To the Church in Sardis
To the Church in Sardis
by William Klock
The Third Chapter of Revelation sees us travelling with John’s courier about fifty kilometres south of our last stop in Thyatira. The fifth church that Jesus speak to through John is in the city of Sardis. Sardis was another great city of the ancient world. It sat at a major crossroads in what we would call western Turkey. For that reason it was a major centre of commerce and trade. It was a wealthy city. Sardis had once been a rugged frontier town, but even centuries before John wrote to the church there, the Greek historian Herodotus described the people of Sardis as decadent. He wrote about “the tender-footed Lydians, who can only play on the cithara, strike the guitar, and sell by retail.” In other words, it was a city of merchants and musicians and all of them gone soft. When Jesus says to the Christians there that they have a “reputation of being alive, but are dead,” I don’t think anyone would have missed the connection. And, if we have ears to hear, Jesus’ rebuke ought cause us to take note. We sit here this morning in a church built almost a century-and-a-half ago by the first pioneers to this part of Vancouver Island. Those great planks under your feet are rough, because they came from trees felled, cut, and milled by the men of the parish using what they had on-site. They mixed the plaster for the walls from oyster shells and horse hair. They built each of these pews on-site. And before they had pews, they and their families filled the church sitting on log rounds. Those men came here with their families, they struggled, they fought, they built a town—and they built a church and they built families to know and to worship and to be obedient to the Lord. And in too many ways those men and their families stand in stark contrast to our community and its people today. They thought of God, they thought of others, and we think only of ourselves. They sacrificed and they gave and they built up, where we take, and we complain, and we tear down. They raised families, they married and they bore children and they made all the sacrifices that entails, while our culture devalues and degrades families, kills its children before they’re born, replaces them with dogs and cats, and can’t even figure out what defines manhood and womanhood anymore. I hate to think what Herodotus would say of us today. And while I’m talking about the wider culture around us, not necessarily the contemporary church, the decadence of the culture has influenced all of us and has chipped away bit by bit at the integrity of the Church.
There was a church, too, in the midst of the decadent city of Sardis and in Chapter 3 Jesus says to them:
[T]o the angel of the church in Sardis write: ‘The words of him who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars.
Again, to each church Jesus introduces himself using one or two of the bits of imagery from the great vision of himself that he gave to John in Chapter 1. To Sardis he is the one who has the “seven spirits of God”, which we saw when we looked at John’s vision in Chapter 1 is a reference to a Holy Spirit. Jesus has created his Church through his giving of the Spirit and so here Jesus reminds the Christians of Sardis of his authority. They as a church would not exist without him and without his having filled them with the Spirit. Too, in reminding them of the connection between the Spirit and himself, he distinguishes the true work of the Spirit from the nonsense that Christians all too often try to attribute to the Spirit as justification of their false teaching and practise. A church that has a reputation for being alive, but that’s really dead is often filled with false works attributed to the Spirit, things that look lively, things that attract attention, but really have nothing to do with God. And they’re often full of false prophets like those of Jeremiah’s day, declaring “Peace, Peace! When there is no peace.”
And Jesus also comes to them as the one who holds the seven stars in his hands. In John’s vision those stars represent the churches. He not only gave birth to the Church, but he continues to hold it in his hand. So Jesus comes here to the elders, the leaders of the church in Sardis, to men who had become lax in their faithfulness to Jesus, elders who had made too many compromises with the decadent culture around them, and he reminds them that he is the one who owns the church and that nothing has or will escape his notice. They’d better watch out. And that idea, “Watch out!” or “Be on guard”, that’s the heart of his message to Sardis.
And this message of “Watch out!” is a fitting one. Again, Sardis was known for its wealth and for its decadence, but the thing that Sardis was really famous for was an embarrassing event in its past. Sardis was built on a mountain above the riverplain. The walls sat on top of cliffs and this made the city impervious to attack—or so the kings of Sardis thought. Back to the Greek historian Herodotus. He tells us of the most famous bit of Sardis’ history that took place a little over six hundred years before John wrote Revelation. Croesus, the king famous for his great wealth, was ruled Lydia and his throne was in Sardis. Cyrus the Great, the Persian emperor—the king who released the Jewish exiles to return to and to rebuild Jerusalem—Cyrus attacked the Lydians. Croesus and Cyrus square off, but neither side won. Croesus retreated into Sardis for the winter, up on the clifftops, expecting reinforcements in the Spring. He thought Cyrus, seeing the Lydians retreat into their impregnable fortress, would retreat and leave them alone until apring. Instead, Cyrus laid siege to the city and offered a prize to any of his soldiers who could figure out a way inside. So one of Cyrus’ soldiers staked out the walls of the city and one day, watching the walls, he saw a careless Lydian soldier drop his helmet. It tumbled down the cliff and not long after, the soldier who dropped it climbed over the wall and began picking his way down a part of the cliff that appeared unclimbable from the ground. He watched the soldier retrieve his helmet and climb back up the cliff. That night he picked a band of troops and together they scaled the cliff and found the fortress at the top completely unguarded. The Lydians were so sure their city was impregnable that they got sloppy manning the walls and the Persians captured the city.
Now, what’s really interesting is that another historian, Polybius, records that Antiochus captured the city in a very similar way two hundred years later. He positioned his troops to give the impression they were going to attack the city in one place, then sent thirty hand-picked men with ladders to scale the cliffs while the Lydians were distracted. And it worked. Once again, they were over-confident and not on the watch as they should have been.
Now imagine the people of Sardis. Herodotus gives credit where it’s due. He notes just how noble and fierce the warriors of Sardis were. The Persians had superior numbers, but the men of Sardis fought them to a stalemate. But that’s not what Sardis become known for. Nope. Sardis became famous for the numbskull who dropped his helmet over the wall and showed the enemy how to get into the city. And Sardis was known for being so overconfident in their defences that they foolishly failed to post a watch on the walls in the middle of a siege.
Now, back to Revelation 3. Look at the rest of Jesus message to the church in Sardis:
“ ‘I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God. Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it, and repent. If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you. Yet you have still a few names in Sardis, people who have not soiled their garments, and they will walk with me in white, for they are worthy. The one who conquers will be clothed thus in white garments, and I will never blot his name out of the book of life. I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’ (Revelation 3:1b-6)
“I know your works.” Lots of people knew the works of the Christians in Sardis. The Christians in Sardis knew their own works. Or they thought they did. They had a reputation for their works—and that reputation was good. But the one who holds the churches in his hands, the one who imparts the Spirit to enable his churches to do good works, gives them a devastating mark. They’ve failed. Everyone thinks this church is the happening place. Even the people of the church think they’re a happening place. But Jesus has been watching—not just the outer appearance, but the heart as well; not just the works themselves, but the motivations behind them—and he declares this church dead. They have the appearance of life—even vibrant life—but it’s not real.
Jesus says that their works are not complete. The general consensus is that Jesus is saying that despite all the things they’re doing, they’ve forgotten what the church actually is and they’ve forgotten their Lord. Brothers and Sisters, everything the Church does is—or it should—be about Jesus and driven by the good news of his death, his resurrection, and his lordship. And churches forget this all too often and we do it to our peril. Once Jesus ceases to be the centre of a church, once we start building churches around the ethos of the culture rather than around Jesus himself, all the growth, all the programmes in the world mean nothing. The church may look very much alive, but it’s dead at heart.
We can look back at the Mainline churches that bought into modernism in the early 20th Century and for decades they gave every appearance of life. They were warned. Those who were still centred on Jesus and the gospel left them and went on to form new Jesus-centred denominations to preserve the faith and to be obedient to scripture. But the Mainliners doubled-down on modernism, they conformed more and more to the culture rather than to Jesus, the gospel, and to scripture. And for some time in the post-war years they could point to their membership, their numbers, their baptisms and they looked very much alive—but a church without the gospel, a church without Jesus at its centre will always die unless it repents. And die the Mainline has. A few years ago the Anglican bishop here on the Island was talking about how the diocese’s mission was to pastor the church as it disappeared. The folks who track church statistics are saying the Anglican church will be gone by 2040.
And yet even in the evangelical world, the folks who rejected modernism in order to stay the course, to stay true to Jesus and the gospel, church after church after church has conformed to the values of our culture. They’ve taken a different course, but it has just as efficiently led far too many away from Jesus. Churches have adopted pragmatic church growth philosophies. The important thing isn’t faithfulness in word and sacrament, but doing whatever gets the most people through the doors. Instead of worship, where the congregation are the performers, churches are putting on shows for spectators. Churches are adapting their worship towards “seekers”—doing what will please pagans and avoiding what might drive them off. Brothers and Sisters, if you’re trying to attract pagans, you’ll end up doing exactly the opposite of what is pleasing to God. Churches build well-meaning programmes, but because we’ve bought into the commercialistic mindset of our culture, we end up too often selling programmes rather than preaching Jesus and trying to meet felt needs rather than preaching the very gospel need that in our fallen state we don’t even know is necessary. Christ centred preaching about sin and repentance, about Jesus crucified and risen, has turned into preaching focused on ourselves. And we end up all too often converting our kids to youth group pizza and games, instead of Jesus. We draw people to the church, but they come for the rock concerts and the self-help sermons, not for Jesus. When we were church planting in Portland and meeting in the evenings, I went around town visiting church plant after church plant and was shocked at how rare any kind of biblical exposition was. Even how rare it was to even hear a passage of scripture read during a service. I listened to one local preacher for over six months and in all that time he never once mentioned Jesus in any meaningful way. And that same church is full of people who claim to be prophets affirming everything and everyone, promising health and wealth and blessing. “Peace, Peace!” But there is no peace. These folks have the numbers and the programmes. But unless Jesus and the gospel are at the centre of it, Brothers and Sisters, it will not last, because it’s not truly alive.
Jesus warns the Christians in Sardis: “Wake up!” Remember what it was you received, what you heard. Remember me. Remember the good news. Remember how it and nothing else is what changes everything. It wasn’t so long ago that you heard it, that you received it, that the Spirit drove it into your heart and moved you to repentance and belief. Remember and repent. Return to it. Preach me and my cross and my empty tomb. Proclaim that I am lord. Remember that my new world, the age to come is breaking in and commit yourself to its values, not the values of this evil age that is passing away. And let your motivation for everything be me. My cross stands behind you. My kingdom stands before you. Let those two truth be your all, your centre.
And the warning: If you don’t remember and repent, I will come, says Jesus. Like a thief in the night. That’s a warning we see throughout the New Testament, in Jesus’ teaching and in Paul’s. The Lord who holds the churches in his hands will also be their judge and when he comes, it will be too late. Here, I’m sure, Jesus knew the people of Sardis would remember their own embarrassing history. The Lydians soldiers were lulled into complacency in their mountain fortress. They thought they were secure. They didn’t even bother to watch the walls. And they were caught by surprise by the enemy and the city fell. Jesus will come in the same way, he will come in judgement unless they wake up.
All that said, Jesus also recognises that not everyone in the church in Sardis has comprised the faith. As he says, there are some who haven’t soiled their garments. White robes are a symbol in the scriptures for the righteousness that comes with new birth. This is why, at least historically, although still the practise in many traditions, candidates for baptism are clothed in a white gown or robe. In our baptism we put on Jesus the Messiah, he washes us clean from sin, and he gives us a share in his vindication and his righteousness.
And Jesus promises to those who conquer, to those who persevere—remember that Revelation is about tribulation, about perseverance, and about kingdom—to those who persevere Jesus will clothe then in robes of white. And Jesus promises that he will never blot such a person’s name from the book of life. This book of life comes up several times in Revelation, but it goes back to Exodus 32, when the people had made and worshipped the golden calf while Moses was on the mountain. It’s not an encouraging image that Jesus gives the people here. In Exodus, most of Israel deserved to have their names blotted out of the book and it was only by an act of God’s mercy that they weren’t. Having your name recorded in the book was a symbol for membership in the covenant family—and the Lord would blot out those who committed in idolatry, those who forsook him and his covenant. The implication is that those who have the appearance of life, but were really dead; those who had conformed to the culture more than they had conformed to Jesus, were guilty of idolatry. If they did not repent and return whole-heartedly to Jesus, their names would be blotted out. But to those who persevered, their names would remain in the book, they would remain in the covenant family.
The Christians in Sardis would, also, have thought here of the practise in many Greek cities of keeping a register of the citizenry. When a citizen was condemned to death his name would be blotted from the book that the city’s reputation not be tarnished by one of its citizens having been condemned to such a punishment.
Jesus is warning here against presumption. The sin of presumption has always been a temptation for the covenant people. Instead of finding our assurance in Jesus, we look for assurance in our birth, in who we know, in things we do. Church too often find their assurance in their membership lists and bank statements. For many in Israel it was their descent from Abraham and their keeping of the law—which was often superficial and selective. Jesus warns against presuming membership in the covenant community. Are we committed whole-heartedly to Jesus? That’s the important question. Jesus reiterates here an exhortation and a warning that he gave during his ministry:
So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 10:32-33)
There were many in Sardis as there are many today who point to all the things they’ve done and are doing, there are churches that point to their programmes or their numbers, but if Jesus is not at the centre of it, his sobering warning applies:
Then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’ (Matthew 7:23)
The good news is that to those who kept their garments white and to those who remember and repent, Jesus promises, “I will confess his name before the Father and his angels.” As much as Jesus words to this church are weighed down with warning, I can only imagine the joy in his voice as he gave this promise. God loves sinners. He loves sinners so much that he spared not his son for our redemption.
And I think of the joy in heaven when the Christians in Sardis took this warning to heart. By all accounts they did hear, they did remember that which they had once heard and believed, and they re-centred themselves on Jesus and his good news. The church in Sardis would go on to thrive throughout antiquity. Melito, the bishop of Sardis, became one of the most prolific Christian writers of the Second Century. Five hundred years later the Persians sacked Sardis (again). The city itself was never the same after that, and yet it continued to be the seat of a thriving Christian community for another seven hundred years, until conquest by the Turks.
Brothers and Sisters, the warnings of Jesus are sobering, but they never come without a promise of mercy and grace if we will only heed them. May we do so. May we, his church, keep him and his good news central to everything we do. May we be faithful in preaching his word and celebrating his sacraments. Whatever else we do as a church, may it always have Jesus at its centre. And may we each live in light of Jesus and the gospel—with his cross behind us and his kingdom in our sights before. Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again.
Let’s pray: O God, you know us to be set in the midst of so many and great dangers, that by reason of the frailty of our nature we cannot always stand upright: grant to us such strength and protection as may support us in all dangers and carry us through all temptations; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.