Challenge 5: What about the angels of the seven churches in Revelation?

wrote-book-revelation_e5084222746a34b7A few years ago, I wrote: Why we don’t have a senior pastor. In this post I explained why many Christians are committed to a leadership model of plural eldership. I showed how there is a consistent pattern throughout the New Testament of churches being pastored by a council of elders, with no elder distinguished from the rest as a “senior” or “lead” pastor/elder. I followed up this article with a series of posts addressing various challenges to this leadership model. A few days ago, a reader emailed me asking about the angels in Revelation 2-3. This question warrants being included in this series, so let’s take a look.

In Revelation chapters 2-3, John is instructed to write seven letters to seven specific churches. Each letter is entrusted to the “angel” of the intended church. Some see these angels as indicating the senior pastor of each church. Does this work?

We should make a couple of observations right at the outset. The commentaries are all over the place on who these angels are. Some don’t address the question at all; most others describe various possible interpretations, while maybe leaning toward one. The only consensus seems to be that there is insufficient basis here for being dogmatic about the identity of these angels.

I would also note this claim (that these angels = senior pastors) is very rarely used by scholars and pastors arguing for a normative senior pastor type role. In fact, many of those who support a senior pastor role have specifically rejected this interpretation of Revelation. Let’s see why.

First, let’s remember the first three rules of biblical interpretation: context, context, context. Where are these references? In the book of Revelation. What do we know about Revelation? Revelation is a kind of writing know as apocalyptic. Apocalyptic literature was always highly figurative, utilizing elaborate symbolism. Readers were to assume that elements were symbolic unless there was a clear reason to take them literally.

Do we see this in Revelation? Absolutely. Right from the first chapter, we have lampstands that aren’t literal lampstands, stars that aren’t literal stars, and a two-edged sword that isn’t a literal sword. Often the text doesn’t tell us what the various symbols symbolize, and so we discuss and debate what they mean. (What exactly do the two witnesses, the mark of the beast, the great prostitute, etc., represent?) Fortunately, we’re sometimes given the meaning of the symbols. So, for instance, we’re told that the seven lampstands represent seven churches, and the seven stars represent the angels (or messengers) of these seven churches.

While Revelation is filled with symbols that represent something real, what we don’t see are symbols of symbols. If the great dragon represents Satan, then that’s it. We don’t have to debate what Satan then represents. The Lamb who was slain is a symbol for Jesus, but Jesus is not a symbol for anything else. So the seven lampstands symbolize seven churches, which do not then symbolize anything else. And the seven stars represent the aggelos of each of these churches. We don’t have to figure out what these aggeloi (the plural form of aggelos) symbolize; we just need to make sure we understand what the word means.

blog11Each letter to one of the seven churches begins the same way: “Write this letter to the aggelos of the church in ____________ .” This Greek word is found over 170 times in the New Testament. It’s almost always translated “angel.” A few times it indicates a human “messenger.” So this now shows us the key interpretive question for these references: Are these aggeloi angels or human messengers? And this is where the scholars disagree.

Notice that—either way—the letters are not written to a single leader or messenger, but to the entire church of Ephesus, Smyrna, etc. (“Anyone with ears to hear must listen to the Spirit and understand what he is saying to the churches.”) Each church is either commended or confronted, not a sole leader. The “you” being addressed in the letters is plural. But to whom are these letters entrusted: angels or human messengers?

Could these be literal angels? This isn’t as odd as it sounds, and many scholars think this natural reading is the best one. Remember our context is within the book of Revelation. And Revelation states at the very beginning:

“He [Jesus Christ] sent an angel to present this revelation to his servant John”

If an angel was part of Christ conveying this revelation to John, why would it be odd for angels to be part of conveying the letters to the seven churches (which are included in the revelation)? The word aggelos is used over 60 times in the book of Revelation; every time (besides these chapters) it means “angel.” We also have the intriguing references in Daniel 10 that seem to indicate there are angels assigned to certain nations. Some also point to passages such as Matthew 18:10 and Acts 12:15 that hint at the idea of a guardian angel for each person. Is it such a stretch to think that each church would enjoy the protection and service of a specific angel?

But how would angels be involved with the delivery of these letters? Well, remember that Revelation is written in a highly stylized, dramatic form. It also depicts a heavenly, spiritual perspective of these events, not a primarily human one. Unless we want to assume that angels have no real part in human events, we shouldn’t too quickly reject the idea of angelic involvement in the revelation of these letters to these seven, specific churches.

Ok, but could these be human messengers? That’s certainly a plausible interpretation of these passages. Let’s assume these passages are, in fact, speaking of human messengers. What could these chapters tell us about these human messengers? Well, they would tell us there was one messenger designated for each church, and that each letter was written to the whole church but entrusted to a messenger. That’s it. There is nothing in these chapters indicating a leadership or pastoral role for these angels or messengers. Because there is one angel/messenger designated for each church, some have read back into this passage our traditional practice of having one main pastor for each church. But nothing in the text indicates such a role.

Are there any reasons we should not see these messengers as senior pastors? Well, first we observe that the word aggelos is never used anywhere else in the New Testament to indicate a church leadership role. Next, as we saw above, there is nothing in the context that would clearly and directly indicate a senior pastor role. (Actually, in the context of the New Testament church, if these were human messengers, they would more likely be exercising a prophetic role than a pastoral one. They may have simply been the people responsible for physically carrying the letters to the churches.) And this interpretation would be introducing a senior pastor role that isn’t even mentioned anywhere else in the New Testament, and one that would conflict with the consistent pattern we see throughout the New Testament of churches being pastored by groups of elders with no designated senior leader. (Notice that none of the New Testament epistles [letters to the churches] are addressed to the “pastor” of the church of Corinth or Philippi, etc.)

bible-magnifying-glassThere’s a principle of biblical interpretation that says: ‘Clear passages in Scripture help us understand the passages that aren’t so clear.’ It makes sense to take the clear and consistent pattern we see throughout the New Testament as the model we’re to follow. But it makes poor sense to take an ambiguous passage in a highly symbolic book, form a conclusion—not from the reading of the text, but based on pure speculation—then use this questionable assertion to challenge the clear, consistent pattern found elsewhere in Scripture. This would be circular reasoning—assuming the senior pastor role when interpreting the passage, and then using the passage to establish the senior pastor role!

Regardless of whether we understand the aggeloi in Revelation 1-3 as angels or human messengers, there is nothing in these passages that point to a senior pastor role in the churches.

Using study Bibles: Two dangers to avoid

MSC1401AI’m a big fan of study Bibles. I’ve written about them before and shared many of the benefits of using a study Bible. These resources are especially helpful for those just beginning to study the Bible for themselves. It’s like having a teacher right there with you helping you understand more of the background and the context for biblical books and passages. Study Bibles can be invaluable when beginning to more deeply understand the meaning of Scripture.

But, as with many other useful tools, there are potential dangers when using study Bibles. It’s good for people to know how to use study Bibles in a proper, healthy way—and how not to use them. Here are two danger we want to avoid:

Referring to the study notes every time we read the Bible.
The notes in study Bibles can be incredibly helpful. When we’re having trouble understanding what a certain passage is saying, we can turn to the corresponding note and get more insight into its meaning. But these notes are so helpful, we can begin to automatically stop after each verse and read its note. That’s not a bad thing if we’re studying a certain section in depth, but we need to remember that the Bible is meant to be read. We’re supposed to get a feel for the whole book, to follow the author’s flow of thought. This is really hard to do if we get bogged down reading each study note.

I was recently reading Don Quixote. This classic book was written in the early 17th century, and it refers to things that would have been meaningful to people living in the same time and place as the author, but didn’t mean anything to me now. The edition I was reading included a lot of footnotes. These footnotes were helpful in explaining the historical meaning and significance of these references. The problem was the more I checked the notes, the more I fell out of the rhythm of the story and language of the author. I began to lose the “forest” of the author’s story for the “trees” of the historical references.

So what do we do? Fortunately, this isn’t an either/or choice. We need to do both! Let’s say you’re going to read Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Here’s one way to approach it: Read the introductory information in your study Bible so you have a good, basic understanding of who is writing, to whom they’re writing, the historical and spiritual context of the letter, etc. After that, read through the actual letter without stopping to read the study notes. There will probably be much you don’t understand, but you’ll begin to get a feel for the whole letter and how it fits together.

Dense-forestAfter this, go back and read the letter bit by bit, especially digging into the passages you don’t understand. The study notes can now help you clarify what these passages mean and what they don’t mean. Once you have a fairly solid comprehension of the shorter passages in the book, read the whole letter again in one sitting. You’ll then see even more clearly how it all flows togethers. But remember, we don’t learn everything about a passage of Scripture by studying it once (or a hundred times!). Studying the Bible is a lifelong process of gaining understanding and wisdom. The Scriptures continually draw us closer to God and help us grow more like him.

Using a study Bible as our authoritative standard for what is right and true.
[This builds on my previous post.] Have you ever been part of a Bible study, and every time a question was asked someone in the study simply read the note in their study Bible? (Or maybe you’ve been the person doing this!) Sometimes we assume that the notes in our study Bible should settle the discussion. After all, they were written by experts, right?

I said above that a study Bible was like having a teacher right there with you helping you understand the context and meaning of the Scriptures. And this is true. But remember, no human teacher is infallible and free from error. The Bible itself is divinely inspired and inerrant—but the study notes are not! They’re very helpful, but they’re not part of the inspired text of Scripture. We need to keep this distinction clear.

Once we know this, it won’t throw us for a loop when people have two different study Bibles with two different views on a particular passage! The study Bible notes are written by people, and sometimes people disagree about what a biblical passage means. Even more importantly, sometimes people can be wrong.  Study Bible notes are there to help us understand the meaning of Scripture; they’re not there to determine for us the meaning of Scripture. We shouldn’t arrogantly think we can study the Bible in isolation and just ignore what all other Christians have studied in the Scriptures for the last 2000 years. But we do still need to do some thinking for ourselves!

The more experienced we become in studying the Bible, the more we’ll be skilled in comparing and sorting out the different views on certain passages. We need to be like the Bereans in Acts 17:11:

And the people of Berea were more open-minded than those in Thessalonica, and they listened eagerly to Paul’s message. They searched the Scriptures day after day to see if Paul and Silas were teaching the truth.

Notice these people listened eagerly to the message, but then did the work of studying to confirm the truth of what they’d been taught. This is how we can find balance when we’re taught or when we read things like the notes in our study Bibles. We need to ‘listen eagerly,’ but then ‘search the Scriptures to see if what we’re taught is the truth.’ Study Bibles provide many wonderful resources, but be careful not to turn them into some kind of idol or absolute authority. A note in a study Bible is a helpful tool for studying the Word of God, but it’s not itself the Word of God.

And, once again, this ‘listening eagerly and searching the Scriptures’ is an ongoing, lifelong process for the believer. Learning how to use a study Bible is really just the beginning. Welcome to the adventure!

The first three rules of Bible study

You may have heard the story about the guy who wanted to hear from God. So he opened his Bible at random, put his finger down on the page and looked to see what it said. He was surprised to read, “Judas went out and hanged himself.” He thought maybe he had done something wrong, so he tried again. This time he saw, “You go and do the same thing”! Alright, the third time must be the charm so he made one more attempt. But now the verse next to his finger read, “What you’re going to do, do quickly.”

Do you know what the first three rules of real estate are? Location, location, location, right? Well, there are some necessary do’s and don’ts for studying the Bible too. What are the first three rules of Bible study? Context, context, context. The most common mistake people make in using the Bible is taking a statement out of context.

We all understand the concept of taking something out of context, don’t we? Imagine if you were looking at a DVD cover at the video store (if you still go to the video store), and on the cover you saw: “. . . this film is a colossal success, more effective than any other this year. Words cannot express how I feel about this latest effort . . .” Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? But what if we replace the context they left out: “If this director was attempting to make the most immature, gross-out movie imaginable, then this film is a colossal success, more effective than any other this year. Words cannot express how I feel about this latest effort. It’s really that bad!” Kind of changes the meaning, doesn’t it?

Can people do this with the Bible? Unfortunately, it happens all too often. Years ago, I was flipping through the TV channels and came upon Frederick K. Price. I’d always thought it a shame he had fallen for the prosperity gospel because he’s quite gifted as a preacher. This particular day I enjoyed listening to him for awhile, and then I heard him say: “The Word says that Jesus left us an example that we should follow in his steps. That’s why I drive a Rolls Royce. I’m following in Jesus’ steps!”

Now setting aside the silly and baseless claim that Jesus was wealthy during his life on earth, something still nagged at me about the passage to which Price was referring. I finally had to go look it up for myself. It’s from 1 Peter 2:21 (emphasis added):

To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.

Not only did the passage Price referred to not teach that Christ had left us an example of material wealth that we should follow, it was specifically speaking of suffering for doing good as Christ had! (This was a great reminder to me to always check people’s sources.)

You may have heard people say, ‘you can make the Bible say anything you want.’ This is true, you can make the Bible say anything you want if you take it out of context. Of course, you can twist any book to mean anything, not just the Bible. But if you interpret Scripture according to the accepted standards of biblical interpretation, you’re stuck with what the biblical writers actually wrote. This is why context is so essential.

Part of the problem is that we’re used to quoting verses, little snippets of the text. While memorizing verses can be a wonderful way to retain Scripture, it can also enable us to emphasize one brief statement but be completely ignorant of the surrounding context. This is actually a lot more common than people realize. Let me show you some examples:

  • When you hear, “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, and no mind has imagined what God has prepared for those who love him,” what do you think of? Many Christians think of heaven or eternity because that’s how we’re used to this reference being used. But is this what the passage is talking about? Read the next words (1 Corinthians 2:10): “But it was to us that God revealed these things by his Spirit.” While it is true that we can’t imagine everything God has in store for us in eternity, that’s not what this passage is speaking of. It’s referring to things that God has already revealed to us. (What is the passage talking about? Check it out in context for yourself.)
  • How many times have you heard someone say, ‘Well, we’re having church right now because the Bible says wherever two or three are gathered together, Christ is right there with them’? But is this verse (Matthew 18:20) an encouragement that even two or three can ‘have church’ because Jesus is with them? No, the context of this statement is Jesus’ teaching on church discipline. He’s letting the disciples know that if the whole church has to confront a sinning member, that he is right there with them as they do what’s necessary for the church and for the individual.
  • What about this one: “It’s like the Bible says, ‘God owns the cattle on a thousand hills'”? Does this mean that we as Christians will never go hungry, never be in want? Is this what the passage quoted is referring to? Read some of the surrounding context (Psalm 50:9-12):

But I do not need the bulls from your barns
or the goats from your pens.
For all the animals of the forest are mine,
and I own the cattle on a thousand hills.
I know every bird on the mountains,
and all the animals of the field are mine.
If I were hungry, I would not tell you,
for all the world is mine and everything in it.

Is the main point here to encourage us that God will always provide for us? No, it’s to put sacrifice to God back into right perspective for the people of Israel. They had to realize that God didn’t need their sacrifices. Everything belongs to him already. Of course, it’s true that if everything belongs to God, then he has no lack of resources to draw from when he does provide for us. But we must be careful not to misuse the Scriptures and take them out of context. Sometimes we’ll just be using the wrong text to support a belief that is still true and biblical (as with the three examples immediately above). This is like using the wrong tool for a job when the right tool is back in the tool chest.

(At least these examples are actually quoting the Bible. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard someone exclaim: “Well, it’s like the Good Book says, ‘God helps those who help themselves’ ” [which isn’t from the Good Book—it’s from Benjamin Franklin], or “The Bible says, ‘To thine own self be true’ ” [which isn’t the Bible, it’s Shakespeare—and not even from one of his more intelligent characters!].)

Other times we can misuse a text and end up with a completely erroneous belief. Philippians 4:13 says, “For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength.” If we take this statement by itself, with no context, what does it mean? Are there no qualifications, no clarifications? Does this mean it doesn’t matter if I haven’t done any of my Physics studies and the final exam is tomorrow—I know I can get a good grade because ‘I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength’? Can it mean I don’t have to bother with studying the passage I’m supposed to teach on Sunday because ‘I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength’? (Two real examples, by the way.) Read the preceding context:

How I praise the Lord that you are concerned about me again. I know you have always been concerned for me, but you didn’t have the chance to help me. Not that I was ever in need, for I have learned how to be content with whatever I have. I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little. For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength.

What is it that Paul is able to do through Christ who gives him strength? Be content with what he has, live with plenty or little, a full stomach or empty. Some translations make this even more clear by saying, “I can do all this through Christ, who gives me strength.”

How can we keep from making these kinds of mistakes with the Bible? First, if you haven’t actually read a verse in context yourself, don’t try to use it to make a point. This is known as ‘proof-texting.’ It’s using an isolated verse—or even a whole list of them—to make a claim sound biblical. Get in the habit of checking out the verses people use to support their claims. When someone says, “Well, the Bible says . . . ” Ask them: “Where?” and then look it up and see if the Bible is actually saying what they say it’s saying!

Next, get out of the habit of thinking in isolated Bible verses. Many Christians don’t realize that the chapter and verse numbers were added to the Bible centuries after it was written; they’re not part of the original text. They are very helpful in allowing us to find specific places in the Bible quickly and efficiently (this is especially nice when we’re studying with other people), but this is pretty much the extent of their purpose. What they don’t do well is divide up chunks of thought. Some of us are accustomed to Bible studies where we read one verse and discuss it, and then read another verse and discuss it. The problem with this method of Bible study is that it often dissects the flow of thought in the passage to the point where it’s indecipherable. You’re not clearly seeing the forest or the trees!

When we write, we usually don’t write individual, isolated statements. We write in paragraphs and extended sections that develop our thoughts. The biblical writers did the same thing. If we want to really grasp what the Bible is saying, we need to focus on whole paragraphs or groups of paragraphs to understand what the main points are. So when you’re reading the Bible (or quoting the Bible), don’t think in verses—think in paragraphs.

Remember this old saying: A text without a context is a pretext. What are the first three rules of studying the Bible? Context, context, context. Hopefully, I haven’t scared you too badly with any of the examples above. (We’ve all made our mistakes studying the Bible.) All I’m really urging you to do is to simply observe what the Bible is actually saying. Take the time to read the text carefully. Always remember to check the surrounding context of a passage, and you’ll be well on your way to truly understanding the Scriptures.

How to study the Bible series:

Which Bible version should I use?

The first three rules of Bible study [see above]

Why do we have to “study” the Bible?

Where are we?: Getting a feel for the bigger story

You’ve got mail: Opening the letters to the churches

Building bridges: Cultural differences in the letters to the churches

Following the story: God and his people, part 1

The heart of the story: Jesus

Following the story: God and his people, part 2

Acting on Acts: How do we apply Acts to the church today?

Should Christians obey the Ten Commandments?: Christians and the Old Testament law

The psalms: Prayers to God that speak to us

Walking with the wise: Learning from the Bible’s poetic wisdom

The prophets: God’s messengers, calling his people back

Revelation: The story comes full circle