1) Does Your Church Have an Angel? (2:1)
“No,” said one person in response to the question in the title above. “But we’ve got plenty of demons!”
Hmmm. I’m not sure what to say to that. But let’s get back to the original question. It’s not entirely without warrant, for each of the seven letters to the seven churches in Asia Minor is addressed to an “angel” (see Rev. 2:1,8,12,18; 3:1,7,14). What could Jesus possibly have meant when he instructed John to send this letter “to the angel of the church in Ephesus”?
There have been countless theories about the identity of these angels, none of which is entirely satisfying to me. But let’s take a brief look at the more popular suggestions.
(1) When I was still an active member of a Southern Baptist church I heard my pastor (who will remain unnamed) argue that the “angel” in each case was the Senior Pastor of the congregation! This isn’t to say that all Southern Baptist pastors see themselves in this text, but it is a view that warrants comment.
There are several reasons why I find this theory unlikely.
First, it is contrary to the New Testament portrait of church structure. Nowhere in the New Testament is a single individual described as exercising pastoral authority over a congregation. Rule by a plurality of elders is the standard biblical perspective. To argue otherwise is to assume, falsely in my opinion, that there was an evolutionary development in biblical ecclesiology in which a plurality of leadership in the early years of the church’s existence gradually gave way to a singular pastoral authority. In terms of historical development, subsequent to the closing of the biblical canon, this is precisely what happened (the first indication of a single pastor or bishop is found in the writings of Ignatius [@ 110 a.d.] and Clement of Rome). But that is far removed from saying it occurred within the canon itself.
Second, the word “angel” is used some 60x in Revelation and always means a supernatural or spiritual being. This is not a decisive objection, but it does place the burden of proof on the one who contends that the word here deviates from its standard use in the Apocalypse.
Third, the word “angel” is nowhere else in the New Testament used to designate an ecclesiastical office. Again, that doesn’t mean it can’t be applied that way in the Seven Letters, but it would be unique in the biblical revelation if it were.
Fourth, and finally, we know from Acts 20:17-38 that the Ephesian church was ruled by a plurality of elders. So, although I do believe in the legitimacy of a “senior” or “lead” pastor of a congregation (although he remains one Elder among a plurality who govern the body), I seriously doubt this is what Jesus had in mind when he used the word “angel” in these seven letters.
(2) Another possibility is that the “angel” refers to a prophet or delegated representative of the church. This person may have functioned in an ambassadorial role, or perhaps as something of a secretary who was responsible for maintaining communication with those outside the congregation as well as other tasks that may have been assigned. On this view stress is placed on the literal meaning of the Greek term “angelos” = messenger (cf. Luke 9:52; James 2:25).
(3) Yet a third, more likely option, points to the fact that in Revelation 1:11 (cf. 1:4) the letters are directed to “the churches” (plural). So also at the end of each letter we read: “Let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” Thus the Lord speaks to the whole church and not just to an “angel”. This leads some to conclude that the angel IS the church, i.e., a personification of the church. The Greek text would certainly allow (but by no means require) this interpretation, in which case we would translate: “to the angel which is the church in Ephesus.”
Needless to say, this view suffers from the same weakness as the first two options in that it requires we deviate from the regular use of the term “angel” in the book of Revelation (where it refers to a supernatural, non-human, being). There is also the fact that in Revelation 1:20 the angels of the seven churches are described as distinct from the seven churches themselves, making their identification less likely.
(4) Another theory is that the “angel” of each church is its guardian angel. Although some scoff at the notion of angels providing this kind of service or ministry to the body of Christ, we should not dismiss it too quickly.
Angels are described as “ministers” (leitourgos), a word that suggests a priestly service (Hebrews 1:7,14; cf. Psalm 103:19-21). They provide guidance and direction for God’s people (Genesis 24:7,40; Exodus 14:19; see also Exodus 23:20; Numbers 20:16; Acts 5:17-20; 8:26; 10:3-7,22; 16:9), as well as comfort and encouragement (Matthew 4:11; Luke 22:43; Acts 27:22-24). Angels also guard and protect the children of God, as is clear from Psalms 34:7; 78:23-25; 91:11; 1 Kings 19:5-7; Daniel 6:20-23; and 12:1.
Acts 12:15 is an unusual passage, in that we read of believers who mistook Peter himself for “his angel”. It’s possible that Luke is only describing their belief without himself endorsing it (but I find this unlikely). Others argue that he intends to teach that each of us not only has a guardian angel but also that the latter may assume our physical characteristics. Yes, it seems odd, but why else would they have concluded that the “person” at the door was Peter’s angel and not someone/something else?
Matthew 18:10 is especially interesting. There Jesus warns against the neglect of little children and reminds his disciples that “their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven.” An ancient custom prevailed in eastern court settings according to which those who stood "before the king" or were allowed to "see his face" were officers who enjoyed the king's special favor and were privileged to enjoy the closest possible fellowship. The implication may be that the highest ranking angels are assigned and commissioned by God to watch over with loving care his "little ones". Thus Jesus is saying, "Don't despise my 'little ones,' for they are so highly regarded that God has appointed his most illustrious angels to keep watch over them."
Their continual presence before God, beholding his face, may mean one of two things: a) it may be a way of saying that our condition and needs are ever before God; he is always and ever alert to our situation in life; or b) their constant presence before him is for the purpose of quickly responding to whatever tasks God may assign them in their ministry to us. (One might be tempted to ask: If these angels “continually” stand before the face of God in heaven, how can they serve as daily or continual “guardians” of people on earth?)
The most basic and obvious problem with this view is that it doesn’t make sense why Jesus would address the letter to the guardian angel of a church rather than directly to the congregation itself. What need would there be to do so, and what purpose would it serve? Perhaps a good answer for this is forthcoming. But at this point, I don’t know what it would be.
As you can see, there is no definitive explanation for who these angels were or what function they discharged. If pressed to make a choice, I would opt for either the third or fourth interpretation. In any case, our responsibility to heed the counsel of Christ in each letter does not hang suspended on our ability to decipher the identity of the “angel” to whom each letter was sent.