Picking up from where we left off in Revelation 2 (IV)Seven Churches: Pergamum and Thyatira. we move now to the next letter, the letter to Sardis.
Having seen the pattern on the first four letters, we should now have a good grasp of how we are going to approach this. The structure of the letters guides us through our understanding, and we begin as always with the name.
The name of this church is Sardis, and it's not easy to understand the origin of this name. There are those who have proposed that it means the “escaping ones,” others have proposed that it means “remnant.” We're going to let that stand as it is.
It's a city - in John’s day - from Asia minor. It was the capital of a province called Lydia and it was about 60 miles northeast of Smyrna, which we studied earlier. Sardis was an important commercial center. It had massive temples and really fertile soil, and in its day, it was a strong and fortified city.
Jesus opens the letter to the church of Sardis with a piece of the larger description of Himself from Chapter one like what He's done with each letter. In this case, He assigns this city this description: the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. The seven stars being, as we know, seven angels. The emphasis here is on seven again, that is, on the whole of the spirit, on the angels of the church, that is, all of the church. It's communicating that Sardis is an authentic church - it has the spirit of God – although it is also a weak church, and in one regard more than any other.
Jesus says, to Sardis, “I know your deeds”, which is to say “I know you don't have any”. He's saying, “You have a name. You are alive. But in terms of deeds, you're dead.” That's the commentary on Sardis.
Sardis has fallen victim to one of the warnings that we know well from the book of James in which he says, “But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless?” That's the nature of the faith that existed in Sardis.
We are saved by our faith alone, but our faith without accompanying works is useless to God. It does nothing for God that we don't serve Him in our works - our faith has become useless to the author and perfecter of our faith, if we do not put it to work. And Jesus says that to this church.
James goes on to say, faith by itself, which is to say, faith without the accompanying works, is dead. That's what Jesus means that when He says, “You have a name that you're alive, but you're actually dead.”
That is, faith without works is a dead kind of faith. It's still a saving faith, but it's a useless one.
Because they are His, and yet because they don't have works - they're dead in their behavior – this church has a problem that they need to solve. Because faith, being a gift from God to every believer, is intended to produce glory for the One who gave it.
And the way we're supposed to fulfill that purpose of giving glory to the Father, as Jesus says, is to shine our light before men such that they may see our good works and glorify our Father who is in heaven. When we lack work, we're not fulfilling the purpose of our faith. Ephesians 2:10, Paul says:
So, there's not an option here. It’s not up to you or me. That's why Jesus says, “Your deeds have not been found complete.” The church of Sardis has not fulfilled the purpose that the Father had in assigning the faith that He gave, which also tells us that the Father alone is the judge of whether or not our service meets His expectation.
So, this church has become comfortable with faith alone, possessing salvation but with very little interest in spreading it to others. They are an example of a church with creeds, but no deeds. And churches can reach the point where doctrine and belief exist for its own sake. You begin to think that you're merely standing for the truth, believing the truth, teaching the truth, being the bacon of truth, and that’s enough. Those things are necessary. Yes. Those things are not sufficient to please Christ, however.
The Christian walk is supposed to be as much practice as it is theory, and believers are supposed to care about the truth and about getting the Bible right. But if your faith remains an intellectual pursuit, you're doing nothing for the glory of Christ, and that's the concern He has for this church.
Possession of the truth without action becomes cause for convicting us rather than for praising us. Having the truth all by itself and doing nothing with it is the source of conviction. So this Sardis type of church is actually the opposite of Thyatira. They live on opposite ends of a spectrum.
In Thyatira, you had this church that had many great impressive works but their works were divorced from the truth of Scripture and so they lack spiritual power. The whole idea for doing works in the first place - physical works of service in any respect - the whole point of that is for opportunities to share the gospel, to make inroads through relationships so that you can minister not just to the body but to the spirit as well, with the truth that you have to offer. What Thyatira did instead was simply trapping people into a system of religion that polluted their soul with heresy and demonic teachings, and their works then were actually doing no good for the kingdom in that regard. They had works, they didn't have the truth.
Now you have the church of Sardis holding to the truth of the faith and yet failing to put that truth to work for the benefit of others. So in Sardis, the truth is disconnected from any outward appearance of love of Jesus, which is going to limit the reach of the Gospel. Truly, people are not terribly attracted by a bunch of know-it- all Christians who don't lift a finger to help them. That's not an attractive value proposition to the world. So while Thyatira used works to justify heresy, Sardis was using truth to justify laziness.
So Jesus says to Sardis, “I want you to wake up. I want you to strengthen what remains.” Jesus wants them to come out of that stupor of ignorance and apathy and rediscover the mission of the church, to strengthen what remains, which suggests that some of this church still had a heart for the mission. Jesus says they’ve got a remnant in there that knows what this is all about, and that they are to take that, build on it, and magnify it. And then He says if they don't, they're going to die out. And there is a fundamental truth of church life at work.
Even today, churches serve themselves. When they only care about what is said inside the building, they lose their reason to exist and they eventually die out. When churches take the message outside the walls and seek to share what they have, that tends to promote growth.
And then Jesus gives Sardis the recipe for finding strength. He says, “Remember what you have received.” As a church, Sardis was probably still young enough as a church to remember the day that faith first took hold in that city. They were saved in Sardis because some apostle walked into that city against whatever persecution might have been coming and preached the Gospel and did some kind of works and supported the church in some fashion. And at that moment when that gospel arrived, there was a moment of joy for the city. Tt marked God's forgiveness arriving to the people in that city, and it transformed the whole life of those that came to faith in that city. Surely, they remember that.
The kindness, the sacrifice of the apostles, good news, the release of guilt, the release of burden, the understanding that this is actually something for me, and I can look forward to an eternity with Christ and it's already done on the cross, there's nothing more to do... If you could remember that, why would you not want someone else to experience that? Why would you want to deny that from someone else - not that you control it - but the point is, why would you withhold that experience someone else brought to you? You're thankful they did, what are you doing about it next?
That's the attitude Jesus wants that person to have. Remember what you received and how you heard it, and if you do that, then you'll have the motivation to go out. If you fail to wake up, Jesus says, then He will be like a thief coming into their stronghold, and the analogy is a really powerful one. A thief in the night does his work when you're asleep, which is the whole point of waking up. You wake up to find everything you valued gone.
And so it would be for this church. They would find themselves an empty house if they didn't wake up to the mission of the church, which is fundamentally accomplished through deeds. The spirit in this case was going to take the mission somewhere else, leaving behind an empty shell, an empty cathedral, an empty choir loft, an empty bunch of creeds, if the church wasn't willing to act on them.
And then lastly, Jesus gives that little encouragement at the end like He does with all these churches, so that those who are believing in the church don't misunderstand the warnings. This is not about individual salvation. He says in verse four, “There are some who have not soiled their garments for they walk in white and are worthy.”
Now, a white garment in the Bible is a picture of salvation, and you can see that clearly in verse five in the same letter (remember, symbols are often defined in their own context) – Jesus says that those who overcome - which we know from 1 John is a terminology for the believer – are those who wear white (or we would say, pure garments). So the white garment is a picture of those who are saved, and we know that from elsewhere too. Paul says in Galatians 3 verse 27 he says:
The idea here is simple. Our atonement is given to us by the blood of Christ. We are washed in the blood of Christ. We are clothed in the righteousness of Christ by our faith. So “clothed” have that symbology.
Now, conversely, the Bible keeps that metaphor going one step further when it talks about an unbeliever. An unbeliever is someone who has no garment. They are naked, lacking the clothing. That is the picture of those who do not have the atonement of Christ. They have not put on Christ. They have not been covered. Their sin has not been covered. Their shame in their nakedness is still expose. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:2,
“To be naked”, metaphorically means to be exposed, to have our sin exposed to God. “To be clothed” means to have it covered by the righteousness of Christ.
So, white garments represent the covering you receive when you believe, while nakedness is the picture of someone who is not believing. So, what does it mean when Jesus says, “There are a few in the church of Sardis who have not soiled their white garments.” Well, in this context, they have garments. They are clothed. They're not naked. So they're clearly believers.
But what does it mean that they've soiled that garment?
Well, it would have to mean that the testimony of that believer has been negatively impacted. Remember, this person, having been clothed, has received salvation. The soiling there must be about how he/she is seen.
Jesus says in verse four, “They are worthy to walk with me if they have not soiled their garments” In other words, they're walking well with Him.
So, the condition of the garment speaks to the condition of your witness to how you appear as a Christian. We get confirmation of this interpretation later in the book. So, the immediate context drives us there, and a later context in this book gives this confirmation. In Revelation 19:7, we read this:
Who's the bride of Christ? The Church. Going on, it says:
So, Revelation 19 says that a garment that is bright and clean represents righteous acts of the saints. Conversely, a soiled garment represents the lack thereof. So, in this case, Jesus is saying that Sardis has only a few that have a testimony of righteous acts. The vast majority of the congregation have soiled their life - soiled their garments - by not living up to what is expected.
Now don't let the imagery confuse you. We're not talking about salvation here – they’ve got a garment. They are in heaven. But you don't want to go in looking dirty. You want to go in looking cleaner.
And then Jesus ends by reminding the church that those who overcome, He will not erase their names from the Book of life, and He will confess them before His Father, who is in heaven.
Now, that phrase, “I will not erase your name from the Book of Life” causes confusion and some concerns for some people. Like many controversies, it's really just the lack of appreciation of the original text.
The Book of Life is the Bible's term for the heavenly roll in which is recorded the names of every human being who has been saved, and the Bible uses this term in several places in the New Testament and in Psalms as well. Elsewhere in Revelation, we are told that the Lord has recorded the names of those saved in this book, from before the foundations of the earth.
What that tells us is that the contents of that book are not determined by events that take place on the earth. Because the book and its contents were set before there was an earth. It existed before the earth did. So the list is done, the names in the book, and they have been there since before anybody was alive.
But now, you have Jesus talking about “erasing”.
And in Psalm 69, after saying that the righteous (meaning “believers”) are recorded in the book, the psalmist goes on to say, “God, please blot out the names of the unrighteous from your book.”
And that brings this question back into the foreground - does that mean they're there first, and then you can erase them? How do you understand these two comments?
Well, here's the short answer. First, names are not taken out of the book. To understand why that's true here, you have to know that it is a common technique in Jewish writing to emphasize a certain truth by negating its opposite. It's a poetic style.
So, in the Psalm, the writer says the unrighteous should be blotted out of the book. That's a way of saying they will not be found in the book. You affirm something by negating the opposite.
Similarly, Jesus says a believer will always be found in the Book of Life by saying, “I will not erase your name.” He's not saying He might, or that it was even a possibility. He's just affirming, “You will be there because I'm telling you I'm not going to erase your name.” So, it’s a style in Jewish writing. You affirm something by negating its opposite. Don't let that lead you to think that the opposite was ever a possibility.
So what is the prophetic interpretation of this church period? Where in history are we? We know this follows Thyatira. And Thyatira is the period of the church age that we said corresponds to the Roman Catholic Church, and as such, historically, it's not hard to guess where we are going.
Because what put an end to the hegemony of the Catholic Church was the Reformation, on the rise of Protestantism. The name kind of closes in on that because the name Sardis has been proposed to mean “escaping” or perhaps “remnant”, as in a group escaping out of apostasy, a remnant coming out of a heretical institution, and the spirit itself shifting from one institution to a new institution. That’s why Jesus starts the letter by saying the seven spirits talk to Sardis. It's a way of saying, the spirit of God, starting in 1517, was no longer abiding in the Catholic Church. It was now abiding in a new institution in place of that. It had moved on as Christ said it would.
So, the Reformation was the true church at that point, and it's easy to see why it brought a recommitment to biblical truth. It brought back proper doctrine, according to Scripture. Most importantly, it brought back the true gospel of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, the solas of the Reformation.
And during this movement, most of the worst heresies of the Catholic Church were eliminated as part of the Reformation, although they did retain some practices simply out of tradition. Clergy, laity distinctions, infant baptisms, among others, were traditions that stuck from the Catholic Church, even though they were not biblical. But one of the often-overlooked consequences of the Reformation, was the one that Jesus cared the most about, it appears, and that is the abandonment of evangelism, and the diminished emphasis on works of charity.
You may have never studied the Reformation, you might have assumed that was just such a wonderful period of church revival, and there's nothing negative about it. But that's not exactly true.
And perhaps because Catholicism preached a salvation by works of the gospel - and they used social works of various kinds eg. schools, hospitals and the like as a means of promulgating that false gospel – because that had been the history, it would appear as though the reformers took an opposite approach.
That is to say, they emphasized God's sovereignty, and they emphasized biblical doctrines, but they did so at the expense of seeking the lost and encouraging personal works in faith.
In fact, Martin Luther was so put off by talk of good works that he doubted the inspired credentials of the letter of James. When he translated the Bible into German, he put the letter of James in an appendix. He took it out of the New Testament canon because he had so little confidence in its inspired source, because James said, “Faith without works is dead”, and Catholics had used that to defend their bad theology.
And so Luther went the other way and said works should not be part of the conversation when it comes to Christianity. So, out of the Reformation you get this culture that's alive, but in name only. They have reflexively turned against Catholicism's emphasis on good works.
And when the church stops preaching the importance of serving Christ and good works, what do you get? Lazy Christians.
It’s not going to be easy for a Christian to find motivation to work when their own theology is telling them it doesn't matter. We produce believers with soiled garments, so to speak. They have not completed their works in the Father's eyes.
So, did the judgment that Jesus promised to this church come to pass? Did they wake up or did the thief come?
Well, for the first 100 years after the Reformation, the church was dominated by a handful of state Churches. You had Lutherans in Germany, Anglicans in England, Presbyterians in Scotland, and so on. Catholics were still in France. So in these early stages of the Reformation, you still had a state church in each area. They just started to change in terms of which religion went with which state. In 1648, about 100 years after the Reformation, there was that 30-year war between Protestants and Catholics, and it ended with something called the Peace of Westphalia. And that treaty established, among other things, the modern basis of Europe. And the Peace of Westphalia also required that every citizen of the respective countries had the right to practice Christianity in any form they wanted.
So, among the many tenets of the Peace of Westphalia, no longer does someone have to stay in the state religion if they don't want to. And it protected Christian expression in greater forms. And as a result, Protestant faiths began to emerge in many different stripes. The works of faith were reignited in a new generation of reformed churches, birthed out of the Peace of Westphalia, which now woke up to challenge the historic power of those state churches. And where you see the reformed churches still asleep, they have slowly died out.
But where do these newer versions of Protestantism crop up? The Pilgrims, the Anabaptists and so on, they became a new movement, and that new movement went out from Europe to the rest of the world.
Jesus said, “Wake up and make use of what's left or you’re going to have the thief come and take what you have.”. And that is exactly what happened to mainline Protestantism in Western Europe, and that's what gives rise to the next church.