Rev 1:20 "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 which you saw are the seven churches."[NKJV]
The meaning of the word 'angel' (ἄγγελοι) is disputed. The differing views can be divided into 5 basic opinions.
1) Scholars including Alford, Beasley-Murray, Johnson, Schüssler Fiorenza, Beale identify them as literal angels (guardian angels) building upon verses like Ps. 34:7; 91:11; Dan. 10:13–21; Matt. 18:10; Acts 12:15; Heb. 1:14. One primary objection to that is that the letters then address problems with the churches and demand repentance which would be a strange request to make of Angel. Beale responds to that concern in the following way, "The initial answer to this is that inherent to the concept of corporate representation is the representative’s accountability for the group and the group’s accountability for the actions of the representative. So there is some sense in which the angels are accountable (e.g., responsibility of oversight) for the churches, yet the churches also benefit from the position of the angels."1
2) The Angels are the personified spirits of the churches, by that people like Swete, Beckwith, Ladd, Prigent, Mounce mean that the term is being used to signify the spiritual character of the churches and to address the spiritual needs of the churches. The primary objection to this view is that "it seems overly subtle, Furthermore, the other symbol, the lampstands, points to actual churches, so it is perhaps more likely that this points to actual beings" 2
3) others suggest the angels reflect the tendency in Judaism and some parts of Christianity to worship angels. Jurgen Roloff for example (Revelation p39–40) argues, the placement of these in the hands of Christ would remind the readers that they are not to worship angels but the one who controls the angels, Jesus Christ. "The problem here is that this fits verse 20 but not the address in each of the letters to angels. The function of angels transcends the problem of worshiping angels." 3
4) Many (Zahn, Brownlee, Lenski, Walvoord, Hendriksen, Kistemaker) believe that these are the leaders of the churches, perhaps bishops or pastors (for this use see Matt. 11:10; Luke 7:24; 9:52; James 2:25). Kistemaker, for examples, says "Would it not make better sense if he told him to write to representatives of these churches who were responsible for the spiritual well-being of their members? We know that Jesus is holding the seven stars (messengers) in his right hand (v. 16) to send them forth with authority and to protect them. The interpretation that the messengers to the congregations are their pastors makes sense if we view pastors as sent forth and commissioned by Christ. They are responsible for the spiritual development of God’s people" 4
Osborne notes "This would fit the use of “stars” throughout the ancient world (Jewish and Hellenistic) to designate dominion or sovereignty." and he continues with the follow objection "The letters seem to address the churches as a whole rather than individuals, however, and “angel” throughout the Apocalypse (over sixty times) always refers to heavenly beings."5
Kistemaker has a response for the second part of that objection, he notes that "it is impossible to maintain that in Johannine literature a given word must have the same meaning unless the author indicates change" (p103)
5) According to Osborne a few (e.g., Thomas 1992: 117–18) 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. Thomas mentions Epaphroditus and Epaphras (Phil. 2:25; 4:18; Col. 4:12) as examples of this type in the NT. The problem with this is related to the problems of the fourth view. It is possible but does not fit either the tone of the letters or the use of ἄγγελος in the book.6
Is there a solution?
To this writer option 5 seems very implausible, the 7 letters address specific churches and deal with is happening within those churches. It seems therefore incredible to believe that the messengers are not associated with the churches being addressed in some way.
Option 3 also seems implausible as there is no evidence of there being any sort of Angel Cult in the early church
Option 4 has some weighty names behind it and actually the concept of representation that Beale appeals to in defence of option 1 works to negate the criticism of option 4 as well. Namely that the letter is addressed to the whole rather then to the individual. The elders are after all going to have to given account for the spiritual state of those they oversea (Heb 13:17) and the term ἄγγελος does primarily mean 'messenger'7 and may refer to human beings however ἄγγελος is rarely used in that way in the New Testament, rather predominantly it's usage is in respect of heavenly beings.
Options 1 and 2 also both have some noteworthy scholarship in support of them, however as noted by Osborne option 2 does seem overly subtle to this writer. Option 1 is convincing argued by Beale in his commentary on revelation and the evidence is quite convincing. He makes the following points:
The fuller reason for addressing the churches through their
representative angels is to remind the churches that already a
dimension of their existence is heavenly, that their real home is not
with the unbelieving “earth dwellers” (cf. “earth dwellers” in 3:10
and passim), and that they have heavenly help and protection in their
struggle not to be conformed to their pagan environment.8
The conclusion that ἄγγελοι in 1:20b refer to heavenly angels who
represent the church is supported further by the following two broad
(1) Stars as metaphorical for both saints and angels in the OT and
Judaism. The formal interpretation of the “stars” as “angels” of the
churches in v 20b would seem to confirm further the suggestion above
that the “stars” are drawn from Dan. 12:3, since Michael is seen as
the guardian “angel” of Israel in Dan. 12:1 (cf. Dan. 10:21) and is
associated directly with the “stars” of 12:3. The “stars” of Dan. 12:3
refer to the “wise” of Israel who are rewarded with the status of
heavenly glory. This does not mean that ἄγγελοι in Rev. 1:20 refers
exclusively to human leaders of the churches but probably that John
also associated the “stars” of Daniel with heavenly beings in general,
and the connection of this metaphor with the Danielic concept of
angels in Judaism (cf. below) would have facilitated such an
association (the metaphor occurs as early as Judg. 5:20).
Indeed, Dan. 12:3 probably likens the heavenly status of resurrected
Israelites to that of angels since “stars” in Dan. 8:10 refer to
angels, as borne out by 8:11; 7:27; and 8:24 (the latter two read
“people of the saints” and may be intentionally ambiguous so as to
allude both to angels and to Israelite saints).140 1 En. 104:2–6
develops Daniel 12:3 in this manner by promising believers who endure
tribulation that they “will shine like the lights of heaven … will
have great joy like the angels of heaven … will become companions of
the hosts of heaven” (cf. likewise especially 2 Baruch 51:5, 10 and 1
En. 43:1–44:1, as well as more generally Pseudo-Philo 33.5; 4 Macc.
17:5, 4 Ezra 7:96–97; and 2 En. 66:7, which liken deceased saints who
have suffered to shining stars; the last three texts probably also
develop Dan. 12:3). Israel is also promised that after its
eschatological sufferings, it will “approach to the heaven of the
stars, in the place of their habitation” (Assumption of Moses 10:9;
cf. similarly 9:9; Wis. 3:7; 5:5–6; Ascension of Isaiah 8:14). Qumran
and early Christian tradition affirm that such angelic status is
available even in the present (1QH 3.19–23; 11.3–14; 1QSa 2.3–11; 1QM
7.4–6;141 cf. Martyrdom of Polycarp 2.3; Hermas, Similitudes 9.27.3).
(2) Angels as corporate representatives of saints in the OT, NT, and
Jewish writings. In Daniel angels appear as the heavenly, protective
counterparts to earthly nations (Dan. 10:20–21; 12:1; cf. 7:27; 8:10,
24), and the same phenomenon occurs generally in the NT (Matt. 18:10;
Acts 12:15), the Targums (e.g., Targ. Jerusalem Gen. 33:10; 48:16),
and Jewish apocalyptic literature, often as a development of Daniel
(e.g., 1QM 12.1–10; 14.9–10; 17.5–9; 1 En. 89:68–90:27; Ascension of
Isaiah 3:15 refers strikingly in this regard to “the descent of the
angel of the church which is in the heavens … in the last days” in
direct connection with “Michael … [who] will open his [Christ’s]
grave”). This is based on the concept of corporate representation in
which an individual represents a group, so characteristic of the OT,
Jewish apocalyptic, and the NT itself.142 The same phenomenon is
apparent in Rev. 1:20, so that the direct address “to the angel of the
church” in each of the letters in chs. 2 and 3 is best understood
against this background.143 The correspondence between Christ and the
Spirit respectively at the beginning and end of each letter implies a
like correspondence between the angel and churches respectively
addressed at the beginning and end of each letter,144 further
confirming the corporate identity of the two and the angels’
The tradition of associating Israel with angels in all the texts
mentioned above is set in contexts either of inaugurated eschatology
(Qumran) or of the latter-day resurrection, which makes it all the
more suitable as a background for the context of Rev. 1:20, where the
same two eschatological features are found (in this respect, Christ’s
resurrection is identified with that of eschatological
The Plausibility of messengers being sent to John on Patmos
We know that messengers were sent to Paul and from Paul whilst he was under arrest (Phil 2:25) so there is no reason to believe that the same could not be the case in John's exile. However, the book of Revelation does not actually imply that John knew what was happening in the churches he is addressing, that information comes from the Lord Jesus Christ.
Considering that each letter is addressed to the messenger of the church the implication is that they are not with John, why would he have needed to write to them if they were!
There is no clear cut answer to who/ what these ἄγγελοι actually are. Each of the options advocated can be argued for or against. What does seem clear though is these ἄγγελοι through which John will communicate to the Seven churches as a whole and the message of each letter is for the whole congregation of the respective church and not just the ἄγγελοι.
1 Beale, G. K. (1999). The book of Revelation: a commentary on the Greek text (p. 217). Grand Rapids, MI; Carlisle, Cumbria: W.B. Eerdmans; Paternoster Press.
2 Osborne, G. R. (2002). Revelation (p. 98). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic."
3 Osborne, G. R. (2002). Revelation (p. 98). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic."
4Kistemaker, S. J., & Hendriksen, W. (1953–2001). Exposition of the Book of Revelation (Vol. 20, p. 103). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.
5 Osborne, G. R. (2002). Revelation (p. 99). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.
6 Osborne, G. R. (2002). Revelation (p. 99). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.
7 "33.195 ἄγγελοςa, ου m: (derivative of ἀγγέλλω ‘to tell, to inform,’ 33.189) a person who makes an announcement—‘messenger.’38 ἀπελθόντων δὲ τῶν ἀγγέλων Ἰωάννου ἤρξατο λέγειν ‘after John’s messengers had left, (Jesus) began to speak’ Lk 7:24." [Louw, J. P., & Nida, E. A. (1996). Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament: based on semantic domains (electronic ed. of the 2nd edition., Vol. 1, pp. 409–410). New York: United Bible Societies.]
8Beale, G. K. (1999). The book of Revelation: a commentary on the Greek text (p. 218). Grand Rapids, MI; Carlisle, Cumbria: W.B. Eerdmans; Paternoster Press.
9 Beale, G. K. (1999). The book of Revelation: a commentary on the Greek text (p. 218). Grand Rapids, MI; Carlisle, Cumbria: W.B. Eerdmans; Paternoster Press.