Was Sardis a fake church?
It was not easy to live the gospel at the end of the first century.
Remember, for true disciples, Jesus said the road was narrow. The way forward would be fraught with many dangers, toils, and snares. John, the last of the surviving disciples, had been living in exile. The church was under persecution. In many places, the persecution was fierce. You had seven letters written to seven churches living in a hostile world in situations that would make or break a church. You can really see what people are made of when they're under pressure. Character is revealed under fire.
With that in mind, let's read Revelation 3:1-6:
And to the angel of the church in Sardis write: "The words of him who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. 'I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God. Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it, and repent. If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you. Yet you have still a few names in Sardis, people who have not soiled their garments, and they will walk with me in white, for they are worthy. The one who conquers will be clothed thus in white garments, and I will never blot his name out of the book of life. I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’"
That is a heartbreaking letter. We might even say, brutal. Brutal.
Was Sardis a dead church?
I was reading where astrophysicists say a photon, released from the center of the sun, can take up to 100,000 years to reach the surface. They refer to it as a drunken journey. Once it pops the surface, however, it takes only eight minutes to travel the 93,000,000 miles to earth.
On a related topic, light travels at 186,000 miles per second. A light year is
equal to about six trillion miles. I was reading about a star that is approximately thirty-five light years from us. That star has probably already burned out, but its light is still pouring down on us. For all intents and purposes, it gives the impression of still being alive.
But it is already dead.
The church of Sardis might have shined brightly with a brilliant past, but we know nothing about that now. There was no light of the gospel. Jesus said the worst thing you could say about a church. It was a dead church. Because, if anything, life…new life…rebirth…resurrection…are all descriptives that should be associated with the church.
The church, by definition, must be alive. In perhaps a warning for what could happen to churches, we read in Matthew 21:19 where Jesus said:
And seeing a fig tree by the wayside, he went to it and found nothing on it but only leaves. And he said to it, “May no fruit ever come from you again!” And the fig tree withered at once.
Was Sardis likewise dead? Were they the "Weekend at Bernie's" kind of
Here's a verse to remember, as it informs our understanding of what comes later. In verse two, Jesus said, "Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die." What did Jesus say to a dead church? To a church that caved in to worldly pressure? What did Jesus say to a church that had let the world in…adopted the ways of the world…adapted to the ways of the world…tolerated sin…so much so that sin had taken over and was spreading death everywhere? What life was left at Sardis?
Let's look briefly at the city of Sardis itself. Geography is important to people and places.
Sardis was a city going back 1,200 years before Jesus was born. It was rich in silver and gold. In fact, the source of the gold was most likely from a nearby river. Some of the world's first silver and gold coins were probably produced in Sardis.
Archeological digs have unearthed a Roman theater, a stadium, as well as
a temple dedicated to Artemis. Artemis was the goddess of wild animals, the hunt, and vegetation and of chastity and childbirth. She was one of the most venerated of Greek deities.
Aesop, of fable fame, had a connection to Sardis. He wove his tales around 600 B.C., entertaining rulers and common folk in and around the region.
By all measures, Sardis was steeped in luxury and wealth. In fact, jewelry and others trinkets of gold and silver were found in local cemeteries. So what's the assumption? Right, if you can bury someone with it, you must have a lot of it.
Yet with all that going for it, Sardis was a degenerate and dying city. Here's all that's left of it now:
Here's what we know about the church at Sardis, based on what was not mentioned here or from any other sources:
No mention of persecution.
No mention of bad theology.
No mention of false teachers.
No mention of compromise with the world.
No mention of any specific sin in any specific way.
No mention of anything begs the question, "Why?" In around thirty years of their existence, the Sardis church went from a new church plant with a promising future to being declared by Jesus spiritually dead. Their bad beliefs and behavior must have happened so soon and so thoroughly that there was no memory of a time when they weren't spiritually dead. There was no memory of a benchmark for comparison.
It's possible Sardis could be comparable to any number of liberal churches today that deny the truth of God's Word, deny essentials of who Jesus is, and embrace teachings that stray from the gospel. That's the warning from Paul in Ephesians 2:1-3:
And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience - among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.
That's the danger many churches find themselves in. Reverting back. And that's the cautionary tale from Sardis.
They were Christian in name only. And that's true today, as well.
Years ago, somebody once told me I preached too much about Jesus. She told me when I emphasized that there was salvation in Christ and Christ alone, I wasn't leaving any room for sincere people who believe in God but might not be all-in for Jesus. I knew she was not alone.
Make no mistake. There are churches attended by people and led by people who don't believe the Bible is the inerrant Word of God, who don't believe Jesus Christ is the incarnate Son of God, who don't believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, and who don't believe that the wrath of God was poured out on Jesus on the cross for our forgiveness. Those are
Dead churches are concerned with modern marketing strategies. Dead churches are more protective of tradition than they are of gospel truth. Dead churches love current management theories. They love liturgy more than they love the truth. They tolerate sin. Pronouns and inclusive language are more important than what we say about God and humanity. Dead churches look more like social service agencies than spiritual hospitals for sin-sick people. Dead churches don't proclaim the gospel. They proclaim the need to transform institutions. Dead churches are more concerned with material things than spiritual things.
There are no two bigger issues for churches than Biblical authority and the nature of Christ.
But even though Sardis went through the motions of being a living church, there was hope. There was a fragment of hope. There was a seed of hope. It came after the most awful, most horrible, terriblist thing a person could ever hear from Jesus - "If you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and
you will not know at what hour I will come against you."
Again, the word of hope:
Yet you have still a few names in Sardis, people who have not soiled their garments, and they will walk with me in white, for they are worthy.
Jesus said, remember what you were taught. Repent. Return. Here's something you might want to write down:
RESIST THE DANGER OF CONTAMINATING YOUR CHRISTIAN WITNESS BY GIVING IN TO THE PREVAILING STANDARDS OF YOUR PAGAN CULTURE.
There might be a remnant in Sardis who could do that. A seed.
About five years ago, we had what we thought was a weed growing in the shadow of our backyard birdbath. There was something about it, though, that didn't convince us it was a weed. We watched it grow. And eventually moved it to another part of the yard. Look at it now:
Show picture of cypress.
Apparently, a bird pooped a seed to the ground below the birdbath.
There might have been a few in Sardis who were like that seed. A tiny seed is all it takes. And for that remnant, there was the promise of verse 5:
The one who conquers will be clothed thus in white garments, and I will never blot his name out of the book of life. I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels.
What a beautiful promise that is. Here is our reality, from Isaiah 64:6:
We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.
But when we are in Christ, we are covered with his righteousness. That is a beautiful thing. When we wake up…when we watch…when we are in Christ, we will not fall prey to destruction. To put it another way, know what you believe, believe what you know, and stand out from the crowd.
And here's the promise. This is for all truly devoted followers of Jesus Christ. They will be clothed in white garments. What did white garments signify? Unstained. Unsullied. Washed and cleaned.
If they repent and return to Christ, they will share in his glory. In this world of sin and woe, that is a wonderful, beautiful, and lasting promise. We want to know of nothing else, than to share in the glory of Christ. Amen?
Finally, verse five connects directly with what Jesus said in Matthew 10:32:
So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven.
Let the truth of that promise wash over your sin-sick soul. Genuine faith in Christ means that we receive the immoveable, unshakeable promise of eternal life. As we are faithful to Christ, Christ is faithful to us. He will say to the Father, "That is one of mine. I have not lost a single one. He belongs to me. She belongs to me." What a beautiful moment that will be, when Jesus holds fast to us.
SOLI DEO GLORIA…
To the Glory of God Alone