Dr. Richard L. Strauss
November 12, 1978
About 50 miles inland from the Aegean Sea, and 30 miles southeast of Thyatira, lies the ancient and glorious city of Sardis. Long before other cities of our seven reached their peak of prominence, Sardis was acclaimed throughout the then-known world for her riches and power. At the crossroads of five major trade routes, wealth poured into her at a fantastic rate.
Situated on a 1500 foot high plateau with perpendicular and almost unscalable rock walls on three sides, and a steep ascent on the remaining south side that was easily guarded, she was an impregnable fortress. Sardis was the logical capital of the ancient kingdom of Lydia which covered all of Asia Minor as far back as the time of the Judges, and she ruled it with strength.
The cities of the ancient world held her in great respect, as one after another fell before her might. The pinnacle of her distinguished and illustrious history probably came under her king Croesus (pronounced Creesus), about 560 B.C. Croesus was not only a powerful monarch, but he was one of the richest men who ever lived. His name was synonymous with wealth. The greatness of those grand and glorious days of the past were never forgotten by the people of Sardis. They were proud of their heritage.
But when we discover the city of Sardis under Roman rule, in the first century after Christ, she possesses only a glimmer of her former greatness. The growing demands of a more complex civilization had rendered the high plateau too small to house a great governmental center, so the people abandoned it in favor of the plain below, only to lose its governmental authority to the fortress city of Pergamum.
The buildings remained as a mere monument of the past. Wealth still abounded in the city, but the people had become a pleasure-loving, luxury-loving people. They became soft, flabby, self-indulgent degenerates. Sardis was a city of the past. She had a name, and a reputation, but she was dead.
I find it interesting that the church of Jesus Christ in this city is in the very same condition. This is the precise complaint with Christ levels against her.
1. The Rebuke Christ Pronounces
"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 " (Revelation 3:1).
By the way, I'm using the New International Version today. The whole Bible is out now in that version. It's only been out about a month or so. As I read this passage in the NIV, it just said exactly what the Lord Jesus said to the church at Sardis, so I want to use the NIV translation today if you'll permit me to do that.
"I know your deeds," Jesus said. "You have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead."
Can you imagine the utter shock of the members of that church when the pastor opened this letter and began to read one Sunday morning? If there was one thing this church was known for, it was its life. Other pastors were using them as an illustration to motivate their own people. "Now there's a church that's alive," they were saying. After all, it was not plagued with heresy. There was no open corruption and moral pollution. It was a beehive of activity, something was always going on. They had probably sent more than their share of young people into other parts of Asia and Europe to preach the Gospel. Jesus said they had a reputation for being alive, and if Jesus Christ admitted it, I'm sure they gloried in it. They were proud of their glorious history as a church, and they waited with eager expectation as the parchment was unrolled to hear the Lord's glowing praise for them.
"You have a reputation for being alive, but in reality you are dead." DEAD! The church of Sardis, DEAD! That is what the Lord says. There is no opening word of commendation, just this biting rebuke, "You're dead."
Why was it necessary for Christ to say this? What makes a church dead? You've all heard people accuse some church of being a dead church. In fact, I said that last week. I'm not the judge and there are things I don't know, but based on my observation, the church of Jesus Christ generally in Scotland is probably the deadest that I have ever seen. In fact, that's probably true of all of Great Britain: Wales, and England, and Ireland, and Scotland. All of them. Dead. What makes the church in Great Britain dead?
I think there are three things that make a church dead. These things were characteristic of the church at Sardis.
a. A Dead Church Lacks Reality
For one thing, a dead church lacks reality. That was the major problem at Sardis. They had a reputation for great things, but they were living on that past reputation. Their present reality failed to match it.
The accomplishments they boasted were nothing but an empty shell. Oh it was a big, beautiful shell. They had magnified their fine points and woven them into a very impressive and awe-inspiring front. People who heard and saw were absolutely overwhelmed. But it was nothing more than a magnificent mausoleum. Inside of that impressive facade, behind that beautiful veneer was nothing but death. They were plagued with empty profession, with pretense and hypocrisy. They claimed to be what their lives betrayed they were not. The church that is filled with hypocrisy is a dead church. They claim to be Christians, but when it gets right down to it, it doesn't ring true. There is a hollowness to it, a hypocrisy. It isn't real.
This is not a new problem. The prophet Isaiah saw the people streaming into the temple with their sacrifices, going through the forms of religion, but he knew they were unwilling to do God's will, in their hearts. "The Lord says: 'These people come near to Me with their mouth and honor Me with their lips, but their hearts are far from Me. Their worship of Me is based on merely human rules they have been taught'" (Isaiah 29:13). Looks good. They're all gathering together and worshipping God, but there is an absence of reality in the heart.
Ezekiel preached to crowds; they came in droves to hear what the Lord had to say, but Ezekiel knew in their hearts they were not willing to obey that word. "My people come to you, as they usually do, and sit before you to hear your words, but they do not put them into practice. Their mouths speak of love, but their hearts are greedy for unjust gain. Indeed, to them you are nothing more than one who sings love songs with a beautiful voice and plays an instrument well, for they hear your words but do not put them into practice" (Ezekiel 33:31-32). A lack of reality, you see. "You have a reputation," Jesus says, "but you're dead."
Jesus Christ Himself came face to face with the most religious men who ever lived. If anyone practiced religion, it was the Scribes and Pharisees. To the multitudes of the day, these men were the supreme example of righteousness and religiosity. But Jesus said they were nothing but whitewashed tombstones, in which were dead man's bones. "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness" (Matthew 23:27-28). Same thing. They looked good on the outside, but on the inside there's a lack of reality.
Today it is the problem of people who say they believe the Bible, but they seldom pick it up from one Sunday to the next. They don't spend time reading it, studying it, memorizing it, building it into their lifestyle. It is the hypocrisy of people who agree that people who die without Jesus Christ go to hell and they say we need to reach them with the gospel, but they never speak to them about the Lord and share the good news that Christ died for their sins. It is the pretense of Christians who say we should love each other but do nothing to show it, and who say the Bible is their rule of life, but obey only those parts that suit their fancy.
Hypocrisy abounds in the most fundamental of churches. We have folks who say they believe that the Lord cares for them and has complete control over their lives, yet they worry and complain about their problems. We have people who claim to be totally yielded to Christ, yet they have never learned the meaning of the word "sacrifice." If God's work demands that which interferes with their comfort and convenience, then God's work is relegated to a secondary place their lives. They put signs in their houses that say "Christ is the head of this home!" but never worship Him together as a family and don't let Him control their relationships with each other.
This is HYPOCRISY, the absence of reality. When it is present among those who comprise a church, Jesus says that church is dead.
b. A Dead Church Lacks Results
Where there is no reality, you will usually find that there are no results.
This was the problem at Sardis. "Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have found your deeds unfinished in the sight of my God" (Revelation 3:2). Unfinished. Not complete. There was something missing.
They were busy doing things for God, but what they were doing was not producing any fruit. They were running but not getting anywhere, the wheels were turning, but they were not moving. The program was well planned, and well executed, but the lack of reality in the lives of those working it hindered the Spirit of God from making it effective. Souls were not being saved. Christians were not growing and maturing in the Lord and in His word. Lives were not being transformed. Little impact was being made on the unsaved community. Where there are no results, we may strongly suspect the church is dead. We need to take heed.
c. A Dead Church Lack Rejoicing
Now, there is nothing in the passage that says this clearly, but the gloomy tone of this entire letter leads me to believe that there is no rejoicing in the dead church. If we are part of a dead church, there is little to rejoice over. Our relationship with Christ would not producing any real joy. Our lack of reality would hinder our possession of the satisfying and glowing Christian life. The salvation of lost souls would not give us any joy, because few would be coming to know the Lord.
A lack of reality and a lack of results inevitably leads to a lack of rejoicing. And so a dead church is filled with professing Christians who seldom smile at each other. Folks look kind of sad and forlorn. Warm handshakes, radiant, enthusiastic greetings are practically extinct. This is what makes a church dead; no reality, no results, and no rejoicing. And look just for a moment down at verse 4. Deadness is defilement. "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" (Revelation 3:4).
Christ is implying that those who are contaminated with it are involving their church in sin. This is a rather serious situation. What can be done about it?
2. The Remedy Christ Prescribes
I rather think that the remedy Christ prescribes in verses 2 and 3 is directed to those few folks who are not dead. There were obviously some folks in the church who were dead: they lacked reality and results and rejoicing. Maybe there were even some who were spiritually dead, meaning that they had never known Jesus Christ at all; they had never been born again. But there was a little group there who were alive. The only problem was that they were a little sleepy.
a. Reinforce What Remains
This faithful remnant was so sleepy and so drowsy that they were letting even the few things that remained dry up and die. "Wake up!" Jesus says. That literally is what he says. "Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have found your deeds unfinished in the sight of my God" (Revelation 3:2).
Wake up and reinforce what remains. This exhortation would have real meaning to the Christians at Sardis. There were several blots on the glorious history of Sardis. On two notable occasions the unconquerable city had been conquered. One of them was at the end of the famous reign of their great king Croesus. The Greek historian Herodotus describes in dramatic fashion the attack of Cyrus of Persia--the same Cyrus that conquered Babylon in 538. Inspecting the rocky cliffs closely, they found a spot where erosion or the pick of some friendly climber had made it scalable. Quietly at night a small detachment climbed the steep slopes and entered the city which was wholly unguarded at that point. You see, they thought no one could scale those walls, and so they only defended the city on the South side. The detachment opened the city to Cyrus' armies while the whole city slept.
That was what was happening to the church. They were dozing while the church was dying. The only hope for the church rested upon their shoulders. Wake up! Strengthen what remains so God can bring a revival to that church. They could do it by diligent, unceasing prayer, sacrificial unselfish work, and by absolute yieldedness to the Lord, so that Christ would become a living reality in their everyday life. Will you be one of that mighty minority that wakes up and begins the work of spiritual reinforcement?
I met some dear people in Scotland, some people who really love Jesus Christ. One I really grew to love in the few days we were there was a man by the name of Alec Gordon, who is the Chairman of the Luis Palau Crusade Committee. He's a farmer. He makes enough money in the time he works to support himself and work about half of his time for the Lord. He shared with me something the Lord had laid on his heart to do. He's a layman; he's not a pastor. He goes to Plymouth Brethren Assembly. He was burdened for the youth of Aberdeen, so he began to get some Saturday night meetings planned. He rented a hall and began to spread the word around. He prepared some food. He got some guys who could plan some games. He brought in an outstanding speaker. And he had a group of people. It was a good meeting. The kids enjoyed it. The next month he had another one and more came.
Now they are running on a fairly regular basis every few weeks and there are over 200 young people. They meet for food and games, and then hear a testimony from someone who is alive spiritually and kids come to know Christ. There is something beginning to happen because one man was alive and was willing to be used of God. If revival comes to Aberdeen, Scotland, I'm convinced that it will be largely the result--humanly speaking--of that one man. He gave himself to Jesus Christ and said, "Lord, here I am. I can't get up and talk in front of people but here I am." He hardly ever gets up in front of people. Someone else does the front work; he's just behind the scenes making the plans and doing the work. Kids are getting saved and they're making a dent on that dead city of Aberdeen. He heeded those words Jesus said to the church at Sardis: Strengthen what remains and is about to die.
b. Remember and Repent
There is a second part of the remedy in verse 3: remember and repent. Read Revelation 3:3. "Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; obey it, and repent."
What is Christ talking about here? What did they receive that they are now to remember? I cannot see any other answer but the Holy Spirit. He was the one whom the Father had sent, and whom believers had received. The moment we open our hearts to God's salvation, the Holy Spirit takes up his abode in our lives. Remember what you have received: the Spirit of the living God. You possess Him. But the question is, does He possess you?
The exhortation of the Apostle Paul is "Keep on being filled with the Spirit" (Ephesians 5:18). Let Him continually have complete control of your life. It is the Holy Spirit who can breathe life into a dead church, who can revive and revitalize the worship services, who can animate and empower its witness so that it becomes a living force in the community. By each person submitting totally to Him, a stale church can be strengthened, and even a dead church brought back to life. It is no accident that Christ introduces himself in this letter as the one who has the seven-fold Spirit of God, the one Spirit who has all power to correct any problem in any church.
To refuse to submit ourselves to Him is to render ourselves unprepared for the Lord's return. Do you see the end of verse 3? "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" (Revelation 3:3b).
Careless Christians will find Christ's coming a time of embarrassment. How can they face Him when they have not lived for Him, when the job He gave them to do is yet unfinished? Christians who are not ready for the Lord's return do not want to meet Him. But some day, when you are least expecting, and least prepared, He's going to come back again, as a thief in the night, just as Cyrus surprised the city of Sardis. Then it will be too late to get ready. "And now, little children, abide in Him; that, when He shall appear, we may have confidence, and not be ashamed before him at his coming" (1 John 2:28).
3. The Reward Christ Promises
For that faithful remnant, for those who had genuinely met Jesus Christ, and proved it by heeding the exhortation He made, there is a blessed reward.
a. Raiment of White
"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. He who overcomes will, like them, be dressed in white" (Revelation 3:4-5).
Promise number one to true believers at Sardis is raiment of white. We know from 1 John 5 that the overcomers are those who have put their faith in Jesus Christ. To those few in Sardis whose garments were not defiled by the deadness of that church, there is a happy prospect. Jesus says, "They shall walk with me in white, for they are worthy." To this, whom he calls an overcomer, will be given raiment of white. What does this mean? Why will true believers be given white robes in heaven?
Well, white is the color of purity. The ones who wear these robes are holy, righteous. Unlike those who profess Christianity but whose garments are defiled because there is no inner reality, those who know Christ possess true righteousness. They are worthy to spend eternity in His presence. What makes them worthy? Their own good works? No. In Revelation 7:14 we learn how their robes got white, how they themselves became righteous enough to enter Christ's presence. They've been washed in the blood of the Lamb. Because He paid for our sins, He is free to give us His righteousness (1 Peter 2:24). It's all His work. We simply receive it by faith.
I have a suspicion that some of those spiritually dead people at Sardis thought maybe their good works were going to get them into heaven. No amount of our own works will avail. We must possess Christ's righteousness, and that is received by faith.
White was also the color of festivity in the ancient Roman world. The white robe was the robe of feasting, and we will experience festal joy throughout eternity in the presence of our Savior. There was no rejoicing in the dead church at Sardis, but for the true believer, there will be rejoicing throughout the ages.
The white robe was also the robe of victory in the ancient world. The victor returning from battle often marched through the streets of the city in a triumphant procession dressed in white. We will sing praises to the Savior forever, for we will be sharing in the results of his victory at Calvary, the victory which secured for us eternal life.
b. Reassurance and Recognition before the Father
Robes of white is the first part of the promise. There is also a second part of the promised reward. "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" (Revelation 3:5).
Here is reassurance and recognition. Is it possible for the one who is born again to die spiritually and be removed from the book of life, the roll book of heaven? This verse says it is not.
"I will never erase his name from the book of life." The one who has put his faith and trust in Jesus Christ for salvation has this promise. His name is engraved in the book of heaven forever. It cannot be removed. Here is another link in the long chain of Biblical evidence for the doctrine of eternal security. It says once a person is truly regenerate, born into the family of God by God's grace, nothing can remove him from that relationship to God. We have already seen that the overcomer in these letters is the genuine Christian. His name cannot be removed from the book of life, but Christ will acknowledge him, confess him, recognize him before His Father in heaven.
Now I know there are plenty of people who go to church and profess to be Christians who aren't really regenerate. I know that. But what the Bible teaches is that when a person has become the object of God's redeeming grace, it is settled throughout eternity. Nothing can change it. "I will never erase his name from the book of life, but I will acknowledge him before My Father and His angels."
Trusting Jesus as Your Savior
Will you be among those whose names will be acknowledged at that day? When the book of life is opened and the names are read, will yours be read? Do you have the absolute certainty that you're a child of God?
Does the reality of your Christian life give evidence that you truly know the Lord?
If not, why not settle it right now? Why not believe that Jesus Christ died on that cross to pay the penalty for your sins? You cannot acquire righteousness by doing good deeds. You do it by acknowledging your unrighteousness and putting your trust in the finished work of Jesus Christ. Then God credits to you--imputes to you--His divine righteousness and fits you for heaven.
When you put your trust in Jesus Christ as your Savior from sin and He takes His place in your life, He's going to begin to work some changes and there will be some evidence that you are a true child of God. And Jesus says, "I will never erase his name from the book of life, but I will acknowledge him before My Father and His angels."
"He who has an ear let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches." Let's pray.
Heavenly Father, thank You for the people who are alive. I thank You for the Christians in this church who are alive, who walk with You day by day, who talk about You, who share You with others, who give evidence of Your reality in their lives, who are controlled by Your Spirit. God, thank You for them. May they be an ever-growing number. May we make a powerful impact on this community for the gospel of Jesus Christ. We ask it in His name. Amen.