Sardis: Where the Great Physician Felt their Pulse and Declared Them Dead
February 17, 2012
By John Barnett
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This morning Revelation 3 begins with the second shortest letter of Christ’s Seven, written to Sardis, hometown of Aesop’s Fables and Midas’ Touch.
When we read these words we are not only hearing the report Jesus Christ gives after visiting the fifth of the seven churches, we also get the worst reported condition of any of the seven churches. The other churches were either given a perfect bill of health, or had some struggles with compromise, sin, and disobedience. But Sardis is different. Here:
The Great Physician Felt their Pulse & Declared Them Dead
The condition of Christ's Church at Sardis was critical. Jesus, the Great Physician, slipped into this church, knelt down and felt their pulse. Then, after He looked for vital signs, He notes in His report that this church is dead: it is no longer alive as a functioning body.
In just two generations since Pentecost: the Gospel across the world, this church was founded, flourished, and now has died. As we listen to Christ's words in Revelation 3:1-6, remember that the first rule of proper Biblical study and interpretation is to heed the context of any verse.
What is the context here? Jesus is reporting to John on Patmos the results of His tour of the churches. Jesus asks (actually commands in the imperative mode), for John to write these words down for Him. Jesus wants each church as well as all the churches to know what He found and what He expects. What did Jesus find in Sardis?
From Alive in Christ To Dead as His Church
Christ's report contains a tragic finding: the Body of Christ, the Church at Sardis, appeared dead at the moment. They no longer looked alive in Christ, their minds no longer fixed on Christ. They were walking corpses: acting, thinking, and responding just like all those who were dead in trespasses and sin around them.
Jesus demands that these “church-attenders” repent of just going through the motions of acting like Christians, and get His power at work within them. Sardis had a big name but no life; they were dead as last week’s cut flowers, cold and lifeless.
As we stand for the reading of Christ’s letter to them—we all need to listen and hear with our hearts what Christ said:
Revelation 3:1-6 (NKJV) “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. 2 Be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die, for I have not found your works perfect before God. 3 Remember therefore how you have received and heard; hold fast and repent. Therefore 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. 4 You have a few names even in Sardis who have not defiled their garments; and they shall walk with Me in white, for they are worthy. 5 He who overcomes shall be clothed in white garments, and I will not blot out his name from the Book of Life; but 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.”’
The saints at Sardis had gone ‘from holiness to phoniness’; they had “a name” as Jesus said, but it was only talk, there was no life that backed up the claim.
Jesus spent most of His public ministry bumping up against lifeless religion. Jesus warned those closest to the things of God (the Temple serving priests and Bible teaching Pharisees) that they were going to be cast out into outer darkness.
Note that Christ reports in v. 4 that there are a “few” that are still alive as His born-again children, but they are living in a morgue. Like an old campfire that is cold and gray, when Jesus stirred around in the ashes He found a few that still glowed with life; but the rest were dead, cold, and lifeless.
There are two lines of interpretation that have been taught from this passage. The first is represented by the MacArthur Study Bible, and others who say the church at Sardis was filled with lost, un-regenerated, unsaved people; and Christ is addressing the few believers in their midst .
The other view is clearly expressed by the editors of the ESV study Bible who say that the church was filled with real but sick believers in a coma, near death, but capable of hearing and responding to Christ's call .
Actually, both interpretations are reflected in this passage. When believers sin they act like unsaved people; and do get so weak and sick they are in a coma. But as Jesus said, only His sheep can hear His voice and follow Him. So, Jesus was saying to anyone who would and could hear: follow Me and turn from your sin. But, the few were the believers, and the many were either lost, or so steeped in their sins they acted lost, and looked dead. The sobering lesson from Christ is to beware of:
The Pathway that Leads to Death: Only Professing Jesus, Not Possessing Him
What would lead a church to be declared “dead” by Christ? How did they get so far from Him, His life that is abundant, and His Spirit that is to overflow our lives? The answers to those questions are perhaps some of the most sobering lessons we will come to in our walk through these seven churches.
God wants us to know the difference between appearance and reality! In every generation He has had to pronounce against certain ones: “This people draw near Me with their mouth, and with their lips do honor Me, but have removed their heart far from Me” (Isaiah 29:13).
That pronouncement came from Christ to His own generation as He ministered. As we open to Matthew 5, we start the longest recorded messages Jesus ever gave (known as the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7) is filled with four different warnings about the dangers of false professions. These three chapters end with the four most chilling words any religious person ever could hear: “I never knew you”.
Jesus spared no words to convey His utter contempt for religious charlatans with the false fruits of self-righteousness. He gave the greatest warnings to those who only appeared to be righteous. Perhaps the strongest warnings ever uttered, came from our loving Savior whenever He came across phonies. Some of His most graphic illustrations were about these Christian look-a-likes. Here are Christ's seven most well known warnings. Starting in Matthew 7 note that Jesus warned:
Beware of Ever Being Like This
1. A Ravenous Wolf Dressed in Sheep’s Clothing: Matthew 7:15 “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves."
2. A Fruitless Tree, Waiting to be Cut Down and Burned in the Fire: Matthew 7:19 “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire."
3. A Shocked Church Worker, Who Never Really Knew Jesus: Matthew 7:21-23 “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. 22 “Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ 23 “And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’
4. A House Built on Sand, Only to be Swept Away to Destruction: Matthew 7:26 “But everyone who hears these sayings of Mine, and does not do them, will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand: 27 “and the rain descended, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house; and it fell. And great was its fall.”
5. A Weed Gathered From Grain Fields, Only to be Cast into Bonfires: Matthew 13:30 ‘Let both grow together until the harvest, and at the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, “First gather together the tares and bind them in bundles to burn them, but gather the wheat into my barn.”
6. An Outwardly Fancy Cup, But Fouled with Filth on the Inside: Matthew 23:25-26 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cleanse the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of extortion and self-indulgence. 26 “Blind Pharisee, first cleanse the inside of the cup and dish, that the outside of them may be clean also.
7. Whitewashed on the Outside, but Still a Tomb Full of Rotting Corpses: Matthew 23:27 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness."
Professing the truth without possessing Him is what Christ was warning us about. What will be the end of all who profess Christ, but don’t possess Him personally? Back in Matthew 3 we see these words:
Matthew 3:12 “His winnowing fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clean out His threshing floor, and gather His wheat into the barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
SOME HORRIBLE BIOGRAPHIES
Other Scripture writers record horror stories, of false believers who are really: dogs, pigs, wolves, thistles, fire, rotten fruit; and all destined for destruction. These are the spiritual phonies that live across the pages of Scriptures:
1. THOSE LIKE CAIN (Genesis 3-4): who grow up nearly in Paradise, hearing from faithful parents about knowing the true God but depart and never look back at Him.
2. THOSE LIKE ESAU (Genesis 25-33): who will sell an eternally valuable spiritual inheritance for a moment of fleshly desire--and find no place of repentance and miss the heavenly city.
3. THOSE LIKE BALAAM (Numbers 25-27): who want to die the death of the righteous, but lived the life of rebellious and went to hell.
4. THOSE LIKE THE PHARISEES (Matthew 23): who lived hygienically sterile exterior holiness and are rotting with corrupted hearts inside and faced damnation.
5. THOSE LIKE JUDAS (John 13:18-30): who lived around Jesus for years, heard and saw Him daily but inside only grew colder and harder by the year!
6. THOSE LIKE MODERN LIBERAL CHURCHES: where the gospel is in a coffin for so many dead, liberal, cold and lifeless churches today. These churches have a name, like the first church, or the reorganized church, or the saint someone’s church, they have gorgeous facilities; but as the Great Physician kneels to feel their pulse, He pronounces them dead.
But, when Christ visits here, at His Church that meets here, could there be any of those phonies here at Calvary Bible Church?
Is it possible amongst us, in this great host at CBC, that your heart is filled with coldness, darkness and emptiness?
In Luke 6:46 Jesus asks a vital question:
Luke 6:46 (NKJV) “But why do you call Me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do the things which I say?
Why Call Me Lord And Obey Me Not?
These words form the basis for an engraving from the Middle Ages, present today in the Lutheran cathedral of Lubeck, Germany. The poem is entitled: "The Lament of Jesus Christ Against the Ungrateful World," which beautifully reflect our Lord’s teaching in Luke 6:46 about people who said Lord, but didn’t do what Jesus asked them to do:
Thus speaketh Christ our Lord to us,
You call Me master and obey Me not,
You call Me light and see Me not,
You call Me the way and walk Me not,
You call Me life and live Me not,
You call Me wise and follow Me not,
You call Me fair and love Me not,
You call Me rich and ask Me not,
You call Me eternal and seek Me not,
If I condemn thee, blame Me not.
PART ONE: MEET THE PHONY ASSEMBLY
V. 1a “And to the angel of the church in Sardis write”
Sardis was captured by Cyrus the Persian (549 BC) and by Antiochus (218 BC), both times because of its slackness. The city was built on a hill so steep that it's defenses seemed impregnable. On both occasions enemy troops scaled the precipice by night, and found that the over-confident inhabitants of Sardis had set no guard.
PART TWO: MEET THE REAL JESUS
v. 1b ‘These things says He who has the seven Spirits of God and the seven stars:
The Lord Jesus Christ is:
• Jesus Is All Knowing: Jesus spoke from the vantage point that He alone sees our hearts, and knows our motives.
• Jesus Is All Powerful: Jesus spoke as the only One who holds both their message, and their existence.
• Jesus Is Always Present: Jesus spoke as the very One who stands by their candle, walking around at every gathering of His Body the Church.
PART THREE: NO APPROVAL
Only two of the seven churches have the dubious honor of Christ finding nothing to commend them for: Sardis & Laodicea are the example of what NOT to do. Just as the only two of the seven that have no correction (Smyrna the suffering church, and Philadelphia the evangelizing church) are the examples of what pleases Christ.
PART FOUR: HEAR THE ADMONITION
v. 1c “I know your works, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead.”
You are dead; and your deeds are incomplete. They were still reciting the creed; saying their prayers; and paying their bills; but the fire of the Spirit had gone out!
PART FIVE: HEED THE APPEAL
Revelation 3:2-3 (NKJV) “Be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die, for I have not found your works perfect before God. 3 Remember therefore how you have received and heard; hold fast and repent. Therefore 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.”
Christ gives the believers of Sardis, five 2nd person singular (as in individual responses requested) imperatives as the Lord of the Church.
1. YOU Watch: This word (Gr. Word # 1127 gregoreo) expresses the idea of being wakefulness, sleepless, or watchfulness. No commandment (9x) appears more frequently for believers in the N.T. than this watchfulness for Christ's coming.
2. YOU Strengthen: This word (Gr. Word # 4741 streidzo) is our old friend from Paul’s writings, and describes a buttress, building a strong support, getting grounded.
3. YOU Remember: This word (Gr. Word # 3421 mnemoneueo) keep on remembering.
4. YOU Hold fast: This word (Gr. Word # 5083 tereo) guard, or watch.
5. YOU Repent This word (Gr. Word # 3340 metanoeo) change of mind that leads to a change in behavior towards God.
Watchfulness should be the constant attitude of the Christian life. This attitude is the key to:
HOW WE CAN DEFEAT THE DEVIL EVERY DAY
Watchfulness should be the constant attitude of the Christian life. “It is full time” says Paul, “to wake from sleep” (Romans 13:11). “Be watchful, stand firm in your faith,” he urges (I Cor. 16:13). It has been said for a nation that “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty”; and for a believer that eternal watchfulness is the price of salvation.
• Watch Out for Christ's Unexpected Coming (Mt. 24:42-43): Believers are repeatedly told by the Lord to be on the watch for Christ's coming. “Watch, therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. What I say to you, I say to all: watch.” (Matthew 24:42-43). Believers are asked to live every day as if it were our last.
• Watch Out for the Crouching Monster of Sin (Mt. 26:41): Believers are repeatedly told by the Lord to be on the watch against temptation. “Watch and pray, that you may not enter into temptation” (Matthew 26:41). Temptation waits for our unguarded moments and then attacks. In the Christian life there must be unceasing vigilance against it.
• Watch out for the permeating evil of false doctrine (Acts 20:29-31): Believers are repeatedly told by the Lord to be on the watch against false teaching. In Paul’s last address to the elders of Ephesus he warns them that grievous wolves will invade the flock from outside and from inside men will arise to speak perverse things. “Therefore”, he says, “Watch!” (Acts 20:29-31).
• Watch Out For The Prowling Lion Satan (I Pet. 5:8): The Christian must be on the watch against the wiles of the devil. The Christian is under a continuous spiritual attack that is subtle. We must ever be on the watch.
PART SIX: REST IN THE ASSURANCE
Revelation 3:4-6 “You have a few names even in Sardis who have not defiled their garments; and they shall walk with Me in white, for they are worthy. 5 “He who overcomes shall be clothed in white garments, and I will not blot out his name from the Book of Life; but 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.”
Have you thought about these three assurances? First, salvation means we get clothed, and Christ is our garment! Romans 13:14 (NKJV): “But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to fulfill its lusts.”
Second, salvation means we are kept in the book, we are forever saved. Can we lose our salvation? No, God clearly says so! In Sardis the King could blot you out if he did not like you; but not in the Kingdom of God.
Third, salvation means we are confessed: Think of it! To be taken by the hand by the Lord Jesus, to be led up to the throne of God Himself and to hear the Lord Jesus call you by your name and present you in person as His well beloved son or daughter!
That is what they needed to do in Sardis, and that is what we need to do today.
Hymn # 193 written by Count Nicholaus von Zinzendorf says it well:
Jesus, thy blood and righteousness
My beauty are my glorious dress:
‘Midst flaming worlds, in these arrayed,
With joy shall I lift up my head.
Bold shall I stand in thy great day,
For who ought to my charge shall lay?
Fully absolved through these I am--
From sin and fear, from guilt and shame
The folks who associated with this local church were not being obedient to the clear commands Christ had already given them, thus they were not pleasing Him.
What had Jesus already asked for them to do, and taught them through their pastor’s ministry of the Word to them?
Overflowing with His Spirit. John 7:37-39 (New King James Version) On the last day, that great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried out, saying, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to Me and drink. 38 He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.” 39 But this He spoke concerning the Spirit, whom those believing in Him would receive; for the Holy Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.
Energized by His Spirit. Romans 8:8-11 So then, those who are in the flesh cannot please God. 9 But you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. Now if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he is not His. 10 And if Christ is in you, the body is dead because of sin, but the Spirit is life because of righteousness. 11 But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you.
Living Life in the power of His Spirit. Gal 5:16 I say then: Walk in the Spirit, and you shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh.
Jesus offers us overflowing Spirit filled lives. But to be filled we must first empty what is already there in our lives.
Jesus called them to be pleasing God by choosing to repent of just going through the motions of acting like Christians and get His power at work within them. This leads to the constant desire of God for these early believers, and us today:
To Overflow with His Spirit: Stop Loving the World
Another letter these churches would have received were the three short Epistles, John wrote when he was pastoring the great Ephesian Church. As one who was characterized by his deep love for Christ, John especially warned about misplacing our love.
Especially misdirecting love for God and allowing that love to rest upon what God hates, the sinful system of the god of this world Satan. John calls the Devil’s system: “the world”.
Stop Loving the World. 1 John 2:15-17 (NKJV) Do not love [present active imperative] the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. 16 For all that is in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—is not of the Father but is of the world. 17 And the world is passing away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides forever.
The world operates by sending us temptations packaged as enticements from our lusts.
God says that lusts are packaged in varied shapes, sizes, and colors...but they fall into one of three categories:
• We are tempted by the flesh to chase pleasures: this equals the cravings of the body. These are all of the sensual temptations. Whether for food, pleasure, or fun: our bodies are built to crave and God says don’t allow your flesh to control your cravings. That is worldly and I am against that lust in any form in your lives.
• We are tempted by the eyes to chase stuff: this equals the lusting of the eyes. These are all of the material temptations. This is lust for things. The things may be as large as a house or as small as a ring, as bright and dazzling as a new sports car or as dull and dusty as a two-hundred-year-old antique dresser. Lest we think that this is not as bad as the lusts of the flesh, remember that covetousness (insatiable longing for more things) is as damnable as idol worship. That means that the lust for possessions is as wicked as the lust for immorality. Beware of both, they are deadly!
• We are tempted by pride to chase status, this equals the boasting of the mouth. These are all of the personal temptations.
• This can be selfishness because I’m most important.
• This can be irritableness because life revolves around me.
• This can be untruthfulness because I need to protect myself.
• This can be laziness because I want to rest and comfort myself. All of these are pride as well as obvious lust for status and special recognition.
• Pride also shows up as lust for the status of fame, fortune, power, or authority. Pride may also be wanting a title that makes heads turn. In the Scriptures this was Satan’s sin. Pride in all its forms is heinous to God.
Any form of lust God hates. And so any form of lust we must flee and also hate. Lust means worldliness which offends God, it separates us from His blessing.
WHAT’S THE RIGHT RESPONSE TO CHRIST'S MESSAGE?
1. God hates profession without possession. Beware of pretenders. Are you pretending?
2. God doesn’t approve of just maintenance. It’s life and growth and fruit or nothing! Are you growing?
3. God wants to see you: Watching out-Washed in white-written in eternity-waiting to have him call your name.
Does He know your name? Are you robed in White? WAKE UP TODAY!!!
A true believer does not practice sin; a counterfeit believer cannot help but practice sin, because he does not have God’s new nature within him. But these words were not written so that you and I might check on other people. They were inspired so that we may examine ourselves. Each of us must answer honestly before God:
1. Do I have the divine nature within me or am I merely pretending to be a Christian?
2. Do I cultivate this divine nature by daily Bible reading and prayer?
3. Has any unconfessed sin defiled my inner man? Am I willing to confess and forsake it?
4. Do I allow my old nature to control my thoughts and desires, or does the divine nature rule me? When temptation comes, do I “play with it” or do I flee from it? Do I immediately yield to the divine nature within me?