Sardis: Autopsy of a Dead Church – Revelation 3:1-6

By John Bellingham on September 27, 2020
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Sardis:  Autopsy of a Dead Church

Revelation 3:1-6

I. An Undeserved Reputation – vv. 1-2

  1. Christ’s Greeting to the Church
    1. A reminder of the Spirit’s powerful presence
      • The Holy Spirit gives spiritual life, and can raise the dead back to life!
      • Without the Spirit’s empowerment no Church would ever to be able to survive and thrive in this fallen world.
    2. An appeal to the Church leadership
      • The ‘seven stars’ represent the seven ‘messengers’ or ‘pastors’ – cf. 1:20
      • Pastors are directly accountable to Christ for the way that they lead within His Church – cf. 1 Peter 5:1-5
  2. Christ’s Rebuke of His Church
    1. There is an unexpected twist in this letter: in the place where we expect to find a word of commendation (‘I know your works….’), we find instead a word of condemnation!
    2. The Church in Sardis had a good ‘name’ (ie. a good reputation), but according to Christ that reputation was undeserved!
      • From the outside the Church in Sardis looked alive and well
      • Spiritually, this Church was dead!
  3. Christ’s Command for His Church: ‘Wake up!’
    1. In historical context the command to ‘wake up’ would have struck a nerve with the citizens of Sardis, for twice in history the city was captured due to overconfidence, and a failure of the guards to keep watch
    2. Sardis was also like the Church in another respect – the city’s glory largely lay in the past. Like the city in which they lived, these Christians had a reputation that they didn’t deserve.
    3. Although the Church in Sardis was nearly dead – there is still a glimmer of hope! God’s Spirit can raise the dead back to life


  • Many modern Churches have a reputation that they don’t deserve, and a glory that largely lies buried in the past.   We cannot rest apathetically in the faithfulness of past generations if we are not being faithful to Christ in our own generation.   Let us not use past victory as an excuse for present apathy
  • Outward religious activities should not be confused with real, spiritual vitality.   This was a major problem in ancient Israel (ie. Malachi 1), it was a problem in ancient Sardis, and it is still a problem for the modern Church.   It is possible for a Church to appear frantically busy with ministry activity, but yet to accomplish nothing of value for God’s Kingdom
  • Unlike the other Churches that were facing intense persecution, it seems as though the Church in Sardis was largely protected from opposition.    In places where persecution is minimal, there is a danger that the Church will become comfortable and apathetic – that she will neglect her God-given mission in the world.    We ought not to mistake outward ‘peace’ and ‘comfort’ for God’s approval and blessing:  “Sardis was a very ‘peaceful’ church. It enjoyed peace, but it was the peace of the cemetery!” – William Hendriksen


II. An Unexpected ‘Coming’ – v. 3

  1. Christ’s Commands:
    1. The commands that Christ issues to the Church of Sardis closely reflect the commands in His letter to Ephesus – cf. 2:5
    2. ‘Remember’
      • They are to remember what they had ‘received’ – ie. the authoritative, Apostolic and Prophetic witness of the written Scripture
      • They are to remember what they had ‘heard’ – ie. the faithful preaching and exposition of God’s Word
    3. ‘Keep it’
      • Reading the Word and hearing the Word preached is of little value if we do not obey what it says
      • It seems that in ancient Sardis, there was faithful preaching without active obedience on the part of the members– cf. James 1:22
    4. ‘Repent’ (‘metanoia’ = change of mind)
      • Repentance requires a inward change of mind and heart which leads to an outward change of behaviour
      • Christ’s call for repentance is evidence that the situation in Sardis is not yet hopeless – this is evidence of Christ’s kindness and grace toward a sleepy and apathetic Church
  2. Christ’s Threat
    1. “I will come like a thief”
      1. Although we often associate Christ’s ‘coming’ with the final judgment, this ‘coming’ is in reference to Christ’s historical judgment of this dying Church.
      2. In the New Testament, ‘thief’ imagery is associated with unexpected judgment and not with any ‘secret rapture’ of the Church
        • ‘Matthew 24:42-44: Just as God ‘swept away’ unrepentant sinners during the time of Noah, so will he do again at his second coming.  In this context, the ones who are suddenly ‘taken’, are taken in judgment, not raptured up into heaven.
        • 1 Thessalonians 5:2: ‘sudden destruction will come upon them’
        • 2 Peter 3:10: ‘the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved’
    2. ‘You will not know what hour I will come against you’
      1. God sometimes allows spiritually dead Churches to continue on for a time – evidence of His patience and mercy
      2. Spiritually dead and dying Churches will eventually have their lampstand removed if they persist in apathy and disobedience


III. An Unsoiled Minority – vv. 4-6

  1. What’s in a ‘name’?
    1. The word ‘name’ is a thread which runs through these verses and binds them together
      • “You have a name that you are alive, but you are dead” – v. 1 (KJV/NKJV)
      • “Yet you have still a few names in Sardis…” – v. 4
      • “”I will never blot his name out of the book of life. I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels.”  – v. 5
    2. Although the Church as a whole has a ‘name’ (ie. a reputation) that is undeserved, there are yet a few ‘names’ within the Church that have remained unsoiled
      • Unlike the Churches of Pergamum and Thyatira where a minority of the congregation had been led astray, in Sardis the vast majority of the congregation was either spiritually dead or dying
      • Only a few individual Christians in this Church were truly living for Christ and showing evidence of spiritual vitality
    3. The ‘name’ theme culminates with a comforting promise regarding the ‘book of life’
      • The Biblical background of this image is Exodus 32:32-33, where Moses offers to be ‘blotted out’ in place of disobedient Israel.
      • The book imagery also has a precident in many ancient cities, where the names of citizens would be removed from the register if they were found to be guilty of a serious crime
      • In the context of Revelation, the promise is not meant to suggest that some Christians can lose their salvation (ie. be ‘blotted out’), but that genuine Christians are eternally secure (ie. “I will never blot his name out”) We should not be afraid of losing our salvation, but should rather rest in the truth that God will keep us in His grace, and enable us to finish the course!
  2. A New Set of Clothes
    1. There is a contrast between the soiled clothing of the majority and the white garments which will be given by Christ to the faithful minority
    2. In Christ a true believer has a new position – we have been cleansed of sin, and washed clean through the blood of Christ. This happens at the moment of justification
    3. Every believer has a responsibility to bring his conduct into line with his spiritual position, and to ‘become what we already are’. This is the ongoing process of sanctification
    4. One day the process of sanctification will be made complete, and the old sin nature will be forever eradicated! This is called glorification, and it is the hope of every Christian to be forever free from the pollution of sin!


  • What kind of ‘name’ do you have?    Do you have a reputation as a Christian that you do not deserve, or are you one of the ‘names’ that is forever inscribed in God’s book of life?     Let us then arise from our worldly slumber, and boldly confess the name of Jesus Christ, in the full assurance that He will confess our ‘names’ before the Father in heaven.


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