Sardis: Alive but Dead

Sardis: Alive but Dead

Sardis: Alive but Dead.

Please read Revelation 3:1-6.

Fortified city. Impregnable, seemingly impossible to attack successfully. Confident in its security from enemies. Safe enough to be made the capital city of western Asia. One of the richest and most powerful of all the ancient cities. A flourishing church with a solid reputation, known for its boundless activity and successful programs. This could be any city in 21st century America, right? But this is 1st century Sardis, a prosperous city church in western Turkey that received some hard words and constructive criticism from Jesus in the book of Revelation.

The City. Sardis was a uniquely wealthy and powerful city in the ancient world. It was famous for being fortified against any kind of attack from rivals or enemies. It was said to be impregnable, safe and secure. It was quite rich because of its extensive fruit orchards, jewelry factories, textile industries, and especially its productive gold mines. Sardis was the first city in the ancient world to mint coins. It boasted an extravagant acropolis with many spectacular buildings and a huge gymnasium. One of the famous buildings was their Jewish synagogue, which was over 270′ long. Another well known structure was its temple for Cybele, also known as Artemis, the city’s patron goddess. Cybele was said to have the power to bring the dead back to life. The impressive temple commanded the city, because it was 163′ by 327′, enormous by any standard. Sardis was powerful, flourishing, prosperous, and pagan to the core.

Jesus. Jesus introduced Himself to the Sardis church by stating that He had the Sevenfold Spirit and the Seven Stars firmly within His grasp. Jesus seemed to be saying that in order not to die, the church needs the presence of the Holy Spirit, but also the Word of God delivered by a messenger, a pastor, a teacher. Nonetheless, in His authoritative and powerful right hand, He carefully held and graciously never let go of His protection and care, even if the church was not where He wanted it to be. Seven is the symbol for completeness and perfection. The church at Sardis evidently doesn’t have much to commend it, so the Lord goes right into His complaints without the usual commendations. Fortunately, Jesus is the only One able to raise the dead, and He is not giving up on them just yet. Sardis is not even partially alive, it seems, for Jesus called them dead. But He can give life to the dead, and it looks like His resurrection powers will be used at this church if they take the Lord’s advice.

Sevenfold Spirit. This is the perfect and powerful presence of the Holy Spirit in the churches. One translator said that God is three-in-one, therefore the Spirit can certainly be seven-in-one. Early church theologians have believed that this refers to the sevenfold operation of the Spirit in Isaiah 11:2, “The Spirit of the Lord shall hover and alight upon him: A spirit of wisdom and insight; a spirit of counsel and valor; a spirit of devotion and reverence of the Lord.” (Tanakh, Hebrew Bible, Jewish Publication Society). The Lord is saying that the church needs a good dose of the living presence of the Spirit in order to revive and come back to life.

Seven Stars. Jesus said previously in Revelation 1:20 that “the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches.” The term “angel,” a heavenly or earthly messenger, is used over 60 times in Revelation. In this context, angels could mean the guardian angels assigned to each church, or it could refer to the Jewish tradition of the seven archangels around the throne of God. Most likely is that these angels are the pastors, the leaders of the church. They are the ones assigned the task of being God’s messengers to the people in the church. And Sardis in particular needs to have its teachers and pastors deliver the Word of God to bring back life to the church.

Alive but Dead. Jesus flatly said that this church was in decline. They enjoyed a good reputation, were active and seemingly flourishing in the public view. They were not dying from heresy, though, but from lifestyle. The church was dead on the inside, where life is supposed to happen. The church was well known and widely accepted, even by the enormous Jewish community in Sardis. but their light is flickering and almost snuffed out altogether. The church had so completely compromised with their pagan surroundings that the church posed no alternative to how everyone thought and lived. There was no opposition from the pagans or Jews because there was no contrast in the way they lived. They looked the same as everyone around them. The church was functionally pagan with Christian lip service. They were lulled into apathy, indifference and self-satisfaction. Their deeds weren’t necessarily evil, but they were empty of the Spirit, they were caught up in normal life, and conformed to their world. For the most part they were wealthy, well-connected, socially active but spiritually dead and infested with apathy about what keeps them alive in God.

Church of the Living Dead. In his book The Seven Churches, William Barklay offered four things about a church that would squeeze the life out of it and leave it for dead: 1. If it would worship its past and live on the good memories, but forget about the life of God going now, in the present; 2. If it would put all it’s attention on the forms, the ritual, and not on the living God. With liturgical churches, overemphasizing the form, just focusing on the ritual, and not the Spirit of God who gives life to the ritual, or forgetting to teach about the spiritual meaning of the ritual, could be deadly; 3. If it focuses so much on the doctrine and the theology that it becomes lifeless and empty of the love of Christ, who is the center point of all theology. Loving theology more than Christ will prove deadly to a church; 4. If the church becomes more concerned about material things than spiritual things, if its values reflect the modern American world rather than the gospel.

Vigilance. Jesus exhorts the church to vigilance, to watchfulness. He told them not to be overconfident in their spiritual security. Jesus told the church that they needed an Ezekiel, a spiritual watchman, to warn the people of approaching danger. (Ezekiel 3). When Jesus told them He would return suddenly and unexpectedly like a thief, He no doubt reminded the church of some city history, that as well-fortified as Sardis was, don’t forget that they didn’t have adequate watchmen in place twice in their history, and both times they were overrun and defeated by hostile forces. Jesus said, don’t make the same mistake spiritually. The name Sardis means “those who have escaped.” Jesus wants the church there to escape from their cultural bondage.

Wake Up. Like a good coach, Jesus told the church to practice the fundamentals of the faith, go back to what you learned earlier. The church has arrested development, they are stuck and not growing, they have forgotten the basics of what they had been taught long ago. Repent, Jesus told them, change your minds, your manner of life. Your deeds are not completed, your works don’t meet the requirements of the Lord, your activities are not mature in the Lord. Your bustling church is spiritually immature and dying on the vine. Wake up, and hold firmly to what is left of your faith.

White Garments. The situation is not hopeless. There are some in the church who are living in the Lord and doing His will. White clothes are worn by the priests, those who are called and set apart for God. All Christians are meant to be set apart in the priesthood of all believers. White garments are a symbol of the resurrected body, of spiritual purity, of God’s righteousness. White garments assures their presence at the Wedding Feast in heaven. Too many in the church were wearing soiled clothes, not the Lord’s robe of righteousness. They will not be admitted to the messianic banquet unless they change their garments.

Book of Life. Evidently the Lord is keeping a list of the citizens of heaven. He maintains a register of the overcomers, the victorious ones bound for glory. Wondrously, Jesus is going to announce these names before the Father and His angels, introducing them to heavenly applause as they enter the Banquet. The Book of Life is mentioned several times in the Hebrew Bible, including Ps. 69:28, Daniel 12:1, and Isaiah 4:3. So this idea was nothing new to the church members. Jesus mentioned it as a warning, because He wants to be kept busy writing down all the names to receive those banquet invitations. He wants to get writer’s cramp with all those names. He doesn’t want to blot out any names from the Book, evidently those who are dead and don’t want to bother coming alive again.

Listen Up. Jesus closes with His customary formula with all the churches, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit is saying.” Open our ears and listen to the Spirit of Jesus. If His words fit, act on it. Is there anything that we need to take to heart regarding the church in Sardis? The word is churches, plural, which means all these seven letters are to be read to all the seven churches. They can learn from each other’s challenges, and a church might see someone’s else’s trials become relevant to them in the future.