************ Sermon on Revelation 3:1-6 ************
By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman
This sermon was preached on May 2, 1999
"Sardis: The Dying Church"
Sardis. The city was built on Mount Tmolus. On three sides the mountain slope was 1500 feet of nearly 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 virtually impregnable fortress city.
Sardis. In the sixth century B.C. she 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 (pronounced kre- ses), became synonymous with wealth and prosperity. Under his rule Sardis became known around the world for her gold and silver plucked out of a river flowing nearby. And, it was at Sardis that the first gold and silver coins were minted.
Sardis. She 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 (pronounced pûr ga mum) 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. She was also a city of uncompleted projects. Begun but not finished was an exceptionally large temple dedicated to the Roman goddess Diana or Artemis.
Sardis. She was 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.
As we will shortly find out, the church of Sardis was a lot like the city of Sardis. This was the undoing of the church and even spelled her destruction.
The letter in front of us comes from Christ: "These are the words of him who holds the seven spirits of God ..." (vs 1). About the "seven spirits" we are told in Revelation that "grace and peace" come from them (1:4); like the angels, they stand before the throne of God as "blazing lamps" (4:5); and, they are "sent out into all the earth" (5:6). These seven spirits represent the Spirit of God in all its fullness and completeness. Jesus "holds the seven spirits of God." This means that Christ is the Possessor of the Holy Spirit and it is only by Christ that anyone and any church can receive the Spirit's rebirth and life.
These are also the words of Him "who holds ... the seven stars" (vs 1). The seven stars, according to Revelation 1:20, are the angels of the seven churches. Christ holds the angels too in His hand. This pictures His keeping and protecting power over the church. Christ loves the church, is concerned for her, and cares for her.
We will see, in discussing the letter in front of us, the significance of Christ's titles for the church of Sardis.
I Not Alive but Dead
A In a departure from the pattern of the previous four letters Jesus has nothing positive or good to say about this church. In another departure from form nothing is said about Jewish hostility, persecution, or heresy. The problem faced by Sardis is of an entirely different sort. Right away we are being alerted that this is a church that is in grave trouble.
B Christ says, "I know your deeds" (vs 2). Outwardly, anyway, this is a church living out her faith. Anyone looking in would be impressed by the good this church does. Anyone looking in would be struck by the high moral character and obedience of this church.
But 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" (vs 2). The deeds of the church are like the public work projects of the town: incomplete. Like the unfinished temple of Artemis or Diana, the works of the church fall short of completion. The deeds of Sardis are incomplete because they are not done out of faith or for the glory of God. 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.
The key word here is "outward." The spirituality of this church, her works, her faith, her love, her religious activities, they are all outward. Her Christianity is only formal and external, and not inward. He "who holds the seven spirits of God" knows that their spirituality is not infused with the life-giving Spirit. The church of Sardis is a perfect example of Christianity which is all outward and nominal, not at all inward or real.
C Christ goes further than this in His condemnation of the Sardis church: "you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead" (vs 1). Anyone looking in would see a church that appears to be alive and well: the church of Sardis is filled with works, the congregation faithfully attends worship, the people are busy in the church and kingdom. Sardis even had a name, a reputation, for being a live church. Of the seven churches of Asia Minor it was the one to join; it was the one filled with vitality.
In reality, though, Sardis was a dead church. 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 of God knows the church of Sardis is without spiritual life and power.
How could a dead church like Sardis fool so many people that it actually had a name, a reputation, for being alive? Like the city, the church lived on its past glory. At one time the faith, the works, the spirituality, the Christianity, of the church was real. But that was in the past. And now, now the church is trying to live on its past faith and spirituality.
D We have to ask, What happened to this church? How come it died? The answer lies in the fact that of the seven churches of Asia Minor, Sardis was the only one not troubled by persecution; it was not disturbed by heresy; it was not distressed by Jewish opposition. Yet, we know that there was in the city of Sardis many who worshipped Artemis and Caesar; we know that in Sardis there was the feasts of pagan worship involving sexual immorality and the eating of meat offered to idols; we know that in Sardis there was a Jewish synagogue. We may well ask why Jews, Romans, and Nicolaitans left the church of Sardis undisturbed whereas they plagued the other six churches with many difficulties?
Do you know why the church of Sardis was left alone? Do you know why it was untroubled and peaceful in the midst of a wicked and evil world? Do you know why heresies and heretical sects left this church alone? Because the church of Sardis had an inoffensive, nonaggressive Christianity. The church of Sardis, for instance, never pressed the Jews with the claim "Jesus is God"; for if they did we know 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"; if they had done this the Romans would have persecuted them. The church of Sardis never once took a stand against participation in the sexual immorality or feasts of pagan worship; for if they had the Nicolaitan heresy would have come up – a heresy which said it was permissible for Christians to participate in these aspects of pagan worship.
To put it bluntly, the church of Sardis was complacent, apathetic, indifferent, and dead. The church, like the town, felt too sheltered, too secure, too comfortable, to maintain a close guard or watch.
E The church always has to be on guard against the comfortable pew. If the church does not make her members and the world squirm uncomfortably at times something is definitely wrong. If the church, through her elders and pastor, never gets strong reactions from those she is shepherding, she is probably not doing her work. If the church does not clearly stake out where she stands and what she believes, she is only a social club. If the church does not challenge and question and rock the boat, if we let things always go smoothly and comfortably, we are no longer speaking prophetically. A couple of weeks ago someone was thanking me for my preaching and said to me, "If people want sermons that make them feel comfortable they can go to almost any other church in town."
I ask you, does this church make you feel too comfortable, too secure, too sheltered? Does this church comfortably coexist with the unbelieving, the heretical, the ungodly, the unrepentant?
Are we a dead or a live church? Are you a dead or a live Christian? Have we, like Sardis, merely externalized the faith of our parents? Do we merely go through all the right motions of being Christians? Do we have a name of being alive and active when, in reality, we are dead? A live church cannot afford to be apathetic, complacent, or indifferent to the world around it. A live church cannot afford to be too comfortable, sheltered, or secure. Sardis was that way and lost the life she had. A live church is infused with the life-giving Spirit and power of Christ. A live church has an inner spirituality, faith, and love. A live church does not settle for a nice outward appearance or for a nice comfortable Christianity.
Young People, do you know the biggest or greatest concern I have about you? My biggest and greatest concern is that your faith and your beliefs are simply your parents' faith and beliefs, that you have not internalized them and made them your own. My biggest and greatest concern is that you end up like Sardis.
Every generation of believers has to discover anew what it means to be a Christian. Every generation of believers has to be infused with the life and excitement of the Spirit. We can never rest on the glory and faith of our parents or grandparents. We can never satisfy ourselves with what has happened in the past. Our faith, our convictions, our worship, our Christianity, our spirituality has to be real, inward, and meaningful and not merely an outward custom or ritual.
II Repent or Perish
A "Wake up," says the Lord to the church of Sardis (vs 2). Actually, 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 fall.
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.
Of course, the infusion of life is possible only because Jesus loves and cares for the church of Sardis. He Who holds the seven spirits and seven stars can breathe new life into a dying church.
B Sardis, however, has to "repent" (vs 3). The word for "repent" here is the same word used for "conversion." Imagine that: a church, a body of believers with a name and reputation, is called to convert. One would expect this sort of message to be given outside, not inside, the church. Amazing and sad, isn't it!? A church has to be told to turn from evil and to God. Sardis is told to repent. And, if she does, the Lord Jesus will infuse her with His life-giving Spirit.
C And then the Lord gives a warning: "But if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I come for you" (vs 3). In Scripture the coming of Christ like a thief emphasizes not the suddenness of the Lord's coming but its unexpectedness. The coming of Christ will be unexpected, just like the coming of a thief. For one never knows when a thief will strike; his coming is totally unexpected. The Apostle Paul indicated that the unexpectedness of the second coming is the experience of unbelievers, not of believers. He writes in 1 Thessalonians: "But you, brothers, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief" (1 Thess 5:4). This means that if Sardis does not wake up and repent Christ's coming will be unexpected – because she is an unbelieving church, a dead church; this further means that Christ will come in judgment and wrath and not in grace and mercy.
D Does the Lord have to say to us what He said to Sardis? Does He have to tell us to wake up, to repent? Does He have to tell us that He will come among us like a thief?
"He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches" (vs 6).
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