Revelation 3:1-6, “And to the angel of the church in Sardis write, ‘These things says He who has the seven Spirits of God and the seven stars: I know your works, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead. Be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die, for I have not found your works perfect before God. Remember therefore how you have received and heard; hold fast and repent. Therefore if you will not watch, I will come upon you as a thief, and you will not know what hour I will come upon you. You have a few names even in Sardis who have not defiled their garments; and they shall walk with Me in white, for they are worthy. He who overcomes shall be clothed in white garments, and I will not blot out his name from the Book of Life; but 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.”’
Profile of Sardis: The city was located 50 miles east of Ephesus. She had been the capital of the ancient kingdom of Lydia and later an important municipality for the Persian Empire. The city itself was built on top of a plateau rising approximately 1500 feet above a significant trade route that connected the interior portion of Asia Minor with the coast.
As a result, throughout her history, Sardis proved to be a strategic military post. Because of her physical location on top of this plateau, the city was largely considered impregnable. And yet, twice in her history the city would fall for the same tragic reason.
Greek historian Herodotus tells the story of the fall of Sardis in 549 BC by Persian King Cyrus. Knowing the linchpin to conquering the region was Sardis, Cyrus was in desperate need of a way into the city. Nevertheless, because of the steep cliffs which provided a natural defense he and his military advisers were at a loss for how to mount an attack.
After exhausting their options, Cyrus offered a reward to any soldier who could figure out a way to get up into the city undetected. As the story goes a soldier happened to notice one of the watchmen guarding the walls accidentally drop his helmet down one of the cliffs.
Unaware he was being watched this soldier then proceeded to climb down a hidden trail in order to retrieve his helmet. Not only did this trail reveal the way into the city, but upon arrival Cyrus’ men discovered that the residences of Sardis were so confident in their natural defenses they felt no need to keep a diligent watch.
That night the city gates had been left unguarded and as the residence of Sardis slept the armies of Cyrus took the city unchallenged. To make matters worse, in 214 BC, the armies of Antiochus the Great were able to capture Sardis under the exact same circumstances.
According to Roman historians, in 17 AD, the city of Sardis was utterly destroyed by an earthquake. Because she was no longer needed as a military stronghold for Rome, it was decided that Sardis should be rebuilt in the valley along the trade route.
Understand… By the end of the first century (when Jesus is writing to this local church) Sardis was a city in decline. While she would always revel in her past glories and reputation, over the next few centuries Sardis’ influence and strategic importance slowly dissipated.
In the end the final deathblow would come when Constantine made Constantinople the new capital of the East. Since the trade route Sardis relied upon was now no longer necessary, the city quickly became nothing more than a set of ruins dedicated to former fame.
Though the Roman Catholic Church would dominate the landscape of Christianity for some 1200 years, a few significant rumblings during the 1300 and 1400 would set the stage for a series of events that would change not only the church, but the entire world.
While the Bible had been translated from its original languages of Hebrew and Greek into Latin, it had never been translated into the common language of the people. As a result it was only the educated class of priests who could read Scripture and since mass was also held in Latin the vast majority of the world had zero exposure to God’s Word.
Enter John Wycliffe… Not only was Wycliffe an outspoken dissident of the Roman Catholic Church and specifically the abuse of papal authority, he believed the Scriptures alone should be seen as the only reliable guide to the truth about God.
Since this was such a strong conviction, Wycliffe made it his life’s work to translate the Bible into the common language of the people so that the masses could read the Bible for themselves. In 1382 Wycliffe completed his English translation of the Bible from Latin.
Though Wycliffe died of natural causes on December 28, 1384, the Council of Constance retroactively declared Wycliffe a heretic on May 4, 1415. The Pope formally decreed that Wycliffe's works (and his Bible) be burned and his corpse exhumed and burned.
Following Wycliffe men like John Huss would work within the church over the next 75 years hoping to bring about much needed changes; and yet, by the early 16th century it had become clear to most within the dissent that the Roman Catholic Church and her corrupted leaders were completely unwilling to enact any reforms.
Enter Martin Luther… As a result of Johann Tetzel’s selling of indulgences in Germany to raise money to rebuild St. Peter’s Basilica, on October 31, 1517 a German priest by the name Martin Luther was finally move to action. In an act of defiance Luther nailed to the door of the “Castle Church” in Wittenberg his “Ninety-five Theses” formally protesting what he felt were the intolerable beliefs and practices of the Roman Catholic Church.
Though many see this act as the catalyst for the Protestant Reformation, along with Luther, men like Calvin and Zwingli would break from the Catholic Church, translate Scripture into the common tongue, and eventually start their own church movements. Note: Today, denominational movements such as Lutheranism, Presbyterianism, Episcopalianism, Quakerism, and Anglicanism all find their roots in the early days of the Reformation.
And yet, while the church will always be indebted to what was started by Protestantism, the sad reality is that the reforms brought about by these men did not go far enough.
Though the foundational principles of the Reformation (Bible alone, Faith alone, Grace alone, Christ alone) changed the theological belief structure of the church, it failed to bring about a revival of the church itself. The Reformation changed beliefs, not practices.
For example: Even in its inception the Reformation failed to deal with the underlying problem that had created the Roman Catholic Church… the State Church. As a fact of history these Protestant Church movements almost immediately became State Churches which created the same type of immoral behavior and political corruption found in Catholicism.
Beyond this… Though many of the reformers suffered at the hands of a church who resisted their theological positions, tragically the Protestant Church proved to be just as intolerant. Consider the Anabaptists… Historically, we know that while “in Catholic countries they were executed by burning at the stake, in Lutheran and Zwinglian states Anabaptists were generally executed by beheading or drowning.” Identical grievances and practices.
What is really amazing about this letter is that Jesus has no commendation for the churches of the Protestant Reformation. Instead, as we’ll see, all Jesus had were strong criticisms. Amazingly, Jesus had nicer things to say about the Roman Catholic Church or for that matter Constantine’s church than he did for the ones started by Luther and Calvin. Keep in mind… As much as it’s trendy to admirer the early reformers, if our church existed in the 16th century these same men would call us heretics and have us brutally executed.
Jesus begins, “I know your works, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead.” Though this church had the reputation of life and apparent vitality within the community (substantiated by their “works” and that they had “a name that they were alive”), neither of these two things were connected to reality. It was the illusion of life.
As far as Jesus was concerned their reputation and activity was seen as nothing more than the evidence of past life. In the Greek “dead” or “nekros” literally means “dead.” They acted alive and had the reputation of being alive when in actuality they were dead! Example: Consider that when you cut off a chicken’s head it will still run around for a little while. Even though for a period of time it will have the appearance of life, it’s clearly dead.
Jesus continues… “I have not found your works perfect before God.” The Living Bible translates this as “Your deeds are far from right in the sight of God.” Sadly, as we’ve noted, while the Protestant Reformation corrected faulty theology she failed to effect any type of lasting change in the lives of people. In a sense we have presented here a dead orthodoxy. Yes, there was a changing of the mind, but there wasn’t a changing of direction.
Finally, Jesus accused them of “defiling their garments.” Though they began with a fresh start and a clean break from Catholic corruption, it didn’t take long for this church to “defile” themselves or literally “soil themselves” through their sinful actions.
“Be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die…” David Guzik makes this interesting observation about Jesus’ use of the word “dead” with regards to this church in Sardis… “Dead indicates no struggle, no fight… It wasn't that the church at Sardis was losing the battle. A dead body has lost the battle, and the fight seems over.”
This phrase “be watchful” can be translated as “wake up!” (You can imagine how relevant this point would have been considering her history.) Not only did they need to awaken to the reality that their comfort had transitioned into complacency which had now become apathy, they needed to awaken for they ran the risk of missing Jesus’ coming.
Jesus warns… “Therefore if you will not watch, I will come upon you as a thief, and you will not know what hour I will come upon you.” Keep in mind “a thief” is one who unexpectedly snatches away something of value. Because Jesus is speaking to a dead church it is my belief this is a reference to the rapture of the faithful and likely the beginnings of what is known as the “Day of the Lord” or seven years of Great Tribulation.
Though the Rapture is a glorious moment when the Groom comes for His bride, for the rest of the world (including this dead church) it will be seen as a grand heist. Jesus is telling this church that if they didn’t wake up they ran the serious risk of being left behind!
Notice Jesus affirms that there were a few faithful believers among a dead majority… “You have a few names even in Sardis who have not defiled their garments; and they shall walk with Me in white, for they are worthy. He who overcomes shall be clothed in white garments, and I will not blot out his name from the Book of Life; but I will confess his name before My Father and before His angels.” To these saints Jesus promised…
“They shall walk with Me in white for they are worthy!” What made these believers “worthy” of being “clothed in white garments?” They “walked with Jesus.” It was their relationship with Jesus and His imputed righteousness that made them worthy of being His bride.
“I will not blot out his name from the Book of Life…” William Barclay observed that “in ancient times cities kept a register of their citizens; and when a man died, his name was removed from the register.” Jesus is assuring the faithful of their salvation and place in heaven. Revelation 20:11-15, “I saw a great white throne and Him who sat on it, from whose face the earth and the heaven fled away. And there was found no place for them. And I saw the dead… standing before God… And another book was opened, which is the Book of Life. And the dead were judged according to their works, by the things which were written in the books. The sea gave up the dead who were in it, and Death and Hades delivered up the dead who were in them. And they were judged, each one according to his works. Then Death and Hades were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. And anyone not found written in the Book of Life was cast into the lake of fire.”
“I will confess his name before My Father…” This word “confess” is “exomologeô” meaning “to acknowledge openly and joyfully.” The word can literally mean “to celebrate or praise.” Jesus would attest in Matthew 10:32, “Therefore whoever confesses Me before men, him I will also confess before My Father who is in heaven.”
Though the situation in Sardis was bleak it wasn’t hopeless. In addition to telling them to “wake up!” Jesus also exhorts them to “strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die” by “remembering how you have received and heard” before “holding fast and repenting.”
While there is no doubt this church was down for the count she wasn’t fully down and out of the fight. This phrase “remember therefore” literally means to “drive your mind back to.” We should ask… What was Jesus wanting this dead church to remember?
First, this phrase “you have received” is Jesus’ way of getting them to remember what they had been given in the beginning that they were now lacking in the present.
Did you notice the way Jesus introduces Himself to this church in the first part of His letter? He said, “These things says He who has the seven Spirits of God and the seven stars…” While we have seen these “seven stars” to represent Jesus’ authority over the church, the mention of Jesus also having “the seven Spirits of God” is significant and important.
In Isaiah 11:1-2 we’re first introduced to the “Seven Spirits of God…” “There shall come forth a Rod from the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots. (1) The Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon Him, (2) the Spirit of wisdom (3) and understanding, (4) the Spirit of counsel (5) and might, (6) the Spirit of knowledge (7) and of the fear of the LORD.”
This church was dead because they were no longer dependent on the Spirit of God.
They exchanged Godly dependency for human sufficiency (“Spirit of the LORD”).
They exchanged divine wisdom for human intelligence (“Spirit of Wisdom”).
They exchanged heavenly perception for human discernment (“Spirit of Understanding”).
They exchanged spiritual intuition for human rationality (“Spirit of Counsel”).
They exchanged supernatural power for human strength (“Spirit of Might”).
They exchanged holy acumen for human proficiency (“Spirit of Knowledge”).
They exchanged righteous desire for human relevancy (“Spirit of the Fear of the LORD”).
What this dead church needed more than anything else was a fresh moving of the Holy Spirit. They needed Jesus to infuse their church with fresh life! And while Jesus made it clear in the very beginning of His letter that He alone was the dispenser of such things (“He who has the seven Spirits of God”), the question was… Would they receive?
This is why… Secondly, Jesus stresses that they remember how they had received the Holy Spirit in the beginning. Notice Jesus didn’t say, “Remember what you have received…” No, their problem was not doctrinal or theological. Instead, Jesus tells them to “remember how (in what way) you have received…” Humility and faith!
Mark 10:15, “Assuredly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will by no means enter it.”
Galatians 3:2-3, “This only I want to learn from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit, are you now being made perfect by the flesh?”
Richard Rohr, who is a well-known Franciscan priest and author, has observed that history presents an interesting pattern that happens over time in church movements. He calls this cycle the Four M’s (Man, Movement, Machine, and Monument).
First, a Man is used by God in a powerful way. He’s called out by God, filled with the Spirit, breaks from the norm, and pioneers a new way of doing things (or a return to the right way of doing things). Examples: Martin Luther, John & Charles Wesley, Pastor Chuck Smith.
If the man succeeds in his leadership and others begin to rally around the mission, the work moves beyond the man and becomes… Secondly, a Movement. The idea of one man has now become a cause for many. Because people feel like they’re apart of something dynamic, creative, and purposeful they get involved, advocate, and promote.
And while all true movements spread organically, at some point, when enough people buy in, the movement morphs into… Thirdly, a Machine. What up until that moment had been a dynamic, free, unstructured movement things begin to mechanize – structure, organization, routines – a machine is built to ensure the success and longevity of the movement.
And yet, almost inevitably the machine itself – the thing or structure that flowed out of the movement – becomes the object of attention. It – the structure itself, belonging to it, participating in it – becomes the focus of those involved. Slowly the machine becomes so regimented that it begins to loose the life it once had when it was just a movement.
In the end the machine becomes… Finally, a Monument (or worse a mausoleum). Tragically, when this final stage is reached the original vision, excitement, energy, and passion of the Man and later the Movement are all but dead and gone.
Innovation is replaced with tradition. Untested ideas with safe go-to’s. Cutting-edge for tried and true. Fresh perspectives for trusted experience. Risk-taking with “we’ve always done it this way.” Annual anniversaries are celebrated more frequently than tales of exciting, new adventures.
This is why our focus as a church (and yours as a Christian) should always be on the Man Christ Jesus with our dependency being found on nothing but the Holy Spirit.
It’s true historically that in most instances the transition from movement to machine takes place after the man who started the movement has died. Because the man initiated the movement (and no one could take his place) the natural compulsion of those within the movement is to compensate for the lack of leadership with organizational structure. It’s one of the main reasons organic movements become organized machines.
And yet, we can and should resist this tendency because Jesus is alive and well! It is “He who lives, and was dead, and behold is alive forevermore.” He’s not only our Advocate, Mediator, and High Priest in heaven, but Jesus is the pastor of the church. He started the movement and still sees to its day to day operations. He is the One who “walks in the midst of the seven golden lampstands and who holds the seven stars in His hands.”
You know there are two fundamental differences between a Movement and a Monument… First, movement is a characteristic of the living whereas a monument eulogizes the dead. Sadly, many seeking to justify the structure of a machine rightfully say all living organisms are organized, but so are dead ones!
The essential difference between being alive and dead is not organization, but the moving of God’s Spirit! This church in Sardis and those of the Protestant Reformation were dead because they were no longer depending on the Holy Spirit - the source of all Spiritual life!
This morning if you’re feeling as though your Christian experience has grown stale… If you’re tired, warn out, feeling that slow creep of death… If you feel powerless, lethargic, or apathetic… Jesus is telling you to “wake up!” and remember how desperately you need to continuously receive by faith the fresh, live-giving, filling of His Spirit.
Secondly, movement demands present activity whereas a monument is by definition a fixed object. It’s simply a reality that movements intrinsically focus on future advancement while monuments only commemorate past achievement.
Christian, by looking at the example we find in this letter to the church in Sardis, never forget that your forward, spiritual motion (spiritual life) is in grave danger (death) if you (not only take your eyes off of Jesus and depend on anything other than His Spirit) but begin to reminisce more about the things God did in your life as opposed to the work He’s currently doing. “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
Philippians 3:13-14, “Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”