I have had the privilege of running in full-time ministry for nearly ten years straight with a few breaks in-between along the way. In the start of running full-time in the place of ministry I was enjoying the open doors God was setting before me. It seemed like door after door of opportunity continued to open before me and before I even knew it I was head-deep in overseeing two ministries which claimed much of my daily time and energy. It was common for me to leave Raymond on a Friday, drive eight hours to a far away city, preaching at a Church Sunday morning and Sunday night, drive home Monday and preach again Tuesday night to my youth ministry; then turn around and do it all over again on Friday. This happened consistently between 2003 and 2005. During the first year, I actually put around 70,000 miles on my car preaching the gospel, leading students, directing camps, planning events and building leaders across the Pacific Northwest.
But something happened during the closing services at Summer Camp in 2006. I had a brewing frustration with my spiritual state before Jesus. During the early summer of 2006 I had purchased a dirt bike and was riding it nearly four nights a week or more. I longed to get out of the office and take off riding, to escape and fill my mind and time with something other than ministry. The thing that I longed to do, felt called to do and was graced by God to do in ministry was now something I resented. My resentment towards ministry was because I had lost my identity in my occupation and was starting to feel the pain of my distant heart from Jesus. What I used to love to do, reading the bible and spending time alone with Jesus, was now a necessity to prepare for another sermon, another conference, another meeting and another upcoming year of busyness in doing things for God not doing things with God.
During this time I had gotten a hold of a little book by Dwayne Roberts titled, One Thing: Boldly Pursuing All That Matters which started to chart a new course in my heart and life, calling me back to my first Love. While reading this book it dawned on me that I had misplaced my identity in my occupation; I was slowly losing my passion for why I originally signed up for Christianity. What I mean to say by this is that I know the pain of doing things for God instead of doing things with God. I know the pain the Church of Sardis was experiencing, in having a name that they were alive, but to be dead on the inside (Rev. 3:1). Answering the call of the Holy Spirit to repent and return to my first Love was the best thing that ever happened to me. Through the process of returning to Him, I have worked in partnership with the Holy Spirit over the years to make sure Jesus has a central place in my heart, my family and my ministry. Now I seek to love God well in intimacy while I am working with God in ministry. I’m not perfect, nor do I claim to have it fully figured out. I just know that I don’t want to do ministry separated from the place of intimacy in Jesus.
As we look at the Church of Sardis, it’s clear that Jesus was a addressing a Church who had once loved Him, once lived for the Glory of His name, but now was busy working for Him trying to produce the results of a lover. They had become little more than a worker who used to love. Jesus’ words are strong and pointed for this group of people who were fooling others with their so-called passion but not fooling Him who knows all things.
The History of Sardis
The city of Sardis was situated in the hill country in between Thyatira and Philadelphia on this circuit of Churches in what is now known as Turkey. And according to Greek history the city of Sardis was once among the greatest cities of its day. The city is said to have peaked in population and influence around 700 B.C.; from that time it was on a steady decline.
The city of Sardis had a tiny Citadel which acted as a wartime refuge for people who lived below, as it was much safer to be elevated in the times of trouble that often came through this small city. The region where Sardis is located has suffered terribly from severe earthquakes throughout history with its greatest one taking place in 17 A.D. Some labeled it the greatest disaster in human memory. That earthquake was said to have actually been closer to Philadelphia, greatly impacting and devastating them as well as Sardis.
Because of the wealth this city possessed they actually rebuilt the entire city in less than nine years, through both their own personal wealth and a generous donation from Tiberius. The rivers that ran throughout the city were known to have a large quantity of gold flowing through them which speaks to the wealth this city possessed. The challenge of the personal wealth in this city is that it left them self indulgent, complacent and self dependant.
The religious climate of Sardis was like most of the cities in Asia Minor in their day: a mixture of Emperor Worship with local and regional deities. The city wasn’t known for the overt idolatry of Pergamum and Thyatira but it was still taking place, to some degree, within the city. And as I stated already, through the specific address given them in Revelation 3:1-6 we can clearly see that the Christians in this city once loved Jesus, but had since grown cold in their relationship with Him.
What is interesting to note about the Church in this city is that they weren’t struggling from outside persecution like Smyrna, or holding onto false doctrine inside like Thyatira, which means that they had become self indulgent and their message of Truth was so compromised that it wasn’t provoking any response from those outside. Our goal isn’t to provoke our cities to hate us, but if we faithfully preach the Gospel as Jesus, the Apostles and the Prophets of Old preached, it’s common to draw a similar response from those in our cities. The Church of Sardis had moved from a place of passion to a place of compliancy and it left them spiritually broke which ultimately led them into moral error. Let’s now take a close look at Jesus’ words to this Church.
Jesus’ Address to the Church of Sardis (Revelation 3:1-6)
As an overseer of a ministry I can only image what it must have been like to receive this information from Jesus in letter form. The One who fashioned you, who formed you and made you the way you are, is now addressing you publically about your private life, in the presence of the people you serve. And it’s even worse since this Church, is one of only two Churches of these Seven who receive nothing good from Jesus. The other is the Church of Laodicea.
Jesus begins His address to this ministry in the same way He has addressed the previous five Churches by saying in Revelation 3:1 And to the angel of the Church in Sardis write, these things says He who has the seven Spirits of God and the seven stars; I know your works, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead. Just as Jesus has done for the previous Churches He starts by Addressing the human Apostolic leader of the ministry in Sardis.
Following Jesus’ Address He then reveals some very specific and very important Attributes about Himself to the Church. His Attributes are seen in the phrase …these things says He who has the seven Spirits of God and the seven stars… Firstly, Jesus tells the Church of Sardis that He has the seven Spirits of God which is a reference to what John has already seen in Revelation 1:4. The seven Spirits of God aren’t to be taken as seven different Spirits of God, as if God has multiple Spirits, but rather that God the Holy Spirit is the seven-fold Spirit of God. The clarity to this statement comes from the famous Old Testament passage where it’s said about Jesus that He would have the seven-fold Spirit of God upon His life. The seven facets of the Holy Spirit are broken down in Isaiah 11:2 in this order 1) The Spirit of the Lord; 2) The Spirit of Wisdom; 3) The Spirit of understanding; 4) The Spirit of counsel; 5) The Spirit of might; 6) The Spirit of knowledge; 7) The Spirit of the fear of the Lord.
Through this reference to the seven-fold Spirit of God, Jesus is making a huge statement to this spiritually struggling ministry. In a few more words Jesus is going to tell this Church they are dead. The idea that Jesus possesses the seven-fold Spirit is to encourage them that He possesses the fullness of God the Holy Spirit to help turn their situation around. Though they are in a bad place, moving further away from His blessing and into His judgment, He’s still able to help them, but they must invoke Him in order for Him to act. It’s not that they are strained, because He is there to help them, but He won’t do it uninvited.
The second Attribute Jesus reveals about Himself to this ministry comes from the phrase …He who has the seven stars… The reference to the seven stars was seen by John in Revelation 1:16 and then further explained by Jesus in Revelation 1:20. In Revelation 1:20 Jesus is explaining what John has seen in Revelation 1:16 that those seven stars in His right hand are actually the seven angels of the seven Churches. Now, as I have already broken down in previous chapters, that word Angel in the Greek is the word Messenger and it can mean either human or angelic. I take it to be human in this instance as opposed to angelic.
The reason Jesus reveals this Attribute to the Church of Sardis is to say to them, Hey, though you’re separated from Me, I’m not separated you. And although you’ve forgotten Me, I haven’t forgotten you. It’s here that Jesus is pictured as holding them in the power of His right hand which speaks about His commitment to them. One of the powerful qualities about Jesus is that though He has something negative to say to us, He never separates Himself from us in the process of correction. But the other implication of Jesus holding them in His hand is His passion for the quality of ministry. Jesus isn’t just happy when we’re busy doing things, He longs for us to be becoming holy and fascinated in Him as we are working with Him. He doesn’t just care about the work getting done, He also cares about the type of worker who is working and so He holds us in His hand to strengthen His commitment to us.
From Jesus revealing His various Attributes to the Churches, He normally moves into His Approval of them, but as I previously said, both the Church of Sardis and Philadelphia receive nothing positive from Jesus. Without an Approval of this Church, Jesus begins to talk to them about His Accusation of them. This Accusation of them is seen in the statement …I know your works, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead (or dead on the inside). Jesus, the Overseer and Head of the Body is the only One who can truly say to them …I know your works… Because of Jesus’ commitment to the various ministries He starts, He observes them from an up-close-and-personal place and thereby has the authority to speak to those who oversee them.
Though the Church of Sardis is fooling the city they are not fooling Jesus. In essence Jesus is saying to them Your works might be passing before others, but they’re not passing before Me. I have the Spirit of Wisdom and Knowledge, and it’s clear to Me that you’re dead on the inside. That word dead is the Greek word #3498 (Strong’s Concordance) and it literally means corpse, or to be totally dead internally. Now it’s important that we understand Jesus is talking to Christians, people who have given their lives to Him and are in the faith. It wasn’t that they were dead in Christ meaning they weren’t regenerated. When Jesus says to them that they were dead inside, He’s saying that their heart before Him had grown cold and distant, like a corpse towards Him.
Because Jesus is the Faithful Witness He will always tell us the truth regarding our spiritual state before Him regardless of what others might say about us. Jesus lives in the Fear of the Lord, which means that He will speak to us what’s best for us in the eyes of the Father without regard for the others around us. What this means for us is that we must talk to Jesus about our lives and never assume that things are okay. We often don’t know until we ask.
Jesus continues speaking to the Church of Sardis by giving them His Advice when He says in Revelation 3:2 Be watchful and strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die, for I have not found your works perfect before God. Now when it comes to Jesus’ Advice to this Church, He wasn’t telling them to primarily watch for His return, but rather to live sober, alert and steadfast before Him and others. That word watch in the Greek is word #1127 and it literally means to perceive, take heed, recover full vision and to see clearly. What seems to be happening is that Sardis had been in the past what Ephesus was in the present, a thriving city filled with the life of God. But apart from their repentance, Jesus is letting them know that the ministry is also, an in Ephesus, at the point of death.
And when Jesus says to them …I have not found your works perfect before God He’s not using the word perfect as most American’s would use it. Jesus is simply saying that their works were immature, or lacking and inadequate. It’s not that they were to be without fault and perfect meaning perfection, but rather that Jesus wanted them to be mature and adequate in their works before the Father.
Jesus’ Advice continues for the Church of Sardis in Revelation 3:3 as He says to them Remember therefore how you have received and heard; hold fast and repent. Therefore if you will not watch, I will come upon you as a thief, and you will not know what hour I will come upon you. Through this passage Jesus is calling them to remember and repent. He is asking them to remember in the early days of the revival when He first touched their heart and return to that place of passion and longing for more of Him. His Advice for them is that they should remember those early days, and work to stay there with Him. The power of God’s name is that He doesn’t forget us even when we forget Him, so He calls us to remember Him, because He always remembers us.
Something else that many people like to read into this passage is a primary statement about the Second Coming and the Rapture of the Church. I personally see this passage, stated above, as a primary statement to the Church of Sardis and a secondary statement about the Second Coming. In all reality, the coming of Jesus to this ministry was a coming in judgment not a coming in His return in the sky. Jesus was warning them that if they didn’t return to Him in repentance that He would come to them in judgment, quickly. Jesus doesn’t want to crush His people or the thing which He loves so dearly, the Church. But because He is Faithful and True He requires us to respond to His words. But if we choose not to, He promises that He will come to us quickly and deal with us.
Secondarily, this passage also gives us a second coming principle. Jesus tells the Church of Sardis …therefore if you will not watch, I will come upon you as a thief, and you will not know what hour I will come upon you. The reality here is that Jesus didn’t want to come to the Church as a thief, but if they refused to watch, then He would. Many assume that Jesus is going to come to the earth like a Thief and that nobody can know the season of the Lord’s return, but this idea simply isn’t Biblical for the praying and watching Church.
The only people that Jesus will come to as a thief, upon His return, are those that refuse to live sober, alert and watching for His appearing and the season of His return. For those that watch, they will be ever ready, longing for that Day to come sooner than it will. Look at what Paul says in 1st Thessalonians 5:1-6 But concerning the times and the seasons, brethren, you have no need that I should write to you. For you yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so comes as a thief in the night. For when they say, Peace and safety! then sudden destruction comes upon them, as labor pains upon a pregnant woman. And they shall not escape. But you, brethren are not in darkness, so that this Day should overtake you as a thief. You are all sons of light and sons of the day. We are not of the night nor of the darkness. Therefore let us not sleep, as others do, but let us watch and be sober. Paul starts out by staying that that Day of Lord so comes as a thief in the night. But then he goes on to clarify who those are that are in darkness, or of the night. It’s not the praying and engaged Church that’s alive with Jesus in the greatest hour of human difficulty. Those that refuse to watch and live alert in that season will experience Jesus’ coming to them and the events surrounding His return like a Thief. So, either primary or secondary, Jesus is making it clear that those who refuse to watch for Him now, or at His return, will experience His coming like a thief.
Now that Jesus has given the Church of Sardis His Advice He is going to share with them the Assurance of eternal reward, pending they overcome. Jesus says to them in Revelation 3:4 You have a few names even in Sardis who have not defiled their garments and they shall walk with Me in white for they are worthy. We get a glimpse into something powerful through this verse. It’s clear that the entire Church wasn’t dead on the inside but rather the majority. But among the majority there were only a few individuals that were walking with Jesus in hot pursuit. Jesus has moved His conversation from the dead and unworthy majority to the faithful, worthy minority. It doesn’t take an entire Church to turn things around, only a few, and maybe even just one person who loves God and is willing to live radically before Him.
When Jesus first Addressed the Church He was Addressing their reputation that they had among the people in their city and maybe even beyond. But now, Jesus moves from addressing the reputation of the majority to the faithfulness of the minority, which in this case were only a few individuals. And to these faithful few, Jesus gives the Assurance of eternal reward based on them overcoming the challenges set before them. And just like the promise of reward to the other Churches of Revelation 2-3 what Jesus was telling the church of Sardis wasn’t based on an automatic reward, but on their overcoming.
When it comes to the eternal rewards Jesus offers not only these Churches and Christians, but also to us today, is that they are only invitations to rewards until we respond to them with the proper heart response. The way those invitations become a reality in our lives is based solely on how we respond to them in the grace of God. Jesus offers concrete promises but until we respond with the appropriate heart response, to match the promise given, they are only invitations and not guarantees. We must press into the Lord’s heart in order to see those things that He has promised us become a reality.
But regarding the promise given in this passage, Jesus is offering them to be able to walk with Him in white. During the time period in which this was written, it was common for Rome to host parties where the people would wear white togas to celebrate a major holiday, a large conquest or a victory. To this struggling band of faithful Christians in Sardis, the promise of walking with Jesus in the celebration of victory would have been really appealing to these faithful few.
We must remember that the Assurance of reward is given to this ministry based on their overcoming the lethargy of the majority and remaining connected to Jesus at the heart level. This is not easy to do, and it was going to be a large task for this Church to overcome. So much so that Jesus connected a reward if they were able to do it. The Church is further threatened by Jesus that if they refuse to repent and return to Him, that He will blot out their names from the Book of Life. Here are His words from Revelation 3:5 He who overcomes shall be clothed in white garments and I will not blot out his name from the book of life; but I will confess his name before My Father and before His angels.
Through this passage we are able to see that though our names were once written in the Book of Life, it’s possible to have them blotted out, or removed. For those who refused to turn from their spiritual deadness were in jeopardy, down the road, of having their names blotted out. The idea of their being blotted out is saying that their names were in jeopardy of being literally scratched off the parchments with a knife. The word blot in the Greek is word #1813 and it literally means to smear out, to obliterate, erase, tear, blot out or wipe away.
Jesus is letting them know that just as the city in which they live keeps a civil registry, so also does He keep a heavenly registry with people’s names in it. Because of the Church of Sardis’ compromise of the truth in order to live an easy life within the city, it made sharing the difficult truths about Jesus challenging. And because Jesus knows this, He tells them …but I will confess his name before My Father and before His angels. Jesus is telling this faithful group of individuals within this larger, but internally dead ministry, if they will be faithful to speak about Jesus’ name, Jesus will be faithful to speak their name before His Father. The reward for sharing Jesus’ name and the difficult aspects of Jesus’ name in public holds an eternal reward that’s beyond our comprehension.
Jesus is now at His final Address to the Church of Sardis and He is giving the final Appeal to them to listen to the Person and voice of the Holy Spirit. Jesus says to them in Revelation 3:6 just like He says to every other Church in Revelation 2-3 He who has an ear to hear, let him hear what the Spirit is saying to the Churches. The God Man, in great tenderness, not wishing to punish His people, Appeals to them to listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit and press into the message in way that they have never done before.
This Appeal is equally applicable to us in our day. We must heed the words of God, the word of Christ, the words of the Prophets and the words of the Apostles. We must allow the Holy Spirit to have entrance into the very fabric of our lives in order for us to be able to hear what He is saying and to rightly respond to Him. Beloved, give Him your ear, and from there allow those words He shares with you to touch your heart and change the way you live your life before Him and others.