We’ve been working our way through these seven messages which the Lord Jesus has addressed to the seven churches in the Roman province of Asia. But, of course, these messages were not just for these seven churches; they’re for every church in every age; and every church in every age is meant to take these seven messages and use these seven messages to think about their own church in order to determine how we’re doing. To the church in Ephesus, the Lord wrote to rebuke them because their love for him was not what it once was. And so, we’re to ask ourselves:
Might that be true of us?
To the church in Smyrna, a church which was facing persecution, the Lord wrote a message of comfort and encouragement. And we can think of churches in parts of the world who will read the Lord’s message to Smyrna and who will find comfort and encouragement in it for themselves because of the persecution they themselves are suffering. To the church in Pergamum, the Lord wrote to rebuke them because some of them had compromised their faith by following the sinful practices of their unbelieving neighbours. And we’re to ask ourselves:
Might that be true of us and have some of us compromised the faith?
And to the church in Thyatira, the Lord wrote to rebuke them because they were tolerating this false teacher who was leading many of them astray. And, again, we’re to ask ourselves:
Might that be true of us and are we tolerating someone or something that is not right?
And today we come to the Lord’s message to the church in Sardis. And you’ll see that the problem in Sardis was that the church had a reputation for being alive, for being spiritually alive. That was the reputation they possessed. But the reality was very different. And so, this is a devastating letter, because it reminds us that appearances can deceive; and while the members of a church might look at themselves and imagine that all is well, the Lord might look on that same church and see something else entirely. And so, let’s study this message together.
And you’ll see that it begins as they all do, with the Lord Jesus describing himself to the congregation. And the description he gives of himself matches the vision the Apostle John had of the Risen Lord Jesus in chapter 1. And this time, the Lord refers to how he holds the seven spirits — or the sevenfold Spirit — of God and the seven stars. I’ve said before that, for the Jews, the number seven signified fullness and completion. And so, by calling the Holy Spirit the sevenfold Spirit, John is conveying to us the idea that he is fully equipped to do whatever needs to be done. And back in chapter 1, we learned that the seven stars in his hand represent the seven angels of the churches. We’re not sure exactly what that means, but at the very least it means that the Lord holds these churches in his hand so that they’re under his power and authority. And so, to this church — which had a reputation for being alive, but which was really dead — the Lord begins by reminding them that they’re in his hands; and he’s the one who has the Holy Spirit who is able to revive and renew this church. Do you remember Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones which came to life? Well, the Lord Jesus is able to send his sevenfold Spirit to revive a church made up of dry bones.
Verses 1b to 3
And so, even though this is a devastating letter, it begins with a note of hope. All is not lost, because the Lord Jesus Christ is holding this church in his hand; and he’s able to bring life to the dead by his Spirit.
But let’s move on to the Lord’s complaint. And it begins at the end of verse 1:
I know your deeds….
And I wonder, when the congregation heard those words, were they expecting the Lord to go on to praise them and to commend them? Since they had this reputation for being alive, were they expecting to hear good things from the Lord? If they were, they were in for a shock, because the Lord went on to accuse them of several things.
First of all, though they had this reputation for being alive, they were, in fact, dead. So, they had the name, but not the substance. They had the appearance, but not the reality. If you were to ask the members of the six other churches mentioned in these chapters what they knew about the church in Sardis, they would all say great things about it. Perhaps if you asked some of the citizens of Sardis about the church in Sardis, some of them might even have said great things about the church and the people who were part of it. They had this reputation for being a church which was spiritually alive and doing well. But the Lord is never fooled by appearances and he’s able to see past reputations to the reality; and he knew what the people in this church were really like.
Secondly, they had become spiritually sleepy. And so, in verse 2, the Lord had to command them to wake up! Wake up and watch out! Well, that warning was a particularly meaningful one for those who lived in Sardis, because the city of Sardis had a reputation for being safe and secure. The city was surrounded on three sides by sheer cliffs, so it could never be surrounded. And once you were in the city, you felt completely safe, surrounded as you were by these cliffs. But the ancient historian Herodotus records how some Persian soldiers managed to climb one of the cliffs and enter the city where is was unguarded. And it was unguarded, because the people of Sardis felt safe and secure because of the reputation the city had for being impregnable. And having climbed the cliff, the Persian soldiers were able to take over the city quite easily. And so, here’s the Lord Jesus saying to this church, with its reputation for being alive:
Wake up! Watch out! Don’t be like your fellow citizens who weren’t watching out for the Persians. You need to stay alert and watch out so that you’re not overtaken by sin and Satan.
The Christian life is a battle, isn’t it? And believers should always be alert and ready to stand firm against the attacks of the Evil One; and we must be ready to resist every temptation. But in a church with a reputation for being alive, it’s very easy for the members to become spiritually sleepy and to drop their guard. And when believers drop their guard, the Devil is able to come along and take over the church the way the Persians were able to take over Sardis.
Thirdly, the members of the church had become spiritually weak. And so, the Lord had to command them to strengthen what remains. So, he’s saying to them:
You have let yourself become weak. Now strengthen what remains and is about to perish.
Think of the gardener who goes into the garden and sees that one of his plants has become unhealthy: its leaves are wilting and brown; the stem has become limp. So, immediately he attends to it and he prunes it and waters it and feeds it. He does whatever is necessary to try to bring life back to this dying plant so that he will not need to uproot it and throw it away. The gardener wants it to live and not die. And the Lord looks at Sardis and he wants them to live and not die. So, he commands them to strengthen themselves.
But becoming weak like this can happen so easily, can’t it? As time passes, and if we’re not keeping watch, our faith, which was once strong, becomes weak; and our love for the Lord becomes cold; and our commitment and zeal for the Lord begins to wane. Think of the Lord’s parable of the seed and the sower, and how the weeds choked some of the seed and prevented it from growing up strong and healthy. And what are the weeds which choke the word? Well, they are the worries of this life; and the deceitful of wealth; and the desire for other things. All of these things can choke the word so that the reading and preaching of God’s word no longer bears fruit in our lives. And so, our faith and our love and our zeal grow weak. Well, the Lord warns the members of the church in Sardis and he commands them to strengthen what remains of their faith and love and zeal.
And fourthly, they had been careless about what they have heard. And so, the Lord had to say to them:
Remember what you have received and heard; obey it and repent.
So, they had gone to church and had heard the good news of the gospel which we’re to believe. And they heard the law of God which we’re to keep and obey. But it seems they had gone home from church and forgotten what they had heard.
And that happens so easily, doesn’t it? And it happens even more easily in a congregation which has a reputation for being alive, because the people become proud and they think to themselves that there’s nothing for them to learn because of who they are. But, the Lord warns this congregation and he commands them to remember what they have received and heard and to obey it.
So, they had the reputation; but not the reality. They had become spiritually sleepy; and needed to be alert. They had become weak; and needed to strengthen what remained of their faith and love and zeal. They had stopped paying attention to God’s word; and they needed to remember it and obey it.
And then the Lord adds at the end of verse 3 that if they do not listen to his warning and do what he says, he will come like a thief in the night. In other words, he will come when they’re not expecting it. And, of course, although he doesn’t actually say it, it’s implied that he will come to discipline them.
And so, having read these things, we ought to pray to the Lord to show us if we are like this; because if we are like this, then we too need to pay attention to his warning and to do all that he says so that he will not need to come and discipline us.
And, of course, although the Lord has harsh things to say to some of his churches, we’re to remember that he’s the one who holds the churches in his hands; and he’s the one who is able to send the sevenfold Spirit to revive and renew his churches so that they are filled with life again.
Verses 4 to 6
But then, to those who have avoided the sins of Sardis, the Lord says only good things. Look with me now at verses 4 to 6. He tells us that some in Sardis — though it’s only a few — but some in Sardis have not soiled their clothes. In other words, their life and witness has not become stained and spoiled by the sins the majority have committed. And the Lord promises those who have remained faithful and those who overcome and repent three things.
Firstly, they will walk with him, dressed in white. Well, in the rest of the book of Revelation, whenever it mentions that someone is wearing white, that person is in heaven. White garments are the garments worn in heaven. And so, the Lord is promising his faithful people and those who overcome and repent that they will be with him in heaven.
Secondly, the Lord promises that he will never blot their names out from the book of life. And so, he gives them assurance: the assurance of everlasting life in his presence. Nothing and no one will be able to remove their names from the Lord’s list of those who will receive eternal life.
And thirdly, the Lord promises that he will acknowledge them before his Father in heaven and before his angels. Well, the Lord is referring to the great and terrible day of judgment when we will all be brought before Almighty God to give an account of our lives. But if you are one of the Lord’s faithful servants, then when you stand before the great judgment seat of God, then the Lord Jesus himself will rise up and will testify to his Father in heaven that he knows you, that you belong to him, that you are one of his true and faithful people, and that your sins have been paid for by his blood so that you have the right to enter into the joy of heaven. The Lord Jesus will stand up in your defence and will show his Father his wounds where the nails pierced his hands and feet, where the crown of thorns pierced his head, where the spear cut open his body, and he will tell his Father that by his wounds you have been healed and redeemed and saved from the eternal punishment. Imagine that! The Lord Jesus Christ, the Eternal Son of God, the great and glorious King of kings and Lord of lords, who even now rules and reigns in heaven, will one day stand up before his Father in heaven, and before all the angels, and will declare without shame and without embarrassment and without apology:
I know this man. I know this woman. And I want them to join me in the joy and glory of heaven.
And since that is what he has promised his faithful people, then we ought to remain faithful to him, trusting in him always, walking in his ways, making sure that we’re not people with a reputation only, but are people who really love the Lord and who want to obey him always.