Five centuries before Christ Sardis had reigned as one of the greatest cities in the world at that time. By the end of the first century when Jesus addressed the Christian community at Sardis, the residents of the city were living with a pride of their past history and glory. They were arrogant, wealthy and immoral.
Sardis was located about 50 miles east of Smyrna in the valley formed by the Pactolus River. Five roads converged in a junction in this valley. A jagged rock outcropping with steep cliffs on three sides rose about 1500 feet above the valley on the edge of Mt. Tmolus/Boz. This became the acropolis of the city of Sardis. The site was nearly impregnable and inaccessible. So the Sardisians thought, but twice in their history their city had been captured because of their over-confidence when they had allowed enemies to infiltrate. This happened in 549 B.C. when the Medes overcame the city, and in 218 B.C. when the Cretans conquered them.
Toward the end of the first century Sardis
still remained a wealthy city. Gold had been discovered in the
river valley, and Sardis may have been the first city to ever
have used gold coinage. Wealth often leads to the pretense of
self-sufficiency, and such seems to have been the case in Sardis.
Jesus begins His address to the church in Sardis by identifying Himself as "He who has the seven Spirits of God, and the seven stars" (3:1). What is Jesus trying to say to the Christians of Sardis by thus identifying Himself?
Throughout the Revelation (1:4; 3:1; 4:5; 5:6) reference to "the seven Spirits" appears to be a symbolic allusion to the completeness of the work of the Holy Spirit. The Sardisian Christians were apparently "resting on their laurels" again, and their "deeds were not completed in the sight of God" (3:2) because they were not allowing the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ, to complete His work in them. When the "seven Spirits" are identified with "seven eyes" later in the Revelation, the implication is that the Holy Spirit is omniscient and sees all that is going on in the church at Sardis.
By indicating that He is the One who "has the seven stars" (1:17; 1:20; 2:1; 10:5; 13:16; 20:1,4), Jesus is telling the Christians of Sardis that He is the One who has the authority and is in control. Earlier Jesus had explained to John that "the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches" (1:20). Sometimes the human leadership of a local church concludes that they have the authority and are in control of the church. Religion has this natural tendency to establish hierarchical authority structures, complete with "flow charts" of political authority and administrative responsibility. In so doing they usually bypass the authority of Christ who is the "head of the Church"(Eph. 5:23; Col. 1:18) and fail to submit to His leadership and guidance of His church. Jesus identifies Himself to the Christians at Sardis as the One who knows what is going on, the One who is in control, and the One who intends to complete His work in them.
Jesus' observation of their condition there in Sardis is expressed when He says, "I know your deeds, that you have a name that you are alive, and you are dead" (3:1). They had a reputation that they were spiritually "alive." There was an alleged vitality, but it was "in name only." They were only nominally vibrant Christians. There was some hypocritical play-acting going on. The risen Lord Jesus charges the Sardisian Christians with an externality that appears to be alive, but in essence they are "dead." Jesus had exposed the hypocritical Pharisees similarly when He said, "You are like whitewashed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men's bones and all uncleanness. You outwardly appear righteous to men, but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness" (Matt. 23:27,28). Those in the church at Sardis were like zombies operating in a lifeless church. It was "Tombstone Territory."
It has been said that "Few things are better organized that graveyards, but there is little life there." So it is that few things are better organized than religious programs and activities. A church may be very busy and very active, and it will appear to undiscerning people that such a church is really "alive," but despite the frenetic activity of performance and productivity that church might be very "dead," because they are not deriving what they do from the life of Jesus Christ.
Life is in Jesus Christ alone. Jesus said "I am the resurrection and the life" (John 11:25); "I am the way, the truth and the life" (John 14:6). Paul explained that "for me to live is Christ" (Phil. 1:21); "Christ is our life" (Col. 3:4). Unless our activity, whether individually or collectively, is the "manifestation of the life of Jesus" (II Cor. 4:10,11), then it is not the expression of life. Activities that are not derived from the life of Jesus Christ are but the expression of "dead works" (Heb. 9:14); they "bring forth death" (James 1:15).
Religious activities may appear to be so "alive" with enthusiasm and excitement, but if they are not activated by the life and character of Jesus Christ Himself by His Spirit, they are a "dead loss." Religion propagates a pseudo-life that appears to be "alive," but is actually dead because it is devoid of the divine life of God in Christ. Lifeless religion is so deceiving because the undiscerning think it is alive, when it is really dead.
Jesus continues to charge the Christians in Sardis when He says, "I have not found your deeds completed in the sight of My God" (3:2). We were "created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them" (Eph. 2:10), and these Christians had some unfinished works. They had disallowed Jesus to do what He wanted to do in their lives and in their church. They had "quenched the Spirit" (I Thess. 5:19). To thus quench the manifestation of Christ's life and ministry can have serious consequences. Jesus told the parable of the vineyard keeper who did not find fruit on his fig tree, and ordered it to be "cut down" (Luke 13:6-9). God's purpose is to have the fruit of His character to be expressed in the behavior of His people unto His own glory, and the failure to allow for such is a misuse of humanity.
To remedy the situation in the church at Sardis, Jesus issues several commands. There are five imperative verbs in verses two and three which command the Sardisians to respond: "be watching, strengthen, remember, keep and repent."
First, Jesus tells them to "be watching." What are they to be watching? They are not to "be watching" the statistics on the attendance board or their place in the denominational polls. They are to "be watchful" of how Satan can so subtly deceive them into religious practices, rather than living out the life of Jesus Christ. Peter advised Christians to "be watching" because "your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour" (I Peter 5:8). Jesus told His disciples, "Keep watching and praying, that you may not enter into temptation; the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak" (Matt. 26:41). Paul encouraged us to "Be watching, stand firm in the faith..." (I Cor. 16:13). We are to be "on watch" against ungodly forces, and the religious methodologies that Satan inspires.
Jesus goes on to explain the consequences of not "standing watch." "If you will not watch, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come upon you" (3:3). This may have had a particularly pointed implication for the people of Sardis, for twice previously in their history their city had been captured because of their failure to "keep watch." They thought they were physically strong and secure, and in their over-confidence they were conquered. When Jesus warns that their failure to watch will result in His coming upon them "like a thief," it means that He will come suddenly, unexpectedly, unannounced and without forewarning. Although the same imagery is used of Jesus' coming at His second advent (I Thess. 5:2; II Peter 3:10), it does not appear that this is the "coming" that Jesus is referring to in His warning to the Christians in Sardis. The final Parousia is not dependent on the watchfulness and repentance of the Sardisian Christians. Jesus is simply indicating that their failure to respond in repentance will result in His coming unexpectedly to bring some kind of physical consequence of judgment or discipline.
Secondly, Jesus commands them to "strengthen the things that remain, which were about to die" (3:2). Establish what you do have "in Christ," and build stability on the foundation of Christ. Paul exhorted the Thessalonian Christians to "comfort and strengthen their hearts in every good work and word" (I Thess. 2:17), and then turned around and wrote, "The Lord is faithful, and He will strengthen you" (I Thess. 3:3). So it is that Jesus is not asking the Christians in Sardis to do anything that He is not willing to do in them, if they are willing in faith. "The Lord of all grace...will establish you" (I Peter 5:10; Rom. 16:25).
The third command of Jesus to the Sardisian Christians is to "remember what you have received and heard" (3:3). What had they received and heard which they are now to remember? Had they received an ideological belief-system, or a morality code, or membership in an organization, or a ticket to heaven? No, that is what religion offers. These Christians had received Jesus Christ by faith (John 1:12; Col. 2:6), and heard His call upon their lives. They were to "remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead" (II Tim. 2:8).
The fourth imperative imposed upon the Christians in Sardis was to "keep" what they had received and heard. Having received Jesus Christ, they were to "keep His word" (I John 2:5), "keep themselves in the love of God" (Jude 21), and "keep the faith" (II Tim. 4:7).
The fifth command was to "repent." If they were going to get out of their lifeless spiritual graveyard there had to be repentance, a change of mind that led to a change of action. Their complacent and self-sufficient thinking would have to be exchanged for the recognition that only the activity of Christ in them was pleasing to God. Whenever religion has permeated the life of a church there must be repentance to reverse the direction of the church and allow them to return to faith.
"But," Jesus observes, "you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their garments; and they will walk with Me in white; for they are worthy" (3:4). In almost every church situation there are the "faithful few," who have continued to walk in the purity of Christ, "hating the garment polluted by the flesh" (Jude 23) and "keeping themselves unstained by the world" (James 1:27). When we become Christians we "put on the new man" (Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:10) and are clothed in His righteousness, holiness, love, joy, peace, etc. Whenever we revert to the practice of religion we are clothed instead with self-effort, self-justification and self-adulation. Such behavioral garments are soiled, stained and polluted by the satanic motivation of the flesh in conjunction with his world-system.
Those who repudiate such soiled garments of religion are promised by the Lord Jesus Christ that they "will walk with Him in white, for they are worthy" (3:3). They will allow the purity of Christ's character of godliness and holiness to be expressed in their behavior. It is not that they are "worthy" because of any meritorious action on their own part, but they are "worthy" because they are relying on the "Worthy One," Jesus Christ, to be operative in them. Only thus can any Christian "walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, to please Him in all respects, bearing fruit in every good work" (Col. 1:10), "walk in a manner worthy of the God who calls us into His kingdom and glory" (I Thess. 2:12), "walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which we have been called" (Eph. 4:1), and be "considered worthy of the kingdom of God..." (II Thess. 1:5).
Religion often considers "worthiness" to be based on natural talents and the performance of service and contribution. A person is then considered "worthy" of being considered for a higher position in the church and "worthy" of being honored before men. They know nothing of the "worthiness" that is derived only from the "Worthy One" living in and acting through the Christian.
The promise of Jesus to the church at Sardis is continued with a three-part promise: "He who overcomes shall thus be clothed in white garments; and I will not erase his name from the book of life, and I will confess his name before My Father, and before His angels" (3:5).
Christians who overcome the temptation to revert to religion by maintaining their association with the Overcomer (John 16:33) will be clothed in "white garments," representing the purity of the character of Christ. Religion, on the other hand, concerns itself with external activity and clothing rather than the character of Christ. Pre-occupied with ecclesiastical robes and garments and with people wearing "Sunday-go-to-meeting" clothes, religion inevitably emphasizes the external rather than the internal. Jesus is concerned that we be clothed internally with His character.
Jesus also promises that overcomers will not have their names "erased from the book of life." The obvious implication is that it is possible to have one's name erased from the book of life, or else the statement would have no meaning whatsoever. The Psalmist had requested that the unrighteous "be blotted out of the book of life, and not be recorded with the righteous" (Ps. 69:28). The "book of life" seems to represent the register of heavenly citizenship. As Christians "our citizenship is in heaven" (Phil. 3:21); we are part of "the church of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven" (Heb. 12:23); and we "rejoice that our names are recorded in heaven" (Luke 10:19,20). We are "those whose names are written in the Lamb's book of life" (Rev. 20:15; 21:27). But when we substitute religion for the Savior we are liable to having our names erased and blotted out of the book of life. God will not and cannot tolerate diabolic religion contrary to His character and grace. The security of heavenly citizenship is not in religious doctrines of "eternal security" and "once saved, always saved," but in dynamic dependence upon the function of the Savior living out His life in us. Religion offers a false-security, and religionists are in danger of having their names erased from the book of life.
The third part of Jesus' promise is that those who overcome the temptation to revert to religion will be privileged to have Jesus serve as their advocate and "confess their name before His Father, and before His angels." Jesus had previously said to His disciples, "Everyone who shall confess Me before men, I will also confess him before My Father who is in heaven" (Matt. 10:32), and "before the angels of God" (Luke 12:8). As our behavior "confesses," "agrees with," "says the same thing" as the character of God because He is energizing such by His grace, Jesus will in turn "confess" us before God and the angels as being "in agreement" with Him.
All of what Jesus promises can only transpire
by our listening carefully with spiritual discernment to what
Jesus is saying by His Spirit. "He who has an ear, let him
hear what the Spirit says to the churches" (3:6). Such "listening
under" the Spirit of Christ will issue forth in obedience
that glorifies God as the life of Jesus Christ is lived out through