The Church at Sardis
And now as we move into our time of studying God’s word, can anyone remember what church we looked at two week ago? I know that it’s been a while, because we had our business meeting last Wednesday. Yes, thank you. We studied the church at Thyatira, and this church was sinking deeper and deeper into sin, to the point that it seemed as if the church was becoming overrun by them. And if we tried to imagine these seven churches as a sort of stock market, it would look something like this: Ephesus would be our starting point, and the stock would be moderately high. And then as we move on to Smyrna, things go even higher, because the Smyrnan people were exceptionally faithful in the midst of intense persecution. But then things would take a turn for the worse as we looked at Pergamos, because while Pergamos was mostly faithful, there were some heretics in the church. And then as we continue on, things would become even more desperate with the church at Thyatira, because as I said a minute ago, the church had been overrun by heretics who Jesus described as “Jezebels.” And then tonight, as we study the church at Sardis, our stock market of these seven churches bottoms out in the Revelation version of the Great Depression. And so to see what is going on in the city of Sardis, we need to read Revelation chapter three, verses one through six. So please turn in your Bibles to Revelation three, starting in verse one.
“And unto the angel of the church in Sardis write; ‘These things saith He that hath the seven Spirits of God, and the seven stars; “I know thy works, that thou hast a name that thou livest, and art dead. Be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die: for I have not found thy works perfect before God. Remember therefore how thou hast received and heard, and hold fast, and repent. If therefore thou shalt not watch, I will come on thee as a thief, and thou shalt not know what hour I will come upon thee. Thou hast a few names even in Sardis which have not defiled their garments; and they shall walk with me in white: for they are worthy. He that overcometh, the same shall be clothed in white raiment; and I will not blot out his name out of the book of life, but I will confess his name before My Father, and before His angels. He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches.”’”
Let’s pray before we study this text.
Before we look at what Christ says to the city, I think it would be helpful to take a quick look at the city of Sardis itself. The city of Sardis may have been the most important of the seven cities we are looking at, as far as political importance is concerned. Sardis was the capital city of the ancient Lydian Empire, but it was conquered repeatedly by the Greeks, the Persians, Alexander the Great, and finally the Romans. But despite all of these conquerings, Sardis continued to be a very important city. It was a city known for its great wealth, because it was situated along an important trade route. And interestingly enough, this is the first of the five churches we have looked at where persecution is never mentioned. It seems possible that because the city was conquered so many times, the population never got too attached to any one false god, because the different conquerors had different gods they would impress upon the people. So in other words, Sardis was a city with great political importance, a city with great wealth, and a city that did not take religion all too seriously. Does that remind you of any countries in today’s world? Let’s see if there are any helpful lessons that the church at Sardis can teach us.
Let’s look again at what Christ says to the church in verse one. “And unto the angel of the church in Sardis write; ‘These things saith He that hath the seven Spirits of God, and the seven stars; “I know thy works, that thou hast a name that thou livest, and art dead.”’” Hopefully you still remember the vision of the Son of Man in Revelation chapter one. With every church, Christ re-emphasizes one aspect of His character that particularly applies to the church He is talking to. So in this verse, Christ says that He is the One with the seven Spirits and the seven stars. Several weeks ago I mentioned that many theologians believe that the seven Spirits refer to the Holy Spirit, with the number seven signifying completeness. But I tend to believe that the seven Spirits are the seven angels that Christ mentions. Because, if you remember, Christ said that the seven stars represented the seven churches in this region, and Christ said that He was going to use seven angels to deliver the message to these churches. So it seems to me that Christ is saying in verse one that He holds the seven churches in His hand, as well as the seven messengers that are going to the churches. So what does this realization say about Christ, and why did He choose to emphasize this specific trait to this specific church? The fact that Jesus is holding the seven churches in His hand emphasizes His complete control over the churches. Something that the church at Sardis had to learn, and something that we need to learn, is that Jesus Christ will have the final say in His church. Because, as we are about to see, the church at Sardis was like a bunch of employees who started to slack off as soon as they thought that their boss had left for the day. But Jesus is reminding them that He is constantly watching them, and their poor behavior has not gone unnoticed.
But look at what Jesus says at the end of verse one. “I know thy works, that thou hast a name that thou livest, and art dead.” What Jesus is saying here is that He knows the church at Sardis better than anyone. And then Jesus acknowledges that the church at Sardis has a reputation for being one of the best churches around. We don’t know why they had that reputation. It may have been because they lived in an affluent area, or maybe the lack of persecution allowed the church to have a more prominent role in society. Either way, the church was well-known for their faithfulness. But Jesus says that even though they are thought well of by others, in fact they are dead. Once again, I think that there are some modern-day equivalents of this concept. While I definitely do not think this is true in our church, there are many well-known “Christians” out there that are highly looked upon by Christians and non-Christians alike. But the Christ who holds all of the churches in His hand may very well conclude that they are as dead as a doornail.
Let’s now look at what Christ says to the church in verses two and three. “Be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die: for I have not found thy works perfect before God. Remember therefore how thou hast received and heard, and hold fast, and repent. If therefore thou shalt not watch, I will come on thee as a thief, and thou shalt not know what hour I will come upon thee.” In these verses, Christ encourages the church at Sardis to change their ways before it is too late. In verse two, Jesus tells the church to strengthen the things that remain so that they don’t die. The best illustration I could think of is that of a grape vine that is on the verge of death. Out of the several shoots, most of them are completely lost, but there are a few remaining that have died out completely. In this situation, the farmer would put a stake in the ground, and would tie up the remaining branches so that they would be high enough to get plenty of sunlight. Then, he would make sure to water and fertilize the plant well. The farmer would have to sadly admit that he was too late to save the majority of the plant, but he would no doubt rejoice if the remaining branches were able to pull through.
Jesus is telling the church at Sardis to acknowledge that they have let so much of their past be wasted. But Jesus is telling them to turn themselves around now, and save what they still can of their lives. Have you ever seen a person that is so haunted by their previous mistakes, that they simply cannot move on with their lives? They think that their entire lives are defined by their past, and so they completely neglect their future. I think that this verse has a message for a person like that. Jesus is telling them that yes, they have messed up their life up until now pretty badly, but it is not too late to turn things around! Jesus wants to be just like that farmer in our lives. He wants to prune away the spiritually dead aspects of our lives, and carefully tend the living areas, so that our lives can be fruitful for Him. But at the same time, Jesus told the church that if they didn’t turn around, that He would come like a thief in the night and judge them.
But Jesus completely changes gears in verse four of our text. Verse four reads, “Thou hast a few names even in Sardis which have not defiled their garments; and they shall walk with me in white: for they are worthy.” Jesus in this verse says that there are a few people even in Sardis that are still faithful to Christ. And Jesus says that they will walk with Him in white. The color white in the Bible always symbolizes purity and innocence. In the book of Revelation, the true believers are always portrayed as wearing the color white, because their sins have been washed as white as snow. But notice that Jesus says that these will walk with Him, as opposed to the group He was talking about earlier. You see, Jesus was not painting a picture of two different levels of Christians. No, He was painting a picture of two types of people that inhabited the same church: Christians and non-Christians. The non-Christians in the church most likely believed that everything was okay in their lives, but in truth, they were dead in their sins; because they were relying on outward religion, instead of relying on Jesus Christ to save them from their sins.
And Christ goes on to describe this group of true believers in verses five and six of our passage. These two verses read, “He that overcometh, the same shall be clothed in white raiment; and I will not blot out his name out of the book of life, but I will confess his name before My Father, and before His angels. He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches.” In these verses, Jesus has one simple command for the true believers in the church of Sardis. Overcome. Jesus promised that He was coming back to judge, but He assured the true believers that their name would not be blotted out of the book of life. Instead, Jesus Himself would tell God the Father that they were His faithful servants.
So, as we saw, the church at Sardis had two very different groups of people in it. To those who were spiritually dead, Jesus told them that they needed to repent, and leave their past lives of wickedness. He encouraged them to strengthen the good qualities that they had, and abandon the wicked qualities. Otherwise, when they faced Christ at judgment, they would be doomed. Did they go to church? Yes, it would appear so. But did they have a true relationship with Jesus Christ? No, they didn’t. But then there were those who were true Christians. These Christians were surrounded by people who claimed to be children of God, but who were inwardly children of the devil. And Jesus Christ told them to hold fast to the faith, and that they would be rewarded by spending an eternity with Him.
And I think that really, Christ’s words to Sardis have an important message for us here tonight. The other four churches we’ve looked at all lived in cities where they were being killed for their faith. But in Sardis, we have a church that was allowed to worship more freely, and appeared to be more affluent than the other churches we’ve looked at. And while we in America have a hard time identifying with groups of people that were imprisoned for their faith, we can definitely identify with a church that was surrounded by material possessions, and yet was spiritually very shallow. Did you know that in America, a full 99% of people polled said that they thought they would go to Heaven when they died? And yet, less than 30% of people are a part of a Bible-believing church? We live in a land that is surrounded by spirituality, but is painfully lacking in spiritual truth. And our Savior has commissioned us to do one simple thing. Overcome. May we at First Free Will Baptist Church hold fast to the faith that has been handed down to us. May we never forget that despite whatever goes on in this world, Jesus Christ has clothed His true followers in robes of white, and He has prepared a place for them. In the face of all difficulty, may we at this church overcome for the sake of our great King.
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