Sardis: Waking the Dead Who Think They Live
From age 15 to 21, I worked for a metal building company as a welder. One thing I remember creating was the façade. It’s the front of a building—the part everybody’s going to see. Quite often, the façade is greater than the building itself. The façade might be thirty feet tall. But one peak around the side, and you notice the building itself is only twenty feet tall. The other ten feet is for decoration—it gives the appearance of being greater. Other times you’d build a façade to hide less attractive things like AC units and plumbing vents. In any case, the façade puts on a show, either to cover the ugly or to make what’s inside look more impressive.
With chapter 3, we encounter a church that looks good from the outside. From the street, it’s an appealing church. The people are vibrant. The church appears healthy. Everybody shows up on Sunday. They go through the motions. But when Jesus walks among this church, he finds that it’s only a façade. The church is actually dead.
What’s a church to do when Jesus exposes their façade? What’s a church to do when Jesus calls them dead? Is there any hope for that church? Jesus’ message to the church in Sardis answers these questions. In the process, we learn that a faithful church isn’t a church in name only; a faithful church stays alert and diligently completes God’s works while anticipating Jesus’ return. Read it with me from verse 1…
1 And to the angel of the church in Sardis write: The words of him who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead. 2 Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God. 3 Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it, and repent. If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you. 4 Yet you have still a few names in Sardis, people who have not soiled their garments, and they will walk with me in white, for they are worthy. 5 The one who conquers will be clothed thus in white garments, and I will never blot his name out of the book of life. I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels. 6 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
This is now the fifth message that Jesus begins with a vision of his glory. I hope you’re getting the point: faithfulness will always hinge on how we behold Jesus’ glory. In this case, he has the seven spirits of God. First time we saw that was 1:4; and I argued that the seven spirits refer not to angels but to the Holy Spirit. Alongside Father and Son, he is the source of grace and peace. Also, in 4:5 and 5:6, John identifies the seven spirits as “seven torches” and then as “seven eyes sent into all the earth.” Both images come from one place in the Old Testament: Zechariah 4.
God gives Zechariah a vision of a lampstand. Zechariah asks the angel, “What are these?” The angel then gives him two answers. The first isn’t a direct answer but he says, “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord of hosts.” The seven burning torches have something to do with God’s Spirit. Then later in verse 10, he answers Zechariah more directly: “…these seven [i.e., the seven flames] are the eyes of the Lord, which range throughout the whole earth [same imagery John uses].”
John follows the progression in Zechariah’s vision. He identifies the seven eyes with what the seven flames on the lampstand represent: namely, God’s mighty presence in the Spirit. Also, if seven signifies fullness, then the “seven spirits” refer to the fullness of the Spirit’s presence. Jesus has that; and it will be crucial to remember he has the Spirit this way when we get to application.
Jesus also has the seven stars. That comes from 1:16, “in his right hand he held seven stars.” Then, in 1:20, he explains that the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches. We’re seeing the fullness of Jesus’ sovereignty over the angels and the churches they represent. That’s important for two reasons. One, verse 5 says that, for the faithful, Jesus will confess their name before his Father and before his angels. Two, at the time John is writing, the currency had an image of the emperor’s son Jupiter “extending his hands to seven stars in a display of divinity and power,”[i] Craig Koester observes. So not only is Jesus sovereign over the angels of the churches; John is winking in the background, reassuring the church, that Jesus is sovereign over all rulers.
Jesus Confronts without Commendation
That Jesus walks among the church in Sardis—like he walks among us—and he finds a huge problem. When we read the message earlier, did you notice anything missing? Four messages have passed, and with every one of them Jesus has something to commend. With Ephesus, it was their toil and attention to sound teaching. With Smyrna, they were rich in Jesus. With Pergamum, they held fast in persecution. With Thyatira, it was their love and faith and service and maturing in those things.
But when we come to Sardis, Jesus commends nothing. A few have stayed faithful—we’ll get to that in verse 4. But that’s how badly this church is doing. Jesus skips commending them and goes right to exposing them. He says, “I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead.” They’ve built a façade. In the eyes of man, they’re alive. In the eyes of God, they’re dead; and God’s assessment is the real one. In what sense, though, are they dead? Clearly, they’re still gathering, still impressing others. Yet they’re dead. In what sense?
They’re dead to the things of God. Notice several clues. Verse 2 mentions that some things are about to die, and he says this in relation to their works not being complete. God has works for them to do, like the ones he commended other churches for: love, service, witness, endurance. But they haven’t brought these works to completion. They go by the name Christian, but they’re not committed to God’s works. They’re like the guy in Luke 9:60 when Jesus says, “Follow me.” And he answers, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” Then Jesus says, “Leave the dead to bury the dead. As for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” The dead aren’t committed to God’s work.
Also, they’ve been soiling their garments with the world. In verse 4, Jesus mentions a few in Sardis, who have “not soiled their garments.” Meaning, most of them have been soiling their garments. In Revelation, stained clothing is a symbol for moral defilement. There are only two kinds of people: those who walk with the Lamb in purity, and those who do unclean things with the world—sexual immorality, idolatry, falsehood. This church’s deadness is related to moral compromises with the world.
One more clue. At the end of verse 5, Jesus speaks of confessing the name of those who are faithful before his Father. That’s an allusion to Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 10:32, where he says, “Everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father.” He’s speaking about faithful Christians publicly aligning themselves with Jesus instead of fearing man. It seems the opposite is the case for most of the church in Sardis. So, they’re not committed to God’s works, they’re making moral compromises with the world, and they’re not publicly acknowledging Jesus out of fear of man. In that sense, Jesus calls them dead.
That’s what’s going on in Sardis. You might compare them nowadays to nominal Christianity, to churches who go by the name Christian but once you get inside you can’t tell them apart from the world. They’re dead to the things of God. You might compare them to the unfaithful woman in 1 Timothy 5:6, “she who is self-indulgent is dead even while she lives.”
Jesus Commands with a Warning
What should a church like that do? How does Jesus instruct them? In verses 2-3, we get four commands with a warning. The first command is, “Wake up.” It’s not the first time Jesus tells his disciples to wake up. Mark 13:32-37 is helpful. Jesus says, “Be on guard, keep awake. For you do not know when the time will come. It’s like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his servants in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to stay awake. Therefore stay awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or in the morning—lest he come suddenly and find you asleep.” Sleeping is an image for not doing your Master’s business. Staying awake means, being about your Master’s business. Jesus says, Wake up (i.e., to your Master’s business)!
Paul also uses this imagery in 1 Thessalonians 5:5-8. He says, “For you are all children of light, children of the day. We are not of the night or of the darkness. So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober…” Meaning, you’re part of a kingdom breaking into this world’s moral darkness like the sun piercing the morning. If you belong to that day, don’t go sleep like you’re one of the night people. Stay awake! Keep living for Jesus’ kingdom! Keep shining his light!
Next, Jesus says, “strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God.” This language of completion appears in 1 John 4:17—“God is love and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. By this is love perfected [or completed] with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment…” When God’s love comes to its full expression in you, such that you love others with the same love—that gives you confidence for the day of judgment. Your works of love evidence that you abide in God’s love.
When Jesus looks at the Christians in Sardis, he doesn’t see works reaching their full expression. He doesn’t find them blossoming with works that please God. He finds a garden that’s full of dead works. The only hope is a few tiny sprouts, but even they will die unless someone starts nurturing them. What they do have—even if it’s almost zilch—they must strengthen what remains. Meaning, if you can find even one thing that squares with God’s ways, nurture that one thing. Commit yourself to it. Tend to it. Cause it to increase more and more. Strengthening is necessary for revival.
The next command is remember. He hasn’t found their works complete; therefore, they must “remember how you have received and heard and keep.” We don’t often think of it, but memory has a powerful effect on our lives. We make decisions every day based on remembering the past—something we learned or experienced; something that happened in history that we weren’t even there for, but still live our lives according to the realities those events created. Remembering isn’t just a mere recollection of facts. The past re-enters our present so as to have an effect on our future.
So also here, Jesus wants them to remember what they received and heard. What they received and heard was the gospel. It was the apostles’ teaching. With that teaching came instructions on how to please God. They must also remember to keep that instruction. Keeping has to do with observing the ethical demands placed on Christians and following through. Those largely involve resisting the world’s idolatry and persevering in allegiance to Jesus in thought, word, and deed.
Lastly, he includes repent. Repentance includes not just abandoning sinful ways but returning to Christ and his ways. It’s a complete 180 from what you were doing before, and an active pursuit of what Jesus demands.
If they refuse to wake up, Jesus says in verse 3, “I will come like a thief and you will not know at what hour I will come against you.” It’s possible that Jesus has his future return in view. It’s just as possible that Jesus is speaking of a judgment he will bring within their lifetime. Either way, the point remains the same: be faithful every day that your King is away. Live every moment anticipating his return.
That’s the way Jesus uses this teaching in Matthew 24:43—“If the master of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.”
So, wake up, strengthen what remains, remember, and repent. When Jesus exposes your façade, that’s how you respond. When the word of God unmasks your true condition, this is how you respond. For those who hear these words and keep them, there’s hope. There’s hope they can join the ones Jesus describes in verses 4-5.
Jesus Promises Good Things for the Faithful
Look now at Jesus’ promises for those who are faithful. For those who are faithful, Jesus will walk with them in white. Verse 4, “Yet you have still a few names in Sardis, people who have not soiled their garments, and they will walk with me in white, for they are worthy. The one who conquers will be clothed thus in white garments…”
As I said before, having unclean garments symbolizes moral defilement, moral impurity due to sin that separates you from life in God’s presence.[ii] Same imagery appears elsewhere in Scripture like with the vision of Joshua the high priest in Zechariah 3:4. He stands before the Lord clothed in filthy garments, and those garments represent the people’s iniquities. By contrast, you have those in Sardis who have not soiled their garments. That doesn’t mean they’ve never sinned—we know from 7:14 that these same people have washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb.* But it does mean that, now that they’re washed, instead of choosing to practice sin along with the world, they’ve chosen to walk in purity with Jesus. Of them, Jesus says, “they will walk with me in white, for they are worthy.” It’s fitting to reward them for their faithfulness.
As a reward, they’re getting what their lives have proven they want the most, Jesus! They want to walk with Jesus, and that is what Jesus will give them! Like Adam walking with God in the Garden, those who overcome will walk with Jesus in the New Jerusalem. They will be a glorified priesthood, and they will serve in his presence day and night; and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence (Rev 7:14).
For those who are faithful, Jesus also guarantees them eternal life. He says, “I will never blot his name out of the book of life.” In Revelation, the book of life belongs to the Lamb. It contains the names of the Lamb’s followers, the names of those God graciously chose before the foundation of the world. Those not written in the book of life end up worshiping the Beast and their end is eternal death, separated from life in God’s presence. For Jesus to say he’d never blot their names from this book is another way of him reassuring his followers that they will gain life in God’s presence. They might be disowned by their families, they might be disowned by society, but God will never disown them. God will give them life in the New Jerusalem.
For those who are faithful, Jesus will also confess their names before God. He says, “I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels.” Craig Koester explains this well: “Acknowledging someone means affirming a relationship with that person in a way that shows loyalty and favor. Since Christ has a position of honor before God and the angels, those he acknowledges share in the honor that belongs to him.”[iii]
How can we stay among the faithful?
Walking with Jesus in white, eternal life in God’s presence, sharing in Jesus’ honor—these are rewards for the faithful. How, then, can we stay faithful? How can we guard ourselves from becoming a façade, from becoming a church “in name only”? We must realize that this letter circulated not only to Sardis, but to all seven churches. All the churches must listen to what the Spirit was telling this one church. We can’t think of ourselves too highly. We must read a message like this with humility.
It’s too easy to become Christian “in name only.” Nominal Christianity is a perennial and worldwide problem. It happens for a variety of reasons. Perhaps a church begins to embrace the religious pluralism of our culture such that they no longer uphold the exclusive claims of Jesus. Others desire to fit in with the culture—they fear looking irrelevant and accused of bigotry, and so they water down the message. For others, materialism distracts from total obedience—people begin loving their possessions more than Christ’s kingdom. With others, they preach what Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace”: “the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance…[it’s] grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ.”[iv]
Others aren’t careful enough with church membership. They baptize the unregenerate and they tolerate the unrepentant, such that over time a false church replaces the true one. Others wear the name “Christian” because it best aligns with their moral and political positions, but not because they love Jesus. A church can also have all the right answers but lack the Spirit’s regenerating work. Nominal Christianity wears many faces and happens for a variety of reasons. In the face of this culture, how should we respond so that Jesus does not say of us, “You have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead”?
For starters, make sure that your own faith is genuine, that you’re not just putting up a façade. I wrote down a few questions to consider—they’ll be on the website this Tuesday. But use them as an opportunity to diagnose your spiritual state, to determine how much like Sardis you may be or not:
- Do you hunger for God and pursue knowing him more deeply?
- Are the Scriptures necessary sustenance for you, like bread for your soul?
- Do you treasure time in prayer, calling on the Father often?
- Do you sense God’s Spirit reassuring your spirit that you are his child?
- Have you reduced Christianity to hearing the word without doing the word?
- Are you loving members in your church sacrificially, or just coasting?
- Are you a gracious, merciful person to others, knowing God’s mercy toward you?
- What has the call of Christ in the gospel costed you lately? Anything?
- Do you acknowledge Christ before others, or assume that everybody is okay?
Spend some time thinking about these questions. Set them before the Lord and ask him for discernment. If you find that you’ve been faking it just to fit in, pretending to maintain an image, repent and trust in Christ. Come to him now. Don’t wait until the Day he says, “Depart from me, I never knew you.” Ask his forgiveness today. If you already know him, ask the Lord to expose any façades that may exist in your life, and to replace those façades with real, whole-hearted, consistent obedience.
Follow the path of repentance that Jesus outlines. Start by waking up to your Master’s business. Become alert to what he’s doing in the world and commit yourself to his ways as outlined in Scripture. Also, strengthen what remains. Regularly in the New Testament we find the saints strengthening one another. Paul went from one place to the next, “strengthening all the disciples” (Acts 18:23). In Romans 1:11, he earnestly desired to impart a spiritual gift in order to strengthen the church. Timothy traveled to the Thessalonian church to strengthen and exhort their faith (1 Thess 3:2). Strengthening the good things already present is necessary to revival.
The path of repentance also includes remembering Jesus’ words and keeping them. The problem with Sardis isn’t that they didn’t know enough, or that they hadn’t received what they needed. The problem is this: what they did receive, they hadn’t kept it. To use the words of James, they became hearers only and not doers of the word. We also noted how they weren’t committed to God’s works. They were making moral compromises with the world. And they chose not to acknowledge Jesus before others.
How about you? Are you bringing the Lord’s works to completion in your life? Or, are you making moral compromises with the world? Jesus has appointed you to a specific post in his church. But have you fallen asleep on the job and, in doing so, jeopardized the well-being of others? Remember that your compromises with the world aren’t limited to you; they hurt all of us. Keep yourself unstained from the world. Imitate the few who chose not to soil their garments, who chose to walk with the Lamb in purity. Follow them in acknowledging Jesus’ name before others. Don’t let the desire to fit in keep you silent. If we want to protect this church from becoming a dead church, we must do more than just hear the word. We must keep the word.
Next, cry out to Jesus who has the fullness of the Spirit. We know from other places in Scripture that the Spirit gives life. One of the clearest instances is Ezekiel 37. The prophet stands before a valley of dry bones that represents Israel. As a nation, they were dead. But through the word and Spirit, God revives them: “I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live…” God says. Another place is John 6:33 when Jesus says, “It is the Spirit who gives life, the flesh profits nothing…”
The only hope for a dead church is the Spirit giving life. The only hope for a church that’s got just a few folks still committed to Jesus is the Spirit. And verse 1 says Jesus has the seven spirits of God. Jesus has the fullness of the Spirit to accomplish God’s purpose. What happened to the church in Acts 2:33, when Jesus poured out the Spirit? The church comes alive with bold obedience.
If we want to guard ourselves from growing stagnant, if we want to protect ourselves from becoming a façade, we must keep coming to Jesus for the Spirit. We must humble ourselves in prayer, asking for the Spirit to revive and restore and strengthen and empower. If something feels dead, leadership teams and members so often turn to human means to try to revive the church: building programs, new logos, web design, ministry partnerships, special events. These things may attract people and give the impression of being alive. But none of these things will create the life Jesus wants. Such life only comes by the Spirit. Jesus died and rose again to give you the gift of his Spirit. Join each other in prayer for the Spirit’s life. Join each other in praying for revival.
Finally, live every moment anticipating Jesus’ return. Christianity is not a matter of just “hanging in there” till Jesus returns. It’s not a matter of getting forgiveness and then living like you would’ve lived anyway without Jesus. Jesus has taught us how to wait for his return. Not only do we have some good things to imitate in the other churches—things like diligence in sound teaching, making ourselves rich in Jesus, holding fast in persecution, growing in love and service. Not only that, but we have here a few in Sardis worthy of imitation in how they choose holiness over worldliness.
We stay alert to your Master’s business. Act wisely by readying yourself to meet Jesus. Whatever the Master entrusts to you—make sure to use it to serve his kingdom. A faithful church isn’t a church in name only; a faithful church stays alert and diligently completes God’s works while anticipating Jesus’ return. We have opportunity to anticipate Jesus’ return even now in the Lord’s Supper.
He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
[i] Koester, Revelation, 253.
[ii] Cf. Jude 23; Rev 19:7-8; 21:27; 22:14-15.
[iii] Koester, Revelation, 315.
[iv] Bonhoeffer, Cost of Discipleship, 47.