What’s Wrong with the Church?
If Your Reputation Doesn’t Match Your Reality, Pause and Remember Where You Started!
Only you know what your true reality is. Other people see you and know you. They may even get glimpses of your reality, but what they really know is your reputation. This church in Sardis had fallen asleep and no longer allowed their reality to match their reputation for being alive. They looked awake, but they were asleep. They carried a great reputation, but their reality didn’t match.
“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. 2 Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have found your deeds unfinished in the sight of my God. 3 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. 4 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. 5 The one who is victorious will, like them, be dressed in white. I will never blot out the name of that person from the book of life, but will acknowledge that name before my Father and his angels. 6 Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
We’ve all fallen asleep in church before. Can you share a funny story that happened to you or someone else as a result of falling asleep in church?
What was your reputation in high school? What do you think your reputation is today?
What did the works of the church at Sardis reveal about their spiritual condition?
What kinds of things might characterize a Christian or a church that has the reputation of being alive, but is actually dead? Why is this such a scary possibility?
How might good works hide a spiritually dead church? In what way are works incomplete (v. 2)?
What, then, in your own words, was the action point for this church that needed correction?
God, help us to always be a church that is alive. Help my reputation to match who I really am in you. Remind us to keep our lives unstained by the world and to stay focused on you. Amen.
What lesson is there for you to learn from the story of Sardis? Think about your home. What do you and your family “appear to be” to those watching from the outside? How does that compare with what you are actually living like?
Why is merely going through the motions of spiritual life or church life so easy to do? How have you seen this tendency creep into your life or your family’s life? What is one step you could take toward counteracting this tendency?
3:1. The risen Lord declared to the church in Sardis that he holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. The life-giving Spirit was badly needed by the lifeless church in Sardis. What could be more exciting in any era than for Christ to “bring his hands together” so that pastors are overflowing with the Spirit? The church in Sardis received only criticism from Jesus. The only other church similarly faulted is the seventh church, Laodicea. The complaint Christ lodges against this church is that its reputation is faulty. Others may think this congregation is lively; Christ knows (note again the I know) differently. The church is almost spiritually dead. A corpse may be beautiful, but it is still dead. In contemporary terms, the Sardis church was filled with “nominal Christians.”
3:2-4. The urgent command Christ gives lies in a series of five verbs: wake up … strengthen … remember … obey … repent. Foreign armies had captured the city of Sardis twice in its history because of its failure to watch. The Christians of Sardis now have an opportunity to avoid a parallel spiritual destiny. The church’s deeds appeared wonderful to those outside the church, but they were not complete in the sight of … God Christ did not accuse them of heresy, but neither had they offended Romans or unbelieving Jews. They were not being persecuted, but they had offended God by emphasizing formality over reality. Part of the remedy was for this church to remember its glorious past, when it had been spiritually alive. When the Christians at Sardis were converted, they had received something important. While surely they had received the gospel, they had also received the Holy Spirit of life. They had forgotten about the Spirit’s work. They must repent of their neglect of the Spirit and obey the command to “be filled with the Spirit” (Eph. 5:18).
Christ had threatened to judge the unloving Ephesian church by removing its lampstand if it did not repent (2:5). He had promised to judge the heretical teachers in Pergamum by fighting with his sword against them if they did not repent. Now he threatens to judge the lifeless church of Sardis by coming against them like a thief at an unexpected time. Some interpreters believe this refers to Christ’s second coming, which is often said to be like a thief (Matt. 24:43; Luke 12:39; 1 Thess. 5:2; 2 Pet. 3:10; Rev. 16:15). However, in this context the “coming” of the Lord to judge will take place only if the church does not repent. The second advent of Christ is not conditional. Thus, just as the city of Sardis had succumbed to unexpected military attack, so the church of Sardis will be visited by Christ’s judgment—if it does not change.
Is it possible for a “dead orthodox” church to change? In the case of Sardis, the answer was “yes” because a few people had remained faithful. They had not soiled their clothes by assuming that the appearance of true religion can substitute for the reality. Christ does not ask these faithful few to leave the nominal majority but to maintain their presence as a witness. They may have a difficult time doing so, but Christ commends them as worthy of special praise. They will appear dressed in white one day, revealed as truly righteous. Their righteousness was not the appearance but the reality, because they “washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (Rev. 7:14). Their righteousness was based on Christ’s death for them, which resulted in righteous living.
3:5-6. Verse 5 mentions he who overcomes; verse 6 refers to the one who has an ear. These elements are repeated in all seven letters, as well as the reference to what the Spirit says to the churches (see discussion at 2:7). These overcomers from all ages and all churches will be dressed in white just as the faithful few in Sardis will be clothed. The symbol of God’s divine ledger goes back as far as Exodus 32:33—“The Lord replied to Moses, ‘Whoever has sinned against me I will blot out of my book.’ ” In the present text, Christ specifies his commitment to the overcomers with a negative and positive promise. First, their names will never be blotted from the book of life. Second, their names will be acknowledged before my Father and his angels. Both of these symbolize eternal life. In ancient times, all citizens of a city might be listed in the “citizenship registry.” To be erased from such a book would mean one was not (or no longer) a citizen. All those who were citizens had the right to be announced or acknowledged before the king and his court.
Overcomers demonstrate their righteousness in this life by confessing Christ faithfully before a hostile world through the help of the Spirit of God. In their heavenly existence Christ will faithfully confess them before the very angels of God. Jesus had made an identical promise during his earthly ministry. “I tell you, whoever acknowledges me before men, the Son of Man will also acknowledge him before the angels of God” (Luke 12:8).