This series was first published in January 2019. -ed.
How would you assess the current state of the church? Many believers would deliver a despairing report. Cowardice, compromise, and heresy abound in the guise of church growth strategies and contextualization. Religious broadcasting is overrun with charlatans and salesmen. And the political correctness juggernaut continues to infiltrate congregations.
Yet Jesus Christ is still building His church and exercising sovereign control over it. In Revelation 1:16, John sees that Christ is holding something in His hand: “In His right hand He held seven stars.” In verse 20, Jesus clarifies who these stars represent: “The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches.”
That common translation has led to significant confusion and disagreement among scholars and commentators. It’s true that the word angeloi can mean angels—but think through the implications of that reading. Why would Christ give John a message to be relayed to angels who would then deliver it to the church? The Lord certainly could find a less circuitous means of communication with His heavenly host. Moreover, Scripture never gives angels authority over the church. Hebrews 1:14 describes them as ministering servants, not leaders.
John’s explanation in verse 20 makes much simpler and clearer sense if we read angeloi as “messengers,” as it is translated elsewhere (see Luke 7:24; 9:52; James 2:25). In that sense, then, John is most likely referring to pastors or leaders from each of the seven churches. It’s entirely possible that John was able to receive visitors, and that these men would carry God’s Word back to their churches. (We know someone performed that function. How else would we be reading Revelation today?)
Scripture doesn’t tell us who these men were specifically, but the message of John’s vision is clear: The Lord will always have His chosen shepherds. What a great comfort it is that He holds them in the palm of His hand.
The situation in Asia Minor was bleak. Spiritual defection was well underway in some of these congregations. Persecution had come—some had fled, and others compromised with the world. But in the midst of it all, the Lord still had His faithful men serving in His church.
The same is true throughout every generation of the church. It’s easy to get discouraged when we see weak, foolish pastors leading their churches astray, when there is a noticeable absence of godly leadership. It’s all the more heart-rending when an unfaithful shepherd makes a shipwreck of his faith through immorality and ungodliness. We’re right to be grieved when hirelings and false teachers make a mockery of the gospel. But we must not forget that the church is always under the sovereign care of Christ. He will always have faithful shepherds that He gifts, calls, and sets apart to care for His sheep.
Further, He will not ignore those who bring a blight upon His church through wickedness and false teaching. John’s vision continues in Revelation 1:16 with an illustration of the Lord’s sovereign protection for His church. He writes, “And out of His mouth came a sharp two-edged sword.” This is no dainty dagger. This is the devastating broadsword of God’s truth. Later in Revelation, God will deploy it against the ungodly (Revelation 19:15, 21). But here, the Lord is wielding it in judgment against enemies and threats within the church. In His letter to the church at Pergamum—a church overrun with heresy and false teachers—Christ warns, “I am coming to you quickly, and I will make war against them with the sword of my mouth” (Revelation 2:16). He uses the sword of His truth to prune away any threats to the purity of His church.
Hebrews 4:12 reminds us of the lethal potency of God’s truth: “For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” This is the Lord’s weapon of choice against deceivers, charlatans, and every false teacher who makes mockery or merchandise of His gospel. He wields the sword of His Word against the enemies of His people so that nothing will prevent Him from building His church (Matthew 16:18).
(Adapted from Christ’s Call to Reform the Church)