Angels in Revelation

As Pastor Matt has repeatedly acknowledged from his first sermon in the book of Revelation, there are many interpretive difficulties. That is an obvious fact most all – including this professor – would readily agree. One of the biggest challenges of those numerous challenges is how to interpret “angels.” Are they real angels: powerful, mysterious spiritual creations of God, or are they human messengers, that is, bishops or pastors?

In a recent discussion with Pastor Matt I agreed that even though no human being can intelligently say with certainty whether the majority of “angels” in Revelation reference heavenly or human messengers – particularly the first usages – I was leaning toward agreeing with him, that they were pastors or bishops (in the New Testament, pastors are bishops; bishops are pastors). I confessed that I didn’t always think that. When as a pastor I for three years in Wednesday night Bible study taught verse-by-verse through the book of Revelation, I came away with the studied view that the majority of uses of the word “angels” referred to heavenly spiritual beings. Matt quickly asked me then if I would write a blog on that positon. I told him the tone I used in my paper may not be as respectful as I now would like it to be.  He said that didn’t matter to him. He trusted me without first reading what I had written. It is his opinion, which I very much respect, that it would be good for the congregation at Barabbas Rd. to get a different view, the interpretation of angels in Revelation being such a long- debated, widely documented reality. Surely, not many pastors would welcome a seminary professor to publicly share an opposite view in their churches. As I know you agree, we’re blessed to have such a pastor.

There is no question, as all commentaries agree, that in the first use of the word “angel” in the first verse of chapter one refers to what we would think of as a genuine angel, a heavenly being, and not a human messenger (if you have not as yet read last week’s blog, “Angels in Scripture,” I think it’s worthwhile reading, especially as a prologue to this week’s study):

NKJ Revelation 1:1 The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave Him to show His servants– things which must shortly take place. And He sent and signified it by His angel to His servant John,

It is telling, as well as supportive of my first paragraph above, that angels are mentioned more frequently in Revelation than any other book in the Bible. Out of the 175 uses of the New Testament Greek word for angel/messenger, ἄγγελος (angelos), 67 are in Revelation alone (28%), far more than any other book. The Hebrew word for angel/messenger is ךְאלְ מ (malak), and is found in the Old Testament 213 times, as the total in the N.T., a considerable number.

While I am always hesitant to deviate from the view of most conservative scholars I greatly admire, after considerable “extra study” on the early uses of the words “angel” and “angles” in Revelation, I have concluded, primarily on the basis of those Wednesday night Bible studies years ago that the most exegetically sound position for me personally to hold on the question of who the angels are in Revelation, should be that they be seen as literal angels and not pastors/bishops. The best definition of “exegesis,” I believe, is that it is “the skillful application of sound hermeneutical principles to the biblical text in the original language with a view to understanding and declaring the author’s intended meaning.” Here are some excerpts from those old studies. Please keep in mind, Matt was not my pastor then :)…

NAS Revelation 1:20 “As for the mystery of the seven stars which you saw in My right hand, and the seven golden lampstands: the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.

A “mystery” is something previously unknown and unknowable by finite human minds is now revealed to the apostle John by the glorified Christ. Christ clearly, plainly, literally says that the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches. He explains the “seven stars” from v. 16:

NAS Revelation 1:16 And in His right hand He held seven stars; and out of His mouth came a sharp two-edged sword; and His face was like the sun shining in its strength.

But this explanation has created an ongoing debate among scholars. Are they leaders in the churches: bishops or pastors? This is the view held by most conservative scholars (e.g., Walvoord, Lenski, Hendriksen, Constable) and the one I had held previously to this study. Are they personified spirits of the churches? In other words, are they typifying the spiritual character of the churches. Personification is frequently used in Revelation (e.g., Death and Hades). This is very unlikely. Even more unlikely is the view put forth by a few scholars that the angels here reflect the tendency in the first century in Judaism and even some parts of Christianity to worship angels. To me, it is almost absurd that anyone would think the Bible would even indirectly legitimize this. Or, the final view: could they be real, literal angels? With all due respect to other interpretations, when all factors are exegetically considered, there are really only two alternatives: the first and the last listed here.

One of the strongest arguments for the angels being literal angels is John’s use of the Greek word translated “angels.” Every other time John uses the Greek word in Revelation it means literal angels The fact that the Greek term may also correctly be translated “messengers,” does not change this reality.

Both the Hebrew and Greek words are applied to both human and to celestial beings. However, the Lord’s own interpretation would indicate that literal angels are intended. He clearly states, “The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches. This interpretation must be taken as final, for the Lord never interpreted one symbol by the use of another. When He said, upon a previous occasion, “the reapers are the angels” (Matt 13:39), He meant “angels” as the literal sense of the context shows. To reinterpret His interpretation given in Revelation 1:20 as some do by adding “and the angels are bishops,” is questionable. If stars are angels and angels are bishops, the middle term doubtless would have been omitted, and it would be a direst statement, “the seven stars are the bishops of the seven churches.” The conclusion is unexegetical, more of theory than a solidly supported position, and only a few church officials would welcome such a concept. A rapid survey of the extensive ministry of angels both in the Old and New Testament Scriptures would show that it is altogether consistent and essential that this ministry be recognized and portrayed in the complete manner described throughout the early and therefore determinative section of the book (chapters 2 and 3), which deals in particular with the church age.

In the book of Revelation angels have a superintending control over the elements or realms, e.g., the four angels holding (in check) the four winds of the earth (7:1), the angel of the bottomless pit (9:11), an angel having the power over fire (14:18), and angel of the waters (16:5). If there are angels of winds, an angel in charge of fire, an angel of the waters, and an angel of the bottomless pit, it should appear but fitting and appropriate that angels should have a similar charge with respect to the churches. Since angels exercise a certain superintendence over the churches, it appears but reasonable and fitting that they be addressed. How could they perform their functions without being acquainted with the prevailing conditions? It is a biblically supported fact that angels have a keen interest in the word of prophecy:

NAS 1 Peter 1:11-12 seeking to know what person or time the Spirit of Christ within them was indicating as He predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories to follow. 12 It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves, but you, in these things which now have been announced to you through those who preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven– things into which angels long to look.

Angels learn from the revelation (unintentional pun) in God’s Word:

NAS Ephesians 3:8-10 To me, the very least of all saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unfathomable riches of Christ, 9 and to bring to light what is the administration of the mystery which for ages has been hidden in God, who created all things; 10 in order that the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known through the church to the rulers and the authorities in the heavenly places. (Those authorities Paul referred to were unmistakably angels – TAR)

  1. B. Smith, an esteemed commentator of the past century, wrote, “The angel who signifies this book to John (Revelation 1:1) expressly testifies that he keeps the words [Greek of the prophecy of this book (22:7). Plainly, therefore, he must be interested in its contexts. These reasons should be sufficient to show that the angels addressed are to be understood in a literal sense.”

Constable comments,

Jesus Christ then interpreted the meaning of some of the symbolic things John had seen. They were mysteries, revelations previously unclear until the Lord interpreted them for John. The seven stars represented the messengers of the seven churches, perhaps their angelic guardians. Some interpreters have taken these angels as expressions of the prevailing spirit that characterized each churches. Others view them as the pastors of these churches, but the plurality of leadership that was common in the early churches militates against singling out one leader among many. Probably these churches’ human representatives are in view. These would have been men such as Epaphroditus and Epaphras, representatives of the churches in Philippi and Colossae, who went to Rome to visit Paul. These representatives may have come to Patmos to visit John and carried Revelation back with them to their respective congregations. The Greek word anggeloi (‘angels’) frequently refers to human messengers (e.g., Matt. 11:10; Luke 7:24; 9:52; 2 Cor. 8:23; James 2:25).

MacArthur is even stronger in his dismissal of the view that the angels are literal angels. He writes,

The N.T. nowhere teaches than angels are involved in the he leadership of the church. Angels do not sin and thus have no need to repent, as the messengers along with the congregations they represented, are exhorted to do (cf. 2:4-5, 14, 20; 3:1-3, 15, 17, 19). Dr. Robert L. Thomas notes a further difficulty with this view: ‘It presumes that Christ is sending a message to heavenly beings through angelic representatives. Therefore, the Greek ἄγγελοι (ang-ge-loi) is better rendered ‘messengers,’ as in Luke 7:24; 9:52; and James 2:25. Some suggest that these messengers were representatives from each of the seven churches who came to visit John on Patmos and take the book of Revelation back with them. But since Christ is said to hold them in His right hand, they were more likely leading elders and pastors (though not the sole leaders, since the N.T. teaches a plurality of elders), one from each of the seven churches. These seven men demonstrate the function of spiritual leaders in the church. They are to be instruments through which Christ, the head of the church, mediates His rule.

MacArthur, it must be acknowledged, makes a convincing argument, especially his point about the unlikelihood of Christ sending messages to angels through a human mediator.

Either way one chooses to interpret “angels” the choice carries with it difficulties. The result, either way, is messy with no well-defined corners. The result also includes something that is unprecedented. If these are literal angels, that would mean, as MacArthur points out, the first time in Scripture that a human agent is used by God to communicate to an angel. On the other hand, if the “angels” in v. 20 are elders, bishops, or pastors, it would be the first time church leaders have been called “angels.”

A.T. Robertson, one of my favorite exegetical commentators agrees. Some of what I quote in the paragraph to follow is technical stuff, but I include it nevertheless. He writes,

The angels of the seven churches (aggeloi tōn hepta ekklē siō n). Anarthrous in the predicate (angels of, etc.). “The seven churches” mentioned in Rev_1:4, Rev_1:11. Various views of aggelos here exist. The simplest is the etymological meaning of the word as messenger from aggellō (Mat_11:10) as messengers from the seven churches to Patmos or by John from Patmos to the churches (or both). Another view is that aggelos is the pastor of the church, the reading tē n gunaika sou (thy wife) in Rev_2:20 (if genuine) confirming this view. Some would even take it to be the bishop over the elders as episcopos in Ignatius, but a separate aggelos in each church is against this idea. Some take it to be a symbol for the church itself or the spirit and genius of the church, though distinguished in this very verse from the churches themselves (the lampstands). Others take it to be the guardian angel of each church assuming angelic patrons to be taught in Mat_18:10; Act_12:15. Each view is encompassed with difficulties, perhaps fewer belonging to the view that the “angel” is the pastor.

Based on the evidence found in the historical allusions in the he seven proclamations, John was familiar with the situations in each church. Each of the seven proclamations is addressed to the “angel” of that particular church. Since John consistently uses the Greek term ἄγγελος (ang-ge-los), angel, messenger, of supernatural beings subordinate to God, it is likely that the term has that meaning in each of the proclamations. But reputable commentators disagree. As we have seen, various scholars have argued that the term “angel” actually refers to a local leader such as a bishop or pastor, or that “messenger” refers to a representative of John sent to each church with a copy of his circular apocalypse. Yet the idea that each church is represented in the heavenly world by an angelic figure who somehow personified that church, though without parallel, seems to many to be John’s meaning.

One final point against the angels being bishops or pastors is that in the early church leadership was not invested in one single individual as is found in most churches today, but instead churches were governed by a small select group of elders. While there are admitted problems with the position put forth in this paper, I humbly believe the rules of sound exegesis all but demand Christ be taken at His word. The “seven stars” in v. 20 of Revelation 1 are best seen as literal angels.

Well, there you have it: a summary of the position I hold on “Angels in Revelation.” I pray nothing I have included in this blog will be see in any way as a slight against our Pastor. We have 20 more chapters in the wonderful book of Revelation. I’ll most probably be reconsidering my educated guess on angels the entire time. For now, I’ll return to my Bible and books with my skeptical opinion, always open to correction.

-Professor Rohm