One of the more important lessons I’ve learned through the years, especially when it comes to church life, is that seeing isn’t always believing. I don’t want to sound cynical or pessimistic, but you shouldn’t always trust your eyes. What I’m trying to say is that I’m not as impressed as I used to be when I hear of a church with a surging membership, multi-million dollar budget, expansive facilities, and a reputation for programs, ministries, and a growing influence in the community.
The problem I have in mind isn’t restricted to the so-called “mega-church,” it’s just more conspicuous in their case. Even small congregations can be widely known for countless religious activities yet devoid of authentic commitment to Christ as Lord.
I typically read the Saturday edition of the Kansas City Star because it devotes a section to spiritual life in our city, with several pages listing the variety of churches and what each is offering during the week and especially on Sunday. Some of the ads look like a promo for the Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey Circus. They’ve got gimmicks, gadgets, celebrity guest speakers and goodies of all sorts, most of which are designed to sell you an image of being alive and worthy of your attendance (and money, of course).
The church in first-century Sardis was just such a congregation. Let me illustrate. Try to envision the scene at a typical funeral with its sprays of flowers, and bright, vivid colors, all of which is designed (at least in part) to divert one’s attention from the dark reality of death. The church at Sardis was like a beautifully adorned corpse in a funeral home, elegantly decked out in the visible splendor and fragrance of the most exquisite floral arrangement, set against the background of exquisite drapery and soft, but uplifting music. Yet beneath the outward façade was death and spiritual putrefaction of the vilest sort. I don’t recall who said or wrote it, but here is one pastor’s exhortation to his own church to avoid the errors of Sardis:
“Ecclesiastical corpses lie all about us. The caskets in which they repose are lined with satin and are decorated with solid silver handles and abundant flowers. Like the other caskets, they are just large enough for their occupants with no room for converts. These churches have died of respectability and have been embalmed in self-complacency. If by the grace of God this church is alive, be warned to our opportunity or the feet of them that buried thy sister (Sardis) will be at the door to carry thee out too.”
“Sardis,” writes Beasley-Murray, “was a city of past glories. Once the capital of the ancient Lydian kingdom, it reached its pinnacle of fame under Croesus in the sixth century b.c., flourished under its Persian conquerors, but then went into an unceasing decline to obscurity” (94). This decline of the once great Sardis was aggravated by a devastating earthquake in 17 a.d. (described by Pliny, early in the 2nd century, as the greatest disaster in human memory), and despite the generous aid granted by the emperor Tiberius, “no city in Asia presented a more deplorable contrast of past splendour and present unresting decline” (Charles, I:78).
It would almost seem as though the history of the city was being relived in the church in its midst. Two specific elements in the city’s life seem to find application in the letter to the church. Sardis was built on a mountain, and an acropolis was constructed on a spur of this mountain, which was all but impregnable (“to capture the acropolis of Sardis” had become proverbial for “doing the impossible”). Yet twice in the city’s past it had been taken by surprise and captured by enemies. The parallel with the church’s lack of vigilance, and its need to awaken lest it come under judgment (v. 3), is striking.
Furthermore, Sardis was also a great commercial center for woolen goods and claimed to be first in the field in the art of dyeing wool. This, too, appears to be reflected in vv. 4-5 and may well have inspired the imagery employed there. Thus, “like the city itself,” remarks Charles (I:78), “the church had belied its early promise. Its religious history, like its civil, belonged to the past.”
It comes as no great shock, then, when we discover that the letter our Lord addressed to the church in Sardis is one of the most severe of the seven. It is, in point of fact, along with the letter to Laodicea, the only church for which the Lord has no words of commendation. Simply put, Jesus had nothing good to say about the church in Sardis!
This letter stands out in sharp contrast to the four which have preceded. To Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, and Thyatira our Lord sends his greetings followed by a word of encouragement and praise. Their faults, be they ever so reprehensible, do appear to be exceptions to the general spirit of obedience and growth. But in Sardis there is no word of praise: obedience and growth, at best, are the exception, not the rule. Furthermore, we note that although Sardis is similar to Pergamum and Thyatira in that they all have mixed membership, in the latter two churches the faulty members are in the minority, but at Sardis they predominate. Only a “few names” in Sardis “have not soiled their garments” (v. 4). The majority had incurred defilement.
We might also ask why both Jews and Romans apparently left this church untouched when they so vigorously persecuted their neighbors? The answer may be its lack of lack of spiritual integrity and whole-souled devotion to Christ. As Caird notes, “content with mediocrity, lacking both the enthusiasm to entertain a heresy and the depth of conviction which provokes intolerance, it was too innocuous to be worth persecuting” (48). Simply put, Sardis was the classic embodiment of inoffensive Christianity.
The church in Sardis had acquired a reputation (v. 1b) in Asia Minor as a superlative congregation. To all external appearances, as far as what could be seen and heard, Sardis was a progressive church, first among its sister congregations to initiate a new program, full of vitality, overflowing with zeal, no doubt quite large. As you read John Stott’s description of the church in Sardis, ask yourself whether it applies today. The answer could be painful. Sardis,
“was positively humming with activity. There was no shortage in the church of money or talent or manpower. There was every indication of life and vigor. . . . But outward appearances are notoriously deceptive; and this socially distinguished congregation was a spiritual graveyard. It seemed to be alive, but it was actually dead. It had a name for virility, but it had no right to its name. Its works were beautiful grave clothes which were but a thin disguise for this ecclesiastical corpse. The eyes of Christ saw beyond the clothes to the skeleton. It was dead as mutton. It even stank” (85).
There are numerous mega-churches, mini-churches, and everything in between that are not only outwardly active but also inwardly vibrant, genuine, and Christ-exalting in every way. We should thank God for them.
But there are just as many churches in which the relentless swirl of religious activity is designed to divert attention from the hypocrisy and spiritual sterility that eats away from within. We simply can’t afford to be fooled into concluding all is well based solely on what we see or hear of them. A reputation without a corresponding reality is worthless in the eyes of Jesus Christ. His words of warning are forceful and to the point. We would be well-advised to heed them. To be continued . . .