First, let’s look at the passage in context. The apostle John was banished to the isle of Patmos, where the Lord gave him a great revelation through His angel. Jesus sent and communicated the revelation by His angel to John (Rev 1:1). John wrote:
I was in the Spirit on the Lord's day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like the sound of a trumpet, saying, "Write in a book what you see, and send it to the seven churches: to Ephesus and to Smyrna and to Pergamum and to Thyatira and to Sardis and to Philadelphia and to Laodicea." Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking with me. And having turned I saw seven golden lampstands; and in the middle of the lampstands I saw one like a son of man, clothed in a robe reaching to the feet, and girded across His chest with a golden sash. His head and His hair were white like white wool, like snow; and His eyes were like a flame of fire. His feet were like burnished bronze, when it has been made to glow in a furnace, and His voice was like the sound of many waters. 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. (Rev 1:10-16)
So the Lord’s instructions to John were clear. He was to write what he saw in a book and send it to the seven churches. These were seven specific churches located in seven cities – Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea.
Centrality of Christ
Immediately following these instructions, as John looked toward the voice speaking to him, he saw the Lord standing in the middle of seven lampstands, holding seven stars in his right hand. Jesus revealed to John the identity of the seven stars in the Lord’s hand and the seven lampstands. He said, "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.” (Rev 1:20).
So from the very beginning we see that Jesus is central among the churches. He stands in the middle and the lampstands representing the churches surround Him. We would do well to get back to the place once again where Jesus is central in the church, rather than having a man-centered church.
Messengers of the Churches
And the seven stars in the Lord’s right hand are the angels of the seven churches. That’s explicitly stated in the text. But who are the angels? Are they men or spiritual beings? This is where the disagreement arises among Christians. So let’s focus on this and take a closer look at it.
The Greek word for angels in the biblical text is angelos. It is usually interpreted with the English word “angel”. But it literally means “messenger”. Obviously men are often used by God as messengers as well. For example, an evangelist is a messenger. I mentioned this in my blog on being a witness for Christ. The word "evangelist" comes from the Greek "euaggelistes". It comes from the word for the “gospel,” which in Greek is "euaggelion" -- "eu" meaning good and "angelion" meaning news or message. An evangelist is one who proclaims the good news to others, a preacher of the gospel.
So when the Lord told John that the seven stars in His right hand were the angels of the churches, there are two possibilities – the angels were either human messengers or heavenly angels.
Communicating to the Church through heavenly angels
If these were heavenly angels, then here is how you have to interpret the words of Jesus to John. When He instructed John to write what he saw in a book and give it to the angels of the seven churches, that would mean He was telling him to write these things to heavenly angels. That would be inconsistent with the rest of Scripture. No place in God’s Word do we see the Lord instructing us to write to angels, and He never condones such activities. So this interpretation is very weak.
Secondly, if they were heavenly angels, then that means that the Lord wanted to communicate his instructions to these angels through the human agency of the apostle John. Again, this is inconsistent with the ways of God as seen throughout Scripture. God never communicates to His holy angels through men. If He wants to tell them something, He communicates with them directly. Angels do the Lord’s bidding, as taught in the Word of God.
Lastly, if they were heavenly angels, that means the Lord Jesus chose to communicate to the seven churches through the agency of non-human, spiritual beings. The message would be given to John, so that he could send it in writing to the heavenly angels, so that the angels could proclaim the revelation to the churches they were responsible for. I’m not sure what address John would send it to, in order to get the book to the angels. This is obviously ridiculous and not consistent with the way God operates. So it is a very weak interpretation of this passage. That leaves one other possibility.
Angels of the churches are human messengers
The easiest way to understand this passage is that the angels of the churches were human messengers. This is very consistent with Scripture for many reasons.
First, the Lord Jesus used human beings to carry the message of the gospel, when He sent out His disciples to preach. Secondly, we know that the Lord gave gifts when He ascended, which are human beings known as apostles, prophets, pastors, teachers, and evangelists (Eph 4:20). These gifts build up the church and prepare God’s people for works of service. So in the New Testament, God’s primary way of communicating to the church is through human beings by the power of the Holy Spirit. Thirdly, when we understand the angels as men in this passage, we encounter none of the same issues as when we view them as heavenly angels.
Fourthly, the message the Lord Jesus had for most of these angels involved repentance on their part. For example, part of the message to the angel of the church in Ephesus was, “Therefore remember from where you have fallen, and repent and do the deeds you did at first; or else I am coming to you and will remove your lampstand out of its place--unless you repent.” (Rev 2:5). If they were holy angels, it would be unnecessary for them to repent, since holy angels do not sin. The passage makes sense when we understand the angels to be men, and this interpretation is the stronger of the two. The angels of the seven churches are human messengers.
So this means that each of the seven churches, in fact, had a human messenger. This person was the primary individual whom God was using to speak to that particular church. That does not mean that this was the only person who ever spoke in the church. It simply means that this person was the main speaker or the one who spoke God’s Word to the church most often.
It's important to mention here that while young churches may have one man who is the primary messenger, he and others should be equipping the saints for works of service. As they do and the Body of Christ matures, then more and more the Lord will speak through other members of the Body. As this happens, and as the church grows up into the full stature of Christ, then the prominence of the primary messenger fades, as he becomes less and Christ becomes greater in a corporate sense.
Others have come to the same conclusion I have that the angels of the churches were men. So this viewpoint is not unique to me. The problem is that people have made some faulty assumptions about these human messengers. Many who believe that the angels of the seven churches were humans incorrectly believe that these angels were the senior pastors of the churches. This is a faulty assumption; because no place in Scripture do we read that a man is supposed to be the senior pastor. According to Scripture, the only senior pastor of the church is Jesus Christ. The apostle Peter wrote, “And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.” (1Pe 5:4). The Greek word for Chief Shepherd is archipoimen and is never used for anyone but Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
So if each of these angels were a human messenger to their respective churches, and if they were not the senior pastor of their respective churches, then what was their function? What are the implications? The implication is that while they may have been the primary speaker or messenger in their church, nothing from this passage indicates that they were the sole leader, CEO or head leader. Jesus taught that we have only One Leader, when He said, “Do not be called leaders; for One is your Leader, that is, Christ.” (Mat 23:10). And we consistently read in Scripture that a group of elders exercised oversight in each of the churches, not a single pastor. For example, James teaches that if anyone is sick, he should call upon the elders of the church to anoint him with oil and pray for him (James 5:14).
Likewise, the apostle Peter considered himself an elder and addressed other elders as co-elders, not underlings or subordinates (1 Pe 5:1). And young men are to be subject to their elders, which is a plural word (1 Pe 5:5). This pattern is seen throughout the New Testament, and is completely consistent with this understanding of the seven angels of the seven churches in Revelation. While there was one primary messenger to each church, this person was not the primary ruler in the church, except in start-up churches. In mature local churches, other elders functioned together with the messenger as co-elders exercising the same authority of oversight in the churches, even if they were not the primary speakers. So I think this interpretation is still the best and does not in any way support the wrong view that churches must be led by a Senior Pastor or “number one man.”
Putting it All Together
The Greek word for pastor is only used once in the New Testament as a noun. In all other instances, shepherding is used as a verb to describe the function of an elder.
In God’s Word, we find only one person who is ever referred to as Senior Pastor, and that is Jesus Christ. Through His angel, He communicated to John a revelation intended for the churches. He instructed John to write down the revelation and give it to the seven churches. In the revelation, John saw Jesus standing in the middle of seven golden lampstands, which were the seven churches. So Jesus was central in the church, not man.
Each time the Lord have John a message for one of the churches, it was addressed to the angel of that church. The angels were depicted as seven stars in the right hand of Jesus Christ. For many different reasons, it makes sense to understand that these angels were human messengers to these churches. Yet many people have used this interpretation to support their false belief that every church’s angel is the Senior Pastor or number one man. This is inconsistent with the rest of Scripture. It does not square with the New Testament practice where groups of elders exercise oversight in the churches as co-equals under the headship of the one and only Head pastor, Jesus.
The correct way to understand this is that the angel of a church is its primary messenger. This is a human being, who is most often or primarily used by the Lord to communicate to the church. And while this person may speak more often than others, he is not the only speaker. It’s also wrong to assume that he is the chief leader or number one man in the church. The New Testament teaches us that the church is Christ centered, not man-centered. The Lord uses His multifaceted Body made up of many members to speak to the Church, not just the main messenger. And He uses more than one elder to provide oversight in each church, rather than a single man.
This should be an admonition to the 21st century Church to return to Jesus, our first love, and once again make Him the center, all things being from Him, through Him, and to Him. He alone is worthy of that honor, and He alone is capable of fulfilling that role.
Attribution notice: Most Scripture quotations taken from the NASB.
Author's note: For a much more in-depth and scholarly treatment of this topic, please read the article by my dear friend, James Garrett, called New Testament Leadership in the Local Church. It's an excellent resource leaders to read and put into practice. If you enjoyed this post, you may also like the other posts in this blog available through the links in the side bar. You may also access my complete blog directory at "Writing for the Master."
Len Lacroix is the founder of Doulos Missions International. He was based in Eastern Europe for four years, making disciples, as well as helping leaders to be more effective at making disciples who multiply, developing leaders who multiply, with the ultimate goal of planting churches that multiply. His ministry is now based in the United States with the same goal of helping fulfill the Great Commission. www.dmiworld.org.