Wednesday, November 26, 2008

A Message To Seven Churches - Part 5, Sardis

The fifth church we come to on our journey is the church at Sardis. The city of Sardis was located about 50 miles northeast of Smyrna on the east bank of the Pactolus River. It occupies a rocky spur of Mount Tmolus as well as the valley at the base of the mountain. The original city was an impregnable and easily defended fortress citadel towering above the valley below and surrounded by precipitous cliffs of treacherously loose rock.

The history of this region goes as far back as the sixth century B.C. when the Lydian’s controlled most of the coast of Asia Minor and the Island offshore. Sardis was the capitol of the ancient kingdom of Lydia and the home of their king, Croesus. The wealth of Croesus was legendary and the influence of Lydian culture, especially their dress and music, could be seen in Athens by the end of the sixth century.

The early prosperity of the city, and especially that of Croesus, became a byword for wealth in the ancient world, and the riches of the city were said to have come from gold in the Pactolus River that flowed through the city.

In 546 B.C. the city of Sardis was defeated and captured by Cyrus, the king of Persia. It is said that one of Cyrus’ soldiers observed as a guard on the wall of the city drop his helmet and proceed to climb down the cliff through a fissure in the rock to retrieve it. He then watched as the soldier climbed back up the same way and back to his post on the wall. That night, under the cover of darkness the Persian army used this same path and conquered the city. Sardis then remained under Persian control until 214 B.C. when Antiochus the Great captured the city using the same tactics.

Though Sardis lay on an important Roman trade route, the city never regained the spectacular prominence that it possessed in earlier times. During the time that Sardis was a Roman city it became an important Christian center as well, but as we will soon see, the church at Sardis was evidently affected by the same complacency that marked the city; they were content to rely on their past glories.

During Roman times Sardis was also a center for the imperial cult of emperor worship, and in Sardis, this cult was administered by a provincial council. In addition to worshiping the emperor Sardis also boasted a temple to Artemis, who was also known by the Roman name Diana, and who we encountered in Ephesus. The temple, which was built in the fourth century B.C. was 327 feet long, 163 feet wide, 58 feet high, and was supported by 78 Ionic columns, some of which are still standing today.

Now that we have a little background on the city of Sardis, let’s look at their message:
To the angel of the church in Sardis write: He who has the seven Spirits of God and the seven stars, says this: ‘I know your deeds, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead. Wake up, and strengthen the things that remain, which were about to die; for I have not found your deeds completed in the sight of My God. So remember what you have received and heard; and keep it, and repent. Therefore if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come to you. But you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their garments; and they will walk with Me in white, for they are worthy. He who overcomes will thus be clothed in white garments; and I will not erase his name from the book of life, and 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 (NASB)
This message begins in the same manner as all of the other letters, with a description of Jesus taken from John’s vision in chapter one. Here Jesus reminds those in Sardis that He is the One who has the seven Spirits of God, and who holds the seven stars in His hand. As we saw in chapter one, the phrase “the seven Spirits of God” is a reference to the Holy Spirit, and the “seven stars” are the messengers, or pastors, of the churches. What Jesus is reminding the church here is that He is One who sovereignly works in His church through the Holy Spirit and through godly leaders, and as we will see as we move through this message, this is exactly what the church at Sardis needed to hear. Jesus will tell this church that they appear to be alive but they are actually dead, for just as the body without the spirit is dead, so the church without the Holy Spirit is dead. That is situation here in Sardis, and in the description Jesus gives of Himself He is reminding those in Sardis that He is the one who give the Holy Spirit to the Church.

It is also interesting to note here that even though the church in Sardis was facing imminent judgment, Jesus did not present Himself as the coming judge in the way He did to Thyatira. Here, because of their condition, Jesus just reminds those in Sardis that He is the one who gives life to His church.

Jesus begins, “I know your deeds.” In the previous four messages this phrase was followed by a commendation for the positive things that the church was doing. In Ephesus Jesus commended them for their perseverance, in Smyrna (where there is no message of condemnation) Jesus tells them that despite their poverty and suffering they are truly rich, in Pergamum Jesus praises them for their faithfulness, and in Thyatira He commends them for their love, faith and perseverance, which are increasing. But here in Sardis there is no such commendation; Jesus begins with “I know your deeds, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead.”

As we have already noted, the word know comes from the Greek word oída, which means, “to know intuitively or instinctively.” Jesus is once again communicating that He is intimately aware of everything that goes on in His church, and that there is nothing hidden from Him. Jesus’ message to Sardis is that they have a name that they are alive, but they are dead. The word translated name here could also be translated as reputation, and what this is telling us is that Sardian Christians had a reputation for being a vital and dynamic church, but the church was full of unredeemed people, or people who were spiritually dead.

There is an interesting contrast that Jesus uses here with the words alive and dead. The word here translated alive is the Greek word záō, which simply means, “To live [or] have life.1 By way of contrast the Greek word translated dead here is the word nekrós, which means, “a dead person, dead body, corpse.”2 The interesting thing here is, as Dr. Vine points out, is that the word nekrós is most frequently used to convey “the actual spiritual condition of unsaved men.”3

This is exactly the picture Jesus is painting here of the church at Sardis; they had a good reputation as a church, they appeared to be vibrant and dynamic, but to Jesus, the one who sees everything, they were spiritually dead. John MacArthur puts it this way:
Like so many churches today it [the church at Sardis] was defiled by the world, characterized by inward decay, and populated by unredeemed people playing church.4
In verse two Jesus tells them to “Wake up, and strengthen the things that remain, which were about to die.” Just like the sentries of the city who slept while the city was attacked, the few remaining Christians in Sardis were asleep; Jesus message to them was wake up. Matthew Henry said of this phrase:
He [Jesus] advises them to be upon their watch. The cause of their sinful deadness and declension was that they had let down their watch. Whenever we are off our watch, we lose ground, and therefore must return to our watchfulness against sin, and Satan, and whatever is destructive to the life and power of godliness.” 5
That is exactly what was happening here in Sardis – they were loosing ground. They needed to wake up, be watchful, and strengthen the few godly things that did remain, because even they were in danger of dying.

Why were the remaining things about to die? As Jesus pointed out next, it was because their deeds were not complete in the sight of God. In other words, they were going through the motions, but they were not being done in the Power of the Holy Spirit. Their deeds were sufficient to give them a good reputation before men, but when viewed by the eyes that see everything, the “eyes like a flame of fire” they are found to do be “incomplete” before God.

Verse three then gives them the solution to their problem. Jesus tells them to: remember what they had received and heard, keep it, and repent.

The word remember here is the Greek word mnēmoneúō, which means, “To remember, call to mind, bear in mind. To exercise memory, be mindful of, remember.”6 This word used here is a Present Imperative Active verb in the Greek, which simply means that the action of remembering is to be a continuous and repeated action as opposed to an action in the past or future. In other words, Jesus is telling them that they are to remember, and keep on remembering, what they had received and heard.

But they are to do mere than just remember, they are also “to keep” these things. The word keep used here is the Greek word tēréō, which means, “to obey, observe, keep.”7 The word could also be translated as “hold fast”, and is again a Present Imperative Active verb in the Greek. This means that not only were they to remember, and keep on remembering, but they were also to then obey, and keep on obeying. We would do well to heed this advice ourselves.

Next they are to repent, which means to change their mind. So what Jesus is telling them is that they are to remember, and keep on remembering what they have heard; they are to keep, or obey, and keep on obeying; and they are to repent, or change their minds to conform to these things.

Then in the last half of verse three Jesus tells them what would happen if they did not do these things; He says, “if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come to you.” This phrase speaks of Jesus coming in judgment as we can see by observing other texts that mention Jesus coming as a thief:
For you yourselves know full well that the day of the Lord will come just like a thief in the night.
1 Thessalonians 5:2 (NASB)
But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, in which the heavens will pass away with a roar and the elements will be destroyed with intense heat, and the earth and its works will be burned up.
2 Peter 3:10 (NASB)
“Behold, I am coming as a thief. Blessed is he who watches, and keeps his garments, lest he walk naked and they see his shame.”
Revelation 16:15 (NKJV)
The first two verses above both connect Jesus’ coming as a thief to the Day of the Lord and the verse from Revelation takes place during the Day of the Lord. From the use of this phrase here in the message to the church in Sardis we can conclude that the warning to this church is that if they continue on the path that they are on and do not remember, keep, and repent, they will face Jesus as He comes against them in Judgment.

There is one other thing to point out about the use of this phrase here; if the church were to listen and obey the instructions that Jesus has given them His return to them would not be as a thief. Robert Van Kampen explains it this way:
[I]n considering any text with the thief metaphor, the reader must ask two question: (1) what is the purpose of a thief, and (2) what is his modus operandi? In Revelation 3:3, the reason the Lord’s return will be like a thief is because the Sardinian are spiritually asleep. Spiritual alertness would have prevented the Lord’s return from being a secret.8
Jesus continues, “But you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their garments; and they will walk with Me in white, for they are worthy.” Verse four points out that as bad as things are in Sardis there is still a remnant that follows God. John MacArthur tells us:
There were not enough of them, however, to change Christ’s overall evaluation of the church as dead. But He had not forgotten those who remained faithful to Him.9
These faithful few in Sardis are those who have not soiled their garments. Garments (or robes) are symbols that we encounter numerous times in Revelation, and they are used as picture of a person's spiritual condition. The word translated here as soiled is the word molúnō. The word means:
To defile, besmear or soil as with mud or filth.10
This word has as its synonyms:
miaínō, to stain; spilóō, to spot, pollute; phtheírō, to corrupt.11
John MacArthur adds:
[The word molúnō] was a word that would have been familiar to readers in Sardis because of the city’s wool dyeing industry.” 12
Jesus uses this metaphor here to contrast the clean, white garments of those who have remained faithful with the garments of the unrighteous that are symbolically stained and soiled by sin. It must be pointed out here; however, that the clean white garments of the remnant are not a result of anything that they had done; their garments are clean because they are dressed in the righteousness of Jesus Christ.

Verse four ends with the statement “and they will walk with Me in white, for they are worthy.” As stated above, they are not worthy because of anything they did, but because of their faith and trust in Jesus. This is the reward for faithfulness; to walk with Jesus clothed in the righteousness that He provides.

As we move now into verse five we again see the promise to the one who overcomes. Here Jesus says that they will be clothed in white garments, that their name would not be erased from the book of life, and that He would confess their name before His Father and His angels.

Let’s look at each of these promises individually and see what we can learn. First Jesus says that those who overcome will be “clothed in white garments.” John MacArthur writes:
In the ancient world, white garments were worn for festive occasions such as weddings. True Christians will wear theirs at the marriage supper of the Lamb (19:7–9). White robes were also worn by those celebrating victory in battle; all true Christians are victorious through Christ over sin, death, and Satan. [Also] white garments represent purity and holiness. Christ promises to clothe Christians in the brilliance of eternal purity and holiness.13
The next part of the promise has caused much confusion and controversy; Jesus says here “I will not erase his name from the book of life, and I will confess his name before My Father and His angels.” Some have used this as a proof text to support the position that one can loose their salvation, but this is not at all what this verse is teaching us; notice that the promise is that Jesus will not erase their names. This is not a threat of the loss of salvation, but a promise of eternal security for the overcomer. MacDonald and Farstad say:
Some think that the Book of Life contains the names of all who have been given physical life. According to this view, those who show by their lives that they have been truly born again will not be removed from the book whereas, by implication, all others will.

Others see the book as a register of those who have spiritual life. They are promised that their names will not be blotted out, that is, that they will never lose their salvation.14
To try to understand what is being said here we need to look at what else the Bible has to say about the Book of Life. Before we do that though, I want to look at what it would have meant for those in Sardis to have their names either written in, or erased from a book.

Ancient cities all kept a roll, or book, that contained the names of everyone who was a citizen of that city; as people were born their names would be added to the roll, and as they died their names would be removed. Your name could also be removed; however, if you were guilty of a crime and your citizenship in that city was revoked. So the names recorded in the book were an up-to-date record of who belonged to that city and who did not. The promise that Jesus makes here is that the names of those who overcome would never be erased from this book; they would always belong to the City of God.

What then does the Bible have to say about the book of Life? According to the New Bible Dictionary the phrase:
“Book of Life” is used two different ways in the Bible: (1) It is used of natural life, (2) In later Judaism and the New Testament it is used of the life of the age to come.15

Let’s look at some examples of each of these:

The first way this phrase is used in the Bible is to refer to natural life, and to have ones name erased from this book would mean that they had died. We can see this in the following verses:
The Lord said to Moses, “Whoever has sinned against Me, I will blot him out of My book.
Exodus 32:33 (NASB)
May they be blotted out of the book of life and may they not be recorded with the righteous.
Psalm 69:28 (NASB)
In both of these passages the book referred to is the book, which contains the names of those who are physically alive - the record of the living. This is not the same book referred to in the following passages, which shows the second way this phrase is used in the Bible: as a record of those who have been born again. This is the Lamb’s Book of Life.
Indeed, true companion, I ask you also to help these women who have shared my struggle in the cause of the gospel, together with Clement also and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life.
Philippians 4:3 (NASB)
All who dwell on the earth will worship him, everyone whose name has not been written  from the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who has been slain.
Revelation 13:8 (NASB)
And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds…And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.
Revelation 20:12,15 (NASB)
and nothing unclean, and no one who practices abomination and lying, shall ever come into it, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life.
Revelation 21:27 (NASB)
So here we can see how this phrase is used, but is there a contradiction between these two? Some say yes, but those who do are wrongly connecting the passages in Exodus and Psalms with the passage in Revelation 3:5. The passage here in Revelation is not a threat, it is a promise that we can rest in. Jesus promised that He would never erase the names of the redeemed from the Book of Life.

Jesus also says that He will confess the names of those who overcome to His Father and His angels. Kenneth Wuest, in his expanded translation of the New Testament renders this phrase:
And I will openly confess his name before my Father and before His angels.16
The word translated here as confess is the Greek word homologéō, which means, “to acknowledge openly, profess.”17 So what this passage is telling us is that Jesus is not ashamed to call those who overcome His brethren (Hebrews 2:11). He will openly acknowledge and profess to His Father and His angels that the Redeemed belong to Him.

Jesus then ends this message the same way that He has ended the previous four, by reminding us that this is not a message for the church at Sardis alone; this is a message for all Christians, and all who hear this message are to heed the warnings that it contains.

1 Zodhiates, S. (2000, c1992, c1993). The complete word study dictionary: New Testament (electronic ed.) (G2198). Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers.
2 Zodhiates, S. (2000, c1992, c1993). The complete word study dictionary: New Testament (electronic ed.) (G3498). Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers.
3 Vine, W. E., Unger, M. F., & White, W. (1996). Vine's complete expository dictionary of Old and New Testament words (2:148). Nashville: T. Nelson.
4 MacArthur, J. (1999). Revelation 1-11 (111). Chicago: Moody Press.
5 Henry, M. (1996, c1991). Matthew Henry's commentary on the whole Bible: Complete and unabridged in one volume (Re 3:1). Peabody: Hendrickson.
6 Zodhiates, S. (2000, c1992, c1993). The complete word study dictionary: New Testament (electronic ed.) (G3421). Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers.
7 Zodhiates, S. (2000, c1992, c1993). The complete word study dictionary: New Testament (electronic ed.) (G5083). Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers.
8 Van Kampen, Robert. Revelation Commentary Ch3 Pg2 (© Orlando Fl.: Sola Scriptura
9 MacArthur, J. (1999). Revelation 1-11 (113). Chicago: Moody Press.
10 Zodhiates, S. (2000, c1992, c1993). The complete word study dictionary: New Testament (electronic ed.) (G3435). Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers.
11 Zodhiates, S. (2000, c1992, c1993). The complete word study dictionary: New Testament (electronic ed.) (G3435). Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers.
12 MacArthur, J. (1999). Revelation 1-11 (113). Chicago: Moody Press.
13 MacArthur, J. (1999). Revelation 1-11 (115). Chicago: Moody Press.
14 MacDonald, W., & Farstad, A. (1997, c1995). Believer's Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments (Re 3:5). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.
15 Wood, D. R. W. (1996, c1982, c1962). New Bible Dictionary (145). InterVarsity Press.
16 Wuest, K. (c1961, 2004). The New Testament, An Expanded Translation: (pg592). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
17 Zodhiates, S. (2000, c1992, c1993). The complete word study dictionary: New Testament (electronic ed.) (G3670). Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers.

Next Week we will look at the Church at Philadelphia.
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MSW said...

I just wanted to send a note letting you know I am enjoying your posts on the seven churches
God bless you

Chris said...

Thank you for the feedback and for the kind words. It is nice to hear that you are enjoying the series.


Roger said...

I just wanted to say hello and to tell you that I enjoy your study. I am the author of "A Thieves Tale" a series of books on the seven Churches and cities. I am one of the ministers at Christ's Way Christian Church in Aiken South Carolina. Keep up the good work!