The Church of Sardis: The Dead Church

Our study in the Seven Churches of Asia has revealed to us both the positive and negative ways in which Jesus perceived the spiritual state of the assemblies of Christians of ancient times.   This was often in dramatic contrast with the way the church was considered in its own eyes.  In this regard, no greater distinction may be found among the churches we’ve so far examined than the one that presently interests us.  So let us now turn to a consideration of the church in Sardis, not just to satisfy our intellectual curiosity but to understand how we can learn from their example in order to better conform our lives to the One who has redeemed us and given us eternal life, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The text is as follows:

And to the angel of the church in Sardis write, ‘These things says He who has the seven Spirits of God and the seven stars: “I know your works, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead.  Be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die, for I have not found your works perfect before God. Remember therefore how you have received and heard; hold fast and repent. Therefore if you will not watch, I will come upon you as a thief, and you will not know what hour I will come upon you. You have a few names even in Sardis who have not defiled their garments; and they shall walk with Me in white, for they are worthy. He who overcomes shall be clothed in white garments, and I will not blot out his name from the Book of Life; but I will confess his name before My Father and before His angels. “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” Revelation 3: 1-6

The Background

As has been the case with the other churches of Asia, the very city in which the church in Sardis was located gives important clues as to the church’s nature, both its weaknesses and its virtues.   Along those lines, the significance of the name Sardis is disputed but the most likely meaning is “remnant.”   And as Jesus writes to the church located there, He addresses Himself mostly to the remnant of true believers.

Sardis was an ancient city, founded around 1200 BC.  It was the capital city of the district of Lydia and lay about 70 km southwest of Smyrna.

Interestingly, the minting of coins of standardized weight was reputed to have first begun in Sardis in about the 6th century BC.  The city was well known for its textile industry including the production of carpets and dyed cloth.  Sardis reached its zenith under King Croesus who was renowned for his immense wealth.   Yet as a poem penned by Isaac Watts in the 18th century shows, appearances are not always reality and material wealth is fleeting.   Watts wrote:

“Thus mingled still with wealth and state,

Croesus himself can never know;

His true dimensions and his weight

Are far inferior to their show.”

Sadly, the story of Croesus was replicated centuries later in the church of Sardis, a church that seemed alive but which was “far inferior to its show.”   Yet there are still other important ways that the history and background of the city relate to the assembly located there.

Sardis was the location of the temple dedicated to the Greek goddess Cybele, usually associated with Aphrodite.  The temple itself was impressive with seventy-eight columns reaching 20 meters tall and 2 meters in diameter.  Ironically a white robe was required to be worn in order to enter the temple and to approach this goddess although her worship involved the basest immorality and impurity.  In a further ironic twist, Cybele was believed to possess the special power of restoring the dead to life.  As we shall see in Christ’s counsel to the dead church of Sardis, it is He who has true life-giving powers and it is He who clothes the redeemed in white.

The city of Sardis was located on a plateau high above the valley of Hermus and was accessed only by a single narrow road.  The lofty plateau and steep surrounding cliffs gave the appearance of an easily defensible position and that is how the city’s inhabitants regarded it.  Yet in line with the theme of Jesus’ message, appearances may be deceiving.

In 546 BC, the region was attacked by Cyrus the Persian.  King Croesus and his people retreated into the city believing their defensive position was impregnable.  But one evening one of Cyrus’ men saw a Sardinian soldier lose his helmet over the cliff.  He then watched the Sardinian follow a secret path down the steep slope to retrieve the helmet.  The following evening Cyrus’ army followed that same path, which had been left unguarded, into the city and quickly conquered it.

Centuries later (in 214 BC), the city of Sardis had again grown complacent and self-confident.  But once again it fell to an attack while the guards slept, this time to the army of Antiochus the Great.  By the time of the Roman Empire, Sardis was still relatively prosperous but suffering from inexorable decline.  At the time of John’s writing, it was only a shadow of its former self.  Today Sardis consists of only ruins, with the insignificant Arab village of Sart located nearby.

The sad history of the city was reflected in the church as well.  Complacency, a false sense of wellbeing, and the tendency to look back to former glory are the backdrop for Jesus’ message to the church of Sardis.

Jesus’ Description of Himself

Jesus begins his address to the church by proclaiming His deity.  He declares that He possesses the Seven Spirits of God.  There are two noteworthy aspects to this statement.

Firstly, we should take note of the use of the word seven.   In Scriptures, seven generally symbolizes perfection or completion.   Why would this description be particularly appropriate in the context of the Sardinian church?  Because their own works were found lacking (verse 1).  It is only through the Holy Spirit that service to God is complete.

Secondly, it is important to remember that the Holy Spirit’s work is to give life.  For example, when Jesus spoke with Nicodemus He said, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3:5).  This aspect of the Holy Spirit’s ministry of bringing life is of obvious importance to a church that was dying.

Jesus’ Words of Warning

Undoubtedly, the church at Sardis was, for all appearance, alive and thriving.  But as we have seen, appearances can be deceiving.  Even our everyday experiences demonstrate this truth.   For example, we may see an artificial plant that so closely resembles an actual living plant that we mistake it for such until we get closer and carefully examine it.  Sadly, Jesus’ examination of the Sardinian church showed that like an artificial plant there was very little life.

How can a church tell if it is dying in the spiritual sense? Or otherwise what are the signs of a growing church? The first step is to take notice of Jesus’ warning:

“I know your works, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead.”

The word used for “live” in the above sentence is derived from the Greek word zoe (from which we get the English word zoology).  This word is contrasted with bios (from which we get the English word biology).  Generally speaking, zoe is used to indicate the inner life while bios refer to a mere physical life.  However, there are numerous points of comparison which can be made between the concepts.

Scientists define life by various criteria.  Among these are the response to a stimulus, development, and the ability to reproduce.   These criteria parallel the three functions of a church.

  1. Exaltation of Christ. Perhaps the most fundamental mission of the church is to glorify God through the Son. Considering the aforementioned parallel with the biological realm, an indicator of life is that a living organism will respond to a stimulus.  A dog will wag his tail when petted.  The leaves of a plant placed in a window will, with time, tilt toward the sun.  Contrariwise a cadaver shows no response to being shouted at because the body is dead.

Spiritual life is likewise characterized by a heart that responds.  The greatest possible stimulus for the Christian heart is meditating on the love of Christ.   If, at the Lord’s Supper (for example) the heart isn’t moved, then there is justifiable concern that the soul has grown cold and death-like.

  1. Edification of the saints. Another indicator of life, in the biological sense, is development. One may think of the natural growth of a person from a tiny embryo in the womb to a full-grown adult.  Growth doesn’t cease when full stature is attained but continues, albeit in a different way.  The person continues to develop in experience, wisdom, and maturity.  Death, however, ends development, at least in the biological sense.

In the church, growth and development are absolutely essential.  This does not necessarily mean growth in numbers any more than a human will continue growing in stature.  But it does mean that the Christians will be growing in their understanding of the things of the Lord and in their walk with Him.  This growth comes from solid teaching of the Scriptures as well as through discipleship and pastoral care.

  1. Evangelism of the world. Another essential of biological life is the ability to reproduce. Without that ability, the species would become extinct after a single generation.   The church’s goal is to reproduce.  It is to see people saved and brought into the kingdom of God.

Not only should the church that is alive be serving in these three ways but it must also do so in the power of the Holy Spirit.  Only then can those works be perfect.

The Exhortation:

The first thing that Jesus counsels in his exhortation to the moribund church of Sardis is “to watch.”   Remember that the city of Sardis had fallen during the days of Croesus because a vital point in the defenses had been left unguarded or unwatched.  So every church and every Christian should critically examine themselves to see if there is a deficiency in any of these three areas.  If there is, heartfelt repentance is in order.

The Reward:

The Lord promises three significant rewards for the overcomer.   Perhaps the most difficult to understand is Jesus’ affirmation that, “(He) will not blot out (the overcomer’s) name from the Book of Life.”  For some, this seems to imply the possibility that a person could have his name blotted out (i.e. lose his salvation).  But Jesus is emphasizing just the opposite.  The phrase uses a double negative in Greek (ou me) giving the strongest negation possible.  Furthermore, Jesus uses a rhetorical technique in which a negated opposite is used to emphasize the truth.  Jesus is, in effect, saying, “Your name is absolutely secure in the book of life!”

Jesus further informs the overcomer that he will be dressed in white (surely referring to Revelation 19:8). Additionally, Jesus declares the marvelous truth that He Himself will confess the believer to the Father and to the angels.

In the movie Lawrence of Arabia, there is a scene in which Lawrence returns to the British Army headquarters in Cairo after having, with the aid of Saudi Arabs, conquered the Ottoman port city of Aqaba.  When Lawrence first arrives at headquarters he is rebuffed and mocked by his fellow officers for wearing dirty Bedouin garb.  Yet General Allenby, hearing the news of the capture of Aqaba, calls Lawrence to his office and then later asks Lawrence to accompany him to a garden patio to chat with him.  As Lawrence and Allenby walk together toward the patio the other officers gaze in amazement.   The powerful general and the shabbily garbed Lawrence are walking and talking with one another!

In heaven, the all-powerful Lord of lords and King of kings will walk with the redeemed.  Jesus will confess His children before the billions of celestial angels and most importantly before the Father Himself.  In contrast with Lawrence, the child of God will be dressed in brilliant and dazzling white, the result of his faithful service to his King during the years of his earthly sojourn.  May we do as the Lord has called us, to be watchful, to hold fast, and to be faithful to the One who has loved us.

Jim Haesemeyer