To the church at Sardis

Read an introduction to the seven churches of Revelation 2-3

This is the fifth in a series of commentaries on Christ’s letters to the seven churches of Asia Minor. Read about Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum and Thyatira.

Sardis is located 30 miles southeast of Thyatira and is an important commercial city situated on a major east-west trade route. Key goods produced there include jewelry, dye and textiles. From a religious perspective, Sardis is a pagan city with a temple to Artemis, the ruins of which still remain. Archaeologists also have located the ruins of a small Christian church building next to the temple.

Sardis is said to be the chief city of Asia Minor in John’s day and perhaps the first city in that part of the world converted to the preaching of John. It also may have been the first city there to abandon Christianity and come to ruin. Christ’s stern message is not completely in vain, however, for we know of the second-century bishop Melito who distinguishes himself with piety and learning. Even so, the local church does not endure, nor does the city; only a village called Sart remains today among the ruins.

Christ’s self-description: Jesus identifies Himself as “The One who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars” (v. 2). The seven stars, of course, are the angels of the seven churches featured in Rev. 2-3. The phrase “seven spirits” ties back to Rev. 1:4 and may be translated there “the seven-fold Spirit,” likely a reference to the Holy Spirit. However, in this passage, since Jesus describes Himself as having the seven spirits, He may be reminding the church of His place in the Godhead and His authority as One who has all the fullness of the Spirit (see Isa. 11:2-5; Rev. 5:6). The number seven represents fullness or completeness; it is the number of God. And since there are seven churches and seven angels, Jesus may be telling the churches He has equipped each of them with the Holy Spirit for ministry and thus accepts no excuses for their failure to bear fruit. In other places in Revelation, the seven-fold Spirit of God is pictured as seven burning lamps (4:5) and seven all-seeing eyes (5:6).

Christ’s evaluation of the church’s condition: Jesus has no words of commendation for the church. There is no mention of endurance, faithfulness, suffering, or persecution. Warren Wiersbe comments, “There was reputation without reality, form without force. Like the city itself, the church at Sardis gloried in past splendor, but ignored present decay” (The Bible Exposition Commentary, Rev. 3:1).

“I know your works,” Jesus says, but He mentions none. “[Y]ou have a reputation for being alive, but you are dead” (v. 2). The word “reputation” may be translated “name.” The church in Sardis is not obscure. It is not unimportant to the community. Quite the contrary, the people of Sardis – and perhaps other church members throughout of Asia Minor – speak highly of the church. Its name is known. Its star is rising. Its reputation is flourishing. Things are happening at this church – or so the people say. But Jesus has another view altogether.

Evidently there is no opposition to the church in Sardis because the church is not preaching the cross, which is an offense to the unbelieving world (Gal. 5:11). Instead, the pagans of Sardis see Christians as nice, respectable people – neither dangerous nor desirable. The “dead” church – with the Spirit suppressed and the Word of God watered down – is no threat to Satan’s kingdom and therefore is perfectly acceptable to a world filled with religion. The apostle Paul warns us to avoid believers who embody the reputation of Sardis, holding to a form of religion but denying its power (2 Tim. 3:5).

Christ’s comfort and/or commands: “Be alert and strengthen what remains, which is about to die,” Jesus says, “for I have not found your works complete before My God” (v. 2b). Twice in the history of Sardis – a nearly impregnable fortress 1,500 feet above the main roads – the citadel has been captured, each time because the city’s sentries failed to keep watch. Jesus tells the sentries of the church, its leaders, to wake up and guard what remains. In other words, there is still hope of resuscitation for this dead church. Matthew Henry writes, “Whenever we are off our watch, we lose ground, and therefore must return to our watchfulness against sin, and Satan, and whatever is destructive to the life and power of godliness.”

What does Jesus mean when He says to “strengthen [or guard] what remains?” Some commentators see this as a reference to believers who are holding fast to their faith, while others argue that Jesus is pointing to their practices because He says, “I have not found your works complete.” Evidently “there is something wanting in them; there is the shell, but not the kernel; there is the carcass, but not the soul – the shadow, but not the substance” (Matthew Henry). Jesus offers three commands to the church: “Remember therefore what you have received and heard; keep it, and repent” (v. 3). Believers are to remember the finished work of Christ, proclaimed through preaching and sound doctrine. They are to keep these teachings as they partake of the ordinances of the church – the Lord’s Supper and baptism. And they are to repent of their lethargy with respect to Christian service. If they disregard the Lord’s commands, He will come “like a thief” and bring swift judgment upon them.

Jesus warns the church at Ephesus He will come and remove its lampstand. He tells the church at Pergamum He will fight against the Nicolaitans with the sword of His mouth. And he tells the church at Thyatira He will wreak havoc on the false prophetess Jezebel and her followers. But for Sardis, the lofty and secure fortress, He will come in stealth when their watchmen are drowsy, and bring swift and sudden judgment. Numerous times before, Jesus warned of His second coming as a surprise (see Matt. 24:42-43; Luke 12:39-40), and the apostles picked up on this message (see 1 Thess. 5:2,4,6; 2 Peter 3:10). But in the case of Sardis, it appears Jesus is speaking of temporal judgment that will come swiftly, perhaps well in advance of His personal, physical, and glorious return to earth. There is a Greek proverb that says “the feet of the avenging deities are shod with wool,” depicting their noiseless approach in judgment. How much more will Christ’s coming be like that of a thief in the night.

Even so, Jesus says, “you have a few people in Sardis who have not defiled their clothes, and they will walk with Me in white, because they are worthy” (v. 4). Candidates for Christian baptism in the ancient church wore white robes as a symbol of the imputed righteousness of Christ. Some at Sardis no doubt have remained faithful since that initiatory rite, and for them the Lord promises His intimate presence. Paul writes in Eph. 5:27 that Jesus gave Himself for the church “to present the church to Himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but holy and blameless.” And in Rev. 19:8 we see the church depicted as a bride, “permitted to wear fine linen, bright and pure. For the fine linen represents the righteous acts of the saints.” On earth, believers are declared righteous, or justified; in heaven, they are made righteous, or glorified. In either case, their white robes depict the righteousness of Christ.

Christ’s urge to listen: Jesus repeats the familiar charge in verse 6: “Anyone who has an ear should listen to what the Spirit says to the churches.” Many churches today are in trouble, not because they fiercely reject sound doctrine or practice open rebellion against the Lord, but because they inadvertently allow false teachings and ungodly practices to creep in. The end result is the same, however: dead churches admired by the world and religious institutions alike but loathed by God. “Wake yourself, wake yourself up!” Isaiah cries to his fellow countrymen on the brink of judgment. “These two things have happened to you: devastation and destruction, famine and sword. Who will grieve for you? How can I comfort you? Your children have fainted; they lie at the head of every street like an antelope in a net. They are full of the Lord’s fury, the rebuke of your God” (Isa. 51:17a, 19-20). The apostle Paul, possibly quoting an early Christian hymn based on passages in Isaiah, writes to the church, “Get up, sleeper, and rise up from the dead, and the Messiah will shine on you” (Eph. 5:14).

Christ’s promises to the victor: Jesus says “the victor will be dressed in white clothes, and I will never erase his name from the book of life, but will acknowledge his name before My Father and before His angels” (v. 5). Matthew Henry writes, “Christ will not blot the names of his chosen and faithful ones out of this book of life; men may be enrolled in the registers of the church, as baptized, as making a profession, as having a name to live, and that name may come to be blotted out of the roll, when it appears that it was but a name, a name to live, without spiritual life; such often lose the very name before they die, they are left of God to blot out their own names by their gross and open wickedness. But the names of those that overcome shall never be blotted out.”

John refers six times in Revelation to the book of life, sometimes called the Lamb’s book of life. Some commentators distinguish the two by stating that the book of life is God’s list of all human beings and that the lost are blotted out of this book, while the Lamb’s book of life features only the elect; therefore, at the end of time both sets of books are in perfect agreement. Yet John seems to use the terms “book of life” and “Lamb’s book of life” interchangeably. This is not to say that Christians may lose their salvation through grievous sin, for the Bible clearly teaches eternal security – a doctrine John emphasizes in his writings (for example, John 5:24; 10:27-30; 1 John 5:6-13). On the contrary, Jesus assures true believers in Sardis and elsewhere that He will keep them in His book and in His hand. The Bible Knowledge Commentary explains: “The statement that their names will not be erased from the book of life presents a problem to some. But a person who is truly born again remains regenerate, as John said elsewhere (John 5:24; 6:35-37, 39; 10:28-29). While this passage may imply that a name could be erased from the book of life, actually it only gives a positive affirmation that their names will not be erased.”

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