Topical Scripture: Revelation 3:1-6
The church we’ll visit today was located in the most ideal city for Christianity in all of Revelation. If any church should have been alive and exciting, it was this one. And that was indeed their reputation, with everyone but Jesus.
Sardis was located thirty miles southeast of Thyatira and fifty miles east of Ephesus. She had been an important and wealthy city for centuries. Her foundations date to 1500 B.C., when she was the capital of the Lydian Empire.
This was the center of transportation for the entire continent. Major trade routes led from Sardis in five different directions, bringing her citizens commerce and wealth beyond any city in the region.
In addition, the Pactolus River carried gold dust literally into the city’s market place. Croesus, her king in 560 B.C., minted the first modern coins, so that Sardis became the place where money was born.
Dyeing and woolen industries thrived here. Merchants lined her streets with their shops, some of which have been excavated and reconstructed today. Her baths and its columns, swimming pool, and gymnasium have been restored, and are among the most impressive in all of Turkey. Her people were so wealthy that when an earthquake devastated Sardis in A.D. 17 she rebuilt herself without aid from the Empire, in just nine years.
Sardis was the political capital 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 in Ephesus. Her Jewish synagogue was famous for its size and opulence. It has also been reconstructed, and is strikingly beautiful.
The authorities in Sardis were very tolerant of all religions, including Christianity. The church here faced none of the persecution believers endured in Smyrna or Pergamum. These Christians were uncompromised in their doctrine or moral convictions. None of the problems plaguing the other churches of Revelation are to be found here.
In every way this would seem to be an ideal church in an ideal city. And in fact Jesus says they “have a reputation of being alive” (v. 1). If we could visit this church, we’d be very impressed. A beautiful meeting place for worship, a wealthy congregation in attendance, an eloquent sermon, by every appearance the strongest church we’ve visited so far.
And so we expect to hear a strong word of support and commendation from Jesus. Then comes the shock: “You are dead.” You look alive, but you are not. You look healthy and wealthy, but you are not. You are asleep, and dying. And if you don’t wake up, now, “I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you” (v. 3). I’ll come and you’ll be gone.
These Christians are asleep spiritually, and near death. Though they live in the most ideal city in Revelation, they have lost touch with their souls. Now Jesus must do whatever is necessary to wake them up. The deeper the sleep the harsher the alarm must be, before the coma leads to death.
How a soul falls asleep
Trust appearances. Jesus says, “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” (v. 1, 2). If you want your spiritual life to grow useless and lifeless, trust how it looks.
Of all the churches and cities in Revelation, these should have known better. Sardis stood at the top of a mountain, 1500 feet above the valley. The mountain sides were smooth, so that there was no good way for an army to ascend and attack. The city stood like a giant watchtower over the Hermus valley below, and appeared impregnable.
When Cyrus of Persia attacked Sardis, her people were convinced that their walls would protect them. But a Persian soldier saw a Sardian soldier accidentally drop his helmet down the cliff and climb down to retrieve it. He knew then that there must be a crack in the side of that cliff by which a man could climb. That night he led a raiding party of Persian soldiers up the side of the mountain, through that crack. They found the Sardian watchmen sleeping and took the entire city. Sardis appeared safe, but they fell asleep and perished.
Two centuries later history repeated itself, as the Greek leader Antiochus and his troops climbed the same crack and found the watch asleep. Again the sleeping city fell. And now history was being repeated a third time in the church of Sardis. These believers were asleep and dying. Trusting appearances. Believing that because they looked healthy and vital, they must be.
This can happen so easily to us. We can think that because our church’s statistics are good and our meetings well-attended, we must be healthy. Because we come to church on Sunday morning and act religious, we must be. Because we keep up our activities, we must be growing spiritually.
But remember the Scripture: “Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16.7). If you want your soul to grow cold and lifeless, trust appearances.
Live in the past. Sardis’ greatest days were behind her. By this time she had become famous for decadence and immorality. She constantly remembered her great kings and achievements of the past, and lived in them. Her Christians gloried in their reputation and took pride in their great history. And soon their church would be history as well.
Christians can still make their mistake today. You may remember with joy the day you came to Christ, but that was to be just the beginning of your Christian life. You may recall a great revival your church experienced, or an exciting mission trip, or your days teaching the Bible or leading a ministry. But if you live in those days now, you will miss the power of God.
What is Jesus doing in your life today? Where is he at work now? Is he a living presence, or a historic figure for you? The subject of your religious faith, or a present reality? Who was the last person with whom you shared Christ? The last life you touched? The last time God spoke powerfully to you? The last time you gave your heart to Jesus in prayer? If you want your soul to grow dry and cold, live in the past.
Preserve the present.. Maintain the status quo. Become comfortable and complacent. Don’t rock the boat or offend your society. Fit in–keep things as they are. These were the mottos of Sardis, and her church. And they preserved the present until it was gone.
But many Christians still haven’t learned the lessons of Sardis. The seven last words of the church are, “We never did it that way before.” We want the status quo, some place in our lives to remind us of how the world used to be. In a postmodern, post-Christian society, we want one hour a week where we can go back in time to a place that is safe and comfortable. We like things efficient and organized. And nothing is better organized than a graveyard.
Are you comfortable with your faith today? Is your soul where you want it to be? Do you read about Sardis, unconcerned that it might be your church as well? Then it is. If you want your soul to be dull and dry, trust appearances, live in the past, and preserve the present. But a comfortable soul is soon complacent, and then comatose.
When a soul falls asleep
How do we “wake up”? “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? “What you have received….” “Received” translates the word for a possession deposited with a banker for safekeeping. We “received” the word of God and the Spirit in the same way a banker receives money. The indwelling Holy Spirit is our all-sufficient help for growing deep in the things of God.
Here’s how Peter states the fact: “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). We already have in our lives all we need.
How do we receive this help? We’re to remember what we have “received and heard.” The Spirit of God delights to speak to those who will listen. He is waiting to speak to us. God has so much more to say than most of us have heard.
Here is the Father’s plea: “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). The best way to feed our souls is by listening to God.
Every church in Revelation received the same invitation: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” I have counted over 300 times in Scripture where God tries to speak to his people. The Spirit wants to speak to us today.
Then why don’t we hear him more clearly? Because hearing anyone requires time and silence. We must make time to listen, and be still enough to hear. When last did you hear his Spirit speak to yours?
When we hear God’s voice, next we must “obey it, and repent” (v. 3). It is imperative that we surrender to what we hear God say, for the sake of our souls.
“Obey” in Jesus’ letter to Sardis translates a word which means “to keep.” It is in the present imperative, so that it could be rendered, “continually hold onto and never let go.” It is essential that we continue to obey what God says to us.
When we obey, we will usually need to repent as well. The closer we come to God, the further away we realize we are. When you’re walking at night and a passing car splashes mud on you, in the dark it doesn’t look too bad. As you come closer to a streetlight you see more mud, and begin to brush it off. When you stand in the light you see that you must go home and change. So with our souls.
The essence of growing spiritually is to live yielded to the voice of God’s Spirit.
It is possible to be close to Jesus, even in Sardis. In their sleeping, dying church “you have a few people who have not soiled their clothes,” Jesus says (v. 4a). The woolen industry in Sardis was famous the world over. And so Jesus contrasts their beautiful outer garments with their dirty souls, and commends the few who have stayed close to him.
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. They were also the robes of feasting and festivals, and of victory. Those whose souls are close to God are pure, joyous, and victorious.
And 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). “Acknowledge” means to advocate before the courts. Jesus will be our defender and win us approval before the Judge of the ages.
All this is waiting for those who will listen to God’s Spirit and obey what they hear. Even in Sardis we can overcome, walk with Jesus, be robed in white, and gain eternal favor with the Father. We can find our souls, never to lose them again.
An elderly, bedridden man became discouraged about his spiritual life. God seemed distant and unapproachable. He felt as though his prayers weren’t heard. He spoke to his pastor about this problem, and received some unusual advice. The pastor suggested that he put an empty chair next to his bed and imagine Jesus sitting in the chair. Then speak to him as though he were right there. The man did, and it worked. He kept the chair beside his bed always.
A few months later the man died. His daughter found him and called their pastor immediately. “It’s so hard,” she said through her tears. “He was fine when I left him. When I came back, he was gone. And there’s something I don’t understand. When I found him, his hand was in the empty chair. I wonder why.” Her pastor said, “I think I know.”