Church at Sardis
The residents of Sardis knew very well what had happened to their city six hundred years before the Christian gospel reached them. The city had been thought, for a long time, completely impregnable. It was secure, sitting on top of its steep hill. Attackers might come and go, but the citizens were quite content to see them do so. They knew they could never be captured.
Until one night, during the reign of the famous king Croesus, the invading Persian army found a way in. Someone, greatly daring, got up part of the sheer cliff and managed a surprise attack. Because nobody was expecting it, the result was all the more devastating. Cyrus the Persian, who features in various biblical stories as well, conquered Sardis in 546 BC: a never-to-be-forgotten moment. Though Sardis remained an important city, the lesson had been learned.
Except that now Jesus is saying the Christian community in Sardis needs to learn it all over again! They have the reputation of being alive – of being a vibrant going concern, a fellowship where things are happening. But they have gone to sleep on their reputation, and need to wake up. All is not lost. There are some good things happening. But unless action is taken quickly they, too, will wither on the vine.
In Ephesus the church was slipping from its first love. In Smyrna the church was facing persecution. In Pergamum the church had some who held to the teaching of the Nicolaitans. In Thyatira the church was tolerating Jezebel. In Sardis, though the church seemed to be doing well, in reality it was dead.
The letter which the risen Jesus dictated to John for delivery to the church at Sardis is one of the most severe of the seven. Its criticism is almost unrelieved. ‘Like the city itself,’ wrote R. H. Charles, ‘the church had belied its early promise. Its religious history, like its civil, belonged to the past’.
The church of Sardis had acquired a name. Its reputation as a progressive church had evidently spread far and wide. It was well regarded in the city and in the neighborhood. It was known by the other six churches in the province for its vitality. No false doctrine was taking root in its fellowship. ‘What a live church you have in Sardis!’ visitors would exclaim with admiration when they attended its services or watched its activities; and so no doubt it appeared. Its congregation was probably quite large and growing, while its programs included many excellent projects. It had not shortage of money, talent or human resources. There was every indication of life and vigor.
But outward appearances are notoriously deceptive; and this socially distinguished congregation was a spiritual graveyard. It seemed alive, but it was actually dead. The reputation that Sardis had acquired was a reputation with human beings – but not with God. It was in the sight of God, Christ said, that he had found this church’s works deficient.
This distinction between what human beings see and what God sees, is of great importance. Although we have responsibilities to others, we are primarily accountable to God. It is before him that we stand, and to him that one day we must give an account. God can see how much reality there is behind our profession, how much life behind our façade.
So the reputation of Sardis was false. Indeed, Sardis may have been the first church in the history of Christianity to have been characterized by ‘nominal Christianity’. Its members belonged to Christ in name, but not in heart. By repute they were alive; in reality they were dead.
Join us this week as we look at the rebuke Christ administers and the remedy he proposes to the church at Sardis in Revelation 3:1-6. Yet that is not all Christ says. For with the stern rebuke and the costly remedy, he promises a reward to the overcomers. Christ’s gracious promise to the Christian overcomer is that he will not blot out his name from the book of life. How about you? Is your name in the book of life? How can you know? We look forward to worshiping with you this week as we consider these eternal questions.
By His Grace,
Revelation 3:1-6 (focal, v1b: ‘I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead’)