“THE CHURCH AT SARDIS”
Have you ever gone outside on a clear night, looked up at the stars, and asked yourself, “Just how far away are those things?” Sure you have, and so have I. The stars are so far away that describing their distance in miles is nearly futile. We can’t comprehend the massive numbers. So we speak of not how far away the stars are, but how long would it take us to get to them. We measure a star’s distance in the time it would take us to get there. This is not as unusual as it may first seem to be.
Omaha, NE is about five hundred miles from here. But when you think about driving to Omaha, do you think five hundred miles, or do you think eight hours behind the wheel? We often think of distance in terms of the time it takes to cover it. That’s precisely what astronomers do regarding the distance to the stars. They think in terms of light years – how far light will travel in one year. How far will light travel in one year? Since the speed of light is 186,000 miles/second, it will travel six trillion miles in a year’s time.
The nearest star to earth is Proxima Centauri. It’s four and a quarter light years away. That translates to about twenty-five trillion miles. So while an astronomer may refer to that distance as being “4.25 light years,” and a mathematician might speak of the dis-tance as being “2.5×1013 miles,” (that’s a 25 followed by 12 zeros), I can’t relate to either. All I know for sure is that Proxima Centauri is a whole lot farther than Omaha.
It is November, 2013, but if you go outside tonight, locate Proxima Centauri, and gaze at it, you’ll not being seeing it as it is. You’ll be seeing it as it was in August, 2009. That’s when the light that will reach your eye tonight left Promixa Cenaturi. So for the sake of example, let’s assume that one year ago Proxima Centauri consumed its fuel, burned out, and died. It no longer exists. It’s gone. But tonight, you and I can still go out and gaze upon it. We’ll still see what appears to be a brightly burning star. And we’ll be able to do that for the next three and quarter years. But it isn’t there. There is nothing there.
Here’s the salient point. There are churches like that. The light from a glorious past still shines. When viewed from a distance, they look as beautiful, as brilliant, and as bright as ever. It seems like nothing has changed. But spiritual darkness is overshadowing the light from such churches, and soon you won’t see any light coming from them because there won’t be any. The point is this: Things aren’t always what they seem, are they?
Before we go on to Thyatira, the fifth church of the seven churches in Revelation 2-3, we need to refresh our memories and see just how we got here. Churches don’t change from being an Ephesus to becoming a Thyatira overnight. Such degeneration takes time.
But having said that, I know there are churches where the downward spiral took place faster than anyone would have thought possible. So we need to ask ourselves two ques-tions – when does it start and how does it happen? The answer to both questions is found in the first four churches in Revelation, beginning with Ephesus.
The Church at Ephesus was, by all human standards, a “good” church. It did everything right, but Jesus said that it was beginning to lose its fire, its zeal, and its love for Him.
So He told the Christians in Ephesus that if they did not repent (turn around) and rekindle the fire of their love for Him, that He would come and take their church away from them.
The Church at Smyrna was a suffering church. It steadfastly kept its eyes on Jesus and did not waver in its love and commitment to Him. As a result the Christians in Smyrna suffered greatly and many of them were martyred, but Jesus promised them that eternal life and glory awaited all of His faithful ones.
The Church at Pergamum was a compromising church. They preferred compromising to suffering. Even though the Christians in Pergamum did the right things (for the most part), and believed the right things (for the most part), they were willing to compromise with the world and its systems. Jesus told the believers in Pergamum to repent (to turn around) or He would make war against them.
The Church at Thyatira was a church infected by paganism. Isn’t that what you would expect after its willingness to compromise with the world? It tolerated false teaching and then it embraced false teaching. Like the Christians in Pergamum, the Christians in Thy-atira still did good things, but they were abandoning sound doctrine and replacing it with pagan rites, rituals, and worship. Jesus told them to repent (to turn around) and hold on to the truth they had or He would visit sickness and death upon them. ______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
And so we come to the Church at Sardis. In Sardis the downward spiral that had begun with a cooling of love for Jesus, then fell into compromise with the world, and finally degenerated into rejecting sound doctrine and embracing the world, came to the only end it could. The Church at Sardis was dead! Its light had gone out.
But to those in Sardis it still seemed like a living, functioning, and bright place. The light had gone out, but no one knew it. Like a distant star that’s run out of fuel and died, such a church seems to twinkle and shine. But it’s gone. We just don’t know it’s gone. Well, Jesus knows it, and He’s about to tell us that the Church at Sardis was already dead.
*Revelation 3:1-6 (Please stand with me in honor of reading God’s Word.)
1 “And 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.
2 ‘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.
3 ‘Remember therefore what you have received and heard; and keep it, and repent. If therefore you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come upon you.
4 ‘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.
5 ‘He who overcomes shall 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.
6 ‘He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’
In this passage Jesus addresses the same seven things He has already said to the other churches. Just as He does with the other six churches, Jesus will name the city, describe a certain aspect of His person and character, commend the church for what it is doing right, indict the church for what it is not doing right, exhort and warn the church, and conclude with an eternal promise for all who will hear and obey His Word.
The city of Sardis had been in existence since 1200 B.C., so it was already ancient when the church there was founded on Paul’s third missionary journey. The name Sardis is derived from words that mean “those who come out or escape.” It was about thirty miles south of Thyatira. The city had become famous for carpet and jewelry making, and as a result, it had become very wealthy. Sardis was also home to a variety of cults and pagan religions. Apollo, god of the sun, and Diana, goddess of the moon were worshipped. It’s interesting to note that Mileto, who was a member of the Church at Sardis, actually wrote the first commentary on the Book of Revelation.
Even though the people who populated the Church at Sardis had an intellectual under-standing of the gospel, Jesus tells them that their church was spiritually dead. That must have come as a great shock to them. I can’t help but wonder how many Christians would be shocked today if Jesus told them their church was dead.
As with the other six cities, Sardis’ name – “those who come out” – fits because there are only a few true believers left in Sardis and the Bible teaches that true believers do not belong in spiritually dead churches. The fact is that Christians are not to be spiritually united to unbelievers in anything. Paul refers to such unions as being “bound together.”
2 Corinthians 6:14-18
14 Do not be bound together (“spiritually united”) with unbelievers; for what partnership have righteousness and lawlessness, or what fellowship has light with darkness?
15 Or what harmony has Christ with Belial (Satan), or what has a believer in common with an unbeliever?
16 Or what agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the tem-ple of the living God, just as God said, “I will dwell in them and walk among them; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people.
17 “Therefore, come out from their midst and be separate,” says the Lord. And do not touch what is unclean; and I will welcome you.
18 “And I will be a father to you, and you shall be sons and daughters to Me,” says the Lord Almighty.
Paul had earlier clarified this teaching lest someone might think we’re not to have any association with unbelievers. That is certainly not the point. In Corinth Paul was dealing with actual adultery that had been committed by someone who claimed to be a Christian.
1 Corinthians 5:9-13
9 I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with immoral people;
10 I did not at all mean with the immoral people of this world, or with the covetous and swindlers, or with idolaters; for then you would have to go out of the world.
11 But actually, I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he should be an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler – not even to eat with such a one.
12 For what have I to do with judging outsiders (unbelievers)? (But) do you not judge those who are within the church?
13 But those who are outside (unbelievers), God judges. Remove the wicked man from among yourselves.
The answer to Paul’s rhetorical question in v. 12 is, “Yes, we must judge and discipline sin in the church!” The goal of such discipline is not merely the correction of the one who has sinned. It’s the sinner’s restoration to full fellowship. Its purpose is to keep the church, the bride of Christ, pure and chaste. That’s what church discipline is all about.
So you and I do not judge the lost. God does that. But you and I do judge those in the church who claim to be Christians, yet live like the lost. In 1 Corinthians 5 we’re told to remove them from our fellowship. In 2 Corinthians 6 we’re told to remove ourselves from their fellowship. This is what the few remaining Christians in Sardis were facing.
Now I want you to notice that there is a significant difference in Jesus’ approach to the Church at Sardis. To the first four churches He began with a commendation, but here in Sardis the Lord Jesus begins with an indictment. But first, He describes Himself to them.
1a “And to the angel of the church in Sardis write: He who has the seven Spirits of God, and the seven stars, says this…”
Jesus’ reference to the seven Spirits comes from Revelation 1:4.
The number seven is always symbolic of completeness in Scripture. Jesus uses it here as symbolic of the completeness of the Holy Spirit of God. By the way, the very fact that Jesus singles out seven churches tells us that the characteristics and qualities – both good and bad – that He finds in them are typical of all churches throughout the Church Age.
And Revelation 1:20 tells us that the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches. So right here in Revelation 3:1 Jesus makes His point. He has the church in and under His control. He is the One who speaks and He is the One who indicts.
“I know your deeds, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead.”
They said they were alive because they thought they were alive. They looked like Christ-ians so they called themselves Christians. But, they weren’t Christians the way Jesus defines the term! The Church at Sardis was infected by the world. It was decaying and rotting from the inside out. It was filled with unregenerate people who excelled at what we might call, “playing church.” Jesus referred to them in what Isaac read to open the service. Here again is just some of what the Lord said about people like those in Sardis.
20 “So then, you will know them by their fruits. (It isn’t what they say. It isn’t even what they do. It’s what they produce!)
21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven; but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven.
22 “Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’
23 “And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.’”
Both testaments address the core issue that besets those who populate the dead churches.
Listen to how the Prophet Isaiah addresses it.
13 Then the Lord said, “Because this people draw near with their words and honor Me with their lip service, but they remove their hearts far from Me, and their reverence for Me consists of tradition learned by rote.”
Listen to how Jesus Himself addresses it.
8 “This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me.
9 “But in vain do they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.” (v. 8 – memorized prayers; v. 9 – man-made rules, laws, and false teaching)
Last week, in the Church at Thyatira, we saw what many believe to be the foundation of Roman Catholicism. Here, in the Church at Sardis, we see what many scholars believe to be the beginning of the Protestant Church. To be sure, the Protestant Reformation did rescue the great truth of the gospel – “The just shall live by faith…”
The Reformation was clearly a time of great importance in church history. All the power of Rome could not stop the truth. For the first time in over 1000 years, salvation by grace through faith alone was proclaimed. Great men such as Wyclif, Hus, Tyndale, Luther, Zwingli, Knox, and Calvin, suffered, and in many cases died for the purity of the gospel.
But there were problems. In becoming state churches, the Reformation often repeated the error of Constantine in 313 A.D. by bringing still more unbelievers into the church. And most of the reformers hung on to some aspects of their Roman Catholic backgrounds.
For example, the Episcopal Church retained the priesthood. Other denominations clung to various rituals and sacraments. And most all of them retained infant baptism. The harsh reality is that not all truth was recovered by the reformers. Few if any of them understood eschatology as we do today. (Eschatology is the study of the end times or last days) It’s only in the last few centuries that prophecy and the reality of the last days is being rightly defined and understood. And there is one other thing most of the reformers did – they held a deep disdain for Israel and the Jewish people. Too many Christians still do.
Are you familiar with any protestant churches or denominations? Do they all call them-selves Christian? Do they all claim to follow Christ? Do they actually follow Him? No? Then Jesus’ words in today’s text apply to them. “…you have a name that (says) you are alive, but you are dead.” No other church receives a stronger indictment from Jesus than does Sardis. So He exhorts them to…
2 “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.
3a “Remember therefore what you have received and heard; and keep it, and repent…”
Sardis, and any modern church that is like Sardis, is asleep at the wheel. It’s not paying attention. It’s rocketing down the highway blissfully unaware of the signs warning that the bridge is out. But Jesus warns them.
Matthew 24:42 (to “them”), 44 (to “us”)
42 “Therefore be on the alert, for you do not know which day your Lord is coming…
44 “For this reason you be ready too; for the Son of Man is coming at an hour when you do not think He will.”
1 Thessalonians 5:2-6 (to “us”)
2 For you yourselves know full well that the day of the Lord will come just like a thief in the night,
3 While they are saying, “Peace and Safety!” then destruction will come upon them suddenly like birth pangs upon a woman with child; and they shall not escape.
4 But you, brethren, are not in darkness, that the day should overtake you like a thief;
5 for you are all sons of light and sons of day. We are not of night nor of darkness;
6 so then let us not sleep as others do, but let us be alert and sober.
Yet we know that most of Protestantism will be “caught napping” at the Rapture. The reason is that they’re not looking for it. And the reason for that is they don’t believe in it.
So Jesus says, “Wake up, and strengthen the things that remain…” I think He is refer-ring to all biblical truth, but particularly to the core Protestant Reformation doctrines of salvation. You know – Salvation is found in the SCRIPTURES ALONE by GRACE ALONE through FAITH ALONE in CHRIST ALONE to the GLORY OF GOD ALONE!
That is the beginning of sound doctrine. That is the starting point. When Jesus tells the Church at Sardis, “I have not found your deeds completed…” He’s saying that their good works are not achieving all that God wants them to accomplish. That’s because religion without relationship is dead. They have the religion, but they have no relationship with God. Only when they get that right can they obey Jesus and complete their good works. And only when they get their doctrine right can their good works have any eternal value.
In Revelation 3:3 Jesus tells the Church at Sardis to remember what it has received. It had received the great truths of the gospel that would later be recovered by the Reforma-tion. But most of today’s Protestant denominations have forgotten them and drifted far to the left. Is that too harsh? I don’t think so. Ask yourselves three questions:
1. What’s become of core truths the reformers recovered and paid for, often with their lives?
2. Where do most Protestant denominations stand today with regard to things like the inerrancy of Scripture, belief in the total depravity of man, and the absolute sove-reignty of God?
3. And what has happened to the key doctrinal truth of the Reformation – Justifica-tion by faith in Christ…ALONE? Jesus is telling the Church at Sardis to wake up!
3b “If therefore you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come upon you.”
Much of the modern church doesn’t even believe Jesus IS coming back. And why would they? They only believe the parts of the Bible they like or think they understand. To them Jesus’ return WILL come upon them like a thief in the night. He will be completely unexpected, and these dead churches will be judged swiftly and thoroughly.
Old-timers used to say that churches like that should have the name “Ichabod” painted above their doorways. Why? The Ark of the Covenant was the symbol of God’s glori-ous presence in Israel. But the Philistines stole the ark when they defeated Israel in battle. Then the OT defines “Ichabod” for us. It means, “the glory of God is gone.” After the Ark of the Covenant had been taken, 1 Samuel 4:22 said, “The glory (of God) has departed from Israel.” So too has the Holy Spirit departed from the dead church!
4 “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.
5a “He who overcomes shall thus be clothed in white garments…”
Those “who have not soiled their garments” are those who have neither compromised the truths of God nor their own personal character. In Greek the word translated “soiled” is “mŏlunō,” meaning to smear, to pollute, or to stain with filth. Even in the Church at Sardis there are a few true believers still there. They’ve not yet heeded the Lord’s com-mand to “…come out from their midst and be separate (2 Corinthians 6:17).” (But why?)
By God’s grace they will ultimately wear the symbols of purity, the symbols worn by Christ, His holy angels, and His Bride, the church. No one else will ever wear them!
5b “…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.”
Those who teach that you can lose your salvation would say this verse confirms that teaching. However, look carefully, it doesn’t say that names of believers will or even could be erased. On the contrary, it says that the names of believers will not be erased from the book of life. They are the ones whom God has chosen from eternity past.
Revelation 21:27 tells us this book belongs to Jesus. It says that our names are written in “the Lamb’s book of life.” Finally, Jesus promises that He will confess our name before God. HALLELUJAH!! This is how we get into heaven!
6 “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”
Are you listening? Do you hear?
(prayer and charge to the group leaders)