People sometimes dismiss the letters to the Seven Churches because they were addressed to angels. “To the angel of the church in Ephesus; to the angel of the church in Smyrna,” etc. It sounds weird, a bit mystical. Don’t angels live in heaven? Why would Jesus send mail to angels?
He didn’t. At least not to those sorts of angels. Here’s what really happened:
The Apostle John had a vision. Jesus told John to record the vision in a book and then send that book along with some letters to “the seven churches that are in Asia” (Rev. 1:4). This is not the Asia we know, but the Roman Province that was situated on the western end of the Anatolian peninsula in modern Turkey. The letters were for the churches in Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea (Rev. 1:11).
Why these seven churches? What did they have in common?
John probably knew them all. Having lived in Ephesus and traveled around the region, he would have been well acquainted with the challenges facing each one.
Look at the map of the seven cities and you will see that the order of the letters begins with Ephesus, the city closest to John’s exile on Patmos. The sequence then describes an n-shaped route that follows the coast up to Smyrna and Pergamum before heading inland to Thyatira and down to Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. This is the route that would’ve been taken by whoever delivered the letters.
Who delivered the seven letters? It was no a postman, for no postal service existed in first-century Rome. The letters of the New Testament were carried by volunteers. These Christian couriers were organized and hosted by the bishops or pastors of the various churches.
This brings us to the angels…
To the angel of the church in Ephesus write (Rev. 2:1a)
Who is the angel of the church?
Most likely it was the bishop (or lead elder or senior pastor if you prefer).
Each of the seven letters is addressed to an angel. What is an angel? An angel is a messenger. In scripture, angels or messengers can be divine or human. John the Baptist and his disciples were called angels/messengers (Luke 7:24, 27). What sort of angels is Jesus referring to here? People. Why would Jesus send mail to heavenly beings?
The letters were written by John but they would not have been delivered by him. He was far too old. John needed couriers, and those couriers would’ve needed food and accommodation. This is why each letter is addressed to an angel. The angel, or bishop, was the person who received and fed the courier. He was the one who opened the letter from Jesus and read it out loud in church.
Who was the angel of the church at Ephesus?
Most likely it was someone appointed by John.
The church in Ephesus had an impressive heritage. The first angel or leader was the Apostle Paul. He planted the church and led it for a while (Acts 20:31). After him, it was possibly led by Aquila and Priscilla (Acts 18:19, 1 Cor. 16:19), or Timothy (1 Tim. 1:3), then Tychicus (Eph. 6:21, 2 Tim. 4:12). According to the early church fathers, John himself may have led the church. Since John was in Patmos when he wrote the letter, the current angel or bishop or pastor was probably someone appointed by John.
To sum up, John wrote a book (Revelation 4-22), attached some letters from Jesus (Revelation 2-3), and sent the whole package from Patmos to Ephesus and the other six cities. Alternatively, John brought the package back to the mainland when he returned from exile. After settling back in his home church in Ephesus, he arranged for the delivery of the package to the other six cities.
Seven letters for seven churches, but this does not mean each church received only one letter. The seven letters were general letters circulated among all the churches. Thus the Laodiceans heard what Jesus said to the Ephesians and vice versa. There were no secrets here.
In fact, the letters weren’t written exclusively for the seven churches but for the Church as whole. They were written for you and me. And they weren’t written to frighten you, but to encourage you.
Contrary to what you may have heard, the seven letters contain good news. They are full of wonderful pictures of Jesus.
Read the seven letters through the lens of grace and you will grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus. You will find practical promises to help you through just about any trial life may throw at you.
Extracted and adapted from Paul Ellis’s award-winning book, Letters from Jesus.
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