The Church at Sardis
William Burnett, Toronto, Canada
In this study we wish to consider the letter to the church at Sardis. There had been a time when Sardis was a city of repute among the nations - a city of affluence, independence, power and glory. Unfortunately, pride led to carelessness and indifference, with the result that the once famed Sardis, became a degenerate city, and soon fell to the enemy. We will discover that in many ways, the history of the city is the history of the Christian church in that city. It also had a great past, but sadly, the same sin of pride and selfsufficiency that was the downfall of the city of Sardis, became the rock upon which the church at Sardis foundered. Let us consider the message that the Lord had for that church and its application to us in our day.
A paradox and a panacea
Concerning the Church at Sardis, the Lord says ‘I know thy works, that thou hast a name that thou livest, and art dead’, Rev. 3. 1. Here is a church that was trading on a reputation that it once had, but which was no longer current. The once vibrant living church had become a corpse.
One can look back over the span of one’s lifetime, to times when assemblies were throbbing with spiritual life and power, and when the future looked so promising. Times when brethren were known as ‘men of the book’, and who lived it in practice. How we wish that these days had been maintained, but unfortunately things have lapsed, and many once vibrant assemblies are struggling to continue, or have closed. Not that we ‘despise the day of small things’, but this can become an excuse for where we have arrived at in our day. Our past has been glorious, but we must not live today on a past reputation, but seek the Lord’s face for recovery and revival in our times.
‘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 repent’, Rev. 3. 2 -3. In these verses the Lord offers a fourfold panacea which would lead to recovery;
The city of Sardis was built on a precipitous plateau some 1500 ft. above the valley below, and this gave it a false sense of security. The citizens felt that they did not need to ‘watch’ as other cities might. However, when Cyrus the Persian besieged the city, he found an ingenious means of scaling the steeps upon which it was built, and the city fell, because those in the city were smug in their false security, and failed to watch. Two centuries later when the Greek ruler Antiochus attacked the city he used the same method that Cyrus had used so long ago, and was successful. The people of Sardis had not learned the lesson they should have learned from past experience – to be watchful.
In the same way, it is possible for us to become complacent, and to cease to be watchful. The enemy will try to exploit every possible avenue, even those we have never anticipated, with a view to our downfall. The apostle Paul speaking to the Ephesian elders for the last time spoke to them about threats that would come from without and within, and he concludes by saying ‘Therefore, watch’, Acts 20. 31. Similarly, writing to Timothy, the apostle warns him about the things that will characterize the last days, and exhorts him, ‘But watch thou in all things’, 2. Tim. 4. 5. Above all, we must always be on the tiptoe of expectancy for the coming of our Lord. He has said, ‘Behold I come quickly; and my reward is with me’, Rev. 22. 12.
2. Strengthen the things that remain that are ready to die
When deterioration begins, it can be followed by a sense of resignation and hopelessness, and a tendency to give up hope that recovery is possible. There can come a point, where things are literally ‘ready to die’, and we become resigned to the fact that they will. The Lord would discourage us from thinking in this way, and we should always be optimistic that things can be recovered. The assembly in which I now fellowship struggled for almost thirty years with only a handful of believers, and to many looking on, it seemed ready to die. But a few faithful men kept going, and despite much discouragement, and the temptation to give up and go to some large assembly nearby, they persisted. Today, there are about two hundred in fellowship. There was a definite movement of the Spirit of God some twelve years ago, and assembly people began to arrive in the city from various places. We owe a great debt to those dear brethren who refused to give up and kept ‘strengthening the things that remained’ until the times of refreshing came from the presence of God.
3. Remember, and hold fast
It is worthy of note that the answer to the crisis in Sardis did not lie in forgetting, but in remembering. We read, ‘Remember therefore how thou hast received and heard, and hold fast’, Rev. 3. 3. The verb here is in the present imperative, and literally means ‘keep on remembering’. This is important to bear in mind. When crisis comes, and when things seem to be going downhill, the tendency is to try something innovative, and novel. Here we are reminded that the progress of the church at Sardis did not consist of pushing forward but in looking back - to remember. Not only so, but to ‘hold fast’ as distinct from ‘letting go’. As assemblies we have a great heritage. Truth that was buried for years in the labyrinth of Christendom, was recovered at great cost by early brethren. Truths such as the simplicity of the Lord’s Supper; the priesthood of all believers; the Lord in the midst as the gathering Centre; the liberty of the Spirit; biblical church government, etc. We must ensure that these truths are not buried yet again under the tide of liberalism, or in the name of progress. We must ‘remember and hold fast’.
The exhortation to ‘repent’ is mentioned no less than six times in Revelation chapters 2 and 3, and here, the exhortation to repent is directed to the church at Sardis. There needed to be a demonstration of corporate repentance before the Lord. Our minds go back to the great revival in the time of Ezra where we read, ‘And all the people gathered themselves together as one man into the street that [was] before the water gate . . . all the people wept, when they heard the words of the law’, Neh. 8. 1, 9. There was an expression of corporate repentance, and wonderful results followed. We read, ‘And all the people went their way to eat, and to drink, and to send portions, and to make great mirth, because they had understood the words that were declared unto them’, Neh. 8. 12. May the Lord grant to the local churches of our day, that spirit of repentance and confession before the Lord, and we will see great things happen.
A final word of commendation
It is the normal pattern in the letters to the seven churches that commendation comes before correction. But in the case of Sardis, the commendation comes towards the end of the letter, and we read, ‘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’, Rev. 3. 4. The commendation here is directed to the few who amid all the corruption and degeneration had kept their garments white. To such, the promise is given, that their names will not be blotted out of the book of life, but that they will be confessed before His Father in heaven. This promise is not made to threaten, but to reassure the true believers of their eternal security in Christ.
It is worthy of note that in every dispensation, despite failure in a general sense, that there has always been a remnant who were faithful to God and to His word. And so it is in our day. God still has a remnant who have kept themselves spotless from the contamination of the world and Christendom and who are committed to the Lord and to His word. For such, the Judgement Seat of Christ will bring its reward. They will occupy a place of nearness to Christ, and will wear the garment that will reflect the purity they maintained when in scenes of time. The words of Revelation chapter 19 come to mind where we read concerning the church, the Bride of Christ, ‘And to her was granted that she should be arrayed in fine linen, clean and white: for the fine linen is the righteousness of saints’, Rev. 19. 8. The word ‘righteousness’ is in the plural and should read ‘righteousnesses’ or ‘righteous acts’ RSV, meaning that the garment described here is not the garment of imputed righteousness which is ours through faith in Christ, but rather it describes the practical works of righteousness which we undertake from the moment of conversion, and which will come under review at the Judgement Seat of Christ. In this sense, we are presently weaving the garment that we will wear on that day of espousals.
In concluding this short study, the letter to Sardis is a solemn reminder to us regarding the danger of resting on the laurels of the past, whilst failing in the present. May the exhortation of the Lord come with fresh force and power to our hearts again, ‘Be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die: for I have not found thy works perfect before God’, Rev. 3. 2. May we indeed ‘hear what the Spirit saith to the churches’, Rev. 3. 6.