CLAIM: John writes of “the seven Spirits who are before His throne” (Rev. 1:4). Is he referring to the Holy Spirit or to the seven angels that guard the seven churches?
RESPONSE: Commentators hold two main options:
OPTION #1: This is referring to angels sitting before the throne of God.
Mounce holds that these seven angels would correspond to the seven angels of the seven churches in chapters 2 and 3. Advocates of this view note that “the seven spirits who are before His throne” (1:4) correspond to “the seven angels who stand before God” (8:2). However, this view has a number of problems:
First, it’s odd that “grace and peace” (Rev. 1:4) would come from seven angels, rather than from God himself. This seems to conflict with commands against angel worship later in the book (Rev. 19:10; 22:9). That being said, other passages place the Father, the Son, and angels together (Lk. 9:26; 1 Tim. 5:21).
Second, John differentiates between “the seven Spirits” and “the seven stars” (Rev. 3:1). Of course, the seven stars are angels (Rev. 1:20). But if this is true, who or what are the seven spirits? Clearly, these two are different.
Third, the context doesn’t point to angels. In chapter one, John focuses on God—not angels. While the later context refers to angels (chapters 2 and 3), the opening of the book focuses on God. Under this reading, John would be mentioning the “Father, Son, and Holy Angels.” A reference to the Trinity seems to fit much more naturally in the context.
Fourth, John never refrains from mentioning angels in Revelation. In fact, angels are mentioned in almost every chapter of Revelation (with the exception of chapters 4 and 13). If these are angels, why not identify them as such, as he does consistently throughout the rest of the book? By contrast, John never specifically refers to the “Holy Spirit” in his book.
Fifth, the term “spirit” (pneuma) is normally used of demons or fallen angels in the Bible. Walvoord writes, “The word spirit (Gr., pneuma) is commonly used of evil spirits, that is, demons or fallen angels; of the human spirit (cf. Mark 8:12)… Angels are contrasted to spirits in Acts 23:8-9.” Only rarely are angels called “spirits” in the NT (Heb. 1:7, 14).
OPTION #2: This is referring to the Holy Spirit.
Morris holds this view—even though he concedes that it is indeed “an unusual way of designating the Holy Spirit.” A number of arguments support this view:
First, this would fill out the Trinitarian context of chapter 1. The focus is on God the Father (v.4) and God the Son (v.5). Mentioning the Holy Spirit in the midst of this would fit with a complete Trinitarian understanding of God. Thus, we could render this as “the sevenfold Spirit.”
Second, while angels speak to the churches, so does the Spirit. Later we read, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Rev. 2:7, cf. v.17).
Third, OT passages support this usage. For instance, Zechariah receives a vision which sheds much light on this topic (Zech. 4):
1 Then the angel who was speaking with me returned and roused me, as a man who is awakened from his sleep. 2 He said to me, “What do you see?” And I said, “I see, and behold, a lampstand all of gold with its bowl on the top of it, and its seven lamps on it with seven spouts belonging to each of the lamps which are on the top of it; 3 also two olive trees by it, one on the right side of the bowl and the other on its left side.” 4 Then I said to the angel who was speaking with me saying, “What are these, my lord?” 5 So the angel who was speaking with me answered and said to me, “Do you not know what these are?” And I said, “No, my lord.” 6 Then he said to me, “This is the word of the LORD to Zerubbabel saying, ‘Not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit,’ says the LORD of hosts.
Zechariah equates the seven lamps with the Spirit of God. Certainly, the expression “My Spirit” refers to the Holy Spirit. Likewise, John equates the seven lamps with the seven spirits. In Revelation 4:5, he writes, “There were seven lamps of fire… which are the seven Spirits of God.” This is good grounds for understanding the seven spirits as the Holy Spirit.
7 ‘What are you, O great mountain? Before Zerubbabel you will become a plain; and he will bring forth the top stone with shouts of “Grace, grace to it!” ’ ” 8 Also the word of the LORD came to me, saying, 9 “The hands of Zerubbabel have laid the foundation of this house, and his hands will finish it. Then you will know that the LORD of hosts has sent me to you. 10 “For who has despised the day of small things? But these seven will be glad when they see the plumb line in the hand of Zerubbabel—these are the eyes of the LORD which range to and fro throughout the earth.”
The “eyes of the Lord” are throughout the Earth—not “the eyes of angels.” In Revelation 5:6, we read of “seven eyes, which are the seven Spirits of God, sent out into all the earth.” This is also synonymous with Zechariah’s vision. We find this latter view preferable for the reasons given above.
When studying the book of Revelation, we should be careful not to hold all views with equal certainty or importance. This is an example of a view that we hold as neither certain nor important. While we favor the second view, we shouldn’t emphasize every aspect of this book with dogmatism or stringency.
This view is not without problems. We will consider a couple of difficulties below. On the whole, we find these difficulties to be far less difficult to answer than the former view articulated above:
PROBLEM #1. It seems odd that the Holy Spirit would be referred to in the plural (Spirits), rather than the usual singular (Spirit). However, it’s plausible that this is symbolism. Jesus is described as both a “lion” (Rev. 5:5) and a “lamb” (Rev. 5:6). The wise interpreters shouldn’t try to draw this imagery into a monstrous and mutated lion-lamb! Instead, the symbols describe two aspects of Jesus’ nature. Similarly, number seven is being used as a symbol for perfection, and this is plausibly why he uses this number to describe the Holy Spirit. Thus, John would be equating the Holy Spirit with perfection.
PROBLEM #2. Isaiah 11:2 doesn’t support this view. Advocates of this view often get warrant for their interpretation by appealing to Isaiah 11:2 which gives seven attributes of the Holy Spirit in the Septuagint (LXX). However, the original Hebrew does not give seven attributes—only six. And, as Thomas notes, “In the Apocalypse little weight is assigned to the LXX.” However, this isn’t so much a problem, as it is a faulty argument to support this view. It doesn’t serve as negative evidence, but only serves as a lack of positive evidence.
 To be clear, Mounce lands on these being Jesus’ “heavenly entourage.” Robert H. Mounce, The Book of Revelation, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997), 46–47.
 John F. Walvoord, The Revelation of Jesus Christ (Galaxie Software, 2008), 37.
 Leon Morris, Revelation: Tyndale Commentary (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1987), p.39.
 Leon Morris, Revelation: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 20, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1987), 54.
 Robert L. Thomas, Revelation 1-7: An Exegetical Commentary (Chicago: Moody, 1992), 68.