Revelation 4:1-8 – a visual description of God’s throne room.

This is an article in the series on the vision of the book with the seven seals (Rev 4:1-8:1).

Summary

Jesus calls John up to heaven.

John hears a voice “like the sound of a trumpet” calling him up to heaven (Rev 4:1). This is Jesus’ voice (Rev 1:10; 1:13). His voice also sounds like “many waters” (Rev 1:15). These are two descriptions of the same voice. Jesus is not explicitly mentioned in Revelation 4 but it is Him who leads John in vision.

LampstandIn the first three chapters of Revelation, John saw Jesus standing between “seven golden lampstands,” symbolizing “the seven churches” (Rev 1:12, 1:20). This is followed by Jesus dictating letters to the churches (cf. Rev 1:19). The focus, therefore, of these chapters, was on earth. But in chapter four, since John is called up to heaven, the focus shifts to heaven.

The purpose of inviting John up to heaven is to reveal to him what will happen in the future (Rev 4:1).

After hearing Jesus speaking, John was immediately “in the Spirit” (Rev 4:2). In other words, John did not literally enter heaven and he did not see a real place. He only saw a symbolic representation of the invisible reality through a vision of his mind.

The Throne

The first thing that John saw was God’s throne (Rev 4:2). “Throne” is the main word in chapter 4. Everything in this chapter happens in and around the throne.

The person who sits on a throne has the legal authority to rule. Revelation 4 is a vision of the governing center of the universe. Therefore, the throne symbolizes God’s authority over all things. That authority is grounded in creation (Rev 4:11): God is counted worthy to sit on the throne and govern the universe because He created all things.

John saw the throne “was standing” (Rev 4:2). He did not see the throne being put in place like in Daniel 7:9. The throne “was standing” BEFORE John saw it. This implies that John did not view one specific event but received a TIMELESS description of God’s throne room.

One Sitting on the Throne

John saw “One sitting on the throne” (Rev 4:2). This Person is not named but Revelation distinguishes between “Him who sits on the throne” and Jesus Christ (e.g., Rev 5:13; Rev 6:16). The “One sitting on the throne,” therefore, is the Father. Since He sits on the throne, He has ultimate authority.

John describes the Father rather vaguely (Rev 4:3). Other throne visions describe God in human terms (e.g., Ezek 1:26-27), but these could have been descriptions of the unique Son of God for, before He became a human being, He “existed in the form of God” and had “equality with God” (Phil 2:6).

God’s appearance is vague because He cannot be seen (John 1:18). He “dwells in unapproachable light, whom no man has seen or can see” (1 Tim 6:16). He has created all things that can be seen but He Himself exists outside space, time, and matter. Therefore, the substance of His Being can never be defined in terms of physical things. He may appear in a theophany (an appearance of God), but a theophany is only a faint reflection of His real full Being.

The 24 elders are people.

Next, John saw 24 elders sitting on 24 thrones around God’s throne. In human meetings, the audience normally sits in front of the speaker but the twenty-four thrones encircle the throne. The following identifies them as people:

    • Their number (24), which is a doubling 12 (cf. Rev 12:1; 21:12, 14, 17; 7:4-8).
    • The title “elder,”
    • Their “white garments” (cf. Rev 3:4-5; 3:18; 6:11; 7:9; 7:14)
    • Their “golden (stephanos) crowns” (cf. Rev 2:10; 3:11),
    • That they sit on thrones (cf. Rev 3:21; 20:4).

Angels are never described as having such things. For a further discussion, see – The 24 elders.

Their thrones indicate that the elders share in God’s rule of the universe. As prime examples of God’s people, they love their fellow human beings as they love themselves. It is wonderful to think that such human beings represent humanity in the control room of the universe.

The elders are from both Israel and the Church.

The 24 elders represent God’s people from BOTH the time before AND after Christ. In other words, from both Israel and the church. This is firstly implied by the number 24, which equals 12 + 12. This is secondly indicated by the fact that Revelation merges God’s people from Israel and the church. For example:

      • The “seven lampstands” in the Jewish temple become a symbol for the church (Rev 1:20).
      • The woman of Revelation 12 first symbolizes Israel but then also the Church.
      • The people who overcome the beast sing the song of both Moses and the Lamb (Rev 15:3).
      • Jerusalem becomes the bride of Christ (Rev 21:2; cf. Rev 19:7; 21:27).
      • The names of BOTH “the twelve tribes … of Israel” and “of the twelve apostles” are written on the New Jerusalem—the eternal city of God’s people (Rev 21:12, 14).

For a further discussion, see – Revelation merges the church into Israel.

Seven Spirits of God

John saw “seven lamps of fire burning before the throne, which are the seven Spirits of God” (Rev 4:5). This recalls the Hebrew sanctuary, in which seven lamps of fire were always burning (Exo 25:37).

God does not literally have seven Spirits. The number seven has to do with time and should be understood as the completion or perfection of time—the full period. For this reason, and due to the connection to the lamps in the temple that was ALWAYS burning, the seven Spirits of God can be understood to mean that God’s Spirit is ALWAYS present. 

The seven Spirits of God” is here located before the throne of God; apparently subordinate to the “One sitting on the throne” (Rev 4:2).

Four Living Creatures

John also saw “four living creatures” “in the center and around the throne” (Rev 4:6). They represent the angelic portion of God’s kingdom. Since they are always near the throne (Rev 4:6; 5:6; 7:11; 14:3), it could also mean that they are between the circle of elders and the throne. They seem to be intermediaries between God and humanity, represented by the 24 elders.

They were “full of eyes in front and behind” (Rev 4:6), symbolizing knowledge of everything. Since the number four represents ‘the whole earth’ (cf. Rev 7:1; 14:6), the four living creatures know everything that happens on earth.

Their faces were like the faces of a lion, a calf, a man, and a flying eagle (Rev 4:7). These features indicate endurance, perseverance, strength, and speed. Relative to the animals, the “face like a man” suggests intelligence.

The throne vision of Ezekiel 1 also has four living creatures with faces like a lion, ox, man, and eagle/vulture, and that are full of eyes (Ezek 1:5; 1:10; 1:18; cf. Rev 4:6-7). And each of the seraphim of Isaiah 6 also had six wings (Isa 6:2) and constantly say, “holy, holy, holy” (Isa 6:3; cf. Rev 4:8). The description of the four living creatures, therefore, combines features drawn from both the cherubim in Ezekiel and the seraphim of Isaiah 6.

– End of Summary –  

This is the end of the summary. If you would like to skip the detailed discussion below, the next article in this series is – The 24 elders in God’s throne room. Alternatively, see the list of the articles in the series on the sealed book.


Revelation 4:1

After these things

This phrase often introduces a new vision (e.g., Rev 7:1, 9).

Here, “these things” refer to the seven letters to the seven churches, as contained in chapters two and three (cf. Rev 1:19). 

… I looked and behold

John did not look with his literal eyes, but in a vision.

… a door standing open in heaven

In his mind, John is no longer on Patmos, but at the gates of heaven.

… and the first voice which I had heard, like the sound of a trumpet speaking with me

This is Jesus’ voice which John previously heard as a loud voice; “like the sound of a trumpet” (Rev 1:10). When John turned to see who was speaking, he saw a vision of the Son of man among the seven candlesticks (Rev 1:12-18).

Jesus’ voice sounds both like a trumpet and like many waters (Rev 1:15). These are two descriptions of the same voice.

It is, therefore, Jesus who speaks in this verse. Jesus is not one of the actors in this chapter but it is still Him who leads John in vision.

… said, “Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after these things

This is the second time that the phrase “after these things” appears in this verse. “These things” refer to chapters two and three, reflecting John’s time. “What must take place after these things” are events that are largely in his future.

The words, “come up here” invites John into heaven. In the first three chapters, John met Jesus ON EARTH, for Jesus was standing between the candlesticks symbolizing the seven churches (Rev 1:20). The seven letters in chapters 2 and 3 were also addressed to seven churches ON EARTH. But the scene changes in chapter four from earth to heaven.

Revelation 4:2

Immediately I was in the Spirit

John does not enter heaven physically; he is carried in vision by the Spirit into the heavenly places.

In Revelation, John goes “in the Spirit” four times. The first was in Revelation 1:10, where he encountered the glorified Jesus. The second is here. The third and fourth are in Revelation 17:3 and 21:10. Of the four, the current one is the only one that calls John into heaven. The others call him to different places ON EARTH where something special happens.

… and behold, a throne was standing in heaven

The main word in chapter 4 is “throne.” This word appears fourteen times in the eleven verses of the chapter. Everything in this chapter happens in and around the throne. In addition to God who sits “on” the throne (Rev 4:2, 4, 6, 9, 10), we read about things:

        • In the midst of the throne (Rev 4:6),
        • Before the throne (Rev 4:5, 6, 10),
        • All around the throne (Rev 4:3, 4, 6), and
        • Coming out from the throne (Rev 4:5),

The term “throne” is drawn from the governmental language of the time. The person who sits on a throne has the legal authority to rule over some territory or a nation. Revelation 4 depicts the governing center of the universe, and the throne is the symbol of God’s authority to rule the universe.

That authority is grounded in creation for God is counted worthy to sit on the throne and govern the universe because He created all things (Rev 4:11).

There are four major throne scenes in the Old Testament. Revelation 4 strongly alludes to the throne scene of Ezekiel 1. But the description of the four living creatures (Rev 4:6-7) and the “holy, holy, holy” (Rev 4:8) refer to the throne vision in Isaiah 6. We find another major throne scene in Daniel 7.

The throne “was standing” in heaven. It means that the throne “was standing” BEFORE John saw it. This confirms that John is not viewing one specific event, in contrast to Daniel 7:9, where the throne was placed for a special event.

… and One sitting on the throne

The One sitting on the throne is not named but Revelation distinguishes “Him who sits on the throne” from Jesus Christ (cf. Rev 5:5-7, 5:9, 5:13; 6:16). The “One sitting on the throne,” therefore, is God the Father. Since He sits on the throne, He has the ultimate authority.

Revelation 4:3

And He who was sitting was like a jasper stone and a sardius in appearance

Revelation 1 describes Jesus in much detail (Rev 1:13-18) but there is a vagueness in this description of God. Other throne visions are more specific:

        • In Ezekiel 1:26-27, the one sitting on the throne has a human appearance. From the waist up, He looks like glowing metal and, from the waist down, like fire.
        • Daniel 7:9 describes “the Ancient of Days” (God). “His vesture was like white snow and the hair of His head like pure wool.”

These visions describe God in human terms but God cannot be seen (John 1:18). He “alone possesses immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no man has seen or can see” (1 Tim 6:16). He has created everything that can be seen and cannot be described in terms of things that can be seen. God does not exist somewhere in the universe. The universe exists somewhere within God. He exists outside space, time, and matter. He may appear in a theophany, which is an appearance of God, but a theophany is only a faint reflection of His real full Being. Since space, time, and matter exist somewhere within God, the substance of His Being can never be defined in terms of physical things.

… and there was a rainbow around the throne, like an emerald in appearance.

It is not clear whether the rainbow was horizontally around the throne or a half-circle vertically arched above the throne, as rainbows are on earth.

While a rainbow normally exhibits multiple colors from purple to red, the primary color of this rainbow is green; the color of an emerald.

In the flood story of Genesis, the rainbow was a symbol of God’s covenant with Noah (Gen 9:12-17), an assurance that He is faithful in keeping his promises.

Revelation 4:4

Around the throne were twenty-four thrones;
and upon the thrones I saw twenty-four elders sitting,
clothed in white garments,
and golden crowns on their heads.

Like the rainbow in the previous verse, the 24 elders are “around the throne,” which should be taken in a horizontal sense. If the rainbow is like a halo horizontally around the area, the 24 elders could be understood as sitting in or under it.

In human meetings, the audience normally sits in front of the speaker but the twenty-four thrones encircle the throne. 

The elders are people.

The article on the 24 elders identifies them as human representatives of God’s people on earth. This is based on the following:

1) “Elders” is a familiar Biblical title for humans but angels are never called elders.

2) They sit on thrones and Revelation promises that the overcomers will sit on thrones (Rev 3:21; 20:4). Angels are never described as sitting on thrones.

3) They are “clothed in white garments” (Rev 4:4) and Revelation promises white robes to God’s people (Rev 3:4-5; cf. Rev 3:18; 6:11; 7:9, 14).

4) The 24 elders have victory crowns (stephanos) which is the reward for the overcomers (Rev 2:10; 3:11) and symbolizes eternal life (Rev 2:10; cf. 2 Tim 4:8).

5) The number 24 is a doubling of the number 12 and Revelation associates the number 12 with God’s people (Rev 12:1; 21:12, 14, 17; 7:4-8).

Their thrones indicate that the elders share in God’s rule of the universe. It is wonderful to think that human beings, that love their fellow human beings like themselves, represent humanity in the control room of the universe.

The elders are from both Israel and the Church.

The article on the 24 elders also shows that the 24 elders represent God’s people from BOTH the time before AND after Christ. In other words, from both Israel and the church. The 24 elders are one example of how Revelation merges God’s people from Israel and the church. The following are further examples:

      • The names of BOTH “the twelve tribes … of Israel” and “of the twelve apostles” are written on the New Jerusalem—the city of God’s people in the new heavens and new earth (Rev 21:12, 14).
      • The woman of Revelation 12 represents both Israel and the church. (See, Who are the woman, the dragon, the child?)
      • The “seven lampstands” in the Jewish temple become a symbol for the church (Rev 1:20).
      • The people who overcome the beast sing the song of both Moses and the Lamb (Rev 15:3) – the key figures of the Old and New Testaments.
      • Jerusalem, Israel’s capital city, becomes the bride of Christ (Rev 21:2; cf. Rev 19:7; 21:27).

Revelation 4:5

Out from the throne come flashes of lightning
and sounds and peals of thunder.

This language builds on Old Testament ‘theophanies’:

        • The original theophany was on Mount Sinai (Exo 19:16-20).
        • In the first chapter of Ezekiel, the appearance of God also included lightning and loud noises (Ezek 1:13, 24).  

This series of words (lightning – sounds – thunder) is repeated three more times in Revelation:

        • The next two instances add “earthquake” to the previous three (Rev 8:5; 16:18).
        • The fifth instance adds both “earthquake” and “great hail” (Rev 11:19)

Since the “lightning and sounds and peals of thunder” are things that happen in the air in a thunderstorm, and since they come out of the throne, they probably represent God’s utterances. The “earthquake” and “great hail,” on the other hand, are things that happen on earth and, therefore, probably represent the earthly consequences of God’s decrees.

And there were seven lamps of fire burning before the throne, which are the seven Spirits of God;

The Greek words translated “lamps” in this verse, symbolizing the Spirit of God, are different from the word translated “lampstands” in Revelation 1:12-13, representing the seven churches (Rev 1:20). Nevertheless, the concept of “seven lamps of fire” in this verse still recalls the Hebrew sanctuary, in which seven lamps of fire were CONSTANTLY burning (Exo 25:37).

The seven Spirits of God” is here located before the throne of God; apparently subordinate to the “One sitting on the throne” (Rev 4:2).

God does not literally have seven Spirits. The number seven must be interpreted symbolically. It is mentioned many (56) times in Revelation and is based on the seven days of the week. The number seven in Revelation is different from the other numbers in Revelation in the sense that the seven elements stand in chronological sequence to each other—the second follows after the first—the third after the second, and so forth, with the seventh as the last or end. The same cannot be said of the other important numbers in Revelation, such as 4, 10, and 12. The number seven, therefore, has to do with time and should be understood as the completion or perfection of time—the full period.

For this reason, and due to the connection between the Spirits and the lamps in the temple that were ALWAYS burning, the seven Spirits of God can be understood to mean that God’s Spirit is ALWAYS present.

Revelation 4:6

and before the throne there was something like a sea of glass, like crystal;

It is not a real sea of glass; it is “something LIKE a sea of glass.”  John is doing his best to describe his vision of heavenly in human terms.

Glass and glass-blowing were known to the ancients but the ancient glass was often coarse and semi-opaque. In contrast, the reference to crystal emphasizes the transparent clarity of this sea of glass.

The “sea of glass” appears again in Revelation, but then it is mingled with fire (Rev 15:2).

and in the center and around the throne, four living creatures full of eyes in front and behind.

It is a bit difficult to understand what “in the center and around the throne” means:

It could mean that the four living creatures move around.

Since they are always near the throne (Rev 4:6; 5:6; 7:11; 14:3), it could also mean that they are in the center of the circle of elders; between the circle of elders and the throne. They seem to be intermediaries between God and the human race, represented by the 24 elders.

The Four Living Creatures of Ezekiel 1

There are also four living creatures in the throne vision of Ezekiel 1. There are multiple similarities. Both Revelation 4 and Ezekiel 1 have:

      • Four living creatures (Ezek 1:5; Rev 4:6);
      • With faces like a lion, ox, man, and eagle/vulture (Ezek 1:10; Rev 4:7);
      • Full of eyes (Ezek 1:18; Rev 4:6); and
      • A rainbow surrounding the throne (Ezek 1:28; Rev 4:3).

In both, the four living creatures are especially close to God. In Ezekiel, they are the bearers of God’s throne chariot. There are also some interesting differences. For example:

Ezekiel 1 Revelation 4
Each of the four living creatures has FOUR faces, one each of man, lion, ox, and eagle (Ezek 1:10). Each living creature had a face like only one of the four beings (Rev 4:7).
Each of the four living creatures has four wings (Ezek 1:11). Each has six wings (Rev 4:8).
The WHEELS are full of eyes all around (Ezek 1:16-18). The living creatures themselves are covered with eyes front and back (Rev 4:6).
The four living creatures are under the throne (Ezek 1:26) and are the means by which the throne moves (Ezek 1:12; 15-21). The throne seems stationary (Rev 4:2).

These prophets did not physically see God’s throne room. These were visions in the minds of the prophets. What detail God gave to them may be different from time to time, depending on the purpose of the revelation.

Living Creatures in other sources

1 Enoch 40:2 (Ethiopic Enoch) – a Jewish book known in New Testament times – mentions four archangels named Michael, Gabriel, Uriel, and Raphael. If they are the same as the four living creatures, they are the leaders of the angels. In that case, in Revelation, the first circle around the throne consists of angels, and the second circle consists of human beings; represented by the 24 elders.

Ezekiel 10:20 refers to four living beings as cherubim. This term occurs over 90 times in the Hebrew Bible but only once in the New Testament (Heb 9:4-5), where they are “above” the ark of the covenant.

Similar to the four living creatures of Revelation, the seraphim in Isaiah 6 also have six wings and constantly say, “holy, holy, holy” (Isa 6:2-3; Rev 4:8). Revelation 4, therefore, combines features drawn from both the cherubim in Ezekiel and the seraphim of Isaiah 6.

Who are the Four Living Creatures?

The King James Version describes the four living creatures as “beasts,” but that is not a good translation. The word for beast represents the animal kingdom and is reserved for the forces of evil in Revelation (Rev 11:7; 13:1; 13:11, etc.). “Living creature,” on the other hand, is a broader term that can represent also angels, birds, and humans.

The four living creatures are full of eyes in front and back. This is not to be taken literally. Their eyes probably represent the omniscience of God, who knows everything that can be known. The number four represents ‘the whole earth’ (cf. Rev 7:1; 14:6). The four living creatures, therefore, know everything that happens on earth.

In conclusion, the four living creatures are the primary connection between God and creation. They might correspond to the four archangels of Jewish tradition; the leaders of the angels. As such, the four living creatures represent the angelic portion of God’s kingdom, while the twenty-four elders represent the human race before God.

Revelation 4:7

The first creature was like a lion,
and the second creature like a calf,
and the third creature had a face like that of a man,
and the fourth creature was like a flying eagle.

These features indicate endurance, perseverance, strength, and speed. Relative to the animals, the “face like a man” implies intelligence.

Revelation 4:8

And the four living creatures,
each one of them having six wings

Since the living creatures of Ezekiel 1 had four wings each, the six wings recall the six-winged cherubim of Isaiah 6; two wings were used to cover their faces, two wings to cover their feet and two were used to fly (Isaiah 6:2).

are full of eyes around and within

In verse 6, four living creatures were “full of eyes in front and behind.” In the current verse, the eyes are “around and within,” which is difficult to visualize. Nevertheless, the meaning is that the vision of the living creatures is not impeded in any way. They were created by God with the highest possible alertness, perception, and knowledge.


Other Articles

What did Fourth Century Arianism believe?

Summary of this article

In the first three centuries after Christ, the Roman Empire persecuted the church. In the fourth century, the church was first legalized (AD 313) and later became the official religion of the Roman Empire (AD 380). During that period, a controversy raged in the church with respect to the nature of Christ. The emperors could not allow disunity in the church because a split in the church could split the entire empire. The emperors, therefore, forced the church to formulate creeds, and, true to the nature of the empire, banish church leaders who were not willing to accept the creeds.

Arianism was named after Arius.

We are not sure what Arius taught, for his books were destroyed after Nicaea, and we cannot trust what his opponents wrote about him. For example, Athanasius claimed that Arius said that “there was a time when the Son was not,” but below we quote Arius saying that the Son existed “before time.” 

‘Arianism’ dominated the church for 50 years.

Many erroneously understand the Nicene Creed of 325 to say that the Son is equal to the Father but, after 325, the consensus in the church was that the Son is subordinate to the Father. What the church believed at the time was different from what Arius believed, but it is practice today to describe anything that is not perfectly consistent with the Trinity doctrine as Arianism. Therefore, since, in the Trinity doctrine, the Son is co-equal to the Father, it is common for people to the refer to the belief in the fourth century, that the Son is subordinate to the Father, as Arianism.

This ‘Arianism’ remained the dominant view in the church for the next 50 years. During those fifty years, this ‘Arianism’ evolved and divided into a number of branches. It is, therefore, important to understand what the church believed after the intense debates of those years.

God and theos

Today, we use the modern word “God” as the proper name of the One who exists without a cause. The ancient Greek word, in the Bible and other ancient documents, such as the Nicene Creed, that is translated as “God” is theos. But theos is the common name for the Greek gods and means “god” in Eglish. When it refers to the One who exists without a cause, it is correctly translated as “God.” In instances where theos refers to Jesus, it can be translated as “God” only if one assumes the Trinity doctrine. In Arianism, in which only the Father is the One who exists without a cause, theos, when it describes Jesus, or to any being other than the Father, must be translated as “god.” See the article – theos – for a further discussion.

What the Arian church believed

In Arianism:

The Father is the “only one God.” In contrast to the Son who is the “begotten,” the Father is “the unbegotten,” which means that He exists without a cause and, therefore, is the ultimate Cause of all else. 

The Son is our god, but the Father is His god. God created all things through the Son. Since the Son was begotten” by the Father, which is understood to mean that He was born of the Being of the Father, He was not created but, nevertheless, subordinate to the Father.

The Holy Spirit is not a Person, but as a power; subject to the Son.

– END OF SUMMARY – 

Purpose of this article

The Metamorphosis of the Church

The fourth century was a remarkable period in which the church changed from being PERSECUTED to being the OFFICIAL STATE RELIGION of the Roman Empire. For all practical purposes, the church became part of the state and, as will be explained, the emperor became the head of the church. Adopting the character of the empire, the church changed from being persecuted to persecuting church leaders who do not accept the official church decrees.

Arian Controversy

Emperor Constantine standing before the bishops

In that fourth century, a huge controversy raged with respect to the NATURE OF CHRIST. The Nicene Creed—formulated in the year 325 at the city of Nicaea—described the Son as “true theos from true theos” and as of the “same substance” as the Father. Many today interpret these phrases as that the Son is EQUAL to the Father. The article on the Nicene Creed shows that this interpretation is wrong and that that Creed described the Son as subordinate to the Father.

After the creed was formulated in the year 325, for the next 50 years, the church was dominated by teachings in which the Son is SUBORDINATE to the Father. This Arian period was brought abruptly to an end when Theodosius became emperor in the year 380. He was an ardent supporter of Nicene Christology and, on ascending the throne, IMMEDIATELY declared Arianism to be illegal and Nicene Christology to be THE ONLY religion of the empire. He then replaced the Arian church leadership with Nicene leaders.

Purpose of this article

The purpose of this article is to analyze what Arianism believed in the fourth century. Some of the historical facts mentioned in this article are described in more detail in other articles.

Conflicting evidence in the Bible

To understand the war between Nicene Christology and Arianism, we must appreciate the seemingly conflicting evidence in the Bible about the nature of Christ. Many Bible statements describe Him as equal with the Father, but many others imply that He is subordinate to God, for example:

EQUAL SUBORDINATE
He “upholds all things by the word of His power” (Heb 1:3) has “life in Himself” (John 5:26) sent the Holy Spirit to His disciples (Luke 24:49), is “the first and the last” (Rev 1:17) and owns everything which the Father has (Matt 11:27). “All things have been created through Him” (Col 1:16) and “all will honor the Son even as they honor the Father” (John 5:23). In Him, all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form (Col 2:9). “At the name of Jesus, every knee will bow” (Phil 2:10). Only He knows the Father. (Matt 11:27) Only the Father knows the “day and hour” of His return (Matt 24:26). Everything which the Son has, He received from the Father, including to have “life in Himself” (John 5:22, 26). The Father sent Him and told Him what to say and do (John 7:16). The NT consistently makes a distinction between Jesus and God (e.g., Philemon 1:3). For example, Jesus is today at the right hand of God. The “one God” and “the only true God” is always the Father (1 Cor 8:6; 1 Tim 2:5; Eph 4:4-6; John 17:3). The Father is His God and He prayed to the Father. (Rev 3:12; John 17; Acts 7:56).

What Arius believed about Christ

Arius

The words Arian and Arianism are derived from the name of Arius (c. 250–336); a church leader who had significant influence at the beginning of the fourth century. His teachings initiated the Arian controversy and Emperor Constantine called the council at Nicaea specifically to denounce His teachings. 

We are not sure what Arius taught. After Nicaea in 325, the emperor gave orders that all of Arius’ books be destroyed and that all people who hide Arius’ writings, be killed. Very little of Arius’ writings survived, and much of what did survive are quotations selected for polemical purposes in the writings of his opponents. Reconstructing WHAT Arius actually taught, and—even more important—WHY, is, therefore, a formidable task. There is no certainty about the extent to which his teachings continued those of church fathers in previous centuries.

Letter to Eusebius

We have a brief statement of what Arius believed in a letter to the Arian archbishop of Constantinople; Eusebius of Nicomedia (died 341). He wrote as follows:

We say and believe …
that the Son is not unbegotten,
nor in any way part of the unbegotten;
and that he does not derive his subsistence from any matter;
but that by his own will and counsel
he has subsisted (existed) before time
and before ages as perfect as God,
only begotten and unchangeable,
and that before he was begotten, or created, or purposed, or established, he was not.
For he was not unbegotten.
We are persecuted because we say
that the Son has a beginning
but that God is without beginning.

(Theodoret: Arius’s Letter to Eusebius of Nicomedia, translated in Peters’ Heresy and Authority in Medieval Europe, p. 41)

Brief reflections on Arius’ view

The Son is not unbegotten,
nor in any way part of the unbegotten.

Unbegotten” is how the ancients described the Being who exists without a cause (the Father). Since the Son is begotten, Arius argued that He is not part of that which exists without a cause. For Arius, only the Father is unbegotten.

He does not derive his subsistence from any matter.

ARIUS INTERPRETATION
NOT UNBEGOTTEN
The Son is not unbegotten, nor in any way part of the unbegotten.
Unbegotten” is how the ancients described the Being who exists without a cause. Since the Son is begotten, Arius reasoned that He is not part of that which exists without a cause. For Arius, only the Father is unbegotten. 
ONLY BEGOTTEN
He does not derive his subsistence from any matter.
The phrase “only begotten” identifies the Son as unique. There is no other like Him. “Begotten” indicates that His being came from the being of the Father. He was not created from other matter.
BEFORE TIME
By his own will and counsel he has subsisted before time and before age.
He existed as an independent Person with His own will; distinct from the will of God. He was begotten by God before time began.
PERFECT
as perfect as God … unchangeable
This shows the extremely high view which Arius had of the Son. Created beings change over time due to influences, but God and the Son are “unchangeable.”
HE WAS NOT.
Before he was begotten, or created, or purposed, or established, he was not. The Son has a beginning but God is without beginning.
Firstly, here, Arius indicates that he does not know what it means that the Son was begotten. Nevertheless, since He was is begotten, or created, or purposed, or established, He exists by the will of God (the Father) and “was not” before He was “begotten.”

Arius seems to contradict himself. Above, he wrote that the Son “subsisted before time.” But he also wrote that the Son “was not” before He was begotten and that the Son “has a beginning.” It is a pity that we do not have Arius’ book that he can explain himself. Below, I propose how these statements can be reconciled.

A time when the Son was not

In the fourth century, Athanasius was the arch-enemy of Arianism and the great advocate of the homoousian (Nicene) theology. He quoted Arius as saying:

“If the Father begat the Son,
then he who was begotten
had a beginning in existence,

and from this, it follows
there was a time when the Son was not.”

Today, this quote by Athanasius is quite famous and is still used to characterize Arius’ teaching. But Arius wrote to Eusebius—in the quote above—that the Son existed “before time.” This seems to contradict what Athanasius wrote. We do not know whether Arius really wrote “there was a time when the Son was not” or whether this was a straw man created by Athanasius.

Today, Trinitarians regard Athanasius of Alexandria as a hero who stood for ‘the truth’ when ‘the whole world’ was Arian. Athanasius is counted as one of the four great Eastern Doctors of the Church in the Catholic Church.

But in his day, he was a highly controversial character in his day. The church accused him of horrible crimes and exiled no less than five times. We are not able to judge either way today, but Athanasius was a prolific writer, and we can judge his spirit by his writings. For this purpose, listen to the following podcasts:

Assessing Athanasius and his Arguments
Athanasius’s On the Nicene Council

The Son had a beginning.

Eternal generation

In the Trinity doctrine today, the Son had no beginning but always existed with the Father. The Bible is clear that He is begotten by the Father but that is explained with the concept of eternal generation, namely that the Father always was the Father, that there never was a time that the Father was not the Father.

Arius, as quoted above, wrote that “the Son has a beginning but … God is without beginning.” But in the same statement, he wrote that the Son existed “before time and before ages.” Did Arius contradict himself? I wish we had Arius’ book to explain his own words but would like to propose the following explanation:

God created time. God is that which exists without a cause, and time exists because God exists. God, therefore, exists outside time, cannot be defined by time and is not subject to time. We cannot say that God existed ‘before time’, for the word “before” implies the existence of time, and there is no such thing as time before time. Therefore, I prefer to say that God exists ‘outside time’.

Since God created time, time had a beginning and is finite.

God created all things through the Son (e.g. 1 Col 8:6). Therefore, God created time through the Son. It follows that there never was a time when the Son did not exist. Arius, therefore, could validly write that the Son existed “BEFORE TIME.”

But, there exists an infinity beyond the boundaries of time. All the power and wisdom that we see reflected in this physical universe, comes out of that incomprehensible infinity beyond time, space and matter. In that infinity beyond time, Arius wrote, “THE SON HAS A BEGINNING.” But this is not a beginning in time, for there is no such thing as time in infinity.

This explains why Arius could both claim that the Son existed before time and had a beginning. If this was Arius’ thinking, he could not that written that “there was a time when the Son was not,” as Athanasius claimed.

Arianism evolved after Nicaea.

Forced unity

Under the stern supervision of the emperors, who demanded unity in the church to prevent a split in the empire, the fourth-century church fathers would not allow different views about Christ to co-exist within the church. The church’s view of Christ changed from time to time, but, nevertheless, it always formulated a view of Christ and, through persecution, forced all Christians to abide by the formal church doctrine.

Numerous synods

The fifty-year Arian period after Nicaea resulted in numerous synods, including at Serdica in 343, Sirmium in 358 and Rimini and Seleucia in 359. The pagan observer Ammianus Marcellinus commented sarcastically: “The highways were covered with galloping bishops.”

Numerous creeds

The best-known creed today is the Nicene Creed, but no fewer than fourteen further creeds were formulated between 340 and 360, depicting the Son as subordinate on the Father, e.g. the Long Lines Creed. Historian RPC Hanson lists twelve creeds that reflect the Homoian faith—one of the variants of Arianism—including the creeds of Sirmian (AD 357), Nice (Constantinople – 360), Akakius (359), Ulfilas (383), Eudoxius, Auxentius of Milan (364), Germinius, Palladius’ rule of faith (1988. The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God. Edinburgh: T&T Clark. pp. 558–559).

Arianism evolved.

During the fifty years between Constantine and Theodosius, Arianism was refined and nuanced, relative to what Arius believed. Consequently, although Arius’ views are important, it is far more important to understand what version of Arianism the church adopted after Arius’ views and the Nicene Creed were intensely debated in the decades following Nicaea.

The word “GOD” is ambiguous.

Before we discuss what Ulfilas wrote, we need to explain the difference between the word “God” and the words used in the New Testament:

Modern English

In modern languages, we differentiate between the words “god” and “God:”

When we use a word as a proper name, we capitalize the first letter. The word “God,” therefore, has a very specific usage: It is the PROPER NAME of one specific being; the One who exists without cause.

The word “god,” on the other hand, is a general category name used for all supernatural beings. It is even for human beings with super-human qualities.

Ancient Greek

The capital “G,” therefore, makes a huge difference. But, when the Bible was written, and also in the fourth century, there were no capital letters. Or, more precisely, the ancients wrote only in capital letters. The distinction between upper and lower case letters did not yet exist. According to the article on the timeline of writing in Western Europe, the ancients used Greek majuscule (capital letters only) from the 9th to the 3rd century BC. In the following centuries, up until the 12th century AD, they used the uncial script, which still was only capital letters. Greek minuscule was only used in later centuries.

Te Greek word theos

Since the word “God” is a name for one specific Being, the original New Testament does not contain any one word with the same meaning as “God.” The New Testament writers used the word theos, which is the same word that was used for the pantheon of Greek gods. The word theos, therefore, is equivalent in meaning to our modern word “god.”  The word theos was also used for beings other than the one true God, even for “the god of this world” (2 Cor 4:4) and for human judges (John 10:35). Therefore, by describing the Father and the Son as “god,” the Bible and the fourth-century writers only indicated that the Father and the Son are immortal beings; similar to the immortal Greek gods. Consequently, the word “god” does not elevate the Father or the Son above the pagan gods.

The word “God,” in the translations of the New Testament and other ancient Greek writings, therefore, is an INTERPRETATION. When the translator believes that theos refers to the One who exists without a cause, theos is rendered as “God.”  But when Paul wrote spoke about the theos of the pagan nations, the New Testament translates that as “god.” And when it translates theos, when it refers to Jesus, as “God,” it does that on the assumption of the Trinity doctrine.

True god

To indicate that the Unique Being is intended, the Bible writers added words such as “only,” or “true” or “one” to theos. But most often they simply added the definite article “the” to theos to indicate that the God of the Bible is intended. 

In the Nicene Creed, both the Father and the Son are described as “true god.” The Bible never identifies the Son as “true god.” In the Bible, the “true god” is always the Father.  For example:

You, the only true God, and
Jesus Christ whom You have sent” (John 17:3)

You turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God,
and to wait for His Son from heaven” (I Thess 1:9-10).

So that we may know Him who is true;
and we are in Him who is true,
in His Son Jesus Christ.
This is the true God and eternal life” (1 John 5:20).

But then translators translate the Greek equivalent of “true god” as “true God.” Not only is this faulty translation, the word “true” in the phrase “true God” is SUPERFLUOUS, for there is only one “true God.”  Since “God” already indicates the only true god, “true theos” should be translated either as “true god” or as “God.” 

Ulfilas’ Christology

Germanic missionary – The Goth Ulfilas (c. 311–383) was ordained as bishop by the Arian Eusebius of Nicomedia and returned to his Gothic people to work as a missionary. He translated the New Testament into the Gothic language and is credited with the conversion of the Gothic peoples, which resulted in the wide-scale conversion of the Germanic peoples. 

Ulfilas’ Arianism – What he believed is perhaps a good reflection of the Arianism that was generally accepted in the church between Nicaea (325) and Constantinople (381). He wrote:

I, Ulfila … believe in
only one God the Father,

the unbegotten and invisible,

and in his only-begotten Son,
our lord/master and God,
the designer and maker of all creation,
having none other like him.

Therefore, there is one God of all,
who is also God of our God;

and in one Holy Spirit,
the illuminating and sanctifying power …
Neither God nor lord/master,
but the faithful minister of Christ;
not equal, but subject and obedient in all things to the Son.

And I believe
the Son to be subject and obedient in all things
to God the Father

(Heather and Matthews. Goths in the Fourth Century. p. 143 –  Auxentius on Wulfila).

Discussion of Ulfilas’ Christology

The Father – Ultimate Cause of all else

Only one God

Ulfilas believed in “only one God,” who he identified as the Father.  Actually, this was the standard opening phrase of all ancient creeds. The Nicene Creed also starts as follows:

We believe in one God, the Father Almighty,
Maker of all things visible and invisible
.”

But then it continues to perhaps contradict this opening phrase by adding that the Son is “true god from true god“.

The unbegotten

Ulfilas identified the Father as “the unbegotten.” Arius also mentioned “the unbegotten,” which is that which exists without a cause. That means that the Father is the ultimate Cause of all else.  

Invisible

Ulfilas added that the Father is invisible. This is also stated a number of times in the New Testament (e.g. Col 1:15). Certainly, in the past, God appeared to people (theophanies), but an appearance is vastly different from God Himself. An appearance does not contain God in His fullness. It is not possible for God in His fullness to be seen, for He exists outside this visible realm.

Only-begotten Son

Ulfilas also believed in:

His only-begotten Son,
our lord/master and God,
the designer and maker of all creation,
having none other like him
.”

Our God

In this translation of Ulfilas’ statement, the Son is “our … God,” but this is faulty translation. It should be rendered “our god,” with a small “g.”  As explained above, the Greek of the New Testament does not have a name for the God of the Bible. It uses theos; the common word for the pagan gods but added words such as “the” or “only” or “true” to identify “the only true god” (John 17:3). To say that the Son is “god” simply means that He is a immortal being, like the pagan gods. Consequently, Ulfilas followed up His description of the Son with the following explanation:

Therefore, there is one God of all,
who is also God of our God;

In this phrase, “our God” again refers to Jesus. This is similar to Hebrews 1:8-9, which also refers to Jesus as theos, but then says that the Father is His theos.

The phrases “only-begotten” and “none other like him” identify the Son as utterly unique. 

Maker of all creation

Ulfilas described Son as the “designer and maker of all creation.” If He made all things, presumably, He was not made Himself.  

Arius wrote that the Son was “begotten, or created, or purposed, or established.” In other words, Arius did not make a clear distinction between begotten and created. But after Nicaea, Arianism emphasized that the phrase only begotten” means that the Son was not created. See, for example, the Long Lines Creed.

Only-Begotten

Ulfilas described the Son as the “only-begotten Son” of the “only one God the Father, the unbegotten.” The word “begotten,” which means that the Father gave birth to the Son, implies that the Son came from the being or substance of the Father. “Only-begotten” means that He is the only being that ever was born of God. 

Because He was “begotten” of the being or substance of God, the Nicene Creed described the Son as homoousios with the Father. This word comes from homós (same) and ousía (being or essence) and means “same substance.” In Latin, it is consubstantial. In other words, the Nicene claimed that the Son is of the “same substance” as the Father.

In Arianism, this means that the Father and the Son have the “same substance,” just like we as people have the “same substance,” but remain different persons with different skills and capacities.

Trinitarian theology replaces the word “same” with “one” and understands homoousian as that the Father and Son have “one substance;” like three Persons with one body.

In his description of the Father and the Son, Ulfilas does not mention substance at all, which is a good thing, for that concept is not revealed in the Bible (Deut 29:29). It was an unfortunate addition to the Nicene Creed, probably due to the insistence of the emperor, who presided over the proceedings. (Listen to Kegan Chandler on the term “homoousios.”)

Subordinate

In Trinitarian theology, the Son is in all respects equal with the Father. In contrast, in Arianism, “begotten” means that the Son’s existence was caused by the Father, and that He is dependent on the Father, who alone is the uncaused Cause of all things. Arianism claims that the Bible reveals Him as subordinate to the Father; both before and after His existence as a human being. See the article – Subordinate.

The Father is God of our God.

What really sets Him apart from the pagan gods is not the title “god,” but that He is “the designer and maker of all creation.”

God, the Father – All instances of the word “God” in the quote from Ulfilas should be translated “god;” even when referring to the Father.  Ulfilas made a distinction between the Father and the Son and the pagan gods in HOW he described Him, namely as the “only one god” who is “god of all” and also “god of our god.” 

God of our God – As Ulfilas wrote, “there is one God of all, who is also GOD OF OUR GOD.”  In other words, the Father is the Son’s god.  The Bible similarly describes Jesus as “only-begotten god” (John 1:18) and “mighty god” (Isaiah 9:6); the Lord of the universe (1 Cor. 8:6), but the Father as Jesus’ “God” (e.g. Rev. 3:2, 12; Heb. 1:8-9; John 20:17).  Paul described the Father is the Head of Christ. 

Subordinate – Ulfilas closed by saying, “I believe the Son to be subject and obedient in all things to God the Father.” 

The Holy Spirit is not a person.

Subject and obedient – Ulfilas furthermore believed “in one Holy Spirit, the illuminating and sanctifying power … Neither God nor lord/master, but the faithful minister of Christ; not equal, but subject and obedient in all things to the Son.” That the Holy Spirit is “neither God nor lord” implies that Ulfilas did not think of the Holy Spirit as a Person, but as a power, and a power that is subject and obedient in all things to the Son.

Therefore, the Son is SUBORDINATE to the Father and the Holy Spirit is SUBORDINATE to the Son. 

No Trinity in the first four centuries

Ulfilas did not believe is the Trinity.  For him:

The Father alone was God. 
The Holy Spirit is not a Person.
There is no mention of three Persons in one Being.

It is often said that Arians do not believe in the traditional doctrine of the Trinity, which is true.  However, the concept of the Trinity, as we know it today, did not yet exist in Arius’ day. 

First 300 years – In the first three centuries, the church fathers did not think of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit as three Persons in one Being.  Tertullian did use the word “trinity,” but he used it to refer to a group of three distinct beings; not use in the sense of a single being. 

Nicene Creed – Neither does the Nicene Creed contain the Trinity concept, as a careful reading of that creed will show.  The purpose of that creed was to say that the Son is equal to the Father; not say that they are one Being; the same God.  It does say that they are homoousios (of the same substance), but that does not mean that they are one being.  We may argue that human beings are of the same substance, and that does not make us all one being. 

The Trinity doctrine was formulated later in the fourth century, perhaps by the Cappadocian Fathers, probably in response to the Arian criticism that the Nicene Creed creates the impression of two gods and can be accused of polytheism.

Three Forms of Arianism

In fact, as debates raged during the five decades after Nicaea, in an attempt to come up with a new formula, different forms of Arianism evolved. Three camps are identified by scholars among the opponents of the Nicene Creed:

Different Substance

One group, similar to Arius, maintained that the Son is of a different substance than the Father. They described the Son as unlike (anhomoios) the Father.

Similar Substance

The Homoiousios Christians (only an “i” added to “homoousios”) accepted the equality and co-eternality of the persons of the Trinity, as per the Nicene Creed, but rejected the Nicene term homoousios. They preferred the term homoiousios (similar substance). This is very close to the different substance view of the Arians. Therefore, they were called “semi-Arians” by their opponents. (See homoousia.)

No speculation about Substance

Homoian Arianism maintained that the Bible does not reveal whether the Son is of the same substance as the Father, and we, therefore, should not speculate about such things. They avoided the word ousia (substance) altogether and described the Son as homoios = like the Father. Although they avoided invoking the name of Arius, in large part they followed Arius’ teachings. RPC Hanson (The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God. Edinburgh: T&T Clark. pp. 557–559) lists twelve creeds that reflect the Homoian faith in the years 357 to 383.

None of these groups, therefore, adopted the Trinitarian approach of “one substance.”

In the fourth century, these differences were taken quite seriously and divided the church; similar to the denominations in Christianity we know today. Depending on the interpretation supported by Emperor Constantius, for example, wavered in his support between the first and the second party, while harshly persecuting the third.

Historians, unfortunately, categorize all three positions as Arianism, but there are important differences between these views.