Special series: The Revelation of Jesus Christ
Sixth in a series of eight.
Sardis: The church in the deception of a false reputation
By James K. Bridges
Sardis was one of the wealthiest cities in the ancient world. Much of its wealth came from gold taken from the nearby Pactolus River. Apparently, the first gold and silver coins were minted at Sardis.
The name of Sardis, however, became a name of contempt. Despite an outward appearance of life, the city and the church were dead spiritually. Tragically, this describes many, if not most, of the historic churches in Europe and the United States that had their beginnings in the Reformation. Spiritually, the church of Jesus Christ has proven to live more victoriously in a climate of persecution than in one of affluence.
The identification of the Author
“These things says He who has the seven Spirits of God” (3:1).
There is one Holy Spirit who is the third Person of the triune Godhead. The reference to the “seven Spirits of God” symbolizes His sevenfold ministry, meaning His full and complete ministry. Isaiah spoke of the sevenfold Spirit — “the Spirit of the Lord … the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord” (Isaiah 11:2, NKJV).
Christ presents himself to the church in Sardis as the One who is the possessor and the dispenser of the Holy Spirit. What this church needed could only be received through the Holy Spirit.
Jesus begins and ends His message to the church in Sardis with reference to the Holy Spirit. The Pentecostal revival, with manifestations of the Spirit, had spread throughout Asia (Acts 19:10-12). It had, no doubt, given birth to the church in Sardis. It grieves Christ to watch a spiritually dead church try to simulate the motions and actions of a living Spirit-filled church, as Sardis had once been. He urges the believers in Sardis to focus on Him who can renew their life through the Spirit.
Believers need the regenerative power of the Spirit in salvation; but they also need the empowerment that comes from the baptism in the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:4). The church in Sardis had lost the dynamic of living and walking in the Spirit, but there was a way of recovery. It required listening to “what the Spirit says to the churches,” as mentioned in all seven messages. The Holy Spirit speaks to the human spirit through the Word of God, the conscience, an inner voice, and can speak audibly if He so desires. If the church in any age will listen and obey the Holy Spirit, it will avoid the spiritual death that befell Sardis.
“He who has … the seven stars” (3:1).
As Jesus explains to John at the beginning of the apostle’s visions, the stars of the churches are the angels or the ministers of those churches (Revelation 1:20). If there is any hope for a dead church, it is through the anointed preaching and teaching of Spirit-filled pastors and teachers.
In these last days, the Lord has raised up the Pentecostal movement. Anointed Pentecostal ministers have spread the gospel of Jesus Christ around the world with a remarkable harvest of souls. It is the responsibility of the ministers of Christ to maintain the standard of the Word of God and to keep the fire of Pentecost burning in the church. The pastoral leadership in the church in Sardis must bear much responsibility for the spiritual condition of the church. Pentecostal preaching will produce Pentecostal living!
The evaluation of the church
“I know your works … [and] have not found your works perfect before God” (3:1,2).
A dead church produces dead works. The Sardis church would have to “strengthen what still remains though it is at the point of death” (3:2, Weymouth). Having been inspected before the presence of God, their works are found to be incomplete, insufficient, lifeless and unacceptable.
“You have a name that you are alive, but you are dead” (3:1).
Reputation is based upon an outside assessment. The church in Sardis had a reputation that it was alive. It had outward prosperity. But Christ penetrated their façade and brought them to stark reality by declaring them to be dead.
The solution to the existing condition
“Be watchful” (3:2).
Jesus says, “Behold, I am coming as a thief. Blessed is he who watches, and keeps his garments, lest he walk naked and they see his shame” (16:15). In the midst of John’s reporting of the tribulation scenes, the Lord inserts a message to all believers about the necessity of staying ready for the Lord’s return.
Scripture issues a clarion call to watchfulness. “It is high time to awake out of sleep” (Romans 13:11). “Watch, stand fast in the faith” (1 Corinthians 16:13). The church must stay alert against the wiles of the devil (1 Peter 5:8); the church must stay on guard against temptation (Matthew 26:41); the church must stay on watch for the coming of the Lord (Mark 13:37); and the church must stay on guard against false teachers (Acts 20:29-31).
The church in Sardis was in the sleep of death and needed to “wake up” and repent. Otherwise, Christ would come as a thief to bring judgment upon the church (Revelation 3:3), which very likely would be the removal of its lampstand — its existence as a church (cf. 2:5).
“Remember therefore how you have received and heard” (3:3).
The Lord directs the attention of the church to its beginnings when the gospel was proclaimed in Pentecostal power with signs following. When people backslide, it is essential that they recall the spiritual experience they had in Christ and repent of the sin that separated them from that relationship; they must “hold fast” to the truth which sets them free from sin.
The consolation promised to the overcomers
“They shall walk with Me in white” (3:4).
Contrasting white garments with defiled garments is a way of identifying those who have “washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (7:14) apart from those whose garments are still sin-stained.
When Christ promised that the overcomer “shall be clothed in white garments” (3:5) He was speaking of the righteousness with which He would cloth the bride of Christ, His church. John described those gathered at the marriage supper of the Lamb as being “arrayed in fine linen, clean and bright [white]” (19:8). And further, His people are described as “the armies in heaven, clothed in fine linen, white and clean” (19:14) returning with Christ to rule and reign on the earth. Walking with the Lord in white is a reference to living in purity and holiness before the Lord. Believers in every age must walk in “holiness, without which no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14) and live with the anointing of the Holy Spirit upon their lives and ministries. That is the way to stay alive!
“I will not blot out his name from the Book of Life” (3:4).
If the possibility of having one’s name removed from the Book of Life was not real, the Lord would never have implied such a danger. John further discussed this possibility in the conclusion of the Book of Revelation when he pointed out that those who tamper with the Word of God by adding to it or taking away from it will have their part taken from the Book of Life (22:19). (This is a severe warning to modern-day liberals who have altered the Scriptures to fit their humanistic teachings.) When people accept Christ as their Savior they do not lose their free moral agency. They retain the capacity to choose right or wrong. The doctrine of “once saved, always saved” puts believers in an unreal world in which they are incapable of choosing to disbelieve.
Except for “a few names” (3:4), the members of the church in Sardis were dead “in trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1). It is clearly untrue to argue that they were never saved to begin with. These were backslidden members who had been saved but were now being given a chance to have their relationship with Christ restored. If they refused to repent and continued to walk in defilement, their names would be blotted out of the Book of Life. John later saw that “anyone not found written in the Book of Life was cast into the lake of fire” (20:15), which means eternal destruction.
Those who overcome sin, the world, the flesh and the devil through the blood of Christ receive the promise of a permanent place in the Book of Life. Christ will gladly confess the names of such overcomers to His Father and to the angels (3:5).
James K. Bridges is general treasurer of the Assemblies of God.
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This material will be found in expanded form in an upcoming book to be published by Gospel Publishing House.