Summary: The church in Sardis was a perfect model of an inoffensive Christianity. They apparently invented the concept of “political correctness.
Letter to the Church in Sardis
Sardis was located about 30 miles southeast of Thyatira The ruins of 1st century Sardis are located near a city in modern day Turkey named Izmir. The city was at the converging point of several inland roads. One road led northwest to Thyatira and then on to Pergamum. Another ran west to Smyrna fifty-four miles away. A third ran east and out to Phrygia. A fourth road ran southeast to Philadelphia. And the last road led southwest to Ephesus sixty-three miles away. So with all these roads going in and out of town, like Thyatira lots of trade came through Sardis. The city was also famous for its woolen, textile, and jewelry industry. In fact, the wool trade for the entire region was centered in this town.
Plus Pliny tells us they first learned how to dye wool in different colors in Sardis and this was a source of a great deal of income for Sardis’ residents.
But unlike Thyatira, Sardis had other claims to fame than trade. Five hundred years earlier it had been the capital of the old kingdom of Lydia where the famous King Croesus had reigned. His name might be familiar to you because he was reputed to have been the richest man in the world at that time. He was so wealthy that the old expression "as rich as Croesus" originates in reference to him. His wealth, it is said, came from the sands of the River Pactolus in which the fabled King Midas ( of Midas touch fame) washed his hands to rid himself of the 'Midas Touch' (which turned everything he laid hands on into gold) and in so doing, the legend says, made the sands of the river rich with gold. Historians say that Sardis is where the concept of money was born. The first coins were minted in this town probably from ore from the Pactolus river. Remember this fact, the people of Sardis were used to being rich
The original city of Sardis was built on a mountain about 1500 feet above the valley floor and since three of its four sides were at the top of high, sheer rock cliffs, Sardis was regarded as being virtually impregnable against military assault. It stood like a giant unassailable watchtower guarding the entire Hermus valley. Many armies laid siege to Sardis hoping to get at its wealth—but all failed to conquer it. It was literally impregnable—until King Cyrus of Persia came along. According to Herodotus, the Greek historian, Cyrus besieged Sardis and seeing it’s high cliff walls, he sent a message to his troops—a message in the form of a challenge.
He promised a special reward for any man who could figure out how the cliffs could be scaled and this fortress taken. Well, in his army there was soldier called Hyeroeades. Hyeroeades studied the cliffs, seeking to figure out a way by which they might be stormed so he could get this reward. He patiently watched for many days and one day he saw a Lydian soldier accidentally drop his helmet over the battlements and as he looked the soldier climbed down from the battlements and then picked his way down the cliff wall, recovered his helmet, and climbed back up. Hyeroeades carefully marked in his memory the way the Lydian soldier had taken step for step and that night he led a group of hand-picked troops up the cliffs by that same way. When they reached the top, they found the walls of Sardis completely unguarded. The Lydian garrison apparently never dreamed that anyone could find a way up those cliffs. They thought they didn’t need guarding. Everyone was sound asleep. So Hyeroeades and his comrades entered unopposed, opened the gates, and Sardis was taken. And if that weren’t bad enough, this exact thing happened again 200 years later when Antiochus the Greek besieged Sardis. A Greek soldier who had perhaps heard the story of Hyeroeades led a group to climb up the same way Hyeroeades had gone and found the walls undefended once again—proof of the old adage,
“If we don’t learn from history’s mistakes we doom ourselves to repeat them.”
In any case this should help us to see that the residents of Sardis had a track record of being complacent, over-confident people—people who tended to sleep at their post. This is something else I want you to remember as we look at this text.
And here’s one other historical fact to help us understand this church and the town it served.
In 17 AD Sardis was devastated by an earthquake but the emperor Tiberius generously refunded them the taxes they had paid for the prior five years and sent generous grants for the rebuilding of the city.
With all these Roman government bail out funds the city was easily rebuilt without the residents having to endure any financial hardship at all.