Revelation 1:20

mystery
As is frequently the case within Scripture, the answers to our questions are “in the back of the book” (in this case, the back of the chapter). Jesus explains the mystery of the seven stars and seven golden lampstands.1

A “mystery” in the constant language of Scripture is something which man is capable of knowing, but only when it has been revealed to him by God (Mtt. Mat. 18:11; Rom. Rom. 11:25; Eph. Eph. 6:19; 1Cor. 1Cor. 13:2), and not through any searching of his own.2

Many of the fanciful interpretations offered for this book can be reigned in by the simple process of carefully observing what the book offers in the way of explaining the meaning of symbols: “This verse points up the fact that, when symbols are used in the book of Revelation, they are explained internally, not subject to imaginative suggestions by allegorizing expositors.”3

seven stars
Due to their brightness and location in heaven, angels are often represented as stars (Job Job 38:7; Isa. Isa. 14:13; Rev. Rev. 9:1+). See Seven: Perfection, Completeness. There are seven stars, not twelve . The number of stars is an important aspect for differentiating this group of stars from another group of stars mentioned elsewhere (Gen. Gen. 37:9; Rev. Rev. 12:1+). These are said to be the churches of Asia Minor. The twelve stars of Revelation Rev. 12:1+ represent the twelve tribes of Israel, not the church.

angels of the churches
Here we enter upon perhaps the most difficult interpretive question in this chapter: the identity of these angels? Each of the primary views is attended with some difficulty:

The Identity of the Angels
IdentityForAgainst
Heavenly guardian angels of the churches The term “angel” describes heavenly beings elsewhere in the book of Revelation.4 The angels are charged, as individuals, with various sins. Elect angels do not sin.5 The complexity of communication: why would the revelation be given from God to Jesus to a heavenly angel to John (a man) to another heavenly angel (the star) and then to the church?6 Why would elect angels, known for their steadfast service and power, be said to be protected in the right hand of the Son of Man? The awards for the overcomer correspond to those promised to redeemed humans . Angels do not partake of the tree of life (Rev. Rev. 2:7+), cannot be imprisoned by men or killed (Rev. Rev. 2:10-11+), are not written in the Book of Life (Rev. Rev. 3:5+), nor will they reign over the nations (Rev. Rev. 2:26-27+; Rev. 3:21+). If the angel is a heavenly guardian angel, then almost all that is said of him must be strictly representative of the people within the church he guards.
Human messengers from the churches7 The term “angels” is occasionally used of human messengers.8 Human messengers may have been sent to Patmos for the purpose of meeting with John and carrying a copy of the letter back to each church.9 There are fewer problems attending this view. “The view that takes the angeloi as men who are representatives of the churches, but are without a unique leadership function appears to be the most probable choice, largely because objections to it are easier to answer than objections to the other . . . views.”10 Human messengers are never called “stars” (but see Gen. Gen. 37:9 cf. Rev. Rev. 12:1+; Dan. Dan. 12:3).11 Why would secondary human messengers be held personally responsible as individuals for the sins of the church?12
A Human leader of the church in each city (elder or bishop)13 The angels are individually responsible for the spiritual welfare of the churches and are protected in the right hand of the Son of Man.14 There is no precedent within Scripture or church history for referring to church leaders as “angels.”15 Even apostles with great authority, such as Peter and John, refer to themselves merely as “elder” (1Pe. 1Pe. 5:1; 2Jn. 2Jn. 1:1; 3Jn. 3Jn. 1:1).16 NT church leadership consists of a plurality of elders.17 The individual leader could not be personally responsible for the character of the entire church.18 Cities such as Ephesus probably had multiple house churches.19
Personifications of the churches20 The close identification between each “angel” and the character of the church. Christ speaks to the churches both in the singular and plural.Lack of scriptural evidence for the personification of congregations of believers. “Stars” or “angels” are not used this way anywhere else. In assigning sin to a personification, ambiguity remains as to who is truly responsible. This view would make the stars and lampstands virtually identical.21

In most cases, the grammar of the letters to each church implicates each individual angel. This is reflected by the preponderance of verb forms in the second-person singular. Yet the things which are said to the angel include aspects which could only be true of the wider church membership. In some cases, the grammar itself reflects a broader application. For example, in the letter to the angel of the church of Smyrna, seven of the Greek words indicate the angel is an individual (second-person singular, you). Yet three words indicate the larger church membership (second-person plural, you all).

To the angel [singular] . . . I know your [singular] works . . . but you [singular] are rich . . . You [singular] do not fear . . . those things which you [singular] are about to suffer . . . the devil is about to throw some of you [plural] into prison . . . that you [plural] may be tested, and you [plural] will have tribulation . . . You [singular] be faithful . . . and I will give you [singular] the crown of life. (Rev. Rev. 2:8-10+)

Since a number of individuals are to be thrown into prison to be tested, the promise of the crown of life cannot be strictly for the individual angel, but surely must apply to all those who remain faithful. We should take care not to make too much of the grammatical distinctions between the single angel and the plural congregation. When all these factors are considered, it would appear that the best solution is one that takes the “angels” as human messengers or leaders of the churches while recognizing that much of what Christ says to the angel as an individual is also meant for the entire church.22 In our commentary on the individual letters to the seven churches, we will interpret the comments directed to each singular angel as being descriptive of the entire congregation.

Notes

1 To study the use of “mystery” in the NT, see Mark Mark 4:11; Rom. Rom. 11:25; Rom. 16:25; 1Cor. 1Cor. 2:7; 1Cor. 13:2; 1Cor. 15:51; Eph. Eph. 1:9; Eph. 3:3-4, Eph. 3:9; Eph. 5:32; Eph. 6:19; Col. Col. 1:26; Col. 2:2; Col. 4:3; 2Th. 2Th. 2:7; 1Ti. 1Ti. 3:9, 1Ti. 3:16; Rev. Rev. 1:20+; Rev. 10:7+; Rev. 17:7+.

2 Richard Chenevix Trench, Commentary on the Epistles to the Seven Churches in Asia (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1861), 51.

3 Henry Morris, The Revelation Record (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1983), 45.

4 Variations of the word angel occur 72 times in this book, and unless the references to these angels of the churches be excepted, all mentions are of divine beings. Angels are ministering spirits actively involved in other aspects of God’s plan. “True churches of the Lord have individual angels assigned for their guidance and watch-care. This fact is hardly surprising in view of the innumerable company of angels (Hebrews Heb. 12:22) and their assigned function as ministering spirits of those who are heirs of salvation (Hebrews Heb. 1:14). Individual believers have angels assigned to them (Matthew Mat. 18:10; Acts Acts 12:15). Angels are present in the assemblies during their services (1 Corinthians 1Cor. 11:10) and are intensely interested in their progress (1 Corinthians 1Cor. 4:9; Ephesians Eph. 3:10; 1 Timothy 1Ti. 3:16; 1Ti. 5:21; Hebrews Heb. 13:2; 1 Peter 1Pe. 1:12).”—Ibid.

5 “How could holy Angels be charged with such delinquencies as are laid to the charge of some of the Angels here (Rev. Rev. 2:4+; Rev. 3:1+, Rev. 3:15+)?”—Trench, Commentary on the Epistles to the Seven Churches in Asia, 52.

6 “The complexity of the communication process is one thing that raises problems with it. It presumes that Christ is sending a message to heavenly beings through John, an earthly agent, so that it may reach earthly churches through angelic representatives. . . . An even more decisive consideration against the view of guardian angels lies in the sinful conduct of which these angels are accused. Most of the rebukes of [Revelation] chapters 2-3 are second person singular, messages that look first at the individual messengers and presumably through them to the churches they represent.”—Robert L. Thomas, Revelation 1-7 (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1992), 117.

7 “This rare and difficult reference should be understood to refer to the heavenly messengers who have been entrusted by Christ with responsibility over the churches and yet who are so closely identified with them that the letters are addressed at the same time to these ‘messengers’ and to the congregation (cf. the plural form in Rev. Rev. 2:10+, Rev. 2:13+, Rev. 2:23-24+).”—Alan F. Johnson, Revelation: The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1966), 34.

8 Αγγελος [Angelos] is occasionally used of human messengers. Examples include John the Baptist (Mtt. Mat. 11:10; Mark Mark 1:2), the messengers sent to Jesus by John the Baptist (Luke Luke 7:24), the spies hidden by Rahab (Jas. Jas. 2:25) and possibly the leaders of the seven churches, if these are to be understood as human leaders (Rev. Rev. 2:1+, Rev. 2:8+, Rev. 2:12+, Rev. 2:18+; Rev. 3:1+, Rev. 3:7+, Rev. 3:14+). “In the Septuagint ἄγγελος [angelos] is used in rare instances of a human messenger of God (Mal. Mal. 2:7; Mal. 3:1; cf. Mal. 1:1, where the LXX so renders the name or title ‘Malachi’ itself). In the New Testament it twice denotes simply an emissary (Luke Luke 9:52; Jas. Jas. 2:25). Elsewhere it is always used of a supernatural being. The idea of an angel as the guardian of the nation is found in Dan. Dan. 12:1, as guardian of the individual in . . . Mtt. Mat. 18:10; Acts Acts 12:15.”—Colin J. Hemer, The Letters to the Seven Churches of Asia in Their Local Setting (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1989), 32.

9 “Some think these men journeyed to Patmos to receive the finished book of Revelation from the hands of John, and that they returned to their respective cities and shared the message.”—Mal Couch, “Ecclesiology in the Book of Revelation,” in Mal Couch, ed., A Bible Handbook to Revelation (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2001), 128.

10 Thomas, Revelation 1-7, 118.

11 “[The idea that the angel is a human messenger] is at first sight attractive, for ‘messenger’ is the primary meaning of ἄγγελος [angelos] , and the book may indeed have been distributed through messengers delegated by each church to tour its district. But . . . usage favours ‘angels’ and the emissary could not be made representative of the community. Nor could he be readily symbolized by the ‘stars’ of Rev. Rev. 1:20+.”—Hemer, The Letters to the Seven Churches of Asia in Their Local Setting, 33.

12 “But in answering a letter by a messenger, men write by him, they do not usually write to him; nor is it easy to see where is the correspondency [sic] between such messengers, subordinate officials of the Churches, and stars; or what the ‘mystery’ of the relation between them then would be; or how the Lord should set forth as an eminent prerogative of his, that He held the seven stars, that is, the seven messengers, in his right hand (Rev. Rev. 2:1+).”—Trench, Commentary on the Epistles to the Seven Churches in Asia, 56-57.

13 “The Angel in each Church is one; but surely none can suppose for an instant that there was only one presbyter, or other minister serving in holy things, for the whole flourishing Church of Ephesus, or of Smyrna; and that we are in this way to account for the single Angel of the several Churches. . . . What can he be but a bishop?”—Ibid., 53-54.

14 “The spiritual significance is that these angels are messengers who are responsible for the spiritual welfare of these seven churches and are in the right hand of the Son of Man, indicating possession, protection, and sovereign control. As the churches were to emit light as a lampstand, the leaders of the churches were to project light as stars.”—John F. Walvoord, The Revelation of Jesus Christ (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1966), 45.

15 “In early noncanonical Christian literature no historical person connected with the church is ever called an angelos.”—Johnson, Revelation: The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 34. “Who shall authorize us to understand the word ‘angels’ as having any connection with the Church of God? No one ever heard (until quite recent times) of such a title being given to any church officer either in Scripture, in history, or in tradition.”—E. W. Bullinger, Commentary On Revelation (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1984, 1935), 161.

16 “If ‘angel’ means ‘pastor’ here, it is used with this meaning here and nowhere else. If the Lord Jesus meant the pastors of the churches, why did He not say ‘pastors?’ Or why did He not say ‘elders,’ a term which is used in the New Testament as essentially synonymous with ‘pastors,’ and which is later used twelve times in Revelation?”—Morris, The Revelation Record, 45.

17 Acts Acts 11:30; Acts 14:23; Acts 15:2-4; Acts 20:17, Acts 20:28; Acts 21:18; Php. Php. 1:1; 1Th. 1Th. 5:12; Tit. Tit. 1:5; Heb. Heb. 13:17; Jas. Jas. 5:14; 1Pe. 1Pe. 5:1-5.

18 “The individual could scarcely be held responsible for the character of the church, and there is no unambiguous evidence for the idea of episcopal authority in the churches of the Revelation, though it looms large in Ignatius twenty years later.”—Hemer, The Letters to the Seven Churches of Asia in Their Local Setting, 33.

19 “In a city the size of Ephesus, by this time, there must have been a large number of house-churches meeting separately from one another.”—Thomas, Revelation 1-7, 128.

20 “Personifications of the prevailing spirit.”—Robert H. Mounce, The Book of Revelation (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1977), 86.

21 “This gives the required sense, but raises problems in the usage of symbolism. The ‘stars’ and the ‘lampstands’ of Rev. Rev. 1:20+ are made virtually the same thing. Some writers justify this conception by regarding the ‘angel’ as the heavenly counterpart of the earthly church.”—Hemer, The Letters to the Seven Churches of Asia in Their Local Setting, 33.

22 Bullinger suggests an alternate view on the basis that these congregations may have exhibited customs carried over from the Judaism of the synagogue: Rev. 2:1+ and Rev. 3:1+, he is at once conscious of a striking change. He finds himself suddenly removed from the ground of grace to the ground of works. He meets with church-officers of whom he has never before heard; and with expressions with which he is wholly unfamiliar: and he is bewildered. . . . we do meet with the word Angel in connection with the Synagogue . . . [the] ‘Angel of the Assembly,’ who was the mouthpiece of the congregation. His duty it was to offer up public prayer to God for the whole congregation. Hence his title; because, as the messenger of the assembly, he spoke to God for them. When we have these facts in our hands, why arbitrarily invent the notion that ‘angel’ is equivalent to Bishop, when there is not a particle of historical evidence for it?”—Bullinger, Commentary On Revelation, 63, 66.

Read Revelation 1:20