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Sardis: Dead Christianity

Tom Pennington Revelation 3:1-6


Well, it is my joy tonight for us to return to our study of the Book of Revelation. We took the summer off and enjoyed the study of the Psalms and appreciate the men serving us with the Word of God. But it is a joy for me to come back and to continue our journey through this magnificent book. Now, I'm hoping that the fact that we are studying 1 John on Sunday morning and Revelation on Sunday night will give you some context.

I mean, think about it this way, the first letter of John was written somewhere in the first five years of the last decade of the first century, 90-95 A.D. I rehearsed with you this morning some of the things that were happening in the churches that John served and there were some hard and difficult things that were happening. Fast forward just a few years, Domitian, the great Emperor of Rome, decides to persecute the Christians, John is taken from his home in Ephesus and he is sent to a piece of rock out in the Aegean Sea, the island of Patmos.

Think about the hard times that he and the churches that he served were suffering. Think about all that they were seeing. And then think about the state of the churches that we're encountering in the Book of Revelation and how that must have burdened John the Apostle as he was so far away and unable to help, unable to serve them. Think about the larger people of God under the reign of Domitian. It seems like the Christian faith that once looked like it had such a bright future doesn't seem that way anymore. Dark times, difficult times.

It was into that context that the Lord Jesus Christ arrived in a vision on the isle of Patmos and gave the Apostle John this book. And how timely could it have been. To say to John and to all the churches, yes, there are things that I want to address, things I want to correct, but I am still Lord of My church. I am still building the church. And oh, by the way, I have history under My control and it's marching perfectly toward the end that I have determined.

I think today we need the same reminder. So many believers, some of us, are really discouraged about the state of the world, the state of the church. It's easy to lose focus. It's easy to forget that we're not in charge, but that Christ is. This book is going to remind us of that. So, it's been a joy already to study it.

Let me just remind you of where we are in our study. We looked at chapter 1 which is the things which you have seen. Using chapter 1 verse 19 as sort of our outline of the book, the things which you have seen dealt with the prophecy, with the revelation rather, of Jesus there and the setting of His prophecy to the churches and to the rest of us in the rest of the Book of Revelation. So the stage is set in chapter 1. That's the vision that John witnessed of the risen Christ.

We are in the middle of the second part of the Book of Revelation, which is the things which are, this is describing the state of Jesus' church as it was in the first century. And frankly, as it usually is. You see, these are seven letters from Jesus Christ addressed to seven churches, but those churches are not only seven real, literal, first century churches located in seven cities in Asia Minor, where Paul planted and John later came and ministered. But these seven churches are also representative of all churches that existed in the first century. Every church that existed in the first century can find its counterpart or parts of its counterparts in these seven churches.

And the same is true today. These seven churches really represent the kinds of churches throughout all of church history. We've rejected the idea that these churches represent stages in church history. That's not what I'm talking about. Instead, these churches find their counterparts in churches throughout the world and throughout the history of the church. In other words, there will always be churches like the church in Ephesus, there will always be churches like the church in Sardis. And so, we have this beautiful view of the church through the little microscope on these seven small little churches in Asia Minor.

Now so far, we have looked at these, we looked at Ephesus and I called it loveless fidelity, Smyrna, faithful suffering, Pergamum, undiscerning tolerance, Thyatira, extra-biblical authority. Tonight we come to the fifth of the seven churches, the church in Sardis. Let me read for you Jesus' letter to this church, Revelation 3 beginning in verse 1. These are literally our Lord's words to that little church in Sardis.

"To the angel of the church in Sardis write:

He who has the seven Spirits of God and the seven stars, says this: 'I know your deeds, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead. Wake up, and strengthen the things that remain, which were about to die; for I have not found your deeds completed in the sight of My God. So remember what you have received and heard; and keep it, and repent. Therefore if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come to you. But you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their garments; and they will walk with Me in white, for they are worthy. He who overcomes will thus be clothed in white garments; and I will not erase his name from the book of life, and 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.'"

In this letter to the church in Sardis, Christ gives a message that we really could reduce to this: Christ warns His church, not only that church but other churches like them, of the danger of having the appearance of a living thriving church, but in fact being spiritually dead. Sardis was characterized by dead Christianity.

With each of the seven letters, as we walk our way through them, we're using the same basic outline that Christ does. He uses exactly the same structure in all seven letters. So I'm just following Christ's outline as we sort of work our way through each of these letters. And we'll do the same tonight. The letter begins with the introduction to the letter, the command to write in verse 1. Notice, Christ says, "'To the angel of the church in Sardis write.'" Now, as we discovered, these letters were intended for all the members of the church, each of the members of each church, but they were sent to and through the key leaders of the church. That's the meaning of the expression the "'angel of the church,'" the messenger of the church, the key leader, probably the key elder, the teaching elder perhaps, in each church. And that's the one to whom Christ tells John to write.

Now from this first line in Christ's letter here, we're reminded, first of all, of the character of the city. Notice He refers to the city as Sardis. Now, just to remind you, the order in which these seven letters appear in Revelation follows the natural route that a messenger who received this letter from John on the isle of Patmos out in the Aegean Sea, came back to port in Ephesus, which is where he would have initially landed. He would have then worked his way north. If you can track with me here, you can see that here is Ephesus and you move up to Smyrna and then on up north to Pergamum and then to Thyatira and then back to Sardis, which is where we are tonight. So that's how the messenger would have traveled. From Pergamum in the north he would have traveled south to Thyatira.

And then about 30 miles south of Thyatira was the city of Sardis. A city which was founded in a valley formed by the convergence of two rivers. The earliest city of Sardis was built on part of the range of the Tmolus mountains. You can see the acropolis at Sardis here. Now the pictures you're going to see, just be aware that because of a major earthquake they estimate that only about a third of the acropolis still stands. So the pictures you see, it's not the total picture of that acropolis in the days of Paul and John. But on top of that acropolis is where the original city was built.

And you can see, just from the nature of things, that the three sides of this acropolis actually consisted at the time of 1500 foot cliffs that were nearly perpendicular to the valley floor. There was access to the city only on the south side, but even that was a steep, winding, treacherous trail that was easily defended. It's said that a single soldier could have could have kept an army from coming up to the acropolis. This made the ancient city nearly impregnable.

But as the city grew, as its population grew, the small area on the top of the acropolis could no longer hold the city. So, beneath the acropolis, down on the valley floor, they built the new city. The old city they kept as a fortress, a place of safety in the event that the city was attacked. All of the residents living there in the valley could go up to the acropolis and find that fortress a place of protection. But the city began to sprawl across the valley below the acropolis.

The city began in 1200 B.C. About 700 B.C. the dominant power in Asia minor, modern Turkey, was the Lydian kingdom and its capital was Sardis. The first king is actually credited with the one who started creating coins, gold and silver coins, from bullion, so it started in Sardis.

The most famous Lydian king was a man whose name you might recognize, its Croesus. He was in the 500's B.C. and he was known for the gold that he panned from the nearby river. It was, in the sixth century, during his reign, Sardis, the city of Sardis, was one of the most powerful in the ancient world. But things change dramatically and don't miss this because this is going to factor into Jesus' letter to this church. In the year 546, Cyrus the Persian captured Sardis. Later the Greeks captured it as well. And then after the Greeks, of course, the, you remember the kingdom of Alexander was split and the Seleucids controlled this kingdom until the Romans defeated the Seleucids, Antiochus the third in 188 B.C. And the Romans gave the city of Sardis to Pergamum. But then in the year 133 B.C. the Romans took permanent control of the city of Sardis.

Now, Sardis was at the junction of five ancient roads, and it commanded the entire Hermus Valley below it. So it became a very prosperous commercial city, filled with gold, filled with trade, filled with wealth. In fact, it's important king, Croesus, became associated as a sort of emblem of wealth. It's said that it was the result of Midas and his touch that this city enjoyed the wealth that it had. However, the city was destroyed in A.D. 17 by a powerful earthquake along with about 11 other nearby cities. Thanks to the generosity of the Emperor Tiberius, it was soon rebuilt. And so it was a thriving city, even in the days of Paul and later of John, but it had begun its decline. It was, it really just had a shadow of its former glory. What it had mostly was its memories of greatness, but it had begun to decline.

This city was the home of Solon, the great legislator, as well as Thales, the father of Greek philosophy. It's possible that that Aesop, as in Aesop's Fables, was from this city. Today the modern city of Sart, borrowing the name, stands in the location of the lower city of Sardis. Archaeologists have done a lot of excavations to this city and they've made a number of significant finds, including a theatre, a Roman theater, that seats 20,000 people.

What about its religion? Well, there was a large Jewish population at Sardis. There's been a large synagogue that was discovered there. But by far the predominant religion was a pagan one. It was the worship of Cybelle. There's some discussion about the pronunciation, some say Sibyl, some say Si-belle, but the sources I cited say it's Si-bell-e. Some believe that Cybelle is identical to Artemis of Ephesus. Others say no, they're distinct. But regardless, they were both fertility mother goddesses. And you can only imagine what the worship of these gods, or these goddesses, was like.

In Sardis there was an unfinished temple dedicated to this goddess and that temple measures 100 yards by 50 yards. It's huge. Just to give you an idea of its scope, there were 78 columns that held up the roof of this. As you can see, only two of them remain standing. Each of these 78 columns were 58 feet high. It was huge. Just to give you an idea, there's one of the columns. This temple was begun by Croesus but was never completed, ironically, and an earthquake covered this temple with landslides and it's only in modern times been excavated. There was also there a huge Roman center. You can see at the top of this slide, a gymnasium with marble courts. Here is a closer up picture of what that Roman gymnasium looked like. And as part of it there was a marble court. It was a magnificent city. So that's the city.

But what about the history of the church there? Again, notice verse 1, Jesus says, "'To the angel of the church in Sardis.'" Now the New Testament doesn't record the founding of this church, but it likely occurred the same time as the other churches in the area, during the three year ministry of Paul in Ephesus. You remember Acts 19:10. It says that Paul was there in that area of Ephesus for over two years, "so that all who lived in Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks." So the ministry spread to that entire region. That means this church was likely founded in the early 50's A.D. But when Christ dictated this letter to them through the Apostle John it would have been about 40 to 45 years later.

Let's move on then to the description of Christ. You remember that in each letter Christ describes Himself. He borrows from the vision back in chapter 1 to describe something about Himself that is pertinent to the message He's going to deliver to each church. And so, borrowing from that vision, in His message to Sardis, Christ describes Himself in two ways. First of all, He describes Himself this way, through His Spirit He sees all that happens in His church, and at the same time He is the source of its life. How do I get that? Well look at the first expression, the first description. Verse 1, Christ says, tell them the one writing to them is "'He who has the seven Spirits of God.'"

Now, we've met a similar expression before, you remember, back in chapter 1 verse 4, where it says, "the seven Spirits who are before God's throne." In both cases, this description points to the third member of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit. You say, what is this seven Spirits? I thought there was one Holy Spirit. And the answer to that is, there is. In fact, in Revelation the Holy Spirit is referred to as one person at least 13 times. So this is not saying that there are many Spirits. That's not the point. So what is the point then? Well, the Spirit is not only referred to here as "'the seven Spirits,'" but as "the seven lamps of fire" in chapter 4 verse 5, pointing to His omniscience, and "seven eyes," I'm sorry, pointing to his omnipresence, and "seven eyes" pointing to His omniscience in chapter 5 verse 6. So, the Holy Spirit then is referred to as "'the seven Spirits'" in a in a sort of symbolic way, a picturesque way. It really points back, honestly, this description, to the menorah, the lampstand with seven lamps in Zachariah 4:1-10. We looked at it when we studied chapter 1. It refers to the Holy Spirit.

Now, why does Christ use this expression here? Why is He talking about the Holy Spirit in reference to the church in Sardis? I think Christ intends to remind the believers in Sardis of two important spiritual realities by mentioning the Spirit. First of all, as the Spirit is represented by torches, that which gives light, and eyes, that which sees, and seven lights or lamps and torches and seven eyes, the picture is that through His Spirit Christ illumines and sees everything that happens in every church, including into the hearts of each of its members.

That's an interesting thing to think about. You know, I think it's easy for us to think of ourselves as so far removed from the events that we're studying as if that doesn't happen here. Let me just tell you something, Christ is walking among the lampstands that represent His churches today, including Countryside, and through His Spirit He has turned on the light and through His Spirit He sees everything that happens in this church. He sees everything that happens in every member's life. That's the point.

I think there's another reason He mentions the Spirit here. You remember, the Spirit is often called the Spirit of Life. There are a number of references we could look at, but I think the point He's making is this, it is only through Christ's Spirit that this dead church that we're going to look at can come to life. It's the Spirit of Life that can do this and only the Spirit of Life.

The second description of Christ here is that He controls the church's leaders and will hold them accountable for their leadership. Notice what He says in verse 1, "'He who has the seven Spirits of God and the seven stars.'" Again, that's borrowed from chapter 1 and there Christ described Himself as, or John saw Him, as holding these seven stars in His right hand. And we're told in verse 20 of chapter 1 that they represent the key leaders or the leading elders, one from each of the seven churches. The point is, Jesus controls them and He will hold them accountable for the leadership they demonstrate. As we will see, sadly, the leaders had failed the church in Sardis. And at the outset of this letter, Christ reminds them that He will hold them responsible for that failure.

So, that's the introduction to the letter. We've seen the character of the city, a brief history of the church, and Christ uniquely describes Himself in a way that suits the message He's going to deliver this church. That brings us to the body of the letter, the actual state of this church. Now what's interesting is, our Lord began His letters to the previous four churches with a commendation, but not Sardis. He has nothing immediately good to say about this church. There will be something, it'll come. But He begins immediately instead with a correction of the sin. Look at verse 1, "'"I know your deeds, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead."'" As with the other churches, all seven of them, our Lord begins with these haunting words, "'"I know,"'" "'"I know,"'" "'"I know. "'" He knows the true state of this church, regardless of its appearance.

Notice He says, "'"I know your deeds."'" What does He mean? Well, He goes on to explain what He means in the next phrase, "'"I know your deeds,"'" and here's what I mean by that, "'"you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead."'" Our Lord's diagnosis of the problem in this church is that it is spiritually dead. Although its members professed faith in Him, for most it was a lifeless profession. This church had a name, we could say a reputation, that it was spiritually alive. Collectively they professed to be followers of Christ. I'm sure they met on the Lord's Day. They had all kinds of social activities. They sought to have a presence in their community. People gave to support the ministries of the church and members gave of their time to serve.

If you had lived in Sardis and passed the place where this church met, you would have seen what appeared to be a thriving community of faith. But here's what the Lord saw, verse 1, "'"I know your deeds, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead."'" The church in Sardis was like a B class horror movie. It was the home of the walking dead. This church was like the ship in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. It was manned by the dead. Most of the members of this church were spiritually dead. They were playing church. Now, what makes this church remarkable is, you remember back in the churches in Pergamum and Thyatira there were unbelievers, but they were in the minority. In Sardis, they were the majority. That's Jesus' correction of what's going on in this church. And in light of what He identifies, there's a call for repentance beginning in verse 2.

Christ's prescription to bring this dead church to life includes five imperatives. And those five imperatives mark out five steps on the path for this church to return to the spiritual life and health that it had enjoyed 45 years ago at its founding. What are these imperatives? What are these steps? How does a dead church repent? First of all, Jesus says, "'"Wake up,"'" it's the first step, "'"Wake up."'" Verse 2, "'"Wake up."'" Now, it's probably better to translate this as show or prove yourself to be alert, to be watchful. So if we wanted to give it a paraphrase, we could say it this way, wake up and be alert, and keep being alert, be on guard.

Now, the moment Christ said this, and I should say the moment that this letter from Christ was read in the church in Sardis, I can tell you that it resounded like a thunderbolt to the congregation there because of its history. I've already marked out for you that the city had been built on what seemed like an invincible acropolis. So the people became careless. Nobody can take us. When the armies came they simply retreated en masse up to the acropolis, sealed the gate, put a guard at the one place that the hill could be accessed, and they were safe.

But on two separate occasions this invincible city had been taken, because its military failed to be watchful. In the year 546 B.C. Cyrus the Persian captured this city by stealth. They had withdrawn into the city, sealed the gate, they had a guard on the south side, the only place that was accessible with that treacherous little winding trail, and they felt perfectly safe. But one day, 14 days into his siege, only 14 days, Cyrus offered a reward for the soldier that could figure out how to take the city. There was a soldier, a seasoned veteran, who was watching, and he knew the reality that the guards were posted only on the one side because that was the only accessible side. And he thought surely there must be another way up to the city. And so he watched.

And as he watched, one of the soldiers of Sardis dropped his helmet off the wall at one of the points where there was a sheer face of drop, or it seemed to be. He watched that soldier climb over the wall crawl down a crevice, down to where his helmet had fallen, and the soldier realized that the city was not as impregnable as it appeared to be. And so that night he climbed that crevice up to the wall, found it unguarded at that place, and Cyrus was able to take the city. The invincible city of Sardis fell after only a 14 day siege. This was so shocking to the Greeks that the phrase "capturing Sardis" became a saying for achieving the impossible.

It happened a second time. In 218 B.C. Antiochus the third, or Antiochus the Great, took the city in exactly the same way. Antiochus actually hired a climber from Crete, a man named Legorus, and Legorus discovered a route up the face of the cliff. You see, what happened over time is those seemingly impregnable cliffs became weathered, and as they weathered there were cracks and crevices and handholds for climbers. And that's what Antiochus took advantage of, he hired this climber and the climber discovered a route up the face of the cliff. And one night with 15 men he made the daring climb up one of those sheer rock faces. He opened the gates from within and Antiochus' armies overpowered the city.

In both cases, a city which was so easily defended fell to its enemies because of the failure to stay alert to danger. Now do you see what Christ was saying? "'"Wake up"'" and stay alert. Tragically, the same thing was happening to the church. Jesus says, you need to wake up, you need to realize that you are more vulnerable than you realize, you need to stay on your guard. "'"Wake up."'"

Secondly, Jesus says, "'"strengthen."'" Verse 2 says, "'"and strengthen the things that remain, which were about to die."'" The church as a whole was dead, but there were still some spiritual activities, wholesome, right, biblical spiritual activities that survived. They were being done by dead people, mostly, but they were there, they were happening. But these things, if left unaddressed, they too would die soon. Verse 2 goes on to say, "'"for I have not found your deeds completed in the sight of My God."'" Notice that word "'"found."'" That verb in this context implies a judicial investigation of the facts. After Christ searched through all of their works as a church, there were not found any that were "'"completed in the sight of My God."'" In other words, there were none that met God's standard, not primarily in quantity, but in quality. They didn't measure up. Their deeds looked good to their contemporaries, but not to God.

They were like that fig tree, you remember, in Mark 11 that Jesus cursed. When He saw that it had leaves, and a tree in leaf like that shouldn't have had mature figs, but it should have had those small little green figs that He could have eaten and it had none. And Jesus cursed it not because He was somehow given to fits of anger, but because it was an object lesson. The same thing was happening down on the Temple Mount where He was about to go. That is, the worship of God at the Temple Mount was all leaves but no fruit. That's what was happening in the church in Sardis. Their works didn't meet the standard. The church in Sardis, like first century Judaism, was also all leaves, all show, and no fruit. But Jesus says "'"strengthen,"'" "'"strengthen those spiritual activities that remain."'"

And then He comes to the key challenge. Don't miss this one because this is the most important one. He says, "'"remember,"'" verse 3, "'"So remember what you have received and heard."'" Now, the verb remember is a present imperative, meaning keep on remembering. Specifically, they were to remember certain truths, truths that they had come to know in two ways. Notice "'"what you have received,"'" that is a technical expression in the New Testament that refers to the apostolic teaching that had been handed down. You remember, Paul uses that expression in 1 Corinthians 15 when he's talking about the basic gospel and he says, you know, I'm just telling you the gospel which I have received. That's the idea behind this expression.

In other words, He's saying, "'"remember what you have received."'" Remember the Scripture. And then He says, "'"what you have heard."'" That probably refers to the teaching, the explanation of the Scripture that they had heard in the church. Christ tells this church to intentionally remember, collectively, the truths that they had received through the Scripture and through the teaching of the Scripture in that church. Jesus says, remember and believe and act on those truths.

Now folks, don't miss how crucial this instruction is. This is the heart of Jesus' correction of a dead church. And this third imperative, "'"remember,"'" explains how this became a dead church. It's the same way that every church that was once evangelical dies. The leaders gradually abandoned the priority of Scripture in the life of the church and its careful teaching. That's what happened in Sardis. That's why it was characterized as dead Christianity. Because it had all the form, it had all the leaves, it had all the shape, but there was no life. Why? Because it's the Word of God that brings life, that the Spirit uses to bring life where there is no life. Christ tells this church that if it wants to have life again, it needs to remember the Scripture that it received in its early days and the priority of teaching that Scripture to its members. Remember, remember what used to be important to you as a church. Remember the Scripture. That's why you're dead. It's because you've abandoned the Word of God.

The fourth priority is "'"keep,"'" "'"and keep it."'" This too is a present imperative, demanding constant activity. Now notice, there's no object, the word it is added by the translators. So it just says "'"and keep."'" There's no object to the verb. But it's obvious that Christ is referring back to the truths that they had received and heard, "'"keep the truths"'" that you received in the Scripture and that you heard taught in explaining that Scripture in your church. Keep them. Now, the word "'"keep"'" has two nuances. It means on the one hand to guard, and on the other hand it means to obey. And I think both of those are implied here together. So what Jesus is saying is, once you remember, once you recover the Scripture in your church, once you begin teaching the Scripture again and you remember the treasure that you have received, keep on guarding it and keep on obeying its truths.

The final imperative is repent. Verse 3 says, "'"and repent."'" That really sums up the other four imperatives. What Jesus is saying is that this church must change its thinking and behavior by waking up, strengthening the things that remain, remembering the truth that they had received, and guarding that truth and obeying it. Now, those five imperatives explain how this church must change, but next Christ explains why. And He does so by giving them a warning of coming judgment. Verse 3 goes on to say, "'"Therefore if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come to you."'" If the church in Sardis failed to repent and they failed to remain spiritually alert, then Christ threatened to come like a thief in the night, suddenly, unexpectedly, devastatingly.

Now some think that Christ is referring here to the Second Coming, but notice He says, "'"if you don't repent, I will come."'" Now clearly, the Second Coming would happen whether the church in Sardis repented or not; it's not tied to that. And He also says something very interesting, "'"I will come to you."'" It seems to be more specific. So the coming in this verse is more likely a sudden unexpected coming of Christ in judgment to destroy this church. It's just like what He said to the church in Ephesus. Go back to chapter 2 verse 5, "'"remember from where you've fallen, and repent and do the deeds you did it first; or else I am coming to you,"'" and this is very specific, "'"I will remove your lampstand out of its place – unless you repent."'" In other words, I'm going to, you're going to cease to exist as a church. The light is going to be turned off. I think that's exactly what He's saying to the church in Sardis.

Christ adds, to this church, notice, "'"and you will not know at what hour I come to you."'" If this church failed to wake up, the same thing, think about this, what Jesus is really saying, if you don't wake up, if you don't get on your guard, if you don't remember what you learned from the Scripture before and start teaching it again and get back into those priorities, then the same thing is going to happen to you as a church that happened to your city. I'm going to come, suddenly, quietly, in the night, and you are going to be unexpectedly destroyed.

It's an amazing thing, isn't it? I mean, here is a church that Jesus calls a church and yet it's mostly dead people, spiritually dead people. But Christ includes in His letter a commendation of true believers. Finally we get a little breath of relief. Verse 4, "'"But,"'" and in Greek that's not the normal word for but, it's a strong adversative. He's saying, "'"But,"'" in contrast to the people in verse 3, "'"you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their garments."'" In other words, there were a few genuine believers in Sardis.

Notice Christ describes them as those "'"who have not soiled their garments."'" This too is an interesting reference to the city. I didn't mention it to you when I described the city, but Sardis was famous for its dyeing of wool. In fact, they claimed to have been the first to discover the art of dyeing wool. They had a large garment manufacturing industry in the city of Sardis. So this image would have struck home with them. But it also would have struck home in another way. Archaeologists have found inscriptions in Asia Minor where these churches were located that stress that when it came to the worship of the pagan gods, dirty clothing dishonored the deity and disqualified the worshiper. I think Jesus is saying, there are some there who are not dishonoring Me and who are not disqualified to worship.

Because the true believers in Sardis remained true to Christ and the gospel, they are described here as "'"not having soiled their garments."'" Now there's a lot of debate about what these garments are, but it seems to me, since all the Christians are described as "'"not having soiled their garments,"'" I'm simply not convinced that Christ is describing holiness or purity only. That's possible, and there are many commentators who take it that way, but I think I have to agree with those who take this to mean that these true Christians in Sardis remained committed to the true gospel. They were justified by the true biblical gospel. They were dressed in white. Their garments were unsoiled.

In response, Christ promises these justified believers that they will one day be glorified. Verse 4, "'"and they will walk with Me in white."'" I take this as referring to these believers, who have already been justified and who have kept to the purity of the gospel, being glorified and being with Christ forever. And He adds, in verse 4, "'"for they are worthy."'" It doesn't mean these believers, or any believers, merit justification and glorification. None of us do. It's all grace from beginning to end. Rather, He's simply saying they're worthy in the sense that they haven't abandoned their simple faith in Jesus Christ and His gospel.

The final part of this letter is the conclusion. It's an exhortation to each believer. First of all, you have, as you do in each of the letters, a call to overcome. Verse 5 says, "'"He who overcomes."'" Now, it's been a while since we studied Revelation so let me just remind you, if you are a Christian, if you're a true believer in Jesus Christ, you are an overcomer. Overcomers or not some elite group, sort of seal force of Christians. Overcomers is every believer.

That's what John himself says back in 1 John 5. Look at it with me, 1 John 5:4, "For whatever is born of God." Notice that, "whatever," or we could say, whoever or whomever, "is born of God overcomes the world." How? How can puny me overcome the world?

this is the victory that has overcome the world – our faith. And who is the one who overcomes the world, but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?

So get it in your head, overcomers are not something, if you're a Christian, you need to aspire to, an overcomer is who you are by virtue of your faith in Jesus Christ. Every believer is an overcomer and every believer will endure and will inherit all of the promises made in all seven of these letters to those who overcome. These are your rewards, these are your gifts, Christian.

In this letter Christ makes three promises to true believers, to those who overcome. First of all, He tells us that He will give every believer His perfect righteousness and holiness. Look at verse 5, "'"He who overcomes will thus be clothed in white garments."'" Notice the word thus, I think He's referring back to what he said a moment ago when He said, "'"they will walk with Me in white,"'" He's talking about the same thing, this isn't something different, it's just made here in the context of the overcomer to say this is My promise to you, this is going to happen. Those who wear the white robes of Christ's righteousness today will one day be glorified and wear the white robes of His perfect holiness and purity.

Do you realize Christian that someday not only will your moral character be like Christ for a day, for a year, for a century, for a millennium, but you will be like Christ forever. And the beauty of that is it means He is not only going to save you from the penalty of sin, from the power of sin, but He's going to save you from the possibility of sin. You won't be able to sin, for all eternity. "'"He who overcomes will thus be clothed in white garments."'"

Secondly, Christ will give every believer's salvation, will keep, I should say, every believer's salvation eternally safe and secure. Verse 5 goes on to say, "'"and I will not erase his name from the book of life."'" Now, this picture of the book of Life resonated with believers in the first century for two reasons. First of all, because it was something that happened in their contemporary culture. First century cities kept written records of the citizens of that city. When a person was convicted of serious crimes his name was removed, erased from the record of the citizens of that city. He lost his citizenship.

But I think this picture is even more profound because it's used in both the Old and the New Testaments. Here it is in the Old Testament, the book of life, it starts in Exodus 32. You remember, after the golden calf incident, Moses says,

"But now Lord, if You will, forgive their sin – and if not, please blot me out from Your book which You have written!" And the Lord said to Moses, [I'm not going to do it.] "Whoever has sinned against Me, I will blot him out of My book."

Now, there's a lot of debate about what book this is; some say this is not the Lamb's book of life, this is merely the book of physical life and the one who sins, God says, I'm going to deal with him and he's going to die physically. That's possible. But I think it's possible it has this larger context in view.

Psalm 69:28 says, "May they be blotted out," speaking of God's enemies, "May they be blotted out of the book of life and may they not be recorded with the righteous." And then in Daniel 12:1, "'there will be a time of distress such as never occurred since there was a nation until that time; and at that time your people, everyone who is found written in the book, will be rescued.'" It's speaking of the future salvation of Israel at the end of the great tribulation.

Here are the New Testament references. In Luke 10:20, you remember the disciples came back so excited about all that they were able to accomplish on their ministry trip, and Jesus said, "'don't rejoice that the demons are subject to you, rejoice that your names are recorded in heaven.'" Philippians 4:3, Paul says, "my fellow workers," those two women, you remember, who are having trouble getting along, they are "my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life." Hebrews 12:23 speaks of all believers in heaven, "the church of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven." Revelation 20:15 describes eternal life or eternal death is based on whose name appears in the book of life. And in Revelation 21:27 it's actually called "the Lamb's book of life."

I think all of this becomes clearest in Revelation 13:8, because Revelation 13:8 explains how one comes to be written in the book of life. Look at what John writes, "All who dwell on the earth will worship him," that is obviously the antichrist at the prompting of the false prophet, [Who will?] "everyone whose name has not been written," notice this, "from the foundation of the world." How do you get in the Lamb's book of life? You get in there by sovereign grace. It happened before you were born, before as, to use Romans 9, before you had "done anything good or bad." And notice, "who have not been written from the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who has been slain." The only way anybody gets into the book of life is because of the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ. So it's by sovereign grace alone through the work of Christ alone. And as we learned throughout the New Testament, it's by our faith in that work of Christ alone.

Sadly, many read, back to Revelation 3:5, many read Revelation 3:5 and they argue, you can read it, pick up a commentary, various things, you'll read, they argue that this verse teaches exactly the opposite of what it says. They say you can be erased from the book of life. The very fact that He says I won't blot these out of the book of life, I won't erase them, means He has the prerogative to erase others. Folks, that's not what Christ says. He explicitly says that He will not erase the names of the overcomers, those who keep on believing in Him, and the reason we keep on believing in Him is because of God's sovereign choice, by grace alone, to write our names in the Lamb's book of life before the foundation of the world. Be consistent with what the Scripture teaches.

God, Ephesians 1:3, excuse me, 1:4, says, "God the Father chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world" in order that we might eventually enjoy adoption. So understand, you can't be erased from the Lamb's book of life. This is actually a figure of speech where you make the positive note by saying it negatively. Christ is personally guaranteeing that He will keep the salvation of every believer safe and secure forever, I will never blot your name out of the Lamb's book of life.

The third promise that Jesus makes to true believers is that He will confess every believer as His own. Verse 5 says, "'"and I will confess his name before My Father and before His angels."'" You remember, even during His ministry He said similar things. In Matthew 10:32, "'Therefore everyone who confesses Me before men, I also will confess him before My Father who is in heaven.'" Luke 12:8-9 He says the same thing, and He says the negative, if you deny Me, then, that is, you, not one time like Peter or on one occasion, but perpetually you deny the Lord Jesus Christ, then He will deny you "'before the angels of God,'" He says. But notice here He says specifically that He will "'"confess."'" That word confess, in this context, has a legal judicial sense. He's talking about the judgment. And at the judgment, folks, at the final judgment, Jesus is not a witness, He's the judge and jury. "'All judgment has been given to the Son,'" He said.

So, what He's really saying here is He is promising on the day of judgment that He will confess every true believer to be His. He'll do it to the angels, and most importantly of all, He'll do it to the Father. Father, that one, that one's Mine . You gave him to Me, You gave her to Me, before the foundation of the world. And I came into this world to redeem them, and I promised I wouldn't lose one of them, and I've guaranteed that those who overcome by their faith, who continue to believe in Me, that every single one of them I will confess as Mine before you, Father; that one's Mine.

Christ concludes this letter with a call to listen, verse 6 says, "'"He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches."'" This is like our Lord's common statement in the gospels. It's a challenge to every person who hears or reads these letters, this letter included, to pay close attention to what the Spirit is continually saying to all the churches through His Word. Folks, this is a call from Christ to every Christian and every church to hear every letter. Are you hearing? Are you hearing what Christ is saying?

So what are the enduring lessons from Sardis, from this letter Christ dictates to the church in Sardis? Let me give you several as we conclude our time. First of all, there are still Christian churches that appear to be spiritually alive, but are dead. Don't be deceived. Don't be naive. Don't run past, you know, drive past a church and say, wow, look how many people are there, look how busy they are, look at all they're doing. There are still churches like Sardis. It's just as real a problem today is in the first century. One writer puts it this way, "Many churches, even entire denominations, have so compromised their beliefs and practices by accommodating to the fads of the intelligentsia, or the ways of the world, that they have virtually ceased to be Christian." So don't be naive, don't be gullible.

Secondly, you can recognize spiritually dead churches by the fact that their leaders have allowed them to neglect and even forget the treasure received in the Scripture and its teaching. How do you know if a church is filled with a bunch of dead people? Look at how the Word of God is handled. Because remember, it's through the Word of God that people are brought to spiritual life. You see that in James 1, you see that in Peter. Where the Word isn't handled and taught, there's nothing, there's no seed for the Spirit to use. And so you end up with a church filled with dead people that's just playing church. Looks impressive, but Christ will hold the leaders personally responsible for the destruction of those churches.

Thirdly, there are individuals connected to Christian churches who appear to be alive, but are spiritually dead. It saddens me to think about that. It saddens me to think that that could be true right here. It is true, right here at Countryside. It's possible to believe the right facts and be dead. It's possible to have made a profession of faith in Christ and be dead. Tragically, many have a name that they are alive but they're dead. They attend Christian churches. They claim to be Christians. Their friends think they're Christians. Their parents think they're Christians. But they're spiritually dead. You say, well Tom, that's a little disconcerting. How do I know?

Number four, you can recognize dead professions by the person's response to Scripture. It's very interesting. I wish I had time, and I've used my time, I wish I had time to take you to Matthew 7, because in Matthew 7 Jesus ends the Sermon on the Mount by saying, look, they're going to be many at the day of judgment who say, well Lord, wait a minute, let me in, I know you. And I'm going to say, "'"I never knew you."'" And you know, I used to live in fear of Lord, is it me, is it I? Of course, that's a normal concern for us to have. Lord, could I be one of those? And the answer is, Jesus makes it very clear who they are. Keep reading in that passage. Because He goes on to say, "'I will say to them, "depart from Me, you who work lawlessness."'" That's right what we were learning out of 1 John this morning. Do you love Christ and His word and do you obey it?

He goes on to tell the story, you remember, of the two men who built their houses differently. Same house, looked like the same house, but one was built on a rock and one was built on sand. And, of course, the floods came. In other words, judgment came. And one house, one Christian life, stood and the other was destroyed. You say, what's the difference? It's the rock. So you tell me, in that parable what's the rock? Nine people out of 10 will say, it's Christ. You're wrong. Christ is the rock in other places, but not in that story. Read it, Jesus says the one who built his house on the rock was the one who heard My words and did them. And the one who built his house on the sand was the one who heard My words and did not do them. So you don't have to wonder whether or not you're going to be one of those at the judgment. We're taking the tests in 1 John. One of those tests is, do you obey Jesus Christ and His word? That's what he says at the end of Matthew 7. If you do then yours is not a dead profession. If you don't, it is.

And then finally, there's hope for churches, some of you will love this, that are mostly dead, not entirely dead, but mostly dead. About 90 years later, after this letter to the church in Sardis, there was a man who was a famous Christian apologist that belonged to the church in Sardis. His name was Melito. Melito even wrote the earliest known commentary on select passages from the Book of Revelation. The fact that this man served in the church of Sardis 80 years later, 80, 90 years later, gives us great hope that this church responded to Christ's call, that it repented and it returned to the Scripture. This is Christ's message to dead Christianity, remember the Scripture. Let's pray together.

Father, thank You for our study tonight. Thank You for the incredible insight that You have given us into our own hearts and the hearts of those we know and love and into the church. Lord, help us to be "'wise as serpents, harmless as doves.'" Help us to understand these things. And Father don't let us be sucked in and be naive and think because a bunch of people are gathered, supposedly in the name of Christ, that it's a living church. Father, I pray You would give us grace, but also give us wisdom. And Lord, help each of us to search our own hearts. May we respond to the Scripture, and in so doing show the reality of our profession. We pray in Jesus' name, amen.


Thyatira: Extra-Biblical Authority

Tom Pennington Revelation 2:18-29

Sardis: Dead Christianity

Tom Pennington Revelation 3:1-6

Philadelphia: Enduring Faithfulness

Tom Pennington Revelation 3:7-13

More from this Series



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Tom Pennington Revelation 1:1-3

The Revelation of Jesus Christ - Part 2

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Salutation & Dedication

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The King is Coming!

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A Vision of the Exalted Christ - Part 1

Tom Pennington Revelation 1:9-20

A Vision of the Exalted Christ - Part 2

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Ephesus: Loveless Fidelity

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Smyrna: Faithful in Suffering

Tom Pennington Revelation 2:8-11

Pergamum: Undiscerning Tolerance

Tom Pennington Revelation 2:12-17

Thyatira: Extra-Biblical Authority

Tom Pennington Revelation 2:18-29

Sardis: Dead Christianity

Tom Pennington Revelation 3:1-6

Philadelphia: Enduring Faithfulness

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Laodicea: A False Gospel

Tom Pennington Revelation 3:14-22

He is Worthy! - Part 1

Tom Pennington Revelation 4-5

He is Worthy! - Part 2

Tom Pennington Revelation 4-5

He is Worthy! - Part 3

Tom Pennington Revelation 4-5

He is Worthy! - Part 4

Tom Pennington Revelation 4-5

The First Six Seals: The Tribulation Begins - Part 1

Tom Pennington Revelation 6:1-17

The First Six Seals: The Tribulation Begins - Part 2

Tom Pennington Revelation 6:1-17

Tribulation Saints - Part 1

Tom Pennington Revelation 7:1-17

Tribulation Saints - Part 2

Tom Pennington Revelation 7:1-17

The Seventh Seal & the First Six Trumpets - Part 1

Tom Pennington Revelation 8-9

The Seventh Seal & the First Six Trumpets - Part 2

Tom Pennington Revelation 8-9

The Seventh Seal & the First Six Trumpets - Part 3

Tom Pennington Revelation 8-9

The Seventh Seal & the First Six Trumpets - Part 4

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The Little Book

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The Two Witnesses - Part 1

Tom Pennington Revelation 11:1-13

The Two Witnesses - Part 2

Tom Pennington Revelation 11:1-13

The Seventh Trumpet: The Beginning of the End

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The Woman, her Son, and the Dragon - Part 1

Tom Pennington Revelation 12:1-17

The Woman, her Son, and the Dragon - Part 2

Tom Pennington Revelation 12:1-17

The Woman, her Son, and the Dragon - Part 3

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Antichrist - Part 1

Tom Pennington Revelation 13:1-10

Antichrist - Part 2

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The False Prophet

Tom Pennington Revelation 13:11-18

A Preview of Jesus' Victory - Part 1

Tom Pennington Revelation 14:1-20

A Preview of Jesus' Victory - Part 2

Tom Pennington Revelation 14:1-20

A Preview of Jesus' Victory - Part 3

Tom Pennington Revelation 14:1-20

A Preview of Jesus' Victory - Part 4

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Heaven Prepares for the End

Tom Pennington Revelation 15:1-8

Seven Bowls of Wrath - Part 1

Tom Pennington Revelation 16:1-21

Seven Bowls of Wrath - Part 2

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Babylon is Fallen! - Part 1

Tom Pennington Revelation 17:1-18:24

Babylon is Fallen! - Part 2

Tom Pennington Revelation 17:1-18:24

Babylon Is Fallen! - Part 3

Tom Pennington Revelation 18

Babylon is Fallen! - Part 4

Tom Pennington Revelation 18

The Rapture of the Church

Tom Pennington Selected Scriptures

The Future Tribulation

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Heaven's Hallelujah Chorus! - Part 1

Tom Pennington Revelation 19:1-10

Heaven's Hallelujah Chorus - Part 2

Tom Pennington Revelation 19:1-10

The Glorious Return of Jesus Christ

Tom Pennington Revelation 19:11-16


Tom Pennington Revelation 19:17-21

The Real Binding of Satan

Tom Pennington Revelation 20:1-3

The Millennium: Christ's Future Reign on Earth - Part 1

Tom Pennington Revelation 20:1-10

The Millennium: Christ's Future Reign on Earth - Part 2

Tom Pennington Revelation 20:1-10

The Millennium: Christ’s Future Reign on Earth - Part 3

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The Last Judgment

Tom Pennington Revelation 20:11-15

Our Eternal Home - Part 1

Tom Pennington Revelation 21:1-8

Our Eternal Home - Part 2

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The Eternal City - Part 1

Tom Pennington Revelation 21:9-22:5

The Eternal City - Part 2

Tom Pennington Revelation 21:9-22:5

The Eternal City - Part 3

Tom Pennington Revelation 21:9-22:5

How Should We Then Live? - Part 1

Tom Pennington Revelation 22:6-21

How Should We Then Live? - Part 2

Tom Pennington Revelation 22:6-21

How Should We Then Live? - Part 3

Tom Pennington Revelation 22:6-21

How Should We Then Live? - Part 4

Tom Pennington Revelation 22:6-21

How Should We Then Live? - Part 5

Tom Pennington Revelation 22:6-21