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And to the angel of the church in Sardis write, These things says He who has the seven Spirits of God and the seven stars: I know your works, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead. Be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die, for I have not found your works perfect before God. Remember therefore how you have received and heard; hold fast and repent. Therefore if you will not watch, I will come upon you as a thief, and you will not know what hour I will come upon you. You have a few names even in Sardis who have not defiled their garments; and they shall walk with Me in white, for they are worthy. He who overcomes shall be clothed in white garments, and I will not blot out his name from the Book of Life; but 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. (Revelation 3:1–6).


We leave the lengthy letter to the Church of Thyatira and come to the letter to the Church of Sardis. In the previous four letters we saw a progression of conditions leading to a state of total apostasy. In each of those churches we found varying degrees of false doctrine and/or corrupt behavior. The Church of Sardis is quite different in that there is no false doctrine and there is nothing improper with its outward behavior. So, what is the problem? The Glorified Christ says to them, “you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead.” In other words, this church was nominally Christian; a condition we find all too rampant in our time.


About Sardis


Sardis is located about 40 miles east from Smyrna at the foot of Mount Tmolus. Sardis was once the capital of the Lydian kings and one of the most important cities in the Persian Empire. Today, the city is named Sart.

Sardis was advanced in the industrial arts during the early Lydian kingdom. Most important of its trades was the manufacture and dyeing of delicate woolen material and carpets. A stream called Pactolus ran through the city contained gold dust from Mount Tmolus. Metallurgists discovered the secrete of separating the gold from silver that produced the purist gold and silver ever known before. Sardis minted coins from the gold and silver making the city wealthy and famous as the inventor of modern currency.

Under the Roman Empire, Sardis became the seat of a proconsul, an official who acted on behalf of a consul, the highest elected political office of the Roman Republic (509–27 b.c.).

The city was important for three reasons: (1) Its military strength, (2) Its location on an important highway leading from the interior of Asia Minor to the Aegean Sea, and (3) It controlled the fertile Hermus valley at the foot of Mount Tmolus.


Outline of the letter


In verse 1 The Glorified Christ reveals Himself as He who has the seven Spirits of God and the seven stars. He lays the accusation that they are dead even though they have a name that they are alive.

In verses 2 and 3 He offers them the solution to their problem.

And in verses 4–6 He gives a promise to those that are faithful.


The Glorified Christ


The Glorified Christ presents Himself to the church as “He who has the seven Spirits of God and the seven stars.”

When the Apostle John saw the Glorified Christ in chapter one, he saw that Jesus held seven stars in His right hand. In verse 20 of that chapter, Jesus tells John that the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches.

In verse 4 of that chapter we see the opening greeting from the Trinity of which the Holy Spirit is called “the seven Spirits who are before His throne.” The symbolism is not that there are seven separate Spirits of God, but that the one Holy Spirit corresponds with each of the seven stars, which represent the ministry of His church.

If one accepts the concept of seven church ages, this suggests that Christ has a Spirit-called and led ministry in each of the church ages. Being that the number seven indicates completion or perfection as suggested by the seven days of creation, the symbolism in this letter suggests that Christ has a Spirit-called and led ministry throughout the gospel dispensation, whether or not it consists of seven church ages. The result is the same.

His appearance to the church at Sardis informs them that no matter how fallen a church might be or how desperate spiritual conditions may be, He is still retains control in spite of the efforts of men to defeat or overthrow His control.


Nominal Christianity


The Glorified Christ brings His accusation against the church in the later part of verse 1, “you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead”. As stated above, the charge against this church is that they are only nominally Christian. There is no spiritual life in this church except for just “a few names . . . who have not defiled their garments”.

Verse 4 tells us this church is not polluted with the doctrinal errors and practices of the Balaamites and Nicolaitans; their doctrine is sound and their religious practices are correct. Doctrine is very important for the Christian church. We must believe something and what we believe must be sound or correct doctrine according to the Word of God. A church may have its confession or doctrinal statement that conforms to the Word of God; it may baptize people and confirm them into their church; it may have its services which its people attend with regularity, but those things are not what make people Christians. Jesus taught that you must be born again, born of the Spirit. (John 3:6, 8). This church had lost sight of that truth, even though it may have been written in their doctrinal statement. It is the Holy Spirit that regenerates people, giving them spiritual life. Jesus tells this church it is dead; its ministering does not bring people spiritual life.

The Apostle Paul saw the beginnings of this kind of a problem at the church of Corinth. He wrote in 1 Corinthians 2:4–5,


And my speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith should not be in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.


Paul did not teach the Corinthians using the persuasive reasoning of human wisdom; yes, he used words, he had to because that is how people communicate. However, he did not use the kind of eloquence that would captivate and charm the minds of the people. He preached “Jesus Christ, and Him crucified”. (Verse 2). He concentrated on teaching the atonement in Christ, why people need it and how they can receive its benefit. In doing that, he was not relying on his speaking talents; he relied on the Holy Spirit, “in demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (Verse 4). As The Living Bible renders what Paul said, “I did this because I wanted your faith to stand firmly upon God, not on man’s great ideas”.

Jesus tells the Sardis church that He knows their works, but He says nothing about those works other than “you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead”. It appears this church was looking upon its works as proof of its Christianity, its spiritual life. In fact, it may be that the church was concentrating more on its works to win people than on preaching the gospel. Philip Mauro makes an interesting observation in his book Of Things Which Soon Must Come To Pass,


This Sardis-like condition is very prevalent in our own day. For there be many congregations that have the name of life in that they bear the Name of Him that liveth, and in that they have also the name in their respective communities of being a “live church”, because of their various activities, and of their numerous enterprises, both social and religious. But, in the eyes of Him whose Name they bear, those activities are but “dead works”, whereof they have need to “repent”, and from which their consciences need to be “purged” (Hebrews 9:14).[1]


If various activities and various enterprises both social and religious in churches were prevalent in 1933 when Mauro wrote his book, how much more is it so in our time? It is appropriate for a church to have Sunday school, young people’s ministry, and such as part of its overall ministry, but today it seems churches have expanded activities so much that those things have become the tail that wags the dog. It seems the church exists to support activities rather than to preach the gospel and bring people into a saving relationship with Jesus Christ.

The Glorified Christ admonishes this church, “Be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die”. Albert Barnes comments on what Jesus says here: “The true piety that still lives and lingers among you. Whatever there was of religion among them, it was of importance to strengthen it, that the love of the Saviour might not become wholly extinct”.

Activities and programs certainly can be helpful means of furthering the gospel, but they must not become an end in themselves. Jesus tells the church to “remember how you have received and heard”. Notice that He did not say WHAT you have received and heard, but HOW you have received and heard. He gives them a pointed reminder: hold fast and repent. You have your statement of faith in which you explain gospel salvation. Remember that you came to faith in Christ through repentance, not church suppers, the church baseball team, the ladies sewing circle, etc. Jesus does not command the church to stop the activities; He is commanding the church to get back to teaching the gospel and let God pour out a “demonstration of the Spirit and of power”.

While the apostasy of the other churches was bad, there is a real danger in the complacency of religious activity. We may say or brag on the following:

·        We commit our activities to God;

·        We are seeing new people come to church because of these activities;

·        It surely looks as if we are doing a great work for God.


But Jesus expresses His doubts about this church: “if you will not watch, I will come upon you as a thief”. Barnes captures the essence of what Jesus is saying:


The speaker evidently supposed that it was possible that they would not regard the warning; that they would presume that they would be safe if they refused to give heed to it, or that by mere inattention and indifference they might suffer the warning to pass by unheeded.


Jesus warns the church that He could come at any time. His statement sounds very much like 1 Thessalonians 5:2, “For you yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so comes as a thief in the night”. But Jesus is not necessarily speaking of the Second Coming at the end of time; He is speaking of a judicial coming, a time when He will pour out His judgment on nominal Christianity. Matthew Henry observes:


His judicial approach to a dead declining people will be surprising; their deadness will keep them in security, and, as it procures an angry visit from Christ to them, it will prevent their discerning it and preparing for it. Such a visit from Christ will be to their loss; he will come as a thief, to strip them of their remaining enjoyments and mercies, not by fraud, but in justice and righteousness, taking the forfeiture they have made of all to him.


So in spite of all their activities, those activities are worthless when they supersede the preaching of the cross.


A Few That Are Faithful


You have a few names even in Sardis who have not defiled their garments; and they shall walk with Me in white, for they are worthy. (Verse 4).


As with even the most apostate of the other churches, there are some in the environment of nominal Christianity that are worthy to walk in white with Christ. White garments appear elsewhere in the Revelation.

Revelation 6:11. “Then a white robe was given to each of them; and it was said to them that they should rest a little while longer, until both the number of their fellow servants and their brethren, who would be killed as they were, was completed”. This is written of those under the fifth seal that were slain and seen under the altar.

Revelation 9:7, 14, regarding those that have “come out of the great tribulation and washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb”.

Revelation 19:8. The marriage of the bride of Christ where she is “arrayed in fine linen, clean and bright”, which is here defined as the righteous acts of the saints.

Even in the ranks of the nominally Christian, there are those that have died to sin, been washed in the blood of Christ, and live righteous lives.


Christ’s Promise


The promise to the overcomers is given in verse 5, “He who overcomes shall be clothed in white garments, and I will not blot out his name from the Book of Life; but I will confess his name before My Father and before His angels”.

As a church we must overcome the tendency to emphasize activities at the expense of teaching the gospel. We might attract more people with activities than with the gospel, but our goal must be to reach out to those who will accept the gospel and be saved from sin; not just entertaining people in a religious environment.

We want people’s names inscribed in the Lamb’s book of life and we want for people to leave from this church into eternity where Christ will receive them in the presence of the Father and all the hosts of heaven.

Let us hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches; our mission is to teach the gospel, not to entertain people.


[1] Mauro, Philip,  Of Things Which Soon Must Come To Pass,  Wm. B. Eerdman’s Publishing Co.: Grand Rapids, MI,  1933,  pg. 116