Too many churches live in the brilliance of their past. Like dead stars light years away, their residual glory might still be visible to distant observers, but what made them truly shine died long ago.
Such was the case for the church in Sardis. When Christ introduces Himself to this church He calls Himself “He that hath the seven Spirits of God, and the seven stars.” By introducing Himself in this way, He is reminding this congregation that He is the One Who empowers each and every church through His Spirit, and He is the One Who controls them. When a church forsakes these basics for survival to pursue “higher truth,” or worldly interests, or when a church just becomes apathetic about the Savior it serves, it dies. And before we pass that off as something that happens to a church as an organization, we need to remember that churches are made up of people. If a church dies, it’s because the people in it stopped caring.
Once alive and now dead
Jesus says to Sardis: “I know thy works, that thou hast a name that thou livest, and art dead” (v. 1). To put it another way: “I know you fully. You have a reputation. People on the outside think you’re alive, but I know for a fact that you’re dead inside.”
The exhortation: Stay awake!
The remedy Christ proposes to this church sounds more like a rescue operation than a revival. Trying to revive this church would be like trying to run the bilge pumps on the Titanic. “Be watchful” the Lord tells them (v. 2). This is the Greek word gregoreo, meaning to “keep awake,” “be vigilant.” It was this word that Jesus used when He told His disciples to “watch with me” on the night of His betrayal (Matthew 26:38). He also used this word when He described His return for His church in the last days: “…if the goodman of the house had known in what watch the thief would come, he would have watched, and would not have suffered his house to be broken up” (Matthew 24:43b). Complacency will kill any body of believers. “Strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die” He continues. In other words, “rescue what you can.” Then He says something very telling about the character of the church: “For I have not found thy works perfect before God.” Another way to translate this would be: “For I have not found your deeds completed in the sight of My God.” This was a church full of people just going through the motions. They were doing “Christian” deeds, but not in the power of the Spirit. One step away from doing things for Christ in the power of the Spirit is doing things for Christ in the power of the flesh. One step away from that is just doing fleshly things. Because you wake up one day and wonder, “Where is God in all of this? I’m doing this all by myself! Why do that when I can just enjoy myself without doing all this ‘God’ stuff!” It’s a wrong premise and it leads to a wrong conclusion, but it explains why so many Christian leaders and other professing believers end up in adultery, divorce, pornography, addiction, drunkenness, etc. The easy explanation is to say that “God just doesn’t work for everyone.” But God is never the problem. He’s always the solution. Believers get into trouble when they leave God – and it’s always the believers who do the leaving because God has already promised “I will never leave you.” (See Hebrews 13:5.)
The instruction: Remember!
Christ’s instruction for the way back is very much like His words to Ephesus, the church that had lost its first love: “Remember therefore how thou hast received and heard, and hold fast and repent” (v. 3). How has any believer received anything from Christ? By faith. (See Galatians 3:1-2.) Like Ephesus, they had left the basics and they needed to get back to them.
The promise: I will confess you before my Father
To their credit, there were some who “had not defiled their garments,” and these would “walk with [Him] in white” because they were worthy (v. 4). How were they worthy? Through their own righteousness? No, through the righteousness of Christ (See Romans 3:27). These worthy were the few in the church at Sardis who had found Christ as Savior. As He has done all through time, Jesus preserved a remnant.
To those who had kept their garments pure, Jesus promises “the same shall be clothed in white raiment; and I will not blot out his name out of the Book of Life, but I will confess his name before my Father, and before His angels” (v. 5). In Scripture, garments symbolize character (see Isaiah 64:6; Jude 23). Because these believers kept themselves pure, the Lord would reward them with heavenly robes that reflected His character. When the Lord says, “I will not blot out his name out of the Book of Life,” He is reaffirming the irrevocable promise of eternal life, not threatening to take it away as some interpret that verse. In Exodus 32:33 God warns Moses, “Whosoever hath sinned against me, him will I blot out of my book.” That is a completely different book than the Book of Life mentioned here. The Book of Life is the heavenly register of all who have trusted Christ. John’s readers would have understood the reference. In his day, rulers kept a register of the citizens of a city. If someone died or committed a heinous crime, their name was erased from the book. Christ promises to never erase the name of child of His from His Book! Instead, He will proudly confess those names before His Father.
Don’t be caught sleeping!
As He has with the other churches, Jesus exhorts His readers: “He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches” (v. 6). Sardis had once been a vibrant church and now it was dead. It died because it would not watch (v. 3) and stay awake to the truth. Vigilance to the truth is vital to any church and to every believer. We cannot afford to fall asleep.