Letter to the church at Sardis
Sardis was an ancient city. It was built at the top of a steep mountain. It was famous for silver and gold. There was a temple to Artemis there.
There was a large Jewish population there. They built a large synagogue.
Behind the story of this church is the story of the city. Its fortress lay at the top of the steep mountain. It was thought to be impregnable. But the Persians found a way to the top that was not guarded. Believing themselves to be strong, the people of Sardis did were not vigilant and were conquered.
Jesus described himself to the church at Sardis as he who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. Again, these are part of Jesus’ initial revealing of himself to John in chapter 1. The seven spirits is a symbol of the fullness of the Holy Spirit and the seven stars are the angels of the churches. (1:20) The Holy Spirit sees and knows all. He is present everywhere. It is the Spirit that has the power to revive a dead church.
This church looked sound on the outside. It had “the reputation of being alive”. (3:1) But it was living on its reputation. It was really dead. Many churches have been great at one time, but slowly died. It often takes a while to realize the church is spiritually dead because of its past reputation.
Sometimes the members themselves do not realize the church is dying. They are comfortable, they enjoy their past reputation and they are acclimated to the way things are. It is the old analogy of the frog boiling slowly in a pot will not jump out. They are more worried about the condition of the seat cushions, the taste of the communion crackers and who gets to use what rooms.
Ironically, there seemed to be no persecution, no suffering. But, conforming to the local pagan or Jewish culture was more comfortable than preaching the gospel to it. In its comfort, this church was dying.
Jesus told them to wake up. They had gone to sleep spiritually. It was time to wake up. They were to find what life remained, but was about to die, and get busy reviving the church and completing the work God assigned to them. (2) Jesus commanded them to repent, which is part of waking up. (3) They needed to remember the gospel they received and to keep it. Likely, many of us have “gone to sleep” spiritually one time or another. God usually acts to wake us up. When we “wake up”, we realize how we have slipped, we repent, and we get back on the path of devotion to Christ and reaching others for him. A dying church seldom witnesses to its city. A living church does.
Jesus threatened punishment for this church if it did not turn things around. He would come against them. (3) He did not say how he would do this, but we know it would be unpleasant and, possibly, deadly. He would arrive unexpectedly, as a thief in the night. (3) A few years ago, someone broke into our house at 3:00 in the morning. My wife and I were sound asleep. The alarm system began to beep. I awoke, startled and confused. If I had been expecting the thief, I would have stayed awake and been ready for him. This is the image Jesus employs. I do not think Jesus refers to his second coming here. That is because this coming is conditional: Jesus will come only if they do not repent and recover. The second coming will be at a time set by the Father and definite, not conditional. Rather, he means to come to punish or correct or remove the church because of its spiritual malaise. I think there is an implied reference here to the attack by the Persians which caught the residents unaware, or sleeping, instead of vigilant.
There is a small ray of hope in this church. There are a few who have not “soiled their garments”. They have not given themselves over to sin. The word for “soiled”, also translated as “stained” in other versions, is used elsewhere in the New Testament for idolatry. Either the church had not stood against it or took part in it. But some had not. Therefore, they will walk with Jesus “in white”. The image of white robes symbolizes purity and holiness in those who are believers. It is the opposite of “soiled”. Jesus said that those who conquer (persevere in the faith until the end) will receive white garments. This symbol of white garments will repeat throughout the book of Revelation. In 7:1, Jesus referred to those who have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the lamb. The 24 elders are clothed in white in 4:4. In 6:9-11, those who had been slain because of the word of God were given a white robe. It is the ideal of purity that comes from faithfulness through the test of opposition. It reflects Daniel 11:35 where those who stumble will be refined and made white until the end of time, and Daniel 12:10 where many will purify themselves and make themselves white.
Jesus had taught this same truth in his parable of the wedding feast in Matthew 22:1-14. A king invited people to the wedding feast of his son. The king is God the Father, the Son is Jesus and the invitees were the Jews. The original invitees, the Jews, did not come to the feast. So, they were destroyed. God invited others symbolizing the Gentiles. All but one of these came in wedding clothes. That one, who did not have the white robe, was cast into darkness. Those who believe in Jesus and receive him as Savior and Lord receive salvation. This includes an invitation to the wedding feast, the celebration of Jesus and the church in eternity. It includes a white robe, which is the symbol of the righteousness we receive from Jesus when we receive him.
The second promise to the overcomers is that their names will not be blotted out of the book of life. This is the book that records the names of all the faithful. Jesus will confess them before the father because they had confessed him before men. He said this in Matthew 10:32 also. No matter the pressure of the culture, we are to stand firm in faith and confess Christ. He will reward us for all eternity.