Who Are the Angels of the Seven Churches?

On Sunday nights I am preaching through Revelation, and it has been a tremendously rewarding experience thus far. I hope to preach the entire book, but it will take perhaps more than a year (or longer) to do so. For all I know, we might not make it past chapter five simply because I still struggle with exactly how to handle preaching those chapters in light of my eschatological system. 

In chapter one John is told to write to the seven churches which are in Asia (1:11), and this comprises chapters 2–3. When John turns to see the voice that spoke to him he sees one like a son of man standing in the midst of the seven golden lampstands (1:12–13). After the Lord comforts him and tells him not to fear, he is told to write all that he sees (1:19). The Lord then explains the mystery of the seven starts and the lampstands. He says the seven stars are the seven angels of the seven churches (οἱ ἑπτὰ ἀστέρες ἄγγελοι τῶν ἑπτὰ ἐκκλησιῶν εἰσιν), which are the recipients of the letters in 2–3.

However, the question is over the exact identity of the ἄγγελοι for, as any Greek 1 student can tell you, ἄγγελος can mean either “angel” or “messenger.” Typically context provides the key to interpretation, but not so much here. When the ἄγγελος are the recipients of the letter in 2:1, 8, 12, 18; 3:1, 7, 14 there is no further clarification provided. It seems that most translations take the route of “angel” (ESV, NASB, HCSB, KJV, NIV, ASV), but some choose “messenger” (ISV, Aramaic Bible in Plain English, GWT, Weymouth NT, Young’s Literal).

If ἄγγελος is taken as a literal “angel,” the problem is then connected with the command for all the churches who are rebuked and told to repent.[1] A “messenger” seems more appealing here, but then what does it mean for John’s vision of the Son of Man who has the seven stars who are the ἄγγελοι to the seven churches? Does Christ cease to hold them when this specific person dies?

In his wonderful commentary, Grant Osborne proposes five possible solutions.[2]

  1. “Some scholars (Alford, Beasley-Murray, Johnson, Beale) identify them as literal angels, building on the biblical teaching of the guardian angels (Ps 34:6; 91:11; Dan 10:13–21; Matt 18:10; Acts 12:15; Heb 1:14).” The primary objection to this is what I listed above: if these were literal angels the demand to repent would seem strange.
  2. “Others (Swete, Beckwith, Ladd, Prigent, Mounce) believe the ‘angels’ are personified spirits of the churches or ‘heavenly counterparts’ of the churches.” Simply put, they personify the spiritual character of the church. The weakness, however, is that since the lampstands point to actual churches perhaps this interpretation is overly subtle and the ἄγγελοι should point to actual beings.
  3. “Still others (Roloff, Krodel) believe the angels here reflect the tendency in Judaism and some parts of Christianity to worship angels.” This might fit 1:20 but it does not work in the address to each church since “the function of angels transcends the problem of worshiping angels.”
  4. “Some (Zahn Brownlee, Lenski, Walvoord, Hendriksen) believe that these are ‘messengers’ or leaders of the churches, perhaps bishops or pastors (for this use see Matt 11:10; Luke 7:24; 9:52; James 2:25).” This could work, but Osborne notes that the letters address the church as a whole and not the individual. Plus ἄγγελος is used throughout Revelation is always refers to heavenly beings.
  5. “A few believe these are ‘messengers’ in general, not leaders, perhaps some sent to Patmos to minister to John or the bearers of these letters to the individual churches.” Perhaps, but this does not fit the usage of ἄγγελος in the book nor the urgent tone of the letters.

I think an amalgamation of points two and four provides a good interpretation. First, as I noted previously, I don’t think these are literal angels even though the other times ἄγγελος is used from 4–22 clearly refer to them as literal angels. However, the biblical author has “free reign” in his writing text to use the words as he sees fit.[3] So I do think that his usage of ἄγγελος can be appropriately designated as a “messenger,” which I interpret as a leader who is charged to read the address to the congregation, and this could be a pastor, bishop, or elder. Second, I do think that point two is also an appropriate interpretation given the warning to the Ephesian church to have their lampstand removed if they did not repent (2:5). All of the churches, except Smyrna and Philadelphia, were rebuked for something and this, I believe, also gives credence to this view as well.

So as a pastor, what does one do when preparing to preach a message and you arrive at a text such as this? You study, pray, decide, and defend. That is what I have learned thus far in this book, and I have twenty more chapters to go.

[1] Five of the seven churches receive the rebuke except for the churches at Smyrna and Philadelphia.

[2] Grant Osborne, Revelation (BECNT, Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002), 98–99.

[3] Of course, it must be done within the confines of the respective grammatical rules of their written language.