June 2, 2008

Revelation 3:1-6: The Letter to Sardis

Sardis was another important city, located about a hundred miles inland from Ephesus and Smyrna and 40 miles south of Thyatira. Sardis had been occupied by the Persians for centuries, then taken by the Greeks, conquered again by the Persians, and finally captured by the Romans in the 3rd century BC. Under the Romans, it was the capital city of Lydia, a large Roman province.

The people worshipped the Roman goddess Diana at Sardis. One of the largest Roman temples to Diana was built there. It is not known how the Christian merchants and craftspeople accommodated the requirement to worship the Roman god and the emperor in order to earn a living, and it is not raised as an issue in the letter to the church.

Sardis, like Thyatira, was a manufacturing area, known for its production of dyed wool cloth and carpets. There was also a thriving gold- and silver-mining industry from nearby Mt. Tmolus. The river running through the city was known for its “golden sand” because of the gold nuggets on the river bottom.

But Sardis diminished in importance by the first century A.D. Its location was not on a major trade route, the gold veins played out, and by the first century A.D. it had become a city of little commercial significance. An earthquake in 17 A.D. virtually destroyed the city. The Romans rebuilt the city, but it never achieved its former importance.

Today, the site is the Turkish village of Sart and the area is largely agricultural. There are spectacular ruins there, including a huge roman bath and gymnasium covering five acres, the temple of Diana, a large Jewish synagogue, and several homes and shops.

Sardis has left a lasting legacy, in addition to being singled out by Christ in the letters the seven churches. In the 8th or 9th century B.C., the craftsmen at Sardis minted the first coins in history.

Revelation 3:1-6

“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. Be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die, for I have not found your works perfect before God. 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. 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. 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. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”’

Our Lord’s charge against the church

“I know your works, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead.”

Sardis is usually referred to as the dead church. What do you think of when you hear the term “dead church”? What are its characteristics?

We have a few clues from the text: “I know your works. You have a name that you are alive, but you are dead.” What was Jesus inferring in the statement “I know your works”? It could be a positive statement (such as “I know you do good works”) or negative (“I see through the fa├žade and know how you really are”).He continues, “You have a name that you are alive”: the church had a positive reputation in the community, a positive reputation among other churches, or both. This was due possibly to its works. Perhaps they were known for caring for each other, ceremonial worship, giving to the church in Jerusalem, and caring for the poor and diseased.

But then comes the bombshell: “But you are dead.” Like the church at Ephesus, the Sardis church was deficient. We find some more clues in vv. 2-4. Jesus tells them, “Be watchful” or perhaps a better translation, “Become watchful.” The phrase “Be watchful” in the New Testament has to do with protecting and preserving doctrine and truth. A watchman protected the city or region by watching for enemies approaching. The metaphor, as applied to the church, means to protect accurate doctrine from the enemy, which is false doctrine and false teaching about the gospel and the Christian faith.

The Lord continues, “And strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die.” The Christians at Sardis had not turned away from the faith, but evidently were allowing false or inaccurate doctrines into the teaching and management of the church. Some suggest they had just gotten lazy, with worship that was ceremonial but not spiritually transforming, focus on social service rather than the Savior, and perhaps not standing up to or objecting to the teaching of doctrines they knew, or should have known, to be false. Whatever the particulars, like the Ephesian church, they were in danger of losing their first love, the pure, unchanged doctrine of salvation by grace through faith. Whatever the case, we know from this letter that they had let some things slide, and whatever was going on, they had lost some intensity of their faith, and Jesus tells them “Remember how you received and heard; hold fast and repent.”

This is an important clue to me that the church just had become complacent, perhaps ceremonial without strong, empowering faith. The thrust of Jesus statement is that it was “what you received and heard” is what they had grown to regard as not relevant, or just incidental, to their faith: the gospel, awareness of the love, grace, and awesomeness of God, the excitement of daily knowing God a little better, spontaneous worship and praise.

And they are to hold fast to what they had received and heard and to repent of their current situation. Repent means to change one’s mind and behavior. In other words, “stop doing what you are doing and start doing what I told you to do.”

Significantly, Jesus refers to the condition in Sardis as defilement in verse 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.” The church in Sardis had “a few” people who had held fast to His teachings. The majority were “defiled” (stained, contaminated, impure).

Verse 4 continues: “He who overcomes shall be clothed in white garments, and I will not blot out his name from the Book of Life.” “He who overcomes” refers to Christians who remain true to their faith against temptations, persecutions, or even the threat of death, and the phrase “shall be clothed in white garments” indicates they shall stand holy and blameless before God and receive the promised reward, an eternity with Christ.

Jesus continues, “and I will not blot out his name from the Book of Life”; that is, shall not be condemned. This is a key Arminian passage, the assumption being that one’s name can, indeed, be removed from the Book of Life (that a Christian can lose his or her salvation). The term means to obliterate, cover, or wipe off. The Calvinist response is this is figurative language, that God knew who would be His from eternity past and that to “blot out” is to reveal the truth to one who thought he or she was saved but really was not.

Prophetic View

In the prophetic view of the letters to the seven churches, the letter to Sardis corresponds to a very dark time in history for Christianity. From the 11th to 16th centuries, the church did not preach the simple gospel of salvation through faith. Like Sardis, the church during this period had strayed from what it had received and heard in the beginning. It was in a period of papal power and authority on a level that has been called papal tyranny. The church had taken authority over most civil affairs. Priests and bishops were above everyone and above any law.

To enforce its authority, the church instituted the inquisitions, in which anyone, including priests and bishops, could be charged and brought to trial even for expressing any ideas contrary to church. This included ideas not only about doctrine, but about science, medicine, civil laws—anything the church had a doctrine or opinion about, and the church had an opinion about everything.

Profession of faith during this period was less a profession of actual belief and more a profession of allegiance to the church and the pope. During this period, the church, like the church in Sardis, had a reputation for being true and alive, but was, in fact, dead to the gospel and the doctrines established by the Lord and the early apostles and disciples.

The only reason Martin Luther escaped the inquisition is that he hid from church authorities. It was his objection to papal authority on matters such as the sale of indulgences and banning copies of scripture from anyone but priests, as well as the church's abandonment of the core doctrines of the faith, that set him at odds with the church. His actions led to the protestant reformation.

So far, we have learned a number of details from the letters to the churches about God’s will for the church as a whole and individual Christians.

From the letter to Ephesus, we know He praises works, patience, not accommodating sin, recognizing and rejecting false teachers and doctrine, and focusing on “the works you did from the beginning” (love of God and each other, caring for each other, and evangelizing).

From the letter to Smyrna, we read once more His praise for works, that our future eternal life with Him outweighs any worldly or cultural price we may pay, that He allows us to suffer for our faith, and that we have the strength and power to be faithful regardless of trials and suffering.

From the letter to Pergamos, we learn that it is His will that we hold fast to our faith and do not deny Him and that we must turn away from false doctrines and sin.

From the letter to the church at Thyatira, we once more learn that His will is that our works be ever increasing, that we love, serve, and persevere; and that we recognize and reject false doctrine and false teachers.

From the letter to Sardis, once more the Lord commends the “works” of the church. This is the case in most of the letters in Revelation 2-3. The emphasis of the letter to Sardis, however, is that He expects the church to be “alive” and remain pure, holding fast to true doctrine and rejecting that which is false. He expects believers to seek and earn a good reputation for faith and service among the saved and unsaved alike.

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