Church of Sardis

Revelation 3: 1

And unto the angel of the church in Sardis write; These things saith he that hath the seven Spirits of God, and the seven stars; I know thy works, that thou hast a name that thou livest, and art dead.  
  3:2   Be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die: for I have not found thy works perfect before God.  
  3:3   Remember therefore how thou hast received and heard, and hold fast, and repent. If therefore thou shalt not watch, I will come on thee as a thief, and thou shalt not know what hour I will come upon thee.  
  3:4   Thou hast a few names even in Sardis which have not defiled their garments; and they shall walk with me in white: for they are worthy.  
  3:5   He that overcometh, the same shall be clothed in white raiment; and I will not blot out his name out of the book of life, but I will confess his name before my Father, and before his angels.  
  3:6   He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches. 

 

Sardis was founded in the twelfth century before Christ, and was one of the oldest and most important cities of Asia. It was located about thirty-five miles southeast of Thyatira. Until captured by Cyrus in 549 BC, Sardis was the capital of the kingdom of Lydia, and became so again after the fall of the Roman power in Asia in AD 395. Lydia was one of the richest kingdoms of the ancient world. The Lydians are reputed to have been the inventors of coined money. Speaking of their wealth, the historian Ridpath says: "A great cause of the prosperity and wealth of the Lydian kingdom was the natural fertility of the country. No other of all Asia Minor had so rich a soil."-History of the World, Volume 1, Page 231. Croesus, the reigning king when Cyrus captured Sardis, was famed for his wealth. Solon, the great Athenian legislator, spent some years in Sardis during the reign of Croesus. He was one of the seven wise men of Greece.

The ancient city of Sardis was built oil a plateau of crumbling rock rising 1,500 feet above the plain. The plateau was a part of Mount Tomolus, whose height was 6,700 feet. The walls of the elevation on which the city was built were almost perpendicular, and the city was inaccessible except by one narrow passage which was steep and easily fortified and guarded. At the base of the cliff flows the little Pactolus River, once famous for its golden sands. Sardis was considered an impregnable fortress. From Sardis, Cyrus marched against Artaxerxes, and at that place Xerxes gathered his mighty army before the expedition into Greece which ended in ignominious defeat at Marathon. In AD 1402, Tamerlane destroyed the city, and it was never rebuilt. A miserable little village near by still goes by the name of Sart.

The natural defenses of Sardis-made the guards and citizen proud and overconfident. The walls were carelessly guarded, with sometimes fatal results. Because of the failure of the guards to watch, Cyrus captured the city by stratagem in 549 BC Solon had warned Croesus not to be too confident of safety from attack, but even after the army of Cyrus appeared on the plain below, he saw no reason for concern. But the unexpected happened. One dark night a Persian soldier resolved "to approach the citadel" and attempt to climb the precipice "at a place where no guards were ever set." There the rock was so "precipitous and impracticable" that it would seem impossible to scale it. Herodotus says that the soldier "climbed the rock himself and other Persians followed in his track, until a large number had mounted to the top. Thus Sardis was taken, and given up entirely to pillage." But the lesson was soon forgotten, for 330 years later the city was again captured through stratagem by Antiochus the Great. Solon had warned the overconfident Croesus that "no human being is self-sufficient in every respect-something is always lacking. In every matter it becomes us to mark well the end, for oftentimes the divinity gives men a gleam of happiness, and then submerges them in ruin."

            The Message to Sardis
In the light of the historic background of the city of Sardis, the epistle of Christ to the Sardian church was very appropriate and its language very impressive. He told them to "be watchful," and "if therefore thou shall not watch, I will come on thee as a thief, and thou shall not know what hour I will come upon thee." The city had fallen and was finally destroyed because the ruler and citizens had been over confident. its sentinels had failed to maintain a diligent watch. The enemy took them off guard. Jesus warned the church that if they too failed to watch because of overconfidence He would overtake them "as a thief" in the most unexpected moment. In the early days of World War II, Prime Minister Winston Churchill gave the following solemn warning to the citizens of the British Empire: "But I must drop one word of caution, for next to cowardice and treachery, overconfidence leading to neglect and slothfulness, is the worst of martial crimes." This has also been one of the greatest dangers of the church militant in all ages, but never more so than in its remnant phase.

Sardis means "those escaping" or "that which remains." The name, the message, and the subsequent history of the city and church, indicate a good start but a bad finish, a change for the worse. Sir William Ramsay calls Sardis "the city of death." Its history is just the opposite of that of Smyrna, which "was dead and is alive"; or is "the city of life." Sardis had "a name that thou lives, and art dead." Like Ephesus, the city and church of Sardis began with a glorious history and ended in a heap of ruins.

Sardis means "those escaping" or "that which remains." The name, the message, and the subsequent history of the city and church, indicate a good start but a bad finish, a change for the worse. Sir William Ramsay calls Sardis "the city of death." Its history is just the opposite of that of Smyrna, which "was dead and is alive"; or is "the city of life." Sardis had "a name that thou lives, and art dead." Like Ephesus, the city and church of Sardis began with a glorious history and ended in a heap of ruins.

"The feet of the avenging gods are shod with wool," is an old Greek proverb that was known to the citizens of Sardis. But they failed to heed its warning. "Though the failure to watch, however, the acropolis had been successfully scaled in 549 BC by the Median soldier, and in 218 by the Cretan." -International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Volume 4, Page 269. "Sardis." The mountains around Sardis have always been a favorite haunt for thieves, who swoop down unexpectedly upon unsuspecting travelers and villagers. No government has been able to fully subdue them, even to the present day. The country is also subject to frequent earthquakes. Sardis was destroyed by the severe quake of AD 17, which laid twelve cities of Asia in ruins. Tiberius gave a large sum of money to help the city rebuild and remitted the taxes for five years. "Thou shall not know what hour I will come upon thee" was an appropriate warning. Divine judgments, like the thief, approach silently and stealthily, and accomplish their tragic mission suddenly and without warning.

Sardis never fully recovered from the earthquake of AD 17, and was only partially rebuilt. When this epistle was written, the city was rapidly waning in prestige and glory, but its inhabitants were still boastful of the reputation and history of the past. Decay and death were inevitable, but the Sardians refused to recognize the fate of the city and continued to live on its ancient glory. The city had a name only, whereas in reality it was dead, or rapidly dying. There is nothing more desolate than a dead or dying city which once teemed with life and bustled with activity, and there are few things more pitiable than for the few remaining citizens of such a city to talk with boasting of the past and vainly hope that the future will restore what has departed forever. This is strikingly illustrated by some of the ghost towns of the West.

        The Sardis Period
Sardis symbolizes the church of the Reformation. The Sardian period covers the sixteenth, seventeenth, and most of the eighteenth centuries in a special sense, but doubtless embraces the entire history of Protestantism to the end of the gospel dispensation. "Then came the Sardian period-the age of separation and return to the rule of Christ. The age of comparative freedom from Balaam and his doctrines, from the Nicolaitanes and their tenants, from Jezebel and her fornication. An age of many worthy names, but marked with deadness withal, and having much of which to repent; an age covering the spiritual lethargy of the Protestant countries before the great evangelical movements of the last hundred years, which brought us to the Philadelphian era." (Seiss, Page 143) The letter to Sardis pictures "the inauguration, development, corruption, and judgment of Protestantism." (MeCarrell, Page 45.) It represents the glory of a past splendor in contrast with a present unabated spiritual decline, another "falling away," or apostasy.

To Sardis, Christ introduces Himself as the possessor of "the seven Spirits of God, and the seven stars." The seven Spirits represent the Holy Spirit in the fullness and completeness of His power and operation. To the church that was spiritually dead and whose lamp of faith was flickering and almost extinguished, Christ represents Himself as having the fullness of spiritual power and the completeness of spiritual gifts. The Spirit is sometimes called the "Giver of Life." With this gift there is hope even for a dead church.

"The seven stars" represent the human guides and teachers of the church, including "the angel of the church in Sardis." Here is shown the relation between Christ as the giver of the Holy Spirit and as the head of a ministry of human agents. The success of Christ’s ministers depends upon the gift of the Holy Spirit. Here is positive proof that the seven Spirits and the seven angels are not the same, as some contend. It is the seven Spirits who make the seven stars shine. When ministers lose the gift of the Spirit they cease to shine in God’s firmament, and become "wandering stars." (Jude 13.)

The Sardians had a name and reputation of life, but in reality they were dead. "Men say you are living, though you are dead," and "You are supposed to be alive but in reality you are dead," are other translations. Every professed Christian says by his very profession that he is alive and in possession of eternal life. By calling himself a Christian, he is living on the name of Christ. If he is dead spiritually, he is making a false claim and is under a terrible deception, likened to a corpse making a pretense of life. Like Samson of old the modern church is spiritually dead and "know not that the Lord was departed."

The church may have much organization and the most up-to-date machinery, so that it hums with activity, making every pretense of life and vitality. Swete speaks of Sardis as "the paradox of death under the name of life." (Page 48.) There is "a form of godliness" with a denial of "the power thereof." There is nothing wrong with a form of doctrine and service provided it is vitalized by the presence and power of Christ. Otherwise it is lifeless and therefore worthless. To God life is more important than all else. "With Him a name to live amounts to nothing when it happens to be fastened to a corpse." (McKnight, Page 227.)

One writer says: "The Reformers began well, but many of their successors were not so consecrated as they and so their works were not found perfect before God. They had a name to live and yet were dead, and the life of vital godliness which sprang from the great doctrines of the Reformers, gradually degenerated into lifeless formalism, until at the time of John Wesley the conditions were such that many of the ministers of the Established Churches of Europe were drunkards and libertines and were among the lowest of the people. Men like the Wesleys, Whitfield, the Puritans and the Pietists began to protest against these things with such earnestness and unction of the Spirit of God that they succeeded in bringing about the modern revival and missionary period typified by the conditions at Philadelphia." - SAMUEL H. TURNER, Outline Studies in the Book of Revelation, Page 13.

Speaking of this period of lifeless formalism, Matthew Arnold wrote:

"Its form still stood without a breach,  When life and warmth were fled,

And still it spoke its wonted speech;  But every word was dead."

 

Protestantism was founded on a protest against the doctrines and corrupt practices of Romanism. The name continues large with life and reputation, but it has largely lost its significance. The average Protestant is ignorant of the great truth of justification by faith and other doctrines on which Protestantism was founded. Lack of a knowledge of the Scriptures has produced spiritual weakness and worldly conformity in many churches, and thus robbed most Protestants of their protest.

The modern church has built up an enviable reputation for activity. Its services are orthodox in form and are fairly well attended. It has many rallies, campaigns, and anniversaries. Many prominent people are numbered among its membership, and yet with all this machinery and pretense to life the modern church is declared to be dead. This is evident first of all by the almost total absence of spiritual life. Very few souls are being saved, and even the saints are slipping in their religious experience. In the second place the lives of many church members are tarnished by sin so that only a few "have not defiled their garments,"

         Modern  Protestantism
James Anthony Froude thus describes modern Protestantism: "Protestantism has made no converts to speak of in Europe since the sixteenth century. It shot up in two generations to its full stature, and became an established creed with defined boundaries; and the many millions who in Catholic countries proclaim their indifference to their religion, either by neglect or contempt, do not swell the congregations of the Protestant church or convent. Their objections to the Church of Rome are objections equally to all forms of dogmatic and doctrinal Christianity. And so it has come about that the old enemies are becoming friends in the presence of a common foe. Catholics speak tenderly of Protestants as keeping alive belief in the creeds, and look forward to their return to the sheepfold. While the old Antichrist, the Scarlet woman on the seven hills, drunk with the blood of the saints, is now treated by Protestantism as an old sister and a valiant ally in the great war against infidelity. The points of difference are forgotten. The points of union are passionately dwelt upon, and the remnants of idolatry which the more ardent Protestants once abhorred and denounced are now regarded as having been providentially preserved as a means of making up the quarrel and bringing back the churches into communion. The dread of popery is gone. The ceremonial system, once execrated as a service of Satan, is regarded as a thing at worst indifferent, perhaps in itself desirable. And even those who are conscious of no tendency to what they still Call corruption are practically forsaking the faith of their fathers, and re-establishing, so far as they can or dare, those very things which their fathers revolted against."

Sardis not only represents "those escaping" or "that which "remains" after the great apostasy and terrible persecutions of the Middle Ages, but some authorities believe that the word Sardis means "remnant" or "an escaped few," and therefore represents Protestantism after what was vital in it had evaporated so that there are only a few faithful ones remaining. There would be a "remnant" who would continue the work of reform even after the Reformation had waned and Protestantism in general was dead. There would be "a few names," or "a few souls" (Moffatt), in Sardis who had "not defiled their garments."

The promise is that during the decadence of Protestantism a few would maintain their loyalty and spiritual experience, even in a church that had more profession than vital godliness. In the beginning Protestantism was very much alive and acquired a name that has long outlived its spirituality. In Daniel 11:32-34 is described the days when men of God did "exploits" in breaking the papal power and ushering in the dawn of a new day for Christendom. This prophecy also indicates a later popularity of the movement that brought the Reformation to a standstill. Success brought feelings of pride and overconfidence, so that the church ceased to "be watchful." The various church factions hid behind man-made creeds and refused further light. They began to live on the names and reputations of their founding fathers and failed to watch, with fatal results.

"I have not found thy works perfect before God," is the divine indictment. Perfect as used here means "fulfilled," or "up to the mark or standard." "I have found no works of your perfected before my God" is the American Revised Version, and "fully performed" is the rendering in the Emphatic Diaglott. This indicates that the Reformation was started but not completed. It came to a standstill, and was not carried to its consummation. The good work of reform that was so nobly begun did not come to perfection, and Christ’s people were therefore not complete before God. The great truths which were "received and heard" were not appreciated and remembered.

The new spiritual life engendered by the message of the Reformers soon languished, and eventually ended in stagnation and death. With all the boasting and pretense of life there was little left except a hollow shell and a lifeless form. The great enemy had gained a victory on a new battlefield. He had entered the church in disguise and as a fifth columnist accomplished from within what he had never been able to do from without. Seiss declares that with this change Protestantism "was one step further in its process of ripening for ultimate rejection." (Page 184.)

Protestantism became stagnant and lifeless because it ceased to protest and therefore failed to finish the work of reform. Dr. Philip Schaff, in his History of the Christian, Church, The German Reformation, Volume 1, Page 7, 8, says: "The Reformation of the sixteenth century is not the finale, but a movement still in progress," and Sir Robert Peel, while Prime Minister of England, in 1840, said: "The day is not far distant, and it may be very near, when we shall have to fight the battle of the Reformation over again." The Reformation cannot be completed until God’s people are brought all the way back to the faith once delivered to the church by Christ and His apostles.

The statement "ready to die," indicates some signs of life. Swete declares that "amid the general reign of spiritual death Christ detected vestiges of life, though they were on the point of becoming extinct." (Page 49.) The elements of spiritual life, love, faith, missionary energy, and watchfulness were "ready to die" and would soon disappear if not revived and strengthened. "Strengthen those thy remaining few graces, which in thy spiritual deadly slumber are not yet quite extinct." - HENRY ALFORD, The Greek Testament, Volume 4, part 2, Page 580. The command is to awake and watch. Christ does not say, "Arise from the dead," because there is some life left which might be fanned into a flame. The situation is not hopeless, because Christ is able to give life even to the dead forms of religion.

The message to Sardis bears witness to a spiritual decline from a far better state. As in the Ephesian message, the Sardian letter applies chiefly to the close rather than the beginning of the period. It applies to the time when rationalism denied the faith of the early Reformers, and the church became deadened by cold formalism. Protestantism today is filled with members who are dead spiritually. There are still many works; in fact, they have largely supplanted faith, and have "become to the majority the all-important thing in religion. But dead faith can only produce dead works. Such works may reach the standard of man’s perfection, but they are not "perfect before God." They do not measure up to His requirements. The call to modern Protestantism is to wake up and become watchful before being overtaken by sudden and unexpected disaster.

                      Further Reformation Demanded
The divine call is for a further or continuing reformation. Remembering the great truths of the Reformation of the sixteenth century and what they accomplished in liberating the world from the slavery of papal domination, the church today is asked to "hold fast" to the truths then revealed, and then "repent," or "reform." (Emphatic Diaglott.) The call is for a new or further reformation, for the finishing of the one that had been arrested by a second "falling away," or apostasy. There must be an awakening from spiritual death. "Wake up, rally what is still left to you, though it is on the very point of death." (Moffatt.)

A sleeping sentinel is considered a traitor. The same must be true of a sleeping minister or watchman of the church. No person can reach such a high pinnacle of Christian attainment that he is safe from the danger of falling and can with safety be off guard for a single moment. "Let him that thinks he stands take heed lest he fall" is the warning. Self-deception is perhaps the greatest of all sins. To boast of life when on the verge of death is a tragic state. The call of the Sardian message is to return to the spiritual experience and high standards of the reformers and founders of the church and then complete the work they had so well begun. The appeal is summed up in the statement, "Awake thou that sleeps, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light." Ephesians 5:14.

Because Protestants have lost much of what the pioneers had, they are admonished to remember the past glorious history and experience, and to return to "the faith once delivered unto the saints," but forgotten by their children. What marvelous doctrines the saints had restored to them by the Reformation, and what wonderful spiritual revivals have swept through the church from time to time since those days of spiritual heroes with their mighty exploits. It would be profitable for modern Christians to contemplate not only the work of Luther and his fellow Reformers, but also of the Wesleys, Whitefield, Knox, Finney, Spurgeon, and Moody. We need more of the faith and works of our fathers.

The similarity between the Ephesian and Sardis periods is striking. Both had a glorious beginning, with a corresponding spiritual decline to a condition of half warmness in affection and deadness in spiritual life. The Christians of both periods are therefore urged to remember the past and to repent and return to the love and faith and practice of their fathers. Because of the wonderful opportunities for advancement in knowledge and spiritual experience, the modern Sardians have no excuse for their back sliding state, and for them Christ has no praise or commendation.

As an incentive to watchfulness Christ said to the Sardians, "You will certainly not know the hour at which I will come to judge you." (Weymouth.) The Sardian period reaches to the time of the judgment and the coming of Christ. The secret coming of judgment "in such an hour as you think not" and as the visit of a thief in the night is referred to in Matthew 24:40-44; Luke 21:34-36. (See also 1 Thessalonians 5:3-5.) Just as the overconfident and self-satisfied citizens of Sardis were suddenly surprised and overtaken by judgments, so the religious world in general will be caught in an overwhelming surprise because of the failure to watch.

But there is to be a faithful remnant. Jesus declared that there are "a few names even in Sardis which have not defiled their garments." The promise is "And they shall walk with Me in white: for they are worthy." Names here has the meaning of "persons" – "a few souls." (Moffatt.) They are the persons whose names are in the book of life. Christ knows His people by name. The reference may indicate a registry in the Sardis church typical of the registry in heaven in which the names of the saints are enrolled.

There will be a remnant in decadent Protestantism who will repent and carry the Reformation to completion. They will be watching and waiting when Jesus returns. Their character garments will not be defiled by sin. While Christendom as a whole will be unready for the crisis, a remnant will be prepared and saved. (Joel 2:32; Revelation 12:17.) There can be living souls even in the midst of a dead church. Garments soiled by sin can be cleansed by the blood of Christ and made "as white as snow." This remnant will walk with Christ in white in Paradise restored, "for they are worthy." They are worthy on the basis of grace and God’s acceptance rather than actual perfection as measured according to strict justice. The worthiness is relative rather than absolute.

                The Promised Reward
The promise to the faithful remnant in Sardis is threefold. They are to be clothed in the symbolic white robes of victory, their names - will not be blotted out of the book of life, and Christ will confess their names before His Father and the angels. The Hebrews regarded holiness as a beautiful white robe that could be soiled by sin. When a white-robed priest committed a sin that disqualified him for the duties of his sacred office, his white garment was taken from him and he was given a black robe in its place. His name was also stricken from the sacerdotal register. In the Scriptures white is used as the symbol of both purity and triumph. (Zechariah 3:3-5; Revelation 7:13, 14; 19:7, 8, 11-14.)

It was the custom of the early Christians who were candidates for baptism to put on white robes and march in a procession to the place where the sacrament was ministered. This was the evidence to all that they had become Christians. This custom still prevails to some extent in the South among the colored Baptists. The white robe of our text is the robe of righteousness and glory worn by the redeemed and furnished by the Divine Host. We are told that the Lord is "clothed with honor and majesty," and covers Himself "with light as with a garment." (Psalm 104:1, 2.) The symbol is doubtless that of the glittering and dazzling linen garments worn by the high priest on important occasions. Of the transfiguration of Jesus we read: "His raiment became shining, exceeding white as snow; so as no fuller on earth can white them." Mark 9:3. The glorified saints are promised such a covering as they march in triumph through the gates of pearl into the celestial city and kingdom of glory.

In ancient Rome the white toga was symbolic of joy and victory, and black garments were symbolic of mourning and defeat. Black was worn by captives and slaves. Successful candidates for office were clothed in white robes by their friends and marched in a triumphal procession to their new official headquarters. On days of a Roman triumph all citizens were dressed in white and Rome was called "The White City." The victorious general and his staff wore white togas and rode on white horses or in chariots drawn by white horses. The poet Juvenal wrote:  "And now the imperial eagle, raised on high, With golden beak, the march of majesty; Trumpets before, and on the left and right, A cavalcade of nobles, all in white."

In Greek and Roman cities the names of the citizens were registered as in modern times. It was a special privilege to be a registered citizen and a terrible disgrace to have the name expunged, or blotted out, because of unworthy conduct. The blotting out of the name from the citizenship registry was the preliminary step to the execution of the sentence of death or banishment for life. The names of the spiritually dead members of the Sardis church could not be retained in the book of life. When the investigative judgment is over, only the names of the spiritually alive will be found recorded in the family record in heaven. The book of life is for the names of the victors in the warfare against evil. (Revelation 20:12, 15; 21:27.)

On the other hand the names of hypocrites and backsliders, together with their recorded good deeds, will be erased. (Exodus 32:32, 33; Nehemiah 13:14.) Either the name is blotted out of the book of life or the sins are erased from the books of record. Peter said, "Repent you therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, when the times of refreshing shall come from the presence of the Lord." Acts 3:19. Only the sins of those who openly confess Christ as their Advocate will be blotted out. (Matthew 10:32, 33.)

The promise of our text implies a solemn warning to those who do not confess and overcome sin. It indicates that it is possible to fall from grace. The picture is doubtless drawn from a Roman triumph given a victorious general and his army, which is used as a type of the final triumphal procession of Christ and the redeemed into the celestial city. As they approach the city, the command goes forth to the angel gatekeepers, "Open you the gates, that the righteous nation which keeps the truth may enter in." Isaiah 26:2.

                        Video about Church of Sardis - Kenneth Cox

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