Thursday, July 29, 2021

20. The Revelation: Sardis - The Dead Church (Revelation 3:1-6)


While the believers at Thyatira tolerated sin, those at Sardis were dead to sin. The church had a reputation for being alive with the light, but Christ pronounced it dead. The spiritual darkness of false teaching and sinful living had extinguished the light on the inside, though some of its reputation remained.

Like the rest of the seven churches, the church at Sardis was an actual, existing church in John’s day. Yet it also symbolizes the dead churches that have existed throughout history, even in our own day.

The Correspondent

"He who has the seven Spirits of God and the seven stars, says this..." (Rev. 3:1b)

The descriptions of the divine author in each of the seven letters are drawn from the vision of Rev. 1:12–17. The letter to Sardis draws an additional component from the salutation in 1:4, where the phrase “the seven Spirits” of God also appears. That phrase may refer to Isaiah 11:2, where the Holy Spirit is described as “the Spirit of the Lord …, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and strength, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.” It may also refer to the symbolic depiction of the Holy Spirit as a lampstand with seven lamps presented in Zechariah 4:1–10. In either case, the reference is to the Spirit’s fullness. Jesus Christ is represented in His church through the Holy Spirit.

The seven stars are the seven messengers or elders (Rev. 1:20), one from each of the seven churches, who likely carried a copy of the book of Revelation back to their respective churches. The imagery shows Jesus Christ, the sovereign Lord of the church, ruling through godly leaders and pastors.

Christ’s introduction of Himself does not hint at the severity of the situation in Sardis. Surprisingly, He did not introduce Himself as the divine Judge (as He did in Rev. 2:18), although the church at Sardis faced imminent judgment. Instead, He depicted Himself as the One who sovereignly works in His church through the Holy Spirit and godly leaders. That introduction served as a reminder to the Sardis church of what they lacked. Devoid of the Spirit, the church at Sardis was dead.

The Church

"...the church in Sardis" (Rev. 3:1a)

Though the details are not recorded in Scripture, the church at Sardis was probably founded as an outreach of Paul’s ministry at Ephesus (Acts 19:10). The most prominent person from the church at Sardis known to history is Melito. He was an apologist, a defender of Christianity, who served as bishop of Sardis in the late second century. He also wrote the earliest known commentary on passages from Revelation. The letter does not speak of persecution, false doctrine, false teachers, or corrupt living. Yet some combination of those things was obviously present at Sardis, since the church had died.

The City

"...Sardis..." (Rev. 3:1a)

To a striking degree, the history of the church at Sardis paralleled that of the city. Founded about 1200 B.C., Sardis had been one of the greatest cities in the ancient world, capital of the fabulously wealthy Lydian kingdom. Aesop, the famous writer of fables, may have been from Sardis. Much of Sardis’s wealth came from gold taken from the nearby Pactolus River. Archaeologists have found hundreds of crucibles, used for refining gold, in the ruins of Sardis. Gold and silver coins were apparently first minted at Sardis as well. The city also benefited from its location at the western end of the royal road that led east to the Persian capital city of Susa, and from its proximity to other important trade routes. It was also a center for wool production and the garment industry. Sardis even claimed to have discovered how to dye wool.

Sardis was located about thirty miles south of Thyatira in the fertile valley of the Hermus River. A series of spurs or hills jutted out from the ridge of Mount Tmolus, south of the Hermus River. On one of those hills, some fifteen hundred feet above the valley floor, stood Sardis. Its location made the city nearly invincible. The hill on which Sardis was built had smooth, nearly perpendicular rock walls on three sides. Only from the south could the city be approached, via a steep, difficult path. The one drawback to an otherwise ideal site was that there was limited room for the city to expand. Eventually, as Sardis grew, a new city sprang up at the foot of the hill. The old site remained a refuge to retreat into when danger threatened.

Its seemingly indestructible location caused the inhabitants of Sardis to become overconfident. That complacency eventually led to the city’s downfall. Through carelessness, Sardis was conquered. The news of its downfall sent shock waves through the Greek world. One scholar, Dr. Robert Thomas, relates the account of Sardis’s fall:

Despite an alleged warning against self-satisfaction by the Greek god whom he consulted, Croesus the king of Lydia initiated an attack against Cyrus king of Persia, but was soundly defeated. Returning to Sardis to recoup and rebuild his army for another attack, he was pursued quickly by Cyrus who laid siege against Sardis. Croesus felt utterly secure in his impregnable situation atop the acropolis and foresaw an easy victory over the Persians who were cornered among the perpendicular rocks in the lower city, an easy prey for the assembling Lydian army to crush. After retiring one evening while the drama was unfolding, he awakened to discover that the Persians had gained control of the acropolis by scaling one-by-one the steep walls (549 B.C.). So secure did the Sardians feel that they left this means of access completely unguarded, permitting the climbers to ascend unobserved. It is said that even a child could have defended the city from this kind of attack, but not so much as one observer had been appointed to watch the side that was believed to be inaccessible.

History repeated itself more than three and a half centuries later when Antiochus the Great conquered Sardis by utilizing the services of a sure-footed mountain climber from Crete (195 B.C.). His army entered the city by another route while the defenders in careless confidence were content to guard the one known approach, the isthmus of land connected to Mount Tmolus on the south.

Sardis never regained its independence, eventually coming under Roman control in 133 B.C. A catastrophic earthquake destroyed the city in A.D. 17, but it was rebuilt with the generous financial aid of Emperor Tiberius. In gratitude, the inhabitants of Sardis built a temple in his honor. The city’s primary object of worship, however, was the goddess Cybele—the same goddess worshiped at Ephesus as Artemis (Diana). Hot springs not far from Sardis were celebrated as a spot in which the gods manifested their supposed power to give life to the dead—an ironic note for a city whose church was dead. In John’s day Sardis was prosperous but decaying. Both the city and the church it contained had lost their vitality.

The Concern

"I know your deeds, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead.… For I have not found your deeds completed in the sight of My God." (3:1c, 2b)

Because the Sardis church was spiritually dead, Christ skipped the usual commendation and turned directly to His concerns. Though its outward appearance may have fooled others, the Sardis church could not fool the all-knowing Christ. He said, “I know your deeds.” With His infallible knowledge, He pronounced the Sardis church dead. It was defiled by the world, marked by inward decay, and populated by unbelieving people playing church.

Spiritual death in the New Testament is always connected with its sinful root. Ephesians 2:1 describes the unbelieving as “dead in trespasses and sins.” The church at Sardis was like a museum where stuffed animals are exhibited in their natural habitats. Everything appears to be normal, but nothing is alive.

The church at Sardis was going through the motions. Christ declared that those deeds were not “completed in the sight of My God.” Though sufficient to give the Sardis church a reputation among others, those deeds were unacceptable in God’s sight. The spiritually dead members populating the Sardis church were living a lie. They had been weighed on the scales by the Righteous Judge and found wanting (cf. Daniel 5:27).

The Commendation

"But you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their garments; and they will walk with Me in white, for they are worthy." (3:4)

Within this dead church of unbelievers, a few true Christians were scattered like flowers in a desert. There were not enough of them, however, to change Christ’s overall evaluation of the church as dead. Yet He had not forgotten those who remained faithful to Him (Malachi 3:16–17; Hebrews 6:10).

God had His remnant even at Sardis. There were a few sincere followers of Christ. He described the faithful remnant as those who “have not soiled their garments.” The Greek word translated “soiled” can also mean “to stain” or “to pollute.” It was a word that would have been familiar to readers in Sardis because of the city’s wool-dyeing industry. “Garments” symbolized character in Scripture (Isaiah 64:6; Jude 23). The faithful remnant could come into God’s presence because they had not defiled or polluted themselves, but had shown godly character.

Specifically, Christ says of them that “they will walk with Me in white, for they are worthy.” In ancient times, such garments were worn for celebrations and festivals. Because they refused to “defile their garments,” Christ would replace those humanly preserved clean garments with divinely pure ones (7:14). The white robes of purity Christ promises here and in verse 5 are elsewhere worn by Christ Himself (Matthew 17:2; Mark 9:3) and the holy angels (Matthew 28:3; Mark 16:5; Acts 1:10). Those who have a measure of holiness and purity now will be given perfect holiness and purity in the future.

The Command

"Wake up, and strengthen the things that remain, which were about to die.… So remember what you have received and heard; and keep it, and repent. Therefore if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come to you." (Rev. 3:2a, 3)

Christ addressed the command to the faithful remnant at Sardis. If their church was to survive, it desperately needed life. Christ laid out for them the path to spiritual restoration by giving them five steps to follow.

First, they needed to “wake up.” There was no time for indifference. The believing remnant needed to look at what was happening in their church, evaluate the situation, confront sin, and make a difference.

Second, they needed to “strengthen the things that remain, which were about to die.” “Things” here in the original language does not refer to people, but to spiritual realities. Christ exhorted the true Christians at Sardis to fan into flame the dying embers of the remaining spiritual graces in their church.

The third step was for the faithful remnant to remember what they had received and heard. They needed to go back to the truths of God’s Word, remembering the gospel and the teaching of the apostles. By this time, Paul’s letters were in circulation (2 Peter 3:15–16) and the rest of the New Testament had been written. The believers at Sardis needed to reaffirm their belief in the truth about Christ, sin, salvation, and holy living. Fourth, having gone back to the truths of Scripture, they needed to keep them. Correct beliefs apart from obedient lives would not bring about the necessary renewal.

Finally, they needed to repent. With great sorrow, the believers at Sardis were to confess and turn away from their sins. These five steps, if diligently practiced, would bring about revival.

The consequences if revival did not come would be severe. Christ warned them “if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come to you.” The picture of Jesus coming like a thief always carries the idea of imminent judgment (Matthew 24:43; Luke 12:39; 1 Thessalonians 5:2, 4). The threat here is not related to His second coming, but that the Lord would come and destroy the Sardis church if there was no revival.

The Counsel

"He who overcomes will thus be clothed in white garments; and I will not erase his name from the book of life, and I will confess his name before My Father and before His angels. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches." (3:5–6)

Lastly, Christ described the rewards awaiting those who participated in the revival. True Christians will be “clothed in white garments.” In the ancient world, white garments were also worn for festive occasions such as weddings. True Christians will wear theirs at the marriage supper of the Lamb (19:7–9). White robes were also worn by those celebrating victory in battle. All true Christians are victorious through Christ over sin, death, and Satan. However, white robes here primarily represent purity and holiness. Christ promises to clothe Christians in the brilliance of eternal purity and holiness.

Christ further promises every true Christian that He will not erase their name from the Book of Life, but “will confess [their] name before the Father and before His angels.” Incredibly, although the text says just the opposite, some people assume that this verse teaches that a Christian’s name can be erased from the Book of Life. They instead turn God’s promise into a threat.

Some argue that Exodus 32:33 supports the idea that God may remove someone’s name from the Book of Life. In that passage the Lord tells Moses that “whoever has sinned against Me, I will blot him out of My book.” There is no contradiction, however, between that passage and Christ’s promise in Revelation 3:5. The book referred to in Exodus 32:33 is not the Book of Life described here, in Philippians 4:3, and later in Revelation (Rev. 13:8; Rev. 17:8; Rev. 20:12,15; Rev. 21:27). Instead, it refers to the book of the living, the record of those who are alive (Psalm 69:28). The threat, then, is not eternal punishment, but physical death.

In John’s day, rulers kept a register of each city’s citizens. If someone died or committed a serious crime, their name was erased from that register. Christ, the King of heaven, promises never to erase a true Christian’s name from the list of those whose names were “written from the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who has been slain” (13:8). On the contrary, Christ will confess every believer’s name before God the Father and before His angels. He will affirm that they belong to Him.

The letter to Sardis ends, like the other six, with an exhortation to follow the counsel, commands, and promises it contains: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” The spiritually dead people playing church needed to follow Christ’s warning of impending judgment. The indifferent believers needed to wake up before it was too late to rescue their church. And the faithful few could take comfort in the knowledge that their salvation was eternally secure.

What happened to Sardis? Did they heed the warning? Did revival come? That such a prominent man as Melito served as bishop of Sardis several decades after John wrote argues that at least some revival took place in Sardis. Until Christ returns, it is never too late for other dying churches to find the path to spiritual renewal.