MESSAGE TO SARDIS
Sardis was the former capital of the ancient kingdom of Lydia. The city became known for its great riches, particular wealth from the gold of the Pactolus River that flowed through the city. It was one of those cities that had a glorious past, but at the time of the visions of Revelation, it had lost most of its former wealth and prestige.
The original ancient city was strongly fortified. It was a fortress citadel that towered above the Hermus Valley. It was surrounded by treacherous cliffs of loose rock. But the city lost its prowess under Croesus when Cyrus, king of Persia, besieged and took the city in 546 B.C. Historians believe that under the cover of darkness, the Persians took the city by scaling the cliffs that the residents of Sardis thought to be their defense against any invaders. Ironically, the same tactic was used again by Antiochus the Great when he took the city in 215 B.C.
By the time Jesus addressed this city in the context of the visions of Revelation, Sardis was under the control of the Roman Empire. Though the city was located on an important trade route of the Hermus Valley, it never regained its glory and riches of former years. It is interesting that in A.D. 26, the city sought to construct an imperial temple dedicated to Roman religion. But the request was denied by Rome, who favored Smyrna as the location of the temple.
It is significant that this once glorious city of ancient times, today lies in ruins. There is only a small Turkish village named Sart near the ruins of ancient Sardis. The once glorious city was fading into history as John penned the message of Jesus to the Christians of the area. Though the residents once dressed themselves in the luxury of white robes, all the former glamor was gone in a city that was now economically waning away into history as the ink of John’s letter was drying on papyrus.
A. Description of the Christ:
Jesus is now the One “who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars” (Rv 3:1). The meaning is control. He “has” the spirits and stars, and no one can take them from Him. Since He upholds all things by the word of His power (Hb 1:3), then we could correctly assume that Jesus had control of the future of the churches. And since He has all authority over all things (Mt 28:18), then every member of His universal organic body can relax. The fact that Jesus is in control means that nothing is out of control. We live in a divinely controlled world. Therefore, we must never conclude that the evil that is in the world is a signal that Jesus is not in control. All those disciples of the seven churches needed to remember this as they transition through the great tribulations that were coming.
In order to protect our free moral ability to choose, Jesus must allow both social and physical law to exist. If He did not, then the world would not be the best of all possible environments in which to prepare free-moral disciples for eternal dwelling. And if the world was free of all misfortune and evil, then we would have no desire to go to a better place. Therefore, because Jesus is in control, the disciples of Asia Minor, and all those throughout the Roman Empire, must remain faithful, even though it will seem that the whole world was against them.
B. Commendation for good works:
As everyone in the small town of Sardis knew everyone in town, so Jesus knows everything about the members of His body throughout the world. And in this case, the body members in Sardis were working, but something was indeed wrong with the performance of their works.
1. The working dead: The disciples in Sardis seem to have trusted in their works to the point that they believed their works to be meritorious in reference to their salvation. This is in the statement of judgment, “you have a name that you live, but you are dead” (Rv 3:1). Could it be that they took pride in the works that they were doing in the community, of which works the community glorified the good they were doing? But spiritually, and in reference to their relationship with Jesus, they were dead because they meritoriously trusted in their works?
Someone correctly said, “There are few things that are better organized than graveyards, but there is little life there.” The members of the body were organized in Sardis for good works, but it seems that the motive for their works produced deadness, not life. So we would throw up a yellow flag of caution before ourselves, lest we too be walking in the pride of our own activity, but dead in our spirituality. There will be no zombie disciples in heaven.
The disciples in Sardis may have become spiritually indifferent because they had little persecution in the city. In fact, their works gave them a name in the community as a group of people who ministered to the people. They had a name among the unbelievers in the community. They were certainly following the instructions of Jesus: “Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven” (Mt 5:16).
Jesus’ statement of judgment to the church of Sardis, however, seems to conflict with His statement in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5. The problem was that the good works of the church of Sardis brought glory to themselves, the church, and not to God. Christians need to be very careful about doing good deeds in order to bring glory to the church, that is, to themselves as the church. If the church of Sardis teaches any eternal lesson, it is the lesson that churches should never seek glory for themselves. If they do, then their good works are a sign of their narcissistic deadness.
In the following exhortations of Jesus to the Christians in Sardis, we must keep in mind that the majority was the problem. The minority “few names” were still faithful. But the majority were dead. They had a name that they lived, but they were dead (Rv 3:1).
Deadness comes in many forms. Before we leave the “living dead” problem of the Sardis disciples, we must insert probable causes of deadness that will help us identify ourselves as being dead. When Christians meet and stare at one another Sunday after Sunday, but rarely have in their midst anyone who is dripping wet from the waters of baptism, then we are dead. When during the public prayers that are voiced in the assembly, no plea is made to the Lord of harvest to send “reapers into the harvest” throughout the world, then we are dead (See Mt 9:38). When excitement is generated among the men to attend the men’s breakfast, but no encouragement is made to invite a friend, then we are dead. When we continually have lectureships to reaffirm our “old truths,” then we are dead. When mission seminars are conducted and only former missionaries show up, then we are dead. When the church bulletin is filled with news about ourselves, but no mention is made of the gospel being preached to the lost, then we are dead. When no visiting evangelists are allowed to address the church in order to remind us of our mission, then we are dead. When all the programs of the disciples are for the purpose of “getting the members to know one another,” then we are dead. Narcissistic religioisty is simply deadness playing itself out in church games. According to Jesus’ definition of the deadness of the Sardis church, the flame had already flickered, but only a “few names” realized that darkness was looming over their existence.
As residents of Africa we would alert the rest of the world concerning the church of America that has a name that it lives. But according to the church growth statistics over the last forty years, there is a decline in “church attendance” every year. It is the “Sardis syndrome” being continentally played out in a movement that is running out of oil. There are, however, a “few names” still there. But our exhortation to the rest of the world is to get on with the work of Jesus to take the gospel into all the world. If we are looking for mission leadership from America, that lampstand is almost gone. As the flame flickers in America, we must burn bright in Africa, and India and China. The “Sardis syndrome” plays itself out over a century or two. In the American culture, it began in the early 1800s. It is now coming to an end as churches claim “to have a name that they live, but are truly dead” in reference to preaching the gospel to the world (Rv 3:1). We all remember the great mission force that came out of Europe. We also know how it died. America is on that same road. And if we might wonder why, then Jesus left a message for us with His evaluation of the Laodicea church that follows in Revelation 3:14-22.
2. Watch: “Watch” here may mean “wake up.” Those who are caught in the sleep of spiritual death do not realize that they are spiritually dead. Since they have created a “Christianity” after their own desires, they believe everything is fine. But according to the standards of the One after whom they call themselves, they are dead.
In the admonition to watch, Jesus may have been reflecting on the past history of Sardis. On two different occasions the city was conquered by armies that scaled the cliffs around the city. And in A.D. 12 the city was destroyed by an inexpedient earthquake. The citizens had trusted in their location, but the irony was that their location on cliffs was what lured them into a sense of false security. The exhortation to “be watchful,” therefore, was certainly a reflection on their history, but also a reminder not to trust in the deception that one can hand over the security of his eternal destiny to a good name.
Christians must be alert. They must be aware of who they are and where they are going. They must not forget their purpose as the disciples of the first Missionary. Therefore, “Awake you who sleep and arise from the dead, and Christ will give you light” (Ep 5:14). Later in the letter, John would say to all the churches, “Behold, I am coming as a thief. Blessed is he who watches and keeps his garments, lest he walk naked and they see his shame” (Rv 16:15). The consequences of not being watchful would be as Jesus exhorted His disciples during His ministry:
Now know this, that if the master of the house had known what hour the thief would come, he would not have allowed his house to be broken into (Lk 12:39).
In reference to the coming of Jesus, either “in time,” or at the “end of time,” Christians must always be prepared. Jesus will come as a thief, which means that there is no possible way to determine when He is coming. The word “watch” simply means to be prepared at all times. The word “thief” means that we simply do not know when He will come. The point is that we should not become so involved in the affairs of this world that we are lured into complacency concerning the coming judgment of Jesus.
Jesus’ exhortation in this context is similar to that which He gave to His disciples in reference to the imminent destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, which took place about forty years after the following statement:
But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven nor the Son, but My Father only (Mt 24:36).
It does not take a great deal of interpretation to understand correctly what Jesus meant when He used the word “watch.” In the context of the statement above, Bible interpreters need to keep reading Matthew’s record in chapter 24 of Jesus’s statement. In verse 43 Jesus explained that if the head of the house knew when the thief was coming, “he would have watched and would not have allowed his house to be broken into (Mt 24:43).
The exhortation to “watch” assumes that we do not know the time of the “coming of the Lord” in time, or at the end of time. “Watch” means that it is useless to speculate concerning times and seasons in reference to the coming of the Lord. All the senseless predictions concerning the imminent final coming of the Lord are simply the nonsense of prognosticators who seek a following through their challenged understanding of the Bible. What their predictions of a specific date of Jesus’ coming does, is encourage people to live in sin until the day before the supposed coming.
The New Testament does not teach the imminent final coming of Christ. The word “imminent” means immediate. In other words, no New Testament writer wrote that Jesus was coming in His final coming within the lifetime of the first century Christians. If the Holy Spirit inspired the New Testament writers to write such, then He wrote to deceive the people into believing something that was false. We know it would have been false because here we are today, over two thousand years later. Now if the Holy Spirit did not inspire the early writers to lead the immediate recipients of the New Testament letters to believe that Jesus was coming in their lifetime, then the New Testament does not teach such today. Therefore, if anyone would use the New Testament to calculate some supposed final coming of Jesus, then we know that that person is truly a false prophet. The next time we hear of someone using the book of Revelation to prognosticate some imminent final coming of Jesus, then we know that person is speaking nonsense. If we are eager to belief such self-proclaimed prophets, then we are immature children. At least this is what Paul said in the following statement concerning the reason why we study our Bibles:
Then we will no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of teaching, by the trickery of men in cleverness to the deceitfulness of error (Ep 4:14).
3. Known for works: Too often, the good worker will trust in his works, thinking that he is accumulating points in heaven that will tip the scales toward his salvation. Deep inside, many people think that they can do good works in order to offset sin. But this cannot happen. No amount of good deeds can atone for one sin. The theology of works for sin cannot be true, for we would never know how many works we must do in order to atone for our sins. Therefore, since works cannot atone for sin, then we must rely on that about which Paul wrote, “… knowing that a man is not justified by works of law, but by the faith of Christ Jesus …” (Gl 2:16). We must look to Jesus and the grace that He offers from the cross (Ti 2:11). Even if one has a good name he must be on his knees in thanksgiving for the cross.
Because no man can keep law perfectly, then by “works of law no flesh will be justified” (Gl 2:16). So if we cannot keep law perfectly because we all sin (Rm 3:23), and no good work can atone for sin, then on what basis will any Christian be saved? There is only one simple answer: “For by grace you are saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God” (Ep 2:8). Could those in Sardis have forgotten this point?
4. Imperfect works: Were the good works of the disciples in Sardis driven by an appreciation for grace, or were they continued in order to maintain the good name for the church in the community? If they trusted in their good name because of the good works, then they were in trouble. The problem with a good name among those who are of the world is that it is the world patting one on the back. When one feels pats, therefore, it is often good to turn around and see who is doing the patting.
Jesus judged, “I have not found your works completed before My God” (Rv 3:2). The Greek word for “completed” means “brought to a full.” It may have been that they did not complete what they started. Their good intentions never realized finality. It may have been that they were caught up in the activity, but forgot the purpose for which they were striving as disciples. Whatever the case, their works were not found to have completed that for which our good works are to accomplish in our spiritual mental attitude. If our good works digress into promoting a good name before the world, then we could be in fellowship with the church of Sardis.
There is more than one exhortation to the disciples in Sardis. Each one explains an area of spirituality on which they must concentrate if they are going to prevent the flickering flame of their lamp from being snuffed out.
1. “Things … ready to die”: We are not told the things that were ready to die. But the implication is that they as a body of Christ were dying. The flame was flickering. Dead churches that trust in their works, are the walking dead in reference to their influence for Jesus in their areas. Spiritual strengthening is in order for legalistic workers to be restored to Jesus.
The legalist realizes that there is an emptiness to his efforts, for he is working for merit and not in appreciation of grace. Sooner or later, the meritorious disciple works himself into frustration, and then dies if he is not willing to step outside his box of legal theology. He burns out on his own zeal to accumulated what he believed were points upon which he could base his salvation. He is thus dead while he works, and will come to the second death if he does not return to the grace of God that was revealed on the cross (Ti 2:11). Simply defined, legalism is one depending on his own performance for his salvation, whereas, grace means that one must depend entirely on God, and in doing so, work in appreciation of God’s grace.
2. “Remember”: Remember how it was when you first came forth from the tomb of water with Jesus? If one’s zeal at that time was more than his zeal in the present, then it is time to do what Jesus said, “Remember how you had received and heard. Hold fast and repent” (Rv 3:3). They had fallen from their spiritual zeal for the Lord. The exhortation is that they hold fast to what they had, and return to the zeal they had when they were new Christians.
This is especially a problem as disciples grow older. They lose their zeal. They start to lay back and trust in past deeds. They seek to die on couches. They need to remember that the Greek word “remember” in this text is present imperative in tense. In other words, Jesus was giving a mandate that they “keep on remembering” in order to keep on doing. There is no time now for rest. We must save our rest for heaven. We are certain that this exhortation from Jesus was not directed only to the youth among the Sardis disciples. The old must always remember the ministry of the eighty-some-year old Anna at the time of the birth of Jesus. She was not at home in a rocking chair, but at the temple where she was into the ministry of prayer and fasting (Lk 2:36,37).
There is no greater written commentary on the problem that faced the disciples in Sardis than that which was written to those of the Hebrew audience who also had been Christians for some time. They, too, had allowed complacency to creep into their lives. Every disciple who has been in the faith for some time, must carefully read through the following exhortation from the Holy Spirit:
But remember the former days in which, after you were enlightened, you endured a great conflict of sufferings, partly while you were made a spectacle both by reproaches and tribulations, and partly while you became companions with those who were so treated. For you had compassion on me in my chains, and took joyfully the seizure of your goods, knowing that you have for yourselves in heaven a better and enduring possession. Therefore, do not cast away your confidence, which has a great reward. For you have need of endurance, so that after you have done the will of God, you may receive the promise (Hb 10:32-36)
4. “Repent”: Repent means that they were wrong where they were. Repent means that they were once right, but now had gone wrong. They had fallen. Those who have lost their zeal for Jesus need to repent. Disciples who have laid down their desires to manifest their appreciation for the grace of God need to repent. Those who are trusting in their past works as a meritorious treasure by which they will buy their way into eternal glory, need to repent. One must ask himself if he is a “stony ground disciple.”
Now these are the ones who are sown on stony ground, who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with gladness. But they have no root in themselves, and so endure only for a while. Afterward, when affliction or persecution arise because of the word, they immediately fall away (Mk 4:16,17).
Jesus’ warning is that if they did not repent, “I will come on you as a thief and you will not know what hour I will come on you” (Rv 3:3). Jesus can come in time as a thief on those who are not prepared for Him. Such was the case in His coming in time on the unbelieving Jews who did not accept Him as the Son of God. Listen to Paul’s warning that he personally taught the disciples in Thessalonica:
For you yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night. For when they say, “Peace and safety,” then sudden destruction comes upon them as birth pains upon a woman with child. And they will not escape (1 Th 5:2,3; see 2 Pt 3:10).
D. Commendation of the few:
Now here is something that should make all of us straighten up and pay attention. It is the phrase, “a few names” (Rv 3:4). So we are all personally thinking, “Am I in that ‘few names’?” Jesus identifies the “few names” who are His. These can be assured that they are in good standing with Him.
1. “Few names … who have not defiled their garments”: This statement is made on the background of a city that formerly prided itself in social aristocracy. Fine clothing was a signal of high social standing, and thus, those who wanted to be of high social standing dressed themselves accordingly. But a garment that was stained would never be accepted. It would manifest to all that one was not what he or she pretended to be. In Sardis, the majority of the disciples, in contrast to “the few names,” had stained their souls with spiritual death. They were not in “high social standing” with Jesus.
The church in Sardis had now digressed to the point that the norm was spiritual lethargy. “The few names” remained faithful, but they remained faithful among the majority who had given up their total allegiance to Jesus. When the majority of the disciples in any region have identified the “Christianity” of their area to be lukewarm, then it is difficult for the group as a whole to repent. And, it is extremely difficult for those Christians who are on fire for the Lord to survive among those who have fallen into the sin of apathy. The walking dead soon devour the living.
Nevertheless, “the few names” must remember that Jesus knows who they are. The “few names” need to remember the Holy Spirit’s exhortation:
Nevertheless, the firm foundation of God stands, having this seal. “The Lord knows those who are His.” And, “let everyone who names the name of the Lord depart from iniquity” (2 Tm 2:19).
This was both the promise and call for repentance that Jesus makes personally in Revelation to those who have soiled their garments. The faithful few needed to remember that Jesus knew who they were. But the unfaithful many also needed to know that Jesus also knew who they were, and that they were in danger of being puffed out.
2. “They are worthy”: If “the few names” are worthy, then the unfaithful majority is not worthy. Grace covers a lot of sin, but in this case, those who do not repent of their deadness, do not stand worthy before God. Grace will not cover spiritual lethargy. Grace will not clean a stained garment that is willingly worn.
By the time John wrote what he saw in the vision of chapter 7, it seems that a sifting was about to take place among the seven churches of Asia. The tribulations to come were going to clean up the church. Only those who purified themselves through the blood of the Lamb would make it through the tribulation.
And one of the elders answered, saying to me, “Who are these who are dressed in white robes, and from where did they come?” Then I said to him, “Sir, you know.” And he said to me, “These are those coming out of the great tribulation. And they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb (Rv 7:13,14).
These were those of a “pure and undefiled religion before God” (Js 1:27). In order to remain white in the blood of the Lamb, there was a condition. John explained,
But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin (1 Jn 1:7).
If there is no “walking,” then there is no cleansing by the blood. The call of Jesus to the majority of the church of Sardis was that they start walking in the light. They needed to return to obedience. Only the blood of Jesus will make one worthy. And one can access that blood only by an obedient walk in the light of Jesus’ word. For the righteous who walk in the light, they must never forget where they are in the fold of God’s people. They are safe, not on the basis of meritorious works, but on the basis of grace.
E. An endearing promise:
The “few names” must never forget the promise of God. They must remember, “I will not blot his name from the book of life” (Rv 3:5). It is within the assurance of this promise that the faithful few can find solitude, as Isaiah did concerning the promises of God:
I will greatly rejoice in the Lord. My soul will be joyful in my God, for He has clothed me with the garments of salvation. He has covered me with the robe of righteousness as a bridegroom decks himself with ornaments and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels (Is 61:10).
In the finality of all things, we yearn to hear the words of Jesus: “Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Mt 25:34). And then, Jesus promises, “I will confess his name before My Father and before His angels” (Rv 3:5). This is what we want to hear. And for the “few names” in Sardis who had not defiled their garments with apathy, it seems almost superfluous for Jesus to say, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Rv 3:6). The “few names” want to hear Jesus. It is those caught in the religious quagmire of indifference who need to be exhorted to hear. We know now that the statement to listen was made directly to those who had defiled their garments. It was a call for their repentance. But for the “few names” who had not defiled their garments, the fact that their garments were not stained indicated that they were listening very, very closely to everything that Jesus, through the apostles, had said (See Jn 14:26:16:13). Jesus promised, “If you continue in My word, then you are truly My disciples” (Jn 8:31). The “few names” were continuing in the word of Jesus.
Those who remained faithful in Sardis were promised “I will not blot his name from the book of life” (Rv 3:5). The two sisters in Christ, Euodia and Syntyche, were written in the book of life (Ph 4:3). The “book of life” was a Roman register of the citizens of a particular city. It was a register of the living citizens, and thus, when one died, his name was taken off the register. The book of life was used metaphorically by Jesus to reassure the faithful disciples that they were safe. The promise to the faithful Christian is that his name is written in the book of life. When he dies, his name in the book of life is the guarantee that he will transition into eternal glory. At the final judgment, if one’s name is not found in the book of life, then Revelation 20:15 will transpire: “And whoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire.”
The metaphor of the book of life is significant in reference to understand that if one is saved through his obedience to the gospel, then his name can still be blotted out of the book of life at any time he might become unfaithful. The fact that one’s name can be blotted out of the book of life is totally contrary to the teaching of some who say that once one is saved, then he is always saved regardless of his behavior. We must keep in mind that the Revelation 20:15 passage states that one’s name must be there at the time of the final judgment. But the Revelation 3:5 teaches that one’s name can be blotted out of the book of life before he gets to the final judgment. It is crucial, therefore, that once one is saved at the washing of the waters of baptism (At 22:16), then he must remain faithful in ministry in order to remain among “the few names.”
“The Lord knows how to deliver the godly,” but He also knows how “to reserve the unrighteous under punishment for the day of judgment” (2 Pt 2:9). There were some in Sardis who had “escaped the pollutions of the world through the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,” but they were “again entangled” in the affairs of the world (2 Pt 2:20). Their garments became stained with sin. Peter wrote of such Christians, “It has happened to them according to the true proverb, ‘A dog returns to his own vomit,’ and ‘a sow that was washed, to her wallowing in the mire’” (2 Pt 2:22).
If one would deceive himself into thinking that once he is saved through the grace of God, that this grace gives him a license to stain his garment, then he should seriously consider the fact that there will be no stained garments in heaven. We must always be cautious. “For certain men have crept in [the fellowship of the church] unnoticed … ungodly men who turn the grace of our God into licentiousness …” (Jd 4). Lest we fall from this grace, we must commit ourselves “to Him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you faultless before the presence of His glory with exceeding joy …” (Jd 24). Those in Sardis whose garments were stained were in danger of being erased from the book of life, and thus, snuffed out.
[Schedule for next lecture: March 22]