If you have ever heard a series of sermons on the book of Revelation, most likely those sermons were seven in number: one sermon for each of the seven letters to the seven churches. Indeed, it seems that most sermons preached on Revelation are taken from chapters 2–3, the seven letters to the seven churches.
While the seven letters to the seven churches may be the most accessible section in the book of Revelation, thus reflecting the prevalence of sermons on this portion of the book, there remains much confusion as to how the seven letters to the seven churches are to be understood. Are these letters reflective of seven successive, chronological periods through which the church must pass? Do these letters lead us to understand the history of the church in terms of seven distinct dispensations? Is our goal to decipher the period in which we are now living (are we living in the times of Thyatira? Or perhaps of Sardis? Or maybe in the last days of Laodicea?!)? How are we to understand the seven letters to the seven churches?
The Spirit has given us verse 20 of chapter 1 as the lens through which we must understand chapters 2–3. We cannot understand the seven letters to the seven churches unless we understand “the mystery of the seven stars and the seven golden lampstands.” Thankfully, verse 20 is epexegetical. That is to say, verse 20 interprets itself. The Spirit has given us the interpretation of the seven stars and the seven lampstands. “The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands which you saw are the seven churches.” The Spirit identifies the seven stars as the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands as the seven churches. But what are we to make of that?!
Let us begin with the seven stars. The seven stars are identified as “the angels of the seven churches.” But who are these angels? Are they “heavenly beings”? Are they “guardian angels”? Are they the human leaders of the churches such as the elders or the ministers? Or is this a reference to the prevailing spirit or character of the churches? Who are these seven angels?
In light of the fact that nearly 60 times in the book of Revelation the word “angel” refers to heavenly beings, it seems fitting to understand it in this way here as well. The angels of the seven churches are indeed heavenly beings. There is no compelling reason to take them as anything other than heavenly beings. They are exactly what the Spirit calls them: they are angels!
But note well the number of them: they are seven in number. We have already seen the significance of the number seven in the book of Revelation: it represents fullness, completeness. The seven angels, then, ought to be interpreted as the common company of angels in heaven. The seven angels provide us a picture of the common company of the heavenly heralds.
It is beyond the scope of this column to develop an entire theology of angels. But here it bears mentioning that angels are “heralds,” they are “messengers.” That is what their name means. An angel is a messenger; an angel is a herald. There is in heaven a common company of messengers, a common company of heralds.
But then notice that these seven angels, whom we have identified as the common company of angels in heaven, are directly connected with the seven churches on earth: they are the “angels of the seven churches.” That is to say, there is a correspondence between the seven angels in heaven and the seven churches on earth. The common company of angels in heaven have their counterpart on earth in the church! There is a matching up of things between heaven and earth: as it is in heaven, so it is on earth.
As there are heavenly messengers, so there are earthly messengers. As there are heavenly heralds, so there are earthly heralds. As there is the common company of messengers in heaven, so there is the common company of messengers on earth. As there is the common company of heralds in heaven, so there is the common company of heralds on earth. But to whom are we referring? Who are the earthly messengers? Who are the earthly heralds? Those who are called to declare the Word of God: ministers–preachers—they are earthly messengers—they are earthly heralds.
There is then a correspondence between the heavenly heralds and the earthly heralds, between the heavenly messengers and the earthly messengers, between angels and preachers! The conclusion of Psalm 103 even brings them into the closest proximity possible: “Bless the Lord, you His angels, who excel in strength, who do His word, heeding the voice of His word. Bless the Lord, all you His hosts, you ministers of His who do His pleasure” (Psalm 103:20–21). In other places, those who bear the Word of God are designated as messengers, the very same term given to angels (cf. II Chronicles 36:15).
That the office of the minister of the Word is pictured to us here in terms of the angels of the seven churches—suggesting this matching up of things on earth with things in heaven – underscores the gravity and weight of the office of the minister of the Word. As angels are God’s heavenly messengers, so ministers of the Word are God’s earthly messengers. As angels speak on behalf of God in heaven, so ministers speak on behalf of God on earth. As the angels of God in heaven never go forth, except with the message of God, so the minister of the Word ought never go forth into the pulpit, except with the message of God. As angels do not proclaim themselves, so the minister of the Word ought never proclaim himself. As angels serve the One who sends them, so the minister of the Word serves the One who sends him. As angels announced the mighty acts of God in history (you might recall the morning stars who sang for joy at creation), so the minister of the Word proclaims the mighty acts of God in history (what God has accomplished in Jesus Christ, bringing a new creation). And as the message of angels was to be received as the very message of God, so the message of the minister of the Word ought to be received as the very message of God.
Let the minister of the Word, then, preach the Word of God. Any minister who occupies the pulpit and proclaims anything else is not worthy of the name. The minister of the Word of God is to preach the Word of God! And when the congregation gathers on the Lord’s Day, let it expect to hear the Word of God. The Church of Jesus Christ should never be satisfied with anything less, lest she lose her lampstand.
Rev. Brian Vos is the Pastor of the Trinity United Reformed Church in Caledonia, Michigan. He is also the President of the Board of Reformed Fellowship.