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.

Be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die: for I have not found thy works perfect before God.

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.

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.

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.

He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches.

Revelation 3:1-6

The church of Sardis was located with the other six churches in Asia Minor. Sardis was a city that had been celebrated for its wealth and magnificence. It was one of the most beautifully situated cities in all Asia Minor. Six hundred years before, Sardis was the capital of the kingdom of Lydia, the name of whose last king, Croesus, has become proverbial for unbounded wealth. In the time of John, it still retained much of its ancient splendor. Twice in its history, Sardis was defeated because there was a lack of vigilance! Enemies were able to come suddenly and break into the city bringing destruction.

There, in the midst of its wealth and abundance, a church had been established; when or by whom, we know not. She had become distinguished among her sister churches. She seems to have been congratulating herself as being quite prosperous, maybe even more so than all the other churches of the province. There were no divisions within her and no fierce conflicts without. This last item is surely something to be concerned about. Where was the antithesis? Where was the hatred of the enemies of the church? Why was there not much, if any, opposition? Did Jesus not say that as they hated the Master, they will also hate His disciples? In Matthew 10:22ff. we read, “And ye shall be hated of all men for my name’s sake: but he that endureth to the end shall be saved…. The disciple is not above his master, nor the servant above his lord.”

With the good opinions of the other churches, their reputation was that they were a truly live church. How shocked they must have been when they were assembled together to receive this new message from the aged apostle in Patmos. They had been told that Jesus had just appeared and had Himself delivered it. Oh, to hear in the words of their ascended Lord Himself, “I know thy works, that thou hast a name that thou livest, and art dead.” What is it about their works? Others only saw the exterior and therefore praised the church of Sardis, holding them up as a model church. That praise stimulated their pride to still further labors of self-righteousness. But God, who searches the heart, knew that these works were dead works; they were not the earnest outgoings of a heart alive with grateful love to God. Jesus told them that it was only a reputation for life that they had, “but thou art dead.” This was the brief, terrible, and startling charge against this church of Sardis.

Dead orthodoxy: Following the church of Ephesus who had lost their first love, Sardis continued in this sad state. Unless she would repent, she would continue downwards to the state of the church of Laodicea, whom the Lord said He will spew out of His mouth. From all that men could see, Sardis might have been a model church. The Lord did not charge her with any special sin. Her liberality and charity, her adherence to sound doctrine and morals, and her observance to the sacraments were all such that the mere superficial observer could see nothing to censure, but very much to praise. A visitor from poor and persecuted Symrna or from weak, tired, laboring Philadelphia might arrive and go home to their suffering saints and speak of what great things Sardis was doing. She was liberally supporting her pastor, as well as caring for the poor. What a fine and beautiful building they had. Even the heathen around them seemed to respect them and were quite friendly with them. Christ in His message did not say a word about the defects censured so severely in other churches; about divisions or heresies; about eating meat in idol temples or fornication; about Balaamites or Nicolaitans, or a Jezebel, or even about any failure in discipline. The church’s whole state was described in these words, “a name that thou livest, and art dead.” It is the sin of apathy, lack of zeal and earnestness for the Lord.

For a little while this church might still fight over words used in a sermon. They might speak loudly about other churches that are forced to deal with false doctrine. They might be quite proud of their own theological understanding. But sadly, all this proceeded from head knowledge rather than from love for God in their hearts. The pastor of the church was guilty of this, and the church was like the pastor. They do not manifest the life of Christ!

Christ also told the church in Sardis that her works were not perfect. “Perfect” here cannot mean sinless perfection, that all her works were imperfect because of sin. Rather, it means that her works were not “full,” “filled up,” “completed;” her works were wanting in some essential element to make them what they professed to be. It was not for a lack of works that they were censured, but for a defect in the character of their works. They were works of dead souls, not of living souls. Every work of a church—whether an act of charity, her form of worship, and every sermon preached—is defective if not from a heart that is full of love for God. Those works are hollow, mere shells without the precious kernel. This is true for the pastor as well as for the church as a whole.

The other expression referred to is, “defiled garments.” This is implied, for Christ says that only a few names in Sardis had not defiled their garments. This means that most of the members were unfaithful to their profession and lived lives of sin in the world. This is why they were not persecuted like the saints in Smyrna. They did not live antithetically. Rather than rebuking the evil, they would join the world in their drinking and fornication. What a miserable picture of the church!

As we read this description of the church, we need to question whether this describes us as a church. Do I, as an angel (pastor) of Christ’s church, have a name that I live, full of the new life in Christ, manifested in ardent zeal and devotion to the Lord, diligent in my calling, abounding in good works? Am I an example to my church of one who is seeking the kingdom of God and walking in holiness? How terrible and disgusting is a minister who is dead! Am I devoting myself with all my power to the study of the Scriptures, the preaching of the Word, the instruction of the young and old in the truth? Do I as a pastor love the sheep, visiting them in their homes or hospital rooms in times of distress or sickness or the infirmities of old age? Someone may say, “I am a preacher of the Word, not a pastor of the sheep.” No, one cannot be a good angel of the church if he does not care to visit them in their need, whether it is in encouragement and comfort to the afflicted, instruction of the young, or rebuke and admonition of the disorderly. Sad to say, there are pastors who are negligent. They hate to go out and visit the flock. Visiting the sick, the aged, and widows they rarely do. The word of life and comfort they do not bring. Am I a living pastor who is busy in meditation and prayer, adorning my work of the ministry by a walk in all good works? The pastor of Sardis was dead! He did not give himself to the study of the Word. His life was characterized by a lack of consecration. He was unfaithful as a pastor to watch over the flock. Instead of diligence there was laziness. Instead of zeal there was apathy and indifference. He was just putting in his time, loving the things and pleasures of the world.

But this is enough regarding the angel of the church. The church is just like the pastor, needing rebuke. Is Christ’s life manifest in her confession and walk in faith and hope? Or does she “talk the talk” and refuse to “walk the walk”? Is her walk characterized by holiness and righteousness? Is she fighting the good fight of faith, keeping her garments clean in the midst of a wicked world? At a time when we are talking about the place of good works, is our church letting her light shine, that men may see her good works and glorify her Father which is in heaven?

But sadly, the church in Sardis was dead. There were only a few in Sardis who had not defiled their garments! Of the majority, the flesh dominated. The Lord accused her that her works were not perfect before God. This means that the church as such, and believers individually, failed to walk in those works that are required of them. She might talk theology and search high and low if her pastor is using the right words in his sermon, but is she listening to the sermon to hear what the Spirit is saying regarding her faith and walk? Does she seek to apply the word spoken to her life? The church had a name that she lived; but she was dead. She did not let her testimony go forth in the midst of the world. She was not a light in the midst of the darkness of this present world. Rather, she, like her pastor, loved the things of the world living in sin. Therefore she could not be distinguished from the world.

What was the admonition of the Lord to such a dead church? She was called to be watchful, and strengthen the things that remain, which are ready to die (v. 2). They were to “remember therefore how thou hast received and heard, and hold fast, and repent” (v. 3). There was still hope for the church in Sardis. She was still a true church. There were a few names that had not defiled their garments. Others were still alive but sleeping. There were things that remained, though they were about to die. Like the church in Ephesus, the church must remember how they had first heard and received the gospel: with joy and faith. Do you remember when you first heard the gospel?

I remember a believer who complained to me about those who joined our churches who came from the outside. This person said that these folks weaken our churches. “No,” I said, “these are exactly what our churches need desperately.” It is when the church does evangelism, and new converts are brought by God into our churches that we see an eagerness for the gospel and a zeal for living the Christian life. Their living faith becomes contagious in the church! They love what they have learned and believed. They are excited about being disciples of Christ. These are things that it is easy for those of us who have been raised all of our lives in the church to take for granted and become lethargic. It is “ho, hum.” Therefore, there is the admonition, “Be watchful, wake up! And strengthen that which is about to die!”

The situation in Sardis was miserable, but not hopeless. Most of the members had already fallen sound asleep; the rest were about to die. The congregation as such could still be changed and repent. The admonition to Sardis was similar to that which was given to the church of Ephesus. They were admonished, “Remember therefore whence thou art fallen.” To the church in Sardis the Lord writes, “Remember therefore how thou hast received and heard.” The church in Sardis is a further development of what was the case in Ephesus; the church that has lost its first love is about to die. There is something about their past that might appeal to them and cause them to repent. What profound joy was wrought in their hearts when they had heard the gospel preached to them! What enthusiasm when they took the gospel and witnessed to all around them of the grace of God and the wonderful salvation that there is in Jesus Christ. By the grace of God they walked in a new and holy life, fighting the good fight of faith. Remembering their former state, they see how far they have fallen, and repent.

Is this true of you and of me? Do we need to wake up and be aroused by what we had, and repent and return to our former state? I am saddened when there are many today who listen to sermons, not to hear what the Spirit is saying to the church, but to find fault with the angels of the church. This is not so much about correct theology, but a spirit of pride.

With the admonition comes a threat, an emphatic announcement of judgment! “I will come on thee as a thief.” The figure certainly means that the Lord will come suddenly and expectantly. Because they are sleeping, Christ’s coming is to them unawares, without their noticing it. And what happens? The Lord takes away the influence of the Spirit and the ministry of the Word.

This admonition comes from the Christ who stands in the midst of His churches with the seven Spirits of God and the seven stars. This is the fullness of the Spirit of Christ. It is the Spirit who was poured out upon the church. It is the Spirit who unites the Head with His body, the church with her King. Christ is the One who supplies His church with the seven stars who are the ministers of the Word. He gives them to His church; it is also He who withdraws them. Then they will no longer exist as the church of Jesus Christ! Without the light of the Word that shines through their star, the lamp is taken away.

But to the church in this miserable state, there is also a promise attached. The faithful receive beautiful promises. They are described as those who did not defile their garments. They are members of the church who are faithful to their calling. They refused to walk in the sins of the world as did the others. These are those who were alive and awake, loving the truth and busy in the things of the kingdom of God. They are those who talk the talk and walk the walk! They refused to become conformed to the world in which they lived. How sad when the church refuses to take seriously the call to sanctification. It is grievous to profess to belong to the church of Christ and willfully defile one’s garments with sin.

The Lord knows His own and to them that overcome Christ promises eternal life and glory. First, they are promised that they shall walk with Christ, clothed with white raiment. This white raiment is a symbol of perfect righteousness, purity, glory, and deliverance from sin and corruption. Second, Christ assures them that their names shall not be blotted out of the book of life. The book of life is God’s eternal election to life. Sadly, there were those who appeared that they had been written in that book of life; for their names had appeared on the rolls of the church. Now, however, their apostasy and walk in sin prove that their name had never been written in the book of life. But those who are faithful are assured that, “when the roll is called up yonder, I’ll be there!” Third, the Lord will confess the names of these faithful ones before His Father in heaven. As we read in Matthew 10:32, 33 (see also Luke 12:8, 9 and Rom. 10:9-11), “Whosoever therefore shall confess me before men, him will I confess also before my Father which is in heaven. But whosoever shall deny me before men, him will I also deny before my Father which is in heaven.” Christ shall confess their names before His Father! Christ claims them as His own, given to Him by the Father.

“He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches.” What does the Spirit say? Watch! Many are the ministers and the churches that have a name, saying that they live, but are dead. Shall we remain faithful? Many are defiling their garments. Shall we keep them clean? We shall if by the grace of God we fight the good fight even until the end. “Remember therefore how thou hast received and heard, and hold fast, and repent.”