The Church at Sardis
The story of the church in Sardis is the saddest of all the seven churches. It’s a story of tremendous pride, as well as an illustration of how pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall (Prov. 16:18). It stands as a warning to those who think they can stand before God dressed only in their own righteousness (I Cor. 10:12).
The church at Sardis boasted in its life. Its reputation in the community shouted clearly and unequivocally that it was alive. But in reality this church was as really dead. So Christ wrote in verse 1. However, the fact that he wrote to the church at all suggests that he deliberately exaggerated its death to emphasize its precarious condition and the very real danger of its impending death. If it were really dead, there would have been no point to writing to it. Verse 4 and 5 also show that the language here is hyperbolic.
In any case, the problem with this church is that it had taken upon itself the characteristics of the area in which it lived. The city of Sardis, which boasted its strength and power, stood fifteen hundred feet above sea level on the top of a mountain in the Tmolus range that had almost perpendicular sides. This, plus the fact that the only access to the city was small path to the south that was both difficult to navigate and well guarded, allowed the people of the city to rest soundly at night. They had come to believe that their little piece of terra firma was impregnable. Sardis boasted its strength, but its boasting was vain. As we will see shortly, the city had already fallen into the hands of its enemies on several occasions. As a sign of its weakness, the mount on which the city once stood is almost five hundred feet shorter today than it was in the first century.
The Dead Church
Christ said to the church at Sardis, I know thy works (v. 1). He had said the same thing to each of the four churches that we’ve considered thus far. In these earlier instances he meant, “I know thy works and I am pleased with them.” But here the meaning is exactly the opposite. The end of verse 2 says, For I have not found thy works perfect before God. In fact, there was so little that was praiseworthy in the church at Sardis that Christ not only failed to commend it for anything, he simply pronounced it dead. It had become stagnate, apathetic and lethargic in its service of Jesus Christ, and as a result no longer deserved the reputation that it had enjoyed in years gone by. David’s lament as he grieved the deaths of Saul and Jonathan fit it well. He said, How are the mighty fallen! (II Sam. 1:19).
However, the church at Sardis didn’t suffer from the same kinds of problems that plagued Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamos and Thyatira. All of these other churches were situated in communities that were actively hostile to the truth, and all of them were challenged to one degree or another with false doctrine. We could say that they were plagued with troubles from within and without. But Sardis, the city and the church enjoyed relative peace.
Peace can be a tremendous blessing for the church. In I Timothy 2:1–2 Paul commands believers to pray for those in authority so that we might lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty. But outward peace is not necessarily a good thing, and it’s never a blessing if it lacks God’s favor. Jesus warned his disciples of an extremely dangerous kind of peace in Luke 6:26, where he said, Woe unto you, when all men shall speak well of you! for so did their fathers to the false prophets. This “kiss of death” peace is what the church at Sardis had. It had no problems because it wasn’t doing anything that anyone objected to. And this meant that it wasn’t doing anything pleasing to God either. Every church and every believer needs to beware of such peace.
Could the church at Sardis be revived again? The hope of resuscitation had not been completely extinguished. Consider how Christ introduced himself to this church, i.e., as the one who hath the seven Spirits of God (v. 1). He is the one by whose authority the Spirit of God in all of his fullness gathers, defends and preserves the body of Christ. Through the mighty work of his Spirit Christ can revitalize even a church that, for all intents and purposes, had breathed its last breath. And how would he do this, except by sending his ministers to preach the gospel and, through his Spirit, causing his people to hear and turn to him in faith? Thus, Christ not only has the seven Spirits of God, he also holds the seven stars in his right hand (v. 1; cf. 1:16). The seven stars, according to Revelation 1:20 represent the angels or ministers of the seven churches. From this we learn that the Spirit of God is pleased work his grace of salvation through the simple proclamation of the gospel. This is his ordinary mode of operation, as Romans 10:17 says, faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.
The word of God not only ministers life to those who are spiritually dead, it also strengthens life in those whom Christ has already made alive. Because our life is always dependent upon his sovereign will, we need to beg God constantly for his Word and Spirit. With the psalmist we should cry, O send out thy light and thy truth: let them lead me; let them bring me unto thy holy hill, and to thy tabernacles (Ps. 43:3).
To the dead church at Sardis, Christ gave five commands. In verse 2, he told it to be watchful and to strengthen the things which remain. And in verse 3, he added that it must remember what it had received and heard, hold fast to those things and repent. The church had to live according to the grace that it professed.
The first command was to be watchful or to wake up. In other words, Christ required the church to perform a diagnostic self-examination. It needed to see for itself where it stood in relation to him. Was it still walking by faith? Was its worship and service springing out of heart warmed by the love of a crucified and resurrected Savior? Or did it follow through the motions of service as a mere formality? Did it seek to please Christ by obeying his laws and honoring him in all things? Christ charged the church at Sardis to find the answers to these questions.
In fact, every believer should perform a similar diagnostic on a regular basis. When Jeremiah wrote that the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked, and then followed this with the simple question, Who can know it? (Jer. 17:9), he meant that no man — not even the most sanctified believer — can fully appreciate the depths of his own depravity. Did David, the apple of God’s eye, ever think that he would commit adultery and murder, and thereby dishonor God and bring misery to his own family and kingdom? Had Peter, who once boasted that he would remain loyal to Christ even if all the other disciples forsook him, ever consider the possibility that he would deny the Lord three times in a single night? A careless spiritual life often leads to disaster. That’s why Paul exhorted believers who think they stand to take heed lest they fall (I Cor. 10:12).
If anything of value could be found in the church at Sardis as a result of its self-examination, Christ’s second command required that it be reinforced or strengthened. Apparently, the church still had a pastor and the preaching of the Word of God. If the Lord can bring light out of darkness simply by commanding it to be so, he can also cause the light of the knowledge of the glory of God to shine in the face of Jesus Christ in this congregation (II Cor. 4:6). He does so in the church’s public ministry. When you get right down to it, the Spirit of God applying the Word of God is all that’s needed for any reformation. So it was with the twelve apostles in the first century.
With the third command, Christ insisted that the dead church remember what it had received and heard. That is, it was to return to the basic teachings of the gospel. Here the Lord expected the church to remember many things. For example, it should remember the goodness of God in redeeming sinners through the death of his only begotten Son and the joy that comes by hearing the message of salvation. It should remember how God himself delights in the obedience of his children.
The fourth command directed the brethren to develop and maintain a spirit of loyalty, and the fifth required them to humble themselves before God and turn from their evil ways.
Failure to keep these commands, according to verse 3, would result in Christ visiting the church in divine judgment. He threatened to come against the church unexpectedly, i.e., as a thief (v. 3). The thief imagery is found in other New Testament passages where the second coming of Christ is in view (cf. Matt. 24:42–44; I Thess. 5:2; and II Pet. 3:10). Here it refers to a historical visitation of Christ to judge this particular church before that momentous day. The use of this imagery is appropriate since Christ’s temporal judgments provide us with a preview of his final judgment.
The people in Sardis understood only too well how cataclysmic destruction can come unexpectedly. Even as they boasted that their city was impervious to attack, they knew that their thesis had already been proven wrong three times — twice by men, and once by God. In 549 BC — seven years before he conquered Babylon (Dan. 5:30–31) — the Persian king Cyrus dispatched one man to scale the mountain on which Sardis stood. Upon reaching the top, he simply opened the city’s doors and Cyrus’ armies just walked in. Again in 216 BC Antiochus the Great, king of Syria, sent fifteen men over the wall to bring about the city’s second disastrous fall. And lastly, in AD 17 an earthquake shook Sardis with such terrible force that it took the city ten years to recuperate.
The destruction of the church of Sardis was apparently just as sudden as the city’s occasional defeat, although the story of its demise is unknown. Today, the city is nothing more than an archaeological site, which has unearthed some of the most impressive historical artifacts and architectural structures in the world.
The Faithful Few
One of Sardis’ most significant temples in the first century honored Artemis (i.e., Diana, goddess of the Ephesians). In fact, this temple, which was twice as large as the Parthenon, was the seventh largest Greek temple ever built. Those who worshipped Artemis had to come to the temple in clean, white clothes if they expected to participate in temple activities.
Like Artemis, Christ expected his people in the church at Sardis to approach him wearing undefiled garments. In this case, pure garments represent a righteous walk. The problem, of course, is that many in this church had defiled their clothes by their apathy to the things of God.
According to verse 4, there were a few names in Sardis who had not defiled their garments. The fact that Christ pronounced the church dead earlier probably indicates that these names represented a small minority. Of the four churches we’ve studied thus far, the sources of corruption were strong, but there was a large enough remnant of true disciples to counteract their evil influence. But in Sardis the remnant was too weak. The Lord took note of them, however. In verse 5 he promised them three things.
The first promise was white garments. Some interpret these as baptismal gowns. It’s doubtful, though, that Christ would have threatened the church so sternly for soiling pieces of fabric. No, these garments were far more important. Their brightness symbolized the forgiveness of their sins through the shed blood of Christ. True believers already have these garments. Revelation 7:14 describes those who survive the great tribulation as having washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the lamb. The twenty-four elders, who represent the church on earth, wear white robes in 4:4, as so do the martyrs in 6:11. According to chapter 19, the whole church appears at the Lamb’s marriage supper clothed in fine, white linen. In the immediate context of the letter to the church at Sardis, the white robes specifically represented the faithfulness of those who boasted in Christ and not in their past achievements. The others had defiled their garments by mixing their own righteousness with that of Christ.
In the second promise Christ guaranteed those who overcome that their names would never be removed from the Book of Life. In ancient days, the “book of life” was a census of a region’s citizens. Although the names of citizens could be removed from the state’s registry, it is utterly impossible for the names of true believers to be expunged from the Lamb’s Book of Life.
Note that this verse does not actually threaten to blot anyone’s name out of the Book of Life. In fact, it says the opposite, viz., that the names of those who overcome will never be blotted out. Other passages in Revelation speak likewise. On the other hand, those whose names do not appear in the Book of Life were never in it to start with. The names of those who worship the beast, according to Revelation 13:8, are not written in the book of life of the Lamb (cf. Rev. 17:8). The perfect tense of the Greek verb used here (γέγραπται) suggests that their names were never included in the Book of Life. To the contrary, the only books containing their names are the books of judgment (Rev. 20:12).
The purpose of this promise was to encourage true believers to persevere and grow in their love for the Lord, so that they might thereby prove the genuineness of their faith. This contrasts with verse 1, where the Lord said that a large percentage of the members of the church at Sardis had a name that they did not deserve. That name, of course, is “Christian.”
And lastly, Christ promised to confess the names (notice again the emphasis on names in this mini-epistle) of the faithful before his Father and the angels. Actually, this was a promise that Jesus made to his disciples during his earthly ministry. In Matthew 10:32 he said, Whosoever therefore shall confess me before men, him will I confess also before my Father which is in heaven. Luke 12:8 adds that the Son of Man will also confess true believers before the angels of God. Not only will the fact that they wear white robes show that they bear the name Christian in truth, but Christ himself will call out their names for all to hear in the judgment of the last day. Their names will be followed with the commendation that all true disciples long to hear: Well done, thou good and faithful servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord (Matt. 25:21).
A few commentators have compared the church at Sardis to the fig tree mentioned in Matthew 21:19. Being hungry and finding a tree with no fruit, Jesus cursed it so that it could never bear fruit again. Jesus found no fruit it Sardis, so he threatened to come against it in judgment too.
The fig tree incident is sometimes cited by unbelievers as an example of Jesus’ fanaticism, lack of kindness and irrationality. Why would he have expected to find fruit on a tree when it wasn’t harvest time? And why treat it so harshly? But these questions miss the point. Good fig trees are not like other fruit trees that only produce seasonally. Rather, they have some fruit all year long — not as much during the winter as the summer, but some nonetheless. The tree that Jesus cursed was not a good tree and Jesus knew that because it had no winter fruit. Christ’s condemnation of it was completely just.
And just as a fig tree’s fruit is not seasonal, the faithfulness and obedience of God’s people should not be either. Sardis had been living on a reputation it had earned during its better seasons, when it was strong and healthy. It should have been practicing righteousness all along to reinforce itself against unfruitful times. Since it had not done so, Sardis rightly received the Master’s rebuke.
Although it is impossible for those who truly love the Lord to apostatize, there are a lot of people who sincerely think their profession of Christ is true but find out later that it was not. They are like the seed sown on bad soil, which either fails to grow or grows only for a short time.
The question is, Where are we? Scripture admonishes us to examine ourselves constantly to reassure ourselves of our standing before God. II Corinthians 13:5 says, Examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith; prove your own selves. Know ye not your own selves, how that Jesus Christ is in you, except ye be reprobates? Let us never presume that we have any sufficiency in ourselves, but let us always find our sufficiency in Christ alone. He will uphold those who seek his grace and mercy through his shed blood.
The words that Paul wrote to the church at Philippi describe the attitude and service that will protect a church from becoming like Sardis. He wrote, Wherefore, my beloved, as ye have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure (Phil. 2:12–13).
The danger of neglecting our spiritual life is that we might never return to it. May God himself keep us from such error! Amen.