We continue this morning with our look at what Jesus says in his letters to the seven churches in Asia Minor. He records these in the second and third chapters of the book of Revelation. We’ve looked at the first four churches in what is now Western Turkey and today we turn to the church in Sardis.
Sardis was a very busy and wealthy center of commerce. The very first gold and silver coins were struck in Sardis and, based on the jewelry archaeologists have found from this period of history, there many wealthy people in Sardis. This church was evidently well respected by the larger community and also by the other churches in the region—having a good reputation, according to Jesus.
And yet, Jesus gives this church an absolutely blistering rebuke—one of the harshest he issues to any of the seven churches. As Brian read, he says in verse two, “I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God.”
The church at Sardis is in deep trouble as Jesus addresses them here but what specifically was wrong with the church at Sardis? Today, as look at this letter, we must first answer that question and diagnose the spiritual disease(s) that were killing this church. Then we want to look at the prescription Jesus gives to this dying church to save her from death. Finally, we will explore the prognosis for this church if they do or do not take Jesus’ prescription.
So, again, what was wrong with this church in Sardis—what were the sins that were killing it that deserved such a harsh rebuke from Jesus? The text gives only general statements, but as we put all these pieces of the puzzle together, we actually get a very clear picture of what wrong with the church at Sardis. Let’s briefly look at four truths about this church that help us diagnose what is so wrong with it to bring such a harsh rebuke from Jesus.
We get our first clue in verse one where Jesus tells the church, “You have a reputation for being alive, but you are dead.” That’s very helpful to us because it tells us that whatever was wrong with the church in Sardis, it was not visible from those who outwardly observed the ministry of the church. The first truth as to what was wrong with the church is Sardis is: Sardis had a strong reputation in areas that do NOT indicate spiritual life. Churches earn reputations from those outside it in at least two ways. First, by an absence of obvious outward corruption and second, by the visible ministry it is producing.
With respect to obvious signs of corruption, we’re talking about questions like: Is the church being drawn away by false teachers? Are the adherents of the church fighting among themselves? Is the church financially responsible with its funds? Is there some public scandal—is there immorality in the leadership? Do they ignore those among them who are openly suffering? No church would have a good reputation if those kinds of failures were noticeable. But to acquire a good reputation, there must also be some outwardly positive ministry going on. Some ministries visible to those outside the church must have been occurring. These kinds of ministries however are the kind of ministry that even sick churches can still produce.
Certain ministries any church can crank out, but some ministries can only occur in churches with at least some health in them. For instance, the church in Sardis was NOT a church that was winning genuine, new converts who were growing in their love for God because that requires some internal spiritual health and we know from Jesus that this church had none of that. This church in Sardis was NOT having a profound and positive spiritual impact on the larger community because Jesus was clearly seen in the church. That too, requires some spiritual health.
This church was NOT active in sending out their people as missionaries to other parts of the world. This church was not filled with people who demonstrably loved the word of God and who were growing deeper in it. This was not a church where at least many of the marriages were happy because the husbands were godly shepherds and the wives were lovingly submitting to their husbands. Those kinds of things don’t often occur in churches that have only a reputation for being alive, but are actually dead.
So, what specifically does Jesus mean here by telling this church in Sardis, “you are dead?” Jesus says in verse two that there were things in Sardis that were still living but were “about to die.” If the church was genuinely dead spiritually, there would be NO life in it. When Jesus tells the church they are “dead,” he’s using the word “dead” in the same way he uses it in the parable of the prodigal son when the father says in Luke 15:24, “For this son my son was dead, and is alive again…”
So, what kinds of ministry can a church produce that does NOT necessarily indicate spiritual life and health, but WILL produce a good reputation? Well, increased numerical growth of people who aren’t true disciples of Christ. Some people can be attracted to a well-produced “show” on Sunday morning that is passed off as worship. But people who are attracted to that, don’t treasure Christ in their hearts. Also, an absence of many of the gross pathologies we already mentioned. People in a dying church can still get along well and not be divisive with one another. Unchurched people in social clubs do that all the time.
A dying church can manage to maintain a good facility and pays its bills. Those kinds of things can contribute to a good reputation without real health. Unhealthy, dying churches can be visible in the community in the same ways that service organizations are. Good service organizations without the Holy Spirit can do service projects for the community and maintain a reputation of helpfulness. So, the first truth revealed in this text that helps us begin to see the disease in the church is—Sardis had an outwardly strong reputation in areas that do NOT indicate spiritual life.
A second truth that reveals the disease that had all but killed the church is Sardis is in verse two and this is the most specific failure referenced in the letter. Jesus says to the church, “…I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God.” The broad meaning of “works that are not complete” is simply—they don’t meet the standard—they don’t measure up. There is something lacking about the works and it is a crucial element. One thing that was lacking we can understand from this word translated “complete.” The word literally means, “fulfilled.” That tells us that the works of this church in Sardis were not fulfilling God’s purpose for them and we know that God’s purpose for any work of the church is that it might glorify him. This second truth that helps us see the disease in this church is—Sardis had works or ministry that was man-centered, not God-centered.
That is—the ministry of this church was not done with the goal of showing the supremacy of Christ. They weren’t to put on display the ultimate worth of Jesus—to manifest his character. The ministry might have been performed to be helpful in the community. It might have been done purely because helping others can be personally rewarding. But that is not for the glory of God!
This church in Sardis was evidently busy doing things in the name of Christ, but it was in name only. That’s why some scholars have called the church in Sardis the first expression of “nominal, [in name only] Christianity.” Their works weren’t motivated by a desire to honor Christ. This church in Sardis is closest in character to the church at Ephesus in this sense—looking good on the outside, but dying on the inside.
A third truth revealing the nature of the disease in this church at Sardis is in verse three here. Jesus says to the church, “Yet you still have a few names in Sardis, people who have not soiled their garments…” That verse tells us at least two important things about this church. First, there were only a few faithful in the church. In some of the other churches, Jesus implies that the unhealthy or phony believers were in the minority.
The problem in Pergamum and Thyatira was that the majority was tolerating the sins of a few in the church. Those actively engaged in sin—Jezebel and the other false teachers, were in the minority. In Sardis, that percentage of healthy folks versus unhealthy is flipped. The majority of those in the church were phony or dead, with only a few that still had a chance to repent.
Second, this verse tells us that most in the church had “soiled their garments.” That speaks of the spiritual defilement of the sins of this world. Many of these so-called believers lived like the world. One reason Jesus doesn’t list separate sins like idolatry and sexual immorality as he does in some other churches is probably NOT because they were absent in Sardis. It’s because he didn’t want to give the impression that this church’s sins could be limited to just one or two as he did in other churches. No. From all of this we know that Sardis was comprehensively defiled by the world. The majority in this church were living deeply compromised lives and looked more like the world than Jesus.
A fourth and final part of the problem that frequently accompanies these others in unhealthy churches is something we don’t find in the text, but the we saw that church historians tell us and that is—Sardis was a wealthy and apparently satisfied church apart from Jesus. We can assume this was part of the disease here because the New Testament is filled with warnings that wealth can ruin spiritual health. The rich young ruler is only one of many examples. Having wealth in the church enables you to keep up your facilities and fund ministries.
Having wealth can easily enable you to grow satisfied with all this world has to offer because you can afford more of it. Wealth and the things it buys can easily become idols people substitute for Jesus. Wealth can buy the things of this world that can defile us. None of these diseases of necessity must accompany wealth in a church. But Jesus is consistently warning against accumulating wealth. He calls it “unrighteous mammon” and we must be wary of is potentially lethal impact on us in the west.
All that disease in this church at Sardis explains why there is no mention of persecution from either the Jews or the Roman Empire. This explains why there is no reference to Satan as Jesus mentions in other letters. The reason Satan attacks a church through persecution or false teaching or division or scandal is because the Prince of darkness wars against spiritual light and the light of Christ is only seen in areas of spiritual health. The world feels no need to persecute sick churches because sick churches don’t confront the sin of this world. They aren’t serious about calling sinners to repent and be converted to Jesus.
Jesus says in John 15:8, “18 “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you.” The reason the world hates the church is because in a healthy church, Jesus is clearly manifest. His holiness is seen in the church through holy lives of his healthy saints. His power is seen in the church as the Spirit transforms lives. Christ’s sufficiency is seen as the church reaches beyond what is possible for them, but Jesus miraculously supplies as they trust in him. Christ’s value and worth is seen in individual and corporate worship that is heartfelt and accompanied by a sense of the presence of God.
Christ’s love is seen in the church as the fellow believers love one another and reach out into the community with the gospel message and social justice to those who are in need. But if Christ isn’t clearly seen in the church, the world has no reason to persecute it. The secular media never attack more theologically liberal, mainline churches because mainline churches by definition foolishly try to reach the world by becoming like the world.
The reason there was no persecution in Sardis is because Satan loves sick churches. Sick churches bear the name of Christ, but they consistently misrepresent his character—Satan loves that! Healthy believers are not attracted to sick churches. Sick churches tend to attract spiritually sick people who pose no threat to his kingdom. Satan would not place a priority on persecuting sick churches because they are serving his purposes.
Now that we’ve seen the four-fold disease that was killing this church in Sardis, let’s focus on the prescription Jesus gives to this diseased church. It’s found in verses two and three. Jesus says, “2 Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God. 3 Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it, and repent. If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you.”
Jesus issues five urgent commands to this church. The first command is “Wake up…” The command is more literally, “Be watchful” or “give careful attention to.” What Jesus is saying is—start seeing and taking seriously the sin in your church. The first step in any repentance is to wake up to the fact that you have a serious sin problem and THAT is where Jesus starts with the church in Sardis. They had been in some kind of spiritual trance, a mild coma, untroubled by the spiritual cancer growing in their body
Next, he commands the church to “strengthen what remains and is about to die.” Once you see how very weak you are, work to strengthen what little health or spiritual strength remains. This would mean things like, spending time in contrition over your sin and crying out for mercy. It would mean seriously returning to apostolic teaching. It would mean disciplining the egregious sins in the church and perhaps bringing in outside help from healthier churches.
I wonder if, when Smyrna or Philadelphia or some of the other churches read this letter to Sardis, if they didn’t offer to help them in some way. Jesus tells them that what little health that remains in the church “is about to die.” Jesus wants to shock this church into wakefulness. He is saying, “I am preparing the graveclothes for your church.”
Jesus in verse three issues three closely related commands to the church. He says, “Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it and repent.” This is similar to what Jesus says to the church in Ephesus when he tells them in 2:5, “5 Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first…” After they see their sickness for what it is, they are to strengthen what remains and, because it’s crucial for them to know what spiritual health looks like, Jesus tells them to remember what they have received and heard.
The fact that Christ’s church anywhere receives the Spirit and hears the gospel [that’s what Jesus is referring to] implies a great many things about what that church should look like. First, believers that receive the Spirit are, by their nature, supernaturally equipped to live and minister on a supernatural plain. There is some truth in the old saying, “If you can explain what is happening in your church, God probably isn’t in it. The reason is because God has equipped each local church with the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit so the world will see Jesus and glorify him.
One of the questions any local church that is genuinely concerned about their health should regularly ask themselves is—“What is happening in our church that we have no human explanation for?” “What is happening in our church that is clearly a work of supernatural empowerment from the Spirit of God?” Evidently the church at Sardis at one time had these kinds of ministries going that confirmed that they had received the Spirit of God. And Jesus says by implication, remember what the Spirit did among you and, by implication, yearn for that. Cry out for that. In prayer, pound on heaven’s doors for a return to that.
Jesus also calls the church at Sardis to “remember…what you…heard.” Remember the gospel. What are the promises of the gospel? The gospel promises that sinners will be forgiven all their sins and given joy in this life and heaven in the next. The gospel promises that, even though you may sin and feel horribly defeated, that does not impact your status with God because you have been united with his Son Jesus and that means that God always delights in you.
As Tim Keller says, we are “more sinful than we could ever imagine and more loved than we could ever dare believe.” When the Father said to the Son, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” the gospel that unites us to Christ means that the Father is saying to YOU, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” Do we remember that about the gospel’s saving work in our lives? Do we believe that? If we don’t remember how loved we are through the gospel, we will not love God much in return.
Finally, Jesus commands this church to “repent.” This means they must totally change their attitude about how they’ve been living. They’ve been spiritually lethargic and seemingly lifeless. Repenting means that they need to hate that way of living instead of embracing it or even, tolerating it. They need to see it as disgusting and cry out to Jesus, pleading for his mercy to bring them to a better place. That’s a repentant church.
Now, it’s obvious that every command Jesus gives to the church is impossible for them to carry out. So, why does he command so many things that are impossible? One reason is that Jesus wants us to know that WE have a crucial role in getting right with him. WE must come to him and admit our need, cry out to him for help at whatever place we’re in. Its only when we know what Jesus commands us to do and feel the weight of that, that we are motivated to then, turn around and ask him for grace to do it in dependence upon the Holy Spirit.
Finally, let’s look at the prognosis Jesus gives to this church depending on their response to him. If what remains still alive in Sardis chooses to not repent, Jesus says in verse three, “If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I come against you.” Coming like a thief means that Jesus will come when they do not expect him. he says the same thing in places like Matthew 24 about his FINAL judgment on this world. The implication is—don’t delay in repenting because I will not come when you expect me—it may be soon, so get right with me. Jesus will come in judgment on those who refuse to repent and that is terrifying!
For those who DO show that they are believers by repenting, Jesus promises three blessings in verse five. He says, “5 The one who conquers will be clothed thus in white garments, and I will never blot his name out of the book of life. I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels.” The promise of white garments could mean many things because the Revelation uses the color white to symbolize purity, victory and celebration. Anyone of those three is good news. They will walk with Jesus in holiness and/or in celebration of the victory he has given them.
The second promise to the one who conquers is that Jesus will “never blot his name out of the book of life.” This has caused some to believe that genuine believers can lose their salvation. There are two problems with that. First, if true, it would contradict more explicit teachings of Scripture that indicate that a genuine believer cannot lose his/her salvation. Texts like Romans 8:30 teach that a believer’s salvation is eternally secure. 30 And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.”
That teaches that all who believe and are genuinely justified WILL be glorified in heaven with Jesus—not one believer will fall away. First John 2:19 speaks of false teachers and says, “19 They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.” That teaches that those who turn away from Christ and never come back were never in Christ in the first place. People who turn from Christ and don’t return were never believers. They don’t “lose their salvation.”
Jesus is simply assuring the one whose name is in the book and who conquers by faith—I will never erase your name—you are secure. I will not allow you the terrible fate of being erased out of the book. This is one of the promises made to those who persevere to the end. There are two other verses in Revelation that to have your name written in the book means that you will absolutely persevere to the end.
Just because Jesus says that people who remain faithful will not be blotted out of the book of life, that doesn’t automatically mean that some people WILL be blotted out of the book of life. Revelation 13:8 says of those who will reject Christ and worship the beast. 8 “and all who dwell on earth will worship it, everyone whose name has not been written before the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who was slain.” Jesus is saying that those whose names are written in the book of life will not bow down to the beast. Not being in the book means you WILL forsake Christ.
Again, Revelation 17:8 says,“8 …And the dwellers on earth whose names have not been written in the book of life from the foundation of the world will marvel to see the beast, because it was and is not and is to come.” That tells us that all those whose names ARE written in the book of life will NOT worship the beast. Jesus is simply saying in 3:5 that, if you are faithful, I will keep you safe in the book.
So, how are we to apply this to our church here at North Shore? It depends on to what degree we, as a church are like Sardis in our weaknesses. One sign this was a dying church was that Sardis had works or ministry that was man-centered, not God-centered. I think this is an area where, by God’s grace, we’re seeing some improvement, but we’re nowhere near where we should be. God and his glory must be the motivation for all our ministry and activities.
The church at Sardis also had a strong reputation in areas that did NOT indicate spiritual life. I don’t know how strong our reputation is in this community but things like conversion growth, sending out missionaries, vital corporate prayer life and dependency on the Holy Spirit, where is it? We must admit that we lack these important indicators of church health.
Finally, the church at Sardis was comprehensively defiled by the world. Is there a genuine hunger for holiness marked by seeing our sin, hating it and repenting of it? No one can know for certain what goes on in people’s hearts. What we can know is that people seldom come forward for prayer from the elders at the close of the service. Though there are doubtless some of whom that could be rightly said here, I don’t know anyone who knows this church well that would say this is part of the personality of North Shore Church.
The point is simply that we must see that we as a church are far more like Sardis than we would care to admit and that means that we must heed these commands from Jesus. Be watchful and ask the Lord to reveal our individual and corporate sins. Strengthen what is weak by first, confessing our sins to God and one another and getting back to the Bible and a life of prayer. And, we know we’re serious about that when we ask others to hold us accountable to that. Remember the gift of the Holy Spirit this church has been given and the gospel that is the power of God for salvation, including our holiness. We must cry out to God so that we might begin to live as a church supernaturally empowered by God and as a church that knows how deeply God cherishes us in Christ. Finally, we must repent—ask God to give us a new mind—a new hatred for our sin and a new hunger for Jesus and run into his loving arms.
How kind God is to love us enough to communicate these crucial truths to us! May God give us the grace to repent of our sins and grow into a healthy church for his glory and our joy.
 Mounce, Robert, NICNT, Revelation, Eerdmans, 1977, p. 109.