“To Him Who Sits on the Throne and to the Lamb”: Hymning God’s Triune Name in Revelation 4-5
Scott R. Swain
James Woodrow Hassell Professor of Systematic Theology
Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando
We are gathered together at this conference because we care about the doctrine of the Trinity. We have studied the doctrine over the past several months because we hope to see a retrieval of the doctrine in the life of the church, because we long to see a renewal in the church’s prayer, proclamation, and praise of the Holy Trinity. I have been given the task of kicking things off with a reflection on the relationship between Holy Scripture and the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. And this is indeed a fitting way to begin a conference devoted to the retrieval of trinitarian theology in the life of the church. If we care about retrieving trinitarian teaching within the church, we must also care about retrieving the status of trinitarian teaching as scriptural teaching. As David Yeago states, “No theory of the development of doctrine which attempts to save the classical doctrines without accounting for the unanimous conviction of the Christian tradition that they are the teaching of Scripture can overcome the marginalization of the doctrines which is so evident in the contemporary western church and theology.”
The relationship between Holy Scripture and the doctrine of the Holy Trinity is not self-evident. For some, content with the so-called assured results of historical criticism or else absorbed with the narcissistic biblicism of certain forms of popular piety, it does not occur to bring the Bible and the Trinity into the same conversation. For still others, who see a positive relationship between the Bible and the Trinity, there is disagreement about how to construe their relationship. Some view the Bible as the yet unformed data of trinitarian theology that later ecclesiastical reflection must process, clarify, and develop before we arrive at trinitarian faith in the full-blooded sense. Others view the Bible as the expression of the early church’s inchoate experience of the Trinity for which, once again, later ecclesiastical reflection must provide deeper ontological determination and sharper terminological clarification.
Both views, I believe, err in misconstruing the relationship between scriptural trinitarianism and ecclesiastical trinitarianism. Scriptural trinitarianism is not unformed, inchoate trinitarianism. As the self-revelation of the triune God through his authorized and anointed prophets and apostles, scriptural trinitarianism is the “primary discourse” of trinitarian theology: normative, fluent, and eloquent. Ecclesiastical trinitarianism, the trinitarian theology of the church’s sermons, hymns, confessions, and creeds, is the “secondary discourse” of trinitarian theology. Ecclesiastical trinitarianism, at its best, is the attempt to represent the “grammar” of Scripture’s primary trinitarian discourse in new settings and on new occasions, not to refine or develop what would otherwise be unrefined and undeveloped without it but to promote the church’s greater fluency in reading Scripture’s primary trinitarian discourse and in responding to that discourse in its own eloquent expressions of prayer, proclamation, and praise of the triune God.
This evening, I would like to focus our attention on one particular scriptural text in considering the relationship between the Bible and the doctrine of the Trinity. That text is Revelation 4-5. I believe Revelation 4-5 is an instructive text for consideration as we seek to gain greater fluency in Scripture’s primary trinitarian discourse, and that for three reasons.
First, Revelation 4-5 is one of Scripture’s fullest presentations of trinitarian theology. Revelation 4-5 presents all three persons of the Trinity. It presents the Trinity as the agent of creation, redemption, and consummation. And it presents well-ordered, indeed normative, worship of the triune God.
Second, Revelation 4-5 presents its teaching on the Trinity in a manner with which we are less likely to be familiar. It does not use the standard terminology of “Father” and “Son” and “Holy Spirit” to identify the three persons of the Trinity. It does not say, “Jesus is Lord.” Instead, it presents its teaching on the Trinity in the highly figurative language of apocalyptic literature: there is the throne, there is the Lamb, there are the seven Spirits of God. But it is precisely this factor that makes Revelation 4-5 so instructive regarding the character of the Bible’s primary trinitarian discourse. Sometimes, we are lulled into thinking that we understand all too well what the Bible’s trinitarian language means. Revelation 4-5 does not allow this. It awakens us from the slumbers of our familiar miscomprehension of biblical language and forces us to pay attention more closely to the actual shape of the Bible’s trinitarian discourse. As we are drawn to contemplate more deeply the unfamiliar language and imagery of Revelation 4-5, we will discover its capacity “to evoke divine transcendence” and thereby to help us distinguish “true worship from idolatry, the true God from the false.”
Third, Revelation 4-5 presents what, from the vantage point of classical Reformed theology, is the consummate expression of human trinitarian theology, the trinitarian theology of the saints in heaven. In opening the door to God’s heavenly court, Revelation 4-5 opens the door to the chorus of heavenly creatures and redeemed saints who have learned, in the Spirit, and by virtue of the triumph of the Lamb, to praise with perfect eloquence the name of the Holy Trinity. By showing us human theology in this consummate form, Revelation 4-5 thus sets the standard and goal for our trinitarian theology as pilgrims who are still on the way to our everlasting rest: to gain, by the same Spirit, and by virtue of the same triumph of the Lamb, the fluency required to make us fitting participants in that heavenly chorus.
In looking at the presentation of the Trinity in Revelation 4-5, we will look primarily to the ways this text “names” the Trinity. The triune God who presents himself to us in Holy Scripture presents himself to us by means of divine names. These divine names are the primary mode of divine self-revelation within Scripture’s primary trinitarian discourse. Consequently, as Basil affirms, when it comes to the manifold ways Scripture names God, “not one of the words that are applied to God in every use of speech should be left uninvestigated.”
Our “investigation” will proceed in three steps. First, we will discuss briefly the grammar of divine naming, considering how God conveys his transcendent being, agency, and worth by means of ordinary patterns of creaturely naming. Second, we will discuss at greater length how Revelation 4-5 in particular names the triune God, considering not only how each person is distinctly identified and glorified in these chapters, but also how they are related within God’s undivided being, agency, and worship. Finally, we will conclude our discussion by considering, once again, the relationship between scriptural trinitarianism and ecclesiastical trinitarianism.
The grammar of divine naming
In order to appreciate how Revelation 4-5 names the Trinity, we must consider for a moment the nature of naming more generally. This is not, as we will see, because divine naming is a species of naming in general. This is because God in his acts of naming himself for us in Holy Scripture speaks to us in our language, making use of general patterns of naming to convey something of his transcendent being and glory.
The grammar of naming in general
In considering the grammar of naming in general, we begin by distinguishing three paradigmatic acts of naming. (1) First, in naming we identify things—this tree, this cheeseburger, this human being. (2) Second, in naming, we predicate certain things of the things we identify—this tree is tall, this tree grew three feet over the past year. This cheeseburger is fresh, this cheeseburger became stale over the course of three hours. This human being is my husband. This human being was born on March 10, 1972. (3) Third, along with identification and predication, evaluation is a paradigmatic act of naming. In naming, we evaluate the things we identify, we make judgments—this tree looks nice in our back yard, this tree is good for shade, this tree is good for climbing. This cheeseburger is the best cheeseburger I have ever eaten, a judgment we might make after eating at Culver’s. This human being is reliable, honest, and bad at hanging towel rods.
These paradigmatic acts of naming, in turn, are performed in different ways. We may identify objects by means of definite descriptions, “the first man to walk on the moon,” by means of proper names, “Neil Armstrong,” and by means of various indicators, such as personal pronouns, “I,” “you,” deictic terms, “this,” “that,” along with adverbs of place, adverbs of time, and tensed verbs. Likewise, we predicate different sorts of things of objects by means of different kinds of predications. We predicate attributes—he is kind. We predicate actions—he bought me a cheeseburger. We predicate changes—his hair is growing grey (or falling out!), and so forth. In similar fashion, we evaluate objects by means of various hierarchies of value. When facing limited luggage space for travel, we must decide which is more important to us, our heavy coat or an extra pair of shoes. When determining which football teams will make it into the playoffs, we must weigh what matters more: number of wins, conference championships, strength of schedule, etc. More significantly, when we distinguish objects across categories, say, distinguishing a “someone” from a “something,” we make different evaluations of an object’s status, along with different determinations of the obligations we owe an object. We may “use” a hammer, but a person we may not.
It is important to observe that, in each of these cases, acts of identification, predication, and evaluation involve judgments about an object’s relation to and distinction from some larger category or family of which it is an instance or a member. As Robert Spaemann observes, “nothing can be identified except as a such-and-such, which is to say, by virtue of a description that accommodates it alongside other things.” In identifying Neil Armstrong as “the first man to walk on the moon,” we draw upon a common class of beings (“man”), a common class of actions (“walk”), and a common class of settings in which such actions are capable of being performed (in this case, “moon”). But, in identifying Neil Armstrong as such-and-such an object who performed such-and-such an action in such-and-such a setting, we do so in order to set this particular object apart from other members of the common class. We are not talking about men in general, walking in general, or planets in general. We are talking about him. He is “the first man to walk on the moon.” This identification is true of this human being alone and not of any other human being.
The same is true when it comes to acts of evaluation. When we call Neil Armstrong “the first man to walk on the moon,” we are singling him out, acknowledging his pride of place within the pantheon of astronauts that we have sent into outer space. But even then, we are singling him out as the first in a series of astronauts (and this is true even when the series of human beings to walk on the moon is only potential). The best football team in the country is still one football team among many. Evaluating the individual—whether it is a tree, a cheeseburger, or a human being, presupposes the existence of the larger class of which it or he is an instance or a member.
The grammar of divine naming in Revelation 4-5
What does any of this have to do with divine naming in Revelation 4-5? In John’s vision, he sees and hears various things regarding the triune God, which he reports to us by means of the ordinary grammar of naming. Revelation 4-5 identifies God by means of definite descriptions, as the “one seated on the throne” (Rev 4:2), by means of proper names and titles, as “the Lord God Almighty” (Rev 4:8), and by means of indicators, as the one “who was and is and is to come” (Rev 4:8). Moreover, Revelation 4-5 predicates certain actions of God. The heavenly host declares, “you created all things, and by your will they exist and were created” (Rev 4:8). Finally, Revelation 4-5 reports various acts of evaluation with reference to God: “Holy, holy, holy,” the four living creatures proclaim day and night (Rev 4:8). And, because he is the supreme benefactor of all creaturely being and wellbeing, God is acknowledged as “Worthy . . . to receive glory and honor and power” (Rev 4:11).
While Revelation 4-5 draws upon the ordinary grammar of naming to proclaim God’s supreme excellence and worth, we should also observe that Revelation 4-5, following broader scriptural patterns, deploys that grammar in an extraordinary way. As we will see more fully below, when Revelation 4-5 identifies God, it does not identify him as a particular member of a larger class. When Revelation 4-5 predicates certain actions of God, it does not draw upon a broader category of actions common to other agents. When Revelation 4-5 evaluates God’s worth, it does not locate his worth on a larger scale of meaning and value. Revelation 4-5 takes up the ordinary grammar of naming to convey God’s transcendent oneness, God’s transcendent uniqueness in his being, action, and worth. The grammar of divine naming in Revelation 4-5 conveys that he alone is this one, that he alone does these things, that he alone is worthy of the worship he receives, that God is not in a class with creatures.
Revelation 4-5, moreover, engages in divine naming in a manner that is both triadic and doxological. All three persons of the Trinity are named in various ways in Revelation 4-5. There is the one who sits on the throne, there is the Lamb who stands in the midst of the throne, and there is the Spirit who is before the throne, who is identified as the Spirit of God and as the Spirit of the Lamb. Furthermore, John’s vision of the Holy Trinity comes by means of both sights and sounds that communicate divine glory. John sees God seated on a throne and apprehends his transcendent glory. John sees the Lamb standing as though it had been slain. And John sees a multitude of angelic hosts praising the Lamb. However, the primary mode of divine naming in Revelation 4-5 is not visual but aural. John hears one of the twenty-four elders proclaim the good news that the Lion of the tribe of Judah has overcome. And, more extensively, John hears the various hymns that various creatures in heaven, on earth, and in the sea raise to the triune God in declaring his matchless worth. Among the variety of hymns John hears in Revelation 4-5 are the Trisagion, various acclamations of divine worth, a “new song” that celebrates the triumph of the Lamb, and a doxology. In Revelation 4-5, divine hymning is the primary mode of divine naming.
The fundamental task of biblical interpretation in general and of trinitarian theology in particular is thus to pay attention to the extraordinary ways in which Scripture deploys the ordinary grammar of naming to convey the transcendent being, activity, and worth of the triune God. Doing so requires that we resist the temptation of allowing our preconceived notions about how things exist and act, and about how things should be regarded, to shape the way we interpret divine naming in Holy Scripture. Rather, we must allow our minds, our judgments, and our speech to be trained and habituated in accordance with Scripture’s unique way of revealing God’s unique identity and worth. Moreover, as Revelation 4-5 in particular emphasizes, because divine hymning is the ultimate form of divine naming which Holy Scripture calls us to perform, being trained to follow scriptural patterns of divine naming ultimately involves being trained to follow scriptural patterns of divine praise. Only then can we begin to acknowledge the Holy Trinity as he deserves to be acknowledged. Only then can we begin to worship the Holy Trinity as he deserves to be worshipped.
Patterns of trinitarian naming in Revelation 4-5
In order that we may appreciate more fully how Revelation 4-5 conveys God’s transcendent, triune identity, activity, and worth by means of the ordinary grammar of naming, let us look at the specific ways it names the three persons of the Trinity. We will consider, first, the one who sits on the throne, second, the Lamb who stands in the midst of the throne and, third, the Spirit who is before the throne, the Spirit of God and of the Lamb.
The one who sits on the throne
John’s heavenly vision of God in Revelation 4-5 may be described as a vision of “monarchical monotheism,” a vision in which “God is seen as presiding over the heavenly court, in the celebration of the heavenly liturgy.” “At once,” John says, “I was in the Spirit, and behold, a throne stood in heaven, with one seated on the throne” (Rev 4:2). John’s description of the visible glory of the one seated on the throne is notably reticent in comparison to the visions upon which he draws in Isaiah 6, Ezekiel 1, and Daniel 7 to articulate what he sees: “he who sat there had the appearance of jasper and carnelian” (Rev 4:3). As Craig Koester notes, “John’s reserve” in describing God’s appearance “maintains a sense of God’s transcendence so that he is not construed as a human being writ large.”
The one seated on the throne is encircled by three concentric circles “made up of first a rainbow, then a circle of the four cherubim,” whose job it is to lead the heavenly liturgy, “then a circle of the twenty-four thrones upon which the twenty-four elders sit” (Rev 4:3, 5, 6-8). From the throne “flashes of lightning,” “rumblings and peals of thunder” come forth, redolent of the Lord’s theophanic appearance at Mount Sinai (4:5). Also before the throne are “seven torches of fire,” which are identified as “the seven Spirits of God” (Rev 4:5), and “a sea of glass, like crystal” (Rev 4:6).
This initial way of “locating” God in Revelation 4-5 functions according to the grammar of divine naming described above. While Revelation 4-5 employs the ordinary grammar of naming to identify God, locating him within the heavenly court, it does so in an extraordinary manner that precludes us from envisioning God as the member of a larger class of beings, or even as the biggest being around. As the one who is seated on his heavenly throne, he is portrayed as supreme above all creation. As the one whose throne is encircled by a rainbow, the four living creatures, and the twenty-four elders, he is portrayed as the center of all creation. And, to recall an earlier identification of God in Revelation 1:8, as the one who is “the Alpha and Omega,” he is portrayed as the beginning and the end of all creation. According to John’s vision, the one who sits upon the throne is not distinguished from creatures as the member of a broader class of creatures. John’s vision names God as supremely transcendent and supremely unique. The one who sits upon the throne is the transcendent Lord above all, the transcendent center of all, the transcendent beginning and end of all.
As John’s vision proceeds from sight to sound, the various hymns of the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders further confirm the transcendent uniqueness of God. “Day and night,” John tells us, the four living creatures “never cease to say, ‘Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come” (Rev 4:8). Here God is praised by his proper name and title, “the Lord God Almighty,” a Greek way of representing the Hebrew proper name and title, “YHWH of hosts.” Unlike other names and titles which are commonly ascribed to both God and creatures in Holy Scripture, this name and title is never ascribed to any creature. It is only ever ascribed to God alone. God is further praised by means of an expanded version of his self-identification in Exodus 3:14. He is “the one who was and is and is to come,” a name called upon especially in circumstances where God’s people suffer the mismatch between present realities and promised blessings, circumstances much like those of the seven churches which Jesus has addressed in the preceding chapters. This manner of naming God indicates God’s eternal and unchanging being, which is the ground of God’s faithfulness to his people and to his covenant promises throughout all the changes of history. Identifying God by his proper name and title, and by his eternal and unchanging being, the heavenly creatures honor God as thrice-holy, an acclamation also reserved for God alone throughout Scripture, acknowledging that he is “set apart” from all creatures in his transcendent being, beauty, and worth.
According to John, the singing of the Trisagion by the four living creatures prompts the twenty-four elders to prostrate themselves before “him who is seated on the throne” and to worship “him who lives forever and ever” (Rev 4:9-10). Their worship consists in “a second-person acclamation of God’s worthiness.” “Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they exist and were created” (Rev 4:11). Speaking now not of him but to him, the heavenly creatures acknowledge God’s absolute right to receive glory and honor and power. This right is rooted in his work of creation and providence. As the sole benefactor of the world’s coming to be and continuing to be, he alone is worthy of such praise. As all things are from him, so all praise is due him (2 Chron 29:11ff).
Once again, Revelation 4-5 employs the ordinary grammar of naming to extraordinary ends. The ordinary pattern of predicating and evaluating the action of a subject is here employed. Subject A performed action X, and subject A’s performance of action X makes him worthy of receiving honor Y. But, once again, the action predicated and the evaluation rendered are anything but ordinary. God is not identified as an ordinary agent who performs ordinary actions within the ordinary network of action and interaction that characterizes all creaturely action. God is identified as the intelligent cause of all creatures, of all creaturely action, and of the entire network of action and interaction within which creaturely action takes place: “by your will they exist and were created” (Rev 4:11). And this unique divine action of creation and providence, in turn, is the ground of his absolute regard. Worship, Revelation is keen to emphasize, as an evaluative stance and activity, is to be rendered to God alone because he alone and his actions alone make him alone worthy. Though John is tempted on more than one occasion to worship one of the glorious heavenly envoys he runs into in the course of his vision, he is repeatedly rebuked and ordered to “Worship God” (Rev 19:10; 22:9).
Which leads us to the Lamb who stands in the midst of the throne.
The Lamb who stands in the midst of the throne
Revelation chapter five begins with John’s sight of a scroll in the right hand of him who is seated on the throne (Rev 5:1). This scroll, which is “written within and on the back” and “sealed with seven seals,” in all likelihood represents God’s hidden purpose for the world that he has made and that he providentially governs. John then hears “a mighty angel” who asks “with a loud voice” the question, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” (Rev 5:2). Who is able to understand God’s sovereign purpose for creation? Who is able to bring God’s sovereign purpose into effect? The response causes John to “weep loudly” (Rev 5:4). “No one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it” (Rev 5:3).
We should not pass too quickly by this response. Though we as readers know that the Lion and the Lamb will soon be identified as the one who is worthy to understand and effect God’s sovereign purpose for creation, it is worth noting how he is identified even before he appears center stage in John’s vision. He is not one of the things “in heaven or on earth or under the earth.” In other words, whoever it is who will be found worthy to open the scroll in God’s right hand, he is not a creature. Before he is identified by his messianic names and titles, before majestic acts of deliverance are predicated of him, before he is acclaimed as worthy by all creatures in heaven and earth, he is distinguished from all creatures in heaven and earth. This one is not a member of that category. He too is identified by means of his transcendent oneness.
John then hears one of the twenty-four elders proclaim the good news: “Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals” (Rev 5:5). After hearing these glad tidings, John then sees “in the midst of the throne . . . a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven Spirits of God sent out into all the earth” (Rev 5:6). In light of the previous determination in verse 5, this is quite an identification. The one who is not among the creatures that may be found in heaven, on earth, or under the earth is nevertheless identified by the most creaturely of creaturely descriptions, by a biographical description that is bracketed by “womb and tomb.” He is the Lion, born of the tribe of Judah. He is the Lamb who was slain.
Though space forbids exploring this theme at length, it is precisely this pattern of Christological naming that eventually led to the orthodox Christological confessions of Nicaea and beyond. The one who is worthy to open the scroll and to effect God’s purpose for creation is on the divine side of the Creator-creature distinction. And yet this same one has the biography of a particular creature as well. Who can this be? How can this be? As Rowan Williams has recently argued, the church soon realized that both Judaism, with its array of heavenly angelic emissaries, and Greco-Roman culture, with its array of divinized human kings, lacked categories to account for the being and activity of the one identified in scriptural texts like Revelation 4-5. Attending to Scripture’s unique patterns of Christological naming eventually led the church to confess that this one is not a heavenly angelic emissary or a divinized human king but “one of the Trinity” who, for us and our salvation, came down from heaven, was born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried, Jesus Christ our Lord.
After the Lamb had taken the scroll from God’s right hand, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders again fall down in worship, this time “before the Lamb” (Rev 5:8). In offering their worship, they hold not only harps but also “golden bowls of incense, which are the prayers of the saints” (Rev 5:8). The Lamb who has the seven horns, signifying divine power, and the seven eyes, signifying divine knowledge (Rev 5:6), stands ready and able to receive the prayers of his suffering people, ready and able to respond to their pleas for deliverance.
And so the heavenly creatures sing a “new song,” again a “second-person acclamation,” echoing themes from the first exodus, to celebrate the second exodus effected by the Lion and the Lamb in his death, resurrection, and ascension to God’s right hand: “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth” (Rev 5:9-10). Again note the sheer marvel of what is predicated of the one who stands in the midst of the throne. By means of the events of his very human biography, the Lamb has effected a uniquely divine act of redemption, ransoming God’s people by his blood, making them a kingdom of priests to God. And because of his uniquely divine act of redemption, he is regarded by the heavenly chorus as worthy of the worship that is due to God alone.
John then sees and hears “the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands” joining the heavenly chorus of the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders (Rev 5:11), “saying with a loud voice, ‘Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing” (Rev 5:12). As the one who sits on the throne has been acknowledged as worthy because of his work of creation and providence, receiving the threefold acclamation of “glory and honor and power” (Rev 4:11), now the lamb who is in the midst of the throne is acknowledged as worthy because of his work of redemption to receive the sevenfold acclamation of “power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing” (Rev 5:12).
Perhaps because the sevenfold praise of the Lamb corresponds to his work of “completing” or “perfecting” God’s purpose for creation, the expanding chorus of praise then extends from “heaven” to include “every creature . . . on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them” (Rev 5:13). This time God and the Lamb are hymned together, and this time by means of a doxology: “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever” (Rev 5:13). This doxology is met, in turn, with the “Amen!” of the four living creatures, which prompts the twenty-four elders, once again, to fall down and worship (Rev 5:14).
To summarize the preceding discussion, according to Revelation 5, the one who stands in the midst of the throne is not numbered among God’s creatures in heaven or on earth or under the earth. He is identified by his transcendent oneness. Nevertheless, this transcendent one has a human biography, being born of the tribe of Judah, having suffered a violent death. Moreover, by his means of the events of his human biography, this one has effected divine redemption on behalf of his people, ransoming them by his blood and making them a kingdom of priests to God, thereby completing and perfecting God’s purpose for creation, as he alone is qualified to do. For this reason, the one who stands in the midst of the throne receives glory and honor from all creatures, not as “a second object of worship alongside God,” but as one who is “included in the worship due the one God.”
The Spirit who is before the throne
The focus of divine naming and divine hymning in Revelation 4-5 falls upon the first and second persons of the Trinity, on the one who sits on the throne and on the Lamb who stands in the midst of the throne. However, Revelation 4-5 is not silent when it comes to the third person of the Trinity, the Spirit who is before the throne. The ways these chapters name him therefore repays our careful attention as well.
The vision that Jesus “shows” John in Revelation 4-5 (Rev 4:1) is a vision that John receives “in the Spirit” (Rev 4:2). This is in keeping with the broader pattern of divine communication on display across Revelation as a whole. God has given to Jesus a revelation to deliver to John (Rev 1:1). This revelation, in turn, is received by John, and by the seven churches, by means of the Spirit’s agency. All that John sees and all that John hears regarding the one who sits on the throne and regarding the Lamb who stands in the midst of the throne, and all that he passes on to the seven churches, comes about “in the Spirit.”
“The testimony of Jesus” is given by “the Spirit of prophecy.” And the Spirit of prophecy is clear: “Worship God” (Rev 19:10), which according to Revelation 4-5 means, “Worship God and the Lamb.” But what about the Spirit? Where does Revelation locate him, how is he identified, what is predicated of him, and how is his person evaluated? Though some commentators identify “the seven Spirits of God” in Revelation 4:5 as angelic beings, closer analysis leads to the conclusion that this is a misidentification and a misevaluation.
The Spirit’s location “before the throne” (Rev 4:5) is admittedly an ambiguous identification. This location is also ascribed to creatures, such as the sea of glass (Rev 4:6) as well as those who appear in God’s presence for judgment (Rev 20:12). However, among those who are located before the throne, he alone is described as “belonging” to the one who sits on the throne and to the one who stands in the midst of the throne (Rev 4:5; 5:6). “The seven Spirits of God” in Revelation 4:5, taken along with the “seven horns” and the “seven eyes” in Revelation 5:6, is undoubtedly a reference to Zechariah 4:1-14. In the latter text, “the seven eyes of the Lord” are identified by the Lord as “my Spirit.” The identity of the Spirit is therefore clear. The Spirit before the throne is the Spirit of the two who are on the throne. The Spirit before the throne is the Spirit who proceeds “from the throne of God and of the Lamb” (Rev 22:1).
By identifying the Spirit with the “seven horns” and the “seven eyes” possessed by the Lamb, John further identifies the Spirit with God’s transcendent power and God’s transcendent knowledge, as one who is therefore able to bring God’s creative and redemptive purpose, accomplished by Jesus, to its goal by empowering the prophecy, prayer, and praise of God’s people in the midst of an idolatrous world. In the Spirit, the redemptive purpose of God for creation, the purpose unveiled and enacted by the Son, is brought to completion.
This identification is confirmed when we look more broadly at John’s letter as a whole. In the opening salutation, John does not offer the typical dyadic Christian greeting, wishing grace and peace to the seven churches from God the Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Instead he offers a unique triadic greeting: “Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven Spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ” (Rev 1:4-5). In other words, John locates the Spirit, along with God and Jesus, on the divine side of the Creator-creature distinction, characterizing him as an agent of divine blessing. Moreover, in Jesus’ address to the seven churches, the churches are repeatedly urged to “hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Rev 2:7, 11, 17, 29; 3:6, 13, 22). This is a noteworthy repetition. In enjoining the churches to listen to the Spirit of God, Revelation enjoins the churches to perform the first and fundamental act of worship they owe to the one true God: “Hear, O Israel . . .” (Deut 6:4).
With the one who sits on the throne, and with the Lamb who stands in the midst of the throne, John thus locates the Spirit who is before the throne on the divine side of the distinction between Creator and creature, as the source of all divine blessing, as one who is worthy of all divine honor. According to the revelation given by Jesus to John, we honor the third person of the Trinity by heeding the Spirit of prophecy, who enjoins and empowers us to render “blessing and honor and glory and power forever and ever . . . to him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb” (Rev 5:13).
The indivisible, internally ordered being, agency, and worship of the Trinity according to Revelation 4-5
Though Revelation 4-5 names the one who sits on the throne, the Lamb who stands in the midst of the throne, and the Spirit who is before the throne in three distinct ways, it does so without compromising scriptural monotheism, without suggesting the existence of three gods. Revelation 4-5 characterizes the Holy Trinity as indivisible and internally ordered in his being, agency, and worship. How so?
First, while Revelation 4-5 recognizes the presence of many thrones in heaven, the three persons of the Trinity share one throne. As we have seen, the throne of God symbolizes God’s transcendent oneness, indicating his supremacy over all creatures, his centrality to all creatures, and his status as the beginning and end of all creatures. From this we may conclude that, although the three persons are distinguished by various means of identification and predication in Revelation 4-5, because they share one divine throne they share God’s transcendent oneness. Moreover, the fact that both God and the Lamb share the seven Spirits of God also indicates their transcendent oneness.
Second, although Revelation 4-5 appropriates the work of creation and providence to the one who sits on the throne, the work of redemption to the Lamb who stands in the midst of the throne, and the work of sanctification to the Spirit who is before the throne, the identification of the three persons with these three distinct moments of God’s unfolding kingdom should not be taken to suggest that they act serially within that unfolding kingdom: first the Father, then the Son, and finally the Spirit. For one thing, Revelation elsewhere ascribes the works of creation and consummation to the second person of the Trinity (Rev 1:17; 3:14; 22:13). For another thing, Revelation elsewhere exhibits the Greek grammatical oddity of using a singular verb to describe the reign of God and of the Lamb, thus violating the basic rule of subject-verb agreement (Rev 11:15; 22:3). From this we may conclude that the distinction between the first, second, and third persons of the Trinity in enacting the unfolding kingdom of God is not a distinction between three agencies. It is rather a distinction within one divine agency. The three persons who share one divine throne enact one divine agency.
Third, though Revelation 4-5 progresses from the worship of the one who sits on the throne to the worship of the Lamb who stands in the midst of the throne, these chapters conclude with the worship of the one who sits on the throne and of the Lamb. That this is the climactic expression of worship in Revelation 4-5 indicates that Revelation does not envision the worship of two or three gods. Instead it envisions the worship of one God in three persons. In the Spirit, Revelation calls us to worship God and the Lamb.
Fourth, though it does not receive the same degree of emphasis in these chapters as it does elsewhere in John’s writings, Revelation 4-5 does indicate something about the character of the distinction that obtains between the three persons of the Trinity within the transcendent oneness of God’s being and agency. According to these chapters, the revelation that John receives comes from God by Jesus in the Spirit. In similar fashion, God’s hidden purpose for creation is accomplished by Jesus and applied by the Spirit sent out into all the earth. Here, as we have already seen, we are not dealing with a distinction between three divine agencies. We are dealing with distinctions within one divine agency. What is the character of that distinction? According to Revelation 4-5, the singular agency of God proceeds from the one who sits on the throne, through the Lamb who stands in the midst of the throne, in the Spirit who is before the throne.
Is there anything more that can be said regarding the relation between the persons, not only within God’s undivided agency but also within God’s undivided being? I believe there is. Though we have to look elsewhere in Revelation to find the distinction between the first and the second persons of the Trinity described as the relation between the Father and the Son (e.g., Rev 3:21), Revelation 4-5 identifies the Spirit in such a way that indicates something fascinating about his personal identity as the third person of the Trinity. Specifically, the Spirit is described, in rather symmetrical fashion, as belonging to both the one who sits on the throne and the one who stands in the midst of the throne. He is the Spirit of God and of the Lamb. While this is not exactly a full-blooded statement of the Spirit’s eternal procession from the Father and the Son, it is a striking image of his relation to the Father and the Son nonetheless.
In concluding our discussion of the Trinity in Revelation 4-5, I would like to return to the question of the relationship between scriptural trinitarianism and ecclesiastical trinitarianism. How does this text address that question? I have three brief thoughts.
First, though the specific language of Revelation 4-5 does not make much of an appearance in later creeds of the church (but cf. “Almighty”), the grammar of Revelation 4-5 is notably present. Not only does Revelation 4-5 explicitly identify the three persons of the Trinity, it also explicitly mentions the three foundational moments of God’s unfolding kingdom. It speaks of God’s work of creation. It speaks of God’s work of redemption. And it speaks of God’s work of sanctification. Revelation 4-5’s triadic pattern of identifying the three persons of the Trinity and of appropriating to them the three foundational moments of God’s unfolding kingdom is later reflected in three article creeds such as the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed. Though these later creeds do not, for the most part, employ the language of Revelation 4-5, they do exhibit its grammar.
Second, by making divine hymning the primary mode of divine naming, Revelation 4-5 also suggests something about how the church might gain greater fluency in appropriating and expressing the Bible’s fundamental trinitarian grammar. In addition to the reading and praying of Holy Scripture, singing trinitarian hymns is one of the best ways of habituating ourselves to the patterns of the Bible’s primary trinitarian discourse. As a child can “catch” a tune before she ever learns what a whole note is, so we can “catch” the scriptural grammar of the Trinity by learning to sing the Trisagion, the doxology, and the “new song” of the Lamb. Theology, in its most sophisticated academic expressions, is only ultimately about helping us sing these hymns in greater harmony with the scriptural score.
Third, Revelation 4-5 also says something about the ultimate end of human beings, and indeed of all creatures, in relation to the Holy Trinity. According to Revelation 4-5, the revelation of the mystery of God’s purpose for creation comes by means of the revelation of the mystery of the person and work of the Lamb. The revelation of this mystery, in turn, leads to the worship of God and the Lamb by means of the person and work of the Spirit who is sent out into all the earth. This suggests that God’s ultimate purpose for all creatures in heaven and on earth, in the sea and all its depths, is that they would know and adore the Holy Trinity, with human beings ransomed from every tribe and language and people and nation leading the cosmic chorus as a kingdom of priests.
This suggests, in other words, that devoting our attention to the triune God as he presents himself to us in Holy Scripture is not a matter of vain curiosity or arcane interest. In seeking to gain fluency in praising God and the Lamb in the Spirit we are participating in what is the deepest reality of the cosmos, as well as its ultimate end. In doing so, we are also beginning to realize our nature as creatures designed to recognize, receive, and respond to the thrice-holy Trinity. To him be glory forever and ever. Amen.
 David S. Yeago, “The New Testament and the Nicene Dogma: A Contribution to the Recovery of Theological Exegesis,” Pro Ecclesia 3 (1994): 153.
 Richard Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 45-46.
 Scott R. Swain, “On Divine Naming,” in Aquinas Among the Protestants, eds. Manfred Svensson and David VanDrunen (Hoboken: Wiley-Blackwell, 2018), 207-228.
 Basil, On the Holy Spirit (Yonkers: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2011), 1.1 (p. 27).
 Paul Ricoeur, Oneself as Another, trans. Kathleen Blamey (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 28-30. The specific examples are Ricoeur’s.
 Paul J. Griffiths, Intellectual Appetite: A Theological Grammar (Washington D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2009), 24-28.
 Robert Spaemann, Persons: The Difference between ‘Someone’ and ‘Something’ (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 5-15.
 Spaemann, Persons, 124.
 Ricoeur, Oneself as Another, 28.
 Matthew E. Gordley, New Testament Christological Hymns: Exploring Texts, Contexts, and Significance (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2018), 211.
 Basil, On the Holy Spirit, 4.6 (p. 32).
 John Behr, “Introduction,” in Origen: On First Principles, ed. and trans. John Behr (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), xlv.
 Craig Koester, Revelation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015), 368.
 David Aune, Revelation 1-5 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997), 286.
 In Second Temple Judaism, the throne of God is one of the preeminent symbols of God’s unique and unrivalled deity, signifying his status as the “only Sovereign” (1 Tim 6:15). See Richard Bauckham, “Throne of God and the Worship of Jesus,” in Jesus and the God of Israel: God Crucified and Other Studies on the New Testament’s Christology of Divine Identity (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2008), 152-181.
 Koester, Revelation, 382.
 Gordley, New Testament Christological Hymns, 211.
 Koester, Revelation, 365.
 G.K. Beale, The Book of Revelation (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 340-42.
 Koester, Revelation, 384.
 Robert W. Jenson, “For Us…He Was Made Man,” in Nicene Christianity: The Future for a New Ecumenism, ed. Christopher R. Seitz (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2001), 75-86.
 Rowan Williams, Christ the Heart of Creation (London: Bloomsbury Continuum, 2018), 43-56.
 Bauckham, Theology of the Book of Revelation, 112-13.
 Gordley, New Testament Christological Hymns, 211.
 Gordley, New Testament Christological Hymns, 211.
 Koester, Revelation, 392.
 Malcolm B. Yarnell III, God the Trinity, (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2016), 211-217.
 Bauckham, Theology of the Book of Revelation, 110-11.
 Bauckham, Theology of the Book of Revelation, 112-15.
 Bauckham, Theology of the Book of Revelation, 23-24.
 Koester, Revelation, 387.
 Bauckham, Theology of the Book of Revelation, 54-58.
 Bauckham, Theology of the Book of Revelation, 60-61.