"I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead."
When Jesus speaks to the seven churches in Asia Minor, he usually commends these struggling churches before giving them a word of rebuke. Not so with the church in Sardis. (The city of Sardis is located some 50 miles to the east of Smyrna and just to the north of Philadelphia.) This congregation receives only a stern rebuke. "Wake up" (Rev 3:2). Jesus warns them, or else he will suddenly come upon them in judgment (Rev 3:3). Although the church in Sardis thinks it is alive, in reality it is near death (Rev 3:1b). This congregation has stopped preaching the gospel in order to make peace with the world. It is no longer a faithful witness to God's saving mercy in Jesus Christ. Therefore, this church must wake up and repent, or else face the wrath of Jesus Christ who is the Lord of his church (Rev 3:1a).
Using the template and pattern for all 7 churches, an overview of the church in Sardis may be:
- The Church: Dead (Rev 3:1b).
- The Christ: The Judge who knows our real condition (Rev 3:1a).
- The Commendation: NONE.
- The Condemnation: False impression of being alive (Rev 3:1).
- The Command: Wake up! (Rev 3:2)
- The Consummation: "I will never blot out the name of that person from the book of life" (Rev 3:5).
Dead and unaware, while thinking she is alive. Christ's knowledge of the true state of affairs is made immediately clear when Jesus says to them, "I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead" (Rev 3:1b). The church in Sardis has a very positive and favorable reputation, not only in the eyes of its own members, but perhaps, in the estimation of neighboring churches as well. But appearances can be deceiving. The reality is that despite this church's reputation for life and vitality, the church in Sardis is not alive at all. In fact, it is dead. What is worse is that this church is not even aware of its true condition. Because of this grandiose over-estimation of itself, the church in Sardis is indifferent about its true condition. Its reputation for life has gotten in the way of any honest self-evaluation. Just as king Croesus once thought the city to be completely safe from attack, so too, the church in Sardis thinks it is alive. But the Lord of the church knows it is not.
Indifferent to the worldliness around her. This deplorable condition explains why this church receives no commendation, and only a strong and direct imperative: "Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your deeds complete in the sight of my God" (Rev 3:2). The problem facing this church is that its members have become so lethargic or indifferent to the worldliness around them that they that they might as well be dead. To demonstrate a proper level of watchfulness, the Christians in Sardis must strengthen that which is about to die, their faith in Christ.
No longer a faithful witness to the gospel. The meaning of this exhortation to become watchful by strengthening that which remains, but is about to die, is explained a bit further in the final clause of verse 2: "I have not found your deeds complete." At the very least, this implies that the church in Sardis began in faithfulness to Christ and for a time, served as a faithful witness of the gospel to those around them. But something happened which has not only impeded this church's progress, but has virtually snuffed out this congregation's witness to those around them. Thus, their deeds–that which remains, and which hasn't yet died but is about to–are not yet complete. These Christians have not brought what was begun to its fruition. What was started, was never finished. The situation is such that while this church has apparently gained human approval (and has the appearance of life), it has not gained God's approval and is about to die.
Witnessing to the gospel no longer taught or expected. Nothing is mentioned about this congregation being persecuted or suffering because of their confession of the Lordship of Christ. While Sardis was not filled with pagan temples or guilds to the same degree as some of the other cities, the city was nevertheless every bit as pagan as the rest of Asia Minor. The fact that these Christians were lethargic to the point of death, seems to indicate that this particular congregation had somehow made peace with the paganism around them. This would explain the lack of suffering and the lack of persecution. The reference to being dead or near death, apparently, stems from the fact that this congregation had ceased to be a witness to the gospel of Christ–a fault which seems to center in the teaching and preaching conducted here. Indeed, when Jesus rebukes this church, he refers back to the opening vision of "the seven spirits...and the seven stars," all indicative of the church's witness to those non-Christians around them. It seems that this church compromised with the surrounding culture so badly, that it ceased to proclaim the gospel to those within as well as outside the church. What looked like signs of life and success–probably good attendance and material blessing–could not disguise the fact that this church had failed to be a light in the darkness. This church was dying, if not already dead.
What is the solution to this situation? "Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; hold it fast, and repent" (Rev 3:3a). Like the church in Ephesus, Jesus exhorts this church to go back to doing those things it had done at the beginning (Rev 2:5), when it was first established in the city. Three specific things are prescribed.
- "Remember what you have received and heard" when the church was first founded, i.e. the message of the gospel. This was the message that gave them birth and established their witness to the pagans around them.
- "Hold it (the gospel) fast." Most references in the NT speak of the gospel as something which is believed (Rom 1:5; Jn 6:29). So here, John must mean something along the lines of behaving in accordance with the gospel's gracious promises. Those who say they trust in Jesus for their salvation, must live like it, in distinction from the paganism around them. In other words, Christians in this church are to live out what had been taught to them earlier. They are to believe the gospel, i.e., the Christian faith. They are to live lives of gratitude before God and reject the worldly influences they have apparently tolerated. They are to once again become witnesses of Christ to those around them.
- "Repent." They must immediately change their minds about their present course. They must wake up and realize their precarious situation, acknowledge and confess their sinful behavior. If they do not do what Christ prescribes, their fate (which is in his hand) is sealed. "If you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you" (Rev 3:3b).
A promise to the true believers in the church. Jesus says, "Yet you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes" (Rev 3:4a). This is a reference to the fact that some of the members of this church have not given into pagan influences. They have not stained their garments (the imputed righteousness they received in Christ) by participating in secular practices such as sexual immorality or pagan feasting. Those who remain faithful, who have not compromised their confession of faith, are given the following promise by Jesus. "They will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy. He who overcomes will, like them, be dressed in white. I will never blot out his name from the book of life, but will acknowledge his name before my Father and his angels" (Rev 3:4b-5).
The link between purity in the present and white robes in the future shows that the life motivated by hope is shaped by the goal for which we wait. Because victors hope for white wedding garments, they strive for purity here and now. "We know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. 3 All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure" (1 Jn 3:2-3).
One of the most glorious promises in the entire book of Revelation. Sinners have their filthy garments removed and replaced by spotless white garments provided to them by Christ himself. Those who walk with Christ by faith do indeed overcome. They are counted as worthy. They are given white garments which reflect Christ's perfect righteousness and that purity being worked in them through the indwelling Holy Spirit. What is more, Jesus promises never to remove their names from the book of life. He will acknowledge all of his people before the father. He has made them to be a kingdom of priests, redeeming them through the shedding of his precious blood. None of them will slip through his hands.
Plunging into idolatry after swearing an oath before God. The warning Jesus gives contains several loud echoes from the OT. Exodus 32, and the account of Moses coming down off Mountain Sinai only to find Israel celebrating around the golden calf. God had just revealed his holy law. The people had already sworn the oath of covenant ratification, saying "we will do everything the Lord has commanded." Now when Moses comes down the mountain and returns to the people, he finds them singing and dancing around an idol. Their behavior risks making Israel a laughing stock among the nations. Israel's witness to the nations around her of God's covenantal blessing is compromised by such actions. For such idolatry, the Lord orders the death of some 3,000 people, to be cut down by the sword.
Moses pleads for his people. It is in his office as covenant mediator, that Moses pleads for the people of Israel before the Lord. "Oh, what a great sin these people have committed! They have made themselves gods of gold. But now, please forgive their sin—but if not, then blot me out of the book you have written" (Ex 32:31). This book was the so-called book of the census in which the twelve tribes of Israel and their respective inheritances were recorded. Because of Israel's great sin against God, those who participated in the worship of the golden calf are summarily eased from the book, eliminating them from receiving the promised inheritance. Indeed the Lord declares: "Whoever has sinned against me I will blot out of my book" (Ex 32:33). These individuals and their children are thereby removed from the covenant and its blessings.
How can the mere appearance of one's name in the book of life counterbalance the damning evidence contained in the books of our deeds (Rev 20:12)? This book belongs to the Lamb who has been slain in sacrifice for those listed in it (Rev 13:8). Because of this Jesus is able to assert that his victors' names will never be erased from the book. Only for those whose names are in this book will the last judgment mean joyful vindication rather than shameful destruction (Rev 20:15), and only these may enter the new Jerusalem (Rev 21:27), for their robes are whitened by the blood of the Lamb (Rev 7:14). The Book of Life contains the names of all of the elect, all those whom God has chosen to save in the person of his Son. These are the people for whom Christ has died, who are called to faith and who are reckoned as righteous. But like Israel in the desert of Sinai, those professing and so-called Christians in Sardis who have made peace with the spirit of this age, and who have engaged in idolatrous behavior, have completely compromised their witness to unbelievers, just as Israel had done. Their state is so bad that Jesus describes them as dead. These people receive no such promise from Christ. They were never numbered among the elect and although they profess faith in Christ, they are not his. Like those in Israel whose names were blotted out of the book of the census, those in the church in Sardis who fail to repent will discover that their names were never written in the Book of Life.
What can we to learn from Sardis? Our God is a jealous God who will not tolerate people who name the name of Christ but who also engage in spiritual adultery, idolatry and who participate in pagan religious practices. Christ's church is to be a light to the world, not a place where Christians make peace with the spirit of the age. Whenever a church–or a denomination for that matter–becomes like the church in Sardis, avoids preaching the gospel because of the scandal of the cross, and thinks of itself as alive when in actuality it is quite dead, that church risks coming under the judgment of Christ himself. For Jesus founded his church upon the preaching of the gospel. His church is that place where all those he has redeemed come to hear his word, to be comforted by the fact that our names are written in the Book of Life never to be erased, and to hear the glorious promise that in Christ we are worthy, in Christ we overcome, in Christ we wear white garments of his perfect righteousness.
Without these things, we are not a church. We are dead. But with these things clearly before, we are a light to a fallen world which lives in darkness. "Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches." Amen!
What impression do you give to others, and what is your self-estimation of yourself?
- What do"the seven spirits of God" refer to (Rev 3:1; 5:6; Isa 11:2-5; Zech 3:9; 4:2, 10)? What about "the seven stars" (Rev 1:16, 20)?
- Why is there no commendation for the church at Sardis (Rev 3:2)? Why is the church "dead?" What did Jesus see that caused him to say this (Rev 3:4)? Have you ever been spiritually dead? What was that time in your life like?
- What does it mean to "wake up" or "strengthen" (Rev 3:2; 16:15; Mt 24:42-43; 25:13; Mk 13:34-35, 37; Lk 12:37; Col 4:2; 1 Th 5:6, 10; 1 Pet 5:8)? How can you wake up if you find yourself asleep or on the verge of death (Ps 139:23-24)? What are "the things" that remain which Jesus calls the church to strengthen? Why? How important are "completed" works (John 17:4; 19:30; Rev 21:6)?
- What are they to "remember"? "Repent" (Rev 3:3a)? What is the "it" they are to "keep?" What are the consequences (Rev 3:3b)? What does it mean to have "unsoiled" garments (Rev 3:4; 19:8; 22:14; Jas 1:27; Jude 23)? Are we ever "worthy" of salvation (Eph 2:8-9; Tit 3:4-7)?
- What is the "book of Life" (Rev 3:5)? How do you know that your name is in the book of Life and will never be erased (Rev 13:8)? Will God erase the names of believers who don't overcome? Why or why not (1 Cor 9:27; 2 Tim 2:12; Rev 2:17, 26; 3:12, 21)?
- What does "confess" mean (Mt 7:23; 10:32-33; Jn 9:22; 12:42; Rom 10:9; 1 Tim 6:12; Tit 1:16; Heb 13:15; 1 John 2:23; 4:2-3, 15; 2 John 7)?
- Johnson, Dennis E. Triumph of the Lamb: A Commentary on Revelation. Pillipsburg: P&R Publishing Company. 2001.
- Sermons on the Book of Revelation. Kim Riddlebarger, Sr. Pastor, Christ Reformed Church. Anaheim.
- The Revelation of Jesus Christ (Rev 1:1-20).
- Christian, Listen Up! (Rev 2:1-3:22).
- Discernment Without Love (Rev 2:1-7): To the Church in Ephesus.
- The Riches of Poverty (Rev 2:8-11): To the Church in Smyrna.
- Remaining True to Jesus Yet Compromising and Defiled (Rev 2:12-17): To the Church in Pergamum.
- Love Without Discernment (Rev 2:18-29): To the Church in Thyatira.
- Keeping God's Word With Little Strength (Rev 3:7-13): To the Church in Philadelphia.
- The Poverty of Riches (Rev 3:14-22): To the Church in Laodicea.