If we were travelling the old post road through what is today eastern Turkey we would come to the fifth city mentioned in Revelation, Sardis.
“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. 2 Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have found your deeds unfinished in the sight of my God. 3 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.
4 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. 5 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. 6 Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches,” Revelation 3:1-6
Sardis was located about thirty miles south east of Thyatira in the valley of the river Hermus. Because of its location it became a well known trade and commerce center with roads meeting in the city from throughout the region.
Nothing is known about the Christian influence in the city except what is found in these few passages of Revelation. We don’t know who brought the gospel to the city, how it was established or the makeup and size of the church found there. An interesting aside is that a bishop of the city, by the name of Melito, writing in the second century published the first commentary on the Book of Revelation.
It doesn’t take us long to notice that the message to the church in Sardis is probably the most severe of the seven. Verse 1 sets the stage for what was wrong in the church, “I know your deeds; you have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead.”
Let’s think about this for a moment or two because there is a real warning for the modern church in Jesus’ rebuke to this church. Too many of our churches today pride themselves on being mega-churches, having celebrity pastors, gigantic budgets, satellite churches, mission projects and a name for itself throughout the Christian world. They have a reputation of being a happening church that is turning the world upside down but more than a few of these churches have eternal problems that are eating the soul out of their mission.
Notice, Jesus doesn’t rebuke them for their wrong theology, there are no Jezebel followers in Sardis and no followers of Balaam’s trickery and deception. Instead it was a church where people praised its ministry and dedication to God, but God saw the church in a total different light. Outward appearances can deceive man but not God.
“Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have found your deeds unfinished in the sight of my God.” (v. 2) Just like the Saris church, the North American church needs to awaken to its indifference. Our good works might be impressive to the watching world but to God they are “unfinished,” because the credit is centered in the work of the church and not in Jesus.
The church of Sardis was a lie and it could possibly be the first church that was filled with nominal Christians. There was a bigger problem according to early Christian writers concerning the church, and that was it was an immoral church. In some of the other churches groups of people within the church were living immoral lives but they were up front about it. Here, however, the church was hiding its sins and professing to be good, up right and solid church members while carrying on with their hypocrisy away from the light. While they came to church each week and participated in all the worship and outreach, they were in secret more interested in living a life of sin.
Isaiah 29:13 could well sum up Sardis, “This people draws near with their mouth, and honors me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me.” Paul wrote Timothy to be wary of those who were, “holding the form of religion, but denying the power of it.” (2 Tim. 3:5)
Fortunately, all is not lost for the church consumed by hypocrisy and self-absorption. Jesus writes, “Wake up, strengthen what remains,” (v. 2), and “Remember, therefore, what you have heard and received” (v. 3) Here is hope for a struggling church lost in sin and immorality while professing to be something it is not.
Next post we will see Jesus’ antidote to such hypocrisy. But, before we are too critical on the church of Sardis it would do us all well to remember that there is a little of that church’s thinking in all of us. After all we make up the modern Christian church and when we talk about the failure of the Church to carry out its great commission we have to remember we are part of that church. So, just as in all the other letters to the seven churches there is instruction for us that we should take to heart.
* Please remember to pray for the Christians who are suffering at the hands of evil for their faith in many countries around the world. Some of their stories can be found at http://thebeggardanced.com/nine-oclock-club/