Any of you ever been to Detroit? I have a few times, and what strikes me about Detroit in our present day is the emphasis on what Detroit used to be. When you fly into Detroit and walk into the airport you’re met with historic photos of old downtown Detroit, muscle cars made in Motor City, the Supremes and other Motown artists, the famous picture of the Detroit Tiger Kirk Gibson jumping in the air after the World Series victory in 1984. When you walk out of the airport there is a frightening contrast. What was once a booming center of industry, music, and sport is now just kind of unimpressive. The city even poured money out to try and revitalize it to its former glory, but went bankrupt in the process. The city that was famous for many things is now riddled with crime and poverty. It’s a sad story really, of old fame and times forgotten, of how things used to be. Modern day Detroit is a story that almost fits perfectly with the lyrics of Don McClean’s American Pie where everything is headed in the wrong direction.
I begin today by discussing Detroit and its old fame because in our text today, a city comes into view that is very similar. Sardis, like Detroit, used to be famous for many things, used to be a center of industry, religion, and trade…but by the time John wrote Revelation Sardis was old news, unimpressive, just a shadow of what they used to be. In very real sense the city itself was dead though it boasted of robust life. Positioned at the junction of five large roads, and standing tall over the Hermus valley, Sardis used to be an active commercial city with much wealth.The city’s vast wealth seemed to have made them slack and comfortable. It was their ease that destroyed them. On two occasions enemy troops invaded the high walls of the city at night and found the arrogant Sardians had set no guard. These two occasions are the two blemishes on this city’s history when it was captured by Cyrus the King of Persia in 549 BC and Antiochus the Great King of the Ancient Greek Seleucid Empire in 218 BC.In 17 AD an earthquake nearly destroyed Sardis and though it was soon rebuilt, but never quite regained its former glory.
The Church in Sardis followed suit and had the feel of pride and arrogance about them, boasting of great things, living off their former glory.Into this city, Jesus writes His shortest letter, which contains some of the most severe language of all 7 letters to these churches throughout Asia-Minor.
As we’ve seen before, using the imagery of His own glory from chapter 1, Jesus beings His letter in v1a saying, “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.’” 1:4 and 1:16 are the places we first run into the images of the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. Recall that the seven spirits of God refers to the grandest and most full spirit there is, the Holy Spirit. And the seven stars refers to the angels of the seven churches. That Jesus uses this imagery to introduce His letter shows the Sardis congregation what they need most and who can give it to them. This is made crystal clear in the remainder of v1 where Jesus gives His sharpest words yet, “I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead.” These believers claimed to be alive, thriving, and growing in Christ, but Jesus says they’re dead. This word ‘dead’ means exactly that, dead. This often used word throughout the New Testament is sometimes used to mean physical death, but most of the uses of this word refer to spiritual death. This means that though the Christians are alive physically, they are dead spiritually. That Jesus uses this word ‘dead’ to describe this church means the thriving condition they claim to be in just isn’t true. They can’t fool Jesus, He ‘knows’ their situation. They’re a dead church, and unless they repent they’ll encounter a second death at the judgment. Do you see now why Jesus began they way He did in v1? ‘I am He who has the seven spirits and the seven stars’ means the thing they need most is life, and because Jesus is the One who with the Father sends out the Holy Spirit who is in Himself all the power and fullness needed to revive them, if they repent.This, for the Church in Sardis, would’ve been heard as a contrast to what the city believed. In Sardis there was a grand statue of Cybele, a Greek goddess who they believed restored the dead to new life. Against this Jesus reminds them that it’s only the Spirit who gives life.
Up until this point in the seven letters of Revelation we usually see Jesus confronting and commending churches, but here in Sardis, Jesus doesn’t commend this church for anything. Notice also that Jesus doesn’t say the problem is heresy either. He doesn’t mention them mixing or compromising with false teachers like the Nicolaitans, the Balaamites, or false prophets. He even doesn’t mention persecution being an issue. No, Jesus only says one thing: they may seem peaceful but they’ve got the peace of a cemetery because they’re dead.This church may have looked good on the outside, it may have looked active and healthy, it may have been seen by other Christians in neighboring cities as a good church, and it may have even been teaching right doctrine – but be warned, though the outward appearance may look agreeable or satisfying, the inside is rotten to the core. Sardis was a contradiction between what it boasted of in name and what is was in reality.
We are challenged here, and moved to ask ourselves many questions: ‘Am I alive? Or am I dead? Am I just going through the motions? Or do I truly rest in Christ who I have received by faith? Am I fake? Or am I genuine? Am I phony? Or am I real? Do I put on a show before others? Do I look squeaky-clean on the outside while I store up piles of rubbish within? Would Jesus say that I am dead?’ If this doesn’t move you to repent I don’t know what will – because to a certain degree all of us are fake, all of us put on a show before each other. Why? I’m sure its due to many reasons but probably the main reason is our fear of what others will do if they really knew who we are. Therefore when we’re around others, we put the face on and pretend like we’re ok, even though we’re terrified within. This means that all of us to varying degrees fear man and his opinion too much and fear God and His opinion too little. The danger of such phony-ness is that if we stay in this fake for long enough we’ll start to believe the fantasy and suppress the reality. We’ll believe we really do have it all together, that we really are squeaky-clean, that we really are the crem de la crem. When the entire culture of a church does this long enough, it begins to turn in this direction also, and only bad things happen. People’s focus will no longer be on the glory of God, but on the glory of man, which in turn will create death by turning the eyes of the congregation inward rather than upward to God and outward to the lost. This is the evil of an ingrown church, a bunch of people who gather who haven’t really looked up to God or out into the community in years because they’ve been so fixated on themselves. Jesus doesn’t call this kind of church bad, an unhealthy church, or even a wicked church. Jesus calls churches like that…dead. You know what should happen to dead churches? It would be easy to close them, but it would be better to revitalize them. It is my opinion that living healthy churches should adopt dead struggling churches, and nurse them back to new life by giving it new leadership and new living members. But a hard truth remains even when a revitalization effort begins. The problems may be simple to spot, but hard to resolve because the dead church must admit their dead and in need of resurrection. Sardis, like many churches today, would not ask for help.
So we see here, the difference between a dead Christian and a living Christian, and the difference between a dead church and a living church is not the number of people in the seats, it’s not the number of times you’ve faithfully read your Bibles, or how good you are to those in need, it’s not the number of salvations or baptisms in a year, it’s not the size of budget or the size of the building. It’s not how much you’ve done for the kingdom of God. No, it’s deeper than all of those things. It’s this: is Jesus treasured and pursued? If that’s happening than your soul and the soul of the church will be like a little boy running through the woods, like a little girl dancing in the rain, like a sea of lilies waving in springtime wind, like the thunder of a horses run, and like the roar of raging waters. Life will be blossoming everywhere. But if you find that Jesus isn’t being treasured or pursued, life will be absent…you’ll feel like a dusty and dry riverbed parched and longing for water. You’ll feel like the church in Sardis.
After rebuking them in v1 Jesus gives them instruction in v2-3 saying, “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. Remember then, what you have 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.”
Jesus words to the church in Sardis here are similar to His words to the church in Ephesus back in chapter 2. In 2:5 Jesus calls the Ephesians to remember, repent, and return to the works they did at first. Here in 3:2-3 the Sardians are called to ‘Wake up, strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your works complete.” Clearly they’re lacking genuine works that come from a true and living faith. Jesus then calls them to remember what they received and heard, to keep it, and to repent. What’s in view here? What did they receive and hear that they need to remember? The gospel. Most of the Christian life is simply a remembering and a re-embracing of the gospel! We see here what true repentance looks like. True repentance isn’t just a sorrow toward God over what you’ve done, it is a fresh grip of the gospel of grace. They heard it, and upon hearing they received it, but they’ve forgotten it and must remember it if they want to last. If they don’t do this Jesus will come and surprise them with judgment just as the city was surprised by the two previous attacks in its history.And His attack on them in judgment, will be so severe those former attacks will seem as minor squabbles in comparison.
You should be aware that some people interpret this passage to mean that Christians can lose their salvation. The argument goes like this: these are believers who are barely hanging onto their faith, they’re not dead yet they’re about to die, and unless they repent they’ll lose their salvation, and be judged. I disagree with this interpretation, and think you should too.The more likely scenario at play in Sardis is that these people who call themselves Christians are just like the people in Smyrna who called themselves Jews but were not Jews in reality. These so-called Jews in 2:9 showed that they weren’t Jews because of their ungodly lifestyle. In a similar manner, the so-called Christians in Sardis are living in such a way as to call into question whether or not they possess true spiritual life in Christ. So rather than seeing them as on the brink of losing their salvation we should rather ask the question: does the name of Christian genuinely apply to them? The answer is simple: if they continue in sin they’re not really believers, if they don’t continue in sin, they’re true.
A legitimate question at this point would be this: is this whole Church dead? Jesus addresses this next in v4, “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.” In earlier letters we’ve seen that the case is usually between two groups of people in the church: the faithful ones and the wicked ones. Here in Sardis it’s different: it’s between the whole wicked church, and the few people (names is mentioned in v4) who are faithfully holding on. Jesus’ promises that it is these people who faithfully endure and hold on until the end, people who haven’t soiled their garments who’ll walk with Him in robes of white. The implication is that the whole Church needs to be doing what these few are already doing themselves.
Jesus ends his letter in 3:5-6 saying, “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. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”
Three great gifts given by the grace of God in the gospel are in view here.First, Jesus will clothe the conqueror in white garments. White represents purity or holiness and stands in contrast to those impure and unholy soiled garments in v4. Clearly this imagery isn’t mainly about clothing for Sardis, it’s about obedience and holy living. John spoke of this in 1 John 3:2-3 saying, “We know that when He appears, we will be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is. And everyone who has this hope fixed on Him purifies himself, just as He is pure.”John also uses this imagery many times throughout Revelation. Chapter 6 is potent moment he uses it. It’s a vision of the martyr’s around the throne, clothed in white. He does it also in 19:8 where the ‘righteous acts of the saints’ are defined as ‘fine, bright, and clean linen.’ Faithfulness and purity to Christ isn’t optional for Christians, and while might mean earthly defeat it does mean heavenly victory and reward.
Second, Jesus will not blot out the conqueror’s name from the book of life. In Old Testament Judaism various books are referred to. Here and other places throughout Revelation John refers to a ‘book of life.’ This book was “written before the foundation of the world” (13:8) and it not to be confused with the book of judgment that will record the sins of unbelievers at the judgment (20:12-13).Again, the meaning here is not that one really could have their name erased from the book of life and lose their salvation. The meaning is that those who claim the name of Christ but continue to compromise their faith in Christ will be exposed as having no true Christian name or identity in the end. On the other hand those who remain faithful to their faith in Christ will at the end be recognized as having a genuine Christian identity when the books are opened. This is to you, and this is to me, an encouragement to the faithful, and a warning to those who are currently compromising. Moses says it well in Deuteronomy 30:19, “…I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live…” Choosing life means either becoming a Christian today by choosing the gospel, or choosing today to continue in the gospel. Will you embrace life? Or will you remain or run into death?
Third, Jesus will confess the conqueror’s name before His Father. Perhaps you remember this from Matthew’s gospel, 10:32, “Everyone who confesses Me before men, I will confess him before My Father in heaven.” Confessing Christ before men today is hard because you’ll probably be mocked or ridiculed. Confessing Christ before men in John’s day, in the times of these churches, was even harder because it usually meant death. But how sweet is it to hear that if we confess Christ before men, one day we’ll hear Him confessing our name to His Father in heaven! Or as G.K. Beale says, “Acknowledgement with Christ in this life will lead to identification and fellowship with Christ in the next life.”It is a sweet promise indeed to die, open your eyes in glory and see Jesus Christ, the Son of God saying to His Father about you ‘MINE!’
Lastly, the letter ends with what we’ve grown accustomed to hearing. “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” For this letter to Sardis, the mention of the Spirit here in v6 would’ve brought to mind the mention of the Spirit back in v1. It is only through the Spirit’s powerful that they and we are transformed from dead sinners into holy saints. Seeking to walk in step with the Holy Spirit is therefore, crucial for them, and crucial for us.
Paul Gardner, Revelation: The Compassion and Protection of Christ, Reprint edition (Fearn: Christian Focus, 2008), 51.
Dennis E. Johnson and Robert L. Plummer, ESV Expository Commentary: Hebrews-Revelation, ed. Iain M. Duguid, Hamilton Jr James M., and Jay Sklar (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2018), 587.
Johnson and Plummer, 585.
Johnson and Plummer, 586.
Robert H. Mounce, The Book of Revelation, Revised edition (Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans, 1997), 109.
Richard D. Phillips, Revelation(Phillipsburg: P & R Publishing, 2017), 133.
Dennis E. Johnson, Triumph of the Lamb: A Commentary on Revelation, First Edition (Phillipsburg, N.J: P & R Publishing, 2001), 83.
G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation(Eerdmans, 2013), 276.
Johnson, Triumph of the Lamb, 84.
Gardner, Revelation, 55.
Beale, The Book of Revelation, 276.