(eleventh article in our series on the Seven Churches of Asia Minor. Revelation 1-3)
“And to the angel of the church in Sardis write: ‘These things says He who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars: ‘I know your works, that you have a name that you are alive–but you are dead” (Revelation 3:1ff).
A seminary student once told me the only thing he feared was zombies. I said, “Zombies? Zombies!! They are figments of someone’s warped imagination, friend. There is no such thing.” But I may have been wrong. We might have a zombie church in the city of Sardis. Let’s look at it.
The church is known by various names in commentaries: The Liberal Church; dead church; lazy, clueless, and “The weak church, one on life support.”
Jesus had only rebuke for this congregation.
Sardis was some six hundred years old. It’s glory was its past. It was wealthy but degenerate. It had been a capital city and administrative center for the Persian government, but was in decline now.
Five roads converged on Sardis. That was great for commerce. The area was noted for its colored woolen fabrics.
Twice in its history the city had been defeated because its citizens were too lazy to defend themselves. Located 1500 feet about the surrounding plain, the city should have been impregnable. but it wasn’t. The two times it was defeated (529 BC by Cyrus and 216 BC by Antiochus), the watchmen were asleep. So the city had a false sense of confidence.
The citizens worshiped a nature god named Cybele (pronounced as though it were Sybil).
Had a better reputation than it deserved. One writer said it was located at the corner of Self-Satisfaction and Complacency Streets. Know any churches like that? Pity their pastors!
Yet, they have a good reputation. Reputation does matter but it’s not most important. It’s possible to have a better reputation than you deserve. The reality is the thing.
Apparently, people in these Asia Minor churches really wanted reputations they did not deserve. Notice that the Ephesus church had people claiming to be apostles (2:2), the Smyrna church had pretenders claiming to be Jews (2:9), and the Thyatira church had a woman claiming to be a prophetess (2:20). In our day, we’ve known of people trying to pass themselves off as war heroes, complete with medals and awards, of educators claiming credentials from universities they had not earned, and of ministers claiming degrees they had purchased. Some people want to take a shortcut to success and acclaim.
Although they were anything but that, this church made a great show of being alive and vibrant. Like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day–see Matthew 6–they did their religious works to be seen of men, to impress others with their religiosity. But the One who mattered most was not impressed.
You are dead.
That’s not a preacher judging a church. Those are the words of the Lord who owns the churches, who walks amid the lampstands, who knows their secrets. He should know. His judgement is the only one that counts. And Jesus says they are dead.
He specializes in resurrections. Note the small tinge of hope in what He says….
–“strengthen the things that remain….” So, whatever is there, apparently the Lord sees something worth salvaging.
–“I have not found your works perfect before God.” That’s not a complete failing grade, so apparently some good there.
–“You have a few names even in Sardis who have not defiled their garments….they are worthy.” Ah, so this is it. We are reminded of Abraham’s intercession for Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 18. The Lord would not destroy Sodom if even ten righteous people could be found there. That’s how influential a righteous man/woman is to the Heavenly Father.
What the Sardis Church is to do…
- Remember therefore how you have received and heard (3:3).
- Repent (3:3).
- Watch (3:4). “If you will not watch, I will come upon you as a thief, and you will not know what hour I will come upon you.” He’s coming for judgment, not blessing.
Don’t be too easy on yourself, Sardis. John Stott said, “We can have a fine choir, an expensive organ, good music, great anthems, and fine congregational singing. We can mouth hymns and psalms with unimpeachable elegance, while our mind wanders and our heart is far from God. We can have pomp and ceremony, color and ritual, liturgical exactness and ecclesiastical splendor, and yet be offering a worship which is not perfect or fulfilled in the sight of God.” You can tell, of course, that those lines are dated somewhat, and they reflect Stott’s English culture. You and I in America, in 2019, might say, “We can have a mega church with multiple locations, huge screens, and famous bands. Loud music, raised hands, swaying worshipers, and hip young eloquent preachers–and still be dead as the proverbial doornail!”
Three promises to the faithful in Sardis….
- You are clothed in white. That’s better than colored woolens.
- Your name will never be blotted out. This does not refer to salvation, but to the genealogy. The Jews were passionate about genealogies. On their return from captivity in Babylon, some could not find their names in the record. Nehemiah 7:64 reads, “These sought their listing among those who were registered by genealogy, but it was not found; therefore they were excluded from the priesthood as defiled.” — This is a good place to remind ourselves of the security which believers have in Jesus Christ. Ephesians 1:13 says we were “sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise.” John 10:28-29 promises that no one and nothing can “snatch” us from the Lord’s hand.
- You will be acknowledged by Christ before the Father and His angels. (See what our Lord promised in Matthew 10:32-33).