Grace & Peace from the Trinity
Topic: Trinity/Christology Passage: Revelation 1:4–5, Exodus 3:14–14, Zechariah 4:6–10, Psalm 89:1–48
Church is hard; we need the Trinity.
I’m going to say something that I don’t want you to hear as a complaint. It’s something you too have likely observed, if not by experience, then by reading the Bible. Church is hard. Being a Christian is hard; and the relationships we enter when following Jesus can be hard.
Conflict provides opportunity for division. Cultural backgrounds lead to misunderstandings. Long-standing burdens tempt us to despair. Another’s confession, while we might be thankful, can bring things to light that deeply grieve us. While caring for some, others get overlooked. Leaders can agree on the main mission but disagree on best practice. Loved ones can stray from Jesus altogether.
Those all come from the New Testament; and I haven’t yet mentioned the struggles within the churches of Revelation 2-3—love growing cold, churches compromising the truth, others tolerating idolatry, others growing self-sufficient, and all while Satan makes systematic war against the saints.
Yet we are the ones Jesus calls to make disciples of all nations. We are the ones commanded to overcome. How? When church is hard, when sorrowful days squelch our zeal, when sin threatens our love and unity, when everything feels like it’s falling apart—how will the church survive? How will we overcome?
Verses 4-5 give us the answer: grace and peace come to you from God, the Trinity. That’s the only way you make it. Verses 4-8 stand as one section. There’s a title for God in verses 4 and 8 that mark it off as a unit: “him who is and who was and who is to come.” In between is a rich salutation. It includes a greeting from the Trinity and then moves to Jesus’ redeeming work and our worship of Jesus for that work. Initially, I thought I’d preach it in one sermon. But with no less than twelve Old Testament allusions in five verses, I figured it’s better to slow down. So today we’re only covering verse 4 and the first half of verse 5. Let’s read them together…
4 John to the seven churches that are in Asia: 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, 5 and from Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth.
Revelation as a Letter
With verse 4, we encounter Revelation as a letter. Last time, we discussed Revelation’s genre as apocalyptic and more so as prophecy. But here we see that it’s also a letter, a letter that doesn’t end until the final blessing of 22:21. It may not seem like it, but this greeting contributes much to reading and understanding Revelation.
We learn that it’s from John. Some have questioned which John. But there are good reasons—both from church history and from comparing the biblical texts—to see this as John the Apostle, the same author behind the Fourth Gospel and 1-3 John. The way John uses the Old Testament there, helps us put the pieces together here.
But more than that, if Revelation is a letter addressed to specific churches, then to understand its message to us, we must first understand its message to them. The churches eventually get named in verse 11, but all of them belong to the first-century Roman province of Asia Minor. There’s also compelling evidence from church history, like Irenaeus, that puts John writing at the end of Domitian’s reign. So think Roman empire, early 90s. That historical context forces us to wrestle with what the church faced under the persecution of Rome and the temptations from its culture.
Sometimes, John’s imagery overlaps this first-century Roman context. For example, in first-century Rome, you have this goddess named Roma. In statues she looks like this strong, virtuous woman wrapped in battle garments. Sometimes she’s “reclining on Rome’s seven hills.”[i] John plays off that image in chapter 17 with a woman sitting on seven hills, but he exposes her as a prostitute drunk with the blood of the saints. It’d be like someone exposing Lady Liberty as a façade hiding this nation’s idolatry.
John will play off imagery that overlaps the historical context of these churches. We can miss some things by ignoring that context. We can also go wrong by limiting Revelation’s intent to that context. Notice how the letter is written to seven churches in Asia? These weren’t the only churches in Asia. Why seven? Repeatedly in Revelation, we’ll find that John uses “seven” to signify fullness. It’s not arbitrary; it has an Old Testament background. God rests on the seventh day, completing the creation account. In Leviticus 4-16, blood must be sprinkled seven times for complete sacrifice. Deuteronomy 28:25 uses seven to describe a total defeat by the enemy.
By writing to seven churches, in a book where seven is the number of fullness, these churches represent the whole of God’s people. Each of the seven must appropriate the whole of Revelation and not limit their hearing to the one letter addressed to their specific church. That’s why every letter in chapters 2-3 ends with the Spirit speaking to the churches (plural). Each church must see itself as one with the other churches, all of whom face the onslaught of temptation within and persecution without, and all of whom desperately depend on Jesus’ victory for their own.
The same is true for us. This letter, while it came to churches that shared a historical context, it simultaneously speaks to all churches. We too must hear what the Spirit is still saying to the churches. The seven represent the whole.
Grace and Peace
How, then, does God greet his church in the midst of all that they’re going through? Grace and peace. I love those words; and hopefully we’ll love them more when we see who they come from. Before getting there, let’s clarify both words.
We’ll start with grace. People sometimes think grace is the tolerance of sin. But we can’t say that, since Jesus exposes sin in the letters of chapters 2-3. Grace has to do with God’s unmerited favor toward sinners at Christ’s expense. Grace is never something that can be earned, worked for, even after you’re a Christian. It’s God’s free and extravagant generosity in Christ toward undeserving sinners.
What about peace? People sometimes have a truncated view of peace. They reduce peace to the mere absence of conflict. But in Scripture, peace has more to do with the presence of God blessing the world with his perfect rule. True peace exists only when you stand in a right relationship with your Maker, who then orders your relationships with others according to his word. For Revelation, this is where God is taking the world in the New Jeru-salem—in the true city of peace.
Together, these words form a special greeting. Like any other first-century letter, John opens with a greeting. However, John replaces the customary greeting with the words “grace to you and peace from [God].” By doing so, John welcomes us into the story of God’s grace at work through Jesus by the Spirit to establish peace. Now, there are more specifics to the way that grace and peace work itself out in God’s plan for the church; and it’s to that we now turn as we look at the Trinity. God the Trinity is the fountain of this grace and peace now reassured for the church.
Father – “him who is and who was and who is to come”
John alludes first to God the Father. We have to wait until verse 6 to see his identity as Father become explicit. But in verse 4, John uses the title “from him who is and who was and who is to come.” This is a reflection on God’s covenant name in Exodus 3:14. God meets Moses in the burning bush. God manifests his glory in a self-sustaining fire. He commissions Moses to lead the people. Moses asks God, “If the people say, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I tell them?” God replies, “I am who I am,” or in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, “I am the one who is.”
Some have suggested the name speaks to God’s eternal existence—he did not come into being, God simply is. They’re not wrong about that. But in the context of Exodus 3:12, God reassures Moses, “Surely I will be with you.” In other words, God’s covenant name means more than his existence; it also expresses that he is and will be with his people.[ii] That becomes clearer in John’s reflection on the divine name.
He combines three verbal forms to emphasize God’s immediate, past, and future presence working for his people. He’s the one “who is,” meaning, “I am the God who is with you now.” He then moves to the one “who was” to emphasize his presence with his people throughout history. Then finally we get the one “who is coming” to emphasize how this same God is in the process of coming to save them.[iii] We’ll discuss that coming more when we tackle verses 7-8.
For now, consider why John might have chosen this name from that Old Testament story. What are they going through in Exodus 3? Slavery. They’re suffering under tyrants. One Pharaoh ordered the murder of their sons. He feared the Hebrew people becoming too great. Then under another Pharaoh, they suffer under hard labor with no power to escape. They cry to the Lord for help. He hears their groaning. He remembers his covenant. He acts in grace to save them.
By naming the one who is and who was, we remember that God is gracious to save when we are powerless to save ourselves. It’s no accident that verse 5 then speaks of Jesus freeing us from our sins. We were powerless to save ourselves, but God in grace delivers us from that slavery. We’ll look at that more next time. For now, consider how this name would land on the ears of a church suffering under Roman tyranny.
The God who was—the God who worked in the past to deliver his people; the God who worked in Jesus to meet your greatest need, your freedom from sin—he is still with you in the present. He is the God who is. God is always with his people throughout history, always acting for their good. He is unchanging in the way he saves. His past actions give us confidence about who he is in the present. Right now, when church is hard, when relationships are messy, when the mission is taxing, when corrupt leaders abuse their power, when falsehoods abound and confuse, God is with his people. He is with you now, church. He is with you at the members meeting, when you go home, when you go to work tomorrow. He’s also in the process of coming for you at the end of all things. He will make good on his word. The grand story of his saving purpose has proven it. He is, he was, he is coming. Grace to you and peace from this God.
Spirit – “seven spirits who are before his throne”
That’s grace from the Father. Let’s look now at grace from God the Spirit. John adds, “and from the seven spirits who are before his throne.” That’s an unusual way to state things. Since the third person of the Trinity is normally referred to elsewhere as the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth, or just the Spirit, some have suggested the seven spirits must be angels. In 8:2, John also describes seven angels before God’s throne. Psalm 104:4 refers to angels as flames of fire; and in 4:5 John identifies the seven spirits as seven torches of fire. Perhaps these are seven angels.
But I think a stronger case can be made for seeing the seven spirits as referring to the Holy Spirit. For starters, it seems strange to identify angels as the source of grace and peace, when throughout the New Testament God is that source. Also, 4:5 does identify the seven spirits as “seven burning torches before God’s throne.” But when we add the words of 5:6, a different Old Testament context enters the picture that points to the Spirit. 5:6 says, “…I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, with seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth.”
With 4:5 and 5:6, John identifies the seven spirits as seven torches and seven eyes sent into all the earth. There’s only one place in the Old Testament where both images show up—Zechariah 4. God gives Zechariah a vision of a lampstand. Think back to the tabernacle, where we find a lampstand with seven lamps.[iv] You might know it as the menorah. The lampstand stood just outside the veil. It illumined the holy place from the entrance to the Holy of Holies, where God would meet with his people.[v] We could even say those seven lamps burned before God’s throne above the mercy seat.
Zechariah, though, gets a vision of an even greater lampstand. It burns much brighter with seven flames and it never runs out. There’s a never-ending supply of oil that keeps the seven lamps burning. Zechariah asks the angel, “What are these?” The angel then gives him two answers. The first isn’t a direct answer but he says this: “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord of hosts.” It seems that the seven burning torches have something to do with God’s Spirit. Then later in verse 10, he answers Zechariah more directly: “…these seven [i.e., the seven flames] are the eyes of the Lord, which range throughout the whole earth [same imagery John uses].”
John follows the progression in Zechariah’s vision. He identifies the seven eyes with what the seven flames on the lampstand represent: namely, God’s mighty presence in the Spirit. Also, if seven signifies fullness, then the “seven spirits” refer to the fullness of the Spirit’s presence to accomplish God’s purpose. Not only does the Spirit have all knowledge (seven eyes); he’s everywhere present (the seven flames correspond to the seven churches also called seven lampstands later on). That also fits Acts 2, when Jesus pours out the Holy Spirit on the church and “divided tongues as of fire” settled on the people. The churches are where the Spirit’s presence burns.
Why refer to the Holy Spirit this way? Why not just say, “from the Spirit”? Why “from the seven spirits”? Because when this word about the Spirit came, God’s people in Zechariah’s day were walking through hardships much like the church in John’s day, much like the church in our day. They’re having all kinds of struggles. Exile was now behind them. They return to the land. They expect the kingdom to come, but Jerusalem is still in ruins. Foreign enemies threaten them. And all they have to show is a hunk of concrete on which to build a noticeably smaller temple than the one in Solomon’s day. What’s that in comparison to the other, more powerful nations?
They’ve got these mountain-like obstacles standing in the way of accomplishing the Lord’s work. Things are hard; life is messy. They’re asking the same questions you ask: how’s this possible? How are we going to make it? How will the kingdom come? They’re wrestling with fears about how certain obstacles can be overcome; doubts about whether God’s way is the best way; or even cynicism about whether your small contribution makes any difference.
It’s in the midst of these struggles that Zechariah’s word about the Spirit comes. “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit says the Lord.” My Spirit will accomplish my word. My Spirit will build my kingdom. My Spirit will triumph. My Spirit can take small contributions and multiply the fruit. God’s Spirit will see to it that God’s promises are fulfilled. No obstacle against his kingdom is too great. Everything necessary to complete God’s will, God’s Spirit will provide it. God’s purpose would succeed in the building of his kingdom, because of the Spirit.
John is saying that same Spirit is present in the churches today. That same, sevenfold Spirit is everywhere present to build God’s kingdom today. Every grace we need to accomplish God’s purpose, God’s Spirit will provide. You may be looking at mountain-like obstacles right now, but they are no match for God’s Spirit. He can bring change. He can empower. He will work to complete God’s will.
Son – “Jesus Christ, the faithful witness…”
Father, Spirit, now the Son in verse 5. John adds to the greeting: “and from Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth.” Jesus is the faithful witness. Jesus faithfully and truthfully bore witness to God throughout his earthly ministry, even when that pure witness required willingly sacrificing his life. But the cross did not end his witness. He continues to stand as a faithful witness in his resurrection body.
He is the firstborn from the dead. The Old Testament expected a final resurrection at the end of history.[vi] Jesus’ resurrection already started it. The final resurrection has two episodes: episode one, Jesus rises; episode two, the people Jesus represents rise. As firstborn, he inaugurates the end-time resurrection age. As “firstborn” he also receives the inheritance of the new creation.
That victory over death then qualifies Jesus to stand as the ruler of kings on earth. The most corrupt rulers, who think they can do anything they want—they have no power to defeat death.[vii] The most noble rulers, who use their power for good, the rulers we want to keep around—even they have no power over death. Death always terminates earthly rulers. But John celebrates Jesus as the sole ruler who conquered death itself. He entered death, yes. But he entered death for us, for our sins. It was impossible for the grave to hold Jesus, because he had no sin. God raised him up and seated him at the highest place of honor. Jesus now rules from a glorified state that will never end. He rules with an absolute authority that leaves no earthly king beyond the bounds of his control.
But there’s more to this. Just like the titles given to the Father and to the Spirit both recall an Old Testament context, so do the titles given to Jesus. “Faithful witness,” “Firstborn,” “Ruler of kings on earth”—all three appear in the lament of Psalm 89.
Psalm 89 is one that matches our own experience. It weaves together song and sorrow, promise and pain, confidence and crying. Psalm 89 begins with singing: “I will sing of the steadfast love of the Lord, forever…” In particular, he’s reminded of God’s covenant with David (Ps 89:3-4). God promised to establish David’s throne forever. Then he recalls God’s might and uniqueness (Ps 89:5-18). There’s no one like him. He rules the raging sea. He calms the waters. Then, in verses 19-37, he returns to God’s covenant with David. If God is so mighty, then surely he will come through on his promise.
God anointed David, verse 20 says, “so that my hand shall be established with him; my arm also shall strengthen him. The enemy shall not outwit him; the wicked shall not humble him. I will crush his foes before him and strike down those who hate him. My faithfulness and my steadfast love shall be with him, and in my name shall his horn be exalted. I will set his hand on the sea and his right hand on the rivers. He shall cry to me, ‘You are my Father, my God, and the Rock of my salvation.’ And I will make him the firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth [that’s our allusion].” “My steadfast love I will keep for him forever, and my covenant will stand firm…” and on it goes with God’s promise to David and God’s commitment…until verse 38.
With verse 38 we move from song to sorrow. With verse 38 we realize that everything building to this point represents unfulfilled longings. The writer knows God keeps his promises. But his daily experience causes distress. Verse 38, “But now you have cast off and rejected; you are full of wrath against your anointed. You have renounced the covenant with your servant; you have defiled his crown in the dust…”
In other words, he knows God’s promise, he knows God’s strength to get it done, but life is causing this tension. Things look like they’re falling apart, things feel like God’s promises are failing. So his cry goes up in verse 46, “How long, O LORD? Will you hide yourself forever? How long will your wrath burn like fire? Remember how short my time is! For what vanity you have created all the children of man! What man can live and never see death? Who can deliver his soul from the power of Sheol? Lord, where is your steadfast love of old…”
According to John, it’s in Jesus Christ. For centuries, Psalm 89 shaped the sorrows and longings of God’s people. But they find their answer in Jesus. He alone delivers from the power of Sheol! By raising Jesus from the dead and making him ruler of kings on earth, God proved his covenant faithfulness. Jesus sits on the forever-throne of David now; and here’s what that means…
When you are feeling the same sorrows and longings like the psalmist; when you know God’s promises and you know God’s power, yet you look around and feel like none of them will happen, you feel like God has forgotten, you feel like there’s too much brokenness to put back together; when you’re asking questions like, “Is the sadness ever going to let up? How long, O Lord?”—in that lament you can rest assured that God has given you the faithful witness of Jesus risen from the dead, of Jesus inaugurating the new age, of Jesus ruling the kings of the earth.
It’s no accident that when John names the Trinity, he draws from Old Testament passages where God’s people are suffering, discouraged, tired, ready to give up. God the Trinity meets us there, in the hard, to give us grace and peace. The seven churches of Revelation are facing the hard, the messy. Problems within the church, persecution from outside the church—John calls it the tribulation. Tribulation characterizes the present age until Jesus returns. But it’s in the tribulation that our God—three in one, Father, Son, and Spirit—comes and says grace and peace to you.
Confessing & Depending on the Trinity
Some final words as we close. One is that as Christians, we must confess the Trinity. The Trinity seeks to describe the way God reveals himself throughout Scripture. Scripture teaches us that God is one. Scripture also teaches us that Father, Son, and Spirit are identical with that one God. At the same time, Father, Son, and Spirit are distinct in their relations to one another. In the one God, then, there are a Trinity of persons.
When God the Trinity acts to save us, his acts are also trinitarian. God’s work to save us is one work, but it involves a trinity of persons acting according to their relations within the Godhead, some of which we’ve seen today. God saves us, but he does so as Father working through the Son by the Spirit. Not to confess the Trinity is to compromise God’s testimony about himself in Scripture.
Verses 4-5 should strengthen our confession all the more. All of us who have followed Jesus’ command in baptism identify with the Trinity—right from the beginning we are baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Spirit. But here we see that same triune God stays with us throughout the Christian life. No matter what we face as disciples, God the Trinity continues supplying his grace and peace.
Which also means that merely confessing the Trinity isn’t enough. From beginning to end, the Christian life is one of dependance on the Trinity. In everything we commit ourselves to, we come to the Father through the Son by the Spirit. Whatever trials we encounter, our source for strength is the Father, Son, and Spirit. Refuse to place your confidence in human sufficiency, human power, human politics, human resources.
Can you discern the temptations of our day, pulling us away from dependance on the Trinity? Let’s fill their lives with so many distractions—let’s make them always available to everyone and feed them all the information possible at once and make them feel guilty for not responding on the second—such that folks are too easily drawn away from sitting still in prayer. Let’s put them in an affluent culture that’s so good at meeting every felt need, at having an immediate comfort for nearly every problem, that they grow further and further from desperation before the Lord.
Or, when simple faithfulness to Jesus doesn’t seem to produce the results we want, let’s start doing things are own way. Let’s start leaning on money and technology and attraction and the movers-and-shakers, so that people come. Let’s resort to the world’s ways of mud-slinging and political power plays and character assassination, so that our tribe wins. Or, missionaries have sometimes told me of revival breaking out in a village. Then someone learns of it and tries to replicate it with a particular method, such that churches start placing their hope in a method versus the Spirit.
But the Lord says, “Not by might, nor by power, but my Spirit says the Lord.” Refuse to place your confidence in human sufficiency. Remain faithful in all things and trust the Lord to act. Seek the Spirit’s help and fullness. Throw your phone in a drawer and spend time in prayer and the word. Plead with the Father to glorify his Son through the Spirit’s presence in your own life.
Finally, expect the Trinity’s grace for various trials. All three Old Testament passages mention the struggles of God’s people. But those struggles differ. In Exodus 3, the people encounter slavery beneath evil tyrants. The text describes their struggle not only in terms of harsh labor but also in terms of a broken spirit. In Zechariah 4, foreign enemies still threaten and oppress, but the struggles also include unbelief, doubt, and cynicism. Then in Psalm 89, the people experience unfulfilled longings. Great distress fills them over the seeming failure of God’s promises. These are various trials.
But here’s what I appreciate about that: the trials we encounter may differ, but our God’s ability to save remains the same. No matter what we’re walking through, the same God acts to deliver, to build, or to fulfill. The grace God offers—he tailors it to meet our specific needs in the various trials we face. From persecution to parenting, from conflict in the workplace to cancer at home, from false teachers to failing memory—whatever trial you might face, God the Trinity extends to you grace and peace. May his grace and peace be with you this week.
[i] Tabb, All Things New, 13.
[ii] Bauckham, Theology of Revelation, 28-30.
[iii] Hoskins, Revelation, 52.
[iv] Exod 25:31-40; 37:17-24; 1 Kgs 7:49.
[v] Exod 26:35; 40:24-25; Num 8:2-3.
[vi] Dan 12:2; cf. Isa 26:19; Ezek 37:1-10.
[vii] E.g., Rev 6:15-17; 17:12-14; 19:16-18.