From Death to Life (Rev. 3:1-6)
Dennis Johnson describes Sardis as “a city with a golden past and misplaced security.” Long before the apostle John wrote this epistle to the church there, it had been the throne of Croesus, famous for his wealth, and before him legend has it that it had been ruled by King Midas with the golden touch. It had been the capitol of the ancient kingdom of Lydia and after that a center for Persian government. But even though, after suffering an earthquake in A.D. 17, it had been rebuilt through the generosity of the emperor Tiberius, Sardis never regained the splendor of its golden past.
Sardis was situated in such a way that it was surrounded on three sides by sheer cliffs, descending about 1500 feet to the valley below. The only side the city was accessible from was the south. This side was well guarded and protected and watched; because it was impossible for an army to climb the cliffs on the other sides of the city, the defenders didn’t bother to place too many guards there.
That is, until it wasn’t impossible. In 546 B.C., Sardis fell to the Persian army under Cyrus. According to Herodotus, on the fourteenth day of the siege, a few Persian troops were able to scale the heights and let the army in (and ending the reign of Croesus). But the city didn’t learn its lesson, apparently, for it fell in almost exactly the same way to Antiochus the Great’s army in 216 B.C. It was indeed a city with “misplaced security” resulting in a failure to watch and be on guard against the enemy.
The church in Sardis in many ways mimicked the history of the city. It too had a glorious past, probably established in connection with the ministry of the apostle Paul in that area. It had a great reputation that obscured its waning spirituality. In fact, according to our Lord, it was dead (1). It too had a problem with presumption. Like the army at Sardis, the church was asleep, in a state of spiritual unconsciousness. And our Lord warns them that unless they wake up, the church will meet a similar fate as the city did from the armies of Cyrus and Antiochus.
To understand how bad things had become, just compare how our Lord addresses this church with the other churches. He doesn’t spend any time at the beginning commending the church, as he had done for Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, and Thyatira. Usually, when our Lord says, “I know your works,” what follows are commendable things. What follows here is, “I know thy works, that thou hast a name that thou livest and art dead” (3:1). That’s not commendable! In other words, there doesn’t seem to be much to like about this church.
And though our Lord does mention in verse 4 that the church did have “a few names even in Sardis which have not defiled their garments,” the way he says this indicated they were definitely in the minority. Whereas the previous two churches were a mix of good and bad, it seems that in their case the good in both was predominant. No so in Sardis. Death is the norm, life the exception.
I think of all the warnings to the churches, this one is the most shocking. It’s not just that the church was dead. That is bad enough, as bad or worse than being accused of having left your first love (cf. 2:4). I think that is even as bad as making the Lord want to vomit (3:16). But what is most shocking is the fact that despite they were in such a bad condition, they did not know it. We can infer that from the fact that our Lord says that “thou hast a name that thou livest, and art dead” (3:1). They gloried in their reputation, a reputation of being a spiritually vibrant and active church. This was a church that everyone else wanted to be like. They were commended by others, applauded, and appreciated. Sardis was the model church in the eyes of men.
But therein was the problem. They took the approval of men as proof that they had the approval of God. However, the fact of the matter is that the latter does not always follow the former. In fact, it hardly ever does. As our Lord said to the Pharisees in his day, “Ye are they which justify yourselves before men; but God knoweth your hearts: for that which is highly esteemed among men is abomination in the sight of God” (Lk. 16:15). It also doesn’t necessarily matter if those who highly esteem something are believers. Paul wrote this to the Corinthian church, “But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged of you, or of man's judgment: yea, I judge not mine own self. For I know nothing by myself; yet am I not hereby justified: but he that judgeth me is the Lord. Therefore judge nothing before the time, until the Lord come, who both will bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and will make manifest the counsels of the hearts: and then shall every man have praise of God” (1 Cor. 4:3-5). Not only did the apostle not put too much stock in the opinion of the Corinthians; he didn’t even trust his own judgment! If that’s the case, we shouldn’t put too much confidence even in the approval of the most mature of Christians.
Their reliance upon the opinion of men was essentially the problem the Pharisees had: thinking that they could please God without cultivating their hearts before him. They relied upon a religion that consisted entirely upon what people could see. The Pharisees gave charity, prayed, and fasted in such a way that men could see it (Mt. 6:1-18), because that’s what mattered to them. But they were like white-washed tombs, beautiful on the outside and full of dead men’s bones on the inside (Mt. 23:27).
Because they were so congratulated on the vitality of their church, the Christians at Sardis had been lulled to sleep. Commentators variously describe their state in terms of “half-heartedness,” “a deep spiritual apathy,” and being “content with mediocrity.” This does not mean, of course, that they weren’t doing anything. Our Lord doesn’t say that they have no works. He says that he knows their works (Rev. 3:1). The problem was not that they weren’t doing anything. Rather, the problem was that “I have not found thy works perfect before God” (2) – or, as it could be translated, “I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God” (ESV). They certainly wouldn’t have had the reputation for vitality if they were diminishing in number or if they weren’t doing stuff for the Lord in the community or if their services weren’t exciting at least on some level. The problem was that they were going through the motions of religious work for the Lord but doing so in a way that kept them from confronting the sin that was in their hearts and lives. As Ladd put it, “Here is a picture of nominal Christianity, outwardly prosperous, busy with the externals of religious activity, but devoid of spiritual life and power.”
I know they weren’t confronting the sin in their hearts and lives because of the way our Lord describes the minority of the faithful in Sardis: “Thou hast a few names even in Sardis which have not defiled their garments; and they shall walk with me in white: for they are worthy” (4). To have undefiled garments is to be holy. In 19:8, we are told of the wife of the Lamb, which represents the people of God: “And to her was granted that she should be arrayed in fine linen, clean and white: for the fine linen is the righteousness of the saints.” And though this does refer to the time in the future when the church is made perfect, we know that even now Christ is sanctifying his people. Those who have not defiled their garments are those who are walking in holiness and obedience to the Lord. On the other hand, those who have defiled their garments are those who are not walking in obedience to the commands of Christ. They are those who have, despite their religious appearance, have compromised in some way with the world. As the apostle James put it, “Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world” (Jam. 1:27).
So the question before each of us, then, is this: how do we prevent ourselves from getting into this state? Or, if we are there, how do we recover ourselves from it? Thankfully, we don’t have to wonder. Our Lord tells us. With five imperative verbs in verses 2-3, our Lord lays out a plan whereby spiritually moribund Christians and Christian churches can be revived.
Though some translations have Jesus telling them, “Wake up!” the translation of the KJV in this case is superior: “Be watchful!” He is not just telling them to go from sleeping to being awake. He is telling them to be on their guard, like men who are stationed on the walls of an ancient city, on the lookout for the approach of any enemy. That is the idea here. It means to be in a position of readiness to meet the enemy should he come. It is of course the opposite of being asleep, but it is more than just being awake. You can be awake and not watchful. It’s not just staying awake, but being on guard and ready in case someone tries to break in (cf. Mt. 24:43-51).
The church at Sardis was not watchful, which I take to mean that they had become careless about their spiritual state, about the state of their hearts before God. It is the problem we have when we take our spiritual condition for granted. It is the assumption that I am spiritually invulnerable. Like the military leaders of Sardis who were not watching the cliffs because they assumed the city was impregnable there, we can stop watching over our hearts and leave them vulnerable to sin and Satan.
And Satan is a problem. You may not be watching, but he is: “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour” (1 Pet. 5:8). But it is not just that Satan is a problem. Our own sinful hearts are our chief source of concern. We not only have an enemy without; we have an enemy within. It is why our Lord told Peter, “Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation: the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Mt. 26:41).
I wonder if there is any Christian here who has just slipped into spiritual neutral? Have you stopped pressing in? Are your striving to enter into the narrow gate and walk the narrow way? Are you working out your own salvation with fear and trembling? Maybe you don’t pray with any regularity. Coming to church and participating in its life seems more and more to you as something that is not important. You rarely read your Bible. You are not trying to grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Then, my friend, you might be dead, spiritually asleep and exposed to the machinations of your enemy and the flesh. Maybe you are like King David, who decided to rest on the laurels of past victories and decided to stay home when he should have gone to battle and ended up committing adultery and having one of his best friends killed. Shocking! But don’t be surprised if you too find yourself in a terrible condition, with the enemy firmly entrenched in your hearts before you even know it. Certainly, you need to awaken from the misperception that all is well.
Strengthen the things that remain.
Though our Lord says in verse 1 that they are dead, the command to strengthen the things that remain indicates that there is still some life in them. But it is fading fast. The imagery here reminds me of a fire that is burning out. It was once a bright, roaring fire. It once gave off a lot of light and heat. But now it is mostly ashes, with a few coals here and there remaining. The exhortation here is to take those coals and fan them into flame once again before the fire goes completely out.
When we become spiritually barren and dead, one of the temptations is to think that there is nothing we can do about it. We can think that the state we are in is just the state we are in. It is inevitable, in some sense.
But this is not how the Lord teaches us to think. You do not have an excuse for the state you are in. You are to take yourself in hand; you are to strengthen the things that remain. You are to “stir up the gift of God which is in thee,” as the apostle Paul wrote to Timothy (2 Tim. 1:6).
You may argue back that you can’t pull yourself up by your bootstraps. You are just waiting for God to do something. And you are using that as an excuse to do nothing and to stay on your spiritual backside. But let me say it plainly: that is no excuse. That attitude you have is a wrong attitude. It is based on a lie. And it is sinful. As long as you remain in that state, I say, you are in sin. I know this because of what Paul says to the Philippians: “Wherefore, my beloved, as ye have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12-13). You are to work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. You are to do so with the utmost effort. You are to do so with the greatest intensity. You are to do so with the greatest care. We can do so because our efforts through faith in Christ are not efforts of self-righteousness; they are done in the power and strength and grace that God provides.
If you are a Christian, sin cannot have dominion over you (Rom. 6:14), so stop living like it. If you won’t, then the problem may just be that you are not saved to begin with.
So Christian, get up; wake up; take yourself in hand and strengthen the things that remain. As the sailors scolded Jonah, these are words that you too need to hear: “What meanest thou, O sleeper? arise, call upon thy God, if so be that God will think upon us, that we perish not” (Jonah 1:6).
But this begs the question: exactly what should we do? And that is where the next three imperatives give us important guidance.
Remember therefore how thou hast received and heard.
Have you noticed as we’ve gone through these letters that the Lord does not come to these churches and say, “Hey, I appreciate what you’ve done, but you need to do more.” He doesn’t do that. He is not constantly adding to the list of duties he requires of us. He is not burdening us with more and more to do. You see that here. He doesn’t call them to add to what they have already done. He tells them to go back and to do what they once did. He doesn’t command them to pursue a greater level of spirituality than everyone else; he tells them to hold fast what they were taught in the beginning.
In other words, he is calling them back to their conversion to Christ. Notice the word how. It is not just that they are to remember what they received and heard (though that is certainly implied), but how. And what does that mean for us? Well, I think it means at least three things.
It means that we are to live in the sight of God and Christ. You cannot come to Christ and trust in him as your Lord and Savior and live a life focused on this world and on yourself. Coming to Christ involves repentance and faith; it involves a radical reformation of life so that we are no longer oriented in light of our own interests and desires but now we are oriented toward pleasing and serving Christ. And we walk and live before him. We live in the conscious reality that God is present and sees and knows everything we do. We don’t chafe under that, either; we love that, we want to have fellowship with him and to “walk worthy of the Lord unto all pleasing” (Col. 1:10).
This is one of the reasons why I think our Lord addresses himself to the church as he does: “These things saith he that hath the seven Spirits of God, and the seven stars” (Rev. 3:1). The seven stars are, as we have seen, the seven angels, and the seven angels are the pastors of the churches who, though they are not priests who stand between the congregation and God, yet in a sense represent the churches as a whole. The thought, then, is that our Lord who walks among the lampstands (the churches) holds their life in his hands. We are meant to be aware of that; our Lord is calling our attention to this fact. The idea, I think, is to draw our attention away from men-pleasing to Christ-pleasing. He is the one who holds us in his hands. He is the one who determines our destiny, not men. He is the one we must please and live for, not men. Stop thinking that what people think is so important; all that matters in the end is what Christ thinks. Will he say, “Well done, good and faithful servant,” or not?
Brothers and sisters, before whom are you living?
It means that we are to live in light of the gospel. What is the gospel? It is the good news that God the Son became a man, lived a perfect life, suffered, and died for our sins on the cross, and then rose victorious over death so that all who trust in him can receive deliverance from sin and death. If you believe this, it will transform your life. Here is how the apostle Paul put it to Titus: “For the grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men, teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world; looking for that blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Saviour Jesus Christ; who gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works” (Tit. 2:11-14).
The grace of God and the gospel of God teaches us something. What does it teach us? That we should deny ungodliness and sinful desires, that we should live a life of self-control, and righteousness, and godliness. It teaches us to eagerly wait for that blessed hope, the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself up for death for us so that he might redeem us from all iniquity and make us people who perform good works for his glory.
The gospel is not a license to sin. There is not pretext in the good news to defile your garments. Those who do so have forgotten the gospel. On the contrary, the gospel both motivates us and demands of us holiness and good works. Not to merit God’s favor, but because in Christ we already have God’s favor.
Brothers and sisters, are you living in light of the gospel?
It means that we are to live in the might of the Spirit. Again, see how Christ comes to this church. This is a dead church. It is a church which is devoid of a true, vibrant spirituality. What do they need? They need the Spirit. So how does our Lord come to them? He comes as the one “that hath the seven Spirits of God” (1). We noted earlier in our study of this letter, that this is figurative language for the one Spirit of God who brings us the fullness of God’s blessing. It could be that the number seven not only ties in with the use of this number in Revelation; it might also be an allusion to Isaiah 11:2, which says of the Messiah: “And the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord.”
When we receive Christ, we receive the Spirit of Christ. He communicates to us his grace and blessing and strength. We are to walk in the Spirit so that we do not fulfill the desires of the sinful nature (Gal. 5:16). How do we do this? By faith and by walking according to his Word, for the sword of the Spirit, as the apostle Paul reminds us, is the word of God (Eph. 6:17).
Brothers and sisters, are you living in the strength and in the way of the Spirit of God?
So in calling us to remember how we received and heard, we are being called to live in sight of God (instead of men), in light of the gospel (instead of the idolatries of the age), and in the might of the Spirit (instead of our own strength). In doing so we are strengthening the things that remain.
Then we are to hold fast (3). We are to go back to where we began. But we are also to hold on to that. We are to persevere in that, to endure in faithfulness. It is essential, because the promises are to those that overcome: “He that overcometh, the same shall be clothed in white raiment; and I will not blot out his name out of the book of life, but I will confess his name before my Father, and before his angels” (Rev. 3:5).
What does it mean that our Lord will not blot the names of such out of the book of life? We know from Rev. 20:12, 15; 21:27, that the book of life is the record of those who will be saved eternally and will not perish in hell. We also know from Rev. 13:8; 17:8, that these names are not put in as history progresses, but that every name that is in there was put there before the foundation of the world. I believe it is what our Lord is talking about when he tells his disciples, “Notwithstanding in this rejoice not, that the spirits are subject unto you; but rather rejoice, because your names are written in heaven” (Lk. 10:20). In other words, the book of life is simply the record of those chosen by God to be saved before the foundation of the world, the elect.
The elect cannot be lost, and this text does not undermine that reality. What’s the point then in talking about blotting out a name? It is no indication that it can happen; it is, in fact, a promise that it won’t. This is something that saints in the first century needed to hear, because those days, one of the prayers that was offered in the synagogue every Sabbath (and one they would almost certainly have been aware of) went like this: “For the renegades let there be no hope, and may the arrogant kingdom soon be rooted out in our days, and [may] the Nazarenes . . . perish . . . and be blotted out from the book of life and with the righteous may they not be inscribed.” Our Lord is saying that no matter what the enemies of the church say, the only one who can blot the names out will not blot the names out! They are secure in Christ.
This reminds me of a scene from the movie The Longest Day (which my wife calls, “The Longest Movie”). There is a British commander of paratroops whose orders are to take a vital bridge and hold it. The orders ring in his ears: “Hold until relieved.” He is still hearing those words when the first tanks from the landings on D-Day finally come to their support and relieve them. Those words supported and sustained him; not only because they reminded him of his duty, but also because they reminded him that help and relief was coming. Even so here. We are to hold fast but relief is coming! Those who hold fast and overcome will walk with the Lord in white. What an encouragement and a promise!
Why put this at the end? Because we need to be reminded of it! If there is sin in the life, it must be turned from. That is what repentance is. It is not being sorry for sin merely. It is not merely crying and weeping about the brokenness of your life. It is not regret only. It is actively turning away from those patterns of behavior that are displeasing to God and turning to a life that pleases him.
I think we must also remind ourselves that our entire lives should be lives of repentance. It is not just something you do when you first turn to the Lord; it is a daily pattern of behavior. We sin every day and we need to repent every day. Do you? Have you?
It can be depressing sometimes to think about how bad these churches got, and so soon after they were founded. They had such great promise and beginnings and look where they ended up! Well, it ought to stand as a warning to us. But we must not presume to think that our Lord’s words went unheeded. We know from church history that one of the great Christians at the end of the second century was a man who is known to history as Melito of Sardis. He was a godly man of deep spirituality, evidence that the church at Sardis didn’t die, and that it heeded the Lord’s warning. Let us do so also. “He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches” (3:6).