To the Church at Sardis
Sardis was the capital of the ancient kingdom of Lydia. The city was virtually impregnable by nature of its physical location. It stood some 1,500 feet above the Hermus valley as a sort of watchtower, with only one viable approach to the city from the southern side up what would have been a winding road.
The city itself was set atop a plateau, which was guarded on three sides by rocks which jetted up above the cityscape almost perpendicular to the ground. The affect was that the city was unable to be approached from any side save the southern slope, itself a difficult and steeply graded road.
The name “Sardis” is actually a plural noun, indicating not one city but two. That is because after a little while the kingdom had expanded and gotten to the point where more room was necessary. So a second city set off a bit down the southern slop from the northern old city.
The kingdom of Lydia was an ancient kingdom that embodied the great Asian (some term “oriental” – though the term is sort of funny to use today given the expansion of the Asian race into much further eastern regions) kingdoms that were continually arrayed in battle against the great western kingdoms of Greece (and perhaps Macedonia?).
Sardis was eventually embroiled in a battle with one of the greatest figures in ancient history: Cyrus the Great. “The reign of Cyrus the Great lasted between 29 and 31 years. Cyrus built his empire by conquering first the Median Empire, then the Lydian Empire and eventually the Neo-Babylonian Empire.”[i]
Though the city was virtually impregnable, Cyrus was able to conquer it. For – like the Medes/Persians would do several years later to the Babylonians (see Daniel 5) – it seems that by night they skillfully climbed the protruding rocks on each side of the city, and lowered themselves down, allowing them to take the city almost by surprise. Only in the instance of the former, history has it that Darius’ army actually went under the city by damming up a water culvert and going through the underground waterway.
About the siege of Sardis, William Ramsay says, “The armies of Lydia were being massed to crush the insolent invader, who should be ground between the perpendicular rocks of the acropolis and the gathering Lydian hosts. Such was the calculation of Croesus (the king of Sardis), when he retired one evening to rest: he was wakened to find that the enemy was master of the acropolis and that all was lost…He came up on the great city ‘like a thief in the night.’”[ii]
Indeed the city was full of prideful people, and they had been conquered and would be conquered again around 200 BC. But, as Hendriksen notes, “When the Apocalypse was written, Sardis was facing decay, a slow but sure death. In the year AD 17 the city was partly destroyed by an earthquake. Thus, again and again, the self-satisfied and boastful inhabitants of Sardis had seen destruction coming upon them ‘as a thief in the night’, most suddenly and unexpectedly.”[iii]
It occurred to me last night as I was studying and thinking on these letters to the churches, that so many of the Bible’s great themes come to consummation in the book of Revelation, and many of them are central to the letters to the churches. Biblical Theologians have talked for years about if its possible to find the very center theme of the Bible, and if so, what is that theme? There is this underlying assumption that it is Christ Himself, but that there might be more than simply the person of Christ – in other words it might be appropriate to say that there are several big themes to Scripture. Such themes would be: Covenant, Kingdom, the Promise(s) of God, redemption/sacrifice/salvation, and so forth.
When we examine these letters we see these same themes echoed in their words:
- Christ – the central figure who is described in various ways.
- Covenant – the effects of the New Covenant and its underlying realities which enable Christ to fairly issue imperatives knowing His people can actually obey them.
- Kingdom – In chapter one we learn that He has made us a “kingdom” and we are called constantly to “conquer.” In fact kingdom language pervades the book as Jesus is magnified as the great King.
- Salvation/Redemption – The consummation of the salvation of God’s people is described in vivid detail, and in the letter to the churches specifically His people are called to endure and hold fast to their salvation until He comes again.
The point being that many of the Bible’s greatest story lines come to a confluence here in these letters and this book. This exhibits both the unity and the diversity of Scripture, and of this book specifically. It is not a book on an island alone and secluded from the rest of the Bible. In fact, as we’ll see in our study of Sardis, its unity with the rest of Scripture is plain. Yet, like the rest of Scripture, there is great diversity. There are many divers themes and elements that we must take in as readers.
3:1a “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.
Jesus begins his letter to the church at Sardis by describing himself in two ways. First, He is the one who “has the seven spirits of God” and second, He is the one who has “the seven stars.”
Earlier we learned that the seven stars are the seven angels. And in our examination of chapter one we noted that this could mean a number of different things, we hear a lot of commentators say the stars/angels are the ministers of the church. We found that there are some difficulties with this interpretation, however, and G.K. Beale made the point that in the context of the book and the passage – especially in light of John’s use of Daniel – it might make sense that these stars/angels represented the church’s heavenly or spiritual dimension. The church’s earthy dimension was represented by the candles or torches, and the heavenly by the “stars.”
You might recall our interpretation of this was aided by an understanding that Jewish scholars who read Zechariah and Daniel seemed to understand stars and candles as representative of the people of God.
Now, as for the “seven spirits”, we read about these earlier as well. In fact this was one of the first examples we had of how John uses numbers to communicate a truth or idea. In this case, the seven spirits likely represent the fullness, or completeness, or the Holy Spirit of God. That Jesus is said here to have the seven Spirits therefore must mean that He is the bestower of the Spirit. He is the one who sends forth the Spirit. For as we read in John’s gospel, Jesus’ own words about the Spirit are thus:
Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you. (John 16:7)
Therefore, Jesus reminds the church that He is sovereign over the church – remember He holds the stars in His hand – and that He is the creator of the church – for is the Spirit of God who sovereignly brings sheep into our Lord’s fold. It is the Spirit of God who, in His perfect knowledge and according to the Father’s perfect plan, chooses whom He will soften and call to everlasting life, thus creating the church, forming her according to His own sovereign pleasure.
1:1b-2 “‘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.
Christ’s charge here against the church at Sardis is really horrific. I say that because He is calling them out for being fraudulent followers at the very worst, and at minimum that they have been working works in the flesh. Works that make them look great in the sight of the world, but in the eyes of the one whose eyes are a “flame of fire”, they are found to be worthless.
This is why in previous passages Jesus describes his eyes as a flame of fire – because they devour all the falsehoods that we erect around our lives. They consume the dross of our works until all that is left is what has been wrought in the Spirit of God.
There is obviously a warning here for us as well. It is easy to implement programs that help the poor and the weak. Easier still is it to build large churches and draw in thousands of people with fancy music and slick teaching – and forget the gospel altogether. How quickly man is able to erect an edifice to self-help and easy believism – where lives are touched every week, and people are fired up about God’s love for every man…and no one is every saved.
This is what it means to not have your “works complete in the sight of my God.”
When something is not complete, it’s missing something. It’s lacking something – and that something here seems to be a rather big deal, wouldn’t you say?
Enough of a big deal is this missing component, that Jesus calls them out for being “dead.” You have a reputation for being alive, but guys, “you’re dead.” Like I said, at the very worst they are unsaved people preaching a false gospel, and at the very least they’re doing works in their own flesh without giving glory to God, or relying on His wisdom and His power.
Which leads to the following…
1:3 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.
Now, I happen to think this message is really a lot more harsh than simply those walking in their own power but truly belonging to Christ. The reason is that here Jesus says that he has a remnant left in this church. “A few names” who have not “soiled their garments” and it is those people who will “walk with (Jesus) in white, for they are worthy.”
Let’s put two and two together here. If we know our NT doctrine, we know that our worthiness comes from Christ and Christ alone. Therefore those who are worthy, those who are going to walk with Jesus in white, are those who have been cleansed by the blood of the lamb – those for whom Jesus died.
John describes this group later in chapter six:
When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne.  They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?”  Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been. (Revelation 6:9-11)
And then again in chapter seven:
Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?”  I said to him, “Sir, you know.” And he said to me, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. (Revelation 7:13-14)
In chapter 7 this is talking in the immediately context of the 144,000. And its no coincidence that the images are all the same. Because all who walk with Christ in white are His elect – those who have been born again. The 144,000 group is something we’ll study later, but I believe it speaks of the church – or more precisely, all the elect of God throughout all history. Those who have had their garments cleansed by the blood of Jesus and now walk in white.
Beale notes that putting on this white garment probably starts now, “The reward probably begins in this life, because (i) verse 4 pictures the faithful already wearing pure garments; (ii) Christ exhorts the saints in 3:18 to buy white garments; and (iii) 16:15 refers to those who keep their garments in order not to be naked.”[iv]
Putting this altogether now, Jesus is saying there is still a remnant within your church that are actually mine. There is still a small group of true believers. Your organization has been built up in the community as having this great reputation, but I know you, says Jesus, I know you’re really dead.
Then Jesus does what no one seems to want to do today – He calls on them to repent.
In the famous movie Lawrence of Arabia, Prince Faisal tells T.E. Lawrence how much he longs for Damascus and its beauty. The dialogue goes like this:
Feisal: In the Arab city of Cordova, there were two miles of public lighting in the streets when London was a village…
Lawrence: Yes, you were great.
Feisal: …nine centuries ago…
Lawrence: Time to be great again, my Lord.
Feisal: …which is why my father made this war upon the Turks. My father, Mr. Lawrence, not the English. Now my father is old. And I, I long for the vanished gardens of Cordova. However, before the gardens must come fighting.
“Before the gardens must come the fighting.” And that is what I’m getting at here. Before inheriting glory, we must repent and obey. We must meet God on His terms, not build religious edifices on our terms. We do not get to dictate how the church will look, for the church is Christ’s bride, and she will be fashioned as He wills – not how we will. For we are the clay. The clay does not successfully and independently build a church apart from the work of the Potter.
3:5-6 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.’
Here is perhaps the death knell to all those who say salvation can be lost. To my Nazarene friends listen to the words of Jesus: I will never blot his name out of the book of life.
But – they protest – this is done by conquering! We must conquer. And that means that if one is sinning, or falling prey to the weakness of the flesh, they are not conquering but losing their salvation. Such is the reply from my Arminian friends.
And what is the reply? The Bible gives it three-fold: 1. The Christ is actually strongest in our weakness, therefore He allows sin and trials in order that His power be magnified, 2. (which is closely related to 1) Christ gives us the Holy Spirit in order to have the ability and freedom not to sin. This is only true of believers. And 3. The Bible clearly states that those whose names were written in the book of life have been so from before time began – and it is a doctrine seen throughout the entirety of Scripture.
- Christ who is the one with the actual power to conquer. We are simply his instruments. In fact, it is in our greatest weakness that He is strongest, for as Paul says:
So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited.  Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me.  But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.  For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:7-10)
In other words, the one who conquers does so while leaning on the Lord for His power and His grace.
- Furthermore, in an ultimate sense, conquering is also a finished work for those who are in Christ Jesus. Therefore not only has the ultimate battle been won already, the power to conquer sin in this life has been given to us because we have been freed from the chains of sin. Sin is no longer our master – we can conquer now where we didn’t even want to conquer before.
For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.  We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin.  For one who has died has been set free from sin.  Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.  We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him.  For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God.  So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. (Romans 6:5-11)
- Lastly, believer’s names have been written in the book of life from before the foundation of the world, and this is the testimony across scripture.
Later in Revelation we read this:
Speaking of the great evil Beast, John writes, “and all who dwell on earth will worship it, everyone whose name has not been written before the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who was slain” (Revelation 13:8).
And in chapter 17…
The beast that you saw was, and is not, and is about to rise from the bottomless pit and go to destruction. And the dwellers on earth whose names have not been written in the book of life from the foundation of the world will marvel to see the beast, because it was and is not and is to come. (Revelation 17:8)
The foundation for these passages comes from Daniel:
“As I looked, thrones were placed, and the Ancient of Days took his seat; his clothing was white as snow, and the hair of his head like pure wool; his throne was fiery flames; its wheels were burning fire.  A stream of fire issued and came out from before him; a thousand thousands served him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him; the court sat in judgment, and the books were opened. (Daniel 7:9-10)
“At that time shall arise Michael, the great prince who has charge of your people. And there shall be a time of trouble, such as never has been since there was a nation till that time. But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone whose name shall be found written in the book.  And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.  And those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky above; and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever. (Daniel 12:1-3)
Therefore God has chosen whom He will save from before the foundation of the world.
Nor is this a doctrine unique to prophetic or apocalyptic literature. For those whose faith is in God will never be put to shame, they will be with Him for eternity. Consider the following passages:
Kings shall be your foster fathers, and their queens your nursing mothers. With their faces to the ground they shall bow down to you, and lick the dust of your feet. Then you will know that I am the LORD; those who wait for me shall not be put to shame.” (Isaiah 49:23)
And as he is describing the new covenant people who will be filled with the Spirit, Joel says this:
“You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, and praise the name of the LORD your God, who has dealt wondrously with you. And my people shall never again be put to shame.  You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I am the LORD your God and there is none else. And my people shall never again be put to shame. (Joel 2:26-27)
Paul then takes these passages and says this:
For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.  For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.”  For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him.  For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Romans 10:10-13 ESV)
And all those who are saved will never be separated from the Lord:
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?  As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” (Romans 8:35-36 ESV)
And then – get this!! – he concludes…
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.  For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers,  nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:37-39)
Thus it has always been that those who conquer do so in the power of Jesus, because of their mystical union to Jesus, and will be preserved by Jesus to walk with Him in white forevermore.
[ii] Ramsay, Pg.’s 359, 361.
[iii] Hendriksen, Pg. 73. He really leans heavily on Ramsay (as do so many commentators looking at the ancient geographic and cultural landscape), but I quote him here because he does a good job of summing up the thought, whereas Ramsay devotes two lengthy chapters to each city/letter which are somewhat difficult to distill at times.
[iv] Beale, Shorter Commentary, Pg. 80.