Angelic Court Reporting; Rev. 3:1
Revelation 3:1, "To the angel of the church in Sardis write: These are the words of him who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead."
This is addressed to "the angel if the church in Sardis." What does angel refer to in this text? Does this refer to a human messenger? Is this the pastor-teacher of each of these congregations? That is a common interpretation. Is this a literal angel? A general principle of interpretation is that we have to go with how a word is used in Scripture and letting the Scripture define itself, instead of having our reason or experience externally cause us to wrongly interpret the Scripture because it doesn't seem to make sense. We have to use our reason, of course. Scripture is always logical and rational because God is a God of logic and reason. But we have to use that logic within the framework of God's revelation.
The word "angel in Hebrew is malak, and in the Greek, AGGELOS [a)ggeloj], and both of these words have the same range of meanings. The first is that of a human messenger. For example, in Luke 9:52 we are told that Jesus sent certain messengers out, not to announce the gospel or to teach the Word but they were messengers sent with a mission to secure lodging for the Lord Jesus Christ when He was on His way to Jerusalem. So that in a sense is just an ordinary use of the word AGGELOS to refer to messengers. This is used, though, very rarely in the Bible. Another usage that is similar to this is its use in relationship to a prophet. A mistake that is often made is that because of this one statement in the Gospels where the where the word is used to refer to a prophet as a messenger therefore it must mean that in Revelation. For example, in Matthew 11:10 we have a quote from an Old Testament passage, Malachi 3:1, where malak is used to refer to a prophet: "This is the one about whom it is written: 'I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.'" Luke 9:52 is talking about human messengers whose role is to prepare something for the arrival of the Lord Jesus Christ. Matthew 11:10 is also talking about preparation. The ficus here isn't on the message of John the Baptist but his role in preparing the nation for the arrival of the Messiah, so the word AGGELOS is used. As a matter of fact this quotation from Malachi 3:1 is cited also in Mark and Luke, and this is the only time the word AGGELOS is used to refer to a human messenger that is related to giving any sort of revelation, or making any kind of pronouncements. The word is used over 170 times in the Bible but only six of those are translated "messenger." Three of those six are translations of this Malachi 3:1 passage. So this is an extremely rare use of the word when it refers in the Bible to a human messenger of any kind. Some want to make the use in Revelation refer to a pastor-teacher but it is just not documented in word usage anywhere. Furthermore, though the Malachi passage relates to an Old Testament prophet use, the term is never ever used in the New Testament to refer to a pastor-teacher.
We must follow some basic rules of interpretation. First, a word's meaning must follow its normal usage unless the context provides a strong reason for doing otherwise. Second, just because we can't provide a complete answer to why an angel would be involved in this process it doesn't mean that we should exclude the option. For example, we can't fully understand how angels can procreate with human beings but it is clear from the language used in Genesis 6:3 that when the sons of God took the daughters of men, that phrase "sons of God" always refers to angels everywhere it is used in the Old Testament. So just because I can't fully understand how that happened it doesn't mean that I should look for some other interpretation or some other meaning of the word. What we discover is that the angels carried out various functions in the plan of God.
In the book of Revelation the word AGGELOS is used 67 times, out of a total of 175 times in the whole New Testament. So a third of the usages of AGGELOS in the Bible are in the book of Revelation, and in all but eight of those 67 it refers to a supernatural being. The eight that are questioned refer to these angels of these seven churches. What we discover is that all of the other 59 are supernatural beings, so it would fit the usage in the book to say this refers to an angel, not a human messenger.
1) AGGELOS means a messenger in its primary use as supernatural intelligent beings that are used by God to serve Him in the administration of the universe. One thing that stands out is that they are used by God in the administration of blessing and judgment toward mankind or to individual human beings.
2) At some point after the creation of the universe Lucifer fell into arrogance. He lusted after the authorityof God and wanted to be thought of as God. He wanted that control, he wanted to run the universe. That is described in Isaiah 14:12-14; Ezekiel 28:11-15.
3) Somewhere after this God convened a trial and he sentenced these angels who followed Lucifer to a penalty of the lake of fire. Jesus refers to this is Matthew 25:41 where he says that the lake of fire was prepared for the devil and his angels. That verb "prepared" is a prefect active indicative, indicating that it currently is in existence. It is talking about the present reality of a completed past action. In other words, the lake of fire has already been fully established and completed in the past and it currently exists. What Jesus was saying here is that the penalty was set up and the lake of fire was established but for some reason the angels were not placed into the lake of fire. So this establishes the fact that something happened, some delay has occurred between the original guilty verdict on Satan and the angels and the final consummation of putting them in the lake of fire. We know that at the end of Revelation is when Satan and the angels are cast into the lake of fire, so why is there this delay? It is clear from various indications in Scripture that human history is directly related to this angelic rebellion that occurred in eternity past, that God has created the human race in order to demonstrate through us certain aspects of His character and His ability to rule the universe that can only be learned by experiment. The word "experiment" is used in the sense of something that demonstrates a known point. So what God is demonstrating in human history is His character, His love, His justice, His righteousness. It becomes clear from observing various texts throughout Scripture dealing with Satan and with Jesus and the virtues of the Christian life that what is at stake is first of all the attribute of love. God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son…" So Satan apparently has challenged God's character in the sense that, If you really loved us you couldn't sentence us you couldn't send us to eternity in the lake of fire. So another challenge that we infer from Scripture is that God's justice has been questioned. How can a just God enact such a harsh penalty? What God is demonstrating is just why this is so harsh. Poverty, war, disease, suffering, are the result of human beings doing the same thing that Satan did: "I want to be like God." We are all trying to be like God and there is such a fragmentation throughout history that has brought all of this chaos and disorder. So God is demonstrating in each generation, in each dispensation where he gives different amounts of information and different amounts of empowerment, that no matter how little or how much God gives to the human race, no matter what He does to help us, that unless there is total obedience to Him it all falls apart. In every dispensation the dispensation ends in chaos. No dispensation has ended on the ascendancy, it always ends in human failure. So God is demonstrating through this experiment of the human race that no creature can ever find peace, prosperity, happiness, apart from total dependence upon Him. So it is, as it were, a trial. When you go to trial lawyers come forth and present evidence, the data, case studies, in order to demonstrate their point. That is what God is doing in history. So the angels are involved, as it were, as witnesses in this enormous trial that God has set forth in human history. God is validating in a courtroom kind of setting His character and the fact that only He can rule the universe and Satan cannot.
Within this appeal trial concept we see certain legal notions brought forward, one of which is this concept of being a witness. For example, in John chapter one John the Baptist came forth as a witness to bear witness to the light. The verb is MARTUREO [marturew], the noun is MARTUROS [marturoj]. These are terms that are used in a courtroom, just as we use them today. John 3:11, "I tell you the truth, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony." 1 Corinthians 4:9, "For it seems to me that God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession, like men condemned to die in the arena. We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as to men." In other words, we are a visual evidence for the angels. They are watching us, learning things from us. This is what Peter says in 1 Peter 1:12, "It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you, when they spoke of the things that have now been told you by those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven. Even angels long to look into these things." Ephesians 3:10, "His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms." This makes it clear to us that angels are watching us. We are a test case, as it were.
4) Human history provides evidence in a legal court of appeal which establishes Satan's guilt, Adam's guilt, and God's integrity.
5) Angels observe human actions: 1 Corinthians 4:9; 1 Peter 1:12; 1 Timothy 5:21.
6) Angels observe as confirming witnesses to the giving of divine covenants. Whenever we enter into a contract we have to have a witness, as in the marriage contract. Witnesses give testimony to the validation of the covenant. The same thing happens with angels. Galatians 3:19. Angels were present at the giving of the Law as confirmatory witnesses. Cf. Deuteronomy 4:26. How does God use angels in the Bible? The first place we see angels is in Genesis chapter three: cherubs. After the fall God sets many cherubs with flaming swords to keep people away from Eden. Throughout the Scripture swords are used as an emblem of power over life and death. They are used by God to exercise judicial activity. The second time we see angels mentioned is in Genesis 19 when the two angels come with the pre-incarnate Christ to visit Abraham, and then they go to Sodom and Gomorrah to execute judgment. The next time they are seen in Genesis is on Jacob's ladder, and that was a picture of angels descending and ascending on the staircase, being used by God in the distribution of blessing related to the Abrahamic covenant. These covenants are legal documents. They involve witnesses, so the angels are involved. There are angels again at Mount Sinai to be witnesses to this legal document. Then the next time we see angels appear is in 2 Samuel 24 and the parallel passage in 1 Chronicles 21 where we read about the fact that an angel was sent by God to bring judgment on the Jews because David disobeyed God when he numbered the people. Then we get into Daniel where Daniel speaks about watchers, holy ones. Human history is being watch and in some sense guided by these angels—the decree of the watchers, Daniel 4:17, 23. In the New Testament in Acts 12:23 Herod Agrippa was struck by an angel of the Lord. What we see in all this is that the pattern throughout the Scripture from Genesis to revelation is that angels are used as witnesses of legal documents and they are used in the framework of executing judgment and blessing on human beings in general and on believers in specific.
The function of angels in the book of Revelation is to deliver God's judgments on mankind. They are witnesses of God's judicial enactments on the human race. What exactly are these seven letters to the seven churches? They are the judicial evaluations of these churches. So if we takes angels here as literal angels, and these are judicial documents evaluating the spiritual life of these congregations, then what we learn is that there is an angelic counterpart in this trial setting to each congregation that is keeping a record. They are angelic court recorders who are responsible for observing local congregations to write up evaluation reports. These evaluation reports are then utilized at the judgment seat of Christ in the future. So once we take this terms and understand it literally as true angels, then we explore what the Scripture says about the role of angels, it makes perfect sense to understand these as angels who are keeping a record that goes into the heavenly court documents on each congregation.