I have found my study of the Church of Sardis interesting. The things Jesus had to say in describing this church are unique, as I think you will find as we take an in-depth look at the Scriptures.
Here once again, we find descriptions of a real church which existed in the first century days. We also find that the description fits into a definite time slot within the unfolding of the Church Age. Then we find some things said that should have enormous importance to those of us who are now living in the very last moments of the Age of Grace before the beginning of the terrible Day of the Lord.
The Church of Sardis, like the other six churches specifically addressed by the Alpha and Omega, Jesus the glorified Christ, was located in Asia Minor in what is now the nation of Turkey. Sardis was first mentioned by name somewhere around 472 BC, but had been around long before under another name. The city had been the capital of the ancient Lydian Empire and was an important city as well 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. In the 5th century the Athenians burned the city to the ground during the Ionian revolt. Antiochius III the Great conquered the city at the end of the 3rd century B.C. During the Persian era Cyrus the Great took his turn conquering the city. 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 particularly 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.
Before unpacking some of the things Jesus said to this Church, let’s look at what was written:
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. Be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die, for I have not found your works perfect before God. 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. 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. He who overcomes shall be clothed in white garments, and I will not blot out his name before My Father and before His angels. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”’ (Revelation 3:1-6, NKJV)
The first verse mentions both the seven Spirits of God and the seven stars. I will leave a detailed discussion of both of these for another time, but 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 this:
There shall come forth a Rod from the stem of Jesse. And a Branch shall grow out of his roots. 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. (NKJV)
Could it be that the seven things said about the Branch that grows out of the stem of Jesse, are the descriptions of what John the Apostle saw before the Throne? We know that there is only one Holy Spirit, and so these attributes might very well be what was operating within the risen LORD when He scrutinized the Church at Sardis. One thing for sure is that He does not miss a thing. 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.” In our busy lives today it is easy to forget that our lives are on display. They are on display to those around us. And Hebrews chapter 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 eternity. The view Jesus has of our lives is accurate. He does not miss a thing, and it can be a double-edged sword. The Master has instructed us to do our good deeds in a way where the right hand and left hand don’t 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 about Jesus’ comments and the Church of Sardis? They were obviously a church that was busy doing all kinds of works. After all, Jesus said that He knew their works. Could it be that this church was busy doing all kinds of things that they saw needing to be done? They may have had all kinds of social programs, could have had feeding programs for the poor, educational programs for the young, and an assortment of other things. 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.
How many of these things can be done with true “spirituality” not having any part of it? I believe they all can. In fact, I am going to go farther yet and say that perhaps most churches or church organizations who have these programs have forgotten or lost their connection with the One whom the Church is supposed to represent. Many great people have gone out and have done “great” works, but how does the Head of the Church evaluate it? A good example of this might be Mother Theresa. From her own life’s testimony, her entire work was a social work and had nothing to do with bringing real life to the people she spent her life working with. She did not bring them the knowledge of the only Saviour available. What a terrible waste! I suppose some might take offense at what I have said, but it is true nonetheless. 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 all over the world by many different organizations, and many incredible much needed works are done, but they still only have a temporal value if people are not given the opportunity to meet the One that 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 so people have clean and safe water available to drink, 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.
How much of the Church goes through all the motions of living a “Christian” life without really being properly connected to the Christ that Christianity is supposed to be all about? People can be involved with one church event or activity after another and yet not have a true spiritual connection to the One that all this activity is supposed to be drawing people to! How many “worship” teams are there in churches today that have become very good at what they do, and can perform flawlessly, yet do not have any 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 don’t know that all they are getting is “theology” yet no power of the Spirit. Many will wax eloquent as they display the knowledge they have gained in a seminary, or maybe even just from a Pulpit Helps magazine. Isn’t this what Jesus called “having a form of godliness but denying its power?” A person can give a sermon written and delivered by another great man of God, but 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 with no power. 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 being delivered with the backing of the power of the Holy Spirit. 1 Corinthians helps us to broaden our understanding of what Jesus is declaring:
Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. 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.
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:
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. 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?” And the I will declare to them, “I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!”
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”? I’m afraid the reality that God has warned His Church about for the last two millennia is contrary to the man-made reality many have crafted for themselves. It will prove to be an eternal mistake.
I find it rather curious that the Church of Sardis has nothing said about any persecution it is facing. 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? How many are 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 taken 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 the time 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. 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 “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 by us reaping what we sow don’t have to come.
In the Church today, we have representations of every one of the seven churches of Revelation 2 and 3. The Church in 2015 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! It is mostly the fault of the Church! So much of it thinks it is alive, yet it is dead! So many great leaders, carrying the “Christian” tag, have become “big wheels” in the religious and political world. Yet, “big wheels” only go in never ending circles, really 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 all of them, and yet, how much of it 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 killing the sacred cow here, but some of the religious organizations that cry the loudest for money to feed the hungry and dying, are supporting executives that live like kings and queens in their palatial 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 it has not been a good change!
America has now murdered nearly 60 million of its own babies, and has funded the killing of multiplied times that amount 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 still 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, stay repentant, be preparing, and finish the race well. It is not the true Church that 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 that Great and Terrible Day of the Lord, the Great Tribulation. The way I read the Scriptures, most will miss this out on this great promise for God’s remnant Christ-following Church. One day everyone will be saying, peace and safety, and then there will be unleashed the horrible catastrophic judgments of the seven year Apocalypse and many will wonder why they are still here!
It defies the theology of many that there will be religious people who will not be spared the events of this cataclysm. Yet, this is exactly what the Scriptures tell us. Being religious is not synonymous with being a true Christ-follower. God hates religion! Christ taught us to love the Lord our God with our whole heart, mind, soul, and strength…and our neighbor as ourself. Religion on the other hand has often done little more than produce power-hungry, pompous, 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, or religious seminaries, or anything else that man likes to crow about.
Anything that is not done by the direction of the Holy Spirit Himself is a waste of time; in fact, a distraction, and it 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 that no 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 the Great Tribulation”, having “washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”The white robe represents salvation through Jesus Christ. The context makes it clear that these had gone into the Great Tribulation because they had not followed the advice that was given to the Church of Sardis in Revelation 3:3.
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 some theology taught by 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 we are slipping, and eventually making a “shipwreck” of our faith, as the Apostle Paul described it? Did Paul also make the comment 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? We need to heed the conviction of the Spirit of God while we still have time. The end of this age is now within view! Listen to what the writer to the Hebrews said in chapter 10:35-39:
Therefore do not cast away your confidence, which has great reward. For you have need of endurance, so that after you have done the will of God, you may receive the promise: ‘For yet a little while, and He who is coming will come and will not tarry. Now the just shall live by faith; but if anyone draws back, My soul has no pleasure in him.’ 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 the slot in time we have been given to live in. Enduring is much more than just enduring the pains and struggles of life on a fallen planet. It has a great deal to do with enduring though we get hammered by lie after lie and attack after attack from hell’s minions who have been sent 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 do a cursory reading of Ephesians 6:10-20. We must put it into practice like our life depends on it…because it does!
(the series to be continued in Part 6)