Sunday, March 03, 2013

The angels of the churches

16 In his right hand he held seven stars, from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining in full strength…20 As for the mystery of the seven stars that 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 1:16,20).

One contested issue in the interpretation of Revelation is the identity of the angeloi of the seven churches.

i) On one interpretation, the “angels” are couriers. That would seem to fit the epistolary context. John is writing letters to them because they will deliver the letters to their respective churches.

ii) However, everywhere else in Revelation, angelos means “angel” in the technical sense of the word. So it would be confusing if they are human in this particular instance.

In addition, the passage alludes to Danielic angelology (Dan 8:10; 10:13-14,20-21), as well as the stellar imagery (12:1-3). So, again, that doesn’t fit the courier interpretation.

iii) But what sense does it make to say Jesus is telling John to write to angels? Aren’t the letters for the benefit of church members? Isn’t that the target audience? Would why John addresses these letters to angels?

However, that objection overlooks the fact that this is part of John’s vision. This is something he is told in his vision. In his vision, Jesus is dictating these letters to John, which are written to angels. We need to distinguish the world of the vision from the extramental world of the seven churches. There is, of course, some sort of correspondence between the two, but lots of things happen in John’s vision that doesn’t literally happen in the real world. The relationship is analogous.

iv) Assuming the angelloi are angels, what is their function? On one interpretation, they are guardian angels. On another interpretation, they are heavenly counterparts to Christians. These aren’t mutually exclusive interpretations.

However, if they are guardian angels, in what sense are they guarding the churches? On the face of it, they don’t protect church members from persecutors.

Likewise, why would Christians need angelic counterparts? That has a nice literary symmetry, but what’s the practical value of that symmetry?

There’s a temptation on the part of commentators, even conservative commentators, to treat a text at a purely textual level, as if the world of the text is a self-contained literary world, with intertextual relationships, that doesn’t have to make sense in the real world. It only has to make sense on its own terms, within the framework of the literary narrative.

But if Revelation is true, then we need an interpretation that’s realistic. An interpretation with some real-world application. Although Revelation is a fictional narrative, it is meant to refer to a real-world situation.

I’d suggest the heavenly angels of the seven churches are counterparts to fallen angels. That would also fit with the Danielic background. Remember the spiritual warfare between Daniel, the “Prince of Persia,” and the archangel Michael. The “Prince of Persia” is an evil, territorial spirit.

By the same token, churches have inhuman, invisible adversaries as well as human, visible adversaries. Demons attack churches. Undermine churches from the inside out.

Yet, in the nature of the case, we’re normally oblivious to this generally indetectible enemy. And even if we were aware of demons, humans are no match for fallen angels. They have abilities we lack.

It would make sense, therefore, if churches have angels that do battle with demons. If, in some measure, angels protect churches from demons.

This would usually occur behind the scenes. We’re just as oblivious to angels as we are to demons. Unless angels and demons manifest themselves to humans (e.g. possession, apparitions), it’s a background condition we take for granted. Not something we discern.

v) What’s the significance of the seven stars? As one scholar notes:

In antiquity, the “seven stars” are often used to represent the seven “planets” (Sun, Moon, Jupiter, Mercury, Mars, Venus, and Saturn). Though these seven planets were almost universally accepted in the Hellenistic and Roman world, there were three different planetary orders…the later “Chaldean” order, which came to dominate late Hellenistic astronomy…[and] the astrological, horoscopic order. D. Aune, Revelation 1-5 (Word 1997), 97.

According to another scholar:

Finally, with respect to the “seven stars” explained at Rev 1:20, in Hellenistic literature a grouping of seven stars refers to either the seven planets…or the seven stars that form the Bear constellation.

I do propose, however, that astrological associations with cultic objects or mythic episodes were more widespread in Greco-roman religions of the late first-century CE…and that the author and the audience of the Revelation were familiar with the connections between astrological and other religious traditions.

Evidence of Christians associating with astrology is present in the NT letter to the Colossians, a church in the same geographical area as the seven churches in John’s Revelation. The author of Colossians intends a strategy to encompass the Colossians’ situation in such a way that they acknowledge Christ as the true divine mystery (Col 2:2), that they not worship angels (Col 2:18), and that they subordinate ta stoicheia tou kosmou to Christ (Col 2:8,20). References to “worshiping angels” and the “elements of the universe” most likely contain associations with astrology, and the writer of Colossians intends that the Colossian Christians subordinate such aspects of their religion to Christ (Col 2:8-9,15,20; 3:1-4).

John of the Revelation engages in much the same kind of strategy in Rev 1:20: by identifying the lampstands and the “seven stars” not with astrological mysteries…but with the mystery of the churches, the text in Revelation serves the illocutionary function of repudiating those other texts in that particular ideological cluster. As Krodel comments, “The identification of the stars with the angels brings about an ironic reversal. Whereas for Hellenistic people, the stars represent fate, chance, and immutable cosmic order, the vision narrative in its interpretation discloses that these stars relate to the church, to those small, insignificant groups of Christians in Asia Minor. They influence the world’s fate and destiny because they are in the right hand of Christ.”…John’s strategy is to allow in his inaugural vision an association with astrological speculation, but in the revealing of the mystery, to establish unambiguously the supremacy of Christ–and members of Christ–over astrological forces, including angels. There is reciprocity between heaven and earth, but the expected power structure–from the viewpoint of astrology–is reversed in the mystery. L. Thompson,  “Mooring the Revelation in the Mediterranean,” E. Lovering, ed. SBL 1992 Seminar Papers (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1992), 649-50.

If this analysis is generally correct, then Rev 1:16,20 is part of John’s polemic against astrology and astral fatalism. Both John and Paul are ministering to converts from paganism, whose cultural and religious background included astrology. However, the stars, as well as astral spirits, with whom they were popularly associated, have no power over Christians, for Christ holds the stars in his right hand. He has broken the yoke of astral fatalism.

Astral religion was an ancient error:

And beware lest you raise your eyes to heaven, and when you see the sun and the moon and the stars, all the host of heaven, you be drawn away and bow down to them and serve them, things that the Lord your God has allotted to all the peoples under the whole heaven (Deut 4:19).

And astrology was even more oppressive. Moreover, it wasn’t just a pagan affair. Astrology penetrated Judaism. Cf. J. Charlesworth, “Jewish Interest in Astrology during the Hellenistic and Roman Period,” W. Haase, ed., ANRW, II.20.2 (Berlin - New York: Walter de Gruyter, 1987), 926-950.

And in our proud, scientific age, many men and woman are still in bondage to astrology. 


  1. Well, this one phrase took my breath away, briefly. Can you expound or explain more on it?

    "Although Revelation is a fictional narrative,..."

    Am I by this to conclude your position about the book of the Revelation is fictional?

    1. Revelation is not a historical narrative. It's not like the four gospels, or Acts, or Kings, or Genesis or Dan 1-10. The narrative is studded with imaginary characters embedded in a stylized plot. The characters and events *stand for* real people, places, and events–like a historical novel, historical romance, or historical fantasy.

    2. It's not a historical narrative but it is based in the unseen realities which are factual realities. I agree it does not lay out a chronology.

      I just recently have noticed something about the book of the Revelation which I hadn't before "just reading it", eyes on a page, mind words not oral words spoken.

      It's a book we are to read out loud and blessed are those that do! Based on the percentages I am 50% blessed because I have listened to the entire book spoken using my audio Bible a number of times. I can't say as I have spoken aloud the entirety yet: Rev 1:3 Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near.

    3. Historical novels can refer to real people, places, and events.