************ Sermon on Revelation 3:1-6 ************
By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman
This sermon was preached on December 23, 2007
"Sardis: The Dying Church"
Robert and I talk theology and church history almost every single day. A couple of weeks ago we were talking about the cycle churches and denominations go through. A new church is formed because of creeping liberalism. The new church – and by church I mean both a local congregation or a denomination – starts with such intensity of purpose. There is a real resolve to be faithful to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. But after a few years some of the intensity disappears. Within a generation or two the church is as liberal as the group it broke away from. The church has forsaken her original purpose.
Christian schools often are the same way. Many of our schools have been founded to uphold and teach from a Reformed Christian perspective. Pretty soon a couple of non-Reformed teachers are hired, a couple of non-Reformed board members are elected, and parents who are more interested in a quality private education than a Christian education are allowed to send their children. The school ends up losing its original purpose.
Many Christian colleges go down the same path. Did you know that Harvard and Princeton both started as Christian colleges. You can hardly find more secular institutions today. They have forsaken their original purpose.
The same thing has happened with Christian organizations like the YMCA. Many people don't realize that the letters stand for "Young Men's Christian Association" because the Christian part has been dropped long ago. Again, loss of purpose.
Tonight we have in front of us a church that has also forsaken her purpose. She is meant to be a lampstand that holds aloft the light of Christ. She is meant to be a lampstand that testifies to God and His grace and truth. But she has lost her purpose. The Gospel is not that important to her anymore. As we talk about Sardis I want you to keep in mind that we could be talking about Trinity United Reformed Church or about the Christian Reformed denomination.
I The Letter's Introduction
A The letter in front of us is written "to the angel of the church in Sardis" (Rev 3:1). The angel represents the church. But notice how the letter ends: "He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches" (Rev 3:6). Notice, we go from "church" – the church of Sardis – to the "churches" – which first means the seven churches of Asia Minor, then all the churches of Asia Minor, and then all churches of all time and all places.
The letter in front of us comes from Christ: "These are the words of him who holds the seven spirits of God ..." (Rev 3:1). About the "seven spirits" we are told in Revelation 1:4 that "grace and peace" come from them. Revelation 4:5 tells us they are "blazing lamps" that give the church the light of the Gospel. These seven spirits represent the Spirit of God in all its fullness and completeness. Jesus "holds the seven spirits of God." This means that what gives the church life comes from Christ.
These are also the words of Him "who holds ... the seven stars" (Rev 3:1). The seven stars, according to Revelation 1:20, are the angels of the seven churches. This means Christ holds the churches too.
Picture this: in one hand Christ holds the Spirit that gives life to the church; in the other hand Christ holds the church needing the life of the Spirit. Both are held by Christ and they are brought together by Christ.
B Let me tell you something about Sardis. The city of Sardis was built on Mount Tmolus. On three sides the mountain slope was 1500 feet of near perpendicular rock with Sardis standing at the top. The fourth side, having a gentler slope, was defended by a city wall and gate. This made Sardis a fortress city. However, this also made Sardis an over-confident and none too vigilant city. Guards and watchmen were never posted on the three sides where the mountain's near perpendicular slope dropped 1500 feet into the valley below. In 549 B.C. King Cyrus of Persia failed to conquer the city in a frontal attack, but that same night a large number of Persian soldiers worked their way up a crevice on one of the nearly perpendicular walls of the mountain and thus entered and conquered the city from its unguarded rear. Late in the third century the city was again captured in the same way.
In the sixth century B.C. Sardis was one of the most powerful and richest cities of the ancient world. She was the capital city of an empire that extended beyond the Aegean Sea. All seven of the cities of Asia Minor whose churches John wrote recognized the rule of her king. The name of her king, Croesus, became synonymous with wealth and prosperity. Under his rule Sardis became known around the world for her gold and silver.
Sardis was a city that lived on her past glory. When the cities of the Roman province of Asia, in A.D. 26, competed for the honor of building a temple to Caesar the people of Ephesus mentioned the commercial and cultural importance of their city, the people of Smyrna referred to their loyalty and history of support for Rome, and the people of Pergamum pointed to their position as the capital of Asia. In this competition the people of Sardis said nothing about their present state. Rather, they spoke long and hard about the past glories of their city. You see, in New Testament times Sardis was nothing but a small, sleepy town of no real importance. All that Sardis had was a name, a reputation. In actual fact, it was almost a dead town. At the time the letter in front of us was written, around A.D. 90, all of Sardis' glory, wealth, and power lay in the past – some 650 years in the past.
Sardis was also a city of uncompleted projects. Begun but not finished was an exceptionally large temple dedicated to the Roman goddess Diana.
II The Evaluation
A In a departure from the pattern of the previous four letters Jesus has nothing positive or good to say about the church of Sardis. Jesus goes immediately on the attack – His intention is not to hurt but to do an intervention, to stop the slide into destruction.
"I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead" (Rev 3:1). Christ knows all this. He, Whose eyes are like lasers, sees all things. "I know your deeds."
"You have a reputation for being alive ..." From the outside the church of Sardis looks so successful. Everyone says this church is really alive and growing. If she were around today she is the church that has programs and ministries galore. She keeps adding staff. She has activities every night of the week. There is something for every age group. This is the church that other churches want to be like. She hosts seminars for the other churches and pastors. She is cool, slick, professional. She uses the latest technology – slide shows, powerpoints, DVDs, webcasting, cordless microphones. She has a day-care center, a walk-in clinic, prayer rooms. Attendance has never been better; she is filled to the rafters every Sunday with chairs in the aisles.
We are in the middle of a presidential election campaign. Politicians and their advisors always keep in mind that perception is reality, that appearance is everything. If you are perceived as being weak and spineless, then you are weak and spineless. If you are perceived as being strong and decisive, then you are strong and decisive. If you are perceived as being a winner, then you are a winner. If you are perceived as being presidential, then you are presidential. Among politicians running for president, appearance is everything.
It seems the church of Sardis operates by the same principles as today's politicians. Appearance is everything, perception is reality.
Now along comes Jesus and says, "I know ..." "I know your deeds." With Jesus appearance is not everything. With Jesus perception is not reality. Christ does not go by outward appearances. He looks at the heart; He looks at what is within. And, when Christ looks in the hearts of the church members in Sardis He is not at all impressed as the people of the world are impressed. He says, "I have not found your deeds complete in the sight of my God" (Rev 3:2). The deeds of the church are like the public work projects of the town: incomplete. Like the unfinished temple of Diana, the works of the church fall short of completion. The deeds of Sardis are incomplete because she has lost her purpose. The church of Sardis is like the fig tree of Matthew 21:19: from a distance you see lots of leaves and think it is a healthy tree; but up close you discover it has no fruit. The church of Sardis puts up a good and impressive appearance but there is nothing really there. What looks so alive on the outside is a morgue or a funeral home on the inside. The church was like the town: it had a name, a reputation, but little else for it was dead. Outwardly, the church was alive. Inwardly, it was without the life-giving Spirit. The Christ Who holds the seven spirits and the seven churches, the Christ Who knows all things, knows the church of Sardis is without spiritual life and power.
B Sardis looks alive. She has the appearance and reputation of being alive. But she is dead. How do we know this is really the case? Consider the following.
Like Thyatira, Sardis has a large number of guilds – but the church receives no problem from the guilds. Like Smyrna, Sardis has a large population of Jews – but the church receives no problem from the Jews. Like Ephesus, Sardis is a center for emperor worship – but the church receives no problem from emperor worshipers. Can you believe this – in an environment that is hostile to the Christian faith everyone is happy with the church?
The church of Sardis never once took a stand against participation in the sexual immorality or feasts of pagan worship or else she would have had problems with the guilds. The church of Sardis never pressed the Jews with the claim "Jesus is God" or else the synagogue would have opposed them. The church of Sardis never once countered the Roman claim "Caesar is Lord" with the Christian claim "Jesus is Lord" or else the Romans would have persecuted them. The church of Sardis chose peace with the world over faithfulness to God. She chose economic prosperity and jobs over the truth of God's Word. She chose cultural acceptance over cultural confrontation. There is no problem with guilds, Jews, or emperor worshipers because the church of Sardis chose to have a nominal faith. She lost her purpose!
The church of Sardis has taken away the offense of the Gospel. Her life and witness and worship is not offensive to guilds, Jews, or emperor worshipers. But isn't the same thing being done today by churches that host "seeker sensitive" services – like Sardis that have taken away the offense of the Gospel? In the same way, our culture is so scared of offending Muslims and Jews and atheists that public prayers cannot be offered in Christ's name and Bibles are being taken out of hotel rooms; when the church goes along with this she has lost her purpose!
Look at the promise of verse 5, a promise first mentioned in Matthew 10. Christ says He will acknowledge before the Father and the angels the name of any overcomer. An overcomer here is someone who acknowledges Christ before men, who testifies to Christ before men, who is not ashamed of Christ before men. But the church of Sardis has not acknowledged Christ before men. No wonder she has no problems with the world. She has muted her witness in order to survive. She has lost sight of her mission as a lampstand. She has forsaken her purpose.
"I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead" (Rev 3:1).
III The Exhortation
A I want you to notice that in His intervention Christ gives five commands to the church of Sardis.
The first command: "Wake up!" (Rev 3:2). The Greek word here is "be watchful, be vigilant." In a city that has twice fallen to the enemy because of a lack of watchfulness this warning is especially appropriate.
The church of Sardis has to be watchful. It has almost fallen into the hands of the great enemy Satan. It has to wake up or else it will fail. Don't fall asleep at the wheel. Don't get caught sleeping on the job.
This admonition suggests that the church of Sardis is not yet entirely beyond hope. It is not too late for her to awaken; there still remains a glowing ember which can be fanned into a Pentecostal flame. All is not yet lost.
The second command: "Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your deeds complete in the sight of my God" (Rev 3:2). Again, all is not yet lost. They still have some of the faith, the love, and the service they started with. Strengthen that. Allow God's grace to bring to completion what was started in you.
The third command: "Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard ..." (Rev 3:3). Jesus is telling them to remember "how" they received the grace and peace of God. Jesus is telling them to remember how they received the Gospel and Word. They embraced the Gospel with all their heart. They received the Word of God with excitement, enthusiasm, delight, zeal. Remember that and go back to that.
The fourth command: "obey it" (Rev 3:3). Keep the Gospel. Be devoted to the Gospel of Christ. Give attention to the Gospel. Make your life a vibrant testimony to the Gospel.
The fifth command: "and repent" (Rev 3:3). Turn from your nominal faith. Turn from your outward only faith. Turn from your faith that looks alive but in reality is dead. Go back to your purpose of being a lampstand for Christ and the Gospel.
Five commands: wake up, strengthen, remember, obey, repent. Which is most important? The first one. I say that because the same Greek word is used at the end of Christ's intervention: "but if you do not wake up I will come like a thief ..." A thief is one who uses stealth. If you are not watchful, you will be as surprised as the city of Sardis was in 549 B.C. when the Persians attacked from the rear. "Wake up!" "Be watchful!" A command and a warning given at the start and at the end of Christ's exhortation. Obviously this is very important to the risen Lord!
B Now look at verse 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" (Rev 3:4). These "few people" have been watchful. They have been awake. They have not fallen asleep at the job.
Do you notice what Christ says about them? Christ says "they are worthy." This is amazing. This is amazing because in Revelation 5 Christ is worthy as the One Who was slain. In Sardis those Christians who are willing to witness to Christ and to live for Christ are also worthy because, like Christ, they are willing to go all the way to death. They are not ashamed of the Gospel. They are not nominal in their faith. They have not forsaken their purpose.
Let me end with Christ's promises to those who overcome. An overcomer is someone who acknowledges Christ before men, who testifies to Christ before men, who is not ashamed of Christ before men, who has not forsaken his purpose, who does not remove the offense of the Gospel, who does not try to accommodate the pagan culture.
The first promise to overcomers: they are "dressed in white" (Rev 3:5). We see this expression (or one like it) nine times in Revelation (3:4,5,18; 4:4; 6:11; 7:9,13,14; 19:14). It means they put on the righteousness and purity of Christ Himself. It means they are clean and pure in God's sight because they are washed in the blood of Christ.
The second promise to overcomers: "I will never blot out his name from the book of life" (Rev 3:5). There are different kinds of books mentioned in Revelation. There is the book of life. In this book are written the names of all those who from eternity to eternity have been chosen for salvation in Christ. There is also another set known simply as "the books." In these books are to be found a record of all our sins – sins of commission and omission, sins of thought and word and deed.
How can a name appear in both books? How can a name in the book of life be saved when there is all the damning evidence contained in the books? Christ makes the difference. His blood. His sacrifice. His washing. His cleansing.
Christ promises – in spite of the books, in spite of our sins – to never blot out the name of overcomers from the book of life. Nothing shall ever separate us from His love because He holds us and the Spirit in His hands.
The third promise to overcomers: Christ promises to "acknowledge his name before my father and his angels" (Rev 3:5). When overcomers appear before the Father's throne and the books are opened – the books in which all sins are recorded – Christ is going to say, "He is mine. She belongs to me. I died for him and washed him and cleansed him."
Let me remind you of how Christ puts this third promise in the Gospel of Matthew:
(Mt 10:32-33) Whoever acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge him before my Father in heaven. (33) But whoever disowns me before men, I will disown him before my Father in heaven.Wasn't that the problem in Sardis? Most of the church disowned Christ before men!
Do you see, congregation, the importance Christ places on not forsaking our purpose?
"He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches" (Rev 3:6).
You can e-mail our pastor at: Pastor, Trinity United Reformed Church
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