The Dead Church
Studies of the letters to the churches in Revelation 2-3 are fascinating, but I find the letter to the Church of Sardis of particular interest. The things Jesus had to say in describing this church are unique, and I believe you will find the same as we take an in-depth look at this passage of Scripture.
Let’s begin by taking a look at the passage:
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. 2 Be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die, for I have not found your works perfect before God. 3 Remember therefore how you have received and heard; hold fast and repent. 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. 4 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. 5 He who overcomes shall be clothed in white garments, and I will not blot out his name from the Book of Life; but I will confess his name before My Father and before his angels. 6 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”’
Once again, we find descriptions of a real church which existed in the days of the first century. We also find that the description coincides with an historical time in the unfolding of the Church Age. And then of course, we find some specifics that should have an impact on us who are now living in the very last moments of the Age of Grace.
The Church of Sardis, like the other six churches specifically addressed by Jesus, the glorified Christ, was located in Asia Minor in what is now the nation of Turkey. Sardis was first mentioned by name around 472 BC, but had been in existence long before under another name. The city had been the capital of the ancient Lydian Empire and was also an important city to the Romans. Over the centuries it had been conquered numerous times. The Cimmerians conquered it in the 7th century B.C. Then it was the Persians’ turn in the 6th century B.C.. In the 5th century B.C. the Athenians burned the city to the ground during the Ionian revolt. Antiochius The Great, conquered the city at the end of the 3rd century B.C. The Persian again conquered the city when Cyrus the Great took his turn and Sardis stayed under Persian dominance until it surrendered to Alexander the Great in 334 B.C. In AD 17, while under the Roman emperor Tiberius, the city was destroyed by a major earthquake, but was rebuilt once again.
Sardis was known for many things, but was particularly renowned for its arts and crafts, especially its jewelry. Gold and silver were found in the mines scattered in the hills around the city and some say that Sardis was the first to mint coins.
Turning now to the passage, we find that the first verse mentions both the Seven Spirits of God and the Seven Stars. I would like to share a Scripture found in Isaiah 11:1-2 that may give some important insight as to why this description was used in the letter to Sardis. The passage in Isaiah prophesies of the coming Messiah and says:
1 There shall come forth a Rod from the stem of Jesse. And a Branch shall grow out of his roots. 2 The Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon Him, The Spirit of wisdom and understanding, The Spirit of counsel and might, The Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD.
Could it be that the seven Spirits Isaiah speaks of are what John the Apostle saw before the Throne? We know that there is only one Holy Spirit, and so these attributes would be operating within the risen LORD when He scrutinized the Church at Sardis. One thing for sure is that what He sees and what He says are accurate and need to be carefully heeded.
The first statement, and maybe the one that strikes me the most, is when Jesus says, “I know your works, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead.” (emphasis added) In our busy lives today it is easy to forget that we are on display. We live in a glass house and are on display to all around us. Hebrews 12:1 tells us that we also have a great crowd of witnesses with some awareness of events from what appears to be the heavenly dimension just above us. Then of course, we know from other Scripture passages that careful records are being kept in heaven for every moment that we live upon this earth before we enter eternity.
Our Master has instructed us to do our good deeds in a way that the right hand and left hand do not know what the other is doing; in other words, it is not needed for others to know how we have obeyed the Lord in specific points of obedience. It’s entirely between us and the Master. On the other hand, many things that are done in secret are things to be ashamed of. These are also recorded. This shows how important it is for us to live a transparent and repentant life before our coming KING.
So, what was the point Jesus was making to the Church of Sardis? They were apparently a church that was busy doing all kinds of good works. After all, Jesus said that He knew their works. Could it be that this church was busy doing things that they saw needed to be done? They may have had social programs, could have had feeding programs for the poor, educational programs for the young, and much more. So, you might ask, “What is wrong with that? Is that not part of church life, loving our neighbor as ourselves?” It’s an excellent question.
Can these things be done without true “spirituality”? I believe they all can. In fact, the question could be asked, have many churches or church organizations involved in these programs forgotten or lost their connection with the One whom the Church is supposed to represent? Many great people have done “great works”, but are these works evaluated by the Head of the Church? A good example of this might be Mother Theresa. From her own life’s testimony, her efforts were a social work and had nothing to do with bringing real spiritual life to the people she worked with. She did not bring them the knowledge of the only true Saviour. But unless we offer real spiritual life to the lost around us, we are only ministering to their temporal need.
I know there are many missions programs by many different organizations located all over the world, and many remarkable, much needed works are done, but they still only have a temporal value if people are not presented with the opportunity to meet the One who created them. Jesus was the One who said, “What good is it if one were to gain the whole world and lose their own soul?” We can feed, clothe, educate, provide wells for clean and safe water, and provide medical help–yet, if they still lose their souls, what gain was there really?
The other side of the coin of course is that quite often, the way to get an audience with people is to reach out and try to help provide some of the basic necessities that so many in our fallen world do not have. In the process, people are much more willing to hear about a Gospel that may be foreign to them. This becomes a means with which to fulfill the Great Commission.
Much of the Church goes through the motions of “Christian living” without being truly connected to the Christ whom Christianity is about. People can be involved with one church event or activity after another and yet not have a true spiritual connection to the One to whom people must be drawn to! Many worship teams in churches today have become very good at what they do and can perform flawlessly, yet do not have individual intimacy with the very One that the worship is to be directed to. How tragic! Could this bring the condemnation from the Master, “I know your works, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead?”
We live in an age when many church-goers are receiving “packaged theology” from the pulpit, without life to it. Many speak eloquently as they display the knowledge they have gained in a seminary, or maybe even just from a Pulpit Helps magazine. Might this be an example of what Jesus described as “having a form of godliness but denying its power?” Unless God Himself drives the spirit of the sermon home in the heart of the man behind the pulpit, it will be nothing more than a fine-sounding speech, lacking the power to change lives. True men of God get their insights through the travail and alone time with God. Once God has put His Spirit into the sermon or teaching, it is guaranteed to touch, convict, and change lives. Without the fire of the Holy Spirit, it will be disappointing for those who are looking to be drawn closer to the Lord. Nothing can ever substitute for the Word of God delivered with love and the power of the Holy Spirit. 1 Corinthians helps us to broaden our understanding of what Jesus is declaring:
1 Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. 2 And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 3 And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing. 1 Corinthians 13:1-3
The modern day church of Sardis may have all the actions, activities, programs, praise music, instrumentation, thundering sound systems inside colossal buildings, with whole symphony orchestras accompanying professional choirs, and still be considered DEAD by the One who is the Head of the Church. If ministry isn’t driven by the Spirit of God, it has no eternal value. Jesus laid it out pretty harshly in the Sermon on the Mount when He said:
21 Not everyone who says to Me, “Lord, Lord,” shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. 22 Many will say to Me in that day, “Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?” 23 And the I will declare to them, “I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!” Matthew 7:21-23
There is a separation coming of the sheep and the goats. I wonder how many are playing the religious game and think they are “sheep”, when in reality they are “goats”? God has warned His Church for the last 2000 years to seek His reality, contrary to the man-made reality many have crafted for themselves. It will prove to be an eternal mistake.
I find it curious that the words spoken of the Church of Sardis say nothing about enduring persecution. There is not even mention of false teachers, prophets, or false christs, although every age has had them. Could it be that this church was no threat to the kingdom of hell and so Satan figured that as long as he could keep them satisfied in their “deadness”, he didn’t have to bother with them? Are many in that very condition today? Is your church a threat to the kingdom of hell? Are you? At the beginning of this article I gave a bit of Sardis’ history. One thing that some historians have recorded is that at least twice, Sardis was overrun at night when everyone was asleep. No guards? No one watching for an enemy? It led to great tragedy–the same tragedy that will befall many in the modern Church of Sardis.
When we look back at the history of the Church, the Church of Sardis fits in the time frame of the Reformation and onward. Can you imagine? The Reformation brought about one of the greatest spiritual transitions of the Church Age; yet, what happened to the Church of Sardis in Asia Minor also happened to the Church that had gained enormous spiritual truths through the Reformation. It was the same Church! After a time, the Church had the reputation of being alive, yet it DIED! History shows how this great movement fell into a spiritual slumber that left it vulnerable to every wind of doctrine that hell sent. Also, the same spiritually dead system of religion that Martin Luther and other reformers had escaped from gradually crept back into the Church by other names. Those that had joined the Reformation movement eventually split up into thousands of denominations, many of them just as corrupt and spiritually dead as what they had been “reformed” from to begin with.
Jesus goes on to say, “Be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die, for I have not found your works perfect before God.” The first step is to recognize what has happened. When the status quo does not look too bad, there is not a great incentive to change. Unfortunately, history shows that the Church doesn’t usually recognize its condition until judgment begins to come upon it. Then the Church is shaken from its slumber. It would be so much easier to hear the voice of the Master and respond in humble repentance so that the harsh events which are brought about when we reap what we sow are not necessary.
In the Church today, we have representations of every one of the seven churches of Revelation 2 and 3. The Church in 2019 has a strong representation of the Church of Sardis. This is very much the case in America. If this were not so, our nation would not have corrupted itself as much as it has! The fault lies mostly at the threshold of the Church! So much of it thinks it is alive, yet it is dead! So many great leaders, carrying the “Christian” label have become “big wheels” in the religious and political world. Yet, “big wheels” only go in never ending circles, accomplishing nothing of eternal value. Large organizations have been built; great movements with lofty plans and agendas. Large amounts of money have been collected for great social programs, overseas projects, great ministry centers, and impressive Christian universities. The list is endless. There is good in most of them, and yet, how much of it has really had anything to do with serving the Master? How much of it just serves the agendas or egos of men and women who have no intimacy with the Master, so as to even be able to hear Him? How much of the billions upon billions of dollars collected for third world nations really even gets to the poor and dying? How much of it gets wasted in excessively over-inflated overhead costs and high executive salaries and exorbitant expense accounts? I know I am slaughtering a sacred cow here, but some of the religious organizations that cry the loudest for money to feed the hungry and dying, are supporting executives who live like kings and queens in their mansions and estates! According to Jesus’ own words, they have their reward already and will die with them!
It was not that many years ago when America was home base to more missionary organizations than any other nation in the world. This nation sent missionaries out to every known population on earth. The United States was also a nation built upon Judeo-Christian morals and principles. Our schools used to have Bibles in them, prayer in the mornings, and the ten commandments displayed prominently in public locations all over the land. But the nation has changed and the change has not been good! America has now murdered over 65 million of its own babies and has been the chief financier of near 2 billion abortions around the globe! America has the largest per-capita prison population in the world. The nation is collapsing morally; it fills the earth with its pornography and it is ordaining homosexual pastors who teach that Jesus had a homosexual relationship with his disciples. America is now open to every other religion in the world yet is violently rejecting its Judeo-Christian heritage. America used to be the home of the brave and the free. It used to be known for its “American Dream”. My own family immigrated in 1952 for that very reason when I was just a toddler. The nation has become corrupt in its political system, its educational system, its economic system, its morality, and its entire worldview. Wrong has become right; right has become wrong. America has ignored its conscience for too long and that God-given moral compass has nearly ceased to function. Where is the influence of the Church? Jesus said:
“Remember therefore how you have received and heard; hold fast and repent. 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.”
When we read the New Testament, we are repeatedly reminded that the true Church will be well aware of the season we are in. We will also be doing exactly what the Master said we should be doing. We have been instructed to be watching, be praying, staying repentant, preparing, and striving to finish the race well. It is not the true Church who will be caught off guard when Jesus calls His faithful ones out of the way of God’s judgment on this wicked, fallen world.
The warning from the Lord is for the modern-day Church of Sardis to rise from the dead. The threat that Jesus may return as a thief, refers to the time when He comes and snatches His Bride—the true Church— out of the way before the Great and Terrible Day of the Lord; the Great Tribulation. The way I read the Scriptures, most will miss out on this great promise for God’s remnant. One day everyone will be saying, peace and safety, and then suddenly, the horrible catastrophic judgments of the seven year Apocalypse will be unleashed and many will wonder why they are still here!
It will defy the theology of many that there will be religious people who are not spared the events of this cataclysm. Yet, this is exactly what the Scriptures tell us will happen. Being religious is not synonymous with being a true Christ-follower. God hates religion because “religion” only brings bondage! Christ taught us to love the Lord our God with our whole heart, mind, soul, and strength…and our neighbor as ourselves. Religion on the other hand has often done little more than produce power-hungry, narcissistic religious leaders who used their religious wars as a means to their own ends.
Jesus said that there were still a “few” in Sardis who had not defiled their garments. Amazing! Only a few? I suspect that the same applies to the Church of Sardis of modern times. Many will argue with the Lord of Lords, reminding Him of all the great things they have accomplished for Him. Yet He will say that He does not know them! How is this possible? It tells us that our spiritual connection with Him is not measured by our supposed accomplishments, our great building projects, our famed non-profit charities, our religious edifices, religious seminaries, or anything else that we might crow about.
Anything that is not done at the direction of the Holy Spirit is a waste of time; in fact, it is a distraction and will not be backed by the power of God. It qualifies as nothing more than stains on those white garments mentioned in this passage of Scripture. Sardis was educated; they were industrious; they were skilled in the arts and much more; yet, Jesus gave none of it eternal value!
I find it interesting to note that Revelation 7:9-17 references a huge multitude of people standing before the Throne of God. It is made clear that this specific crowd had come “out of great Tribulation”— having “washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” The white robe represents salvation through Jesus Christ. Is it possible that those who do not pay attention to the warnings from the Master to the Church of Sardis may be identified with the foolish virgins in Matthew 25:1-13??
To make the theological argument stronger, Revelation 3:5 says this: “He who overcomes shall be clothed in white garments, and I will not blot out his name from the Book of Life…” That crosses the traditional theology of many. How can someone who has had their name written in the Lamb’s Book of Life have their name erased? Could it be through disobedience to the continual drawing of the Spirit of God that warns us when we are slipping— that some will eventually make a “shipwreck” of their faith as the Apostle Paul described it? I was also Paul who commented in I Corinthians 9:27, that it would be a tragedy, after having preached the Gospel to others, if he himself were to become a castaway? I realize that this is a controversial subject but whether we believe that a person can lose their faith or not, we need to individually heed the personal conviction of the Spirit of God while there is still time to do so! The end of this age is now within view! Listen to what the writer to the Hebrews said in chapter 10:35-39:
35 Therefore do not cast away your confidence, which has great reward. 36 For you have need of endurance, so that after you have done the will of God, you may receive the promise: 37 ‘For yet a little while, and He who is coming will come and will not tarry. 38 Now the just shall live by faith; but if anyone draws back, My soul has no pleasure in him.’ 39 But we are not of those who draw back to perdition, but of those who believe to the saving of the soul.
I find much in God’s Word about “overcoming”, and of “enduring to the end.” The promises of enjoying all of God’s promises of eternal glory and bliss are not given automatically. We must be “overcomers”, and we must “endure” to the end of time in which we have been sovereignly inserted. Enduring is much more than just “surviving” the pains and struggles of life on a fallen planet. It has a great deal to do with enduring in spite of being hammered by lie after lie and attack after attack from the minions of hell who have been commissioned to take us down. We must stand. We must put on the armour that has been given us to use for these spiritual battles. We must do more than just a cursory reading of Ephesians 6:10-20. We must put it into practice like our life depends on it…because it does!
10 Finally, my brethren, be strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might. 11 Put on the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. 12 For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places. 13 Wherefore take unto you the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. 14 Stand therefore, having your loins girt about with truth, and having on the breastplate of righteousness;15 And your feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace;16 Above all, taking the shield of faith, wherewith ye shall be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked. 17 And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God:18 Praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, and watching thereunto with all perseverance and supplication for all saints;19 And for me, that utterance may be given unto me, that I may open my mouth boldly, to make known the mystery of the gospel, 20 For which I am an ambassador in bonds: that therein I may speak boldly, as I ought to speak.
Continued in Part Eight…The Faithful Church