Who Leads Who? – Revelation 3:1-6 (Sardis)

“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.  Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have found your deeds unfinished in the sight of my God.  Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; hold it fast, and repent. But 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. 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.  Those who are victorious will, like them, be dressed in white. I will never blot out their names from the book of life, but will acknowledge their names before my Father and his angels.6 Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”


We’ve been working our way through the letters to the seven churches in the first vision of Revelation – the risen, glorified Christ talking to very real churches each at a specific time and place.  We’ve reflected on Smyrna, for whom Christ had no criticism, only praise.  Then there was Pergamum and Thyatira – one under great pressure from the outside with the threat of persecution and the other being poisoned from within.  Now we approach Sardis – about 30 miles from Thyatira.  You see its location on the map.

Each church has been commended by Christ for their faithfulness and strengths.  What will he find to commend in Sardis?  Nothing.  This was the only church where there is no affirmation.  All regarded this as a flourishing, active, successful, vibrant church – all except Christ.  Of all the letters to the churches, this is the most difficult one, and the hardest one to preach on.  It forces us to examine some issues we would rather not look at.  We need to covenant to work hard at understanding this together because there is a lot that can easily be misunderstood and misinterpreted.

The City:

We have seen that in this vision each letter works off from the history and characteristics of each city.  Jesus threatens that he will come to Sardis like a thief, and they will not know at what time he will come.  This touched a part of the DNA of Sardis.  This city was thought to be impregnable by any army.  The citadel of Sardis was one of the best.  Twice in its history the people became so complacent and secure in the assurance that no one could possibly succeed in attacking them, that armies climbed their walls without anyone observing and conquered the city in the middle of the night.  This happened in 549 BC when Cyrus conquered them, and again in 218 BC when they were conquered by the Romans.  Then in 17 AD the city was destroyed by an earthquake and had been rebuilt into a highly prosperous city by Tiberius Caesar.  The fear of surprise attack remained a part of the city’s thought process.

Sardis’ prosperity was owed mostly to two things.  The first was that they were a trade center located at the intersection of 5 main highways – so traffic and trade were constant.  They were also known for dying high quality wool that was luxurious and very colorful.  In verse 4 Jesus said that a few people in Sardis had not soiled their clothes.  “They will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy.”  In Sardis the only people who dressed in white were those slaves who could not afford the colorfully dyed woolens of Sardis.  Here Jesus identifies the faithful, the worthy and the victors with purity and the poor.

Sardis was a wealthy city and beginning to decline in its importance by the middle of the 1st century.  It had a large Jewish population that was so influential that Sardis was a place of religious freedom.  It appears that the various religions, including Christianity, lived side by side in peace and prosperity.

The Church:

So for the church in Sardis there was acceptance.  They were active in their community and apparently very alive.  There was no persecution, no external threats of any kind, and no danger of people being seduced by idolatry or the immorality of temple prostitutes.  It sounds like they had it made.  How is it possible that they had a great reputation, were active and alive, were involved with their city, and Jesus had nothing good to say about them.  He said: “I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead.  Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have found your deeds unfinished in the sight of my God.”  What happened in the church in Sardis, and what do we have to learn from it? 

To answer that question, I believe there are two things we need to reflect on.  One is cultural and the second is theological.  This church was secure and complacent, like the city.  She was untroubled by persecution or heresy.   She became a part of her culture.  The values of the city became her values.  It was all pretty easy.  The big challenge in this rich city was to avoid hardship and fit in with the wealth all around.  Their place in the city became what consumed them.  They just totally fit in.  It was a great place to live and work and raise a family.  Why did they have to repent?  This is the central issue here. Why did they have to repent? Because the center of their faith, their lives, and their ministry was no longer Christ.  That is why he had nothing good to say about them. Their culture led them.  They listened to their culture about what was important and what they were supposed to believe.

What do we need to learn and be aware of here?  Is that a danger for us? Or for other churches in our culture?  We need to talk about this, but it is hard because I am sure that what I am about to say is going to be interpreted as political by some people.  It is not.  This is not about where a person’s party loyalties are.  All of this has become so explosive we can hardly have a conversation about it.  Which already says it may have become too important.  We do, however, need to do some clear thinking about our culture and our country.  The issue in a nutshell is that some churches have lost their way in this country because they believed the myth that this is Christian country and that we have a Christian culture.  And then like Sardis the culture was what they began to follow instead of Christ.  I am not saying it has happened here, but it is of great concern among Christian leaders across our country, and it has happened to too many churches.  Let’s make sure we’ve done some clear thinking about this.  Let’s back up and think about it.

It became very popular in the 19th century to talk about America as a Christian nation.  There were denominations that even went so far as to identify America with the kingdom of God, others even called it the new Israel.  Now, it is true that some Christian values influenced the values of our country.  For that we are very grateful.  And the Bible is clear that we are to love and respect our country.  I hope we all do.  I know I am profoundly grateful for it.  However we need to be clear, this is not and was never intended to be a specifically Christian country.  We are built on the right to have religious freedom – for everyone, not just freedom for Christians.  This was not some experiment like Augustine’s City of God or Calvin’s Geneva.  We are Christians in a country that is built on the belief in religious freedom and has some Christian values, and many not so Christian values.  There have been individual Christian leaders, significant Christian influence, and there have been Christian communities: early on there were the Puritans, the Baptists and the Roman Catholics. There has always been talk of America being Christian, but since 9-11 and people’s fears and threats, it has constantly come to the fore.  The core value of our country, and we thank God for it, is liberty – freedom – the Bill of RightsThe focus of loyalty is the nation.  The methodology is supposed to be democracy.  None of those things can or should be mixed up with the church of Jesus Christ – no matter how much we treasure them.  Our core value is carried in our purpose statement – to love God, and loving God means not only worship but caring for and serving each other, along with caring for and serving the world.  It is about being God’s people and servanthood.  The focus of loyalty is Jesus Christ.  He is Lord.  He is God.  He is sovereign.  He is King.  It is not a democracy or a republic.  What some have called American Civil Religion raises up some values we may cherish but it is not nor has it ever been Christ-centered.  Popular statements about the deeply Christian roots of our founding fathers are myth.  Most of them were deists – today we call them Unitarians.  In other words, they did not believe in the Trinity, nor in a God that was very involved with this world.  Thankfully they were influenced by some values we cherish, and we honor them for that.  Some of the confusion is the was people use the word conservative.  It is thrown around a lot, and the meanings have come confused.  A religious, Christian conservative is a person who believes the Bible is the authoritative Word of God and that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior.  That is Christian.  Political conservative means something else entirely.

OK, what is the point?  Sardis lost themselves in their culture – in its materialism, in its total loyalty to the city, in its pride in religious liberty – and they lost their focus on the Word of God and the Lord Jesus Christ.  The politics of the city became their religion, at least in the way they thought and acted.  When our politics become our religion we have created an idol.   Does this happen here?  We began together over a year and ½ ago saying this pulpit is Christ-centered, that we are a Christ-centered Church, that we are people who will do all we can to be Christ-followers,  and will stay that way. Still we ask, as we listen to our text, is there a danger of being led by our culture?  It has happened in many other churches.  Religious leaders across the country are beginning to raise the cry.  We need to hear the words of the living Christ speaking to Sardis.

The 2nd issue is theological.  This letter raises a question in the disquieting element in the warning which has to do with the security of believers in their relationship to God.  This is a freedom text.  God’s gift of salvation is received and heard and is kept by the faith of repentance.  (3:3) It is clear that we are not kept in the book of life against our will.  What do we make of Jesus statement, “Those who are victorious will, like them, be dressed in white.  I will never blot out their names from the book of life, but will acknowledge their names before my Father and his angels.”  The implication is that those who are not faithful, who do not repent will have their names blotted out from the book of life.  Is this a statement that contradicts the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints?  First we need to see that this text in no way diminishes the authority and saving power of Jesus Christ.  Nor will the text allow someone the “cheap grace” of saying that it doesn’t matter what I do or believe, once a Christian always a Christian.  We need to hold the biblical tension: the all sufficiency of Christ’s forgiveness and the vital importance of repentance.  Repentance is our present reality.  Our salvation is a daily, living, dynamic relationship.  We never move beyond the need for forgiveness.  We live every day in that tension.  Only in retrospect or looking at a it from a little more distance can we articulate the perseverance of the saints with love, joy and gratitude.

It is clear here that the glorified Christ does not belong to the church as its possession but as its possessor.  In Matthew 10:32 Jesus said, “Whoever publically acknowledges me I will also acknowledge before my Father I heaven.  But whoever publicly disowns me I will disown before my Father in heaven.”  Here Jesus promises that those who repent and are faithful to him he will acknowledge their names before his Father and his angels.

We end with his statement that says – TAKE NOTE OF THIS.  THIS IS IMPORTANT.  “Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”  That was his call to Sardis.  It is his call to [the Church].  We affirm again today: This is a Christ-centered church with a Christ-centered pulpit, a Christ-centered ministry and we strive to be Christ-followers.  It is finally and ultimately about him, and his acknowledging our names to his Father.