Grace For The Journey
We are early into our series of studies through the book of Revelation. We are going verse-by-verse through this Book, and we are currently looking at the seven churches of Asia Minor. Thus far, we have studied the church at Ephesus, Symryna, Pergamum, and Thyatira. This week we are looking at the church at Sardis. Most commentators refer to the church at Sardis as “The Dead Church” or “The Dying Church.”
I had to be careful in assigning a title to this study. I always try to think of how that title will appear on the church marquis out front or in Saturday’s newspaper ad. You know my sermon titles are always listed there each week. So I didn’t think it would look too good to see, “First Baptist Church: ‘The Dead Church!’” I happen to think our church is alive, but even if I believed otherwise I wouldn’t want to advertise it.
Going to an airport these days can be an adventure. I remember one time I was returning home from visiting my sister and day. I was making our way through the check-in line just outside the gate. Those of you who travel know the drill – You have to place your carry-on items on the conveyer belt so that it can go through an X-Ray machine that allows airport security workers to see inside your stuff so they can make sure nobody boards the plane with guns and other weapons. I placed my shoes, billfold, briefcase, keys, pocket change, and cell phone on the belt. You have to take your laptop out of your carry-on bag, and your pocket change, and cell phone, and so forth. You have to take off your shoes, too. As my briefcase went through the X-Ray machine I saw the workers become tense and raise their eye brows as they’re trying to figure out what was inside that briefcase. I could not figure out what the problem was – the brief case contained some books, papers, and other work and study items. They took my briefcase aside and asked my for the combination to open it so they could search it. They tell me to step aside while they search the bag. Now I am trying to figure out what is inside that bag. I learned from the airport security that there is a pocket knife in the suitcase and they will not allow me to board with it. I had forgotten that I put my pocket knife in it, it was suppose to be in the checked-in luggage. I could just picture these guys arresting me, throwing the cuffs on me and taking me away. Fortunately, they believed the truth, which was that I had just plain forgot all about that little knife. Fortunately also, that my sister who had dropped me off had not left the airport, I called here and she back in and met me so I could give the knife to her for safe keeping until she could get it sent to me. I went through security again, this time all was clear and I was allowed to board the plane.
Our Lord Jesus Christ speaks to these seven churches in Asia Minor – It is He who is speaking to each of these churches. What Jesus is sharing with each church is the results of what He has seen with His all-seeing eyes. Jesus has X-Rayed each church and He sees things that either the church has covered-up or the things the church has forgotten were there. Then He says at the end of each X-Ray report, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” That is our invitation to perk-up our ears and to listen with attentive hearts, asking God to speak to us where we are. I want to share with you some things we can learn if we will listen this morning to the Spirit who teaches us. Three things . . . What we can Hear the Spirit Saying to the Church . . . Number one, we can hear . . .
I. How The Church’s Faithless Are Rebuked: Verse 1.
The church at Sardis was a church that was dying on the inside. Like diseased cells in a physical body, these bad cells were attacking the good cells and the body was becoming affected to the point that Jesus actually calls the church “dead.” He is using that word to describes the general condition of the church at Sardis. It does not mean the church is full of unbelievers, though we can be sure there were a number of folks on the church roll who were not really saved. They were what we will call the faithless. They were the bad cells. Every church is comprised of good cells and bad cells. There are the faithful and the faithless. The problem at the church at Sardis is that there were many more faithless than there were faithful. We read how the church’s faithless are rebuked in verse 1, “And to the angel of the church in Sardis write, ‘These things says He who has the seven Spirits of God and the seven stars: ‘I know your works, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead.’” Do you see the rebuke? Jesus states that, “You have a name that you are alive, but you are dead.” You have the reputation in your city of being a good church, but inside you are a spiritually diseased people. You are dead.
Remember that Jesus is the one doing the speaking. He refers to Himself as “He who has the seven Spirits of God and the seven stars.” We have said before that the seven Spirits of God is a reference to the work of the Holy Spirit. Seven symbolizes fullness and perfection. There may also be an allusion to the Isaiah 11:2, where God lists the seven workings of the Holy Spirit. Our Lord Jesus also has “the seven stars.” Remember that the “star” in these passages refers to the angel of each church. The star is the representative of each church. It reminds us that Jesus possesses each church. Jesus is the Lord of each church. He holds each church in His possession and He Himself has what this dead church at Sardis so desperately needs:
The presence and power of the Holy Spirit.
Now the normal formula we have been observing in the way Jesus speaks to these churches of Asia Minor is that Jesus says, “Here are some good things you are doing and then here’s the bad stuff you’re doing.” But Jesus does not begin that way here with the church at Sardis. He does not begin with any good things this church is doing because the church as a whole had stopped doing good things. They were dying. He says, “I know your works, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead.” They had a “name” that they were alive. They had a reputation from a bygone era of glory days. They were once a living, thriving church, but no longer. They were now dying.
The city of Sardis had a well-known necropolis, or cemetery just outside the city gates and the church at Sardis was becoming an awful lot like that cemetery. You could not see it on the outside. It looked okay on the outside, but on the inside it was dead. Vance Havner said, “[The church] had it all in the show window, but nothing in stock.” This church was like a cemetery with a steeple in the middle.
Given the context of what was problematic with many of these churches in Asia Minor, the Christians at Sardis were very likely giving-in to the temptations of the world around them. They compromised their beliefs for the praises of man. They so wanted to be esteemed by the non-Christian community that they tip-toed around them doing their best to offend no one. They had compromised their doctrine to the point they could not even remember exactly what they used to believe. That is why we read nothing here of persecution. This church at Sardis was not persecuted as was the churches of Ephesus, Smyrna, and Pergamum because they lived no differently than the culture around them.
Chuck Swindoll gives us five (5) main reasons churches die:
- Worship of the past (“the way we were”).
- Greater concern with cosmetics than with character.
- Love of tradition over love for Christ.
- Inflexibility and resistance to change.
- Losing evangelistic and missionary fervor.
As a church we must continually examine ourselves and inspire faithfulness among the membership or we, too, may hear the rebuke of the Lord. What can we hear the Spirit saying to the churches? We can hear how the church’s faithless are rebuked.
Secondly, we can hear . . .
II. How The Church’s Fellowship is Restored: Verses 2-3.
There are five verbs in verses 2 and 3 that will tell us how the church’s fellowship with the Lord is restored. Remember as you study your Bibles that verbs, in particular, are helpful at getting at what God is saying to us.
In verse 2 Jesus says, “Be watchful . . .” That is a poignant Greek word. It is a word that refers to the idea of “keeping watch, as a person guarding a city. Stay awake. Be vigilant.” This word is particularly helpful to the Christians at Sardis because they knew their city’s history. The people of Sardis were proud of their citadel, located high atop the slope of Mt. Tmolus. There was a fifteen-hundred-foot precipice on three sides and a steep approach to the South. It was a fortress that was virtually unassailable and unconquerable. But twice in the city’s history a man climbed to the city and went through the gates while the watchman was not looking. So Jesus says, “Be watchful, church!” Stay awake, never stop being alert. Never forget, Christian, the tendency to become sleepy and lazy with regard to spiritual things.
This is one of the points that we raise regarding the importance of having a daily quiet time. We must beware of hindrances to spiritual growth. We can get distracted from having a regular time of Bible reading and prayer. We can begin to think that we are okay; that we are stronger than we really are. Like the citadel in Sardis, you may feel secure and unconquerable in your Christian faith, but Jesus says, “Be watchful.”
Jesus also says in verse 2, “… And strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die, for I have not found your works perfect before God.” There are some things that have not entirely died. Jesus says “strengthen them” for I have not found your works “perfect” before God. The word “perfect” there is better translated “complete” or “completed,” so that the text reads, “strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die, for I have not found your works complete before God.”
These works are likely works such as mentioned in previous churches, like the church in Thyatira, chapter 2, verse 19, works of love, service, faith, and endurance. These are works that were started, but remained unfinished. Interestingly, the city of Sardis had a temple that was built in honor of the goddess Artemis. But it was an unfinished temple. I imagine whenever people passed by that temple, they would shake their heads and wonder just when in the world that temple was going to be completed. Well, it never was. That half-built, unfinished temple was emblematic of the church at Sardis. So, Jesus says, “Get busy with these works of love, faith, and service.”
Then in verse 3 Jesus says, “Remember therefore how you have received and heard …” Here the Lord tells the church to remember its teaching and doctrine. Remember the truths you heard and received. Remember the teachings of the apostles. Do not forget your Christian doctrine. The word is in the present tense. It means, “continue to remember.” Continue to remember the things you have learned. This speaks to the importance of regular attendance to the worship service and Bible studies. By doing so God’s people continue to remember what we have learned.
Next, Jesus says “… Hold fast …” That is, “keep,” “hold tightly too,” or “guard” the truth as a precious treasure. Do you love the things of God? Do you have a Bible and read it regularly? That is the idea here – Hold fast the truth in your hand and in your heart. Do not let it go. Regard it as the precious treasure that it is.
Then Jesus says, “… And repent … “ The word “repent” covers the previous four verbs in verses 2 and 3. The word speaks of “turning back to God, change the way you think about God and spiritual things, and change your behavior.” Get back to doing the things you know you should be doing. Do not become apathetic or fall asleep spiritually; be watchful and wake up.
An important question to ask right now is, “What happens if I don’t?” Jesus says, “Therefore if you will not watch, I will come upon you as a thief, and you will not know what hour I will come upon you.” This is not a reference to the Second Coming, but rather a soon coming of judgment upon the person who does not wake-up spiritually. If you and I persist in just going to church and just going through the forms of worship without the fire burning in our hearts, then we are ripe for judgment.
What can we hear the Spirit saying to the churches? We can hear how the church’s faithless are rebuked; we can hear how the church’s fellowship is restored and; number three, we can hear . . .
III. How The Church’s Faithful Are Rewarded: Verses 4-6.
Verse 4 says, “You have a few names even in Sardis who have not defiled their garments; and they shall walk with Me in white, for they are worthy.” There are a few in the church who are not dying. There were not many, but there were a few. They are the church’s faithful. They have “not defiled their garments.” Their garments are “white” and so they will “walk with the Lord in white, for they are worthy.”
The faithless had soiled their garments by giving-in to the culture around them, by contaminating themselves with the worldly behavior of the non-Christians in their city, acting just like they were acting, going to the same places, thinking the same way, talking the same way, participating in the same things. By accommodating themselves to the environment around them they had “defiled their garments.”
Then there were the faithful few. They had not defiled their garments. They stayed faithful to the Lord, and you could tell it. Like gloriously white clothing, they really stood-out as being different than the non-Christians around them. Their behavior was attractive. They really stood-out in a positive way. They are rewarded with the promise of “walking with the Lord,” enjoying the unceasing fellowship of Christ for eternity.
Jesus goes on to say in verse 5, “He who overcomes shall be clothed in white garments …” The faithful to Christ will be forever clothed in white garments. This phrase reminds us of our need for forgiveness. If I am not a Christian, God looks at me and sees my sin. But if I trust Christ as my Lord and Savior, God looks at me and sees me clothed in Christ’s righteousness. It is as though I am clothed in white garments, wearing the righteousness of Christ.
Jesus goes on to say, “… And I will not blot out his name from the Book of Life.” This is not to be taken as a warning, but as a promise. When we receive Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior, our Lord writes down our name into the registry of heaven. Our Lord has a registration book called the “Book of Life” and in that book are recorded all the names of the faithful Christians. Is your name written down in that book?
Verse 5 ends with these words, “… But I will confess his name before My Father and before His angels.” Jesus alludes to what He had said to His disciples in the Gospels, such as in Matthew 10:32-33, where He says, “Therefore whoever confesses Me before men, him I will also confess before My Father who is in heaven. But whoever denies Me before men, him I will also deny before My Father who is in heaven.”
If we have truly been saved, truly born-again, we will let others know about it. We will not be ashamed. We will be as Paul who said in Romans 1:16-17, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God unto salvation to everyone who believes.” Do others know about your Christian faith? Do you regularly confess Christ before your family, friends, and co-workers? If so, the Lord Jesus will confess you before His Father and before His angels. You will die and stand before the God of judgment. Jesus will say to the Father, “He is mine.” And Jesus will say to the angels, “He is mine.” And Jesus will say to everyone, “He is mine.” I am so grateful that I know I belong to Jesus. I belong to Jesus. He is mine and I am His.
Verse 6 says, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” ‘
Do you hear the Spirit this morning? Do you belong to the Lord Jesus Christ? Do you confess Him regularly and unashamedly before others? The church at Sardis “had a name that they were alive, but were dead.” What they were on the outside did not accurately reflect what was on the inside. On the outside, they looked okay to everyone else. But like a security worker at the airport, Jesus can see right through the superficial and look inside of our hearts. He sees your sin and He sees my sin.
If we remain in sin, we remain separated from God. If we die in sin, we spend eternity separated from God in a place called hell, a place where judgment of sin takes place forever and ever. The good news is that Jesus Christ is in the resurrection business. Just as the church in Sardis could be resurrected from the dead, so can you. The Bible says in Ephesians 2:1 that while we are dead in sins, Jesus Christ makes us alive. You say . . .
- “What do I do?” You must know that you need your sins forgiven.
- “And then what?” Then you come to Jesus.
- “How?” If you are coming to Jesus in this morning, all you need say is, “I want to go God’s way.”
This is God’s Word …
This is Grace for your Journey …
Rest and Rejoice in this eternal truth!