SARDIS, LIVING BUT DEAD
A Study in Revelation 3.1-6. (Part 2)*
K. W. H. Howard
These six verses are actually a copy of a letter, initially sent to the Church at Sardis but actually sent to all Christian Churches in all places and in all ages. These letters came from the Lord Jesus Christ. They were given to the Apostle John; he wrote them down and arranged for their delivery to the seven Churches of Asia. These letters really are like mirrors; the Lord holds them up in turn before us, and He says, ‘Take a look, do you see yourself here?’
The Complaint – continued
Well, as we have been discovering, considering the complaint is a somewhat frightening and sobering exercise inducing in us almost the wish that the heavenly postman had never written. For, so far as we have seen, there is this mixture of commendation, complaint, and counsel in all the letters. We do not mind the commendation;
we can take the counsel up to a point, but the complaint! To realise that the Lord Jesus Christ, the great King and Head of the Church has a complaint against this Church or that Church, or all the Churches is not something that we can take very easily. Well, we have seen so far that of these seven Churches, Smyrna was the only one against which the Lord registered no complaint. But Sardis is the only Church for which the Lord has no commendation. The letter launches straight away into censure, criticism, and complaint. We saw previously that the complaint of the Lord Jesus against the Sardian Church was first, that their works were imperfect, that is that they were outwardly all right, but actually they were hollow, they were empty. They looked well, but they were not perfect before God.
The second part of his complaint was that they, the Church at Sardis, had an undeserved reputation; they had a good name, they had a big name, they were well spoken of up and down the land and throughout the denomination by people who did not know the inner life, the inner workings of things. They had the name of a lively Church but they did not merit, or deserve that name. We left them in our earlier consideration of this letter, at a special Church Meeting with the angel, the Pastor, reading this letter from the Lord Jesus Christ. There was no mistaking it, it had their name on it; ‘to the Church in Sardis’. We left them stunned and dismayed by the words which we find in verse 1, I know thy works, thou hast a name that thou livest, and art dead.’
3. A Living but Dead Church
Here is the question. What is a living, dead Church? What is the death that is written within a so-called living Church? Here is a paradox. How could one explain it? Let me use two illustrations in an attempt to explain it. You may think of it as a building, a large building in a city centre. It has been there for years, and you discover that one day there is a huge and elaborate scaffolding erected all around it, and on this scaffolding there is a lot of activity going on. There are pulleys with chains carrying materials up and down, men going up and down, a huge amount of activity. This goes on for weeks on end. There seems to be an awful lot happening. One day, after some weeks, or some months, you pass, perhaps on a Saturday or a Sunday when the workmen are not there, and you look behind the scaffolding, and you can see that there is absolutely no difference to the building whatever. There is no progress, there is no alteration, there is no adaptation. The building is exactly the same as it was before they started. All activity has been on the scaffolding. Nothing happens on the building. It has been a scene of activity, and a scene of life, and yet, the thing within it all, the thing at the centre is dead. So is a living, dead Church. All the activity is outward, it is on the surface. Behind the scenes there is no reality, there is no progress, that is, as the Lord would consider progress. A name to live, but thou art dead.
We may also think of this Church in another way. We can liken it to a floral display. You look at this huge floral display; you stand at a distance and take in the general impression. You are enraptured by what you see. Everything is so beautiful, so attractive, every colour is there, every variety of flower has its place. The arrangement is very balanced and proportioned, and symmetrical, even to the point of perfection, and you admire it. Then you go over, and you touch one of the flowers, and you recoil in disgust because you discover that it is artificial. The whole show is artificial, there is no life, there is no sap, there is no fragrance. There is in the whole display, nothing but death with a painted face. A living, dead Church. Oh, the danger of artificiality in the Church of Jesus Christ. Oh, the danger that there is so much plastic religion about, man made, man contrived, man manipulated. A Church’s deadness has to do, not with its outward appearance, but with its heart, and the fact that its heart is actually at the point of ceasing to beat. It has to do with its inner life, and its inner life is slowly sinking into stupor. Although there are prayer meetings, there is no spirit of prayer. Although the gospel is preached, there is no love for the Word of God. The presence of the Lord Jesus is a rarity, if ever to be found. There is a desire for Him that fails. How could such a Church sing meaningfully of: ‘
Myrrh and spices sweet, a smell Thy garments have,
Out of the ivory palaces, whereby they made thee glad.
How could they sing that at Sardis if the Lord Jesus was missing? In a living, dead Church, there is a smell, but it is the smell of death, of spiritual death; not of the living Lord who has come from the ivory palaces of glory. I submit this is why the Lord Jesus comes to the Church at Sardis as the one who has the seven spirits of God, in other words the sevenfold Spirit. He has the Spirit of God in all the fulness and plenitude of His life and grace, for this is what the Sardian Church needs, the work of the Spirit, a reviving, a quickening by the sevenfold Spirit of God. Do we not have to admit that we need it, that all the Churches of our day need it? That the Spirit of God would come, and pour on us a spirit of grace and supplications.
Next, let us notice this, there is no point in talking about a Church in a detached way. Any Church, any congregation, is only as alive or is dead as its membership. If there is little love for the Lord Jesus among the members, if there is little love for His word, and for the preaching of His Word, if there is little passion about prayer, that kind of spiritual deadness must reflect itself in the life of the whole congregation. You cannot have a spiritually live Church where the membership in general is dead in respect of these particular things. This should surely send us, and should send all Christian Churches, to examine themselves, to examine themselves very closely. If we are professing Christians, we have to ask the question, Am I contributing any deadness that there may be among us as a Church? Am I responsible to the last degree for the fact that the Church, in the eyes of God, has a name to live, but is dead?
4. Evidences of Spiritual Deadness
Before we leave this sad part of the case, I want you to notice two things that the Church at Sardis had which were evidences of spiritual deadness. The first is that they were not inclined to examine themselves. They were not inclined to examine their functioning, their activity. Why? Because they were content with their wonderful name. Thou hast a name, that thou livest, and that name drugged them to sleep. Jesus knew that they had a name, and so did they. They were very conscious of their good name, and of their reputation among the other Churches, undeserved though it was. To conscious were they of their good name, built up, and doubtless cultivated over many years, and so did they revel in their name that they did not notice that the flame on the lampstand had begun to flicker, and that the light was actually beginning to dim and to smoke. That is a sure evidence of a declining Church, when there is
no inclination to examine ourselves; when our eyes are only on the outward appearance, on the works, on the activity, on what men see. When we put ourselves in the position where we are not able to see what is happening at the centre, because we are so much concerned with the circumference, and we do not take notice of the flickering flame of vital religion, and we do not even recognise the lurid smoke of an unreal religiosity that rises where the candlestick is placed. They were not inclined to examine themselves, to take an honest look at themselves, and that is why their name was undeserved.
A second evidence of spiritual deadness in the Church at Sardis was that the Church as a whole had defiled its garments. We deduce that from verse four where they are told, Thou hast a few names even in Sardis which have not defiled their garments.’ A few had not; the inference is that the majority had. Thou hast a few, even in Sardis. In other words, the Lord Jesus said. ‘You have a great name, but I know you well enough to tell you that even in Sardis, where you are not what you think you are, there are, even among you a few, who have not defiled your garments. Now, you see, this is just the opposite of what had happened in the other Churches that we have considered so far. The complaint of the Lord Jesus concerning the Church at Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamos, Thyatira was against individuals, not against the Church as a whole. It was against those who had followed the Nicolaitanes, or the Balaamites, or who had followed Jezebel. It was the minority, but at Sardis, it was the other way round. The Lord’s complaint at Sardis is not against the few who did not defile their garments, the garments of their Christian profession, but against the many who had.
One expositor says concerning those of the Church at Sardis, ‘They were habitually walking and living in the midst of the dust and smoke and murky atmosphere of this world. They lay down on the tinselled, yet filthy bed of its pleasures.’ Yet, this is the only Church of the seven that we have encountered so far that was not persecuted; they had ease, they had rest in which to practise their religion. They were not persecuted, but there was only a minority that kept the garments of their profession clean. They shared the general wealth and pride of Sardis as a prosperous city, but they defiled the garments of their Christian profession with its well-heeled outlook and life and sophistication. James tells us in his Epistle, that true religion is to keep ourselves unspotted from the world. Oh, to be found among the few, the few who have not defiled their garments.
Well, there then, is this double complaint of the Lord Jesus concerning this Church at Sardis. First, there was their imperfect works, they looked all right but they were hollow. Second, was
concerning their undeserved reputation; it sounded well, but in fact, it was a deceit.
I pass from the complaint to the counsel that was given by the Lord Jesus to this Church. It is found there in verse two onwards, ‘Be watchful, strengthen the things that remain, that are ready to die: remember how thou hast received and heard, and hold fast, and repent. If therefore thou shalt not watch, I will come on thee as a thief, and thou shalt not know what hour I will come upon thee. Thou hast a few names in Sardis which have not defiled their garments; and they shall walk with me in white: for they are worthy, and he that overcometh, the same shall be clothed in white raiment;
and I will not blot out his name out of the Book of Life, but I will confess his name before my Father, and before his angels.’
The counsel given is in two parts. First, there is a word of warning, and then there is a word of promise.
The word of warning is in verses two and three. Be watchful, strengthen the things that remain that are ready to die: remember how thou hast received and heard, and hold fast, and repent. The essence of the warning is this. I will come upon thee! You have been living but forgetting me, you have lived on your good name, but I am what I am, and I will come upon you. Here is the warning of Christ’s visitation. Sometimes He visits His Church in blessing;
sometimes He visits His Church in judgment. Sometimes the Lord visits in order to encourage and help; sometimes He visits in order to reprove and to rebuke. In fact. He did this in this Church in Sardis in reproval and in judgment and in rebuke, because it was not long after that when the candlestick was removed and the Church at Sardis ceased to be. In fact, in the whole area in which Sardis was, and where its ruins are today in Turkey, the only light of religion that is to be found is the light of the Muslim religion, which is no light at all.
We now have to look at this historically, and to realise that many an unfaithful Church has been visited by the Lord; even Churches that have been faithful, have become unfaithful, so that the light of the candlestick is removed, the Church is no more. We know when we travel, how many places of worship in our own land today, are turned into furniture stores or bingo halls or any one of many other uses. You know, when those places were in use by Churches, they were not all that unlike Sardis at one time in their life; they flourished outwardly, and yet inwardly there was a spiritual dead-ness. In my travels up and down the country over the past twenty
years, one’s first reaction to a disused Church building that is used for some other purpose, is one of sorrow and sadness. One’s second reaction is to say, Yes, but what went on there? What went on there when it was Church? Such places have been taken away, the witness, whatever it was, has been removed.
But the reference here to the Lord’s coming, here in this letter, is preeminently to the second coming of the Lord Jesus, when He will come in blessing and in judgment. For the Sardians, and all who follow them, contented in their reputation, continuing in their stupor and their torpor, Christ will say, ‘I never knew you, depart from Me, ye that work iniquity.’ We cannot overlook this element of stealthiness in verse 3, ‘I will come on thee as a thief.’ A thief does not announce his coming. However differently thieves may operate and work, the one thing they do not do is to announce their coming. There is the element of surprise. What the Lord Jesus says is this, He will come to a sleeping Church, and that is the warning.
In that warning, the Lord Jesus says several things to Sardis and to all Churches, and to us. One thing He says is this, ‘Be watchful (Verse 2). Be watchful.’ In other words. Wake up! Wake up! They were slumbering yet busy with their big name, their good name, and their outward activities. They were just drifting thoughtlessly along so far as the real object of their existence was concerned. The message was, Wake up, be watchful. You may say. Well, can that be said to a Christian Church? Well, it was said to Sardis, and the Apostle Paul said the same thing to the Church at Rome (Romans 13), ‘Awake thou that sleepest, arise from the dead; and Christ shall give thee light.’ Be watchful, be wakeful. Beware of what is going on. Do not be deluded by your false name, but deal and reckon with reality. Be watchful.
Another thing in this warning is this (still in verse 2), strengthen the things which remain. What does that mean? What are the things that remain? Well, it referred to the imperfect works of the Sardian Christians, their outward forms. Go back to them and put reality in to them. Do not do them now for the sake of a good name, do them For My glory. Do not do them now out of dead tradition, do them because you love Me. Notice that the Lord does not say to these people, Abandon your works. He says that your works are imperfect, but He does not say abandon them. He does not say, stop your Christian service. He does not say, Sit back in ease. What He says is, Put life into them, clothe them in flesh, seek the sevenfold Spirit to give them life, and make them what they are meant to be, real servants of the Gospel. Wake up, strengthen the things which remain.
Another element of the warning is this. In verse three, Remember, remember therefore how thou hast received. What is
He saying? He is saying, Remember the days of old. Remember the days when you first heard and enjoyed the Gospel. Remember your first love, remember your keenness, your zeal, your love, your spiritualmindedness. Remember! Oh, how we need to remember. How we Christians need to remember our first love, when we actually loved Christ with enthusiasm, passion, zeal, and desire. Go back, go back, says Jesus to the Sardian Christians, and remember in order to get things right. Wake up, strengthen, hold fast, and repent. Repent of your present coldness, your deadness, the emptiness, the formality. Go back, and seek to recapture the spirit that you had at the beginning, and hold fast that spirit, and never let it go again.
Where is the blessedness I knew,
When first I saw the Lord?
Do not just lament the fact that it is not today what it once was. Go back to it, remember it, recall it, and then call on the sevenfold Spirit of God, to restore it.
Well, there is the warning. Christ will come and if He is not going to come in judgment, then the Church in Sardis has got to wake up, to strengthen what remains, to remember its former days, to hold fast to reality, and to repent of unreality. Well, how full, how solemn is this warning given to Sardis and to all the Churches of Christ of any age. There is the warning.
What is the promise? Here is the promise in verses four and five. ‘Thou hast a few names even in Sardis which have not defiled their garments; and they shall walk with me in white: for they are worthy. He that overcometh, the same shall be clothed in white raiment; and I will not blot out his name out of the Book of Life, but I will confess his name before my Father, and before his angels.’ :
The promise is in two parts. First, there is the promise to the few, the minority. There is the promise to those who had not tainted their garments, the few in Sardis who had not defiled the garments of their Christian profession, the few whose love was real, and whose zeal was authentic – ‘they shall walk with Me in white: for they are worthy.’ Surely we have to marvel, that in a Church so dead as the Church in Sardis was, there were even a few who maintained a spiritual glow. It says a lot for them, that they maintained spirituality in the midst of such death and bankruptcy. Jesus commends them for it. They were the remnant, they were the few, not the whole Church. He gives them this promise. ‘They shall walk with Me in white for they are worthy.’ One marvels today at Christian believers in similar circumstances to the minority at
Sardis. There are Christian believers in such spiritually dead Churches up and down our land today, where the gospel is never preached, and yet here and there, you may find a few souls who still have a spiritual glow, and a lively faith, and they remain fervent in spirit, and in life, and in doctrine, and in example. It is no use saying. Why do they stay there, why do they not go somewhere else, because the sad fact today is that there is nowhere else for them to go in that area, in the part of the country where they live. I have had letters from people in our own country, and people in other countries over the last ten or twenty years, and they say, ‘Can you please tell me where there is a good Church, where the Word of God is faithfully preached at, or near so and so’. Again and again the answer is, ‘Sorry, there is nothing’. Gone are the days when there was a faithful Church of Christ, or anything like a faithful Church of Christ in any town of any size, and even in so many villages in our own country. Now consider the promise which is given to the few. ‘They shall walk with me in white: for they are worthy.’ That means that their glorification is sure, for their worthiness is not in themselves, nor is it in their undefiled garments, their worthiness is in the all worthy One, and in the grace of the Lord Jesus. That is the promise to the few, and it is still the promise to those who have not defiled their garments. If we remain faithful, if we hold fast to what we know to be the truth of God, that if we love the Lord, then there is this promise of ultimate glorification.
That is one part of the promise. The other part of the promise, the wider part of the promise is to the overcomers among the others, the majority in the Church at Sardis (verse 5), ‘He that overcometh, the same shall be clothed in white raiment; 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.’ These are those among the majority in this living, dead Church who do wake up, who do remember, who do repent of their deadness, who do turn aside from their good name in the world, and turn to Jesus only, and receive His grace and salvation, and live to Him only, and who hold fast to the whole counsel of God and refuse to let it go; to these Christ says, the same will I confess before my Father and before His angels. Oh, what amazing mercy! The only thing that the Lord Jesus has not done with the majority in the Church at Sardis who had dishonoured Him so much, and so frequently is to disown them. ‘He that overcometh.’ All hope is not lost in a living, dead Church; oh, what a mercy, all hope is not lost. He that overcometh, overcoming is still a possibility, and for all who overcome, those members of the living dead Church who heed the warning, who overcome their spiritual stupor, there are two things promised. First there is to be a final robing, their defiled garments will be gone for ever, and they shall
be clothed in white raiments. Secondly, there is to be a final roll call. The rubbishy roll of the Church of Sardis will be torn up and thrown away, but, ‘to him that overcometh, I will not blot out his name out of the book of life.’
Not only does He give that negative assurance, but He gives the positive also – ‘I will confess his name before my Father and before His angels’. Oh, how gracious is the Lord Jesus Christ. Here you have got a living, dead Church, a Church that is living on a dead name, and yet, smouldering embers can be fanned to a flame. He is talking about these members of the living, dead Churches who remember, who repent, who hold fast, who overcome, who see the wrongfulness of their position in a living, dead Church, and who overcome through the strength that God supplies through His eternal Son.
What then, is the message of this letter to the Church at Sardis? What is the message of the letter of the Church at Sardis to us? Well surely, it is this. It is the awful possibility of a dead orthodoxy. It is the awful possibility of being correct in profession, and in doctrine, and in performance, and in conformity to accepted patterns, and yet dead at heart. The possibility was there in all these seven Churches of Asia, but it was fully realised in the Church at Sardis. The possibility of this exists in any Christian Church, the danger of living on outward things is there always and all the time. Because the danger is there, the danger is here, for it applies to the worst and the best of Christian Churches, and none are exempt.
* For Part 1, see Gospel Tidings Vol. 14. 2. Page 58.