THE LETTER – “To the angel of the church in Sardis write: These are the words of him who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your deeds complete in the sight of my God. Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; obey it, and repent. But 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. Yet you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes. They will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy. 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. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” (Revelation 3:1-6)
Background – As the capital of Lydia, the ancient city of Sardis was an important city. It was about fifty miles east of Ephesus at the junction of five main roads, making it a commercial crossroad. As a province of the Roman Empire that was located on an almost inaccessible plateau, it was also a military center. The acropolis of Sardis was about 1,500 feet above the main roads. A virtually impregnable fortress, it had never fallen in battle. However, it had fallen by stealth (“like a thief”) twice in its history.
• Conquest by Cyrus of Persia – In the first instance, Lydian independence was terminated by the conquest of Cyrus of Persia in 546 BC. By scaling the cliffs and entering through a weakly defended point under cover of darkness, the fortress was taken by surprise. From the Persians, the city passed into the hands of Alexander the Great.
• Conquest by Antiochus the Great – The second instance occurred in 214 BC. After a prolonged siege that lasted two years, the fortress was ultimately taken by stealth and sacked by Antiochus the Great. Afterwards, dominion passed to the kings of Pergamus, from which it passed into the hands of the Romans.
In the time of Tiberius, Sardis was desolated by an earthquake (together with eleven or twelve other important cities of Asia). As is so often the case, the calamity was made even worse by the pestilence that followed. Today, the city is nothing more than a heap of ruins. The main religion in the city was the worship of Artemis, a nature cult that built on the idea of death and rebirth. Sardis was also known for its manufacture of woolen garments, a fact that has bearing on Christ’s message to the church (“they will walk with me, dressed in white”). Sadly, by that time the city was but a shadow of its former splendor.
Greeting: What’s in A Name – Christ describes Himself as the one possessing the seven Spirits and the seven stars. There is only one Holy Spirit (Ephesians 4:4), but the number seven demonstrates fullness and completeness. The sevenfold Spirit of God (Isaiah 11:2) is pictured as seven burning lamps (Revelation 4:5) and as seven all-seeing eyes (Revelation 5:6).
The universal Church was born when the Spirit of God descended on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2), and its life comes from the Spirit. And life is exactly what the people at Sardis needed. The name Sardis means remnant or escaping ones, and for whatever reason the church there had escaped from the firm grasp of the Holy Spirit. Whenever the Spirit is grieved or quenched, the Church begins to lose life and power. When sin is confessed, and church members get right with God and with each other, then the Spirit is able to infuse new life (revival). Christ also controls the seven stars, the messengers of the churches (Revelation 1:20), referring most likely to the pastors. Sometimes it is a pastor’s fault that a church is dying, and the Lord must remove the star and put another in his place.
Praise: What’s Pretty Good – Regrettably, Christ offers no words of commendation for the church at Sardis. It had grown comfortable and content and was living on its past reputation. It was reputation without reality, form without function. Like the city itself, the church at Sardis gloried in past splendor, but ignored its present decay. Satan need not take down a church through battle, when he can take it by stealth as it decays.
Criticism: What’s Not So Good – No doctrinal issues or behavior in need of correction are specifically mentioned in this message. By in large having “a reputation of being alive” they were already “dead.” They did not need to be attacked by the enemy because the believers had gone to sleep. The two times that the city of Sardis fell was because sentries had failed to faithfully carry out their duties. It can be the same for a church. When church leaders and members get accustomed to their blessings and complacent about their ministry they can become unguarded. Then the enemy finds his way in without an attack. The impression is that the assembly in Sardis was not aggressive in its witness to the city. There was no persecution because there was no encroachment of the enemy’s territory. In physics, no friction means no motion. The same might be said of a church. A church that is on the move often encounters friction and resistance, whereas one that is not on the move causes little or no friction. The unsaved in Sardis saw the church as a respectable group of people who were neither dangerous nor desirable. They were decent people who were spiritually dormant, with a dying witness and a decaying ministry.
Exhortation – The Lord’s counsel to the church began with, “Wake up!” (“from your slumber” Romans 13:11). Like the ancient citadel, the “sentries” were asleep. The first step toward renewal in a dying church is an honest awareness that something is wrong. When an organism is alive, there is growth, repair, reproduction, and power. If these elements are lacking in a church, then that church is either dying or already dead. As with the church at Ephesus, Jesus outlines the “steps” to be taken to recover (Figure 8.1).
Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your deeds complete in the sight of my God. Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; obey it, and repent.
Warning – The remnant (“a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes”) were warned that if they did not heed this exhortation, Jesus would come on them like a thief. That is, suddenly and unexpectedly. Like the city, having a reputation of being impregnable yet was taken by stealth unexpectedly during the night, so it would be for the church with a reputation for being alive but was dying.
Promise to Overcomers – Christ promised that true believers will be dressed in white, symbolic of the righteousness of God. The promise would have been especially meaningful to people who lived in a city where woolen garments were manufactured.
As true believers (apparently, there were many who were not), their names would not be blotted out of the book of life. This verse has bothered a lot of people, because it seems to suggest that unfaithful Christians will have their names taken out of the book of life (i.e., lose their salvation). The “book of life” appears in the Old Testament and figures prominently in Jewish apocalyptic literature. It is called the Lamb’s Book of Life in Revelation 13:8; 21:27. This is not a book in which names are recorded once someone accepts Christ and can be blotted out if they “fall from grace.” Rather, the book of life contains the names of all those who are born. Those who reject Christ and die in their sins have their names blotted out of the book, for they are spiritually dead. Those whose names are no longer recorded in this book on the Day of Judgment will go to hell (Revelation 20:15).
As it relates to the individual “Christian,” a person may faithfully attend church, and even have their name on a church roll (“a reputation for being alive”). And yet they may not be saved (“but you are dead”). The same can be true of a church – it may seem to be alive even though it is dying or perhaps already dead.
Reflection – Complacency, confidence in the flesh and comfort can be dangerous for the individual believer and a church. We become inattentive to the things of God, making it easy for Satan to slip into our churches and our lives.
Up Next – The Church in Philadelphia.
Cited sources for Sardis
- Green, E. M. B., & Hemer, C. J. (1996). Sardis. In D. R. W. Wood, I. H. Marshall, A. R. Millard, J. I. Packer, & D. J. Wiseman (Eds.), New Bible dictionary (3rd ed., p. 1062). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- Jamieson, R., Fausset, A. R., & Brown, D. (1997). Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible (Re 2:8). Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.
- Robertson, A. T. (1933). Word Pictures in the New Testament (Re 2:8). Nashville, TN: Broadman Press.
- Walvoord, John F. (1985). Revelation. In J. F. Walvoord & R. B. Zuck (Eds.), The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures (Vol. 2, p. 934). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.
- Barry, J. D., Heiser, M. S., Custis, M., Mangum, D., & Whitehead, M. M. (2012). Faithlife Study Bible (Re 2:8). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.
- Vincent, M. R. (1887). Word studies in the New Testament (Vol. 2, p. 442). New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.
- Wiersbe, W. W. (1996). The Bible exposition commentary (Vol. 2, p. 573). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.