Churches are people and human nature has not changed. As we continue our study, we must not look on these letters as ancient relics. On the contrary, they are mirrors in which we see ourselves!
Sardis, the Feeble Church (Rev. 3:1–6)
Sad to say the city at that time was but a shadow of its former splendor and the church, unfortunately, had become like the city—it was alive in name only. The message to Sardis is a warning to all “great churches” that are living on past glory. Dr. Vance Havner has frequently reminded us that spiritual ministries often go through four stages: a man, a movement, a machine, and then a monument. Sardis was at the “monument” stage.
But there was still hope! There was hope because Christ was the Head of the church and He was able to bring new life. He described Himself as the one possessing the seven Spirits and the seven stars. There is only one Holy Spirit (Eph. 4:4), but the number seven demonstrates fullness and completeness. The Holy Spirit gives life to the church and life is exactly what the people at Sardis needed. The sevenfold Spirit of God is pictured as seven burning lamps (Rev. 4:5) and as seven all-seeing eyes (Rev. 5:6).
All of the church’s man-made programs can never bring life, any more than a circus can resurrect a corpse. The church was born when the Spirit of God descended on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2) and its life comes from the Spirit. When the Spirit is grieved the church begins to lose life and power. When sin is confessed and church members get right with God and with each other, then the Spirit infuses new life—revival!
Christ also controls the seven stars, the messengers of the churches (Rev. 1:20), referring most likely to the pastors. Sometimes, it is a pastor’s fault that a church is dying and the Lord of the church must remove the star and put another in his place.
The problem in the Sardis church was not heresy, but spiritual death. The church was infested with sin. Its deeds were evil and its clothes soiled. The Lord has no words of commendation for this church, which looked so good on the outside, but was so corrupt on the inside. Nor is there any mention of opposition or persecution. The church would have been better off had there been some suffering because it had grown comfortable and content, and was living on its past reputation. There was reputation without reality, form without force. Like the city itself the church at Sardis gloried in past splendor, but ignored present decay.
In fact, even what they did have was about to die! Why? Because the believers had gone to sleep. It is when the church’s leaders and members get accustomed to their blessings and complacent about their ministry that the enemy finds his way in.
The assembly in Sardis was not aggressive in its witness to the city. There was no persecution because there was no invasion of the enemy’s territory. No friction usually means no motion! The unsaved in Sardis saw the church as a respectable group of people who were neither dangerous nor desirable. They were decent people with a dying witness and a decaying ministry.
Our Lord’s counsel to the church began with, “Be watchful! Wake up!” (Rom. 13:11) The people were asleep! The first step toward renewal in a dying church is honest awareness that something is wrong. When an organism is alive, there is growth, repair, reproduction, and power; if these elements are lacking in a church, then that church is either dying or already dead.
The Lord warned the Ephesian saints He would come and remove their lampstand if they did not repent (Rev. 2:5). He warned the church at Pergamos He would come and make war with the sword of the Spirit (Rev. 2:16). If the believers at Sardis did not follow His orders, He would come as a thief, when they least expected Him; and this would mean judgment.
However, a remnant of dedicated people often exists in even a dying church. The Christians at Sardis had life, even though it was feeble. They were working, even though their works were not all they could have been. The Lord admonished them to strengthen what remained and not to give up because the church was weak. Where there is life, there is hope!
What was different about this dedicated remnant? They had not defiled their garments (Rev. 3:4). The remnant in the church at Sardis had not compromised with the pagan society around them, nor had they grown comfortable and complacent. It was this devoted spiritual remnant that held the future of the church’s ministry.
“Wake up! Be watchful! Repent! Remember the Word you have received and obey it!” This is the formula for revival. It is good to guard our spiritual heritage, but we must not embalm it. It is not enough to be true to the faith and have a great history. That faith must produce life and works.
Is there a warning here that a true believer might lose his salvation? I don’t think so. Revelation 13:8 and 17:8 suggest the names of the saved are written in the Book of Life from the foundation of the world—that is, before they had done anything good or bad. By God’s grace, they have been chosen in Christ before the beginning of time (Eph. 1:4; Matt. 25:34). They are enrolled in heaven because they have been born again (Heb. 12:23) and no matter how disobedient a child may be, he or she cannot be “unborn.”
The warning here is that we not grow comfortable in our churches, lest we find ourselves slowly dying. The encouragement is that no church is beyond hope as long as there is a remnant in it, willing to strengthen the things that remain.
In Part 4, we will look at Christ’s message to the church at Philadelphia, the faithful church.