Sardis was the fourth church to which Revelation was sent. It had at one time been a very powerful city, the capital of the Lydian empire. It was ruled by a man named Croesus whose wealth was the subject of the proverb “richer than Croesus. The city was built on top of a hill which could only be approached from one side which made it easy to defend. However, the ease of defense led to complacency. Because of the cliffs on three sides, they did not feel the need to carefully watch for the approach of invaders. The Persians under King Cyrus found a way to come into the back door of the city and took it from Croesus. Several centuries later it happened again. This time a small detachment of troops scaled the cliffs. The guards were asleep, and the city fell again.
At the time of the writing of Revelation, the city was dying. But it still appeared impressive. There was a large unfinished temple to Cybele, who was similar to Artemis and was supposed to bring the dead to life. There was a large gymnasium and library complex. There athletes could train in the nude of course, as the nude male body was the subject of worship. Sardis also had the largest synagogue found anywhere in the Roman world built in the middle of this complex which would seem odd, considering it was next to the gym. A small Christian church was found built in the middle of the unfinished temple of Cybele. We don’t know when the church was built in relation to the cessation of worship at the Pagan temple, but its location also seems odd.
Sardis was known for its wool industry and may have been where the dyeing of wool was first practiced. Trade guilds controlled the manufacturing of woolen garments and assured their quality.
Emperor worship was also practiced in Sardis. They lost out to Smyrna in being granted the privilege of erecting a temple to Caesar. We do not know the extent of the Emperor cult, though.
Exposition of the Text
In the messages to the other churches so far, Jesus commends them for something before dealing with the particular concerns. But he tears right in to the church at Sardis. The name of the city sounds like the precious stone sardius used in the high Priest’s breastplate and mentioned in chapter 4. But this church was no precious jewel.
Jesus refers to the same seven stars in His right hand that he also applies to the church of Ephesus. Like the Ephesians, the church at Sardis needs to be reminded that Jesus has power over the churches to protect and to punish. In Ephesus, this was coupled with His walking among the seven candlesticks as a priests trimming the lamps that they might burn more rightly. Here, Jesus reminds the church of Sardis that He has the seven spirits of God also, which most see as a reference to the Holy Spirit. However, the seven spirits might also refer to the spiritual life of the seven congregations in addition. Did this church lack the fruit of the Holy Spirit?
Like the city itself, the church was living on its past reputation. And like the city of Sardis, the church for all its impressive appearance was dying. In fact, Jesus calls them dead. From this we get the impression that on the surface, the church was active and ministering. But Jesus knew better. He commands them to be watchful and to strengthen their defenses. This is a challenge to the church which was similar to Yahweh’s challenge to Israel in the Old Testament: “Prepare to meet your God (in battle)”. This was an open threat. They were not going to be facing Cyrus the Persian or the Greek general Antiochus. It was Jesus Himself who would come suddenly and take down the church. It is almost as though Jesus is saying “Go ahead and post your guard. Go ahead and strengthen your defenses. What good is that going to do if you are fighting against me?” The other choice the church would have is to recognize the folly of fighting against God and come out to Him.
When the Babylonian army came against Jerusalem, the city did all they could do to withstand the siege. However, the prophet Jerimiah told them that it was useless to resist. Instead, he commanded those who wished to save their lives to come out of the city and surrender to the Babylonians. Those who resisted Jeremiah’s counsel were resisting the LORD at the peril of their own lives. If this church was to live and not die, it needed to come out to Jesus and surrender to Him.
As we have mentioned, Sardis had a huge synagogue, trade guilds, and emperor worship. You would think this church would be suffering persecution on all sides. But this church seemed to be getting along with everyone. There is not even the slightest hint of persecution. To this we must ask, “Why”? Here is a church which is at peace with its neighbors but unaware that it was at war against God. It must have completely sold out to the surrounding culture. If they had been faithful to the message they had first received, conflict would have been inevitable.
Jesus command the church to immediate repentance. They need to be on guard against the surrounding culture, not Jesus. They needed to do something that the city had trouble doing with its temple, to finish the work Jesus had started in them. They were to remember how they had received the Gospel which would have resulted, as it did elsewhere, with persecution and opposition and get back on message. The church was called to be the salt of the earth. But this church had lost the salt of the Christian message and was about to be thrown out and trodden under foot.
In verse four, we have the strong Greek “but” with its idea of replacing “a” with “b”. In this, the dead church which Jesus has just finished castigating will be replaced by the people of His true and living church, the remnant clothed in pure white raiment. Their garments had not been stained with sin. Instead they had been washed clean in the blood of the Lamb. In Revelation, the white garments are the clothing of the martyrs of Jesus. These are those who did not compromise but remained faithful unto death. They are the ones who realized what offense the gospel is to the world and were bold to proclaim it uncompromisingly. The white garment was also priestly attire. Jesus appeared to John in a long white robe with a golden sash. These faithful members of the church of Sardis were to be included in the promise that Jesus made in Chapter 1 of being made “a kingdom and priests unto my God”.
To these overcomers in Sardis who have not blotted their garments is the promise from Jesus that by no means shall they be blotted out of the book of Life. The way to assurance is faithfulness and perseverance. Does this mean that our works justify us and also that we can lose our salvation? There has been much bantering back and forth between the proponents of eternal security and those who deny this. It must be said is that in the Gospel of John, the sheep do not keep themselves. They are kept by the shepherd who watches over them and guards them from the enemy. Jesus is the one who laid His body at the gate of the sheepfold who laid down His life for those of the sheep.
In Luke 15, the shepherd leaves the ninety and nine to find the lost sheep. The lost sheep does not find its own way back to the fold. Instead the shepherd searches for the sheep until he finds it. And even then, instead of putting a rope around the sheep and having it follow the shepherd back, he carries the lost lamb upon his shoulder and rejoices with the others when the sheep comes back into the fold. Such is the character of our Savior, the same Jesus who has so sharply rebuked the church at Sardis. This is why Jesus so urgently addresses them. He has searched them out in this letter and called them to repentance. It is He, not Cybele, who gives life to the dead. He is not willing the death of the church, but life.
Jesus goes on to say that He will confess these overcomers before the holy angels. This is not a judgment witness as though Jesus is advocating the believer’s case before the angels set up as judges. Jesus, not the angels, is the judge. And Paul says that the case is the other way around, that we will judge the angels. Rather it is the confession of joy over his people to the angels. There is more joy in heaven over a repentant sinner than anything else. It is certainly a joyful thing to become the source of joy to God as a Father who is proud of His children. This is the message the churches need to hear.
The church of Sardis is alive and well in the churches in the United States today. There is a lot of “ministry” going on. Things appear well on the surface. The church is providing lifesaving malaria nets to Africa. The hungry are being fed. The naked are being clothed. The church is politically involved in trying to transform the world. The church is trying to remain relevant in the eyes of the world.
But in the sight of God, too many churches are dead because they have compromised with the world and its values to the point where no one can tell the difference. It is certainly a good thing to feed the poor, offer relief to storm victims and other do other works of mercy. Jesus did the same, even to the most unthankful of people. These things should continue to be done, but not at the expense of leaving the church’s main purpose for existing undone. If we are true to the Gospel message, then we will be seen as foolish followers of a message which is foolish and scandalous in the eyes of the world. They world will be irritated by the Christian message. But we must keep on message.
John Wesley was faithful to the message of repentance and believing the gospel. His journals are full of the threats he received. In some cases the church itself hired thugs to throw stones at Wesley’s outdoor meetings and other such things to hurt and disrupt the preaching of the Gospel. Here was a church at war against her own Lord. In many cases, these hooligans would come to the meetings with the intention of harming John Wesley were struck down by the Spirit instead and became Christians.
But instead of offering the gospel Wesley preached, we are offering a gospel that offends no one. There is no longer a message to escape the wrath which is to come because the church thinks there is no such thing as God’s wrath. The message of today is “God is love and love is god”. There is no sin but the sin of not tolerating sin. Our churches have become a place to receive an inoculation against catching Christianity. We give them just enough of the live virus to allow antibodies to form against Christianity. Today’s church in America is at war against God. How can the church think that it can fight against God? Go ahead and post the guards to keep Christ out. Go ahead and make sure the defenses. The Lord who holds the seven stars can easily and suddenly enter and remove the light. The only hope for these churches of Sardis is to repent and return to the message which first gave them life. Otherwise, their destruction is assured.
To those who find themselves in such churches, the command goes out to remain faithful to Jesus. Even if their churches die, they will live. They will be clothed in white. They shall not be blotted out of the book of Life.
How can you know that you are being faithful to the Lord? If you are, people will think you are strange. They falsely accused the early church of incest, atheism, and cannibalism. They will wonder why you don’t run to the same excesses as the world does, even when “everyone in the church is doing it”. You could in America suffer the loss of promotion or even be fired for being “too Christian”. But considering that many Christians in this world are threatened with loss of life and torture, we should count ourselves happy to suffer these privations.
The church grows everywhere it is persecuted. The more it is persecuted, the faster it seems to grow. This is because the church is being faithful to the message of Jesus.