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.
So three “contextual” things we know thus far: When John wrote this letter,
(1) Sardis was rich and complacent
(2) its residents were used to the easy life.
(3) The once great “impregnable” fortress was now only an ancient monument up on the hill top. The town had been rebuilt in the valley but there was no passion for life and no spirit there.
Well, this lifelessness was paralleled in the church. In fact, Sardis may have been the first church in history to be characterized as a place of “nominal Christianity.” Most of its members apparently belonged to Christ in name but not in heart. Oh they had a reputation for being alive, but in reality they were dead. In short, it was a church of hypocrisy a church filled with, “let’s pretend” religion. Let me put it this way. Ephesus lacked love and Sardis lacked life.
Nothing is known of the origins of the church nor its early growth. All we know is what we can glean from the content of this sad letter and to call it “sad” is an understatement because, remember, there is almost non-stop criticism. It is the least favored of all the seven churches. Jesus could literally find nothing to commend in this church. The congregation looked good on the outside. And as I said it was apparently reputed to have been healthy once. It was probably large even in the 1st century with no shortage of money or talent or human resources…but there was no life there no sense of purpose only routine.
Well, how can we tell if a church is dying spiritually?
Churches are made up of individual believers like you and me and churches “die” when their individual members cease to grow spiritually. Remember personal spiritual growth is the result of a conscious choice. We have to be intentional when it comes to following Jesus. If we don’t make this choice our walk with Him tends to become lifeless So, to rephrase my question, “How can you know if a congregation of individual believers is entering the ‘mausoleum stage?’” Well, there are several potential answers to this question but I want to mention three that are found in the church in Sardis. Think of them as warning signs or symptoms of lifelessness.
(1) The first is Christianity without the Holy Spirit.
Jesus said, “I know your deeds,” so the believers at Sardis were apparently busy but religious busyness does not necessarily mean life. I mean, chickens with their heads cut off will run around the barnyard for a while before they fall over. And the fact is it’s possible for us to run around…busy in the practice of religion— pretending that we have life when really we are dead. Sadly, there are a lot of churches filled with members who do exactly that and those churches are no longer effective because Christianity is not a religion —it is a relationship ..
(2) Here’s a second symptom of a dead or dying church: the absence of struggles.
Now that may sound odd : the absence of struggles It sounds like a good thing in fact you may be thinking, “Don’t struggles impede spiritual growth?” But, ironically the opposite is true. Churches and individual believers grow best when they encounter difficulties…because those difficulties tend to force us to turn to God for help. The trials and tribulations that come with living in a fallen world tend to stimulate spiritual growth—they make our relationship with God thrive. They also make the church grow because lost people look at the way we cling to our faith I want you to note this church in Sardis faced no persecution.
• There were no orthodox Jewish opponents like the church at Smyrna dealt with—even though there was a large Jewish population in Sardis.
• There were no Nicolaitans or followers of Balaam teaching heresy there.
• There was no “Jezebel “ in this church.
• There was no threat of compulsory Caesar worship like there was in Pergamum.
• There were no trade guilds leading the members astray like there were in Thyatira.
No this church was completely untroubled from without and within. Why? Basically they had no troubles because they were a very untroubling church. They didn’t bother the Jews by boldly testifying that Jesus is the Christ—so the Jews didn’t bother them. They didn’t stand up against the immorality of the day so there was no need for the false teaching of the Nicolaitans. In fact, according to Heroditus, they apparently went along with the sinful, idolatrous lifestyles of their city so joining a trade guild was no problem. In short the devil didn’t bother this church because it was no threat to him. I mean, Sardis was not having problems because it was not aggressive in its witness to the city. They didn’t stand out as salt and light in a rotten city darkened by sin. So, there was no persecution because there was no invasion into the enemy’s territory.
This church was a perfect model of inoffensive Christianity. They apparently invented the concept of “political correctness.” And, remember, our adversary doesn’t waste his limited resources on those who aren’t reaching the lost and growing the saved. In any case, this church enjoyed peace—but it was like the peace you enjoy as you walk through a cemetery or a funeral home.
The lifelessness of the Church at Sardis had a strange effect.
(i) The Church at Sardis was untroubled by any heresy. Heresy is always the product of the searching mind; it is, in fact, the sign of a Church that is alive. There is nothing worse than a state in which a man is orthodox because he is too lazy to think for himself He is actually better with a heresy which he holds intensely than with an orthodoxy about which in his heart of hearts he does not care. It is a curious fact about Christianity that it is the only major religion where many of whose paid and unpaid, full-time priests, prelates, and professors spend much time and energy trying to show what is false and what should be totally changed or perhaps even abandoned. Buddhists do not do this; neither do Hindus. And most certainly Muslims do not, or if they do they do not live long. This shows, I believe, that biblical Christianity, is obnoxious to the Prince of Darkness, so that he makes a point of tempting the professors and priests of Christianity to undermine their own doctrines.
(ii) The Church at Sardis was untroubled by any attack from the outside, neither by the heathen or by the Jews. The truth was that it was so lifeless that it was not worth attacking. The Pastoral Epistles describe those who had drifted away from the true faith by saying that they had a form of godliness but denied its power (2 Timothy 3:5). Moffatt translates it: "Though they keep up a form of religion, they will have nothing to do with it as a force." Phillips puts it: "They will maintain a facade of 'religion,' but their conduct will deny its validity."
A truly vital Church will always be under attack. "Woe to you," said Jesus, "when all men speak well of you!" (Luke 6:26). A Church with a positive message is bound to be one to which there will be opposition.
A Church which is so lethargic as to fail to produce a heresy is mentally dead; and a Church which is so negative as to fail to produce opposition is dead in its witness to Christ.
Perhaps it was a church that was too good to be true. Its religiously proper appearance may have only meant that it had fully and silently compromised with the truth and the pagan society around it.
Let me put it this way, a truly vital church will always be under attack and the same goes for growing believers. If you are not having problems it could be due to the fact that you are not causing the adversary any problems! If you’re not facing resistance it’s probably because you’re not resisting.
In the midst of all these dead or dying Christians there was a Godly remnant and by the way, there always is! Verse 4 tells us that there were a few Christians in this church who were still loyal to Jesus in heart and mind., “They were the salt of this church else this church would not only have been dead but rotting as well ”
And Jesus gives this remnant a command . I think it is interesting that it is the same command our Lord often gave to dead people. He says, “wake up!” In fact, Jesus’ commands here sound like a literal wake up call because the words in verse 2 are sharp commands in the original Greek.
Perhaps Jesus used these particular words to remind this remnant of what had happened twice in the history of Sardis when the guards slept at their post. He was saying, “Wake up—or you may never wake up!” Jesus notes the judgment that would take place if they did not repent: “If you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you” (Revelation 3:3b). A dead church, and one unrepentant in its deadness, will be disciplined by Jesus Himself.
I don’t know when that will happen. No one does but as Romans 13:11 says,“The hour has come for us to wake up from our slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed.” And Matthew 25:13 says, “Keep watch for you do not know the day or the hour your Lord may come.” In short, watchfulness should be the constant attitude of the Christian life.
After the warning, Jesus encourages those in Sardis who had remained faithful: “Yet you have still a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes. They will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy” (Revelation 3:4). The faithful remnant had not soiled their garments (participated in sin). They are “worthy.” The idea of walking worthily is also found in Paul’s teaching in Ephesians 4:1; Colossians 1:10; and 1 Thessalonians 2:12. To be “worthy” is to “match up” with something—the profession of faith in the mouth matches the reality of faith in the heart. The faithful ones are promised to walk with Jesus in white (see Matthew 22:11-12; Revelation 19:8).
Jesus makes a final promise to the believers in Sardis: “He who overcomes will, like them, be dressed in white. I will never blot out his name from the book of life, but will acknowledge his name before my Father and his angels” (Revelation 3:5). The one who “overcomes” is anyone who is born again (1 John 5:4). The overcomer will receive a white garment (a token of righteousness), he will never have his name removed from the book of life (a promise of eternal security), and he will be confessed by Jesus in heaven (cf. Luke 12:8).
He who has the seven Spirits of God, and the seven stars. Sometimes I have a really difficult time with symbolism. It can be, and usually is, very complex and difficult to comprehend. For example, what are the seven Spirits of God and the seven stars? What does that mean? Why seven? Why not six or eight? Let's take a look at scripture and see if we can find an answer.
The number seven has a tendency to represent, or be a symbol of, completeness, or perfection. A reference is made in Rev. 1:4 to seven Spirits who are in front of God's throne. The word Spirits is capitalized, which mean they are part of, and are in essence, God himself. The word Spirits is the Greek word “pnedma” which means breath or wind. Perhaps the seven Spirits are personifications of God, or maybe they represent seven of His powers.
In Isaiah 11:2, the prophet speaks of the Spirit of Lord resting upon the Messiah. Perhaps these are the seven Spirits. Let's take a look at Isaiah 11:2.
And the Spirit of the Lord will rest on Him, the spirit of wisdom, and understanding, the spirit of counsel, and strength, the spirit of knowledge, and the fear of the Lord.
Now let's take this verse apart. And the Spirit of the Lord [number one] will rest on Him, the spirit of wisdom [number two] and understanding [number three] the spirit of counsel [number four] and strength [number five] the spirit of knowledge [number six] and the fear of the Lord [number seven]. If the Spirit of the Lord, wisdom, understanding, counsel, strength, knowledge, and the fear of the Lord, are the seven Spirits in front of the throne, what we are seeing is perhaps, a sevenfold ministry of the Holy Spirit.
All the outward manifestations of the Spirit meant nothing. All the works and deeds meant nothing. All the church activity was worthless. Why? It is because the church is really dead. The church is going through the motions, but they are not measuring up to God's standard of Holiness. What looked alive and active to man was dead as far as God was concerned. They thought were very active for the Lord, but they were not intimate with the Lord. God looks at the heart and judges our motives. He watches to see why we do what we do.
There were a few people in the church at Sardis who had not soiled their garments. What does that mean? What does it mean to soil your garment? We know that when we get saved, the blood of Jesus washes away our sin. The blood of Jesus makes our garment clean and white. In order for us to soil our garments after they have been washed clean, we have to remain in sin. This means that most of the people in the church in Sardis were “worldly Christians” or “carnal Christians.” They were living in sin while claiming to be Christians. They were going to church and playing the game. They were fooling everyone except God.
Another option is that they were never saved in the first place. Many commentators believe this to be true However, this thought is truly frightening. If this option is true, then the church had lost the mission of bringing people to Christ. The church would have to have become a place where sin was not mentioned. It would have to be a place where people could be comfortable in their fallen state of sin. The message of salvation was not being preached. It would have been a church where people could go to feel good about themselves. They could go there to be entertained and hear messages that validated and approved their sinful lifestyle. After all, who wants to hear sermons that tell you things about yourself you don't want to hear? Who wants to hear a pastor preaching things out of the Bible that opposes the way you are currently living your life. Sardis would have been a place where they would not have to hear about and deal with that “sin” issue.
(6) He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the Churches.
God wants His people to be awake and listening. He wants us to hear His message. His message is a call to wake up. His message is for us be alive for Him and not dead in our own works. His message is for us to repent and confess our sin to Him. He wants to clothe us in white garments. He wants us to be righteous, and holy before Him. He wants our name to be in the book of life. He wants to walk with us. The question is this: do we want the same thing? If we do, then we must be an overcomer.
To those who have been faithful comes the threefold promise.
(i) They will be clothed with white raiment. It is said of the righteous that "they will shine forth like the sun in the Kingdom of their Father" (Matthew 13:43); and it is said of God that he covers himself with light as with a garment (Psalms 104:2). What do the white robes signify?
(a) In the ancient world white robes stood for festivity. "Let your garments be always white," said the preacher, "and let not oil be lacking on your head" (Ecclesiastes 9:8). The white robes may stand for the fact that the faithful will be guests at the banquet of God.
(b) In the ancient world white robes stood for victory. On the day when a Roman triumph was celebrated, all the citizens clad themselves in white; the city itself was called urbs candida, the city in white. The white robes may stand for the reward of those who have won the victory.
(c) In any land and time white is the colour of purity, and the white robes may stand for the purity whose reward is to see God. "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God" (Matthew 5:8).
(d) It has been suggested that the white robes stand for the resurrection bodies which the faithful will some day wear. They who are faithful will share in that whiteness of light which is the garment of God himself.
We need not make a choice between these various meanings; we may well believe that they are all included in the greatness of the promise.
(ii) Their names will not be wiped out of the Book of Life. The Book of Life is a conception which occurs often in the Bible. Moses is willing to be wiped out of the book which God has written, if by his sacrifice he can save his people from the consequence of their sin (Exodus 32:32-33). It is the hope of the Psalmist that the wicked will be blotted out of the book of the living (Psalms 69:28). In the time of judgment those who are written in the book will be delivered (Daniel 12:1). The names of Paul's fellow-labourers for God are written in the book of life (Philippians 4:3). He who is not written in the book of life is cast into the lake of fire (Revelation 20:15); only they who are written in the Lamb's book of life shall enter into blessedness (Revelation 21:27).
(iii) Jesus Christ will confess their names before his Father and the angels. It was Jesus' promise that, if a man confessed him before men, he would confess him before his Father; and if a man denied him before men, he would deny him before his Father (Matthew 10:32-33; Luke 12:8-9). Jesus Christ is for ever true to the man who is true to him.
So, in conclusion:
• We see that they had a name, a reputation—what men thought.
• We see they were alive, that is, they were an active church full of programs and church activity—what men see.
• But, regardless, they were dead, without true spiritual vitality—what the Lord saw and knew.
The point is they had a reputation, they were known far and wide, and they were active, filled with activity, action, and programs, By the world’s standards they were successful and they were probably proud of their church, but our Lord says not so, “you are dead.” So what does He mean by “dead?”
In Scripture, death stands for the concept of separation as well as the absence of life.
• For the unbeliever, death means without spiritual life, unregenerate, and without God—separated from relationship with God.
• But for the believer, death, like sleep, is sometimes used as a symbol for carnality, for being out of fellowship with God, separated from Christ as the source of the abundant life (Eph. 5:14).