“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.’ [i]
In our study of Christ’s prophecies to these seven churches in Roman Asia, we have been focusing on how their problems came from seeking the benefits of Christ without Christ. In each of these seven prophecies in Revelation 2 and 3, Jesus relates a particular aspect of his post-resurrection glory to specific issues facing each of these congregations. Jesus commends several congregations for those things they are doing well. He points out the issues and struggles that each of these congregations was facing. He promises blessings to these churches when they are obedient to his commands while threatening curses if these congregations fail to repent. But even when there is a word of rebuke, each of these prophecies ends with a promise of blessing to all those who overcome and who remain faithful to Jesus Christ despite the suffering, persecution, and temptations that these Christians faced. Each of these prophecies contains both law and gospel – each end with a gospel promise.
Each of Jesus’ words to these seven churches (that are representative of every church throughout the last days between Christ’s first and second coming) is some specific application of the two great commandments to love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and to love your neighbor as yourself. Christ sets forth his law – which doesn’t change because God’s law is simply a description of God’s nature and character (and God does NOT change). He points out our failures to keep it. He demands our heartfelt repentance.
And for those who overcome by seeing and repenting of their sins in this broken life and rejoicing over Christ’s having kept his law perfectly for us, Jesus promises the unshakable eternal blessing of his intimate presence as Immanuel (God with us). Heaven is ONLY heaven because Christ is there. It’s not “pie in the sky when you die;” it’s not that the new heavens and earth will be the place that satisfies all our needs and all our longings PLUS Jesus happens to be there. Jesus alone satisfies all our needs and longings by his intimate presence; THAT is what makes everything perfect and all things new.
Overcoming (victory, winning) to the pagan culture is being able to impose MY will on YOU. The victorious athlete is one who desires to beat opponents and does so; when she does, she wins or overcomes. The winning politician achieves his or her desire for the most votes and for getting the most support for proposed legislation. Winning for me is getting MY way how and when I want it. But in the upside-down Kingdom of Christ, believers overcome by submitting OUR will to Christ’s will. We lose the battle for our wants, but we win the eternal victory in Christ who demonstrated ultimate submission to the Father by setting aside his own glory and submitting himself to death on a cross. Believers are overcomers through submitting to God’s sovereign will over absolutely EVERYTHING in our lives, even to the point of persecution to death.[ii]
IN THE CITY
About 550 years before John’s letter reached Sardis, the city was famous for its wealth. It was the capital of the kingdom of Lydia. It’s king, Croesus, was a man of legendary riches. The early Lydian kingdom was very advanced in industry and Sardis was the chief seat of its manufactures. Sardis was a leader in the manufacture and dyeing of delicate woolen goods and carpets. The stream which flowed through the market-place carried gold dust out of Mount Tmolus. The metallurgists of Sardis discovered the secret of separating gold from silver, producing both metals of a purity never known before. Sardis now could mint nearly pure silver and gold coins, the value of which was trusted throughout the Western world. This revolution made Sardis rich and Croesus‘ name synonymous with wealth itself. For this reason, Sardis is famed in history as the place where modern currency was invented.[iii]
King Croesus’ wealth gave him an overinflated sense of well-being. He rebelled against the Persian Empire and lost a major battle against Cyrus the Great, forcing him to retreat to the upper city’s citadel 1,500 feet up a sheer cliff above the undefended lower city of Sardis in the river valley. Confident in the invulnerability of his defenses, his forces slumbered as Cyrus’ forces discovered a way up the cliff to conquer the rebellious king. Two hundred years later, the comfortable and confident forces of Sardis sat behind the fortifications of the seemingly-impregnable citadel besieged by Alexander the Great’s army. Again, a path up the cliff was discovered and Sardis’ defenders were caught sleeping and were conquered.[iv]
Sardis was twice a city famed for wealth, power, and security. Twice, because of its overblown sense of well-being, it lost all three. Among its features was a cemetery (necropolis) known as “the city of a thousand hills” for the memorials to the dead marking its skyline.[v] The Lord Jesus may well be referencing this in 3:1 when he says to Sardis, “You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead.”[vi]
TOO MUCH WITH THE CITY
The opening salutation is addressed by Jesus to “the angel of the church in Sardis” who in turn is directed to write, “these are the words of him who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars.” Referring to the vision of the resurrected Christ which opens the letter, Jesus begins his rebuke by reminding the church in Sardis that he alone holds the seven spirits–a reference to the Holy Spirit, who is all knowing, without limit and omnipresent. Not only does Jesus know the true condition of each of his churches through the presence of his Holy Spirit, but the reference to Jesus holding the seven stars in his hand indicates that he holds the very future of this congregation in his hand as well.
The fifth of seven prophecies, Jesus’ word to the Sardis congregation does not begin with a commendation but a condemnation. Their situation is so dire, Christ cuts right to the chase. The Great Physician has x-rayed the Sardis church with his holy, perfect law and diagnosed them as dead. But like Miracle Max’s diagnosis of Wesley in The Princess Bride, it turns out they are only “mostly dead.” They have a faithful remnant of people clinging to Christ. Like Croesus, the church of Sardis thinks it is doing just fine. Their defenses are down as they rest in their seemingly un-scalable fortress of human appearance and opinion. They believe their own PR; they have confused human appearance and human reputation with biblical spiritual reality.
The congregation of Sardis has become expert at faking Christ’s benefits without seeking Christ himself. They appear to have all the amenities of a mature congregation: they seem to be loving and welcoming to visitors; they seem at peace with one another; everyone seems to love the preacher; they nod their heads in approval of the sermons; they all appear to leave church happy; and, they get along well with the people of Sardis. What seem to be marks of a hip happening congregation that has it all together are marks of a dead congregation. How upside-down is that? Jesus has read the X-rays and the body that looks healthy on the outside is full of death internally.
When Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, and Thyatira heard this letter read in their congregations, they were shocked to hear Jesus say he knew the congregation of Sardis was dead. Why? Jesus says to them, “You have the reputation of being alive….”[vii] It wasn’t obvious to anyone but Christ that this church was mostly dead. Why? What gave them a reputation for being alive? Jesus answers that question in verse 4, “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.”[viii]
There were still a few believers in Sardis who were living out of the resources of God’s one-way love. They were still wholly dependent upon the imputed righteousness of Christ (white garments) and, as Paul commanded Timothy to be, they were strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus (2 Tim. 2:1). Because of this faithful remnant, the congregation had the appearance of a healthy gospel culture. This was the “Ten Percent Rule” in action: 10% of the congregation did 100% of the work and 90% showed up on Sundays to sit in the pews for a while before getting back to their own little kingdoms of me where they happily pursued their own glory and the enjoyment of having their own way in life.
In what condition is the remaining 90% of the people? They are sleeping on their watch like the soldiers in the citadel of Sardis when Cyrus and, later, Alexander the Great launched surprise attacks. The imperative (literally) “become one who is watchful” [“Wake up”] shows they have become lethargic about the radical demands of their faith in a pagan culture.[ix] They have traded Christ’s spiritual peace (Phil. 4:7) in the midst of a spiritual battle (Ps. 23:5) for their own manufactured, external peace with their pagan culture. They’ve given up their fight against the world, the flesh, and the devil and gone to sleep.
God’s law no longer convicts them as it once did. The gospel no longer excites them as it once had. They have grown used to being in worship. They come; they sing; they listen politely; they visit superficially; they go home to separate self-centered sin-dominated lives. Their deadly disease is they hear the Word of God spoken to them, but they regard it as nothing more than mere words of some preacher. The sign they are near death is their loss of appetite for law and gospel, for word and sacrament. Maybe like in our congregation, these endangered folks came to worship only every four to six weeks because they were busy. They had stuff to do. Word and Sacrament got in the way of their busy lives most of the time.
With their lack of appetite came spiritual amnesia. They were forgetting the gospel so Jesus commands, “3 Remember, then, what you received and heard.”[x] Every Sunday the seed of the gospel was sewed in the congregation. And every Sunday afternoon the birds of the world, the flesh, and the devil gathered to pluck the seeds off the stony ground of the hard hearts of most of the congregants of Sardis.
It is curious that nothing is mentioned about this congregation being persecuted or suffering because of their confession of the Lordship of Christ. While Sardis was not filled with as many pagan temples or guilds as some of the other cities we have mentioned, the city was still every bit as pagan as the rest of Asia Minor. The fact that these Christians were lethargic to the point of death, seems to indicate that this congregation had somehow made peace with the paganism around them.
If that were true, it would explain the lack of suffering and the lack of persecution. The reference to being dead or near death, apparently, stems from the fact that this congregation had ceased to be a witness to the gospel of Christ. When Jesus rebukes this church, he refers again to the opening vision of the seven spirits and the seven stars, all indicative of the church’s witness to those non-Christians around them. This church seems to have compromised with the surrounding culture so badly, that it ceased to proclaim the gospel to those within as well as outside the church. Like Ephesus, the church will die when the lampstand of the gospel mission ceases to be important. The lamp will flicker out. The shining star will go dark. No more will there be any light to be found in Sardis.
They have managed their lives and their congregation for peace and happiness and prosperity that comes from NOT living like true believers. We live according to what we trust. They have not lived out of the power offered in their union with Christ – the supernatural power of the Spirit symbolized the seven spirits of God and the seven stars (3:1). They are like the 5,000 who followed Jesus because he fed them bread and fish. They liked the free food. But the crowds disappeared when Jesus began speaking of eating his flesh and drinking his blood to express the level of intimate union and spiritual power he offered to his trusting people. THAT is seeking the benefits of Christ without Christ. It’s putting on the fig leaves of Eden rather than the white garments of righteousness offered in Christ alone.
Jesus commands them not only to remember the gospel you received and heard, but also to Keep it [NIV: “obey it”], and repent. The Great Physician writes his prescription to bring life out of death: remember the gospel; obey the gospel; and, repent. First, they must remember the message they heard – that they bring nothing to their salvation except the sin that makes it necessary; that they can never save themselves by keeping God’s law or living according to their own rules of morality; and, the resurrected, glorified Christ has credited them with his perfection and his sacrificial death for their sin. Seeing those truths as a doorway we merely pass through on a path to self-improvement and self-fulfillment is deadly!
Second, Jesus tells them to keep or obey what they heard. Since most references in the New Testament speak of the gospel as something which is believed (cf. Romans 1:5; John 6:29), Jesus is commanding them to behave in accordance with the gospel’s gracious promises. We live according to what we trust. When we trust ourselves and our own solutions, we live curved inward upon ourselves (“It’s all about ME!”). But when we are united into Christ and all his benefits, we have the ability live according to his resurrection power poured out by his seven-fold Holy Spirit through Word and Sacrament, through prayer and gospel-centered fellowship. We see our guilt. We take joy in God’s one-way love (grace). And we live out of gratitude to him and for him. See Step One: it’s all about Jesus!
Third, when we know that Christ has lived for us the perfect life we can never live and that he has paid fully for all our sins of thought, word, and deeds (past, present, future), we begin to realize we don’t have to defend ourselves or accuse others to cover our sins God knows our sins more intimately than we do. We are free to admit even the deepest, most horrible thoughts to our Father in heaven. We are free to agree with God we have thought and done things hateful towards him. Then, we are free to turn away from those attitudes and actions, and pagan lifestyles and pagan life advice, because we see them for the useless self-salvation projects they truly are.
Like a Thief
The reference to our Lord coming like a thief echoes his words in the parable of the thief, recorded in the Olivet Discourse in Matthew 24:42-44. While some take this to be a reference to our Lord’s second advent, more likely, Jesus is referring to an historical visitation of Christ upon Sardis before the end of the age. This means if this congregation does not repent of their false estimation of themselves and see their compromise with the spirit of the age, Jesus will bring this congregation to an end, perhaps like the threat of the removal of his lampstand as in the letter to the church in Ephesus.[xi]
While most of the church sleeps soundly in the citadel of their comfortable, mostly-pagan, mostly dead life, Jesus will invade and steal what’s left of the life-giving message of the gospel they have forgotten. Their church will no longer be a church of Christ, but merely a social club of moral do-gooders that looks like any other club or trade guild or pagan temple in Sardis.
THE WHITE WALKERS
The Lord says, “4 Yet you have still a few names in Sardis, people who have not soiled their garments….”[xii] The word “soil” or “stain” is used in scripture speaks to the threat of being dirtied by the pollution of idolatry.[xiii] These few “names” were not maintaining a low profile in the city by paying a token acknowledgment to the pagan demon gods; they did not fear persecution or poverty because they considered themselves rich with the benefits of the whole Christ, particularly his imputed righteousness symbolized by the white robes.
Those who truly trust into Christ have a wonderful promise from Jesus: “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.”[xiv] Notice they will walk with Jesus in white garments of righteousness because they are presently worthy. They are presently worthy because of their real trust into Christ, rather than the mere lip service of most of the professing Sardis church.
Names being blotted out of the book is a reference to Israel’s book of the census in which the twelve tribes of Israel and their respective inheritances were recorded. On the day Moses came down the mountain with the Law of God and found people worshipping a golden calf, 3,000 Israelites were put to the sword for idolatry and their names were blotted out from the names enrolled in Israel’s covenant with YHWH. The great difference between the mediation of Moses and that of Christ, however, is the fact that when Jesus Christ intercedes for those trusting into him their names will never be removed from the Book of Life.
The Book of Life contains the names of all the elect, all those whom God has chosen to save in the person of his son. They are citizens permanently enrolled in heaven. These are the people for whom Christ has died, who are called to faith and who are reckoned as righteous. But like Israel in the desert of Sinai, those professing and so-called Christians in Sardis who have made peace with paganism, and who have engaged in idolatrous behavior, have completely compromised their witness to unbelievers, just as Israel had done.
Their state is so bad that Jesus describes them as dead. These people receive no such promise from Christ. They were never numbered among the elect and although they give lip service to Jesus, they are not his. Like those in Israel whose names were blotted out of the book of the census, those in the church in Sardis who fail to repent will discover that their names were never written in the Book of Life.
What do we take from Jesus’ prophecy to the Sardis church? Christ’s church is to be a light to the world, not a place where Christians make peace with the spirit of the age. Whenever a church–or a denomination for that matter–becomes like the church in Sardis, avoids preaching the gospel because of the scandal of the cross, and thinks of itself as alive when it is dead, that church risks coming under the judgment of Christ himself.
For our Lord founded his church upon the preaching of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments. His church is that place where all those he has redeemed come to hear his word, to be comforted by the fact that our names are written in the Book of Life never to be erased, and to hear the glorious promise that in Christ we are worthy, in Christ we do and shall overcome, in Christ we already and shall wear white garments of his perfect righteousness.
Without these things, we are not a church. We are dead. Without these things, you are not named by Jesus. But with these things clearly before, we are a light to a fallen world which lives in darkness.
Therefore, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” Amen!
[ii] On overcomers, see: Beale, 270–272.
[iv] Phillips, 134-5.
[v] Id., 133.
[ix] Beale, 273.
[xi] Beale, 275-276.
[xiii] Beale, 276: “.cf. 14:4 with 14:6–9, where ‘those not stained with women’ is a metaphor of abstinence from sexual immorality, which most likely refers to believers’ separation from idolatrous involvement (Ethiopic and Bohairic have ‘did not defile their garments with a woman’ in 3:4, which explicitly identifies this verse with 14:4). “Fornicate” (πορνεύω) is used in similar metaphorical manner in 2:14, 20–21 (cf. likewise 1 Cor. 8:7 and μολυσμός [“defilement”] in 2 Cor. 7:1 [cf. 6:14–18]; Isa. 65:4 LXX uses μολύνω of defilement from idols).”