Bible Study Series: Revealing Jesus in Revelation
Revelation Chapter 3:1-6 Sardis: The church that fell asleep
by I Gordon
Ever been to a church and left thinking "Hmmm seems a wee bit dead. That church seems to have fallen asleep!" Well, that was Jesus' message to the next church whose report card we'll explore today. And that is the church at Sardis. As we'll see, Sardis had a great reputation in the eyes of men, but the reputation didn't match the reality in the eyes of the Lord. And, as I'm sure you know, it's what He thinks that counts! But there were some in this church that walked with the Lord and had somehow, thankfully, not slipped into this comatose state! So that's what we will look at today starting with a general overview of this letter.
- Meaning of Sardis: 'Those escaping' - A pointer to the true believer's who escaped both the world's system and the false religious system we saw especially in the letter to Thyatira
- 500 years before this letter was written, Sardis was one of the most powerful and richest cities in the region. But it weakened through moral failures and was conquered by both the Persian and Grecian empires.
- In 'There's a new world coming' Hal Lindsey writes that at the time of Revelation, 'while still a comparatively important city... the people tended to live in the glories of the past and the church in Sardis was guilty of the same backward look.'
- This is interesting because as a prophetic age this church points to the churches established through the Protestant reformation. They had a good beginning but many slowly died. They looked back at what used to be and not forward. Many became state churches like the Anglican in Britain and the Lutheran in Germany, leading to their eventual description seen in this letter, as showing few signs of life!
- Commendation - Very light! "You have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes."
- Complaint - They were a dead church! They were asleep and there deeds were not complete in the sight of God.
- Counsel - Jesus says remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; obey it, and repent.
- Warning - They are warned of missing the time of Jesus' coming - 'if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you.'
- Challenge/Promise - He who overcomes will be dressed in white. There names will never be blotted out of the book of life, and Jesus will acknowledge them before His Father and angels.
Over-riding thought: This letter is hard hitting and somewhat surprising. As mentioned, prophetically it points to the church age starting from the reformation right down to the end of the age. But Jesus has little to commend this church for. They are said to be mostly dead. They are said to be asleep, desperately needing to wake! There is the warning of getting overtaken when Jesus returns. So this letter should be seen as a wakeup call for many who just 'do church' but don't have a true relationship with the Lord.
Jesus introduces Himself as the One who has the seven Spirits of God. The seven Spirits will again be seen in chapter 4 around the throne of God. This reference is a pointer back to Isaiah 11:1-2 which speaks of the seven fold Spirit that was upon Jesus. So remembering that each description of Jesus in these letters is specific and needed for the church addressed, why would Jesus use this title for this church? Well, because they are showing no signs of life and no signs of the Spirit at work! They had a reputation of being alive, and there was likely a time at the start that they were... but as time has gone on the church slipped into a coma! Now the church programs didn't stop, but Jesus saw the reality of where they were at. Pastor Vance Havner has it right when he says:
"We are not to get the impression that Sardis was a defunct affair with the building a wreck, the members scattered, the pastor ready to resign. It was a busy church with meetings every night, committees galore, wheels within wheels, promotion and publicity, something going on all the time. It had a reputation of being a live, wide-awake, going concern."
That's what makes this letter so surprising.. and, well, sad. Sardis points to the post Reformation and Protestant church era which we would think would be commended by the Lord. But He sees the entire picture. He sees how it started when there was life within these traditional churches but also what they became. He says 'I know your deeds, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead.' That's a sad testimony!
She was born spiritually that day and died physically, in perfect peace, happy to die, only a few weeks later!
"It just so happens that your friend here is only MOSTLY dead. There's a big difference between mostly dead and all dead. Mostly dead is slightly alive."
Miracle Max, The Princess Bride : )
Heb 12:12-13 Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees. Make level paths for your feet, so that the lame may not be disabled, but rather healed.
There is always a way back with God. There is always a path to spiritually healing and He will respond to the one who genuinely sees their need and asks for His help. Strengthen the things that remain!
"Remember therefore how thou hast received and heard, and hold fast, and repent." The idea is that they were to hold fast to these things because they were about to die. The great truths which were recovered in the Reformation are being lost. For instance, the Protestant church, by and large, has lost the authority of the Word of God. Rather than holding to the doctrine of the total depravity of man, many of our conservative churches are improving and using cosmetics on the carnal nature, thinking that somehow or another you can get up a few little rules and regulations which are going to enable you to live the Christian life. Also, the great doctrine of justification by faith has been pretty much abandoned, and a legalistic message is given that you have to do something in order to be saved. These are the things which characterize Protestantism today; it is very far from its original position."
J. Vernon McGee (from back in the 1980's... It's worse now!)
- Remember - This type of church should remember. They should remember their foundations. They should remember what they received from the Lord. As should any wayward believer. From a prophetic point of view the Protestant church was founded upon the following five-fold footing: Grace alone, faith alone, Christ alone, scripture alone, Glory of God alone. Each of these is Biblical and should be remembered, received and rejoiced in again.
- Obey - Stay strong to that which you knew to be the truth. Don't move from it. Many are moving from grace, faith, Christ and scripture alone in this day. But we need to obey what the Lord says and not man.
- Repent - Turn around in the way they are walking. Turn around with how they are thinking! Come back to that which is true. This is the message for this church in their day and ours!
Sardis was built high upon a mountaintop which was impossible to scale except at one point... In spite of that, there were these two occasions when enemy soldiers gained entrance to the city. This was very embarrassing to this city—two times it was captured because the guard went to sleep. The Lord says to the church at Sardis, "Don't you go to sleep. Wake up and watch out." He could come at any moment. The people of Sardis did not know when the enemy was coming, and we do not know when the Lord Jesus is coming.
J. Vernon McGee
- Jesus' coming is likened to a thief for those not watching: Mat 24:42-44 Watch therefore, for you do not know what hour your Lord is coming. (43) But know this, that if the master of the house had known what hour the thief would come, he would have watched and not allowed his house to be broken into. (44) Therefore you also be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.
- The day of the Lord is likened to a thief for unbelievers: 1Th 5:1-4 But concerning the times and the seasons, brethren, you have no need that I should write to you. (2) For you yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so comes as a thief in the night. (3) For when they say, "Peace and safety!" then sudden destruction comes upon them, as labor pains upon a pregnant woman. And they shall not escape. (4) But you, brethren, are not in darkness, so that this Day should overtake you as a thief.
God always has a remnant. As mentioned earlier, there are true believers within these denominations... within all denominations. They walk with the Lord just as Enoch walked with God all those years ago - until he was not because God took him (Gen 5:24). As He will to all true believers when He comes for His bride! These, Jesus says, have not soiled their garments and will walk in white3. This is seen of true believers right through the book of Revelation as we shall see as we continue (Rev 4:4, Rev 6:11, Rev 7:9, Rev 7:13-14, Rev 19:8). This brings us to the promise made to this church...
Nevertheless do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rather rejoice because your names are written in heaven. (Luke 10:20)
All I do know is that it makes you want to live for Him in the here and now!
Life, His life, is always the answer to being dead. It isn't more programs or more services. It is getting back to the heart of Christianity - which is Jesus Himself. It is making a move back to Him and He will give you life and light. Therefore He says: "Awake, you who sleep, Arise from the dead, And Christ will give you light." (Eph 5:14)
"The assembly at Sardis is often taken as a picture of the Post-Reformation period when the church became formal, ritualistic, worldly, and political. The Protestant state churches of Europe and the American colonies were leaders in this drift."
William MacDonald, Believers Bible Commentary
"In Copenhagen, a pastor said to me, with tears in his eyes, "Oh, I wish I could preach the Word like you do in America, but I have no time. I have to marry everyone. I have to baptize all the babies that are born and bury everyone who dies in this whole parish, and I simply have no time to study." (They often describe it as having to hatch, match, and dispatch everyone!). He longed to study, but he was unable to impart the truth of the Word to his congregation because of the tie to the state.This is still widely true in Europe today. Churches there are almost totally empty. There may be a few believers among those present, but the membership of the church is made up of people who have a name to live but are spiritually dead."↩
"Why does Jesus refer to defiled garments? In the heathen worship of the day, the pagan gods could not be approached with dirty clothes. The analogy can work for the worship of Jesus, because He gives His pure ones white garments."
This is an area of disagreement. For example in his book 'The Revelation of Jesus Christ', esteemed Bible teacher and prophecy scholar Dr. John Walvoord writes:
"Some have indicated that there is no explicit statement here that anybody will have his name blotted out, but rather the promise that his name will not be blotted out because of his faith in Christ. The implication, however, is that such is a possibility. On the basis of this some have considered the book of life not as the roll of those who are saved but rather a list of those for whom Christ died, that is, all humanity who have possessed physical life. As they come to maturity and are faced with the responsibility of accepting or rejecting Christ, their names are blotted out if they fail to receive Jesus Christ as Saviour; whereas those who do accept Christ as Saviour are confirmed in their position in the book of life, and their names are confessed before the Father and the heavenly angels."
I could be wrong but I can't quite see this. The verses about the lamb's book of life specifically show that unbelievers were NOT written in this book from the foundation of the world. I have written more about this here: https://jesusplusnothing.com/series/post/TheBookOfLife