In Revelation 2 and 3 Jesus Christ sends a different message to each of seven churches in the Roman province of Asia (Asia Minor), part of modern Turkey.
The number seven shows completeness, just as seven days make a complete week. The seven messages of Revelation 2 and 3 paint us a comprehensive picture of trends that had already begun and would continue through the history of the Church—trends that would dramatically shape its future. The seven messages give us several good indications why the deep divisions among Christians developed and why this divisiveness continued to plague subsequent generations.
The seven congregations are represented as seven candlesticks in Revelation 1. Together they represent the Church and its mission to be the light of the world (Matthew 5:14).
Jesus stands in the midst of the seven congregations as the source of their light. He is always present and accessible. He will make good His promise always to be with His Church until the end of the age (Matthew 28:20). But, as is obvious from the messages to the seven congregations, not everyone who comes into the Church will remain faithful to Him.
The seven messages accurately reflect conditions in the Church as it existed in the first century. But they are also prophetic; they reveal some of the reasons for divisions in later centuries.
Each of the seven congregations receives a warning: "He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches" (Revelation 2:7-29; Revelation 3:6-22). Each congregation's message is a warning to the other six congregations: The same or similar conditions could develop among them.
In these messages Christ cites examples of obedience and disobedience among His followers, showing whom He will bless and whom He will reject. He lavishes compliments where approval is due. He criticizes the unrepentant for faults that threaten their relationship with Him.
The Church, when the messages were written, was suffering trials, persecution and imprisonment. Antipas, a local resident and martyr, had already been killed. Christ encourages the congregations not to lose heart, not to quit, not to compromise their beliefs, and—if necessary—to be willing to die for His sake. He reminds them to look ahead to the era of the Kingdom of God, when they will help Him rule the world in righteousness.
Jesus compliments the devoted members for their service, labor, patience, perseverance, endurance and faith. However, His criticisms and some of His other compliments are revealing. They show that the threat from within the Church was—and always will be—cause for concern.
Many members of these congregations had remained faithful in spite of many hardships and trials. But others had lost their first love. Some are lukewarm and spiritually blind—badly needing salve for their eyes so they can see their deteriorating spiritual condition. Christ warns them: "I am He who searches the minds and hearts. And I will give to each one of you according to your works" (Revelation 2:23).
Besides the growing problem of spiritually weak members, false prophets were infiltrating the congregations. Doctrinal errors were developing. The doctrine of Balaam, the teachings of the Nicolaitans and the beguiling influence of Jezebel are mentioned. Jesus tells the Christians in Thyatira: "Nevertheless I have a few things against you, because you allow that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess, to teach and seduce My servants to commit sexual immorality and eat things sacrificed to idols" (Revelation 2:20). This concerns the introduction of licentiousness—license to sin based on a wrong view of law and grace.
Dissent was developing from within. That was the real threat to the Church. Attending with members of these congregations were two types of people. The faithful members are those "who cannot bear those who are evil" and "have not known the depths of Satan" (Revelation 2:2-24). But the implication is clear that others could and did "bear those who were evil," and some were beginning to plumb "the depths of Satan."
We find a portrait of the Church near the end of the apostolic era. Satan had successfully infiltrated congregations raised up by the apostles. He lures people away from the faith of Christ, using false prophets to introduce his attitudes and teachings.
But, in spite of the devil's efforts, many of the brethren remained strong and faithful, holding fast to the apostles' teachings. Christ complimented them: "You have tested those who say they are apostles and are not, and have found them liars" (Revelation 2:2).
Others, who had lost interest, were beguiled by the heresies of Satan—a being "who deceives the whole world" (Revelation 12:9). One entire congregation was already spiritually dead, having only a few members who were not already too defiled to count as converted Christians. Satan had succeeded in taking over a large portion of Christianity.
So here we find, from Christ's own messages to His Church, that two distinct classifications of Christians emerged from the apostolic era. One group was faithful; the other consisted of people who, for many reasons, were moving further and further away from the true faith of God.
Many who were unfaithful ultimately departed from God's truth. "They went out from us," says John, "but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us; but they went out that they might be made manifest, that none of them were of us" (1 John 2:19).
Two distinct religions developed from the apostolic era—one faithful to Christ, the other deceived by Satan.