SARDIS, LIVING BUT DEAD
A Study in Revelation 3.1-6. (Part 1)
K. W. H. Howard
We come to this letter, written by the pen of the Apostle John but given by the inspiration of the Lord Jesus Christ to the Christian Church in Sardis, with its message to the Christian Churches in that and every age. Sardis, today, I understand, is a wilderness of ruins and thorns, of pastures and wild flowers. Nothing is to be seen of the once wealthy, proud, prosperous city which was there in the first century. In its heyday, Sardis had a name for wealth, and for prosperity, and for permanence. It was in these ways what it also was geographically – high and lifted up. It was, quite literally, a city built upon a hill, it crowned a hilltop, rising 1,500 feet from a valley floor, and was therefore eminent, constantly visible. It gave it a sense of psychological superiority, and of security from the attacks of men and armies. However, its eminence did not put it above the acts of God, because it was almost brought to complete ruin in A..D.17. when it was severely damaged by an earthquake. Evidently, by the end of the first century, it had recovered, and had been restored to some measure of its prominence. One writer tells us that Sardis in those days was a city whose name was synonymous with unjustified pretension and unfulfilled promise. It had a great appearance, yet it lacked reality and it would seem that the spirit of the city was reflected in the life of the Church. However, there was a church in the city of Sardis! Its origin is not on record, but there it
was, and to this Church, this body of Christians, the Lord Jesus Christ sent this letter by the hand of the Apostle John toward the end of the first century A.D.
1. The Divine Censure – Worthless Works
That means therefore, we must go immediately to His word of complaint for He did register a complaint against them. It is there in the first verse. “These things saith he that hath the seven Spirits of God, and the seven stars; I know thy works, that thou hast a name that thou livest, and art dead.” This is what the divine Critic thought of His own Church in Sardis. He chose to write to them as the One who had the seven Spirits of God, and the seven stars. The seven stars represent the ministry of the entire Christian Church in this dispensation. The seven Spirits represent the Holy Spirit in His fulness, in His totality. Here the Lord Jesus presents Himself as the One whose Spirit this is, in all His fulness, in all His completeness, for the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Christ, and the Spirit was not given to Christ by measure. To this Church, He has to register complaint, presenting Himself as the One who has the fulness of the Spirit’s grace, and power, and gift. Also He writes as the One who has the seven stars, that is the angels, or the pastors, or the ministry, in His right hand. As such, the Church’s ministry is meant to give light, as the stars do, and to lead many to righteousness. The Holy Spirit’s ministry and the Church’s ministry are Christ’s and Christ here approaches this Church at Sardis in this capacity, with the fulness of His sevenfold Spirit, and with the seven stars within His power.
What then, we ask, was His complaint? What was His censure? What did His critical eye see in the life of the Church in Sardis? Well, in one sense, He spares us by saying it all in one swift, piercing, penetrating sentence. There it is in verse one, I know your works, that you have a name that you live, but are dead. There is Christ’s complaint against His Church in Sardis.
It is a complaint that has to be seen in its two parts. In the first place, Christ complains of their imperfect works. I know your works. Now, He had said that to each and all of the other Churches. We remember that He knew their works from the inside, because He walked in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks. He did not depend on any reports that they gave Him of their works. He did not depend on any second or third hand report of the name and repute of the Church in Sardis. He knew them, and He knew them with inside knowledge. For while Christ spoke with approval of all the Father Churches which we have considered so far, here His tone is changed. The Sardians had their works; they were not idle, but Christ does not commend them. In fact, in verse two, He says, ‘I
have not found thy works perfect before God’. It was not that there were no works; it was not that there was no Christian service, there was all the appearance of normality at Sardis, the same normality as had been seen at Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamos and Thyatira. Indeed, their works and their service at Sardis were so obvious that it had earned them a reputation for liveliness, that they were a living, a lively, an active, and a thriving Church.
I submit that this means that they had a correct organisation, they had a thorough administration of affairs in their Church, that the ordinances of the Gospel were regularly provided, that the Gospel was preached, that members were admitted and properly overseen. Indeed, there may well have been at Sardis, what was very close to the practice of the first Church at Jerusalem, what is described in the book of the Acts, that they continued steadfast in the Apostles’ doctrine, and in the breaking of bread in the fellowship, and in the prayers. All that may well have been found within the Church at Sardis. It was not want of works that brought Christ’s complaint; it was no defect in the amount of their work, rather it was a complaint in the realm of the character of the Church’s work, of the Church’s .service. Their works, good as they were in themselves, were in fact, hollow and empty and worthless. They were but shells, so the Lord Jesus said in verse two, ‘I have not found your works perfect before God’. Now perfect here does not mean sinless. Christ was not looking for sinless perfection in the activities of the Church of Sardis; there is no sinless perfection in anything in this world, and certainly not even in the Church of Jesus Christ. The original which is here translated, ‘not perfect’, actually means, ‘not filled out, not complete, not filled up’. In other words, the works were there, but they were hollow. The service was there, but it was a sham. They had appearance but not a substance. They were unreal, they were superficial. Human eyes saw them and admired them; human ears heard about them and approved them, but He who had the eyes as a flame of fire saw through them, and saw that there was nothing in them. Thy works, He says, thy works are hollow, they are empty, they are incomplete, therefore, they are imperfect before God. It is his all-seeing One who says, I know your works, and I know that ‘our works are hollow, they need filling up with genuine substance.
It seems to me clearly possible that what happened to this particular Church away in Turkey, in the first century, can happen to any Christian Church in any country in any century. Outwardly, to a visitor’s eye, everything seems to be in order, everything seems o be in place. Indeed, there is scrupulous care that everything is seen to be in order and in place, and yet, if the visitor became a resident, and stayed long enough, he would detect a certain .hollowness. He would discover that appearance is one thing and
that reality is another, that a fleeting glance does not tell you the whole story, that a passing word is never the whole account. ‘Thy works are not perfect’.
Does it not warn us, does it not warn every Church, to take stock, not simply of the obvious faults and failings, but equally of its good order, and of its best works, and of its most obvious and eminent service, lest anything should be found not perfect, but hollow and incomplete, and empty before the eyes (not the fallible eyes of men) of Him who has eyes as of a flame of fire, the eyes of Him with whom we have to do? You see it is a simple matter of fact, it was so at Sardis, it has been so many, many times historically, that we can go through the whole programme of accepted Christian activity in the life of a Church, we can observe all the accepted norms of Church life, we can say all the right things, and we can make sure that we are seen to do all the right things, and still be hollow, still be empty, because we are not motivated by the right principles. We are not motivated by spiritual principles, because we are motivated by ideals and principles altogether unacceptable before God who sees us through and through. This is a solemn and a staggering thought, that any Christian Church may be in this position, and like Sardis apparently completely unaware of it. All our functioning, all our working, all our activities, while they gratify us and they may satisfy other people, they are not acceptable in the sight of God, because He sees, and He sees through the hollowness, He sees the lack of reality. He sees the lack of real spiritual life. It may be, that while other people are praising our works, patting us on the back, the Lord of glory is frowning on our works and on us. That thought, that possibility, I put it no higher than that, that awful possibility, should cause us great and constant concern. It should cause us to enquire whether His hand of blessing is withdrawn and whether there is a reason for the withdrawal. This is the first part of the complaint. I know thy works; they are not perfect.
2. An Undeserved Reputation
The second thing of which Christ com
plains in the Church at Sardis is this – He complains of their undeserved reputation. They had a reputation, they had a name, and what is it? It is there in verse one, ‘Thou hast the name that thou livest, and art dead.’ This Church at Sardis was not just a little backwater Church about which only a very few people knew. It was not a holy huddle in a back room in a back street in the prosperous, thriving city of Sardis. It had a name, and that name was known in Sardis, and it was known beyond Sardis. Up and down the land, certainly among the Christian churches of that area, this Church was spoken about with respect, and almost with bated breath. Whenever the Church at Sardis was
mentioned, everyone seemed to know about it. It had a name, and everyone seemed to know about its prosperity, and about its success, and about its affluence. It was one of the plums among the Christian Churches of the day. It had a name, a name that men had to reckon with. There was more to it than that; it was a name that they lived – ‘Thou hast a name that thou livest’.
The Sardis Church was distinguished among its sister Churches, and some of those faults that we have seen, that the Lord had to rebuke at Ephesus, and at Smyrna, and at Pergamos, and at Thyatira, He did not have to rebuke at Sardis. They had a name to live. Sardis was distinguished among her sister Churches. There were internal divisions in some of the other Churches; we have seen them, but there were no internal divisions in the Church at Sardis. There was persecution that caused problems of all kinds in some of those other Churches, but there was no persecution of the Church of Sardis. They may well have had splendid attendances, large membership, good finances – they were alive and well while others were struggling. Even more than that, this good name of Sardis was attached to their orthodoxy, their orthodoxy in the faith. There is not one word in this letter to Sardis to suggest any form of doctrinal deviation. You cannot say that of the Church at Ephesus, or Smyrna, or Pergamos or Thyatira. There were complaints concerning doctrinal deviations in those Churches. There was no modernism at Sardis, there was no liberalism at Sardis. There was nothing in the letter to Sardis about the presence of the Nicolaitans with their false teaching, or the Balaamites, or the Jezebelites as in the case of the other Churches. So far as the letter goes, there was no resorting to pagan feasts among the members of the Sardis Church whereas there was among a few of the members of the others. There is no evidence of immorality. There is no evidence of association with those dubious trades and guilds as at Pergamos and in Thyatira. Best of all in favour of the Church at Sardis, there was evidently no need of discipline on the ground of antinomianism. They had not overturned the law of God and said, Well, now we are Christians, we do not need to keep the law of God. Oh, no. There is no mention of these faults. All these things were absent. It was a lively Church, and it appeared a faithful Church.
You can imagine a visitor from one of the other Churches, perhaps a member from the poor sister Church at Smyrna where they had such persecution and even martyrdom, spending a weekend at Sardis, finding a large congregation, being thrilled by what he saw and heard, and going back home to Smyrna. How thrilled he was with the wonderful story he could tell of that lively Church at Sardis; how the Gospel was preached there, how the ordinances were duly administered there, how the sick were cared
for, how the poor were attended to, how there was no molestation by the heathen and the pagan. Everyone in the Church at Sardis was so happy, and so content, and so friendly, and so welcoming, that everything at Sardis was done decently and in order. That would be the impression gained by a visitor to the Church at Sardis. That would be the report given. What a report! What a reputation!
Then the day came when the blow fell. One day, the angel, the pastor at Sardis got a letter. I do not doubt that it drove him to his knees. I do not doubt that he considered it very, very carefully, and I do not doubt that he consulted his officers about it. He then did what any Pastor would do with a letter on a serious matter addressed to the Church as a Church. Perhaps he gave two weeks’ notice of a special Church Meeting so that all the members would be present, so that all the members could exercise their membership rights. When the meeting convened, there was only one item on the agenda. The pastor produced this letter and began to read, and then in almost the first sentence of the letter, he came to these words, ‘You are dead. You are dead’. Even now, across the span of the centuries that have intervened, can you not feel the shock- waves that must have gone through that gathered Church? The stunned silence in the company, as one member turned to his neighbour and said, What did he say? Did he say that we are dead? Did he say something about things ready to die? In Sardis, in Sardis? The Church needed no further confirmation because the pastor read on. He read on in this letter from the Lord Jesus Christ, and he read in verse three, ‘Remember therefore, 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’. They knew then that it was Christ who had written the letter. They knew then that it was Christ who would come upon them. They heard with their own ears from the Lord Jesus Christ, that this Church of theirs, this model Church of theirs, this reputable Church of theirs, with such a reputation for life, was in fact, in the eyes of God, dead. What a shock to the flourishing, prospering, numerous, reputable Church at Sardis. I wonder, if they had any members who were not in the habit of keeping to the rule of confidence, keeping Church business within the Church, but telling all the little titbits of good news of the prosperity of Sardis to their friends outside and elsewhere, I wonder whether they were so eager to whisper the contents of this letter to outsiders. We are dead. Dead? Yes, dead. Who said that? The Lord Jesus Christ. How do you know? We got it in writing. We got a letter from Him. The pastor has read it to us. Unto the angel of the Church at Sardis write, and John wrote what Jesus said, ‘I know thy works, that thou hast a name that thou livest, and art dead’.
Well, we will leave it at that point, we will leave them there at that Church Meeting, at that special Church Meeting at Sardis, stunned, aghast, mortified, if not altogether incredulous and unbelieving at what had been placed before them. Not just a few of them were criticised as at Pergamos or Thyatira, but the vast majority, officers and members, young and old, mature and immature. Thou hast the name that thou livest, but art dead. One is left with this question:
What does that do for an undeserved reputation, an undeserved reputation for life and vigour? Beyond that, let us ponder the simple question, Were we as a Church, to receive a letter from the Lord Jesus Christ on the question of life or death, what would it say? I leave you with the question. Amen.