Seven Letters to Seven Churches

Sardis – Dead Orthodoxy

Revelation 3:1-6

“1 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. 2 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. 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. 4 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. 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. 6 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches’”.

Context

The fifth letter from Jesus to the seven churches was to the ancient and historic city of Sardis. As one of the oldest cities of Asia Minor, the city lay along a highway that stretched from the Persian city of Susa, following a parallel course to the Tigris River, passing through Cappadocia in Asia Minor to Sardis. Located in the Hermus Valley on the banks of a southern tributary, Sardis was about 48 kilometres south of Thyatira and about 72 kilometres east of Smyrna.

Map of the Royal Road from Susa to Sardis

Because the city was built in a mountainous region it was a natural citadel. The Acropolis was built about 500 metres above the plain, on a ridge of the 1768-metre-high Mount Tmolus. The precipice was difficult to reach and was considered unassailable by an enemy, while the lower city was more accessible.

Sardis had become famous for their abilities in arts and crafts. They made lavish use of the local brightly coloured and semi-precious stones such as fire opal and banded agate. The Sardians also had a process in which they used blue chalcedony that they mined nearby. Their jewellery was renown throughout the Empire. Some historians claim that Sardis was the first city to mint gold and silver coins. The nearby mountains were dotted with gold mines (possibly why the mythological figure of King Midas had his home in this region), thus making the city the monetary capital of Lydia.

Fire opal
Banded agate

The patron deity of Sardis was the mother goddess Cybele, who was seen as the goddess of all life. The cult of Cybele worship started as a form of animism, with Cybele being worshipped as a Nature-goddess, over time she came to be viewed as the mother of all gods. Because of the worship of Cybele through temple prostitutes, the city had a reputation that led to contempt even among the pagans, for being slack, pleasure seeking, luxury loving and loose living – Sardis was a city of decadence. The most splendid temple in Sardis was the one devoted to Artemis (Diana), which is seen by historians as being a natural progression from the worship of Cybele. Sardis was the capital of the Lydian Empire and was still an important city during the time of the Roman Empire.

The acropolis at Sardis

The Lydian Kingdom ruled by King Croesus, fell to the westward Persian expansion of King Cyrus in 546 BC. Herodotus records the shock of the Lydian defeat, as they considered the city impregnable. According to the ancient historian, the Persian forces were in the valley below the citadel, when a Lydian soldier dropped his helmet over the city wall. His movements down the rock face to retrieve it was observed by a local slave. Later when the slave was captured by the Persians, he revealed the cities vulnerability. The soldiers used the information to capture the city for Cyrus, and King Croesus was taken prisoner.

Being at the Western end of the Susa Road, Sardis became the most important Persian city in Asia Minor. With the decline of the Persian empire, and their defeat by the advancing Greeks at Granicus, the city surrendered willingly to Alexander the Great in 334 BC. Sardis, after the death of Alexander, eventually became the Western administrative centre for the Seleucid Dynasty. One notable battle of the period was in 214 BC, when the city fell to Antiochus III the Great through the use of the tactics employed by the Persians more than three centuries earlier. Sardis came under Pergamum rule from 189 to 133 BC, and was passed into the hands of the Romans upon the death of Attalus III. Under Roman rule the city flourished until it was devastated by the great earthquake in AD 17 (called by Eusebius the greatest earthquake in human memory). Emperor Tiberias assisted in the rebuilding of the city. Some scholars feel that because of this great indebtedness to Tiberius, the city gave itself to the cult of emperor-worship, largely abandoning its historic love affair with the Cybele cult.

Description of Jesus

“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’ (Rev. 3:1a).

As the number seven symbolises completeness and perfection, the description Jesus gives of Himself as the one who has “the seven spirits of God,” refers to the seven-fold Spirit, meaning the complete, or perfect Spirit of God. Which points to the omnipresent, omniscient nature of God the Holy Spirit. The significance is that Jesus says that He has the Spirit; unfortunately, it appears that He did not see any evidence that the church of Sardis had the Spirit. The ministry of the Holy Spirit to empower, teach, guide, and equip believers for Christian living was tragically missing from the church of Sardis. The Holy Spirit was not totally absent from the church, but the “dead church” label was a strong indicator for its need of the guiding and empowering ministry of the Holy Spirit.

Revelation 1:20 informs us that the seven stars were seven “angels of the seven churches”. As angel means “messenger,” it is most likely the elders of the church that God is requiring to pass on the information contained in the letters to their respective churches. When the people of a church are “dead,” spiritually, God holds the elder accountable. The lead elder needs to preach and demonstrate the absolute necessity of walking in the Spirit, and the work of the Spirit is to point the way to a greater knowledge and understanding of Jesus – the Word of God.

What Jesus Knows and Rebuke

“‘I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead” (Rev. 3:1b).

Jesus quickly and clearly condemns the lifeless state of the church of Sardis as being dead. This church may have had a good reputation, but they were spiritually lifeless. The church was filled with unsaved people going through the motions of religion, believing that being a member of the church and taking part in the traditions of the church ensured their salvation. There were many “tares among the wheat” (Matthew 13:24-30), resulting in the slow death of the church. There is nothing sadder to watch than people going through the routine of “church,” performing the rituals but having no relationship with Jesus and no real understanding – they are lost!

This church had a lot in common with the Pharisees, on the outside the church looked lovely – newly whitewashed tombs – but on the inside it was full of dead men’s bones.

Satan’s plan – Stage 4

The slow poison of compromise has resulted in the death of the church. The church is like a zombie, that goes through the motions of being alive, running programs and keeping tradition, but they are spiritually dead. There are a few true believers in this church, but they have no support, there is no foundation to their faith, there is no platform for the gifts of the Holy Spirit to operate, these believers are not even taught about baptism of the Holy Spirit and ministering using the gifts. A dead church no longer focuses on salvation, but turns to worldly matter within their society, for example, they teach the social gospel, with the goal of ending poverty, rather than the spread of the Gospel message.

Counsel and Warning

“2  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. 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” (Rev.3:2-3).

The command by Jesus for the church to “wake up,” requires the Sardian church to start paying attention to their need of salvation. The church is in a state of spiritual stupor, they stager from church tradition to church tradition, but the spiritual heart of the church dead. The energizing power of the Holy Spirit is gone, the church is “Ichabod” (the Spirit of the Lord has departed).

Man’s wisdom, and worldliness in a church is like a London fog; it clouds the thoughts and dims the light of God consciousness – and Sardis has only a very dim glimmer of light which is insufficient for revealing the “narrow way”. The message from Jesus is an attempt to stir up the wind of the Holy Spirit, to blow away the dense clouds of man’s traditions. The focus from Jesus is always toward being eternally minded, and for believers to not lose their focus on Him. There is a difficult task for a church that is drifting off to sleep, with only a burnt down candle in its last flickers of light before it dies out completely. 

The warning Jesus gives in the letter to the church of Sardis is very similar to the parable of the 10 virgins. The obvious conclusion is that when Jesus comes as a thief in the night only those that have accepted Jesus as Lord and Saviour – the Bride of Christ – will be taken in the rapture, to meet the Lord in the air. So, the judgement from Jesus, for not repenting, would be that the end of age Sardis churches will go through the seven years of tribulation. The statement that they will not know “what time [Jesus] will come to [them]” means that as they are a “dead” church, they will be left behind. After the rapture there will still be churches operating and sermons being read from pulpits. The correction that these dead churches will go through, will be the trial and testing of the great hardships within the seven years of the Tribulation.

Commendation

Yet you have still a few names in Sardis, people who have not soiled their garments (Rev. 3:4a)

There is very little in the church of Sardis that can be commended. Jesus refers to the few in the church that had not soiled themselves with worldliness. The Church at Sardis had fed at the pig’s trough of man’s wisdom and compromise with the world, soiling themselves. In their short sightedness they fail to see the richness in the life devoted to Jesus, they have temporal minds, focused on the here and now, and what the world can provide for them. True believers have an eternal mind set, and understand that life on earth requires the development of a relationship with our Lord, and that there are eternal consequences. Worldly Christians live their lives for the moment, they serve themselves and not the Lord, therefore their short sightedness will deprive them of a Kingdom reward – they will take a handful of ash with them into the Kingdom (1 Corinthians 3:12-14).

Promise

“4 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. 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. 6 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Rev 3:4-6).

The only words of encouragement Jesus has, is for the few faithful believers in the church, and it is a wonderful threefold promise that relates to eternal salvation:

  • The first promise is that the overcomer will walk with Jesus in white, which symbolises the spotless and righteous character given to those that believe (Rom. 4:4-8). Revelation 4:4 reveals that 24 elders are seated before the throne of God on thrones, dressed in white and wearing crowns – the throne, the crown and the white garments are all promises from Jesus to His faithful Church in heaven.
  • The second promise to the believers of Sardis is that their name will remain in the Book of Life. This Book contains the names of all the individuals ever born. If a person by the end of their life, has not received the Lord Jesus as Lord and Saviour, their name will be blotted out of the Book of Life. The Book of Life is one of the books referred to as being present during the White Throne Judgement in Revelation 20:12. The other two books are the Bible, and the book that has recorded the individual’s life. At the White Throne judgement, the Book of Life is open to show that the name of the person is not there. The fact that the name of the unsaved person remains in the book until they die, is an indication that God wants all to be saved.
  • Thirdly, Jesus promises to declare the overcomer’s victory before the Father and His angels. Jesus in Luke 12:8-9 confirms this promise, saying that whoever confesses their relationship with Jesus, will have their name confessed by Jesus before the Father.

The Sardis Age
Prophetic application: The Reformation 1517 – 1750

The prophetic time period of the church of Sardis covers the Reformation era, and the rise of Protestantism.

 During this period of history, the Church was reformed, but not revived! The Reformation did bring some life to Christianity, with the belief of justification by faith and the rejection of salvation by works. However, the efforts of men like Luther and Zwingli did not go anywhere far enough, the protestant movement was still mired in the pomp and ceremony of man’s traditions, which meant there was little evidence of the work of the Holy Spirit. A major flaw in the Reformation was that they held onto the anti-Semitic doctrine of Replacement Theology (the Church is the New Israel), and as a result Scripture continued to be viewed from a Greek philosophical bias. Complacency and a new legalism set in, which resulted in the incomplete separation from the Roman Church. Evidence of this may be seen today, as the Reformation churches (Lutheran, Presbyterian, Anglican etc.) have become the back bone of the Ecumenical Church, which is moving towards a unification with the Roman Catholic Church. Because the separation did not go far enough, they are being pulled back. When Jesus returns like a thief in the night for His Bride, it will be many of these dead Ecumenical Churches that remain during the Tribulation.

Council of Trent

The Roman Catholic Council of Trent, was held between 1545 and 1563 in Trent, or Trento, in northern Italy. The council was prompted by the Protestant Reformation, it was the first Catholic council established to ratify and confirm the practices of the Catholic Church.

The reformation had stated Sola scriptura – scripture alone is the infallible rule of faith. Man is saved by Grace and Grace alone not tradition. The Catholic Church held the stance that both scripture and tradition were required, and that tradition is the context in which the word must be evaluated – this places man above God’s Word. Man determines how the Bible should be read, so the Church determines what is right and wrong for mankind, not the Word.

While the council made the decision to dispense with the selling of indulgences, it did not change their stance on Scripture and tradition. The reason being that Rome was able to prove that the Reformation still held onto tradition, which implied tradition superseded the Word. The Reformers did not go far enough in rejecting Catholic traditions, so the opportunity to cleanse the Church of man’s wisdom was lost – a great tragedy.

Theological liberalism

The effects of man’s wisdom on the Reformation Church can be seen in the influence of theological liberalism. Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), revolutionized human thinking saying – “Reason can comprehend anything within the phenomenal realm, or the realm of space and time. Beyond space and time reason is useless. Our knowledge is constrained to mathematics and the science of the natural, empirical world”. Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834), based his biblical interpretations on Kant’s philosophy, stating that the core of Christian faith is not any historical event such as the resurrection of Jesus, it is instead, “a feeling of one’s absolute dependence on a reality beyond oneself; such awareness could lead a person to imitate Jesus’ good deeds. The true nature of religion is, immediate consciousness of the deity as found in ourselves and in the world”. This vision of God stood closer to an impersonal “force” than the God of the Bible. God is taken out of the picture and becomes a distant deistic God. A God who observes but does not take part in the ways of man. The Bible then is a book written by men of their experiences and can be used as a moral guide.

The influence of theological liberalism in the Church has opened the door for a flood of false doctrines to enter the “Church” such as:

  • Ecumenicalism, driven by pluralism the Ecumenical Church believes in tolerance and acceptance, opening its arms wide to accept all beliefs. The tolerance extends not only to all “Christian” denominations no matter what doctrines they may believe, but also to other religions. An example is the “Chrislam” Churches that blend the two monotheistic faiths Christianity and Islam into one. The extremes of this ideology hold that even atheists will go to heaven, the reasoning being that God is Love and atheists will love others, so they therefore have God in them.
  • Post-modernism, where experience is valued more highly than reason, truth then becomes relative.
  • Neo-orthodoxy, The Bible only “becomes” the Word of God when God uses its words to point someone to Christ.
  • The Social Gospel, where the responsibility of the Church is not evangelism, but rather to eradicate poverty; only when there are no more poor people on earth will Jesus make His return.
  • Prosperity Theology, where the will of God for His Church is that they have financial blessing and physical well-being, which can be attained through faith, positive confession, and donations to the prosperity preacher. The root of the faith is that God, just as the pagans were able to do, is able to be manipulated into fulfilling the desires of the believer.

Summary

Summary TopicSardis 3:1-6
Period describedThe Reformation 1517 – 1750
OpeningTo the angel of the church . . . write
Description of ChristHolds 7 spirits and 7 stars
What Jesus knowsTheir works
Rebuke“You are dead”, imperfect works
CounselWake up (watch), strengthen the remainder
WarningI will come as thief if you do not watch
CommendationHave a few names undefiled
What you haveA name as alive, but dead (Vs 1b, see “Rebuke”)
PromiseClothed in white, name in book of life
Other promisesName confessed before the Farther
ClosingListen to what the Spirit says to the churches

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