Title : A Letter from Christ to the Church in Sardis
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 , 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 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.
(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  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)
AN ENCOURAGEMENT TO THE FAITHFUL:
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).
WHAT IS THE SPIRIT SAYING TO THE CHURCHES AND THIS CHURCH?
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