Then, to the angel of the assembly in Sardis write, “These things says the One Who has the seven Spirits of God and the seven stars: I have perceived your works, that you have a name, that you live, but you are dead.
“Become watchful, then make secure these things which were about to die, for I have not found your works to have been completed in the presence of My God.
“Be remembering, be mindful of, therefore, how you have taken hold of and listened, and be preserving of it, keeping it, then let your mind and purpose be changed; repent.
“For thus if you do not keep watch, I will come as a thief, and you will not at all know in what manner of time I will come upon you.
“But rather you have a few names in Sardis who did not defile their garments, and they will walk with Me in white garments, for they are worthy.
“The one who prevails and gets the victory, in this way will be clothed in white garments, and I will not ever blot out that one’s name from the Book of Life, and I will acknowledge that one’s name in the presence of My Father and before His angels.
“The one who has an ear, listen to what the Spirit is saying to the assemblies.”Revelation 3:1-6
In antiquity, Sardis, capital of Lydia, was renowned for its red dyes and woolen textiles. It was founded during the Late Bronze Age, 1220 BCE, by Greek colonizers said to be the sons of Hercules. Sardis stood at the foot of Mount Tmolus, commanding the fertile Hermus Valley, and was a significant destination on the trade route connecting the Aegean Sea with inland city-states.
The Pactolus stream, running down Mount Tmolus, carried an abundance of silver and gold flakes. During the reign of King Croesus (585-549 BCE), Sardisan metallurgists learned how to isolate this silver and gold dust to produce remarkably pure ingots. Minted gold and silver coins from Sardis began what we know today as modern currency, making the names of King Croesus and Sardis synonymous with unimaginable wealth.
So it comes as no surprise that Sardis was considered quite a prize by invading armies. Yet, despite their own prepossessing military might, Sardis had indeed famously been conquered not just once, but several times, because it had not been watchful.
- King Lygdamis of the Cimmerians captured Sardis in 644 BCE, claiming the whole region of Lydia.
- Cyrus the Great swept through and took Sardis in 549 BCE, making it one of the chief cities of the Persian Empire.
- In the Ionian revolt of 498 BCE, Sardis was burned to the ground before being retaken by Persian overlords.
- Alexander the Great compelled Sardis to surrender in 334 BCE.
- Antiochus the Great took the city once again in 218 BCE, establishing Sardis as the seat of the Seleucids.
Jesus almost certainly was alluding to this sad history when He told the believers in Sardis to become watchful. Spiritually, they were like a slumbering city even as invading armies (of sin, perhaps) were gathering outside the walls.
The risen Christ, Who has and Who gives His Own Holy Spirit, Who holds each of these seven assemblies in His hands, knew full well what was happening in Sardis.
You have a name. They seemed to be Christians, certainly they called themselves Christians, they associated themselves with the name of Jesus.
Your works are incomplete before God. Jesus could see they were not finishing what they had started.
You live, Jesus told them, but you are dead. In his play, Murder in the Cathedral, T. S. Eliot called this living and partly living, writing,
… we have lived quietly, succeeding in avoiding notice, living and partly living. There have been oppression and luxury, there have been poverty and license, there has been minor injustice. Yet we have gone on living, living and partly living.T. S. Eliot, Murder in the Cathedral, Chorus, p. 180
Whatever made the Sardisan Christians’ works incomplete—whether they no longer followed the guidance nor counted upon the empowering of the Spirit, or whether they failed to follow through with God’s call on their lives, or whether their motivation had drifted into more self-serving reasons—they now were becoming Christians in name only.
Remember What You Heard and Held To
It seems Sardis had become well-known for its immorality, and perhaps this made it harder for believers there to remain faithful to the high call of holiness.
From Apostle Peter
As [Jesus] who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct, for it is written,
“You shall be holy, for I am holy.”1 Peter 1:15-16 (NRSV)
From Apostle Paul
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places,just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love.Ephesians 1:3-4 (NRSV)
Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her in order to make her holy
– by cleansing her with the washing of water by the word,
– so as to present the church to himself in splendor, without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind,
so that she may be holy and without blemish.Ephesians 5:25-27 (NRSV)
Jesus enjoined these believers to wake up and keep watch, to remember and keep in mind what they had heard—from Jesus, and from the apostles—and had taken hold of. Jesus warned them to anchor these things into their minds and hearts, heed them, and be changed through the process of repentance.
What little was left of their faith and lives of faith was basically on life-support. Spiritually speaking, their assembly was dying.
In the Gospels, the Lord had used the same metaphor of a thief (later, both Peter and Paul also used this metaphor) to describe what it would be like when He returned for His own. However, Jesus warned, unlike other Christians, who would recognize the signs of Jesus’s return, and would be joyfully prepared, the assembly in Sardis would be caught unaware.
But there was still time for them to be restored, because there were still a few left among the believers in Sardis who really were Christians, living by faith in the power of the Spirit. There is no question the assembly knew exactly who these people were. They had a name, a reputation, among the Sardisan Christians. They had not defiled their garments, and therefore were walking with Jesus in white raiment.
That would be hard to miss!
People know who those are
- Who have the Spirit and power of God.
- Who love with grace and kindness.
- Who have Christ’s character and purpose.
- Whose lives are filled with the fruit of the Spirit.
Jesus’s words make me think of God watching what was happening in the Cities of the Plains, most notably Sodom and Gomorrah. Whatever influence Melchizedek may have had, or Abraham, or even Lot, it was all dwindling down to nothing. Finally, the day came when God could not find even ten righteous people in any of those cities.
The cleansing wrath of God would now bring judgment.
I think that is why Jesus explained what would happen to those who listened to Him, and to what the Holy Spirit was saying to the assemblies.
The one who prevauls will be
- clothed in white garments. They will be purified, just as the Apostle Paul described above.
- and I will not ever blot out that one’s name from the Book of Life. This is not an assault on the assurance of salvation. Instead, think what happens when the next generation of a church calls itself Christian but does not actually have faith in Jesus. The name of that church has been gutted of its meaning. It no longer is a gathering of those who have the life of Christ.
- and I will acknowledge that one’s name in the presence of My Father and before His angels.
As Jesus had promised,
“Everyone, therefore, who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven.”Jesus, Matthew 10:32 (NRSV)
Both historicists and futurists see this as a depiction of the reforming church, 1517 – 1793, when many did indeed “wake up” and repent of previous spiritual decline.
From my point of view, this is a timeless warning to any church which has a reputation with no substance, works with no divine power, ritual and ceremony without spiritual passion and living faith.