Whilst the ancient city of Sardis may hold several claims to a permanent place in history, unlike other cities of the time, its physical locality failed to survive. Despite being credited for a number of highly significant events in history, such as being the first place where coins were struck, it is no more. Dead and gone. Ruins and ruination.
It is fitting, in a way, that this ancient citadel, the site of some notorious battles and inventions, is no more because, as we read in the Revelation, Y’shua (Jesus) considered them to be dead already, in the late first century.
The church at Sardis; the recipient of one of the seven letters from Y’shua, the head of the true church, was a very real church in history. Y’shua’s fifth letter was addressed to them. It also is believed to represent not only a period of church history, but also a type of church still found today, and, perhaps more importantly, a certain kind of believer that can be found in any of the types of modern day churches.
It is to its historical setting that we turn first. Y’shua wrote to The Seven in order to guide them in His ways. The church is Sardis was in a pretty bad state, as we shall see in the text that follows. It is a real warning not only to that actual church back in the first century, but to all churches today.
I pray that as you read these words that the Holy Spirit will illuminate the eyes of your heart to see the true message of the Revelation. Y’shua gave us the Revelation to make Himself clear. There is no real mystery in what is written.
“To the angel of the church in Sardis write:
These are the words of Him who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars.” [Revelation 3:1a NIV]
As in the previous four letters, we see Y’shua once more addressing the letter to an angel. This is a real angel, not a pastor or some messenger. How do we know? Because Y’shua provides some evidence of who is writing that only a spiritual being, such as an angel, would know to be true. Whilst we can readily accept that He, Y’shua, holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars, we have no way of verifying it. The angel, on the other hand, could verify that the message was from Y’shua, because the angel is himself in the hand of Y’shua. The seven stars we know from chapter 1:20 are the seven angels of the churches. The seven spirits of God are the seven-fold spiritual aspects of the Holy Spirit. We can find reference to this in Isaiah chapter 11.
In many ways, what follows is the most scathing rebuke of The Seven.
“I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead.” [Verse 1b]
Let’s pause here for a moment and look at this line of the letter. As with the previous four churches, Y’shua starts with an assessment of the state of the church in Sardis. It’s not good. He who sees everything, has seen their deeds and they show them to be dead, despite having a reputation for being alive. Now, we know that Y’shua isn’t talking of physical death here – there would be no point writing to dead people, would there? Y’shua is talking to them in this way because they are spiritually dead.
If you haven’t already sussed it out, Y’shua deals with our spiritual state more than anything else. And, if He is telling them that they are dead, there can only be two reasons for that spiritual state. Either, they had never actually been born again. Or, they had been born again, and had subsequently slipped back into spiritual death.
We know from the gospels and the letters from the apostle Paul, that until the moment when we first believe, when the Holy Spirit opens our hearts to the true message of the gospel, we are all spiritually dead. In that deadness, our lives are ruled by our flesh and its desires, all of which only lead to death. When the Holy Spirit opens the eyes of our hearts, we come alive. This process is known as conversion. In order to stay spiritually alive, just as we do with our physical self, we must nourish our spirits. Our spiritual nourishment comes in the form of God’s Word – the Bread of Life, and from the Living Waters that Y’shua promises to all who beleive. Without nourishment from these two sources, we will spiritually slip back into death, just as our bodies will die if we fail to sustain them with food and water.
It is clear from the text that follows, that the church in Sardis had been reborn spiritually but were now dying or dead, despite their reputation of being alive to the outside world. There is much teaching amongst the modern church that says that once we are saved, then we are always saved. I think Y’shua makes it clear in this letter that this is not the case. Conversion is only part of our salvation. Salvation cannot be defined as a single moment in time when we said a prayer or put our hand up during some evangelist’s altar call. The Bible teaches us that we must work out our salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians Chapter 2). You could liken the entire process to that of the Hebrews and their journey from the captivity of Egypt to the Promised Land. When they crossed over the Red Sea from Egypt into Sinai, it is like our conversion. The forty years they spent wandering around the desert is like our own salvation being worked out as we learn to trust and rely upon God for everything. And, when they crossed the Jordan into the Promised Land is like what we will experience when God calls us to be at His side in paradise. Our salvation is a journey, from death to eternal life, and not a fixed moment in time that will assure us of a place in the Promised Land.
“Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your deeds complete in the sight of my God. Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; obey it, and repent.” [Verses 2-3a]
I think that this is the clearest indication in the entire Bible that what many modern preachers who teach a message of ‘once saved, always saved‘, are entirely incorrect to do so. The fact that Y’shua commands them to wake up and strengthen what remains, is further proof that they were not always a dead church. They received, via the Holy Spirit, the gospel but have since forgotten it. That is why Y’shua urges them to remember what they had once received.
The NIV translation is a little misleading when it uses the word completed in reference to their works. More likely, the correct translation of the Greek word pleroo is to fulfil or satisfy. It is the same word that Y’shua uses in Matthew 5:17 when He says that He has come to fulfil the Law and the Prophets. In saying this to the church in Sardis, Y’shua was pointing out that the works that they had been doing are not satisfactory; not enough to see them through alone. They need faith, and faithfulness in God, to fulfil their deeds to His satisfaction. The remedy for this (whenever Y’shua shows us where we have gone wrong, He always shows us the way back to the Narrow Path), is to obey the gospel that the Holy Spirit had first enlivened in their hearts. It requires repentance when you fall away. Repentance, and restoration from God.
“But if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you.” [Verse 3b]
Another warning. This is their last chance. He will come and take from them what little they have left – that is, the hope of salvation. Like a thief, He will come when they least expect it, while they are still asleep. So He commands again, wake up! Can you imagine what it must have been like to be in the congregation that occasion when this letter was first read aloud to them? They would either have felt the full force of the Holy Spirit’s conviction, or hardened their hearts towards Him. It must have been terrifying.
Yet hope remains.
“Yet you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes. They will walk with me dressed in white, for they are worthy.” [Verse 4]
Another glimpse into the spiritual realm now. Obviously, Y’shua wasn’t describing what the faithful remnant were wearing in the physical realm. He was describing how they must look in the spiritual realm. We can see another snap shot of this in the book of Zechariah. Read the following passage for it reveals much for today’s church.
“The he (an angel) showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the Lord, and Satan standing at his right side to accuse him. The Lord said to Satan, “The Lord rebuke you, Satan! The Lord who has chosen Jerusalem, rebuke you! Is not this man a burning stick snatched from the fire?”
Now Joshua was dressed in filthy clothes as he stood before the angel. The angel said to those who were standing before him, “Take off his filthy clothes.”
Then he said to Joshua, “See, I have taken away your sin, and I will put rich garments on you.”
Then I said, “Put a clean turban on his head.” So they put a clean turban on his head and clothed him, while the angel of the Lord stood by.” [Zechariah 3:1-5 NIV (my brackets)]
To add some context to this passage from Zechariah, Joshua, the high priest (and not the Joshua of Jericho fame), had been charged, along with Zerubbabel, to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem. However, they had faced much opposition and discouragement. Somewhere in the spiritual realm, Zechariah is shown the state of Joshua in his filthy garments. These had been made filthy by his faith being eroded by the accusations and destructive plans of Satan. We know from further on in the Revelation that Satan stands before God day and night accusing the saints (Revelation 12:10). Here we see it in action. But the Lord rebukes Satan, and Joshua’s sins are forgiven. With that forgiveness comes clean white clothes. This is exactly what Y’shua is referring to for those who have remained loyal to His gospel in the church at Sardis.
If we walk faithfully before God, and don’t believe the lies of Satan, then we will keep our spiritual robes clean.
As with the other letters, Y’shua finishes the letter to Sardis with a promise of reward for the overcomers. All true believers are overcomers. We shall look in more detail in a later post on this blog to be called Overcomers, at the nature of these promises. But for now, understand this – each promise is addressed to all the churches. They are not specific rewards for each specific church, but for all overcomers.
“He who overcomes will, like them, be dressed in white. I will never blot out his name from the book of life, but will acknowledge his name before my Father and His angels. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” [Verses 5-6]
The very clear message from Y’shua to the church in first century Sardis, was that they had allowed themselves to fall asleep, despite having heard the gospel. And this message also echoes through all history for others to hear as well. The church in Sardis is also said to represent the Reformation, which started in the early 1500s with Martin Luther. As always, God raised a man up to do His work. Martin Luther was the Elijah of his day, taking on the corrupt Catholic church. But, like the church at Sardis, what started so well, soon fell asleep; replacing one set of rituals and doctrines for another.
The Age of Reformation lasted until around 1800, but by that time, despite having great champions like Luther and John Knox, legalism killed what fire there was. And today, the churches which were forged on the anvil of Reformation still remain, unchanged – frozen in time. Having a reputation for life, but remaining dead. Some versions of the Bible use the phrase ‘you have a name for being alive, but you are dead‘ in verse 1. Think about it today. How many churches can you think of whose actual name on the sign outside their building suggests life, but inside they are dead? I will leave you to ponder that.
And we also have a Sardis kind of believer in every type of church – those who have heard the gospel and have not remained faithful to it. If you could see into the spirit, then you would see their clothes to be filthy. In Revelation 19 it tells us that the bride is dressed in fine linen, which is the product of the righteous acts of the saints. We need to make sure that our acts, our deeds, our works, are all done to the satisfaction of Y’shua. Nothing half-hearted will be sufficient to keep our robes clean and white.
He is coming soon. Only those He deems to be right before Him will be spared the great tribulation. Those with dirty robes will have to pass through that dreadful time and remain faithful and true until the end, if they want to ensure that their names are not removed from the Lamb’s Book of Life.