Monday, September 30, 2013

Revelation 3:1-6: A Letter from Christ to the Church in Sardis

Text : Revelation  3: 1-6
Title : A  Letter  from Christ  to the Church in Sardis
Date:  29/09/2013 

The church at Ephesus was a very good church  in many ways.  She was strong in her knowledge of the truth, in her work and in her patient endurance, and yet there was at the same time a  fundamental defect in the congregation:  she lost her first love.
The church at  Smyrna   received no rebuke from the Lord. She was spiritually rich.  But she was greatly troubled  by satanic  slander and physical  intimidation from the Jews, and as a result she  suffered greatly.
The church at  Pergamum  had the reputation  of being situated  where Satan’s throne is. She held on to  the Name of Jesus  even after one of her leaders  (Antipas) had been killed. It seemed however as if  she was  weakening in her position, refusing  to  deal with false teachers in her midst. The danger of spiritual fatigue  is very real.
The church at  Thyatira, was  full of good works, love and faith, service and patient endurance.  But she was weak  doctrinally. She permitted a Jezebel-like  woman  to teach and to seduce  her members.  She was the church not well grounded in the truth as it is in Jesus.

The letters to the 7 churches are a reflection of  the real  experiences   and conditions of  the  church in every age.  We  have seen  that  there  is  good as well  as  darkness  in the life of every church.  Anyone who expects the church to be perfect in this  world must  think again. We shall learn again and again  that life is a battle ground , and that the church must  learn to hold on to her Lord Jesus.  That is why we must  study these  7 letters to the 7 churches .  These are mirror images  of what churches  experience in the world today.

We shall now  consider the church at  Sardis  (now  called “ Sart” in modern Turkey). We shall see that this  church and the church at Laodicea   represent  the worst case scenarios  of  the church of Christ on earth.   The known history of  Sardis  reaches back to  at least 1200  BC. It  eventually became  the capital city of the Lydian kingdom.  According to the historian  Herodotus[1] , the Lydians were the first people to introduce the use of gold and silver coins.  One of the most famous Lydian rulers  was  Croesus  (560 BC - 547 BC)  who  became synonymous with wealth, and today we   still speak of someone  being as rich as Croesus. The Lydian capital Sardis was renowned as a rich and beautiful city.  In 549 B.C. Cyrus the Persian[2] defeated  Croesus,  and from that time onward the Lydian kingdom  disintegrated as it fell into  the hands of the Greeks and the Romans  and now the Turks.   In A.D. 17  the city was struck by an earthquake (similar to today's violent earthquakes in Turkey)  and was partly destroyed. The city was soon rebuilt by  the Roman emperor Tiberius.  In this letter there is no mention  of persecutions and heresies. It seems as if this church had a comparatively sheltered existence (unlike Pergamum and Thyatira). The  greatest  temptation for the sheltered  church  is to fall asleep- to shrivel up   and die spiritually!
In every other church Jesus found something good. What good can He find at Sardis? Almost nothing!  There are  a few individuals   that have  not succumbed to this spiritual deadness (v.4),  but the church is by and large dead! Christ's verdict on her is devastatingly brief: “You have a reputation  of being alive, but you  are dead” ! Dr. Hendriksen puts it this way : "Sardis was a very 'peaceful ' church. She enjoyed peace, but it was the peace of a cemetery!"
Here we find a strange paradox. This church is known as  a church that is "alive" , and yet is "dead"! We need to ask: "alive", from whose perspective? "Dead", from whose perspective?

Who would have considered her alive, when the Lord Jesus obviously did not?
a.        She is considered to be 'alive'  by her sister churches.  People believed that she had the marks of a living church.
b.       She would have considered herself ‘alive’. Had she  been told that she was spiritually  dead, she would have been astonished at such a judgement.  Let us learn from practical observation that  deadness, numbness, unconsciousness, paralysis is not felt !  Frost - bitten limbs  or limbs infected with leprosy  become numb - without feeling. There is no sensation of anything being wrong.  A man with leprosy in his feet can step onto glass or burning coals and not feel it - the nerve endings  are  dead!  So it may be  with our spiritual condition. Beware of spiritual paralysis or numbness. You may think that all is well   and  yet you are  dead!  Someone   well said :  "Still water and still religion freeze the quickest!"

The judgement as to whether any  church is alive or dead belongs to the Lord  of the church – the  One who has the eyes of blazing fire that  see beyond the outer into the inner. He has a very different view. In the Bible we find that Jesus often clashes with the diagnosis  of men.  
3 examples:
(i)                      Mark 11:12 - 21: A fig tree in leaf - but bearing no fruit! What looks impressive from a distance may be utterly barren upon  closer examination.
(ii)                   Matt 23:27:  The Pharisees – were the religious experts who  considered themselves to be the spiritual elite of Israel and people thought  so of them. Jesus however  describes them as "hypocrites": "You are like whitewashed tombs which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead man's bones and everything unclean."
(iii)                 2 Tim 3:5 : The apostle Paul in his letter to Timothy speaks of people who are  - "having a form of godliness, but denying its power." (note context)

This then was a church that looked alive  on the outside; it appeared to have a form of godliness  and yet it did not bear  godly fruit; it had no  spiritual power!  “You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead.“ Why would the Lord Jesus say that to  the church at Sardis? The clue lies in the introduction:  “The words of  Him who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars.”  We have already seen that the term “ the seven spirits”  refers to the Holy Spirit  (1:4) . The  “seven stars”  are interpreted  in 1:16, 20   to be the angels or messengers  of the 7 churches .  7 is the number of completeness / perfection.  The church   that is truly alive is a church   which experiences  the living power of the Holy Spirit,  and it is a church that is blessed   with godly   leaders who  manifest the life  of God in their souls.  It seems that   the signs of this vital life were absent.  Devoid of the  evidences  of the power of the Holy Spirit and devoid of Spirit-filled godly leaders, the church was dead.   There were a few in the church  who were alive, but their number was pitifully small. They were outnumbered by   the majority!

How  do we understand this in our modern context ? Let me try to put  into  the form  of a modern story. This church in town  had the reputation of being alive.   The congregation was well attended. There  was plenty of activity, many programs. The church  situated in an affluent suburb had  good facilities, and could afford to hire  competent people. The  atmosphere was upbeat, the music was great, and  the church was visibly  involved in the community in  terms of  good works. 
Now shockingly , the  Lord  Jesus says to this  church –  “I  have not found your works [3] complete in the sight of my God.” (v.2)  Now what? Does this church  need more works … more activity than she already  has?  No!  She needs more of the spiritual  life of Christ in her  midst.  She wasn’t lacking activity. In that sense she was as good  and relevant  as  the local charity club. This church  was lacking Christ. We can prove that.
This same John  of  the Revelation  is the  writer of the Gospel of John. In John 6:28  the crowd which  was  constantly following Jesus was  besotted with the idea of religious works.  So they ask the Lord Jesus : “What must we  do to be working the works of God?”  They are looking for religious activity  to prove themselves  religious. But notice how Jesus answers them:  “This is the  work of God  that you believe in  Him whom He has sent”. He is encouraging them thus to stop looking for more things to do. He is instructing them to look to  Himself .
Now here   we find  the typical spiritual disease of our age : we work ourselves to death in the  world and in the church, and  thereafter  find no  strength  to simply get to know the  Lord Jesus – to sit at His feet as it were ; to ‘waste our time ‘ in His presence.  By our human default we are all a bunch of Martha’s – busy , busy , busy. Few are Mary’s (Lk. 10:38-42).  
Now  this is the point : if a church (or the majority of the church)   begins  to think of her life   primarily  in terms of what she does  rather than what she is ,  she is on the road  to backsliding. Her real work – that is to believe the Lord Jesus,  that is to love the LORD with all her heart , soul, mind and strength (Mark 12:29-31) has been substituted   for  legalistic righteousness.

And thus  such a church , though very much alive in the   eyes and minds of men  is  dead in the eyes of the Lord Jesus , though there may be  a few  burning coals in the ashes.  
So don’t be deceived, and learn to judge  by the  vital marks  of a living church.  Very often after death has set in  one may   still  observe  muscular movements in a corpse; hair still grows for a while. A car can run for some distance after the engine is shut off. Some institutions keep on going after the founder has gone or died, but they lack vision , drive and passion and the  evidences of death and decay  are there.  In the same  way churches  or individual Christians may keep on performing Christian work for a time,  after the Holy Spirit has departed and "Ichabod" ( the glory of God has departed) has been written over the church.
What does the Lord prescribe to this church?
Obviously this church is not "quite dead" yet. It is in a spiritual coma. It is asleep.  The Lord of the church commands it to do 5 things :
a.        He calls it to wake up
b.       To strengthen what remains and is about to die.
c.        It is called to review its incomplete works. ( return to a Christ centred life)
d.       It is called to remember what it has previously had received and heard( namely the gospel)
e.        It is called to obey and repent.  A WARNING is given, if this advice is not heeded : cf. 3b. "Christ will come as a thief" - the proverbial expression for unexpectedness. This is not necessarily a reference to the 2nd coming. It is  a reference  to  the fact  that Christ  does exercise temporal judgements  on the earth i.e. In Thytira (2:22,23)  and Pergamum (2:16)

There are a few people in Sardis  of whom all the above was not true. Here we once again have some wonderful promises and images of great things to come. Revelation contains a wonderful picture of heaven and what it will be like :
1.        Ephesus : Overcomers will find "paradise restored" - eating from the tree of life (2:7)
2.        Smyrna :  Overcomers will receive  the crown of life  ( 2:10)
3.        Pergamum : The promise of God's eternal provision ( manna) and the promise of a special new name given to us personally by our Father. (2:17)
4.        Thyatira : sharing in the final judgement with Christ; receiving the morning star - Jesus as our eternal inheritance.
Now to these  who "have not soiled their garments" , in Sardis , Jesus  makes a beautiful three-fold promise , which adds to the picture of our glorious inheritance in heaven :
1.        They will be dressed in white :  c.f . Revelation 7 :9  particularly v. 14 looks forward to that day when we shall be with  Christ, sanctified , victorious , a radiant church, without stain , wrinkle or any blemish , but holy and blameless (Eph. 5:27)
2.        Their name will be kept in that book of life . Those who are truly saved , ”who have made their calling and election sure" (2  Peter 1: 10) through a faithful and holy life in the midst of a hostile world (and sometimes a hostile church!) may rest assured that their names will never be erased from the Lamb's book of life.
3.       They will be acknowledged before the Father and the angels by the Son: (cf. Luke 12:8f).


Don’t be lulled to sleep  by  the fact that you are living in peaceful and secure surroundings.  
Watch! Stay awake! Do not allow spiritual paralysis to overtake you and sink you into a spiritual coma, so that you become numb. Be extra careful when all is going smooth for you. You may head for compromise. At such times be faithful to Jesus. Don’t be overcome by a life of complacency and ease. Don’t make leisure and pleasure your god.  Learn to know Jesus in the  fellowship of your church. Think  often of  Jesus and His cross . Think  of His dying love for you. Think of the fact that he died that for your sin . Therefore hate every evil path and fight the good fight even to the end, and for the rest look forward to your eternal rest  and your great inheritance! Amen

[1] Greek historian  born in Halicarnassus, Caria (modern day Bodrum, Turkey) and lived in the fifth century BC ( c. 484–425 BC)
[2] Often mentioned in the O.T. e.g. 2 Chron. 36:22-23 ;  Ezra  1:1ff; 4:3-5; 5:13-17; 6:3-14 ; Isa 44:28; 45:1-13; Dan  1:21; 6:28; 10:1
[3] Gr. “ ta erga” 

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