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Worthy is the Lame: Marks of a Dying Church

Worthy is the Lamb  •  Sermon  •  Submitted
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The Lord of Glory has a message for the church today: Religious activity is not necessarily an indication of true spiritual vitality within a local congregation.

Notes & Transcripts
Text: Revelation 3:1-6
Theme: The Lord of Glory has a message for the church today: Religious activity is not necessarily an indication of true spiritual vitality within a local congregation.
The Book of Revelation is a message from our Lord Jesus to his church. He is the one who walks among the lampstands — the lampstands representing his Church on earth. It’s a message of Christ in his Church, Christ over his Church, Christ speaking to his Church. The seven churches mentioned in Revelation are seven real churches in seven real cities.
It has been thirty years since these congregations had been established, and each of them had developed their own character. At the end of the 1st century, Jesus gives a series of visions to the Apostle John addressing these congregations. Five of these churches are in serious trouble. Only two of them are commended — the Church at Smyrna, and the Church at Philadelphia. Our Lord recognized the character of each church, the issues in each church, and sends a letter to each one. These are unique churches and are, I believe, representative of the kinds of churches that have existed in every age, including our own. In that sense, these letters are timeless speaking to every generation of Christians since then to the present.
This morning we come to the letter to the Church at Sardis. The message to this church lists no specific enemies, internal or external. There is no name calling — no liars, no Balaam or Jezebel, no deep secrets of Satan, no synagogue of Satan, no throne of Satan. Of all the congregations in Asia, we know least about Sardis, and its problems. Yet no other message to any other church is perhaps more frightening. Sardis is a picture of the church which, from all outward appearances, is doing everything right. But those outward appearances are deceiving. God looks at this church and declares, "You are dead."
Sardis reminds us that based on the world’s standards, a church can appear to be vibrant, and full of activity, while spiritually it is hollow.

I. SARDIS WAS SPIRITUALLY IMPOVERISHED EVEN THOUGH IT WAS MATERIALLY PROSPEROUS

1. here was a church just the opposite of Smyrna
a. remember the congregation at Smyrna?
2. remember our Lord's encouragement to that former congregation?
"I know your afflictions and your poverty — yet you are rich! ..." (Revelation 2:9, NIV)
a. the church at Smyrna was a spiritually rich church even though it was materially poor
b. the curch at Sardis was a spiritually poor church even though it was materially rich
ILLUS. Sardis was located about thirty miles southeast of Thyatira and stood at the junction of five main roads. Sardis was an important city of commerce; the center of the wool-dying, and the carpet industry. Sardis was one of the greatest and wealthiest cities in the world. Its wealth, in fact, was legendary. Some of you may recognize the name Croesus (KREE-sus) as in King Croesus as in the ancient saying Rich as Croesus. Sardis was the ancient capitol of King Croesus in the 5th century B.C., and the place were standardized gold and silver coins were first minted.
c. in the Apostle John’s day, Sardis was one of the great cities of western Asia Minor
3. in our Lord’s opening words to the congregation we see that Sardis represents those churches which have a significant reputation among men, but which have little or no spiritual vitality before God
v. 1 "... you have a reputation for being alive, but you are dead ..."
a. this verse contains a play on words
b. the word “dead” is a word that means “a corpse” or something “lifeless”
c. Jesus is telling this church " ... you have a reputation for being alive, but you are lifeless ..."

A. THE CHURCH AT SARDIS HAD A GOOD REPUTATION AMONG MEN

1. if a visitor had asked any pagan on the streets of Sardis for the location of this church, he could doubtless pointed the visitor in the right direction
a. that's a good thing
1) it is a bad sign when the members of a community cannot tell a stranger where the churches are
c. regardless of the denominational tag on the Church sign, local congregations ought to have such a positive influence on their communities that even the lost can give strangers directions to them
2. the problem, however, with the 1st Evangelical Church of Sardis is that they had lots of activities, but no real spiritual vitality
a. the church had a good reputation among men
ILLUS. When Linda and I moved to Bolivar, MO to attend Southwest Baptist College, one of the first things we did was begin searching for a church to attend. I had several of my professors tell me, that if I wanted to “get ahead” in the community and become “well known” among the college staff and administrators, I should “seriously consider” attending 1st Baptist Church. The connections would be good for my career. Well, we went to 1st Baptist Church one evening, and not one person said, “boo” to us. We walked in, sat down, enjoyed the service, got up and left without one person speaking to us. It was a church that came highly recommended by men, but it failed that particular night. We never went back.
b. but the 1st Baptist Church at Bolivar had a good reputation among men

B. THE CHURCH AT SARDIS HAD NO SPIRITUAL DEPTH

1. Sardis was a church with lots of activities, but they were accomplishing nothing of any eternal significance for God
a. Jesus said, "I know thy works"
1) the problem is that Jesus can’t list any
a) there’s no hard work, or perseverance (Ephesus)
b) there’s no resistance to the synagogue of Satan (Smyrna)
c) there’s no faith or courage in the face of martyrdom (Pergamum)
d) there’s no love or service (Thyatira)
b. there is simply the stark epitaph “ ... I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead.” (Revelation 3:1, NIV84)
2. the 1st Evangelical Church of Sardis was well known and it was favorably known
a. the KJV says "thou hast a name"
b. Jesus is referring to the church's eminent reputation in its community and not of its effectiveness for the kingdom
1) here was a church well known in its community for its social programs
2) here was a church that maybe had a prominent place in the community with a well-maintained buildings
3) here was a church who's members served on important boards and committees in the community and who belonged to the most influential neighborhood organizations
3. their reputation is "that thou livest"
a. this is a church which a new member to the community would surely want to visit
b. it is a church which, had you been moving from Ephesus to Sardis your pastor would have probably recommended you at least visit and perhaps even move your membership to
c. but having gone, you might have felt that, in spite of all appearances, there was something wrong
ILLUS. A few years ago in New York City — one of the few places where this event could have taken place — traffic cops repeatedly ticketed an illegally parked mini van with a dead men inside. Officers saw the minivan parked under an overpass in Queens. In the drivers seat, was a man with hands on the wheel. A city Marshall discovered that the man was dead, only when he went to tow the vehicle away. The man had evidently died of a heart attack and had been dead for weeks. The man was dead, even though a number of police officers thought he was alive!
4. in the Sardis community this church had a reputation for "being alive"
a. in Heaven's community this church had a reputation for being "dead"
b. God looked upon this church and saw that rigor mortis was quickly settling in
1) man looks upon the outward appearance, God looks upon the heart
2) man looks upon the architecture of a cathedral and says "What a great church."
3) Jesus looks at the spiritual apathy of the member's hearts and says, "What an impoverished congregation."
c. the spiritual decay in the church at Sardis was not obvious to outward observation
1) and that’s the scary part to me!
5. Sardis is a picture of nominal Christianity in all its unrighteous glory
a. outwardly prosperous, busy with the externals of religious activity, but devoid of spiritual life and power
ILLUS. In his book Harvest of Humanity, John Seamands told this story: During WW 2, a German soldier was wounded. He was ordered to go to the military hospital for treatment. When he arrived at the large and imposing building, he saw two doors, one marked, "For the slightly wounded," and the other, "For the seriously wounded." He entered through the first door since his wounds were not that serious. He found himself going down a long hall. At the end of it were two more doors, one marked, "For officers" and the other, "For non-officers." He entered through the latter since he was not an officer, and found himself going down another long hall. At the end of it were two more doors, one marked, "For Nazi party members" and the other, "For non-party members." He took the second door since he had never joined the Nazi party. When he opened it he found himself out on the street. When the soldier returned home, his mother asked him, "How did you get along at the hospital?" "Well, Mother," he replied, "To tell the truth, the people there didn't do anything for me, but you ought to see the tremendous organization they have!"
1) the soldier's comment describes many churches in our day: really organized, but not changing lives
6. Sardis Was Spiritually Impoverished Even Though it Was Materially Prosperous

II. SARDIS WAS SINCERELY IGNORANT OF THEIR SPIRITUAL POVERTY

1. this is why I find the message to the Church at Sardis so frightening
2. Sardis reminds us that based on the world's standards, a church can appear to be vibrant, and full of activity, while spiritually it is hollow
a. in actuality they are desperately in need of revival and renewal before the last ember dies out

A. THE MARKS OF A DYING CHURCH

1. A Focus on the Internal Rather than on the External
a. the 1st Evangelical Church at Sardis appears to be a church that is almost solely focused on itself instead of the community it needs to be ministering to
ILLUS. My previous pastorate was at a church on the west side of the state. It was a fine church in many ways, and after three years of ministry we'd had some growth, and from all outward appearances the church seemed to be doing well. But I knew that the church was inwardly focused. It was doing nothing to be involved in or minister to the community. At the time our North American Mission Board had developed a program for small churches to evaluated themselves and their community. It involved establishing several teams of church members and leaders to interview church members, community leaders, and random community members to discover needs and ministry opportunities in the community. It was going to cost about $500 and involve a significant amount of time. To even get it past the Church Council I had to call-in about every favor I was owed after being pastor for three years. When it came before the church at a business meeting, it was shot down — big time. The members did not want to spend the time or money necessary to discover what the needs of the community were, and how we might minister to the community. I was dejected, and discouraged to say the least. Afterwards, one of our senior adult ladies came up to me and tried to encourage me. Her heart was in the right place, but her words still reverberate in my mind. She said, "Brother David. Don't be too disappointed about this. After all. We love you, and all we want you to do is preach the bible to us, visit us when we're sick, and don't do anything stupid!"
b. when a Church loses sight of it's calling to be light in a dark world, it's a dying church
2. Activities and Programing Trumps Bible Learning
a. sometimes churches can start so many different ministries that sustaining all of them becomes the primary ministry of the staff and leaders
1) maintenance mode begins to trump transformation
b. (I’m pretty sure this is the Baptist in me) the two most important ministries of any church are its bible study ministries and its worship ministry
ILLUS. I read an amazing statistic this week. Only 3% of churches in America have a planned method for systematically teaching the Bible to their members. Think about that. Only three of every 100 churches even attempt to provide a regular Bible study ministry for their congregation. Is it any wonder that biblical literacy is at an all-time low in America. When 82 percent of Americans claim that their favorite bible verse is "God helps those who help themselves" something is seriously wrong.
a. when a Church loses sight of it's primary ministry — the teaching and proclaiming of God's Word — it's a dying church
b. all believers all called to minister, and all believers are gifted to minister, and all believers ought to minister, but we must never forget that it is the Bible that transforms lives
c. we simply need to teach it, and preach it and let the Holy Spirit do what he does best with it — apply it to our lives
3. Holiness Among the People Is Minimized
a. a clue to the problem at Sardis is found for us in vs. 4 ... “Yet you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes. They will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy.” (Revelation 3:4, NIV84)
b. sadly we have a lot of carnality in the Church today — confessing Christians who are walking in their own strength and living by their own morality
c. garments symbolize character in the Scripture
1) stained, disheveled, dirty garments represent a stained, disheveled, dirty spiritual life — what the bible calls worldliness
2) spotless, white garments represent a righteous spiritual life — what the bible calls holiness
3) it’s this latter group in the church who are spiritually alive, but there are only a few — a minority within the church
d. when a Church loses sight of the need for holiness among the people it’s a dying church

B. GOD'S REMEDY FOR SPIRITUAL POVERTY

1. Jesus makes it very clear what this church needs to do
vv. 2-3 "Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your deeds complete in the sight of my God. Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; obey it, and repent. But 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."
2. Jesus calls for a five-fold revival package for this church
a. 1st, they are to "wake up"
1) a more literal translation of for that word is "become a watcher"
ILLUS. This counsel was particularly relevant for the 1st Evangelical Church of Sardis. The city of Sardis was built upon an impregnable acropolis which had never been seized by frontal attack. The city was defended on three sides by sheer cliffs. On the fourth it was approached by an isthmus of land so narrow that a few hundred troops could defend it against thousands. But twice in the city's history, the town had been taken by stealth because of a lack of vigilance on the part of its defenders. Each time, the city had been conquered in exactly the same way. Invaders found a secret trail leading to the top of the plateau and found an unguarded city.
2) Jesus is telling this church to "watch out," "be vigilant" because the enemies of the church — Satan, and worldliness, and materialism are subtle and rarely have the courage to take the church head-on
"And do this, understanding the present time. The hour has come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed." (Romans 13:11, NIV)
b. 2nd, they are to "strengthen the things that remain"
1) the works of the Church of Sardis have been weighed and found wanting before God
a) they have not measured up to God’s standard of excellence
2) the church at Sardis was on the verge of spiritual death and yet there is a flicker of life
3) those Godly virtues, those Spiritual Fruits which remain needed to be nursed and nourished back to life
c. 3rd, they are to "remember"
1) they are to search their memories and recall those days when faithfulness before God was more important than their reputation among men
a) just like individual believers, churches also have spiritual roots and a spiritual heritage which they need to remember — not reminisce about — but remember from time to time to spur them on
2) they are to remember those days when they were spiritually pure and filled with zeal for the things of God
d. 4th, they are to "hold fast" (the NIV says "obey")
1) I think Jesus means to "hold fast" to the message they had initially received and embraced — the Gospel
2) that message is: "Men are save by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, according to the Scriptures alone, to the glory of God alone
3) if any ministry, if any activity, if any program does not have the ultimate aim of declaring and sharing that message it ought to be "let go"
e. 5th, they are to "repent"
1) the entire membership is called to the alter to turn their lives and their church back over to God
2) when believers find more pleasure in the world then pleasure in worship it is a sure sign that spiritual apathy has set in

III. SARDIS WAS A SPIRITUALLY POOR CHURCH WHICH TEACHES US RICH LESSONS

1. Sardis is a church that outwardly appears to be doing everything right
a. their attendance is good
b. their programs are fully staffed and financed
c. there are no doctrinal or theological problems like at Pergamum
d. there are no false prophets misleading the membership such as at Thyatira
e. there is no threat of persecution looming on the horizon such as at Smyrna
2. but they are spiritually lethargic, inert and asleep

A. THE WAY WE EVALUATE A SUCCESSFUL CHURCH IS DIFFERENT THAT THE WAY GOD DOES

1. according to the world our measure of success includes things like attendance, how big and nice the facilities are, how great the music is, how educated the staff is
a. those are not necessarily unimportant things, but Jesus is looking for something else in his church at Sardis
b. Sardis has not fulfilled its purpose
2. Jesus established his Church to fulfill three purposes ...
a. our church is here for the Exaltation of God
1) does our upward ministry point people to a great and glorious God?
b. our church is here for the Edification of the Saints
1) does our inward ministry grow Christians into spiritual ministers?
c. our church is here for the Evangelization of the World
1) does our outward ministry reach people close and far away with the Gospel?
d. these are the God-given, Scripture-revealed purposes of the church
3. Sardis teaches us that God evaluates a successful church differently then world evaluates a success

B. REVIVAL IS DESPERATELY NEEDED BEFORE THE FLAME FLICKERS OUT

1. I wonder if any of us realize how desperately the churches in America need revival?
2. like Sardis, there are tens of thousands of churches across our land which look "alive" to the people of their community, but are actually "dead"
a. from all outward appearances, they are doing everything right
b. but they are accomplishing nothing of eternal significance for God
1) they were going through the forms of worship, but their worship failed to bring them into the presence of the living God
2) they were going through the motions of prayer, but their prayer failed to flood their souls with the divine presence
3) they were serving and giving, but their serving and giving failed to have spiritual impact upon the community
3. external works absent of true grace and faith has always been the curse of the Church
ILLUS. It is said that during his early days in South Africa as a young lawyer, Mahatma Gandhi made a serious inquiry into Christianity. For several Sundays he attended a Christian Church in Pretoria. Gandhi wrote that the congregation did not strike him as being particularly religious nor an assembly of devout souls, but appeared rather to be worldly-minded people going to church for recreation and in conformity to custom. He concluded that there was nothing in Christianity which he did not already possess. Could it be that Gandhi attended a church much like the one at Sardis?
4. Sardis teaches us that real revival is what the church needs
Let me close with this. The Churches of Revelation are seven unique churches and are, I believe, representative of the kinds of churches that have existed in every age, including our own. In that sense, these letters are timeless speaking to every generation of Christians since then to the present. Sardis is recognized as the dead church. But why is it in that condition? Because the believers who make up the congregation are spiritually dead. The question is not What can the Church do to come alive, but rather what can each of you do to come alive? Dead churches are full of dead Christians, but live churches are full of alive Christians. Don’t like the spiritual atmosphere of the Church? Then let Jesus change your life!
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