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.
Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have found your deeds unfinished in the sight of my God. 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.
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. 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.
Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. Revelation 3:1-6 (NIV)
Sardis (modern Sart, Turkey) was an active commercial city, which was very wealthy. Its prominent position on top of a steep hill, so steep that its defences seemed impregnable, led its inhabitants to presume their safety. However, because of their failure to keep watch the city was defeated twice, by Cyrus (549BC) and Antiochus (218BC). While they slept the city was overrun.
Unlike earlier churches (Pergamum and Thyatira) that had a minority of members who held to false teaching, Sardis was notable for the true believers being in a minority. This could explain why the letter to this church contains no mention of the persecution of Christians that the other churches in the region were facing. It has been suggested by some commentators that the reason why persecution was not mentioned, is that the church at Sardis was so ineffective that it wasn’t worth persecuting. It was not seen as any kind of threat to the Jewish community.
In the opening remarks of the letter the church is condemned immediately. No praise for this church. It is said that the church had a reputation for being alive, but was actually dead. Jesus looks beyond the obvious, outward appearance of health and vitality to the true nature of the church (dead).
Yet all is not lost. The church is told to ‘Wake up!’. Earlier translations use the phrase ‘Be watchful!’, a pointed reference to the city’s history of not setting a watch, thereby leading to it being captured. This church is encouraged to ‘… strengthen what remains and is about to die’. This would seem to indicate that the true believers were close to going the same way as the rest of the church in accepting false teaching. Even at this late stage there is hope.
The way back for this church is to remember what they received and heard (the truth of the gospel) and by implication to forget what some members were now believing (false teaching). Repentance is needed so that the people turn their backs on falsehood. The phrase ‘… hold it fast’ means ‘take a firm grip of …’ and conveys the need for perseverance.
The warning is clear for the church if it does not wake up to reality and change its ways; Jesus will come unexpectedly and deal with them. Their fate may be undefined, but it is clear that their punishment will be final.
The letter moves on to those who have remained true and not ‘… soiled their clothes …’ by accepting false teaching. These true believers are described as being ‘… dressed in white’; a reference to purity before God. For those other members of the church who repent and ultimately prove victorious, the promise is given ‘The one who is victorious will, like them, be dressed in white’. Those who are with the Lord and those who repent and return to the Lord are welcomed. Being ‘dressed in white’ also gives us an indication of how God sees us when we are in Christ. He doesn’t see our sin, but our purity (all achieved through the death and resurrection of his Son).
Applying this to our churches today, it is clear that there are individual churches (and even denominations) where true belief is in short supply. Today we see so many who hold to the ‘we have to be accepting of any teaching because otherwise it shows us as being intolerant’. The true believers at Sardis must have had stark choices to make about whether to accept or speak out.
Even today we need to be watchful so that we are on our guard against false teaching, but more insidious is the acceptance by the church and its members of the moral standard accepted by society at large. This is resulting in some individuals and churches not teaching that sex should be reserved for marriage and that living together before marriage is not what God wants. There is the same need for the church today to ‘Wake up!’ before it is too late.
It is also essential that we keep a firm grip on the basic truths of the gospel, so that we can remind ourselves what we believe. As Christians we need to spend time studying God’s Word so that we understand sound doctrine.
Purity of life is the moral standard that is acceptable to God. There are so many ways today that we could ‘soil our clothes’ – from adopting false teaching, to watering down our faith, to taking on the world’s standards.
Even a church like Sardis was offered the opportunity to repent and turn back to God. So never presume that it is too late to seek God’s forgiveness. In your witness keep reminding people of the offer of forgiveness that God has made available through Jesus Christ.
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