The words “grace . . . and peace” begin this process. Grace and peace! These are words we do not often associate with the Apocalypse. Many would say that there is more divine wrath than divine mercy here, more violence and bloodshed than peace. Nevertheless, I think we need to take John at his word. Even if the usage is a borrowing from the conventions of early Christian letterwriting, it says something important.
John does not write with hostile intentions toward the churches. He is but an ambassador of the one who is the source of all grace and peace and who—in another performative utterance—bestows these gifts upon the listener. Grace and peace are the very content of this apocalyptic irruption into our world.
This ultimate sender of the letter is now named. In other New Testament letters, such as Paul’s, the formula “grace and peace” would be followed by “from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” These expected words do not appear, however. Instead, John offers greetings:
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
the faithful11 witness,
the firstborn of the dead,
and the ruler of kings on earth. (1:4–5)
A moment ago we were hearing a letter being read aloud, John offering greetings to the churches. We now learn that John is only penultimately the source of this communication. The real source of the letter is God. Even this turns out to be more complicated than we might think, for alongside God we also hear of Jesus and of the mysterious “seven spirits.” Each of these three elements, in turn, is internally complex.
The Father is named with reference to his relation to present, past, and future; Jesus is called witness, firstborn, and ruler of kings; and the spirits are seven rather than simply one. John has not simply expanded the Pauline greeting, he has deepened and enriched it in puzzling ways. The first thing we notice is a proliferation of threes. Beyond the ones just cited, the ascription of Christ shifts into a doxology (1:5b) that yields three further sets of three:
him who loves us
has freed us from our sins by his blood
has made us a kingdom
he is coming with the clouds
every eye will see him
all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him
All this is rhetorically powerful. The number three is a universal element in myth and folklore. In fairly tales there are always three sons, three trials, three rings of power. But there is more than simply folklore going on here. As the doxological language and the liturgical “amen” (1:6–7) suggest, we find ourselves in the atmosphere of early Christian worship, an eschatological atmosphere permeated by a longing for Christ’s future coming. At the heart of Christian worship is the God who is one, but one by being three—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Worship is the primordial home of the Christian confession of God as Trinity.
As Robert Jenson remarks, the “habit of trinitarian naming is universal through the life of the church. How far back it goes we cannot make out. . . . It appears to have been an immediate reflex of believers’ experience of God. It is in liturgy, when we do not talk about God but to and for him, that we need and use his name.”