Question: "Are the ‘angels’ of the churches in Revelation 1–3 real angels, or are they human messengers?"
Answer: In Revelation 1, John the apostle sees the glorified Christ in a vision. Jesus is standing among seven golden lampstands. In His hand, Jesus holds seven stars (Revelation 1:13, 16). In verse 20 Jesus explains, “The mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand and of the seven golden lampstands is this: The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands which you saw are the seven churches.”
The meaning of the lampstands is plain. They represent the seven churches of Asia Minor. We know that a lampstand is intended to give light. The people of God, both as individuals and as congregations, are to be bearers of light. Jesus told His followers that they were the “light of the world” (Matthew 5:14). Paul told the church in Philippi that they were “seen as lights in the world” (Philippians 2:15). Since Jesus is the “true light” of the world (John 1:9), it makes sense that He is standing “among the lampstands” (Revelation 1:13)—the light shed abroad by the churches comes from Him. The stars held in Jesus’ hand are also light-bearers.
However, the meaning of the angels is less plain. The Greek word angelos simply meant “messenger”; usually, the word was used for supernatural “messengers” from God. However, sometimes the word was applied to human messengers of God’s Word: John the Baptist is called an “angelos” in Matthew 11:10.
Some scholars interpret the angels of Revelation 1:20 as heavenly beings. Others view them as the human messengers who bore John’s letter. Others identify them as those who actually read the message to the congregations, that is, church leaders such as pastors, elders, or bishops. A pastor of a church functions as a “messenger” for God, delivering God’s Word to the congregation.
If the angels of the seven churches are heavenly beings, then that would perhaps mean that each church had a “guardian angel” or some type of heavenly being associated with each congregation. There is a difficulty with this interpretation. John was writing the letters to them. Why should he write letters to angels—were the letters going to be read to the congregations by celestial beings? That is highly doubtful.
A better view is that the “angels” are envoys sent to John. During the time that the apostle was exiled on the Isle of Patmos, it is possible that local congregations sent delegates to him to inquire of his condition. These delegates could be the “angels” or “messengers” that were entrusted with the letters on their return trip.
Probably the best interpretation, however, is that the seven angels are the human leaders—the bishops, elders, or pastors—in the churches. Jesus used the apostle John to write messages addressed to seven notable church leaders, and these leaders would then share the messages with the rest of the church. The fact that the “stars” are held in Jesus’ “right hand” is significant. The Lord Himself protects, upholds, and guides the leaders of the church with His strength and wisdom.