ANGELS OF THE SEVEN CHURCHES
The general practice of NT writers points to the conclusion that the word ‘angels,’ used in this connexion, is employed to denote superhuman and celestial personalities. We are not, however, without examples of its being used to indicate ordinary ‘messengers’ (cf. Lk 7:24; 9:52, Ja 2:25, etc.). In this case it would be equivalent to the ἀπόστολοι ἐκκλησιῶν (2 Co 8:23; cf. Ph 2:25), who were in some sense the official, if temporary, delegates of one Church to another. The fact that in the Apocalypse these ‘angels’ are to such a degree the recipients of praise and blame would seem to put both these simple interpretations out of court.
Many ingenious attempts have been made to employ the expression as a collateral or subsidiary proof that episcopacy had already been established within the lifetime of the Johannine author. The passages adduced from the OT in support of this view are certainly irrelevant; for, while it is conceivable that the chief minister of a Church should be styled ἄγγελος Κυρίου (cf. Hag 1:13 and Mal 2:7; see also Is 44:26 and Mal 3:1), it is difficult to understand the application to him of the designation ἄγγελος ἐκκλησίας (Rev 2:1, etc.). Nor, again, can the contention be sustained that the expression had its origin in the office of the shelîaḥ zibbûr, the messenger or plenipotentiary of the synagogue—for, as Schürer has pointed out, these ‘messengers’ were not permanent officials (see HJP ii. ii. 67), but persons chosen for the time by the ruler to pronounce the prayer at public worship (cf. Lightfoot, Dissertations on Apostol. Age, 1892, p. 158).
In supporting the contention that by the ‘angels’ of the Churches are meant the bishops, the strange conclusion has been maintained that in the words τὴν γυναῖκα [σου] Ἰεζάβελ (Rev 2:20) the author is referring to the Thyatiran bishop’s wife (see Grotius, Annotationes in Apoc., ad loc.). It ought to be pointed out that this theory is as old as Jerome, who in his commentary on 1 Ti 3:2 adopts a similar interpretation; and Socrates (HE iv. 23) describes Serapion as ‘the angel of the church of the Thmuitæ’ (cf. Jerome, de Vir. illustr. 99, where he mentions Serapion as ‘Thmueos Egypti urbis Episcopus’). The same conception is attached to the expression by the 6th cent. commentators, Primasius the African (Com. in Apoc.) and Cassiodorus the Italian (Complexiones in Apoc.) in their reflexions on Rev 1:20.
An examination of the use of the word ἄγγελος in the NT Apocalypse, apart from its connexion with the Churches, shows that the author invariably employs it to describe a spiritual being attached to the service of God or of Satan. We are, therefore, confronted with the difficulty of accounting for its presence here in a sense so completely different as the episcopal theory involves. There is, indeed, no valid reason to suppose that the author, even in a work as highly symbolical as this is, attaches an essentially different idea to the word when he speaks of ‘the Angels of the Seven Churches.’
If we can accept the textual purity of the Ascension of Isaiah, iii. 15, there is a remarkable parallel: ‘the descent of the angel of the Christian Church, which is in the heavens, whom He will summon in the last days.’ Even on the supposition that the Ethiopic version, supported by some Greek MSS, is a correct translation of the original, and the simple word ‘Church’ is substituted for ‘angel of the Christian Church,’ we are confronted by the primitive identification of the Church and its angel (see Charles, Asc. of Isaiah, ad loc.).
Perhaps the most curious feature of the letters to the Asian Churches is the way in which the writer expresses himself in terms of stern reproof or of encouragement to their ‘angels.’ The objection to this difficulty is considered by Origen, who finds cause for marvel at the care shown by God for men: ‘forasmuch as He suffers His angels to be blamed and rebuked on our behalf’ (hom. in Num. 20:3; cf. in Luc. 13).
As we have already seen, however, it is difficult to suppose that the writer intended the words to be understood as referring literally to angels who presided over the Churches. There is, no doubt, a natural inclination to see in his use of the phrase a reminiscence of the ‘princes’ of the Apocalypse of Daniel (ὁ ἄρχων βασιλείας Περσῶν, Dn 10:13; cf. Μιχαὴλ ὁ ἄγγελος, v. 21). A similar belief with respect to the guardianship of individuals is referred to incidentally as held by Jesus (Mt 18:10), and we need not be surprised to find it applied to Churches in their corporate capacity by a writer whose teaching on the activity and functions of angels is so advanced.
Taking into account the symbolism of the whole book and the obviously symbolic mention of Jezebel (Rev 2:20; cf. Milligan on Rev 10:1–3 in Schaff’s Pop. Com. on the NT), there seems to be no interpretation more in harmony with the spirit of the writing than that which sees in this expression the personification of the characteristic spiritual tone and genius of each Church.
If we accept this conclusion as being most consonant with the general trend of thought throughout the writing, it may not be amiss to refer to the remarkable parallel in the fravashis, or ‘doubles,’ of Parsiism. Whatever the connexion between Persian and Jewish angelology—and it is not necessary to insist on a direct borrowing—it seems to be certain that, in the period immediately subsequent to the Captivity, Parsi influence shaped, at least indirectly and remotely, the development of Hebrew thought. ‘The fravashi of a nation or community is a conception found in three Avestan passages.… The fravashi is no longer a being necessarily good, but becomes a complete spiritual counterpart of the nation or the church, and capable therefore of declension and punishment’ (HDB iv. 991b; cf. JThSt iii. 530ff.). The nexus may be, and probably is, not so mechanical and direct as J. H. Moulton seeks to establish. On the other hand, it seems as if a relationship of some kind between the allied forces of Magianism and Zoroastrianism, as they were refracted by the medium of Hellenistic culture and Hebrew thought, must be regarded as inevitable. It is enough to say that the ‘angel’ is the personified embodiment of the spiritual character and ethos of the Church. If this use of the word by the author has led to confusion and obscurity, the reason lies probably in the limitations of that symbolism which was the characteristic vehicle of Jewish apocalyptic literature (see W. M. Ramsay, The Letters to the Seven Churches, 1904, pp. 57–73). Compare and contrast § 6 of the preceding article.
Literature.—See the works referred to throughout the art., and the Commentaries on the Apocalypse.
HJP History of the Jewish People (Eng. tr. of GJV).
HDB Hastings’ Dict. of the Bible (5 vols.).