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Introduction to the Letters to the Churches



Write the things which you have seen, and the things which are, and the things which will take place after this. The mystery of the seven stars which 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 which you saw are the seven churches. To the angel of the church of Ephesus write. (Revelation 1:19–20, 2:1a)


John was given the mandate to write down what he saw in the Revelation and send it to the seven specified churches. Before the Revelation, or the symbolic presentation of the vision, begins, Jesus dictates personal letters to each of the seven churches.

First note that each letter is addressed to the angel of the church. From this we understand that each church has its angel. If we accept the idea that these churches represent the church throughout the gospel time, we then are to understand that Christ’s church, specifically, every congregation of that church, has its angel. Each letter is a correspondence from the Glorified Christ addressing specific issues He has with each church.

Christ reveals Himself to each of the churches with a particular attribute we have seen in John’s vision of the Glorified Christ. This attribute in some way relates to the condition of each particular church. After introducing Himself to each church, He then says I know your works, each of which is a particular characteristic of each church.             He then makes a statement concerning these characteristics and then gives counsel, advice, admonition, or promises concerning the characteristics. These are stated in such a manner as if Christ were present and would shortly sit in judgment on the church and its deeds.

Following this is a solemn admonition to hear what the Spirit has to say to the churches. Barnes in his Notes on the New Testament makes an important observation concerning these admonitions:


These admonitions were designed to call the attention of the churches to these things, and at the same time they seem designed to show that they were not intended for them alone. They are addressed to any one who “has an ear,” and therefore had some principles of general application to others, and to which all should attend who were disposed to learn the will of the Redeemer. What was addressed to one church, at any time, would be equally applicable to all churches in the same circumstances; what was adapted to rebuke, elevate, or comfort Christians in any one age or land, would be adapted to be useful to Christians of all ages and lands.


            And in closing each letter Christ makes a statement giving some promise or assurance to encourage each church to deal with its problem or endure its trial.

Summarizing the presentation of the letters we find the following: Each letter is addressed to a specific church where a condition existed to which Christ presents His solution. It may be, as it has been taught, that these letters represent seven separate and distinct church ages in the gospel dispensation where the identified condition is prominent during that time. However it is more important for us today to understand that all of these conditions exist and are present in churches in our time, perhaps some of them even in our own church. We must hear what the Spirit says to the churches and follow His instruction so that we will overcome  whatever condition or conditions might exist. Precious promises await those that overcome.


What Is An Angel?


Since the letters are addressed to the angel of each church, it is necessary that we understand what an angel is. We must first recognize that the reference is not to a literal angel; the angel is symbolic or representative of something. Also keep in mind that there must be some kind of relationship or similarity between the symbol and the thing it symbolizes.

Angel is perhaps the most common symbol used in the Revelation. Other than in the letters to the churches, the word angel or angels occurs 65 additional times in the Revelation.         The Greek word for angel is angelos, meaning a messenger. The noun is derived from the verb ago, meaning to lead and by implication to bring. While angelos can mean the heavenly spirits we call angels, in New Testament usage, especially in connection with the church, it always means the elders or pastors of a congregation.

The first definition for angel given in Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words is: “angelos can refer to a human messenger serving as an envoy (see messenger).” Under the word messenger, Mounce writes: “angelos means ‘angel, messenger.’ Similar to mal’āk in the OT, there are two primary uses of this word in the NT. (1) It can refer to a human messenger serving as an envoy. Jesus used “messengers” during his earthly ministry (Lk. 9:52). God used John the Baptist as a “messenger” to prepare the way for Jesus (Mt. 11:10; Mk. 1:2). Paul’s thorn in the flesh was a ‘messenger of Satan’ (2 Cor. 12:7). But its more common meaning is “angel.” (a non-human spiritual being). Let us look at the NT references cited by Mounce in his definition.

First Luke 9:51–52, “Now it came to pass, when the time had come for Him to be received up, that He steadfastly set His face to go to Jerusalem, and sent messengers before His face. And as they went, they entered a village of the Samaritans, to prepare for Him.”          The word messengers in this verse is the Greek word angelos, the same word rendered angel in the letters to the churches of the Revelation. It is clear that these were not heavenly beings; they were men, human beings, Jesus sent ahead to prepare a place for Jesus in a Samaritan village. The people there did not let Jesus come in and James and John, two of Jesus’ disciples who were the messengers, asked if they could command fire to come down and destroy the village.

Second Matthew 11:10 (Mark 1:2), Jesus quotes from Malachi 3:1 to validate the ministry of John the Baptist. “Behold, I send My messenger before your face, who will prepare Your way before You.”         It is obvious that Jesus was not talking about an angelic being from heaven. This is His description of John the Baptist and his ministry. He was the angelos of Jesus, the messenger of Jesus sent to prepare the way for His ministry of redemption.

And last, 2 Corinthians 12:17, “And lest I should be exalted above measure by the abundance of the revelations, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I be exalted above measure.” This messenger or angelos of Satan was no heavenly being; while there are evil angels or demons, this angelos was not one of them. There are many ideas as to what this thorn in the flesh was, such as a physical ailment or weak eyes, but it seems more likely that this thorn in the flesh was a real human being. Beginning in chapter 11, Paul establishes is credentials as opposed to false brethren (see 11:26). God had permitted much to happen to Paul, the worst and most constant being the opposition of these false brethren. But in comparison, he refers to the many blessings he received from God, including some unique revelations. Paul says that one reason God allowed the false brethren, this messenger of Satan, to harass him and even oppose his preaching the gospel was to keep him humble and dependent on God.

Adam Clarke helps us to understand this thorn in the flesh, this messenger or angelos of Satan:


The messenger of Satan—Another mode of expressing what he calls the thorn in the flesh; and he seems most plainly to refer to the false apostle at Corinth. The apostle himself was, as he styles himself to this Church, 2 Corinthians 1:1, the apostle of Jesus Christ. The person in question is styled here the apostle or angel of Satan. It is almost impossible to mistake the apostle’s meaning and reference. Jesus Christ sent Paul to proclaim his truth, and found a Church at Corinth. Satan, the adversary of God’s truth, sent a man to preach lies at the same place, and turn the Church of God into his own synagogue; and by his teaching lies and calumnies the apostle was severely buffeted. We need seek no other sense for these expressions. Many, however, think that the apostle had really some bodily infirmity that rendered him contemptible, and was the means of obstructing the success of his ministry; and that the false apostle availed himself of this to set St. Paul at nought, and to hold him out to ridicule. I have shown this, elsewhere, to be very unlikely.


In explaining the angel Clarke is most emphatic when he wrote in his comment on Revelation 2:1, “I do not perceive any metaphorical or allegorical meaning in the epistles to these churches.” In regard to the churches addressed by Jesus he writes:


I consider the Churches as real; and that their spiritual state is here really and literally pointed out; and that they have no reference to the state of the Church of Christ in all ages of the world, as has been imagined; and that the notion of what has been termed the Ephesian state [think church age], the Smyrnian state, the Pergamenian state, the Thyatirian state, etc., etc., is unfounded, absurd, and dangerous; and such expositions should not be entertained by any who wish to arrive at a sober and rational knowledge of the Holy Scriptures.


This is very strong language to which interpreters of the Book of Revelation should give heed. It appears that Adam Clarke did not agree to the concept of seven church ages defined by the seven churches of Asia. Adam Clarke was born in 1760 or 1762 and died in 1832. He predated both Uriah Smith and Daniel Warner (the Church of God view of the Revelation) both of whom espoused the church age approach to the letters to the churches.

As mentioned above, the conditions in these churches have existed in any or all churches at any time in history. It is necessary for us to be aware of what is happening around us in the spirit realm of our churches. For example: If we say we are living in the last church age, or state, we might think only of the “neither cold nor hot” condition of the Laodicean church, which condition is certainly rampant in our time. If we happen to have victory over that, we must also be aware of losing the first love or holding the doctrine of Balaam, or any of the other issues Jesus talks about in these letters. If we are overconfident and not paying attention, we could fall to any of these conditions and be just as lost as if we were in the “neither cold nor hot” condition.

Clarke also follows the pastor understanding of the term angel: “I consider the angel of the Church as signifying the messenger, the pastor, sent by Christ and his apostles to teach and edify that Church.” He also speaks to the intent of each letter. “I consider what is spoken to this angel as spoken to the whole Church; and that it is not his particular state that is described, but the states of the people in general under his care.”


In Summary


The letters are correspondence from the Glorified Christ to the pastors, or messengers, of each of the seven churches previously mentioned.

The letters follow a set pattern in their delivery: Christ reveals Himself in a certain attribute that reflects His message to each church;          He tells them He knows their works, good or bad;    He addresses the characteristics He sees in each church, giving them counsel, advice, admonition, or promises concerning the characteristics; He gives the admonition to hear what the Spirit says to the churches (this more than implies that the church throughout its history must pay attention to what is said here); and, He leaves each church with a promise or some kind of assurance.

There is a sense that each of the seven conditions and Christ’s dealing with them are conditions that have existed among the church at large at any time in history.

It may be that we can apply the seven churches to seven church ages as has been taught, but we must be cautious in so doing as we might fail to see and thereby ignor a condition working on our church that we think is applicable only to a previous church age.

Finally, as we study the letters in chapters 2 and 3, let us be diligent to heed the command of the Glorified Christ to hear what the Spirit says to the churches—our churches.