Today we meet the fifth church in our series of the seven churches of Revelation. Remembering that these seven churches are a picture of the church universal throughout time and space, we have encountered churches struggling in the midst of persecution, churches struggling against themselves and the tendency to look like the world, and we have encountered churches fighting false prophets from within their own ranks. And in each of these churches Jesus has introduced himself in a way that is both comforting to the faithful, and also challenging to those who are in error, and today will be no different.
Jesus begins by saying, “These are the words of him who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead” (Rv 3:1). I will come back to the image of Jesus holding the seven spirits and the seven stars in a bit, but I would like to begin today by noting that Jesus knows certain things, namely 1) Jesus knows what our churches (and each Christian) have and have not done and 2) Jesus knows the difference between true spiritual life and spiritual death in the church and in the individual.
Jesus knows when a church is preaching the Word of God faithfully to her members. Jesus knows when a congregation is sharing the good news of Christ’s victory over sin and death with people in the workplace, family members in the house and with friends as we play. Jesus knows when a church shies away from confronting sin and he knows when we suffer for the gospel. He knows when a church was once faithful in taking the gospel to her neighborhood, city and the world and he knows when a church has ceased from these activities. Jesus knows the sin we harbor and ignore and the righteous activities we excel in. He knows who is truly sold out to the Father’s kingdom and he knows whose allegiance is strictly superficial because it makes good business sense or it keeps people with others of good character. He knows all of this because he is God. He is the glorious Christ dressed in white with hair white like wool…and eyes like blazing fire…and a face like he sun shining in all its brilliance (Rv 1:14-16). And that should give every church, every congregant and every pastor a reason to pause and reflect upon their life. Jesus knows who we are and he knows our deeds, our lifestyles, even our very thoughts.
Now to have that kind of knowledge by itself would be one thing, but to have it in conjunction with the next piece of knowledge Christ possesses gives that knowledge great weight. It makes that knowledge about our deeds really important and it gives that knowledge an eternal importance. You see, Jesus knows the difference between true spiritual life and spiritual death. He knows that spiritual life flows from himself and his Spirit for he is “the way, the truth and the life” (Jn 14:6). And he knows that death, both spiritual and physical, flows from sin. As the Word declares, “The wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23) or even earlier God himself declared to Adam, “On the day you eat of this tree, you will surely die” (Gen 2:17). And because Jesus knows the difference between life and death, he knows that nothing good comes from the realm of the dead, so when he sees the deeds of death present in the church in increasing quantity he knows that sin is working to a great degree, no matter what the external appearance is. Because he knows the difference between life and death he is fit to pronounce judgment upon all our deeds!
And that is what he does to the church at Sardis. He pronounces judgment upon the church by calling to light her true state. As one commentator declared, Sardis is like “a corpse in a funeral parlor…decked out in flowers and makeup to cover up the true reality.”1 [wax museum] They are like the Israelites at Mount Sinai, if I can make this allusion. They have heard the voice of God thundering from the mountain, they have promised to worship the Lord and do whatever he says through his servant Moses (Ex 19:8) and yet, when Moses goes up the mountain to get instruction from the Lord, the people build a golden calf and fall away into sinful rebellion (Ex 32). They are pretending to worship God but have lost their connection to God because they have failed to obey God. Isn’t that is the definition of spiritual death, the appearance of worshipping God without the actual practice?
We don’t know exactly what the deeds or lack thereof were at Sardis, our Lord doesn’t say directly. Though, I believe that a good case can be made that this Church was failing in its call to evangelize and confess the name of Christ, both in its worship and in the world. I say this for two reasons. First, one of the rewards Jesus promises to those in Sardis is the fact that he will confess them, or acknowledge them before ‘his’ Father (Rv 3:5). We know that in Luke 12:8 Jesus declares, “I tell you, whoever acknowledges me before men, the Son of Man will also acknowledge him before the angels of God.” If in fact this church were evangelizing, then this reward wouldn’t mean anything, but since they are most likely not sharing the message of Christ with others, then the hope of being acknowledged before God would be a highly motivational reward, for the opposite is also implied. If you don’t evangelize, then I won’t confess your name before my Father in Heaven. Do you see how I got here?
The second reason why I think they weren’t evangelizing was that this church isn’t experiencing any persecution. There is nothing difficult coming their way. There is no malice from the Jewish population in Sardis, there is no pushback from the Roman temples or magistracy. There is no hardship being experienced at all. In fact, they aren’t even experiencing false teaching, because there is nothing to teach against, no confession, no truth of the gospel. In fact, if you missed it, Jesus has absolutely nothing good to say about this church. In Ephesus, Pergamum and Thyatira Jesus had something good to say about the church before he brought out her faults, but not here. The church of Sardis is missing its gospel proclamation. The church of Sardis is missing its gospel living. The church of Sardis is missing its gospel thorn in the side of the world, and so it is DEAD.
What might a church like that look like in our world? What would characterize a dead church that appears alive? Aside from the obvious of not having any conversions in recent history, wouldn’t a church that appears alive but is dead actually be a place where the society is lauding the work of the church, applauding its social engagement, heralding its progressive theological stances upon issues like sexuality and multiculturalism and religion and immigration and holding it forth as a beacon in the religious world of tolerance and love. Wouldn’t it be a place where the arts are developed and utilized in worship to a point that the average parishioner feels unable to worship on Sunday and simple become a spectator in the drama occurring on stage? Wouldn’t it be a place where the sermon was more like a self-help talk from popular psychology or an excerpt from the Idiot’s Guide to a Better Life than like a biblical call to repentance and faith in the Resurrected Christ?
All of those things may make for a building that is full of people, with great worship bands, multiple services, wonderful programs for every age and segment of society, and with a grand reputation for being the “church,” but if the gospel is missing from the church as a transformative message that changes the hearts and the lives of people then all the reputation of being alive is naught, there is just death. [What if a church was preaching the gospel faithfully but the fruit of the Spirit wasn’t present. What if the right content is there but the presence of God is absent? There is no spirit in it. That too is a dead church though many inside it might consider it alive.]
And that reality seems to be present in many places in our world. Many denominations continue to focus more and more effort on social justice issues and less and less effort on evangelism. If I was to preach a sermon on every topic the denomination sends me a bulletin insert on during the year I would preach at least 20% of our services related to things like AIDS, Hunger, Disability concerns, Aboriginal needs, etc.2 And we are some of the better denominations on things like this. I am not saying that these topics aren’t important and that the church should be silent on them, we shouldn’t, the church must be speaking on and teaching about topics of contemporary relevance but that isn’t our main call. The main call of the church is to preach Christ crucified, died and Resurrected, if the church is to be a living, breathing, vibrant force in the world.
And what is the ultimate end of the dead church and the dead Christian? Jesus says, “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” (Rv 3:3). The image of a thief coming is used many times in the Scriptures to discuss Jesus’ return when the end of the age will be judged, but it would be a particularly poignant image to a resident of Sardis, because in the hills surrounding Sardis there lived a particularly notorious thief which no governmental force had been able to capture and subdue. This thief struck the unsuspecting traveler or resident and he took everything of value from them. Such is the end of the dead Christian who hasn’t the gospel in alive and in his life. Such is the end for the church that isn’t living and breathing the gospel in her ministry. Jesus will come and everything will be taken, nothing will remain, the judgment will be complete and total, as the rewards illustrate. If spiritual life brings holiness, Jesus’ presence, and a place in the Kingdom, then death brings the opposite of this, filthiness, the absences of the presence of God, death and no presence and participation in the Kingdom.
So consider carefully what your life is? Is it truly alive, or does it merely appear to be alive and death has been whitewashed? If you conclude this letter was written to you, or to our church, then let me provide some further instruction for those who find themselves caught up in all the finery of religion without any of the spiritual life and gospel substance. Let Jesus instruct you as to how a church or denomination is to refocus its life upon the life and heart of God?
Thankfully, Jesus is very clear. The remedy for spiritual death or lethargy is 5 fold, and all five are commands given by the Lord. First, one must Wake up! Second, they must strengthen what remains of the faith. Third, they must remember the gospel. Remember what you have received and heard! Fourth, one must obey the gospel and finally, they must Repent! (Rv 3:3).
To wake up is a call to pay attention. To get out of your stupor and focus on the Spiritual realities that are at work in the world. There is a battle going on over the gospel and the future of every person. This call to wake up is a military term that would be particularly meaningful to a resident in Sardis, for Sardis was built high upon the top of a cliff. It was supposedly impregnable and it became “one of the greatest debacles in the annals of military history. Because of [King Croesus’] unbridled confidence in the Sardis’ impregnable fortress built high above the city below, when Cyrus, king of Persia invaded the area, he not only defeated Croesus’ army down in the valley, but a few of Cyrus’ men actually managed to climb the rocky point and scaled the wall of the fortified city. Since Croesus thought the city was safe from such attacks, he ordered that no men be stationed along the cities’ walls inside the fortress. Therefore, a very small group of Persian soldiers were able to capture the entire fortress, ensuring Croesus’ total defeat, simply because he left the fortified city undefended.”3
And what makes this worse is that it happened not once, but twice, roughly 300 years later, Antiochus the Great did the exact same thing and found the walls unguarded again, and so easily defeated.4 The remedy for spiritual death is to wake up and join in the battle. Recognize the truth of the forces allayed against the church and the Kingdom of God. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms (Eph. 6:12). And yet it plays out in this world through flesh and blood, and governments and institutions, through leadership, denominations, culture, music and economics. Every area of life is subject to be used and so every area of life needs the proclamation of Christ and the call to repent and believe. Revelation will make this very clear as we progress through the book and see that there are only two armies – the army of light and the army of darkness and every person and institution is allied with one or the other, neutrality is not an option. To wake up is to recognize where the real spiritual danger lies?
Once we wake up as individuals and as churches we are called to strengthen those parts of our life where the gospel is still present or to strengthen those members of the church who have not soiled their clothes. The whole concept of strengthening or being strengthened is that of adding support to something feeble. When you realize that a branch on your fruit tree is too small for all the fruit on it, you add a support. When you realize your tomato, or grape or vine is growing, you add a support. That is what is being talked about here. Add the supports of the gospel to your life and your church. Just like Aaron and Hur stood under Moses arms and held them up during the battle (Ex 17:12), so also, stand under those who are weak and give the gospel to them. For the gospel strengthens according to Paul in 1Thes 3:2 “We sent Timothy, who is our brother and God’s fellow worker in spreading the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you in your faith.” And so does God (Rom 16:25, 2Th 3:3) and the truth (2Pt 1:12) strengthen people along with patience (Jam 5:8), and good works (2Th 2:17).
The weak must be strengthened in the scriptures, taught the way of faith, prayed for and lifted up to the one who will not snuff out a smoldering wick or break a bruised reed as Matthew declares of Jesus, (Matt. 12:20) A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out, till he leads justice to victory (Quoting Isa. 42:3).
And that strengthening comes best by Remembering what you have received and heard; Obey[ing] it and repenting [ourselves] (Rv 3:3). Remember the command to confess your sins for he is faithful and just to forgive your sins and cleanse you from all unrighteousness (1Jn 1:9). Remember the call to Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you (Mt 28:19-20). Remember that “wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it (Matt. 7:13-14). Remember that Jesus died for the sins of the ungodly and that he conquered death and just as he rose from the dead to a new life, so also we are called to die to sin and rise to new life where sin is no longer our master (Rom 6:11).
And as this foundation is re-laid and as this solid rock is placed under your feet and the feet of those who are weak, begin living in obedience to it’s teaching – flee immorality. Flee sin. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have (1Pt 3:15). And as you do you will find yourself constantly in a posture of repentance as you turn from darkness to light.
(So what might this practically look like in a denomination that is dying and is worried about the loss of youth in our churches, we need to wake up to the fact that the danger of loss resides in the way we are training families and educating our children in the faith, not in the fact that we aren’t contemporary enough or socially savvy enough. The Church must strengthen the family and teach fathers how to lead their families in worship and how to disciple their children. We must teach mothers how to faithfully administer their homes and lead their children in the faith. We must take a good hard look at the things our children are being taught in our schools and correct the errors that have crept in. We must recognize that being raised in a home that calls itself “Christian” is not the same thing as actually being Christian and living a Christian life. We must help those who are weak in the faith and barely able to see the cords of secular culture that have entangled their families and their ways of living and we must help every believer to obey Christ and continue to flee the death of the contemporary age.)
So where is the good news in all of this you may be wondering? The good news begins this letter and it ends the letter. The good news begins in the truth that Christ holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. Recalling that the 7 spirits of God is the way the Holy Spirit is introduced in the opening verses of the Book of Revelation , Jesus is saying that he has or possesses in his grip the fullness of the Holy Spirit, the very spirit of life they desperately need. And in his other hand, he holds the messengers of the church. What a wonderfully encouraging piece of Good News, because that means that what we need can only be accessed through Christ and through his joining of the church and the Spirit.
Adrian Dieleman writes, “Picture this: in one hand Christ holds the Spirit that gives life to the church; in the other hand Christ holds the church needing the life of the Spirit. Both are held by Christ and they are brought together by Christ.”5 The hope for the dead Christian, church or denomination (incl. ours) is in the very person and work of Jesus Christ. For in him death is defeated and life emerges from the grave. In Jesus and in Jesus alone can the Spirit of life so desperately needed for a dying congregation be found. And when he brings the church and the Spirit together and life flows forth to all who reside in His shadow then the rewards of faithfulness are guaranteed: a perfect, unstained clothing as a picture of holiness; a guarantee of citizenship6 in the eternal presence of God’s kingdom and a personal introduction to the Father of Heavenly Lights as one Jesus knows. The honors don’t get much better than that.
And so we come to communion, the table of the Lord. It is a table where our Lord himself invites us to eat and drink of his life. He invites us into a living union with himself and his Spirit. And every time we participate in this table, we proclaim the Lord and his death until he comes again. Our very act of taking these elements is a profession that Christ is Spiritual Life. And he has brought about the birth of another child of our congregation, who professed Christ boldly before you today.
3 Dr. Kim Riddlebarger, Sermon 7 of Revelation series on Rev. 3:1-6. ““The city played a prominent role in the history of Asia Minor. Home to King Midas, who was known for his golden touch, Sardis was also the home of King Croesus, one of the wealthiest men in the ancient world. Croesus’ reign, however, ended in one of the greatest debacles in the annals of military history.”
4 IVP New Bible Dictionary, “Sardis”, Accordance ed.
5 Rev. Adrian Dieleman, Sardis: The Dying Church, http://www.trinityurcvisalia.com/NTSer/rev03v01-06.html
6 To have one’s name blotted off the citizenship rolls of Athens, was the preparatory act necessary for a sentence of death/execution to be given. (WBC, NT Rev. 3:5).