Topical Scripture: Revelation 3:1-6
Sardis was located 30 miles southeast of Thyatira and 50 miles northeast of Ephesus. She had been an important and wealthy city for centuries, dating back to 1,500 BC when she was the capitol of the Lydian Empire.
Sardis was the center of transportation for the entire continent. Like spokes of a wheel, major trade routes led from the city in five different directions–northwest to Thyatira and Pergamum, west to Smyrna, east toward Phrygia, southeast to Philadelphia, and southwest to Ephesus. These trade routes brought the citizens commerce beyond any city in Asia Minor.
In addition, the Pactolus River carried gold dust literally into the city’s market place. Croesus, whose name is synonymous with wealth, was king of Sardis in 560 BC. He minted the first modern coins, so Sardis became the place where money was born.
The dye and woolen industries thrived here. Merchants lined her streets with their shops, some of which have been excavated and reconstructed today. The public baths with their ornate columns, swimming pool, and gymnasium have been restored and truly impressive. The people were so wealthy that when an earthquake devastated the area in AD 17, the people of Sardis rebuilt the city in nine years without any aid from the Empire.
Sardis was the political capitol for her region and a thriving religious center as well. She possessed a temple of Artemis which, while never completed, rivaled in size the famous Temple of Diana in Ephesus. The Jewish synagogue was famous for its size and opulence.
And the authorities in Sardis were tolerant of all religions, including Christianity. The church faced no persecution, and believers here had no need to compromise their doctrine or moral convictions to survive. These believers had none of the problems plaguing the other churches of Revelation.
In every way Sardis seemed to be an ideal church in an ideal city. The believers had a wealthy support base, enjoyed religious tolerance, and experience no apparent problems. In fact, Jesus says they “have a reputation of being alive” (v. 1a).
Then comes his shocking indictment: “you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead” (v. 1b).
How a soul falls asleep
How did things get this way in Sardis? The same way they do in Dallas, or any place.
First, trust appearances: “I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead…I have not found your deeds complete in the sight of my God” (vs. 1, 2). If you want your spiritual life to grow useless and lifeless, trust how it looks. Sardis was infamous for trusting appearances historically, and this tendency led often to her fall to military enemies. In the same way, Christians in Sardis are trusting in the appearance of spiritual vitality, when their souls are in fact far from God.
Second, live in the past. Sardis had a wonderful reputation for past greatness. But her present situation was critical. In the same way, we often trust in our past spiritual experiences when we should be seeking God today.
Third, preserve the present. Sardis is happy and complacent with the present. These Christians are engaged in none of the self-examination and spiritual introspection so important to a growing soul. In the same way, if our circumstances are good we are the last to examine our spiritual lives. And the results are disastrous.
Any Christian who believes that the tragedy of Sardis could not occur in his or her spiritual life, is close to repeating it today. When did you last examine your own soul before God?
How a soul revives
Jesus’ call is clear: “Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your deeds complete in the sight of my God” (v. 3a). How do we revive a sleeping soul?
First, listen to God’s Spirit: “Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard” (v. 3). “Remember” is in the present imperative and should be translated, “Go on remembering,” or “don’t ever let yourself forget.” Remember “what you have received.” “Received” translates a word for a possession deposited with a banker for safekeeping. We received the Christian faith in the same way a banker receives money. Faith did not originate with us. We do not need to create resources or to manufacture vibrant spirituality. God’s gift of the indwelling Spirit is our means for growing deep in the things of God, and we have already received it.
Remember Peter’s encouragement: “His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness” (2 Peter 1.3).
Remember “what you have received and heard.” The Spirit delights to speak God’s word to us: “Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and your soul will delight in the richest of fare. Give ear and come to me; hear me, that your soul may live” (Isaiah 55.2-3). We need both time and silence to listen to the Spirit of God, for the sake of our souls.
Next, obey what you hear: “obey it, and repent” (v. 3b). “Obey” translates a Greek word which means “to keep,” in the present imperative, so that it could be rendered “continually hold onto and never let go.” We must continue to obey what God has taught us. This obedience will require constant repentance. The closer we come to God, the further away from him we realize we are.
Third, act now: “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” (v. 3c). We have only today to be ready to meet God.
Rewards for a living soul
Even in this city of sleeping souls, it is possible to be alive and dynamic spiritually: “Yet you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes” (v. 4a). The woolen industry in Sardis was famous the world over. Jesus contrasts their beautiful outer garments with their dirty souls. Yet, he says, there are a few who have stayed close to him. And he commends them.
The future of these few is bright: “They will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy” (v. 4b). In the ancient world white garments stood for purity, as a white wedding dress does today. White robes were also used at banquets, festivals, and in victory celebrations. Those whose souls are close to God are pure, joyous, and victorious.
And Jesus promises that we can all join them in this spiritual victory: “He who overcomes will, like them, be dressed in white” (v. 5a). These robes will last forever: “I will never blot out his name from the book of life, but will acknowledge his name before my Father and his angels” (v. 5b).
Ancient cities kept a register of their citizens, and officials blotted out a man’s name when he died or committed a crime. Christians faced the constant threat of having their names stricken from the book of their city for following their illegal faith. But God will never blot his followers’ names out of his eternal book of heavenly citizenship.
In fact, Jesus will “acknowledge” us before the Father and his angels. This term can be translated “confess” and is a strong word which means to advocate before the courts. Jesus will be our defender and win us approval before the Judge of the ages.
Any Christian who is sure he or she is not in Sardis, probably is. It is not too late to return to vibrant faith in the living God. We walk with God through personal communion with his Spirit, listening to his voice and obeying his word. We must begin again, now.