What are the “seven spirits” in Revelation?

by | Dec 25, 2022 | Ask the Pastors

QUESTION

Could you talk a bit about the seven spirits before the throne of God in Revelation? They are mentioned in 1:4 and 5:6. It seems like these spirits are different from the seven angels of the churches since a different word is used in English but obviously I don’t know if it’s the same word in the original text. If they truly are different from the seven angels of the seven churches, then what are they and are the same spirits in God’s throne room in 1 Kings 22 that conspire to deceive Ahab into going to war through his prophets? What is meant by the word “spirits” as distinct from “angels”?

ANSWER

Thanks for your question! Revelation can be quite the enigma, and I’m grateful for you presenting the opportunity for me to grow in my own understanding of these things. FULL DISCLOSURE: I initially wrote an answer this long explaining why I thought the seven spirits are in fact angels, but, as you’ll see, I changed my mind. 😇

Before we get into that, we’ll answer your question about the actual vocabulary of “angels” and “spirits.” Then we’ll walk through what we think is a good interpretation of what the seven spirits in Revelation are.

Angels or Spirits?

We use two different words in our English translations because there are indeed two different words in the original languages. And, helpfully, Greek and Hebrew are quite similar in how they use these words:

  • Where you see “angel” in English, this is almost certainly a translation of either
    • Hebrew mal’āḵ, which literally means “messenger”; or
    • Greek angelos, which also literally means “messenger.” The Greek translation of the Old Testament used at the time of the New Testament (the Septuagint) generally translates mal’āḵ with angelos.
    • Both of these words most often describe angelic messengers, but they are also used in both Old and New Testaments to describe non-angelic (i.e., plain ol’) messengers.
  • Where you see “spirit” in English, this is almost certainly a translation of either
    • Hebrew rûaḥ, which means “spirit,” and can also mean “breath” or “wind”; or
    • Greek pneuma, which similarly means “spirit,” “breath,” or “wind.” The Septuagint generally translates rûaḥ as pneuma.

The short answer to your question is that there is not a clean and convenient way of determining who or what is being talked about based simply on whether “spirit” or “angel” is used. The words are not synonyms, but angels are sometimes referred to in Scripture as “spirits.” The plainest example of this is in Hebrews 1:13–14, which says,

…to which of the angels (angelōn) has He ever said,

“Sit at My right hand,

Until I make Your enemies

A footstool for Your feet”?

Are they not all ministering spirits (pneumata), sent out to render service for the sake of those who will inherit salvation?

And, as you mentioned, the “spirits” (Heb. rûaḥ) in 1 Kings 22 are clearly personal angelic beings whom God uses to accomplish His will. (More on that below.)

All this means we can’t say that just because the word “spirits” is used in Revelation, it must not be referring to angels. Nevertheless, in this case, I don’t think the “seven spirits of God” are seven angelic beings.

What Are the Seven Spirits?

The interpretation which I’ve come to agree with is that the “seven spirits of God” is an idiomatic way of referring to the Holy Spirit in the book of Revelation. This explanation makes sense for a couple of reasons:

First, the first place we read of the seven spirits is in John’s opening greeting to the churches (Rev. 1:4–5). He follows the common New Testament pattern of offering “grace and peace” from God. Whether by Paul, Peter, or John, this grace and peace is always stated as being from God, usually from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. In one New Testament epistle, the Apostle Peter includes the work of the Holy Spirit in his opening greeting as well (1 Peter 1:1–2). Granting that there are plenty of odd things in Revelation, it would nevertheless be odd for John to include seven angelic beings in a greeting which is typically so focused on God alone being the one who is able to grant grace and peace.

Second, it is generally understood that the Apostle John in this opening section of Revelation is alluding to a vision of the prophet Zechariah (in addition to a multitude of other Old Testament passages). In this vision, Zechariah saw a golden lampstand with seven lamps on it, each one fed by a continual supply of oil from two olive trees. When Zechariah asked what this meant, he was told, “‘Not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit,’ says the LORD of hosts” (Zech. 4:1–7). (For more information on the immediate context of Zechariah’s vision and its interpretation, you can read our explanation here.) The fact that John is alluding to the explicit work of the Holy Spirit in an Old Testament vision involving seven lamps should indicate to us that he is speaking of the Holy Spirit in Revelation. This association is strengthened when John makes another connection to Zechariah’s vision later in Revelation. He says the Lamb he saw among the lampstands had “seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth” (Rev. 5:6). John is alluding to Zechariah’s seven lamps, which Zechariah was told were “the eyes of the LORD which range to and fro throughout the earth” (Zech. 4:10). I believe we are to understand this as a symbolic description of the Holy Spirit’s all-seeing presence in the world.

There are a few reasons I specifically do not think the “seven spirits” are the seven angels of the churches.

  • The seven spirits seem to carry a greater universal significance than simply as angels who are assigned to keep watch over seven particular churches. We see this in John’s greeting when grace and peace are offered from the seven spirits, but also in the eyes of the Lamb, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth. That seems broader than just having to do with the seven churches being written to.
  • The seven spirits seem be distinct from the seven angels when we are told that Jesus “has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars” (Rev. 3:1). Rev. 1:20 tells us that the seven stars are the seven angels of the churches. If the seven spirits of God were the seven angels (who are stars), we would expect a grammatical construction similar to two other places these seven spirits are mentioned: “seven torches of fire, which are the seven spirits of God” (Rev. 4:5); and, “seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God” (Rev. 5:6). In contrast, Jesus is not said to have the seven stars which are the seven spirits of God, but rather that He has the “seven spirits of God and the seven stars.” This implies a distinction between the two, especially when we’ve been explicitly told that the stars are the seven angels of the churches.
  • (Note—The following point is more technical, and I will preface it by saying the extent of my studies on this particular issue and the Greek behind it is quite limited, but I thought it could be helpful.) In Revelation, John talks a lot about angels, but he doesn’t generally refer to them as “spirits.” In my judgment, throughout John’s writings (including his gospel and letters), he seems to use the word “spirit” to refer either to the Holy Spirit; or in a more abstract sense to what is motivating or inspiring someone, or to a manner of teaching or influence that proceeds from someone. Even in the following passage from Revelation, John doesn’t seem to be clearly using the word “spirit” to describe demons themselves, but rather what proceeds from them: “And I saw coming out of the mouth of the dragon and out of the mouth of the beast and out of the mouth of the false prophet, three unclean spirits like frogs; for they are spirits of demons, performing signs, which go out to the kings of the whole world, to gather them together for the war of the great day of God, the Almighty” (Rev. 16:13–14). Notice that they are “spirits of demons”; which is to say, the spirits are associated with the demons and proceed from them, but they are not necessarily coterminous with the demons themselves. For John, it seems, the spirit is part of who someone is, whether they be human or angelic. When John does want to make it clear he’s speaking of a personal spiritual being, he tends to use the word “angel” or “demon” (sometimes even using “angel” to refer to evil angelic beings, as in Rev. 12:9: “And the great dragon was thrown down, the serpent of old who is called the devil and Satan, who deceives the whole world; he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels [angeloi] were thrown down with him.”).

Why Seven?

It is well known that seven is used in Scripture as the number of perfection. Matthew Henry, commenting on these verses, writes, “The Holy Spirit, called the seven spirits, not seven in number, nor in nature, but the infinite perfect Spirit of God, in whom there is a diversity of gifts and operations. He is before the throne; for, as God made, so he governs, all things by his Spirit.”

Still, I admit it seems odd that John would use this designation for the Holy Spirit, whose singularity is emphasized elsewhere in Scripture: “We were all made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:13). My best explanation is that John is wanting to emphasize from the outset the perfect and—as Matthew Henry puts it—diverse operation of the Holy Spirit in the seven churches he is writing to. After all, these churches are each dwelling places (temples) of the Holy Spirit as they bear aloft the light of Christ in the world. In other words, even in his greeting, John is previewing the later vision which will teach that Jesus walks among His many churches by the power of His Spirit.

As regards the number seven, we also should point out that even though this opening section of Revelation is written to seven actual historical first-century churches, the number seven naturally lends itself to a universal application of what’s going on. Yes, Jesus was communicating with seven particular churches, but we also know that these messages apply to all Christ’s churches, wherever they may be in the world, and at any time. And we should understand this to be the case when we see Jesus walking among the seven lampstands, since seven is used in Scripture to represent the fullness of something (in this case the church). The seven churches are seven local churches, while at the same time standing in for the broader church catholic. The Holy Spirit is one, and yet each church (and indeed each believer) is a distinct and unique dwelling place for the powerful operation of that Spirit (see especially 1 Corinthians 12:4–13).

What about 1 Kings 22?

Even if the seven spirits of Revelation are not distinct personal angelic beings, we shouldn’t miss the fact that many angelic powers are (and always have been) at work in the world.

God has “thousands upon thousands” of angelic beings who attend Him, standing before Him and waiting to be sent out to accomplish His will (Daniel 7:10). These beings are referred to variously in Scripture as the “sons of God” (Gen. 6:2; Job 1:6; 2:1; 38:7); the “heavenly host” (Deut. 17:3; Neh. 9:6; Jer. 19:13; Luke 2:13) or “host of heaven” (Deut. 4:19; 1 Kings 22:19; 2 Kings 17:16; Isa. 24:21; Dan. 4:35; 8:10); or perhaps even the “divine council” (Ps. 82:1, ESV). Three of the most striking scenes involving this heavenly host appear in Daniel 7, Job 2, and 1 Kings 22, where God grants them agency in deciding how to execute His will in world events.

And this kind of angelic activity is not confined to the Old Testament:

  • It was a multitude of the “heavenly host” who accompanied the announcement of the birth of Christ with praises to God (Luke 2:13–14).
  • Hebrews 1:14 says God’s angels are “ministering spirits” assigned by God to keep watch over His church.
  • Jesus says that His “little ones” have “angels” who always see the face of God in heaven (Matthew 18:10).
  • Jesus says angels are responsible for gathering God’s elect (Matthew 24:31).
  • Jesus promises to “acknowledge” His faithful people before the “angels of God” (Luke 12:8).
  • Jesus says that He is the ladder between earth and heaven on whom angels descend and ascend (John 1:51; cf. Gen. 28:12). (I’ve often lamely thought this picture exists merely to be a beautiful picture, y’know, just so it could be painted by William Blake. But why do angels ascend and descend? To do things on the earth! The point is they can only do what they do by the interposition of Christ the Ladder.)
  • The Apostle Paul teaches us that angels observe the worship of the church, which should even affect how we behave in worship (1 Corinthians 11:10).
  • Jesus is “at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him” (1 Peter 3:22, ESV).
  • And don’t forget the entire book of Revelation. 😄

The point is, angels are very active in carrying out God’s will, and we would do well to have a fuller theology of angels (both good and bad) at work in the invisible spiritual realm.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible®, Copyright © 1960, 1971, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. All rights reserved.

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