The Message to 
the Church at Sardis

Revelation 3:1-6

Introduction

So far the glorified Christ has addressed four of the seven churches of Asia Minor. The church at Ephesus fought hard for doctrinal orthodoxy but lost her first love and in need of repentance to return to her first works. The church of Smyrna remained faithful in spite of persecution but was facing further trials, for which she needed the encouragement from the Lord to be faithful even unto death. The church at Pergamos had married the world in tolerating doctrinal and ethical evil, standing in immediate danger of Christ's devastating judgment. And the church of Thyatira, who was celebrating her anniversary with the world, had compromised by allowing evil teachers to propagate heresy for economic acceptance in the trade guilds, was warned about a bed of pain and premature death unless she repents.

The fifth message that the glorified Christ commissioned the Apostle John to write, was to the local church of Sardis. The church of Sardis became complacent and rested on her former spiritual reputation, having lost her passion and was in danger of Christ coming in sudden and unexpected judgment. The church of Sardis, like too many Christians and local fellowships, lived in the past, which is the gateway to complacent spiritual apathy or deadness.

This lesson will focus on the Lord's message to the church of Sardis, with a view to expounding on five issues: 1.) the historical background of the city and church of Sardis, 2.) the one who addresses the church of Sardis, 3.) the condemnation of the church of Sardis, 4.) the commendation of the church of Sardis, and 5.) the promise to the overcomer of the church of Sardis.(1)

The Historical Background of the
City of Sardis

The city of Sardis is about 30 miles southeast of Thyatira and 50 miles due east of Smyrna. The original city of Sardis sets 1,500 feet above sea level, on a plateau overlooking a large valley at the western end of the Great King's highway from Susa. In ancient times, because it was only assessable from the narrow neck of land from the south, the city was considered essentially impregnable and easily defended. Hence it became the capital of the kingdom of Lydia. It enjoyed not only political influence but economic prosperity in harvesting wool and dying it, which was very lucrative during ancient times.

Long before NT times, the rules of warfare had changed and cities had become larger, demanding that the city of Sardis occupy mostly the foothill of the high plateau. It was a city of the past, who enjoyed the prestige of former glory, i.e., "a name that thou livest" (cf. Rev. 3:1) but was now in decline. The once proud impregnable city had even become a Greek metaphor of arrogance and overconfidence.(2) No doubt Christ addresses the local church with their historical background in mind, as Christians had spiritually fallen into the same overconfidence as the city had. Not only had she been conquered by Cyrus of Persia but both Alexander the Great and Antiochus the Great. The city was also destroyed by an earthquake in A.D. 17 and through a five year tax free grant by Emperor Tiberius was rebuilt but never retained her former glory. Nothing is known about the founding of the church of Sardis but it is presumed to come from the impact of the teaching ministry of the Apostle Paul, over three decades previously. cf. Acts 19:10.

The One Who is Addressing the 
Church of Sardis

And unto the angel of the church in Sardis write; These things saith he that hath the seven Spirits of God, and the seven stars. (cf. Rev. 3:1)

To the pastor at Sardis, the glorified Christ describes Himself as "He that hath the seven Spirits of God and the seven stars."(3) The seven stars, as we saw in Rev. 1:20, refer to the messengers or pastors of the seven churches of Asia Minor. But what are the "seven Spirits of God"? When considering "the seven spirits who are before His throne" (cf. Rev. 1:4), it was suggested that the phrase could not refer to angels, making them co-equal with the Father and with the Son. It must refer to the Holy Spirit, drawing on the symbolism of Zechariah 4:1-10, who exercises sovereignty over the earth. As the Lord of Hosts says through Zechariah, "Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit" (cf. Zech. 4:6), suggesting that he is the source of physical and spiritual life. Both would be vital to the believers at Sardis, who were in need of repentance of their lack of spiritual passion, to commute the sentence of temporal death.

The Condemnation of the Church
of Sardis

I know thy works, that thou hast a name that thou livest, and art dead. Be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die: for I have not found thy works perfect before God. Remember therefore how thou hast received and heard, and hold fast, and repent. If therefore thou shalt not watch, I will come on thee as a thief, and thou shalt not know what hour I will come upon thee. (cf. Rev. 1:1b-3)

Once again, the glorified Christ claims to "know (Greek, oida) thy works," which could refer to either their former service by which they gained a reputation or their current service, which were not complete before God. Both could be implied, as the eternal Christ views all at one omniscient glance. G. Campbell Morgan points makes an interesting observation.

There is a marked change in our Lord's method of address to the church of Sardis. Hitherto he has commenced with words of commendation. Here, he commenced with words of condemnation. In the other churches, evil had not been the habit, but rather, the exception and therefore it was possible first to commend. Here the case is reversed and no word of commendation is addressed to the church as a church. (4)

They had a "name (Greek, onoma) that thou livest, and art dead." The name standing for their inner character and works, suggests a commendable reputation of life which they enjoyed but they were actually spiritually dead. cf. Matt. 8:22; Luke 9:60; John 5:25; Eph. 2:1; 1 Tim. 5:6. There are no foes from without or within, but the like the church at Laodicea, the threat was self-imposed.(5) Stott writes:

I dare say its congregation was quite large for those days and was growing and even fashionable. Its programme included many excellent projects. It was positively humming with activity…But outward appearances are notoriously deceptive; and this socially distinguished congregation was a spiritual graveyard. It seemed to be alive, but was actually dead. It had a name for vitality but it had no right to its name. Its works were beautiful graveclothes which were but a thin disguise for this ecclesiastical corpse. The eyes of Christ saw beyond the clothes to the skeleton. It was dead as mutton. It even stank. (6)

Five commands are then given by the glorified Christ as He condemns the local church at Sardis, in order for them to restore themselves to what they were before: be watchful, strengthen the things that remain, remember, hold fast and to repent.

A. Watch. They were to be watchful in the sense of waking up and watching or showing vigilance to spiritual danger. The periphrastic imperative implies both actions in English. Christ would be borrowing from their history in 549 B.C. and 218 B. C., when the city acropolis fell through complacency. The local church was negligent of spiritual vigilance and hence, was dead in the sight of Christ.

B. Strengthen. They were to strengthen those things remaining, in the sense of establishing the church with new vitality. cf. Luke 22:24-34; Acts 18:23; Rom. 1:11; 16:25; 1 Thess. 3:2, 13; 2 Thess. 2:17; 3:3; James 5:8; 1 Pet. 5:10; 2 Pet. 1:12. The aorist imperative suggests that the death (vs. 1) was not to be taken absolutely. Question: what are the "things remaining" (Greek, to loipa)? Some suggest this refers to the matters or qualities in the church of Sardis not totally without spiritual vitality. cf. Alford, Caird, Bleek, Lenski); others suggest it refers to persons, who have not fallen asleep spiritually. cf. Eichorn, DeWette, Ebard, Trench, Bengel, Lee. Yet, perhaps it refers to both things that have not been ignored and persons who have not become complacent (cf. Swete, Charles, Beckwith.) but are on the verge of dying. These were "ready to die" in the sense of the weakening spark of life was almost extinguished.

When Christ summarizes, "I have not found thy works perfect before God," the sense is that their works didn't measure up to being acceptable before Him. He is not claiming that they simply lacked perfection but rather, that they were unacceptable.(7) The critical text adds, mou (English, "my") before "God."

C. Remember. Similar to Christ's command to the Ephesian church, the Lord tells believers in Sardis to "repent!" The Greek term mnemoneue refers to more than simply recalling, what they had received and heard but to bring it to mind or keep in the forefront of their attention what they had received and heard. The present tense speaks of a continuous action of keeping this in mind! But what specifically are they to continually keep in the forefront of their mind?

The Greek adverb (i.e., pas) translated "how" could be taken in an objective sense, i.e., to recall the matter or content of what they formerly heard and received. cf. Alford, Moffatt, Beckwith. Those who hold this view see this as the apostolic tradition of the Gospel. The weakness of this view is when we notice the kindred recalling of the Ephesian believers, i.e., "from where (Greek, pathen) you are fallen." Hence a second view has been suggested.

This second view could take pas in a subjective sense, i.e., to express the manner of their former receiving. cf. Ebrard, Morris, Lee, Thomas. There is no hint that the church of Sardis had departed from the Gospel to embrace some other heresy but they had turned from the manner in which they had previously received it. They had originally heard and received the Word with great zeal, wonder and thanksgiving, motivating them to serve Christ with passion. Now unfortunately, they had become complacent and were in need to do the same as the Ephesian believers, i.e., remember, repent and do the first works. They were to recall how they heard and received not only what they heard and received.

Memory is a precious and blessed gift. Nothing can stab the conscience so wide awake as memories of the past. The shortest road to repentance is remembrance. Let a man once recall what he used to be and reflect on what by God's grace he could be and he will be led to repent, turning back from his sin to his Savior. (8)

D. Hold Fast. The Greek term teres and speaks of keeping or earnest attention. In this context it is similar to mnemoneue (English KJV, "remember"), also in the present tense commending an ongoing earnest attention.

E. Repent. Finally, Christ commands the church at Sardis to "repent" (Greek, metanoeson), suggesting a change of mind, leading to regret for the past and resulting in a change of behavior. This is the finality of the process, where those at Sardis not only remember how they had previously received the Gospel but return to that attitude of thankful passionate service. But what if these five commands are ignored and they continue in their spiritual complacency? What if the church of Sardis ignores the warning and command of the glorified Christ?

The second "therefore" (Greek, oun) of verse three is resumptive, looking back to verse 2. If they are not watchful or ignore those things remaining, then Christ promises to "come as a thief" in the sense of sudden and unexpected judgment. There have been two views recommended:

The Judgment at the Second Coming.  
Some find in the warning of Christ the judgment at the second advent, i.e., they will be caught off guard when the Lord's returns. cf. Charles, Trench, Govett, Thomas. Reasons for this view are strong: 1.) the simile of the coming thief is often used to refer to Christ's second coming. cf. Matt. 24:43; Luke 12:39; 1 Thess. 5:2; 2 Pet. 3:10; Rev. 16:15. Matthew, Luke, Paul and Peter used this simile to refer to the Lord's return to earth, so why not John? 2.) the Apostle John shared with the other synoptic authors an expectation in the imminent return of Christ. cf. Luke 12:39; Mark 13:35, etc.

The Judgment of the Church of Sardis.  
However, it seems better to see this as a promised special coming of judgment on the church of Sardis, which history confirms. cf. Alford, Lenski, Stott, MacArthur. Several strong reasons are offered: 1.) sometimes the simile of a coming thief, refers to a partial local judgment, like the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. 2.) the church at Ephesus was given a similar threat of local judgment in 2:5.(9) 3.) the "thief" simile suggests the idea of surprise and context would demand that the local church of Sardis would receive it as a personal warning about their own danger. 4.) some historical visitation would be in mind because the eschatological coming of Christ is not dependent on repentance at Sardis. This last reason tilts the question toward this view. The third class conditional clause (English, "if…then") would make the Second Coming of Christ depend on the local church of Sardis neglecting to be watchful. This is a reminder of the history of the city falling through negligence in 549 B.C. and again in 218 B.C. Both were sudden and devastating times for Sardis, just as this would be to the church.

The Commendation of the Church
of Sardis

Thou hast a few names even in Sardis which have not defiled their garments; and they shall walk with me in white: for they are worthy. (cf. Rev. 1:4)

Although the KJV omits the strong adversative alla (English, "but"), other translations retain it. Stronger than he Greek de, it points out a more vivid contrast between the general character of complacent Sardis and those few within the local church who walked faithfully. Some did reflect their previous reputation, retaining their "names" (Greek, onomata) as they did not "defiled (Greek, emolunan is to smear, befoul or pollute) their garments." He specific Greek term for garments, refers to the large upper garment that a man in ancient times would wear during the day and sleep in at night. Obviously drawn from the wool dying industry in Sardis, Christ commends those who have not soiled their spiritual lives with the compromise of complacency and immorality. These few had broken from the flow of nominal Christians and retained their passion for Christ and His Kingdom!

To these few who have not become complacent in compromise, Christ promises that they will "walk with me in white, for they are worthy." The sense refers to moral purity and holiness in the passing of one's life; their purity of conduct during their lives.(10) A question arises as to when this promise is realized, suggesting two major views. 1.) They shall Walk before Christ in White in Glory, i.e., as a result of their faithfulness during their lives on earth, Christ will grant them full purity in heaven, to walk with Him.(11) 2.) They shall Walk before Christ on Earth, i.e., because of their purity, the Lord will continue to sustain them in that as he does with all true believers. This is Christ's intended meaning in this context., without omitting a sense of the first view.

What does it mean, "for they are worthy"? This can't refer to any at Sardis being actually intrinsically worthy of righteousness. Especially in the Book of the Revelation, the Apostle John is careful to point out that only the Lord is worthy.

The four and twenty elders fall down before him that sat on the throne, and worship him that liveth for ever and ever, and cast their crowns before the throne, saying, Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honour and power: for thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created. (cf. Rev. 4:10-11)

And when he had taken the book, the four beasts and four and twenty elders fell down before the Lamb, having every one of them harps, and golden vials full of odours, which are the prayers of saints. And they sung a new song, saying, Thou art worthy to take the book, and to open the seals thereof: for thou wast slain, and hast redeemed us to God by thy blood out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation; And hast made us unto our God kings and priests: and we shall reign on the earth. And I beheld, and I heard the voice of many angels round about the throne and the beasts and the elders: and the number of them was ten thousand times ten thousand, and thousands of thousands; Saying with a loud voice, Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honour, and glory, and blessing. And every creature which is in heaven, and on the earth, and under the earth, and such as are in the sea, and all that are in them, heard I saying, Blessing, and honour, and glory, and power, be unto him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb for ever and ever. And the four beasts said, Amen. And the four and twenty elders fell down and worshipped him that liveth for ever and ever. (cf. Rev. 5:8-14)

After this I beheld, and, lo, a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues, stood before the throne, and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands; And cried with a loud voice, saying, Salvation to our God which sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb. And all the angels stood round about the throne, and about the elders and the four beasts, and fell before the throne on their faces, and worshipped God, Saying, Amen: Blessing, and glory, and wisdom, and thanksgiving, and honour, and power, and might, be unto our God for ever and ever. Amen. And one of the elders answered, saying unto me, What are these which are arrayed in white robes? and whence came they? And I said unto him, Sir, thou knowest. And he said to me, These are they which came out of great tribulation, and have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. (cf. Rev. 7:9-14)

Obviously, this speaks of a relative worthiness, where God examined the deep desires of the heart of those longing to keep their devotion to Christ pure. Cf. Luke 20:35; Eph. 4:1; Phil. 1:27; Col. 1:10; 1 Thess. 2:12; 2 Thess. 1:5. 

I therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you that ye walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called, With all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love; Endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. (cf. Eph. 4:1-3)

Only conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or remain absent, I will hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel; in no way alarmed by {your} opponents-- which is a sign of destruction for them, but of salvation for you, and that from God.cf. Phil. 1:27-28; NASV)

For this cause we also, since the day we heard it, do not cease to pray for you, and to desire that ye might be filled with the knowledge of his will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding; That ye might walk worthy of the Lord unto all pleasing, being fruitful in every good work, and increasing in the knowledge of God; Strengthened with all might, according to his glorious power, unto all patience and longsuffering with joyfulness; Giving thanks unto the Father, which hath made us meet to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light. (cf. Col. 1:9-12)

Ye are witnesses, and God also, how holily and justly and unblameably we behaved ourselves among you that believe: As ye know how we exhorted and comforted and charged every one of you, as a father doth his children, That ye would walk worthy of God, who hath called you unto his kingdom and glory. (cf. 1 Thess. 2:10-12)

So that we ourselves glory in you in the churches of God for your patience and faith in all your persecutions and tribulations that ye endure: Which is a manifest token of the righteous judgment of God, that ye may be counted worthy of the kingdom of God, for which ye also suffer. (cf. 2 Thess. 1:4-5)

Those in Sardis who rise above the flow of the complacent local church and are not defiled by their culture, are those who are relatively worthy to walk with Christ in purity. This leads the author to a great concluding promise.

The Promise to the Church
of Sardis

He that overcometh, the same shall be clothed in white raiment; and I will not blot out his name out of the book of life, but I will confess his name before my Father, and before his angels. He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches. (cf. Rev. 3:5-6)

Once again the glorified Christ gives a twofold promise to those who overcome or victoriously rise above the general complacency that had characterized the church of Sardis. Robert Thomas writes…

Overcoming is the same as not falling prey to the failure referred to earlier in the message, because walking with Christ in white is the hope offered to those who had not defiled their garments (3:4) as the majority in the church (3:1-2). The correspondance between the promise of v. 4 and the promise of v. 5 unmistakably shows the overcomer to be in the class of the faithful remnant in the church. Of course, others in the church could join this faithful remnant through repentance (cf. 3:3), thereby becoming overcomers. (12)

They shall be Clothed in White Raiment
This time the clothing is the absolute clothing in glory of the gift of inherent righteousness. In keeping with the other promises to the overcomers of the seven churches, the issue is one of eternal life. Those who overcome the temptations of their church setting, are true believers. cf. 1 Jn. 5:4-5.

They shall be Represented by Christ to God.  
This promise the Lord states negatively and positively:

1.) He will not blot his name out of the book of life.  
Scripture is replete with mentioning of a Book of Life, which is evidently a register in heaven in which His people are recorded. cf. Exod. 32:32-33; Psalm 69:28; Dan. 12:1; Phil. 4:3; Rev. 13:8; 20:15; 21:27. In ancient cultures, a register of citizens of a particular kingdom, city or town was essential. Both Gentile and Jews keep these records. cf. Jer. 22:30; Ezek. 13:9, etc. This might also be called the "Book of Remembrance" containing those who "fear the Lord and think on His name" (cf. Mal. 3:16) This poses a question: Is it possible to be blotted out of the Book of Life? Can someone loose their salvation on the basis of how they live?

The Book of Life (the Lambs Book of Life, and Book of Remembrance, may be different) refers more precisely to the register of His people who are under His guardianship and protection. Hence, to be "blotted out of the book of life" is to cut off someone from God's favor; to suffer an untimely death; to be subject to temporal judgment. This is a legitimate threat to any of the elect. As they remain faithful overcomers, they are exempt from being cut off from the protection of God and miss the temporal judgment coming on those who do not overcome but compromise! Secondly…

2.) He will confess his name before God and His angels.  
Christ is obviously reminding them of His words to the Apostles on the eve of sending them forth to preach.

Whosoever therefore shall confess me before men, him will I confess also before my Father which is in heaven. But whosoever shall deny me before men, him will I also deny before my Father which is in heaven. Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law. And a man's foes shall be they of his own household. He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And he that taketh not his cross, and followeth after me, is not worthy of me. He that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it. (cf. Matt. 10:32-39)

Those who overcome at Sardis, are the ones who confess Christ before others and are confessed by Him to the Father and the angels in glory. And finally, the Lord concludes with His appeal to listen carefully to what the Spirit is saying unto the churches.

 

Footnotes:

1. Notice that the usual order of commending the church first, is changed when the Lord addresses the church of Sardis. Evidently, the order defines the predominate nature of the church. For example, the predominate nature of Sardis was her complacency and so condemned of the Lord, although she did have some there who had not compromised. The church of Ephesus, on the other hand, was first commended for her fight for doctrinal orthodoxy because that was her dominated her testimony, although she had also lost her first love.

2. One of the great Greek legends tells of the fall of mighty Sardis to Cyrus of Persia. Smug in her defensive advantage, the city failed to guard from other directions except from the south entrance. Croesus the wealthy king retired for the night and the Persian military approached through a weakening section of the plateau wall, coming as "a thief in the night." (cf. Rev. 3:3) An interesting quirk of history is that the same careless overconfidence in 549 B.C., repeated itself 320 years later, when Antiochus the Great captured Sardis in 218 B.C.

3. There is a change of wording in Revelation 3:1 (compare with 1:10), "He that hath" (Greek, ho echon) with 2:1, "He that holdeth" (Greek, ho kraton). The sense to the Ephesian church included an intensive holding, protecting, guarding and directing; to the Sardis church, less direction and protection is implied. It has however, been pointed out that there are similarities between the church at Ephesus and the one at Sardis: both have fallen from previous commitments (cf. Rev. 2:5; 3:3); both are commanded to remember and repent (cf. Rev. 2:5; 3:3); and both are promised life to the overcomer (cf. Rev. 2:7; 3:5). Even the title of the glorified Christ addressing the church is similar (cf. 2:1 with 3:1).

4. cf. G. Campbell Morgan, The Letters of Our Lord (Fleming H. Revell Company, n.d.), p. 68. There is however a commendation, to the remnant who had keep themselves pure (cf. Rev. 3:4).

5. Some have tried to impose an artificial meaning, i.e., that the church of Sardis speaks of the Reformation, which lacked true spiritual life. cf. John Walvoord, H. A. Ironside, Lehman Strauss, etc. Yet, the Reformers personally and the vitality of the first generation of those who followed ministered in the greatest spiritual awakening since Pentecost. Thyatira is not the Roman Catholic Church nor is Sardis the Reformation!

6. cf. John R. W. Stott, What Christ Thinks of the Church (InterVarsity Press, 1958), pp. 84-85. "Indeed, Sardis may said to be the first church in the history of Christendom to have been well-nigh filled with what we now call nominal Christians." Ibid., p. 86. The fifth message that the glorified Christ commissioned the Apostle John to write, was to the local church of Sardis.

7. The usual Greek term for perfect is teleia. Here the term is pepleromena, implying that a man or church has certain works God expects him/them to fulfill.

8. cf. John R. W. Stott, What Christ Thinks of the Church (InterVarsity Press, 1958), p. 92.

9. "The analogy between the Ephesian and Sardian letters is close, and the two have to be studied together…Both had begun enthusiastically and cooled down. Degeneration was the fact in both; but in Ephesus the degeneration had not yet become so serious as in Sardis. Hence in the Ephesian letters the keynote is merely change, instability and uncertainty; in the Sardian letter the keynote is degradation, false pretension and death." cf. William M. Ramsay, The Letters to the Seven Churches (Baker Book House, 1979), p. 369.

10. In ancient times, to worship a god on a festival day, required wearing the large white toga. One would only wear a soiled dark toga at a funeral.

11. It seems when we compare this clause with Revelation 7:9-14, it is difficult not to conclude that the walking in white raiment takes place in glory. However, there is little in the context of Revelation 3:4 to limit this to heaven. And if Christ's promise in verse 5 refers to heaven, then it seems probable that the sense here refers to a state of blessing on earth.

12. cf. Robert L. Thomas, Revelation 1-7 An Exegetical Commentary (Moody Press, 1992), p. 259.