Churches of Revelation – Part 6: Sardis
Sardis has a very long past. Around 612 BC the Persians and Babylonians (along with other allied forces) ended the Assyrian empire. That changed the political map, making Babylon the capital of Mesopotamia and Sardis the capital of Lydia. The city was divided into two regions, a lower region, where the commoners lived, and an upper region for those with influence, power, and wealth. Herodotus, also known as the “father of history” wrote that the lower town had no wall for protection and the houses were built modestly of reeds from the river.
Sardis was a central location on the trade route between Mesopotamia and the Greek city-states. This meant that Sardis was a place with a melting pot of cultures, religions, customs, and heritages. The relations were peaceful for quite a long time, and even the Lydian king paid for the Temple of Artemis, now one of the 7 wonders of the ancient world.
In 547 BC, the Persians attacked Sardis. Without a wall surrounding the lower city, the city was split into two. The wealthy and influential retreated to the citadel at the top of the mountain while the Persians controlled the lower city. This gave the Persians time to reinforce and determine a way to infiltrate the upper city. Eventually the Persians won and they controlled Sardis for the next 200 years.
During that time, Sardis didn’t change much. But the Persians also decided to take the Ionian cities of the Greeks. This led to the Greeks revolting against Persia in Miletus and eventually marching on Sardis and burning it to the ground.
Herodotus wrote of the conquest of Sardis in this way:
They travelled along the Cayster River, crossed over Mount Tmolus, and came to Sardis, where they captured the city without resistance from anyone whatsoever. They took control of everything except the acropolis. For Artaphernes [the brother of the Persian king, Darius I] himself defended the acropolis with a rather large force of men.
Although they had taken the city, they were unable to plunder it because most of the houses in Sardis were constructed of reeds […] and when a soldier set one of these houses on fire, the flames spread rapidly from house to house until they engulfed the entire city.
In 334 BC Sardis was surrendered to Alexander the Great. They abandoned the lower town and built a new lower town just to the north. A new theatre and stadium were built and the lower city was walled around 215 BC.
The Romans came to rule Sardis in 133 BC. It was a chief area for judicial rule. In 17 AD, it suffered a massive earthquake that affected a very large area of the region. Tactius, the Roman historian, wrote about this earthquake:
…twelve famous cities of Asia fell by an earthquake in the night, so that the destruction was all the more unforeseen and fearful. Nor were there the means of escape usual in, such a disaster, by rushing out into the open country, for there people were swallowed up by the yawning earth. Vast mountains, it is said, collapsed; what had been level ground seemed to be raised aloft, and fires blazed out amid the ruin. The calamity fell most fatally on the inhabitants of Sardis, and it attracted to them the largest share of sympathy.
Sardis was completely destroyed in 616 AD when the Persians regained control from Rome. The city was never rebuilt.
Revelation 3:1 – These are the words of him who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead.
In the book of Revelation, Jesus calls this church “dead.” Imagine the shame that the church felt when they read this letter. The end of the first verse has Jesus announcing that this church is dead. In Matthew 18:20 we are told “where 2 or 3 are gathered in My name, there am I with them.” This means that God isn’t present. The church is meant to be a celebration of life, and yet Jesus is calling this church dead.
The nature of this church is dead.
A theologian once wrote that this church was the opposite of Smyrna. “Smyrna was put to death yet lived, Sardis appeared alive yet was dead.” Think of it as a star in space. It takes many years for the light from a star very far away to get to us. That star could be completely dead already and we are still seeing the light from it as if it were alive. This is what this church was like.
While Sardis was a real city, and the angel was definitely talking to them as the subject of the letter, we need to realize that these letters go beyond the singular church to which it was addressed. This letter is written as a warning to future churches. This letter is just as relevant today as it was in the first century.
Just with the other letters, Jesus introduces Himself. In this letter He calls Himself out as the One who “has the seven Spirits of God and the seven stars.” If we look back at chapter 1, we find the same 7 spirits. The One who has the seven spirits is the Holy Spirit. And as we have seen before, the 7 stars are the 7 messengers.
Revelation 1:4 – Grace and peace to you from him who is, and who was, and who is to come, and from the seven spirits before his throne
It is difficult to understand that 7 spirits description unless we start systematically reading through the Bible. In Isaiah 11, there are 7 distinct descriptions on the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is: The Spirit of the Lord, Spirit of wisdom, Spirit of understanding, Spirit of counsel, Spirit of strength, Spirit of knowledge, and Spirit of fear. Instead of 7 distinct spirits, the Holy Spirit has a sevenfold distinction.
The reference is to the Holy Spirit.
He also describes Himself as the “One who has the seven stars.” These seven stars are the seven messengers or leaders of the church.
So Jesus is describing Himself as the One who leads His church through the power of the Holy Spirit given to leaders who follow Him. And He is telling this to Sardis because this power of the Holy Spirit is what they had given up.
A dead church does not have power. And to become dead, it cannot have leaders who are godly. It is surprising that Jesus doesn’t introduce Himself by describing a judgment like He has done in previous churches. Here He describes Himself in the form of what the church has lost.
This church was missing the Holy Spirit and godly leadership. It was filled with unbelief. It was filled with the flesh. It was led by those who do not truly believe the Gospel of Christ and Scripture.
Sardis was a rich city. And Sardis was filled with sin. The Lydian King, Croesus, lived at one point. There is a phrase that many used to say, “as rich as Croesus.” This comes from his life in Sardis.
Another interesting point about Sardis is that there was a temple to Caesar and a temple to Livia. Caesar was seen as the “son god” and Livia was seen as the “empress-mother.” This started a mother/son cult that worked its way into Roman Catholicism by turning the mother/son cult into Mary and Jesus.
Sardis, with as rich as it was, was sinful and vile. And over time, from its creation of a city to the pax romana (Roman peace), it degenerated. It broke down in it impregnability; it broke down in its wealth; and it broke down in its power through the Holy Spirit.
This is a church that has followed the pattern of history of Sardis itself.
Acts 19:10 – This went on for two years, so that all the Jews and Greeks who lived in the province of Asia heard the word of the Lord.
We don’t know anything about who planted this church. The assumption is that sometime in Paul’s 3 years in Ephesus that the church was planted. The basis for this is a single verse, Acts 19:10. But one interesting person DID come FROM Sardis. Long after Revelation was written, a man by the name of Mileto, who came from Sardis, wrote a commentary on the book of Revelation. He was also one of the primaries responsible for the canon of the Old Testament as we see it today. During Mileto’s commentary, persecution is not mentioned and neither is corruption or false teachers.
But regardless of that, the church died.
The church’s reputation was strong, but it died.
One author claimed this, “The light was still shining but the star had died.”
The church was lying by claiming the life of the Holy Spirit.
Sardis was a city filled with pagan religion. As a matter of fact, just a short distance outside the city was a pagan hot springs that many believed could restore life. It is ironic that in a pagan city that is about restoring life, the church of Christ is dead. This church was well known throughout the region as being alive, but was dead.
Jesus calls out this church. He says that “you have a name that you are alive….” This means they have a reputation for being alive. Jesus tells them that He knows their deeds, which shows the omniscience of Christ. He knows all. And in knowing all, He doesn’t even commend this church on anything. He simply starts in with the condemnation!
This church was filled with people who were playing church. Their reputation was fake, superficial and a lie. Spiritually they were dead!
Ephesians 2:1 – As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins
In the New Testament, whenever we read about being spiritually dead, it is always connected with sin. Ephesians 2:1 and Colossians 2:13 are great examples of that. Sin leads to deadness.
Here is a church that was thinking they were alive in Christ but actually dead in their sin! And look across America, we have countless churches that fall into that trap! There are churches like Lakewood that promote outright heresy. There are entire denominations that have accepted the world’s views and rejected Scripture. Or what about the Evangelical or Charismatic churches? How many have fallen victim to making the American flag, our soldiers or police, or a conservative political candidate the next idol? Or what about the music or order of worship? Could your focus on making a joyful noise sound beautiful actually be an idol that leads to deadness in sin? Or what about theology? Could that become your god rather than God? Orthodox, Reformed, millennial, Nisan 14, SDA and many others get caught up in their theologies that they forget the personal relationship with Christ.
I realize that the last paragraph is going to ruffle feathers, even among my own circles and even myself. But how often do we think playing church is actually the church. It isn’t. The church is the bride of Christ. Without Christ, the church is nothing but a club that is no longer alive, but dead in sin.
Revelations 3:2 – Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have found your deeds unfinished in the sight of my God.
At the end of verse 2, Jesus tells this church “I have not found your deeds completed.” Their deeds, their works, are not acceptable to God! These deeds are good enough to get a good reputation among people and the community they are in, but they are ugly to God. You could give all your time to doing good throughout the world or the community, but without the life from the Holy Spirit, the deeds are dead.
There is probably a good reason this church was not facing persecution. God noticed that they were already dancing with the devil. They are sinful. They are unregenerate. They are worldly. This church has found that the world, and tools of the world, are more important and helpful for building a reputation than that of Christ.
The story of Samson in the Old Testament is analogous to Sardis. Samson was loved by Israel. He was their champion. He was deceived by Delilah and lost his power when he cut his hair. The haircut is not the issue. The issue is that he refused to obey God. The Bible says that Samson “knew not that the Lord had departed him.” He didn’t even know God had left him!
That is Sardis. Once a strong church and alive, became as Samson: weak, bind, bound in sin, and dead.
Oh how many churches are like that today!
WAKE UP CHURCH!
Now the first sign of a commendation comes in verse 4.
Revelation 3:4 – Yet you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes. They will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy.
This means that even while this church is dead, there are a few who still hold fast to the living faith! In every church there are people who are wondering how long to stay in their dead church. The way Christ says it is that they have not “soiled their garments.” Garments have a reference to character. Jude 23 tells us to have a “garment unspotted by the flesh.” So this church has a few people who have not defiled their character with sin.
At the end of verse 4, Jesus says that those who have not soiled their garments will “walk with [Him] in white for they are worthy.” This is a church that had people who are not worthy of God throughout it. But the few in there refused to allow themselves to get caught up in their unworthiness. The “white” that Jesus speaks of in this verse is holiness and purity.
If you look through Scripture, these white robes are reserved for only a select few: Christ Himself (Matthew 17:2), unfallen angels (Matthew 28 and Revelation 15:6), the 2 angels at Christ’s ascension in Acts 1:10, and the glorified church in Revelation 19:8. These are the garments of pure holiness.
So who is Jesus telling this commendation to? He is telling it those who are still alive in that church. There is no use in talking to the dead! So He is giving these alive believers 5 commands to revive this dead church.
The first of the five commands is in verse 2: “Wake up!”
This means that those who are maintaining their holiness and purity cannot be silent. They cannot wait for things to get better. They can’t expect the church to come back to life on its own. These believers must be asleep. So Jesus wants these believers to wake up and start the revitalization of the church under the power of the Holy Spirit, not the power of their reputation.
Second, these believers are to “strengthen what remains.” Jesus is telling this group of believers that whatever spiritual values remain. This is the only church in town. These believers cannot go anywhere else. Unfortunately here in America, we have options. Too many options. But it could be that God isn’t calling us to leave those dead churches but instead to stay and strengthen what is there.
In verse 3 Jesus is telling these believers the third command, to “remember what you have received and heard.” What have the churches received and heard? This goes back to the Gospel and the Epistles. The church has received Scripture. They have received truth. Paul tells believers to guard the treasure they have received in 1 Timothy. Jesus is calling for this church to hold on to the truth and pass it on to others in the church.
1 Timothy 1:18-19 – I am giving you this command in keeping with the prophecies once made about you, so that by recalling them you may fight the battle well, holding on to faith and a good conscience, which some have rejected and so have suffered shipwreck with regard to the faith.
The fourth command is to hold on to it. Jesus is telling these believers to obey Him. Obey what is written in Scripture. He does not want them to be distracted by the world or by their flesh.
The final command is to “Repent!” Turn away from your sin of sleeping and, with sorrow and remorse, obey what Jesus is commanding.
So what will happen if these believers do not wake up this dead church? Jesus says He will come “like a thief in the night.” In other places throughout the Bible, when Jesus talks about a thief, He is talking about the thief doing harm to someone. I believe that this means that if this church does not have a revival, then Jesus will come and do what a thief does, destroy this church.
I believe this is a warning to all churches having the same issues. Jesus will be coming back and the dead churches will be destroyed. But what do you think will happen to the believers in those churches if there is no revival in them? Hebrews 10 is a pretty stark reminder.
Hebrews 10:29 – How much more severely do you think someone deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God underfoot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified them, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace?
But what happens to those who overcome? Not only will they be dressed in white, as discussed earlier, but they will never have “their name blotted out of the book of life.”
Now this can get confusing. You might be wondering if God will remove their salvation. Short answer is no. But you might be asking me if that goes against Exodus 32:33.
Exodus 32:33 – The Lord replied to Moses, “Whoever has sinned against me I will blot out of my book.
The important difference between Revelation 3 and Exodus 32 is that we are talking about very different things. Exodus 32 is not talking about the book of life. He is talking about, in Exodus, removing those who have sinned against Him from the world, ending their lives on this planet. God has taken lives, but He does not remove those who are redeemed from their salvation. You may lose your life because of your sin, but you will never lose your salvation if you are redeemed.
In the first century, the king always kept a record of those in his city. If you committed a crime or died, your name was erased. Looking at this from a Revelation 3 standpoint, it is as if God is saying to them that their sin can erase them from the local book, they could lose their life, but He will never erase them from HIS book of LIFE.
God is encouraging those who are not the corpses in this church.
To recap in as short of way possible, Sardis is dead. They are focusing on the wrong things. They lost the power of the Holy Spirit, even though their reputation among the people was one of spirituality and compassion. But there was a group in this church who has not accepted the wrong teaching. He wants this remnant to revive this dead church. If they don’t, they risk strict judgment, but they are saved, written in the Book of Life.
I know this was a long post. I apologize for that. But this segment has a message that is so important for every church today. Only 2 more churches to look at. Next week, the church of Philadelphia.