The Letter to the Church at Sardis (3:1-6)
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 parlor, lavishly decked out in the splendor and fragrance of the most exquisite floral arrangement, set against the background of flowing drapery and soft, but enlivening music. Yet all are aware that beneath the outward façade was death and spiritual putrefaction of the vilest sort. 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).
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 (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 epistle which 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! Indeed, 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 defiled their garments.” 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 aggressive and positive Christianity. 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 perfect model of inoffensive Christianity.
A few simple but pointed words are sufficient to expose the spiritual bankruptcy at Sardis, yet they turn out to be as devastating as the earthquake of 17 a.d.
The church in Sardis had acquired a reputation 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 Stott says,
“it 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 graveclothes 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).
Says Jesus, “I have not found your deeds completed in the sight of My God” (v. 2b). What is meant by this? A brief glance at the list of works in 2:19 which find approval in the eyes of the Lord will help: love, faith, service, patient endurance. All these were no doubt evident in Sardis, but in a haphazard, half-hearted, incomplete way. Perhaps their motives were wrong; perhaps they performed the deeds well enough, but did so for selfish, even mercenary reasons. The words “in the sight of My God” may indicate that whereas their deeds may gain human approval, God’s evaluation was another matter. George Ladd has a suggestion:
“The church was not troubled by persecution; it was not disturbed by heresy; it was not distressed by Jewish opposition; it was well known as an active, vigorous Christian congregation, characterized by good works and charitable activities. But in the sight of God, all of these religious activities were a failure because they were only formal and external, and not infused with the life-giving Holy Spirit” (56).
All of their efforts were characterized by half-heartedness, lack of zeal, by beginnings that rarely or ever came to anything of lasting worth. They were the works of a church that had become the addicted to mediocrity. They were, in a word, wishy-washy!
Sardis may well be the first church in history to have been filled with what we call today nominal Christians. They were Christians in name only. See Isa. 29:13; Mt. 15:8-9; 23:25-28; 2 Tim. 3:5. Thus far we have noted the marks of the church of which Jesus approves: doctrinal orthodoxy, suffering for Christ’s name sake, love, growth, and now at Sardis we learn of the importance of reality, genuineness, authenticity, a life-style that matches profession.
Our Lord’s instruction begins with the exhortation, “be watchful and strengthen the things that remain which are about to die.” Such words leave room for hope, for they indicate that, although death is near, the possibility for renewal remains. There is an ember, so to speak, which is quickly cooling off, but may yet be fanned into flames of life if only the appropriate action is taken. Such action is given in three commands:
First, remember – Just as Jesus exhorted the Ephesians (2:5), so also at Sardis. Past history should challenge them (us) to present endeavor. Recall the blessings of divine grace and be strengthened.
Second, hold fast (“keep it”) - Cf. 2:24b-25. You don’t need anything new; simply hold firmly to what you’ve already received. The terms used here (“received and heard”) probably “refers to the Christian traditions transmitted to the Sardinians when their congregation was founded” (Aune, 1:221).
Third, repent – Stop sinning! Start obeying!
The threatened chastisement for failure to do so is vivid: v. 3b. It’s unclear whether this is the threat of an impending “coming” of Christ in judgment and discipline against the church in Sardis or a broader reference to the second “coming” of Christ. In either case, the emphasis is on the unexpected (“like a thief”) nature of the coming. It would seem, however, that since repentance would forestall the need for Christ’s “coming” that a historical visitation in the first century is in view, not the second coming at the end of history.
I only note in passing Aune’s improbable suggestion that “the things that remain” should be translated “those who remain” and refers not to deeds or activities but to people in the congregation who are weak and at the point of death and need the loving assistance and encouragement of the strong.
It’s encouraging to see here that even in a church like Sardis there is a promise to the godly remnant, i.e., those “few names” who have not soiled their garments in the dirt of unrighteousness, hypocrisy, and idolatry. In the statement, “But you have” (v. 4a) you is singular, possibly “referring to the ‘angel’ to whom this proclamation is addressed” (Aune, 1:222).
Beale points to the use of the word “soiled” or “stained” (moluno) as evidence that their sin was either idolatry or their decision to suppress their witness by assuming a low profile in idolatrous contexts of the pagan culture in which they had daily interaction (moluno is used elsewhere of the threat of being “soiled” with the pollution of idolatry: see 14:4,6-9).
The reward promised to those who persevere is four-fold.
First, in v. 4, they will walk with Jesus in white. Some see a reference here to the resurrection body, but this is more likely a promise of victory and purity in the messianic kingdom when those who have remained faithful will experience the consummation of fellowship with Jesus. The reference to “white” may allude to the righteousness imputed to us in the act of justification. That is why they are regarded as “worthy”.
Second, the overcomer will be “clothed in white garments” (v. 5a; cf. 3:18; 6:11; 7:9-14;; 19:13).
Third, the overcomer will not have his/her name erased from the book of life.
There are at least five possibilities for this “book”.
(1) Hemer refers to one particular custom in Athens according to which the names of condemned criminals were erased from civic registers before their execution. The Greek word translated “to erase,” exaleiphein, “was the technical term for such degradation” (148). However, it is more likely that we should look for a biblical background to this imagery.
(2) In the OT the “book of life” (or its equivalents) was a register of the citizens of the theocratic community of Israel. To have one’s name written in the book of life implied the privilege of participation in the temporal blessings of the theocracy, while to be erased or blotted out of this book meant exclusion from those blessings. In other words, this book had reference to the rights of citizenship for the Jewish people (cf. Ex. 32:32; Ps. 69:28; Isa. 4:3).
(3) The concept of a “book” was also used to portray God’s all-inclusive decree (Ps. 139:16); i.e., the very days of one’s life are ordained and written in God’s “book” before one of them occurs.
(4) There is also the notion of “books” of judgment in which are recorded men’s deeds. They serve as that by which or from which one shall be judged (Dan. 7:10; Rev. 20:12).
(5) The most vivid usage, however, is the concept of the book as the register of those who have been chosen for salvation from eternity past. It is not temporal or earthly blessings that are in view, but participation in the eternal kingdom of God as recipients of eternal life (see Luke 10:20; Phil. 4:3; Heb. 12:23; Rev. 13:8; 17:8). It would appear from these texts that not all are written in this book, but only the elect. If it is the latter which Jesus has in view, there are three possible interpretations.
First, he may be saying that it is possible for a sinning, unrepentant Christian (such as were many at Sardis) to fail to overcome and thereby to forfeit their place in the book of life. Their names will be erased from that book and they will lose their salvation.
Second, others suggest that to have one’s name blotted out refers to something other than salvation. In Rev. 3:1 Jesus referred to the people at Sardis as having a “name” for being alive, i.e., they had a reputation for spiritual vitality. The idea, then, is that such people are saved, but will forfeit any hope of an honorable position in the coming kingdom of God. They are saved, but will experience shame at the last day. It is not the loss of life, per se, but the loss of a certain quality of life that otherwise could have been theirs. Thus, what one loses by having their name erased from the book of life is eternal rewards in the kingdom.
Third, others insist that the key is in identifying the “overcomers”. Those who overcome, it is argued, are Christians, indeed, all Christians. See 1 John 5:4-5; Rev. 21:7. This isn’t to suggest that Christians can’t backslide and sin badly. The rebukes in these seven letters indicate otherwise. Nevertheless, the evidence of the reality of true saving faith is perseverance (i.e., “overcoming”; cf. 1 John 2:19). Three factors lead me to conclude that John does not envision the possibility of a true Christian forfeiting salvation. First, all of the other promises to the “overcomer” are coined in positive terms with no threat (implied or explicit) of losing a salvation once gained (see 2:7,11,17,26-27; 3:12,21). Second, if it is asked why this promise is couched in negative terms, the answer is obvious: Jesus couldn’t say “I will write his name in the book of life” because the names of the “overcomers” (i.e., the elect) were already written in the book from eternity past. Read Rev. 13:8; 17:8. There is no indication in Scripture, least of all in Revelation, of additional names being inscribed in the book as a reward for faithfulness or perseverance. Rather, faithfulness and perseverance are the evidence or fruit of having had one’s name written in the book. Those who worship the “beast” do so precisely because their names were not written in the book in eternity past (13:8; 17:8). Third, this declaration of Jesus is a promise to the elect that nothing will by any means (he uses a double negative) prevent them from possessing the eternal inheritance to which they have been ordained. In other words, we must take note of what Jesus does not say. He does not say that anyone will be erased from the book of life. Rather, he says the overcomers will notbe erased. His word is a promise of security to overcomers, not a threat of insecurity to those who lapse. So again, Jesus nowhere says he will erase names previously in the book of life.
Fourth, the overcomer will have his/her name confessed before the Father and the angels. See Mt. 10:32.