This morning we are making another stop on our tour of the seven churches of Revelation. We?ve visited Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, and this week we will stop off in Sardis for another lesson from our Lord. The original city of Sardis was located about 35 miles southeast of Thyatira. The city sat on a high, rocky hill in a series of hills that jutted out from Mount Tmolus, overlooking the Hermus River valley. The hill that Sardis was built upon rose some fifteen hundred feet above the valley floor. The city was surrounded by almost perpendicular rock walls on three sides. This made the city almost invincible, almost. The city was fortified like very few cities in the ancient world.
The only drawback to the location of the city was that it was impossible for the city to expand sitting high on the hill. When the city needed to expand it had to build a lower portion of the city down at the base of the rocky hill. When the lower city would feel threatened the citizens would seek refuge high in the mountain of old Sardis.
Sardis was the capital city of the ancient Lydian kingdom. In the ancient world, Sardis was almost synonymous with extravagant wealth. Sardis? great wealth came from gold that was gathered from the nearby Pactolus River. Archaeologists have found hundreds of crucibles, used for refining gold, in the many archeological excavations around the city. It is believed that gold and silver coins were first minted in Sardis. Sardis? wealthiest and most famous King, Croesus, was so famous for his wealth that for centuries following his death people would describe the wealth of the truly rich by saying that they were as ?rich as Croesus.? Today we would say that someone who is wealthy is as rich as Bill Gates or Warren Buffet.
I mentioned to you earlier that Sardis was almost invincible. Sardis was so secure because of its location that it neglected to guard the rocky barriers that surrounded the city on three sides. King Croesus decided that he was going to attack Cyrus, the King of Persia. After consulting the oracle of Delphi his confidence grew greater still. When he marshaled his troops and attacked Cyrus he got sent home with his tail between his legs. Dr. Robert L. Thomas picks up the story at this point.
Returning to Sardis to recoup and rebuild his army for another attack, he was pursued quickly by Cyrus who laid siege against Sardis. Croesus felt utterly secure in his impregnable situation atop the acropolis and foresaw an easy victory over the Persians who were cornered among the perpendicular rocks in the lower city, an easy prey for the assembling Lydian army to crush. After retiring one evening while the drama was unfolding, he awakened to discover that the Persians had gained control of the acropolis by scaling one-by-one the steep walls (549 B.C.). So secure did the Sardians feel that they left this means of access completely unguarded, permitting the climbers to ascend unobserved. It is said that even a child could have defended the city from this kind of attack, but not so much as one observer had been appointed to watch the side that was believed to be inaccessible. History repeated itself more than three and a half centuries later when Antiochus the Great conquered Sardis by utilizing the services of a sure-footed mountain climber from Crete (195 B.C.). His army entered the city by another route while the defenders in careless confidence were content to guard the one known approach, the isthmus of land connected to Mount Tmolus on the south. (Revelation 1?7: An Exegetical Commentary [Chicago: Moody, 1992], 241)
The city never regained its fame and prominence again. City leaders requested the honor of building a temple for Caesar in 26 A.D., but the request was rejected and the honor was given to Smyrna. In 17 A.D. a horrible earthquake devastated the city and was generously rebuilt by Emperor Tiberius Caesar. Greek geographer, Strabo, said the city was famous for its woolen textiles and cloth dyeing industry, but the city never regained the prominence that it once had under King Croesus. Now that we have a better understanding of the city of Sardis, let?s turn to our Scripture for today found in Revelation 3:1-6 so that we can see what Jesus had to say to the church.
1 “To the angel of the church in Sardis write: 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. 2 Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your deeds complete in the sight of my God. 3Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; obey it, and repent. But if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you. 4Yet 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. 5He who overcomes will, like them, be dressed in white. I will never blot out his name from the book of life, but will acknowledge his name before my Father and his angels. 6 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. (Revelation 3:1-6 NIV)
Jesus knows the church of Sardis well and He says, ?You have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead.? Can you imagine sitting in the 1st Church of Sardis on the day this letter was first read to the congregation? It would have had to have been a shock to the system! The truth of the matter is that this is exactly what the church needed. They needed to open their eyes to the truth of what was taking place in the church and in the hearts of the people who called the church home. Let?s take a look at verse 1. Jesus says,
1 “To the angel of the church in Sardis write: 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. (Revelation 3:1 NIV)
Jesus says that He is the one who holds the ?seven spirits of God and the seven stars.? In Revelation 1:16 Jesus is described as holding ?the seven stars in His right hand.? In Revelation 1:20 we learned that the ?seven stars? are the seven representatives of the church?the ?angels,? ?pastors,? or ?bishops.? Read along with me.
20 The mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand and of the seven golden lampstands is this: The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches. (Revelation 1:20 NIV)
Here in Revelation 3:1 He is also holding ?the seven spirits of God?? This is not the first time this phrase appears; it also appeared in the first chapter of Revelation at 1:4. Seven is the biblical number of completeness or fullness and Jesus holds the full power of the Spirit of God in His hand. Although Jesus has harsh words for the church in Sardis, He has exactly what the church needs to see new life spring forth from the dead church.
This is the first letter that we have read in which there is no commendation for the church. There is praise for a few individuals in the church, but no commendation for the church itself. Jesus says that He knows their deeds, but instead of this being the beginning of a pat on the back it is an announcement that their deeds are lacking. Jesus says in verse 2, ??I have not found your deeds complete in the sight of my God.?
The church in Sardis is dead. Oh, they have a reputation in the community for being alive, but they are dead. I?ve been thinking about this statement this past week and to be quite honest with you, it terrifies me. How do you know if your church is alive or dead? I will guarantee you that the folks who called Sardis home would have never described their church as being dead. They could tell you about all of the wonderful things that they had done through the years. They could reminisce about the glory days. They could point you to the all of the wonderful benefits that the church had to offer those who were considering coming to their church. They could point out all of the new members they had received during the past year. Their creeds were orthodox, their rolls were full, their coffers were filled, but Jesus said their church was dead. How can we accurately evaluate whether or not our church is alive or dead? That is a great question. A much needed question that needs to be asked by every church in our day. John MacArthur gives us some much needed insight into the evaluation process when he writes,
What are the danger signs that a church is dying? A church is in danger when it is content to rest on its past laurels, when it is more concerned with liturgical forms than spiritual reality, when it focuses on curing social ills rather than changing people?s hearts through preaching the life-giving gospel of Jesus Christ, when it is more concerned with material than spiritual things, when it is more concerned with what men think than what God said, when it is more enamored with doctrinal creeds and systems of theology than with the Word of God, or when it loses its conviction that every word of the Bible is the word of God Himself. No matter what its attendance, no matter how impressive its buildings, no matter what its status in the community, such a church, having denied the only source of spiritual life, is dead. (John MacArthur, Revelation 1-11. pg. 112)
You can?t conclude that the church is alive because the pews are full. You can?t determine that the church is alive because there is plenty of money at the church?s disposal. You can?t resolve that the church is alive because it prays the Lord?s Prayer or has Bibles in the pews. The questions that we need to ask is, ?Are we being obedient to God?s call upon our life together as a church? Are we passionately seeking God?s heart or our desires? Are we teaching God?s Word or our opinions?? These are questions we constantly need to ask ourselves in determining whether or not Britton Christian Church is alive or headed to death.
This letter to the church in Sardis is interesting because Jesus says that the church is dead, but then in verses 2-3 He gives them some great advice on how they see new life spring to life in the church. Read along with me.
2 Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your deeds complete in the sight of my God. 3Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; obey it, and repent. But if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you. (Revelation 3:2-3 NIV)
Jesus says, ?Wake up!? The word that is used here is the Greek word, ?grhgore,w? (gregoreo) and the word means, ?to watch, or give strict attention to.? More than waking up from sleep, the word means to stay alert, to live with our eyes wide open. The same word is used in several different places in the New Testament. Let me show you a few. First of all, a little later in Revelation, at 16:15 we read,
15 “Behold, I come like a thief! Blessed is he who stays awake and keeps his clothes with him, so that he may not go naked and be shamefully exposed.” (Revelation 16:15 NIV)
In Acts 20:28-31, Paul told the Elders of the church in Ephesus.
28Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood. 29I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. 30Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. 31So be on your guard! Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears. (Acts 20:28-31 NIV)
The word we are looking at is not the phrase, ?keep watch over? in verse 28, but it is the phrase, ?be on your guard? in verse 31. The leaders of the church were to stand guard, to be on the look out, to be observant of false teachers who would try to distort the truth and lead the members of the church astray.
The last example I want us to look at is found in 1 Corinthians 16:13-14 where Paul tells the people of Corinth,
13Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be men of courage; be strong. 14Do everything in love. (1 Corinthians 16:13-14 NIV)
The church in Sardis is called upon to be alert, to open their eyes to the stench of death that is all around them. What is truly ironic about the call to open their eyes is that the people of Sardis knew the cost of not paying attention. Their city had been conquered for this very reason in years past and now their church was being conquered from within for the same sin of apathy and arrogance.
Jesus not only calls the church to be alert, but secondly, He calls upon the people of Sardis to ?strengthen what remains and is about to die.? Read that phrase with me.
??Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your deeds complete in the sight of my God. (Revelation 3:2
The people of the church of Sardis were starters, but not finishers. They got excited about beginning a new effort, but soon the enthusiasm and fervor died down and they fell to the wayside. This is why Jesus says, ?I have not found your deeds complete in the sight of my God.? Boy, does that strike at my heart. How many times have I felt called by God to do something. I signed up, strapped in, and stepped out in faith, but as time rocked along I fell out. I stopped showing up. I didn?t ?feel? as juiced about it as I once did so I gave up. I quit. Can any of you relate? Have any of you ever started an effort totally feeling like God had given you an assignment and yet you didn?t see it through? Are any of us in that place right now? God has called you to serve, He has called you to give of yourself, but you are tired. Nobody is recognizing your efforts. Nobody appreciates you and the time you?ve given. You?re convinced now that you aren?t making a difference. Jesus says, ?Strengthen what remains and is about to die! Finish!?
Jesus goes on to give us further counsel. There is something else that we must do. We must remember. Read along with me from verse 3.
3Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; obey it, and repent. But if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you. (Revelation 3:3 NIV)
Remember. Remember when our faith was new. Remember when our enthusiasm was unbridled. Remember when discouragement couldn?t discourage us. Remember how much joy we received in just serving the Lord, in being aware that He was using us. Remember who we are serving. There was an interview in Time magazine several years ago in which Mother Theresa shared the secret for her longevity and passion in caring for the dying folks of Calcutta. She said,
We try to pray through our work by doing it with Jesus, for Jesus, to Jesus. That helps us put our whole heart and soul into doing it. The dying, the crippled, the mentally ill, the unwanted, the unloved — they are Jesus in disguise.
What incredible insight for helping us to keep the passion alive. We are not serving people; we are serving Jesus in disguise.
The placement of the two verbs, ?received and heard? in verse 3 seem to be out of order. When we think about our coming to Christ we heard before we received didn?t we? David Darnell says,
At first sight, it seems as if these two verbs, ?received and heard? are out of order, and should rather be ?heard and received.? But the Risen Lord has reference to how his followers at Sardis, in their initial enthusiasm of ?receiving him,? had willingly and intently listened to his teaching?as they gladly received his authoritative representatives, and ?hung on every word? of the teachings and traditions. Now, it is obvious, the excitement has died down; they are no longer anxious to listen and hear as they formerly were. (Dr. David Darnell, Revelation, pg. 136.)
Jesus tells them to ?repent.? The word in Greek means to ?turn around.? Stop doing what they were doing and go back to doing what they did at first when their faith was new and they were excited to be walking with the Lord.
If the people of Sardis will not heed Jesus? warning and follow His counsel then He says that He will come to them like ?a thief in the night.? Jesus will come when they least expect it and He will come to judge the church. Jesus? coming like a thief is a common theme in the New Testament. In Matthew 24:37-43 Jesus said,
37 As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. 38 For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; 39 and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. 40 Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. 41 Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left. 42 “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. 43 But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. (Matthew 24:37-43 NIV)
Paul wrote to the church in Thessalonica and told them to prepare themselves for the coming day of the Lord. In 1 Thessalonians 5:1-2 we read,
Now, brothers, about times and dates we do not need to write to you, 2 for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. (1 Thessalonians 5:1-2 NIV)
Paul is pointing us to the time when Jesus will make His final return at the ?second coming,? but this is not the return that Jesus is talking about in Revelation 3. Jesus is warning the church that if they don?t repent He will come in judgment and remove their lampstand. Churches today need to keep this mind. If we neglect the call of God to live out His purpose for our church then the Lord of the Church will come and remove our ministry. God has not called us to be a church in this community so that we can have a place to gather, He has given us a purpose, a mission?we must live out that mission!
In verse 4 of Revelation 3 we find that although the church was dead there were still a ?few people? who were walking in faithfulness. Read along with me.
4Yet 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. 5He who overcomes will, like them, be dressed in white. I will never blot out his name from the book of life, but will acknowledge his name before my Father and his angels. 6 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. (Revelation 3:4-6 NIV)
There were still a few faithful in Sardis. Throughout God?s Word we find a recurring theme. In times of spiritual apathy or antagonism when God?s people turn their backs on God and go their own way, God always preserves a remnant. There is always a few who remain faithful even when the masses turn away. I love the story of Elijah, God?s faithful prophet, who endured the harassment of Ahab and Jezebel when she wiped out all of God?s prophets. After Elijah had run for his life God came to him and He said, ?What are you doing here Elijah?? You can read the story in 1 Kings 19:13-18. In verse 14 we pick up on Elijah?s response to God.
14 He replied, “I have been very zealous for the LORD God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, broken down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.” 15 The LORD said to him, “Go back the way you came, and go to the Desert of Damascus. When you get there, anoint Hazael king over Aram. 16 Also, anoint Jehu son of Nimshi king over Israel, and anoint Elisha son of Shaphat from Abel Meholah to succeed you as prophet. 17 Jehu will put to death any who escape the sword of Hazael, and Elisha will put to death any who escape the sword of Jehu. 18 Yet I reserve seven thousand in Israel– all whose knees have not bowed down to Baal and all whose mouths have not kissed him.” (1 Kings 19:13-18 NIV)
Elijah thought he was all alone, but there was a remnant. The church in Sardis may have been dead, but there were a few in the church who were still living faithfully for the Lord. They hadn?t ?soiled? their garments with the world like so many of their fellow parishioners. Where are you this morning? Are you playing games with God or are you truly living for Him? This has been the downfall of many of God?s people throughout history. Will we live for the Lord with all of our hearts in everything we do or will we simply give God lip service and live like the rest of the world? In Isaiah 29:12 the Lord spoke to another people and said,
13The Lord says: ?These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is made up only of rules taught by men. (Isaiah 29:13 NIV)
Though they are few there are those in Sardis who are faithful, those who are overcomers, and Jesus says that they will walk with Him, they will never have their name blotted out of the book of life, and Jesus will acknowledge their name before the Father. What a promise. Who is the promise for? The promise is for the overcomers, those who remain faithful regardless of the pressures, regardless of what the rest of the church or the world does, the overcomers will receive the promise. The word ?overomer? is a beautiful and powerful word. The Greek word, ?nika,w? (nikao) means, ?to conquer, or to hold fast the faith even unto death against the power of their foes, and temptations and persecutions.?
The verb appears 28 times in the Greek New Testament, all but nine times in the book of Revelation. Let me show you some of the places outside of Revelation where word appears. In John 16:33 Jesus told His followers,
33 “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33 NIV)
The Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Rome and told them,
21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:21 NIV)
The Apostle John wrote to the followers of Jesus in 1 John 5:3-5 and said,
3 This is love for God: to obey his commands. And his commands are not burdensome, 4 for everyone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith. 5 Who is it that overcomes the world? Only he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God. (1 John 5:3-5 NIV)
?Who is he that overcomes?? Is it the strong? If that were true then Samson would have never folded like a band hand of cards. Is it the rich, the truly wealthy? If that were true then King David wouldn?t have fallen into sin with Bathsheba. Is it the intellectual, the folks with the high IQ and Mensa membership cards in their pockets. If that were true then Solomon wouldn?t have been led astray. The one who overcomes is the one who places his or her faith solely in Jesus. He is our strength, He is our abundance, our greatest possession, and He alone is our wisdom, the wisdom of God.
I pray that we will hear this message this morning, that we will have ears to hear what Jesus is saying to the church in Sardis, because He is speaking to us as well. How can we avoid the tragedy of the church of Sardis? We must open our eyes and allow the Lord to show us the truth about our life, our walk with Him. Some here this morning may not be walking with the Lord at all. You?ve asked Jesus into your heart as your Lord and Savior. I want to invite you this morning to cry out to Jesus and confess your sins, invite Him to come into your heart as your Lord and Savior, and watch Him begin to transform your life. Won?t you allow Him to bring life to your dead bodies and spirit?