Tonight in our studies on the first three chapters of the book of Revelation we come to look at the first century Church in Sardis. All you need to know about this church's background is, one, Sardis (in modern Turkey) was a wealthy city known for its wool and cloth industry; two, it had a famous past, but now was in decline politically and culturally; and, three, it was a centre for the cult of the pagan goddess Cybele, with its accompanying decadent lifestyle. So with that in mind we will look at Revelation 3.1-6. And my headings are, first, on THE REALITY THAT WAS THE CHURCH AT SARDIS and secondly, on HOW TO REVIVE A DEAD CHURCH.
But by way of introduction let me say something about how to understand this and the other letters to the churches we are studying. If you have been here on other evenings this session, you will know from Revelation chapter 1 that these letters were written down by John. But they were words from the risen Jesus Christ himself. And there are seven letters composed and written to seven churches. However, these churches are not simply ancient churches of some antiquarian interest but with little relevance for today. No! Rather they represent and reflect churches and their members around the world and down the ages. These seven churches act as mirrors reflecting millions upon millions of Christians and their churches throughout history. What is said in these letters is for all churches and all church people in every generation. These letters have abiding value.
Look at verse 6:
"He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches [all seven of them]."
So never think that some of these letters don't apply to you personally, or to your church, and so to this church. All the letters need to be heard by everyone. So let's now be listening to what the Spirit says to Sardis and think about ...
First, THE REALITY THAT WAS THE CHURCH AT SARDIS
In Sardis there were a majority and a minority. The majority are the people to whom the letter is being addressed. There was also a minority. They are referred to in verse 4:
"Yet you have a few people [a minority] in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes."
But the church is defined by this majority of people, who, it is implied, had "soiled their clothes". And the letter gives us at least six facts about this majority. So I want to spend some time now on these six facts.
One, they had a good reputation in the city - look at verse 1:
"you have a reputation of being alive."
The pagan people of Sardis - the world around - saw the publicity and the activities going on and they said "here is a lively church."
Two, people outside the church, whether Jews or pagan Gentiles, did not attack this church. There is no report of physical attacks or of verbal attacks. The pagan people of Sardis weren't calling these people bigots or intolerant. Godly Christians at this time were, in fact, called "haters of the human race". This was for not joining in pagan activities that involved the worship of idols or the Emperor and for saying sexual orgies were not good things and Christ was the only way. They knew the Emperor wasn't divine and pagan Gods were false. But at Sardis, we don't read of any opposition. Remember that for later.
Three, the fundamental fact or reality about the church in Sardis was this. While the world saw this church as a lively institution, verse 2b "in the sight of my God" - as God sees things - it was very different. And the risen Jesus Christ didn't see "life" - he saw "death". Look at verse 1 again:
"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. I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead."
These words make this the most damning of all the seven letters to the churches in chapters 2 and 3 of Revelation. Even Laodicea, as we should see on a later Sunday, seems to have less criticism. To be pronounced "dead" by the risen and reigning Jesus Christ is terrifying - you will agree. So what was wrong with this church? Well ...
Four, the risen Jesus, verse 1 said: "I know your deeds". So the deeds he knew were signs of death not life. You ask, "what are the signs of life that were missing in Sardis?" Look back to chapter 2 verses 2 and 3 - this is the Church in Ephesus: "I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked men, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false. You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary." These are deeds that Christ approves of. Then look on to chapter 2 verse 19 and the Church in Thyatira: "I know your deeds, your love and faith, your service and perseverance, and that you are now doing more than you did at first." These too were deeds that Christ approved of. But these were missing at Sardis. We don't hear anything about their concern for sound teaching or for Christlikeness. That looks as though the church in Sardis, unlike the church in Ephesus, was tolerating doctrinally false teaching and morally wicked men. And it looks as though that love, faith, service and perseverance (seen in Thyatira) was absent from the lives of this majority in Sardis. The "deeds" in Sardis were not "complete". In verse 2 Christ says:
"I have not found your deeds complete."
There were things that were missing. No doubt, also, as always with false teaching and wrong pastoral practice they were half right. But missing the other half, half right is very wrong. Classically in false teaching you have an emphasis on one truth to the exclusion of another vital truth. It misses out a second vital truth. For example some people only say that the Bible is a human book; so you must not ignore the different styles and genres of the writers. That is quite true. But to stop there is very wrong. The Bible is also a divine book, and quite unique. As the Church of England's Article XX of the Thirty-nine puts it, it is "God's word written". You have to assert both those facts for the truth. With so many things you have to assert more than one truth, otherwise you are in error. So Jesus Christ is fully God but also fully man. God is one God but three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Not to assert both parts of those propositions leads to serious errors.
But many people today, like it seems this majority in Sardis, only teach or practice half the truth. Let me give you another example. You hear a lot today about "grace" and that is absolutely right and vitally necessary. But grace by itself can be "cheap grace" - to quote a famous phrase of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Christian who was executed for his opposition to Hitler. Some of you have heard that phrase before. But do you know how Bonhoeffer went on? He went on like this:
"Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession ... Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate."
As one Anglican Bishop, now retired, put it: "The price to be paid in maintaining a peaceful church with a lively reputation is often a gospel without content." Certainly today there are people who teach about the love of God but not about his judgment; about heaven but never about hell; about faith but never about works as evidence of faith. Yes, the final word is about God's grace and love. You must be encouraging and not discouraging. But God's grace and love are proved through the Cross of Christ. God so hates sin and wrongdoing that a penalty had to be paid. Mysteriously and amazingly Christ himself bore that penalty for you and me. That is the measure of God's grace and love - it is not "cheap grace or cheap love". Who needs, for the first time, to respond to that love and thank Christ tonight for dying for them at Calvary? You can do that just as you sit?
At Sardis, then, it is likely the majority focused only on a portion of Christian doctrine and Christian morals. They were not complete, said Jesus. Theirs were sins of omission. That is the fourth fact.
Five - the fifth fact - there was also a positive engagement with evil by this majority in Sardis. These were sins of commission. Look on, again, to verse 4 and that reference to "a few people who have not soiled their clothes." Some one has referred to this phrase "soiling their clothes" as "divine shorthand". It is a metaphor for impurity in doctrine and behaviour. As we have seen, this is a clear implication that the majority had soiled their clothes and were positively impure. They were compromising with the pagan world around. This church in Sardis, therefore, was a "worldly" church. No wonder they had a good reputation with the people of Sardis. Beware of such reputations. Jesus said in his earthly ministry: "Woe to you when all men speak well of you, for that is how their fathers treated the false prophets" (Luke 6.26). If you go with the flow and instead of teaching the forgiveness of all sins, you start to deny sin and the hard truths of the Christian faith - you deny that Christ is the only way, that the virgin birth did happen, that the tomb was empty that first Easter morning, that sin results in God's judgment, that today's sins of sex outside marriage, homosexual sex, divorce and remarriage, cohabitation and abortion and so on are not sins - if you start to deny those truths and instead of talking about forgiveness say that the Holy Spirit is leading us into new truths, you will be popular with a lot of people. Compromise is so easy and it leads to the applause of the crowd. Yes, It may lead to a quiet life.
But, six - the sixth fact regarding the Church in Sardis is this: the quiet life that comes from compromising God's word and God's standards does not last for ever. Look at verse 3b:
"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."
Jesus is here not referring to his Second Coming but to a judgment in time, now - in this age, not in eternity. You see, compromising churches can only last for so long. A famous study was written by Dean Kelly called "Why Conservative Churches are Growing." The sociological facts are that in the short term churches that deny the apostolic faith get publicity and seem to be alive; but before long they die. If all that people get at church is what they can hear better on the Radio or TV why go to church and sit on uncomfortable pews? Compromising Christians can only last for so long - spiritually speaking. The majority of these Christians in Sardis, however, were spiritually still alive (just). They were, so to speak, on a spiritual life-support machine. They were not fully dead. The spiritual oxygen hadn't yet been turned off. Verse 2 speaks of "what remains and is about to die". Death is imminent if nothing happens. But, this letter is written not so that people will die but so that something will happen and they will truly live. That brings me to
Secondly, HOW TO REVIVE A DEAD CHURCH.
Jesus here gives you three fundamentals for revival. They are:
First, heed Christ's commands. Look at the commands in this letter.
One, "wake up". This is so important for compromising Christians. It is the failure to "wake up" that brings Christ's judgment - verse 3b:
"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."
Sardis was built on a mountain and had an acropolis that was thought impregnable. In its history twice the city fell to invaders through an inadequate watch. The idea of keeping awake was, therefore, in the national psyche. And Jesus says this is where revival or new life begins. Don't think you are secure! Realize the temptation to compromise. So "wake up." If you are young, "wake up" to the temptation to compromise with the world among your peers. It is hard being in a minority of one. One student was saying that when everyone is drinking too much and they are wanting you to drink too much, it is hard saying, "No!" If you are older, "wake up" to the temptation to compromise with the world at work. At work if you are doctor there are ethical issues. If you are in business there are honesty issues. And you need to "wake up" to compromising with the world in your family. A liberal bishop once said that he changed his views on sexual morality because his children were sleeping around. Poor old Eli in the Old Testament was like that. After initially opposing his sons, he gave in, and God had to say to him: "Why do you honour your sons more than me?" (1 Sam 2.16). "Wake up" and be alert to the temptation to compromise with the world. That is Christ's first command.
Then the second command is - verse 2 - "strengthen what remains" to keep alive your spiritual life. This word "strengthen" in the New Testament is used for encouraging new believers or young believers. When the apostle Paul and Barnabas were "strengthening the disciples," they taught: "We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God" (Acts 14.22). It is hard not compromising.
Then the third command is - verse 3 - "remember ... what you have received and heard." Think back to when you first understood what it really meant to be a believer in Jesus Christ. Remember that new life - and the reality of it. Remember the basics you were taught. Remember about the forgiveness of sins and that you can be forgiven for how you have been compromising. But that relates to the fourth command - verse 3 - to "obey" (what you have received and heard) and then "repent". What is repentance? Well, this is like the repentance in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. It is not that you are lost, like a man in a fog or on the mountains. Rather like the younger brother you have deliberately walked out of the father's house, and it is taking you a long time before you realize the nature of the mess you are in. You have compromised by taking some decisions. Repentance is simply reversing those decisions, like the Prodigal Son did. He went back to his father. At Sardis they needed to repent. Who needs to repent of something tonight? Well, repentance, says Jesus, is the way to avoid spiritual death. These are serious matters. So, the first fundamental for revival or new life is to heed Christ's commands in verses 2 and 3:
"Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die ... Remember ... what you have received and heard; obey it, and repent."
Secondly, be challenged and encouraged by, and then follow, truly Godly people. Here "the few" are held up as an example to the others (the majority) - verses 4 -5:
"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. 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."
If these Sardian Christians "wake up" and "repent" - life might be hard sometimes in the immediate present, but there is a glorious assured future in heaven. This is picture language but the gist is clear. Are you concerned with keeping in with and keeping happy some pretty silly people on this earth? Or would you rather keep in with or, if I may so put it, keeping happy Almighty God and his Son Jesus Christ who promises never to blot out from the book of like those who overcome because they first trust (and so then obey) Christ's word - Christ who can wash out the stain of every sin? So be challenged and encouraged by and follow truly Godly people. That is why it is good to read Christian biographies. May I commend (as I often do) for your summer reading, J.C.Ryle's Christian Leaders of the 18th century. These lives will challenge and encourage you. First, then, heed Christ's commands; secondly, be challenged and encouraged by Godly people.
And, thirdly, be filled afresh by the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the life-giver. Look back to verse 1:
"These are the words of him who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars."
The seven spirits seem to refer to the one Holy Spirit sent in his fullness to the seven churches. So Jesus in addressing this majority in Sardis tells them that he is the bearer of the Holy Spirit. It was Jesus who said, "How much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him" (Luke 11.13). These folk at Sardis needed to pray afresh for a filling of the Holy Spirit. Who needs to pray like that tonight? Surely everyone!
And that prayer will always be granted.
So let me conclude and recap.
The Christians at Sardis one, had a good reputation in the city; two, they were not being attacked; but, three, they were not "alive" but "dead"; four, "their deeds were not complete" - too much was missing; and five they were "soiled" - they were compromising.
The way out of their mess was, to listen and obey Jesus' commands; to be challenged by and then follow the faithful few and trust Christ's promise of heaven; and finally to be filled a fresh with the Holy Spirit.
"He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches."