God, the Assyrians were just a tool. They thought their might and their power came of themselves, but it was entirely in the hand of God. When the Lord dealt with Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, He made it very clear who was in charge. According to Scripture, God considered Babylon one of the greatest kingdoms to come into existence, but it came into being not at Nebuchadnezzar’s decree, but at God’s. (See Daniel 4 and 5.)
Although verse 5 continues on, the greeting technically stops in the middle of this verse, because after that, John goes into greater detail about our Savior, Who He is, and what He has done for us through His redemptive act. Because John treats it separately, we will treat it separately in our next installment.