Are the “Angels of the Seven Churches” Human Leaders?
Peter Leithart, in his recently released (and, so far, quite brilliant) Revelation, gives several reasons to think otherwise. In fact, he argues, there are a number of features of the text that simply do not make sense if the “angels of the churches” are angelic beings, as opposed to—as the church fathers generally took it—human leaders. For instance:
1. The practical argument. “If Jesus actually appeared to John, dictated the actual words we read in the text, and expected John actually to send the messages to the churches, then the notion that the recipients are angel-spirits makes little sense. Why could Jesus not simply speak directly to his angelic messengers (as he appears to do in other places in Revelation)? Angels presumably have access to heaven, so Jesus can address them without the bother of sending off a circuit rider. Why send the letters off to the churches of Asia, if the messages themselves are addressed to angel-spirits?”
2. The facetious argument. “To put it provocatively, or snarkily: Where do angels receive their mail? And, how does John know the addresses? The more we try to imagine a set of letters sent to angel-spirits, the more implausible it becomes.”
3. The grammatical argument. In English, we no longer distinguish between singular and plural in the second person, so we miss the fact that in Greek, many of the strong words in the letters are singular, revealing that the angel is being addressed rather than the church. It is the angel of the Ephesian church who is charged with abandoning his first love (2:4), the angel in Pergamum who needs to repent (2:16), and the angel at Laodicea who is lukewarm (3:16). Admittedly, it would be surprising to find a human leader held accountable so directly for the failings of the church—but it would be far more odd if an angel-spirit was held accountable in this way. “Do angel-spirits suffer spiritual lethargy? Do they have dry spells and dark nights of the soul? Do they experience acedia? How does an angel repent?”
4. The justice argument. “Jesus threatens to remove the lampstand (the church, 1:20) from Ephesus if the angel fails to repent. That leaves the future of the Ephesian church dependent not on the repentance of the community or its leader, but on the repentance of his spiritual guardian, over whom the community can exert no influence. That leaves the church at the mercy of angels (who seem to be subject to volatile mood swings), the very sort of enslavement to principalities and powers from which Jesus delivered us.”
5. The thematic argument. “The law is given by angels. Not the message of Jesus ... We were for a little while lower than angels, but now crowned with glory and honor. This is one of the key themes of Revelation: It is the last act of the angelic covenant, the last hurrah for those reliable spiritual beings that have run things from creation. Angels all but disappear from the story after Babylon falls, as the world is turned over to the far less reliable race of humanity.”
That raises all kinds of questions (which Leithart then goes on to address) about who these human leaders are, and what (if any) implications this might have for our ecclesiology. But as far as I can see, it’s a pretty compelling argument.