The dead church – Revelation 3:1-6

                The Church in Sardis has no Nicolaitans, no Balaam, no Jezebel. But there is worse evil than the presence of what is morally and doctrinally corrupt.[1] This church was simply spiritually dead. There was a numbness about them. They were numb toward sin and toward the things of God. They were complacent and satisfied. They were just there, going through the motions without any life. Notice what verse one says, “And to the angel of the church in Sardis write,‘These things says He who has the seven Spirits of God and the seven stars: “I know your works, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead.” [2]Sardis, once the wealthy capital of Lydia, and the city of Crœsus, is now a poor village, bearing the name of Sart. An earthquake took place here during the reign of Tiberius. Melito was bishop of Sardis about the middle of the second century.”[3] The message to Sardis is coming from the one who has the ‘seven spirits of God and the seven stars.’ This is a reference to the Holy Spirit. The Lord Jesus is coming to them as the one who has given them the Holy Spirit. John MacArthur writes, “The descriptions of the divine author in each of the seven letters draw from the vision of 1:12-17. The letter to Sardis draws an additional component from the salutation in 1:4, where the phrase ‘the seven Spirits’ of God also appear. That phrase may refer to Isaiah 11:2, where the Holy Spirit is described as the ‘Spirit of the Lord…., the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and strength, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.’ It may also refer to the symbolic depiction of the Holy Spirit as a lampstand with seven lamps presented in Zechariah 4:1-10. In either case, the reference is to the Spirit’s fullness. Jesus Christ is represented in His church through the Holy Spirit. The seven stars are the seven messengers or elders, one from each of the seven churches, who likely carried a copy of the book of Revelation back to their respective churches. The imagery shows Jesus Christ, the sovereign Lord of the church, ruling through godly leaders and pastors.”[4]

The criticism given to the church. Jesus states that the church ‘has a name that you are alive, but you are dead.’ What a sad commentary! This church existed in name only. There was no life. It was a dead church. “The complaint Christ lodges against this church is that its reputation is faulty. Others may think this congregation is lively; Christ knows (note again the I know) differently. The church is almost spiritually dead. A corpse may be beautiful, but it is still dead. In contemporary terms, the Sardis church was filled with “nominal Christians.”[5] I wonder how many churches in America today would be classified as spiritually dead. There may be signs of life on the outside, but on the inside there is no passion, no fervor, and no fire. Often times we tend to categorize dead churches as liberal churches. However, being a dead church holds no prejudice toward being liberal or conservative. There are many charismatic churches that are full of excitement and energy, yet they are dead. There are many liberal churches who take pride in their all-inclusiveness and openness to all forms of doctrine. They take pride in their charitable deeds, yet they are dead. There are many fundamental conservative churches that stand strong on God’s Word and have high standards, yet they are dead. Spiritual deadness is a disease that affects all types of churches and all walks of life. Spiritual deadness often comes when things stay the same for too long. We go through the motions. We do the same thing week in and week out and it becomes simply routine. The love and passion for the things of God that we once enjoyed is now fading into the distance as we settle in to our tradition and ritual. Doing good deeds is commendable, standing true to scripture is honorable, but without any life, nothing really matters.

The command given to the church. Just like most all of the seven churches of Asia, a clear command is given to the church. Notice verses 2-4, “Be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die, for I have not found your works perfect before God. Remember therefore how you have received and heard; hold fast and repent. Therefore if you will not watch, I will come upon you as a thief, and you will not know what hour I will come upon you. You have a few names even in Sardis who have not defiled their garments; and they shall walk with Me in white, for they are worthy”.[6] The Holman New Testament Commentary suggests, “Foreign armies had captured the city of Sardis twice in its history because of its failure to watch. The Christians of Sardis now have an opportunity to avoid a parallel spiritual destiny. The church’s deeds appeared wonderful to those outside the church, but they were not complete in the sight of … God Christ did not accuse them of heresy, but neither had they offended Romans or unbelieving Jews. They were not being persecuted, but they had offended God by emphasizing formality over reality.”[7] They ‘emphasized formality over reality’. As I ponder that statement, I am mindful of the church I pastor. Do we emphasize formality over reality? Do I? Are we so focused on doing what we have always done and what we believe is right, all the while we are unaware of the needs around us and of that which God has called us to do? How can the church change? How can the church at Sardis find life again? The command given here is four-fold. 1. Be watchful.  The phrase ‘be watchful’ is best described as ‘wake up’. As mentioned earlier, there was a time when foreign enemies captured the city of Sardis because they fell asleep. They were not watchful. The church is also in danger of being destroyed, unless they wake up. Churches in our modern day have also suffered the same fate. Because we grew complacent and dead, the enemy has crept into the doors of the church. Congregations that were once a light to their community has grown cold and indifferent. 2. Strengthen the things that remain. The church at Sardis had already lost much. However, there were some things that were still there. There was a remnant. The encouragement given is to focus on those good things that do remain and strengthen them. This call to strengthen that which remains could refer to those few left in the church that had not succumb to deadness as did the others. The challenge is given to the messenger of the church to focus on those who still have some spiritual life in them. I know that as a pastor, I find it much more profitable to focus my attention on those who do have a passion for the things of God and work to strengthen and encourage them rather than putting all my energy into those who are spiritually dead and have no desire to grow. ‘Strengthen the things that remain’ could also refer to the dead and empty practices of the church; programs and charitable deeds that have grown empty. Matthew Henry writes, “I have not found thy works perfect before God, not filled up; there is something wanting in them; there is the shell, but not the kernel; there is the carcase, but not the soul—the shadow, but not the substance. The inward thing is wanting, thy works are hollow and empty; prayers are not filled up with holy desires, alms-deeds not filled up with true charity, sabbaths not filled up with suitable devotion of soul to God; there are not inward affections suitable to outward acts and expressions.”[8] The works we do as a church should be strengthened. We should seek the power of God in all that we do. We should allow the Spirit of God to fill us and direct our movements of ministry, lest our moving is just moving. 3. Remember who you are. He tells them to remember what they had received. In other words, remember where you came from. Remember how God once worked among you. “Part of the remedy was for this church to remember its glorious past, when it had been spiritually alive. When the Christians at Sardis were converted, they had received something important. While surely they had received the gospel, they had also received the Holy Spirit of life. They had forgotten about the Spirit’s work.” [9] It is good for congregations to remember how God worked in and through them in the past. Remember how the church once stood as a beacon of hope to a hopeless world. Remember how the church had a passion for winning lost souls to Christ. Remember how the church once had a love for worship. Remember how the church used its altar as a meeting place with God as they cried out to God on behalf of lost souls and those in need. Remember how the church once called fire down from heaven. Remember how the church had such faith that there was no worry over the financial state of the church, because they knew that God would provide. Remember when the church had a great vision to which they were committed. Remember the days when the church was filled with life and the Spirit of God was felt by all who came. The challenge is given to return to those days and hold fast to what they received. 4. Repent. Repentance is the key to life. The final command given to the church of Sardis was to repent of their spiritual deadness. A warning of judgment is also given here. If they do not repent, there will be consequences. When the Word of God is spoken and God’s people do not take heed and repent of the sins of which they are convicted, there will be consequences. “Christ had threatened to judge the unloving Ephesian church by removing its lampstand if it did not repent (2:5). He had promised to judge the heretical teachers in Pergamum by fighting with his sword against them if they did not repent. Now he threatens to judge the lifeless church of Sardis by coming against them like a thief at an unexpected time.” [10] This coming as a thief, I personally do not believe refers to the second coming of Christ. He is simply stating that judgment will come on the church at an unexpected time if they do not repent. The same message is given to the church today. We must repent of our spiritual deadness. We must come to Jesus and ask Him to fill us with His Spirit once more. Cry out to God for his power. Cry out for life to be restored in our deadened souls. In verse 4, we see that there were those who remained in the church that still had some life in them. “Is it possible for a “dead orthodox” church to change? In the case of Sardis, the answer was “yes” because a few people had remained faithful. They had not soiled their clothes by assuming that the appearance of true religion can substitute for the reality. Christ does not ask these faithful few to leave the nominal majority but to maintain their presence as a witness. They may have a difficult time doing so, but Christ commends them as worthy of special praise. They will appear dressed in white one day, revealed as truly righteous. Their righteousness was not the appearance but the reality, because they “washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (Rev. 7:14). Their righteousness was based on Christ’s death for them, which resulted in righteous living.”[11]

The commitment given to the church. Notice what the text says in verses 5-6, He who overcomes shall be clothed in white garments, and I will not blot out his name from the Book of Life; but I will confess his name before My Father and before His angels.“He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.[12] Those who overcome are those who truly saved. Their names are recorded in the Lambs book of life and their salvation is secure. MacArthur writes, “True Christians will be clothed in white garments. In the ancient world, white garments were also worn for festive occasions such as weddings. True Christians will wear theirs at the marriage supper of the Lamb. White robes were also worn by those celebrating victory in battle. All true Christians are victorious through Christ over sin, death, and Satan. However, white robes here primarily represent purity and holiness. Christ promises to clothe Christians in the brilliance of eternal purity and holiness.”[13] He also mentions that the true believer will not have his name blotted out of the Book of Life. This is a reference to eternal security. Those who are truly born again are safe and secured. He concludes in verse six with the same conclusion He has given to all of the churches. We are encouraged to listen and take heed to these messages to the churches.

Do you find yourself falling into spiritual deadness? Repent of your complacency and ask the Holy Spirit of God to fill you once again. Remember how God worked in your life in the past and cry out to God to revive your heart and bring life into your soul again!

[1] Spence-Jones, H. D. M. (Ed.). (1909). Revelation (p. 107). London; New York: Funk & Wagnalls Company.

[2] The New King James Version. (1982). (Re 3:1). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

[3] Lange, J. P., Schaff, P., Moore, E., Craven, E. R., & Woods, J. H. (2008). A commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Revelation (p. 125). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.

[4] MacArthur, John. Because the time is near. Moody Publishers. 2007.

[5] Easley, K. H. (1998). Revelation (Vol. 12, p. 54). Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers.

[6] The New King James Version. (1982). (Re 3:2–4). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

[7] Easley, K. H. (1998). Revelation (Vol. 12, pp. 54–55). Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers.

[8] Henry, M. (1994). Matthew Henry’s commentary on the whole Bible: complete and unabridged in one volume (p. 2468). Peabody: Hendrickson.

[9] Easley, K. H. (1998). Revelation (Vol. 12, p. 55). Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers.

[10] Easley, K. H. (1998). Revelation (Vol. 12, p. 55). Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers.

[11] Easley, K. H. (1998). Revelation (Vol. 12, p. 55). Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers.

[12] The New King James Version. (1982). (Re 3:5–6). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

[13] MacArthur, John. Because the time is near. Moody Publishers. 2007.

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