Revelation: The Culmination of Scripture – 07 (“The Letters to the Seven Churches – Sardis”)
Today we are focusing on the fifth church in the seven letters to the churches in Asia Minor and when we do this, I also want to urge you this morning, to shift your focus away from this fifth church mentioned in Revelation and focus on our church and you personally. Don’t listen to this message with Sardis in view, but with you and us as church in view – measure yourself; measure our church, to what you are about to hear.
We read the following in Is.1:2~ “Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth; for the Lord has spoken: “Children have I reared and brought up, but they have rebelled against me.” Here we see that the whole universe is summoned to attend a trial with God as the Judge. The indictment charges the people with being intractable sons who have rebelled against God! God therefore, is the Judge of all the earth (Afrikaans: “Die aanklag teen die mensdom is dat hullle hardnekkig en onregeerbaar is en daarom teen God gerebelleer het”). He has various scales, all finely adjusted, into which He puts men, nations, and churches in order to weigh their actions. There is a careful adjustment, for example, between the moral and spiritual spheres and the material sphere. The book of Jonah makes it quite clear that the bad weather Jonah encountered was a direct result of his bad behaviour. When Adam sinned in the Garden of Eden, he upset the entire ecology of the planet. In His great monologue with Job, God underlined Job’s ignorance of God’s ways in the material realm and his consequent greater ignorance of God’s ways in the moral and spiritual realm. God has scales for weighing men, and their movements are amazingly precise. The church at Sardis was about to be put into one of those scales.
2. SCRIPTURE READING:
Rev.3:1-6 (ESV) ~ “And to the angel of the church in Sardis write: ‘The words of him who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. “‘I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead. 2 Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God. 3 Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it, and repent. If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you. 4 Yet you have still a few names in Sardis, people who have not soiled their garments, and they will walk with me in white, for they are worthy. 5 The one who conquers will be clothed thus in white garments, and I will never blot his name out of the book of life. I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels. 6 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’”
3. THE CHURCH IN SARDIS (3:1-6):
The important commercial city of Sardis was located about 30 miles southeast of Thyatira, on an important trade route that ran east and west through the kingdom of Lydia. Important industries included jewellery, dye, and textiles, which have made the city wealthy. From a religious standpoint it was a centre of pagan worship and a site of a temple of Artemis, which ruins still remain (a.k.a. the Temple of Diana – a Greek temple dedicated to an ancient local form of the goddess Artemis – she was the daughter of Zeus, and she has a twin brother, the god Apollo. Not only was Artemis the goddess of the hunt, she was also known as the goddess of wild animals, wilderness, childbirth and virginity). Only a small village called Sart remains on the site of this once-important city. Archaeologists have located the ruins of a Christian church building next to the temple.
The Receiver of the Letter (vs.1a): “And to the angel of the church in Sardis write…” As in 1:20 the seven stars, representing the pastors of the churches, so this letter was also directed to the pastor of the church.
Christ’s Image (vs.1b): “The words of him who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars.” In addressing the message to the church, Christ described Himself as the One who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars, similar to the description in 1:4. Here Christ said He holds them, speaking of the Holy Spirit in relation to Himself (Isa.11:2–5; Rev. 5:6). This attribute implies God’s infinite power by the Spirit to convict of sin and of a hollow profession (Afrikaans: “leë/vals beleidenis”). Christ, therefore, reveals Himself as the One who controls the seven spirits of God. If the Sardinian church is strong, it is because Christ has sent His Spirit to encourage and quicken them; if they are dead like the rest of the city in which they live, it is because Christ has withdrawn His Spirit from them in judgement. Yet the faithful minority at Sardis (vs.4) count on the divine power of Christ to sustain, give life, and mobilize them to do His will even though the majority are dead.
Although it is Christ who purchased the church by His blood. It is by the Spirit that the merits of His atonement are applied (the practical application of Christ’s reconciliation between saved sinners and God – Afrikaans: “Al het Christus die Kerk met Sy bloed gekoop, is dit die Heilige Gees wat die praktiese toepassing van versoening tussen verloste sondaars en God bewerkstellig”). By the Spirit spiritual life sprouts, By Him the lifelong process of weeding sin out of the believer’s heart takes place, and through His grace the fruit of their sanctification, namely, their spiritual gifts, blossom with the effect of building the church into a glorious tree.
By His Spirit and His Word, Christ nurtures the church. And by the elders of the church He rules it. In introducing Himself as sender and giver of the Spirit and pastors respectively, Christ is making it clear to the church that He is the Head of the church, to whom all submission is due.
Christ’s Praise: In contrast to the previous churches, Christ has no words of praise to the Sardinian church – nothing whatsoever! Instead, He straight away pinpoints the appalling problem (Afrikaans: “ontstellende probleem”) from which the church at Sardis was suffering.
Christ’s Rebuke (vs.1c): “I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead.” Indeed, a more dire situation (Afrikaans: “ernstige”) is hard to imagine. This church was dead!
Christ saw through the hypocrisy of the church in Sardis. She had a reputation denied by reality. The world was deceived into thinking Sardis was a wonderful spiritually vibrant church, but not Christ. He knew full well that, in fact, this church was dead. It was without its lifeline – lively communion with God.
There was no problem with the physical organisation of the church, or even the participation of the general membership in its life. No objectionable problem either with her doctrine or discipline. However, like the church in Ephesus, the dissected hearts of these believers revealed that all this religion was a bore, a dry routine bred by habit rather than passion or affection. In principle, the service or worship of the church is dead when habitually not offered through the conscious or intelligent enabling of the Spirit, offered by faith (i.e. out of loving obedience to God’s Word), offered with gladness of heart or thanksgiving, and offered with the calculated aim of pleasing or glorifying God. Church success is not simply about magnificent buildings, attracting great crowds and names, grandiose projects and ministries, impeccable organisation or fame. Even with these a church can be dead. Yes, even while our religious duties are meticulously observed, our spiritual lives may be at an ebb.
The world renowned 19th century British evangelist and preacher, Campbell Morgan once said about the church in Sardis: “In the church at Sardis there were plans, schemes, programmes, but nothing fulfilled before God, no growth into likeness of Christ, no enlargement of the church through the propagation of the Christ-life, no compassion for souls, no fellowship with the sufferings of Christ. There were many things fulfilled before men; indeed, the church had come to the place where it lived before men rather than before God, more anxious in all probability about their reputation in Sardis than their reputation in heaven, more desirous for the good opinion of neighbouring churches, than for the commendation of the Head of the Church.”
The commentator and theologian William Hendriksen said of this church: “Sardis was a very ‘peaceful’ church. It enjoyed peace, but it was the peace of a cemetery.”
What a searching assessment for them to hear! How it should stir us up – each one of us – that Christ would never have cause to say it of you and me – of our church. There is a clear connection between the condition of the church at Sardis and the warning of Paul to Timothy of the possibility of… ~ “…having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power,” and then this command… ~ “Avoid such people” (2 Tim.3:5) (Afrikaans: “Hulle sal nog die uiterlike skyn van die godsdiens hê, maar die krag van die godsdiens sal hulle nie ken nie. Bly weg van sulke mense af”).
The sad thing about this church is that its failure was not an exceptional feature but a normative. Consequently, Christ’s first word to it was one of criticism and not congratulation. This is in sharp contrast with the other churches so far considered. Perhaps this is also an indication of how Christ feels about the sin of pretence (Afrikaans: “skyn”).
Christ’s Counsel (vss.2-3): “Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God. 3 Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it, and repent. If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you.” In Christ’s counsel to this church we see His grace and mercy in action – again! Another chance is given to a sinful group of people – to a church that is in gross sin. The solution to this apostate and fallen church in Sardis was fourfold.
o Alertness: First, alertness was crucial. There was a need to wake up or to be constantly watchful. It was a call to reverse their attitudes radically. The congregation must be alerted to the seriousness of the situation, which is dire but not totally hopeless. Immediate steps are to be taken to “strengthen what remains.” Some persons and things are salvageable if quick and decisive action is taken. Otherwise, death will follow. Christ will come like a thief, remove the lampstand from its place and, low and behold, the church will have died in her sleep without being disturbed (vs.3). The church would no longer be a Church of Jesus Christ. He would have removed the Spirit, His work, His light, His power – Himself. Ichabod – the glory will have departed.
o Remaining virtue: Second, a consolidation of remaining virtue (Afrikaans: “deugde”) is equally important. Spiritual vitality was lacking in Sardis. Yet not all was absent, for she still meagrely had some good, a residue of virtue lingered (Afrikaans: “daar was nog vae tekens van die teenwoordigeid van sommige van hul oorspronklike deugde”). Even though it fell far short of God’s standard, Christ nonetheless recognised it. The danger though was that without the power of religion even the form of it was soon to vanish. Though the form without the substance is meaningless, the loss of both is catastrophic. Promptly then the residue must be propelled.
o Early spiritual awakening: Like the Church in Ephesus, the Sardinians must remember what they have received and heard (vs.3). What they “received” was the apostolic tradition of the gospel; what they heard were probably the teachings of the apostles and prophets who brought the gospel to them. Unlike the church in Philadelphia (vs.8), the Sardinians were not holding to the Word of Christ, and repentance was the only way out of certain and final death for them. They were to repent by restoring the gospel of the apostolic doctrine to a position of authority over their lives, and by once again obeying the truth of Christ’s words. This is a back-to-the-basics call – back-to-the-basics.
o Repentance: Fourth, repentance was also demanded. No spiritual declension (Afrikaans: “verval”) of any sort is remedied by mere patching up or resolutions. A humble retracting of routes is needed. A decided return to and clasp of the genuine good old ways is the only realistic way out. Any traces of inconsistency between the inner and outer divinely prescribed life, and any lack of alertness in maintaining this consistency, results in sudden judgement personally executed by Christ Himself. Here is a solemn call to holy consistency.
Christ’s Promise (vss.4-6): “Yet you have still a few names in Sardis, people who have not soiled their garments, and they will walk with me in white, for they are worthy. 5 The one who conquers will be clothed thus in white garments, and I will never blot his name out of the book of life. I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels. 6 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’” While the majority had departed from obedience to Christ, a few at Sardis remained true (vs.4). They had not “soiled their clothes.” In the pagan religions it was forbidden to approach the gods in garments that were soiled or stained. “Soiling” here then appears to be a symbol for mingling with a pagan life and that’s defining the purity of one’s relation to Christ. This reminds us of Paul’s words in 2 Cor.7:1 ~ “Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God.”.
In vs.4b, Jesus says ~ “…and they will walk with me in white garments…” To “walk with Christ” symbolizes salvation and fellowship with Him – something the others at Sardis had forfeited through their sin ~ “If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 Joh.1:6-7).
“White garments” are symbolic of the righteousness, the victory, and glory of God. We read about this in Rev.7:9 ~ “After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
So once again the Lord Jesus Christ has some lovely things to say to the overcomers. To encourage them to remain alive and awake (as well as to give a further incentive to the others to see Christ afresh), He gives a most beautiful threefold promise which adds up to a glorious picture of the Christian’s inheritance (vss.4-5).
o Dressed in white: Walking with Christ “dressed in white” looks forward to when we shall be with Christ, sanctified, victorious and in the words of Eph.5:27 ~ “…a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.”
o Relationship to Christ is guaranteed: The relationship to Christ is permanently guaranteed ~ “Never having your name erased from the book of life.” In ancient cities the names of citizens were recorded in a register till their death; then the names were erased or removed from the book of the living. This same idea appears in the Old Testament ~ “But now, if you will forgive their sin—but if not, please blot me out of your book that you have written.” But the Lord said to Moses, “Whoever has sinned against me, I will blot out of my book” (Ex.32:32-33). The idea of being recorded in God’s book of the living or the righteous, later came to mean, belonging to God in His eternal Kingdom or possessing eternal life ~ “At that time shall arise Michael, the great prince who has charge of your people. And there shall be a time of trouble, such as never has been since there was a nation till that time. But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone whose name shall be found written in the book” (Dan.12:1). Christ’s statement that He will never blot out erase he overcomer’s name from the book of life is the strongest affirmation that death can never separate us from Christ and His life ~ “For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom.8:38-39). There is some evidence that a person’s name could be removed from the city register before death if he was convicted of a crime. In the first century, Christians who were loyal to Christ were under constant threat of being branded political and social rebels and of then being stripped of their citizenship. But, Christ offers them eternal, safe citizenship in His everlasting kingdom if they only remain loyal to Him.
o Overcomers’ names acknowledged before the Father: Finally, to the overcomer, Christ promises to… ~ “acknowledge his name before the father and his angels.” “Acknowledge” is a strong word for confession before the courts. It is Christ’s confession of your name before the Father and His angels (implying our fellowship with Him) that assures our heavenly citizenship ~ “So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven” (Matt.10:32) and Luke 12:8 adds the phrase ~ “…the Son of Man also will acknowledge before the angels of God.”
What ultimately counts, then, is not our acceptance by this world’s society but that our relationship to Christ is genuine and not disloyal, and hence will merit His approbation (Afrikaans: “goedkeuring/aanvaarding”) in the coming Kingdom. Having Jesus acknowledge your name before His Father and His angels – can you contemplate the joy of that? “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Matt.25:34).
4. CONCLUSION AND APPLICATION:
We started the message with saying how important it is to listen to the sermon with the focus on ourselves (personally and our church). It is of the utmost importance to realise that, though we are saved by grace and grace alone, God still measures us. We have to take the example of Jonah seriously.
Gal.6:8 warns us also about this: What we sow we will reap! I want to repeat what I said: “God has scales for weighing men and their movements are amazingly precise.” Rev.3:1 says ~ “I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead.”
The lifeline namely lively communion with God is what it is all about. We can apply 2 Tim.3:5 as a confrontational question ~ “Do you have the appearance of godliness but denying its power?”
o Are you alert and watchful? Do you experience the prompting of the Holy Spirit when you read the Bible? Are you regularly convicted of sin?
o Are you holding to the Word of God as the authority in your life?
o Is there consistency between the inner and divinely prescribed life and are you alert to keep this consistency going? If there is no consistency, sudden judgement, personally executed by Christ Himself, will come to you.
If this message has confronted you into desperation – DON’T! Remind yourself of Joh.15:26 ~ “But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me.” and Matt.5:3 ~ “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
So, pray and ask in deep dependence for God’s help. Examine yourself and repent where necessary so that Christ can restore you.