We have finished Revelation chapter 2 and we have looked at the letters to the church at Ephesus, the church at Smyrna, the church at Pergamum, and last week we covered the letter to the church at Thyatira. Today we start the first of the 3 letters found in Revelation chapter 3. We’ll be looking at Revelation 3:1-6 and the letter to the church at Sardis.
So let’s look at Revelation 3:1-6, what the city of Sardis was like, and what a 2,000 year old letter might have to say to us gathered together here halfway around the world in a radically different context. And we’ll find out that what the church at Sardis struggled with, is still with us and is still something that, if we are truly honest, we all struggle with.
Revelation 3:1-6 says, “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. Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have found your deeds unfinished in the sight of my God. Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; hold it fast, 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. Yet 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. The one who is victorious will, like them, be dressed in white. I will never blot out the name of that person from the book of life, but will acknowledge that name before my Father and his angels. Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”
One of the things that I have been noticing about each and every letter that we have looked at is the radically contextual nature of each letter. Each letter that is written has images, words, phrases, etc.. that the recipients of the letter would understand and relate to the context of each city. Sardis and the letter to the church at Sardis is no different. So let’s look together at the history as well as the context of the city of Sardis and see how they influence the letter to the church.
The city of Sardis was situated at a junction of 5 different trade roads. Their location on this junction led to the fact that Sardis was a city known for its commerce and trade. These things led to Sardis being a very active and very wealthy city. The city of Sardis was situated on a hill and was thought to be impregnable. It was thought to be secure. They were so secure in this “fact” that they became lax in their “defense” of the city. They fell asleep, if you will, in relation to the protection of the city. This led to the capture of the city twice. In 549 Cyrus of Persia (who is found in various Biblical narratives) took the city. And in 218 Antiochus the great conquered it. In both instances a soldier climb the hill at night and to a place where they didn’t place a guard because they believed that part of the city was impregnable. They fell because a soldier came like a thief in the night. They had fallen asleep and they were captured.
Knowing this history now, history that everyone in Sardis would have known and been taught, let’s see how that played into the letter to the church.
In verse 1 we read the words that describe the risen Christ as who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars.” This, as I have mentioned before, is a picture of the Risen Christ drawn from the first chapter of Revelation. And in this case it is drawn from Revelation 1:16 where the Risen Jesus is pictured as one who is holding the seven stars. The 7 Spirits of God may refer to the Holy Spirit while the 7 stars are the angels of the churches.
In the second half of verse 1 through verse 3 is different than the other letters in that it actually starts not with what the church at Sardis should be praised for but what they should be criticized for. In verses 1-3 we read, “I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have found your deeds unfinished in the sight of my God. Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; hold it fast, 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.”
This criticism no doubt pointed the hearers of this letter right to their history of being taken over by attackers because they had fallen asleep. This would have come home with particular force because of their history of being captured twice. Their reputation around the region was one of being an alive, happening, and a church with lots going for it. But in reality it was a truly dead church. The reputation didn’t match with reality. But they had gone to sleep on their reputation and needed to wake up. Jesus through John charges them with 2 main criticisms…that there works had not been found to be complete, meaning their lives left much to be desired. And secondly the community was spiritual lazy if not dead outright. And if it were to continue, Jesus would come like a thief in the night.
Now this statement that Jesus would come like a thief in the night might sound familiar and is used by Jesus to describe his second coming. But in this letter, John is not referring to his second coming. He again is not doubt making reference to how the city had fallen asleep centuries before and were overtaken by people coming over the wall at night, like a thief in the night. Christ comes in many ways and this is clearly limited to coming in judgment on unrepentant sinners.
So one of the obvious questions for you and I right now is this…have we fallen asleep when it comes to following Jesus? Have we become lax in our spiritual disciplines? Have we got lax when it comes to blessing others? Lax in growing deeper in our journey with Jesus? Lax in sharing life together as followers of Jesus? If so, Jesus has the same words to us as he had for the church at Sardis. Wake up. Strengthen what remains. Repent and Return. Wake Up church!
Now not everyone in the church at Sardis was asleep at the wheel. There were a few people who were still awake, still fighting the good fight, still following Jesus and hadn’t become lax in their lives. We read about them in verse 4 which says, “Yet 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.” These few people in Sardis didn’t soil their clothes. Their reputation, their life, and their faith wasn’t compromised and lax. This idea of not having soiled garments is possibly a reference to inscriptions found in Asia Minor that stated that dirty clothing was held to dishonor the deity so that those who were dirty garments were debarred from worshipping. But those whose garments were pure would walk with Jesus dressed in white. This reference no doubt to triumphal processions of rulers who came back as conquering heroes, where people wore white robes. This triumphal procession points to the victory of Jesus. That Jesus through this life, death and resurrection is victorious over sin, death, evil and hell. That Jesus is victorious over the powers which hold mankind in bondage. And that all of us, if we follow him, and stay vigilant in our discipleship we will wear white robes and be victorious over the same things, not through our own power but by Jesus.
And so in that victory, the victory of Jesus, not only will the followers of Jesus be wearing white, a symbol not only of purity, and undefilement, but also a picture of justification, they will also be walking with the victor, who will also be dressed in a white. A beautiful picture of the presence of Jesus in the midst of our own lives. That as we walk this life, awake to the things of Jesus, and asleep to the things of this world, that Jesus will be walking with us. We aren’t alone. We are walking in white with the victorious one.
And when we walk with the victorious one, who has defeated the powers of sin, death and evil, and awake to life in the Kingdom of God, Jesus makes a promise to us. His promise, found in verse 5, “I will never blot out the name of that person from the book of life, but will acknowledge that name before my Father and his angels.” This is a reference that appears elsewhere in Revelation (Rev. 13:8, 17:8, 20:12, 15,21,27) that also mentions this book of life, elsewhere called the Lambs Book of Life. It is helpful to know that in Greek cities they had official registries of all citizens. Some places kept the grim custom that when a citizen was to be condemned to death that their name would be blotted out of the book so as to not even show that they had even existed. But here Jesus, speaking on our behalf to God the Father, claiming us as his own, is saying that we, through him, are citizens of the Kingdom of God. That because we are alive and awake to his Kingdom that we won’t be condemned and then blotted out of the Book of Life. That Jesus is acknowledging us before the Father much like it says in Luke 12:8, “I tell you, whoever publicly acknowledges me before others, the Son of Man will also acknowledge before the angels of God.” And what a beautiful picture that is. Being acknowledged by Jesus as his own, as one who has the identity of Jesus within them, and to be vouched for, so to speak by Jesus when it comes to God the Father, and his Kingdom.
And so what about us? What message does Jesus have to say to us through this letter to the church at Sardis, many of whom had fallen asleep and become lax in their life with Jesus? How have we fallen asleep at the wheel? Where in your life do you need to wake up? In what ways have you been lax in the areas of blessing others, growing deeper in your journey with Jesus, and in sharing life? Let’s unpack these questions together and see how we might wake up, repent, and become alive to the ways of Jesus and his Kingdom.
1. What thoughts, comments, insights, questions, application, push back, etc.. do you have regarding the Scripture and/our the message?
2. How have you fallen asleep or gotten lax in your following of Jesus? In what area (Blessing the World, Growing Deeper in your journey with Jesus, Sharing Life) do you need to wake up?
3. What is God saying to you and what are you going to do about it? What is God saying to us and what should we do about it?