This morning, we’ll continue looking at what Jesus says in his church of Sardis in the bible. These are recorded in the second and third chapters of Revelation. We’ve already looked at the first four churches in what is now Western Turkey, and today we’ll look at the Sardis church.
7 Church of Sardis in the Bible
Sardis was a thriving and prosperous commercial center. The first gold and silver coins were struck in Sardis, and according to the jewelry archaeologists have discovered from this time period, there were many wealthy people in Sardis.  According to Jesus, this church was clearly well respected by the larger community as well as by the other churches in the region.
What was Jesus’ message to the church in Sardis in Revelation
Revelation 2 begins a series of brief letters to seven churches that existed during the apostle John’s time in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). Each of these messages contains information specific to each church, and each letter contains lessons for believers today.
The fifth letter is addressed to the church in Sardis (Revelation 3:1-6). Sardis was the wealthy capital of Lydia’s ancient kingdom and one of the region’s oldest and best-defended cities.
The message to Sardis is from the Lord Jesus Christ, delivered by an angel or messenger (possibly referring to the pastor): “To the angel of the church in Sardis, write…” Revelation 3:20 This was not a message from John to the church in Sardis; it was a message from the Lord. The author is further validated by the description at the end of verse 1:
“These are the words of him who possesses God’s seven spirits and the seven stars.” Only Jesus possesses the seven spirits (or “seven-fold Spirit,” which refers to God’s complete or perfect Spirit), and only Jesus possesses the seven stars, which correspond to the seven angels (or pastors) of the seven churches (Revelation 1:20).
“I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead,” Jesus says emphatically of the Sardian church’s lifelessness (Revelation 3:2). This church had a good reputation, but they were spiritually dead. To put it another way, the church was packed with unsaved people going through the motions of religion. There were a lot of tares among the wheat (Matthew 13:24-30).
Then Jesus summons them to repentance: “Wake up! Strengthen what is left and about to die, because I have not found your deeds complete in the eyes of my God. Remember what you have received and heard, obey it, and repent” (Revelation 3:2-3a). To “wake up” means to pay attention to their need for salvation and to stop being careless about their heart’s condition in front of God.
“If you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know when I will come to you,” Jesus says, referring to the judgment that would occur if they did not repent (Revelation 3:3b). Jesus will discipline a dead church that is unrepentant in its deadness.
Following the warning, Jesus encourages the faithful in Sardis: “Yet you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes.” They will accompany me, dressed in white, because they are worthy” (Revelation 3:4). The faithful remnant’s clothes had not been soiled (participated in sin). They are “deserving.”
Paul’s teaching on walking worthily can also be found in Ephesians 4:1, Colossians 1:10, and 1 Thessalonians 2:12. To be “worthy” means to “match up” with something—the proclamation of faith in the mouth corresponds to the reality of faith in the heart. The faithful will be able to walk with Jesus in white (see Matthew 22:11-12; Revelation 19:8).
7 Church of Sardis in the Bible
1. NOMINAL CHRISTIANITY’S TRAP
This church in Sardis is possibly the first documented church that had fallen into nominal Christianity. We’re looking at a church, which is a cautionary tale of what can happen when a church fits all too comfortably within its surrounding culture and, despite being a Christian cause, nothing happens. There is no difficulty to overcome. There is no suffering to purify them.
They’re just a relaxed bunch of Christians going through the motions. They’ve become a religion of formalities, just people who do the same things you do. And their faith has lost its counter-cultural edge, and they are no longer aware of God’s overarching universal purposes, mission, and agenda. So nominal Christianity is defined as adopting Christian ideas and practices but not adopting Christian purposes.
Nominalism is a belief in God or a Christian worldview with no sense of urgency to bear witness. It’s knowing how to use Christian vocabulary and lingo but not having a living lifestyle, any of that out.
It is assuming that our children will grow up and be saved and converted simply because they were raised in a Christian home, rather than actively engaging them with the gospel. Nominalism is the use of Christianity to help me become the best version of myself. Rather than being transformed by participating in God’s universal purposes. Every Saturday night, nominalism begins with the question, “Sweetie, do you feel like going to church tomorrow?”
So, how does the church get there? What is the recipe for such dead nominalism? So, Jesus provides us with two things. He reveals two things that were going on in Sardis.
2. REPUTATION OVER TRUTH
Number one, because they were preoccupied with their reputation rather than facing reality. “You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead,” says verse one.
This church once had a thriving congregation, so much so that they earned the reputation of being a vibrant church. So perhaps they experienced a profound revival, in which people came to know Christ as their Lord and Savior, abandoning their idolatry and becoming Christians. Perhaps there was a time when the church gave so generously to the poor, orphans, and widows in the name of Christ that their reputation grew. But whatever it was, the end result was that their church grew in size and reputation for their devotion to God’s things.
But something had changed by the time they received this letter. They still had the reputation, but it was all they had. Their reputation no longer corresponded to reality. So they died because they stopped looking for God in the present. They were only concerned with what God had done previously.
So, for example, have you ever been to a church that only talks about the good old days? The church where they talk about those glory days, about how things used to be, and how we need to return to those days because that’s the kind of people we are. And the people are constantly reminiscing about ways to reclaim what they feel they have lost, attempting to recreate some notion of what God did in the past.
What would it look like if Rockwell Pres became that kind of church? Whereas, over time, we began to focus on our reputation, and this began to manifest among us. You probably look like this, and it all started with, “Yes, we raised $50,000 a year ago for our South Asian partnerships, $50,000 as we built churches and dug water wells. We are making investments in church planting movements in the deep forest. We are a church that is concerned with missions and the Great Commission.” Someone stated, “Wow, that is incredible.
But then a little time passes, and it starts to look like this. “Yes, we did increase her weight three years ago. It was, after all, five years ago. Oh, you know, time flies in both directions. We raised $50,000 from missions five years ago. We’re a church that believes in the great commission.” Then, after some time has passed, we say, “Oh, we raised a lot of money from missions ten years ago; we are all about the great commission here at Rockwell Pres. I mean, really? It doesn’t appear to be the case. You appear to have no idea what God desires for you right now, in the present. You have no idea where he’s taking you.
3. AUTHENTICITY OVER APPEARANCES
Second, in Sardis, appearances were more important than authenticity. And we need to look a little deeper to see this. But consider Jesus’ earthly ministry for a moment. Who was the person who received his harshest criticism? Then there were the Pharisees. They were the ones who went by outward appearances. They did things to attract the attention of others. They did things in order to receive applause, praise, and affirmation from others. And they were all on display because their overarching motivating concern was how they appeared to others.
And it wasn’t out of a genuine desire to please and honor God, which is why when Jesus teaches, he always tells everyone that if you want to know God, do the opposite of what the Pharisees are doing. How would you like to be the guy who gives the negative example in Jesus sermons? “Everyone look at Jeff; if you want to know God, don’t do what Jeff does.” And he does exactly that with the Pharisees. He tells him the same thing he tells Sardis: “Your whitewashed tombs.” Things look nice on the outside, but you’re rotting on the inside.” As a result, their concern was about their reputation before men rather than their reputation before God, which is why they are preoccupied with maintaining appearances.
And this should help us understand why the church in Sardis received Jesus’ harshest criticism in these letters. Because they are concerned with appearances. In verse 2, Jesus says, “For I have not found your works finished in the sight of my God.” So the problem isn’t that this church in Sardis isn’t doing anything; rather, their efforts are hollow and empty.
There are churches full of various activities, but none of them actually stir their heart and affections towards God. And they got to this point because they had compromised their values. In verse four, Jesus says, “There are still some who have not yet soiled or stained their garments.” So he’s implying that the rest of the church is in this state because their garments have become stained.
And James employs this language whenever he discusses the sanctity of religious devotion. And how that actually appears. And part of it is keeping ourselves clean from the world. So Jesus is bringing to light a very biblical concept for this church in Sardis. And he’s bringing to light the fact that their values aren’t going away because they’ve been shaped by the values of the world.
4. JESUS WILL PURIFY HIS CHILDREN
Jesus is simply bringing up an old issue. It’s as old as the hills, if you will. Because you can see this throughout the Old Testament, when the prophets address this issue with Israel time and time again. “That these people draw near to me with their mouths,” Isaiah says. They honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me, and they worship me in vain.” “I despise your festivals,” Amos says. Your gatherings stink to me, like the noise of your songs.”
And each time God deals with this appearance-driven people who don’t actually desire him. He always follows that up with the same statement: “I’m going to come to you.” And I’m going to take it all away from you. “I’m going to come and take all of those things away.” Why? Because I intend to expose the nominalism among my people. I’m going to reveal that their devotion was all a ruse, and there was never a genuine desire for me.
5. PERCEIVING OUR OWN NOMINALISM
So, how do we apply this passage to ourselves? Many of you have told me that these letters to the churches in Revelation, it’s amazing how prevalent these issues are even today. And this letter is certainly no exception. So much of it is relevant to our time and place because nominal Christianity is a reality on so many levels. And we live in a time when so much of it is being exposed right in front of us.
Take a step back for a second and look at the world from a wide angle. My personal belief is that we are living in a rapidly changing pivotal, tide-turning period in history. Something is happening. Something is going on. That’s all I have to say about it. Let us pray, I’m kidding. But, don’t you think we know and feel it?
Consider that wide-angle view for a moment. At the moment, over 80% of Americans, a record high, say they are simply unhappy. That outperformed the previous record by about 20%. 80% of Americans say they are dissatisfied. So, if there’s one thing on which both parties agree right now, it’s that we’re all unhappy, right? On top of that, you have a country that is divided on every issue under the sun.
And we are witnessing landmark Supreme Court decisions on gender and sexuality. Conversations about race, cultural unrest, and anti-authoritarian sentiment have reached a tipping point.
Consider the global pandemic for a moment, because we must recognize that the ground beneath our feet is shifting. And we’ve arrived at the point where what we hoped for in March is no longer in the cards. We’re hoping it only lasts a few weeks. That’s no longer an option. COVID-19 is a natural part of life. COVID-19 is not going away. For the time being, at least. There is no way for us to go where we can pretend it doesn’t exist. It has arrived. It’s a natural part of life. And it appears to be here to stay. And it’s causing everyone to think about how to do things differently and what it means in every aspect of life, including the church.
6. HAVING A DESIRE FOR MORE
And, at some point, the church will have to shift its focus from thinking politically, economically, and socially to thinking theologically about everything that is going on. We need to stop making campaign promises and start thinking about the promises that God gives us in his scriptures, right? We need to get to the point where we start asking deeper questions. What role does God play in all of this? What does God expect of us? What does God want us to do? However, in order to find those answers, a church must be willing to reject any notion of written ritualistic dead nominalism. It takes a church that yearns for MORE. More capital M, capital O, capital R, capital E. I have to be shaken by what we’ve seen so far and ask, “What do you have in store for us next?” And let us not pretend that God is as perplexed as we are. More must be desired.
So, how exactly does that happen? How is the Church saved from nominalism? So, take a look at what Jesus has to offer this church. “He says, he’s the one who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars,” says verse one. And he introduces himself through the seven spirits. Jesus, it’s me. “The one who possesses God’s seven spirits and the seven stars.” And the seven spirits are simply Revelation’s way of referring to the one Holy Spirit. And we already know that the seven stars are these spiritual bodies, these angels who watch over the churches.
He is reminding him that Jesus did not create materialistic, appearance-driven people. He created a spiritual people who are involved in spiritual realities, and he invites them to awaken and remember what they have been given. They were given the Holy Spirit, and it was the Spirit who raised them from spiritual death. They were created by the Holy Spirit.
7. SEEKING THE FACE OF GOD
So, here’s what we’re going to do: in a few weeks, we’ll begin a sermon series on prayer. And we’re going to pray as a congregation. We’re going to pray together. We’re going to pray in our Community Groups and seek God’s face in the midst of everything that’s going on. And we’re going to ask God to fill us, shape us, use us, and send us. And sometimes, in the midst of all the unknown, we don’t even know what to pray for, let alone where to begin.
That is why we will use the Scriptures to shape our imaginations in prayer, to shape our imaginations for who and what we are called to be, and begin to pray for those very things with which God is willing to provide, which is boldness and courage, and courage and opportunities to go out, to bear witness, and recognize that when you ask that of God, He is willing to make your path straight, to make the high places low, and to raise the low places soaring.
Instead, we have the opportunity to awaken and possibly be rescued from the nominalism that exists within us. And ask God to awaken us to what he is doing and how he might use us.
That conclude the 7 church of sardis in the bible.
“He who overcomes will, like them, be dressed in white,” Jesus promises the believers in Sardis. I will never erase his name from the book of life, but will honor him in front of my Father and his angels” (Revelation 3:5). Anyone who has been born again “overcomes” (1 John 5:4)
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