November 3, 2019
Lord’s Day Worship
The sermon starts at 18:40 in the audio file.
Or, Guarding Against Nominal Spiritual Life
This might be the most severe letter of the seven that Jesus sent through John to the churches. What was their problem?
It’s possible that Sardisians had some of the same issues that the others churches did, but Jesus doesn’t explicitly say so. The church in Sardis may not have been super loving, though they didn’t have a bad reputation for that. It’s possible that they were following some false teachers, but that’s not addressed. Specific association with idols, religious or civic, isn’t mentioned, nor is sexual immorality. Their problem was that they weren’t paying attention.
Carelessness and coasting is costly. False security is the worst kind of insecurity. Sardis knew all about the ruin caused by negligence, and the church hadn’t learned her lesson.
Sardis had the longest history of any of the seven churches addressed in Revelation 1-2. The old city was built on a 1500 foot high acropolis (a fortified city on a hill), with almost perpendicular rock walls on three sides (Mounce), which they believed made them impregnable. But twice enemies climbed the wall, got into the city, opened the gates, and defeated the Sardisians. It happened in 549 BC, when Croesus, the king of Lydia, went out against Cyrus, king of Persia. Cryrus beat Croesus who retreated to Sardis thinking he’d be safe and his army could regroup. But a Persian solider did the “impossible” and scaled the walls. The unthinkable happened again in 195 BC when Antiochus the Great attacked Sardis with the climbing strategy. In both cases the city hadn’t bothered to station anyone at the wall. It was reckless inattentiveness and inactivity.
The church in Sardis had more people who weren’t paying attention to their spiritual life than those who were. Their negligence was about to lead to death, and Jesus called them to Wake up, twice.
The Lord and Head of the church has supernatural concerns.
And to the angel of the church in Sardis write, “The words of him who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars.”
That Jesus has the seven spirits refers to the greeting John gave to the seven churches in Asia (1:4), and isn’t a part of the vision of His Person (1:12-18). The seven spirits is a prophetic appellation for the Holy Spirit, the source of grace and peace mentioned in the greeting between the Father and the Son. It also connects with Zechariah 4, and means that Jesus has and sends and directs the Spirit. The third Person of the Trinity is also called “the Spirit of Christ” (Romans 8:9; 1 Peter 1:11).
The seven stars are mentioned at the end of chapter 1, and identified as “the angels of the seven churches.” Of course it’s tempting to make these angels “messengers,” that is, to make them men, and then see them as those who carried the messages from John to the cities, or rather as a church pastor/leader in each city. But do the “seven spirits” as the Holy Spirit and seven mailmen match? Do the “seven spirits” and seven pastors match? And why would it help the church in Sardis to know that Jesus was in charge of all the rest of the mailmen/pastors? If anywhere, that would have been more applicable to the church in Thyatira since Jesus said “all the churches will know” (2:23).
No, the seven stars are “the angels” (1:20), the celestial beings who live around us, above us, and yet are not obvious to us. Church life occurs in two realms: the physical and the supernatural, in the first-century city in Sardis and before the eternal God and rulers and authorities in heavenly places (see Ephesians 3:10).
This was the heart of the problem in Sardis. Negligence in the spiritual battle is not just costly, it is not Christian. Their carelessness warranted the attention of the God’s Spirit and the angels.
It was better on the surface in Sardis, and that’s bad.
I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead.
The word translated reputation in the ESV, which works just fine, is more simply, “name,” and that connects with the “names” Jesus knows in verse 4 and the “names” that are written in the book of life in verse 5. What they had in Sardis was name only. In more modern jargon, their best ministry was their marketing ministry.
Their spiritual life, being alive, was nominal. All they had were appearances. There was no reality to the “Alive” name. Their spiritual lives were as deep as the gloss on the church brochure. Their spiritual lives had as many dimensions as the church website. Jesus, with His Spirit who searches all, knows that they were dead.
Now, who is dead? What kind of dead? It can’t be physically dead, so that’s why spiritual life is the focus. Is the whole church spiritually dead, considered collectively, or is it filled with dead individuals? And in either case, how can it even be a church if there aren’t Christians, those who have been born again to life?
Verse 2 indicates that it’s mostly dead.
Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God.
Jesus says both, they are dead, and they are about to die. On one hand it’s vague; are they or aren’t they? On the other hand, it makes the warning urgent. It provokes questions: “Are we dead? Am I dead?” While a truly spiritually dead person can’t respond to the wake up call, that doesn’t stop Jesus from the external call, which both increases accountability (a man can’t claim ignorance) and is used by the Spirit for an internal call (God uses means to His ends). Jesus says, γίνου γρηγορῶν, “be watchful, be on the alert” (BAGD).
They must have made some previous profession. They thought they were alive, they claimed it, and gave others the impression that they were. Jesus tells them to strengthen what remains. Maybe there is a little life left. “Act now, time is running out.”
Their works had not been sufficient: for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God. They didn’t pass God’s exam. What made the works partial? Was it a quality or quantity problem? I think it was mostly a quality issue, that the works weren’t done in God for God. Their spiritual life wasn’t very spiritual, and without the Spirit the life wasn’t very lively. Here is yet another reminder that reputation before men isn’t sufficient.
Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it, and repent. If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you.
There had been signs of gospel life. They received and heard the gospel about salvation and discipleship and church life. But they had been negligent, they were losing it rather than keeping it. They needed to repent.
If they did not repent, their negligence would lead to their judgment. The thief in the night, the thief who comes when no one is watching, the thief who comes unexpectedly, is an image that Jesus regularly used for His second coming. While that is suggested in this context, the one in charge of the church is threatening to see the church become all dead before the final end.
The was a righteous remnant in Sardis.
Yet you still have a few names in Sardis, people who have not soiled their garments, and they will walk with me in white, for they are worthy.
It’s not many, but Jesus knew by name the ones who were not only known with the name for being alive. Jesus knew the names of those who were truly alive, and those were also identified as those who have not soiled or “stained” their garments. They weren’t contaminated or polluted by the sin. Their conduct showed their life, and living for Jesus now leads to living with Jesus later. They aren’t soiled, and Jesus promises that they will walk with me in white. They are walking in obedience and they will walk in the glory and beauty of holiness. The genuine spiritual life as evidenced by faithful pursuits is what makes them worthy. It isn’t that they’ve done it on their own, they’ve done it in the Spirit.
Three blessings are promised to the conquering one: 1) he will be clothed in white, 2) his name will be secure in the eternal book, 3) his name will be confessed by Jesus in heaven.
The one who conquers will be clothed thus in white garments, and I will never blot his name out of the book of life. I will confess his name before my father and before his angels.
To be clothed…in white garments is another way of walking with Jesus in white (verse 3). We’ll see this picture again times in Revelation. It is also a way of speaking of the radiance of glory and victory.
There are different “books” referred to in the Bible, starting with Exodus 32:32-33, again in Psalm 69:29, and especially in Daniel 12:1. The book of life is mentioned five other times in Revelation (13:8; 17:8; 20:12, 15; 21:27), and contains the names of those elected by God to salvation. This “book” is not the “books” which are opened by which the dead are judged (see Revelation 20:12).
The book of life is an old book, a pre-Genesis book. It is called “the book of the Lamb who was slain,” and it was written before the foundation of the world (Revelation 13:8). It is all part of the Father’s plan, for which the Son died, and for which the Spirit is working.
As for the blot from the book of life, there are two ways to take it. Either, this means that it is possible for one’s name to be in the book of life and then to be erased (that is, saved but lost again), or, this is an emphatic way to say that one’s name being erased is never possible for those who are truly alive.
An interpretation that claims that a man can have, and then lose salvation doesn’t work. Eternal life is not eternal if the life is actually only temporal. The threat is not to blot out a name, the call is to confirm that your name is in there. Jesus knows the names, but He doesn’t tell us now. This promise is an ironic understatement which affirms by giving the negative of its contrary; the understatement makes the effect (see the definition of litotes). On the positive side, Peter exhorts his readers to make their “calling and election sure,” which is through paying attention to their spiritual life and godliness (2 Peter 1:10).
Jesus wants us to name His name as well. When we confess His name before the world, He confesses our names before His Father (see Matthew 10:32). He identifies us, and identifies with us, that we are with Him. He laid down His life for us, and we conquer by having more than a reputation for being alive in Christ among our neighbors.
JustConquer Promise #5: those who overcome negligence will walk in glory with Jesus in the presence of His Father forever.
He who has an ear to hear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
I don’t take an Historicist view of Revelation, but some of them see Sardis as the Post-Reformation church, lazy and negligent. I don’t think that’s what the Sardis message means, but I certainly think there is a good application to be made.
The message to the church in Sardis is to conquer by paying attention. Spiritual life is not a coasting life. For those who are alive in name only, they can conquer by repenting from negligence. It is interesting that the other churches were less dead where there was less of a temptation for nominal confessions of faith because there was more trouble.
Negligence can come from foolishness, distraction, wrong-headed confidence, stubbornness. We need the Spirit to make alive, and to keep alive. He causes us to be born to eternal life and is the seal of our eternal inheritance.
God is able to keep you from stumbling and from getting your clothes stained. He is the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ. And because He has eternal authority, do not neglect your spiritual life, nor play the ostrich with those who are having trouble. Strengthen what remains, in mercy and vigilance.
But you, beloved, building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life. And have mercy on those who doubt; save others by snatching them out of the fire; to others show mercy with fear, hating even the garment stained by the flesh. (Jude 20–23, ESV)