The wealthy city of Laodicea lies 40 miles southeast of Philadelphia on the road to Colossae. The city was destroyed by an earthquake in 62 A.D. and rebuilt by its wealthy citizens without the help of the state. Laodicea is a banking center and a producer of glossy black wool from which clothes and carpets are fashioned. The city also is host to a famous medical school that produces a salve for treating ailments of the eye. A massive wall rings the city. Three marble theaters are located here and, like Rome, Laodicea is built on seven hills. There is no evidence that Paul ever visited the city, but he expresses great interest in it (Col. 2:1-2; 4:16). The city’s water supply originates in hot springs six miles away at Denizli. In its travels through the aqueduct to Laodicea, the water becomes tepid, providing a fitting backdrop for Christ’s letter to the church here, which lays claim to being the most notorious of the seven churches in Asia Minor.
Jesus calls Himself “The Amen” (v. 14). This word appears nine times in Revelation and numerous times in other Scriptures, but this is the only time it is used as a title or name. It is a Hebrew expression of strong affirmation meaning “so be it.” More than 20 times in John’s Gospel Jesus prefaces His remarks with the words, “Amen, amen.” Paul writes of Jesus, “For every one of God’s promises is ‘Yes’ in Him. Therefore the ‘Amen’ is also through Him for God’s glory through us” (2 Cor. 1:20). As the Amen, Jesus speaks and His words are as true as His divine nature; what He speaks always comes to pass.
He also identifies Himself as “the faithful and true witness” and “the Originator of God’s creation” (v. 14). Drawing from John’s description of Him as “the faithful witness” (Rev. 1:5), Jesus emphasizes not only that He speaks the truth but that He is the truth (John 14:6). The name “the Originator of God’s creation” in no way implies that Jesus is a created being or came into existence at any time. The Greek word translated “Originator” or “Beginning” is arche, which carries the idea of “active cause.” Paul instructed the Colossian church to share his letter with the church at Laodicea. If his instructions were obeyed, then believers in Laodicea would have been familiar with Paul’s description of Christ as Creator: “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn [Greek prototokos, pre-eminent; not protoktisis, first-created] over all creation; because by Him everything was created … all things have been created through Him and for Him” (Col. 1:15-16).
Christ’s evaluation of the church’s condition
As with Sardis, Jesus has no words of commendation for the church at Laodicea. “I know your works,” He says, “that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were cold or hot” (v. 15). Just as water from the hot springs in Hierapolis turns lukewarm by the time it reaches Laodicea, the church has lost its zeal for God and is simply going through the motions, like water running through an aqueduct. Jesus’ wish that the Laodicean believers be either hot (literally “boiling”) or icy cold is intriguing. Why would our Savior actually find coldness less offensive than lukewarmness? Steve Gregg writes, “Perhaps we should not find this too surprising. Those who zealously oppose Christ (cold), and those who zealously serve Him (hot), have one thing in common: they both take Him seriously. The one who neither opposes nor serves offers Christ the ultimate insult – affirming His existence, but not taking Him seriously” (Revelation: Four Views, p. 79).
Jamieson, Fausset and Brown offer further insight: “[T]here is more hope of the ‘cold,’ that is, those who are of the world, and not yet warmed by the Gospel call; for, when called, they may become hot and fervent Christians: such did the once-cold publicans, Zaccheus and Matthew, become. But the lukewarm has been brought within reach of the holy fire, without being heated by it into fervor: having religion enough to lull the conscience in false security, but not religion enough to save the soul” (A Commentary, Critical and Explanatory, on the Old and New Testaments, Re 3:15).
“So,” Jesus says, “because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I am going to vomit you out of My mouth” (v. 16). The word “vomit” also may be translated “spew” or “spit.” Just as lukewarm water turns the stomach – physicians have been known to use it to induce vomiting – a church that’s indifferent to Christ is nauseating to the One who gave Himself for it. There seems little hope that the church at Laodicea will change. While Jesus has not yet brought judgment against those who profess His name, He assures them He is “going to” do so. The Lord knows the beginning from the end, and He knows what decisions we will make, whether to serve Him as Lord or grow cozy in self-satisfaction. Yet the decision and its consequences lie with us.
Next, Jesus contrasts Laodicea’s self-image with reality. The church says, “I’m rich; I have become wealthy, and need nothing” (v. 17a). Since the city itself is financially secure, the church no doubt has significant resources at its disposal. We can suppose that it meets in a comfortable and modern facility, pays its staff well, supports a wide array of programs, contributes to many civic and charitable organizations, and carries no debt. It is conceivable that other churches are coming to Laodicea for financial assistance. The church – it needs nothing. Or so it claims. But Jesus has a far different, and far more accurate, appraisal. He tells them, “you don’t know that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked” (v. 17b).
It is revealing that Jesus tells His people they “don’t know” their true condition. Like the pale and gaunt woman with an eating disorder who looks in the mirror and sees only an overweight body, the church at Laodicea sees itself as robust when in fact it is spiritually on its last legs.
The words “wretched, pitiful, poor” describe a church in the throes of spiritual bankruptcy, without the strength or the good sense to extend a hand and ask God for help. The church also is “blind,” Jesus says, a term often used in scripture to depict spiritual darkness. The apostle Peter teaches that when Christians are not growing spiritually, it affects their vision. He calls such Christians “blind and shortsighted” (see 2 Peter 1:5-9). If they have any advantage at all, it is over unbelievers, whom Paul describes as “blinded” by the “god of this age,” so that the light of the gospel is hidden from them (2 Cor. 4:3-4). Finally, the Laodiceans are “naked,” a reality quite difficult to grasp in a city known for its fine linen. Like the emperor who has no clothes, the Christians in this city are aloof to their spiritual shame, preferring to believe the flattery of their countrymen rather than the facts from their Savior. “Let us daily beg of God that we may not be left to flatter and deceive ourselves in the concerns of our souls,” writes Matthew Henry (Re 3:14-22).
Christ’s comfort and/or commands
Jesus has the antidotes for all of Laodicea’s ills. “I advise you to buy of Me gold refined in the fire so that you may be rich,” He says (v. 18a). The refined gold implies character that has been refined through affliction. Job tells his friends, “He [God] knows the way I have taken; when He has tested me, I will emerge as pure gold” (Job 23:10). And Peter comforts persecuted Christians with these words, “You rejoice in this, though now for a short time you have had to be distressed by various trials so that the genuineness of your faith – more valuable than gold, which perishes though refined by fire – may result in praise, glory, and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:6-7).
Next, Jesus tells them to buy “white clothes so that you may be dressed and your shameful nakedness not be exposed” (v. 18b). Although they could go to the market and buy fine black woolen linens, Jesus urges them to prefer white garments, which in Rev. 19:8 represent “the righteous acts of the saints.”
Finally, Jesus exhorts them to buy “ointment to spread on your eyes so that you may see” (v. 18c). The city’s famous eye salve would not remedy the church’s spiritual blindness. But Jesus, who opened the eyes of the blind on many occasions, would gladly restore the church’s spiritual eyesight.
Note that in each case, Jesus instructs the church to “buy” these antidotes. How can a spiritually impoverished church do this? In the same way God’s spiritually thirsty people in Isaiah’s day are instructed to receive divine help: “Come, everyone who is thirsty, come to the waters; and you without money, come, buy, and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost!” (Isa. 55:1). Believers are sometimes deceived into thinking they can work their way out of a spiritual drought. If they would just keep going, keep working, keep doing the things they’ve always done, then the Lord will take notice and restore the joy of their salvation. King David knew it could never be this way. Broken beneath the weight of his sins with Bathsheba (with whom he committed adultery) and Uriah (whom he had ordered killed), the king simply acknowledge that if there is any remedy for his sin, it must come from God: “Restore the joy of Your salvation to me, and give me a willing spirit” (Ps. 51:12). Jesus has already bought our spiritual health through His finished work on the cross. We trample His blood beneath our feet when we think our good works are of any value to cancel sin in God’s economy.
While there is not a word of commendation in this letter, Jesus reminds us of His abiding love of the church. “As many as I love, I rebuke and discipline,” He says. “So be committed and repent” (v. 19). The word “committed” is translated “zealous” in some translations. The church at Laodicea has not been “hot” (Gr. zestos), so she is urged to be “zealous” (Gr. zeleue). Both words are derived from the same Greek verb zeo, which means “to boil.” Like a loving father, Jesus lifts His voice in chastisement before He raises His arm in judgment. Proverbs 3:11-12 reads: “Do not despise the Lord’s instruction, my son, and do not loathe His discipline. For the Lord disciplines the one He loves, just as a father, the son he delights in.” Those who heed Christ’s call and repent will again enjoy intimate fellowship with their Savior. Those who stand in self-sufficiency, stiff-necked and aloof, will find they stand alone.
Christ’s urge to listen
Jesus ends this letter with the same words He has offered to the previous six churches: “Anyone who has an ear should listen to what the Spirit says to the churches” (v. 22). But He prefaces these remarks with an invitation found only in the letter to the Laodiceans. “Listen!” He says, “I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and have dinner with him, and he with Me” (v. 20). We often use these words to urge unbelievers toward faith in Christ. But Jesus is speaking to Christians here – not the entire church at Laodicea, for no doubt many professing Christians are not the Lord’s at all, but to any individual Christian who desires fellowship with Him. The ESV Study Bible puts it this way: “I stand at the door and knock, not as a homeless transient seeking shelter but as the master of the house, expecting alert servants to respond immediately to his signal and welcome his entrance (Luke 12:35-36; James 5:9). To the one who opens the door, Christ will come in and will eat with him, a picture of close personal fellowship.”
Christ’s promises to the victor
Jesus says, “The victor: I will give him the right to sit with Me on My throne, just as I also won the victory and sat down with My Father on His throne” (v. 21). The same Christ who threatens to vomit the unfaithful out of His mouth now offers them a seat on His throne. The highest place is within reach of the lowliest sinner by the grace of God. Take note that Jesus has met the same temptations facing the Laodiceans, and many more, yet emerges victoriously and in so doing becomes our great high priest (Heb. 4:15-16).
Matthew Henry writes: “[T]hose who are conformed to Christ in his trials and victories shall be conformed to him in his glory; they shall sit down with him on his throne, on his throne of judgment at the end of the world, on his throne of glory to all eternity, shining in his beams by virtue of their union with him and relation to him, as the mystical body of which he is the head” (Re 3:14-22).
Lastly, Jesus’ promise to give the victor the right to sit with Him on His throne implies a delegation of His ruling authority, which is taught elsewhere in scripture:
- In the parable of the 10 minas, Jesus says, “Well done, good slave … Because you have been faithful in a very small matter, have authority over 10 towns” (Luke 19:17)
- Paul writes to the Corinthians, “Do you not know that we will judge angels – not to speak of things pertaining to this life” (1 Cor. 6:3)?
- And in Rev. 20:4, John writes, “Then I saw thrones, and people seated on them who were given authority to judge …”
Premillennialists also see this as a promise that believers will reign with Christ in the millennium. In any case, the believer’s victory is Christ’s victory; without His finished work on the cross there would be one common eternal destiny for all people – hell – and the only victory would be the vindication of God’s holiness in judgment. Believers do well to echo the words of Paul, quoting the prophets Isaiah and Hosea: “Death has been swallowed up in victory. O Death, where is your victory? O Death, where is your sting? Now the sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 15:54b-57).
Twenty-eight miles southeast of Sardis is Philadelphia, built by King Attalus Philadelphus of Pergamum. “Philadelphus” is similar to the Greek word philadelphia, meaning brotherly love, which occurs seven times in the New Testament. Known for its agricultural products, Philadelphia also is situated on a geological fault and therefore prone to earthquakes. In 17 B.C. a major earthquake destroyed Philadelphia, Sardis and 10 other cities. Its location is crucial, however, as it sits on a main route from Rome to the East and therefore is called “the gateway to the East.” It also is known as “little Athens” because of its many pagan temples.
The city hosts one of only two churches – the other being Smyrna – for which Christ has nothing but unvarnished praise. While the city’s good name preceded the church, the believers in Philadelphia no doubt enhance its reputation because of their love of Christ and love for one another. “But it is not enough to love God and our fellow believers; we must also love a lost world and seek to reach unbelievers with the Good News of the Cross,” writes Warren Wiersbe. “This church had a vision to reach a lost world, and God set before them an open door” (The Bible Exposition Commentary, Rev. 3:7).
Jesus identifies Himself as “The Holy One, the True One, the One who has the key of David, who opens and no one will close, and closes and no one opens” (v. 7). His declaration of holiness is a claim to deity, which the faithful saints in Philadelphia celebrate in contrast to the city’s numerous pagan gods. The “True One” undergirds this audacious claim to being, not just a deity, but the one true and living God to the exclusion of all others. The name also corresponds to Rev. 1:5, where Jesus is described as “the faithful witness.” In the words “the One who has the key of David,” Jesus tells us He has the authority as Messiah to open and close doors of ministry. He also has the keys of death and Hades (1:18) and ultimately tosses both into the lake of fire (Rev. 20:14). In the New Testament, an “open door” is an opportunity for the gospel’s advance (Acts 14:27; 1 Cor. 16:9; 2 Cor. 2:12; Col. 4:3). As the Head of the church, Jesus determines when and where the gospel will be effective (see Acts 16:6-10).
As the One who holds the key of David, Jesus is the antitype of Eliakim, to whom the key, the emblem of authority over the house of David, is given in Isa. 22:15-25. Taken away from Shebna, who is unfaithful and therefore unworthy, the key is given to Eliakim. In much the same way, Jesus takes authority over His people – indeed over the whole earth – because He alone is worthy to receive all authority from the Father (Matt. 28:18)..
Christ’s evaluation of the church’s condition
Jesus says, “I know your works” in the midst of limited strength. The believers in Philadelphia have “kept My word,” “not denied My name,” and “kept My command to endure” (vv. 8, 10). This is perhaps a reference to some particular unnamed trial in which the faithful, with little strength and few resources of their own, have found comfort in the words of Jesus to Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). Matthew Henry suggests that Jesus’ commendation is laced with a mild rebuke in the words “Because you have limited strength” (v. 8). Henry writes, “[T]hough Christ accepts a little strength, yet believers should not rest satisfied in a little, but should strive to grow in grace, to be strong in faith, giving glory to God. True grace, though weak, will do more than the greatest gifts or highest degrees of common grace, for it will enable the Christian to keep the word of Christ, and not to deny his name. Obedience, fidelity, and a free confession of the name of Christ, are the fruits of true grace, and are pleasing to Christ as such.” Other commentators see no hint of rebuke whatsoever in Christ’s words. Rather, they see Jesus praising the believers in Philadelphia for leveraging what little measure of faith they’ve been given. The apostle Paul tells us not everyone has the same capacity for faith in God (Rom. 12:3).
There appear to be two obstacles for the church in Philadelphia. The first is a lack of strength; evidently the church is neither large nor strong. Second, the church faces opposition from unbelieving Jews in Philadelphia. Jewish Christians perhaps are banned from the synagogue in the city. In addition, since Satan is “the father of liars” (John 8:44), believers in Philadelphia no doubt are the targets of slander and false accusations hatched from the “synagogue of Satan” (v. 9). Warren Wiersbe writes, “Unbelief sees the obstacles, but faith sees the opportunities! And since the Lord holds the keys, He is in control of the outcome!” (Re 3:7).
Christ’s comfort and/or commands
Jesus offers three promises to the church: an open door, deliverance from enemies, and protection from an approaching time of trouble. As mentioned earlier, the New Testament uses the concept of an open door as an opportunity for ministry. Peter rightly opens the gospel door to the Gentiles (Acts 10:1-48), then wrongly tries to close it in part through hypocrisy in Antioch (Gal. 2:11-18). Paul on several occasions refers to an open door of ministry:
- “But I will stay in Ephesus until Pentecost, because a wide door for effective ministry has opened for me …” (1 Cor. 16:8-9a).
- “When I came to Troas for the gospel of Christ, a door was opened to me by the Lord” (2 Cor. 2:12).
- “At the same time, pray also for us that God may open a door to us for the message, to speak the mystery of the Messiah – for which I am in prison – so that I may reveal it as I am required to speak” (Col. 4:3).
It is clear that the Lord (referred to as Christ, the Holy Spirit or God) opens these doors of opportunity – and at times closes them. Luke records, for example, that the Holy Spirit prevents Paul and Timothy from speaking the gospel message in the province of Asia while empowering them to speak in the regions of Phrygia and Galatia. When they come to Mysia, the missionaries try to go into Bithynia but the “Spirit of Jesus” prevents them. Paul then has a vision in which he receives the Macedonian call and immediately sets sail, concluding that “God” has called him to evangelize there (Acts 16:6-10).
Jesus’ second promise to the church at Philadelphia is deliverance from its enemies: “Take note! I will make those from the synagogue of Satan, who claim to be Jews and are not, but are lying – note this – I will make them come and bow down at your feet, and they will know that I have loved you” (Rev. 3:9). Matthew Henry notes, “Observe, First, The greatest honour and happiness any church can enjoy consist in the peculiar love and favour of Christ. Secondly, Christ can discover this his favour to his people in such a manner that their very enemies shall see it, and be forced to acknowledge it. Thirdly, This will, by the grace of Christ, soften the hearts of their enemies, and make them desirous to be admitted into communion with them” (Rev. 3:7-13). The promise to Philadelphia is greater than the Lord’s promise to Smyrna. Jesus tells the believers in Smyrna they will suffer at the hands of those in the “synagogue of Satan,” but He indicates to the faithful in Philadelphia that some of the Jews ultimately will turn in faith to Christ. At what point will the unbelieving Jews bow down at the Philadelphians’ feet? Perhaps when they are glorified and enthroned with Jesus, at which time every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord (Phil. 2:10-11).
The third promise of Jesus is deliverance from “the hour of testing that is going to come over the whole world to test those who live on the earth” (Rev. 3:10). What is this hour of testing? And does it impact the entire earth or simply the known world of John’s day? Futurist scholars believe the “hour of testing” is the coming global tribulation. If so, Jesus’ message should comfort believers that we will not have to endure these unprecedented dark days. Preterists argue that a crisis affecting the Roman Empire satisfies the terminology of verse 10 since the term “the whole world” is used to designate the empire in Luke 2:1 and elsewhere. Since they place the writing of the Book of Revelation prior to 70 A.D., they say the “hour of testing” is the death of Nero in 68 A.D. and the civil wars that follow, along with the quelling of the Jewish rebellion, destruction of the temple, and scattering of the Jews in 70 A.D. Still others, such as idealists, say the time of trial is generic and applies to Christians who suffer throughout the church age. It is difficult to know with certainty which of these interpretations is correct – if any of them. However, Jesus’ promise must have meant something to the first-century believers in Philadelphia, even if there is a further fulfillment in later times.
Warren Wiersbe offers this view: “This is surely a reference to the time of Tribulation that John described in Revelation 6–19, ‘the time of Jacob’s trouble.’ This is not speaking about some local trial, because it involves ‘them that dwell on the earth’ (see Rev. 6:10; 8:13; 11:10; 12:12; 13:8, 12, 14; 14:6; 17:2, 8). The immediate reference would be to the official Roman persecutions that would come, but the ultimate reference is to the Tribulation that will encompass the earth before Jesus Christ returns to establish His kingdom. In many Bible scholars’ understanding, Revelation 3:10 is a promise that the church will not go through the Tribulation, but will be taken to heaven before it begins (see 1 Thes. 4:13–5:11). The admonition, ‘Behold, I come quickly,’ would strengthen this view” (Re 3:7).
Finally, Jesus exhorts His followers, “Hold on to what you have, so that no one takes your crown” (v. 11). What do believers in Philadelphia have? Limited strength that compels them to trust God, faith in God’s promises, faithfulness to His name, and endurance in persecution. By the world’s standards, these are puny resources. But entrusted to God’s hands they are powerful weapons for waging spiritual battle, and believers who employ them will earn rewards (crowns) for faithful service. While a crown may be taken away, a believer’s salvation cannot. We should not conclude that Jesus is threatening to undo His finished work on the cross if the church in Philadelphia stumbles. On the contrary, He returns as a Lamb slain, bearing the marks of His crucifixion, and bringing His reward with Him.
Christ’s urge to listen
Jesus ends this letter with the familiar invitation: “Anyone who has an ear should listen to what the Spirit says to the churches.” It is not a church’s membership roll, staff size, budget or programs that determine its greatness; rather, it is the degree to which it is ready – by faith in Christ and faithfulness to Him – to walk through an open door of ministry. In the Lord’s economy, some of the greatest churches are the smallest, poorest, and most obscure.
Christ’s promises to the victor
Jesus says, “The victor: I will make him a pillar in the sanctuary of My God, and he will never go out again. I will write on him the name of My God, and the name of the city of My God – the new Jerusalem, which comes down out of heaven from My God – and My new name” (v. 12). Ancient cities often honor great leaders by erecting pillars with their names inscribed. Pagan temples boast majestic pillars, as does the temple in Jerusalem. But Jesus has something far greater in mind. He tells the faithful in Philadelphia that He will make them pillars in the heavenly sanctuary and write God the Father’s name upon them, along with the name of the New Jerusalem, and His own new name. Matthew Henry adds: “On this pillar shall be recorded all the services the believer did to the church of God, how he asserted her rights, enlarged her borders, maintained her purity and honour; this will be a greater name than Asiaticus, or Africanus; a soldier under God in the wars of the church” (Re 3:7-13). And unlike the pillars of the temple in Jerusalem, which fell to the Romans, or the pillars of the pagan temple in Philadelphia that crumbled in an earthquake, the heavenly pillars will stand for eternity as a testimony to great men and women of faith – and to a greater Savior.
One final issue should be addressed: Why does Jesus refer to “My God” four times in verse 12? Is He denying His own deity? Quite the contrary. Jesus is expressing His intimacy with the Father and His unity of purpose with the Godhead. It is true that on the cross Jesus cries out, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” (Matt. 27:46) Some argue from this that Jesus is not divine – a weak argument that collapses beneath the weight of Jesus’ own claims to the contrary (John 8:58 and 10:30, for example). Others more accurately observe that He is crying out in His humanity to the Father while experiencing the full weight of God’s wrath for mankind’s sin. Jesus does in fact became sin for us on the cross (2 Cor. 5:21) and bears the penalty of our sins (Rom. 5:8). Yet even during those dark moments before His physical death, when He experiences spiritual death as our substitute, He never ceases to be the eternal Son of God. When faced with challenges like the four-fold use of “My God” in Rev. 3:12, we do well to see these verses in the light of clear Scripture. There is no doubt Jesus is the second person of the Trinity and has never laid His deity aside.
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.”