Note: This article is part of a series.
16 He had in His right hand seven stars, out of His mouth went a sharp two-edged sword, and His countenance was like the sun shining in its strength…20 “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.” (Revelation 1:16, 20, NKJ)
The book of Revelation has profound things to say about the church as it exists in individual congregations in the world as we await the return of Christ. As we have discussed in a previous article, the visions of the Revelation begin with a picture of the glorified Christ, walking in the midst of seven lampstands. Verse 20 tells us that the seven lampstands are the seven churches directly addressed in the letter. They represent all the churches of Christ throughout the entire time between His resurrection and Second Coming. The lampstand imagery reminds us that the church is the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit and that we are responsible to hold forth the light of the gospel to the world. The fact that Jesus walks in our midst makes all the difference to us as we face a hostile world and our own failures.
In this article we will look at another feature of this opening vision – namely that Jesus is pictured as holding seven stars in His right hand. We are told in verse 20 that the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches. While it is not immediately obvious what this means, it seems significant given the fact that the subsequent addresses to the seven churches in chapters 2-3 are all directed to the “the angel of the church of…” (2:1, 2:8, 2:12, 2:18, 3:1, 3:7, 3:14). Who are these angels of the churches? Reformed commentators disagree. Some argue that, since the word translated “angel” can mean “messenger,” that perhaps the messengers in view are the pastors of the churches. An alternative interpretation is that “angels” actually refers to heavenly beings – in this case, angels, who are identified with and have a particular concern for particular churches. That may seem like a hard sell for us until we look more closely at the OT background of this vision.
Revelation communicates important truths to us by means of symbols. The symbols are drawn from the OT. Writing about the glorious picture of Christ in his awesome splendor (described in Revelation 1:13-16), commentator, Dennis Johnson says, “The symbols seen by John in the vision reveal not what Jesus looks like but what he is like – his identity as the searcher of hearts, full of consuming holiness and boundless wisdom, the perfect priest standing for his people before the Father, the perfect king defending them against the devil by his invincible Word.”
While this vision does draw on OT images of priest and king found in the Pentateuch, it relies predominantly on the prophet Daniel. Specifically, John uses the language of Daniel 7, which describes “One like a Son of Man coming with the clouds of heaven” and appearing before the throne of the “Ancient of Days” (Daniel 7:13) and also of Daniel 10, in which a great heavenly messenger appears to deliver a message to Daniel. Daniel describes this angelic being as “a certain man clothed in linen, whose waist was girded with gold of Uphaz! His body was like beryl, his face like the appearance of lightning, his eyes like torches of fire, his arms and feet like burnished bronze in color, and the sound of his words like the voice of a multitude” (Daniel 10:5-6).
John applies very similar language in his description of the exalted Lord, Jesus. This fact bears on our interpretation of the stars seen in Jesus’ hand. It is true that “angels” can mean “messengers” in a general sense, but that is not the way the word is used in the book of Revelation. In fact, in addition to its use in v. 20 and in the addresses to the seven churches, the word is used 55 times in the book. Each one of those occurrences is a clear reference to literal angels. In addition, there is biblical precedent for using “stars” or “heavenly host” as a metaphor for angels (see Psalm 148:2-3). More persuasively, however, is the fact that the OT background passage (Daniel 10) contains what appear to be descriptions of angels, who represent certain corporate entities. The glorious angel who appears to Daniel says that he had been detained in a conflict with the “prince of the kingdom of Persia” and that he has been assisted in the battle by Michael, “your prince” (Daniel 10:13, 20-21). Michael is called an “archangel” in Jude 9, and Revelation 12:7-8 says, “And war broke out in heaven: Michael and his angels fought with the dragon; and the dragon and his angels fought, 8 but they did not prevail, nor was a place found for them in heaven any longer.”
Putting all this together, it appears that Daniel 10 teaches us that certain entities (nations in this case) are represented by particular angelic beings. These angels seek to exert influence on and for the bodies they represent. Michael is said to have fought spiritual warfare for God’s people against some spiritual being (a demon?) who was representing the Persian Empire. In the larger context of Daniel, this battle was being waged, at least in part, through the leaders of Empire. If this interpretation is true, then it suggests that John’s reference to “the angels of the churches” refers to heavenly beings who represent and defend particular churches. These angels so identify with their churches that John addresses the individual congregations through their respective angels.
Using the OT to interpret Revelation helps us see some extraordinary truths about your church and my church. First, your church, if it is a true branch of the visible church, is protected and ministered to by the angels. That really should not surprise you, but it is something we often forget. The author of Hebrews calls angels “ministering spirits sent forth to minister for those who will inherit salvation” (Hebrews 1:14). It helps you to know that God’s holy angels are ministering to you and for you. I think it changes your perspective about the church if you consider that your little congregation – even if it is in some out-of-the-way place where it seems like no one cares – is so important to the Lord that He has assigned angelic beings to watch over it. It is also a great encouragement to realize that there are angels that so identify with your congregation and its leadership that they can rightly be addressed as “the angel of the church of your particular town.”
The second, and more important, truth of the vision of the stars is to recognize WHERE the stars are. They are in the right hand of the glorious Son of Man. Jesus Christ, the Lord of the Universe, holds the angel of your congregation in His right hand, the hand of His power. Given what we said about the identification of the angels with the people they represent, this is a way of saying that your congregation is being held in His right hand. Jesus has absolute authority over your congregation. Your congregation belongs to Him. Nothing can happen to your church and its people that is outside of Jesus’ plan for you. Even Christians living in the midst of the brutal and pagan Roman Empire had the comfort of knowing that Jesus held their churches in His right hand.
The church on the earth often looks weak and irrelevant to our eyes. The Christians in the churches are themselves overwhelmed and under constant pressure to compromise. Jesus says to you, “See where you are!” You are held in the right hand of the greatest, most glorious, most powerful, holiest, wisest Being in the universe. What an incredible thing the local church is! The church receives the ministry and protection of angels but, more than that, it is held in the right hand of the Lord of Lords and King of Kings. Never forget that as you worship and serve in the context of your local congregation.