David Jeremiah - The Dead Church
Seven hundred years before John wrote this letter to the church, Sardis was one of the greatest cities in the world. It was situated in the midst of the valley of the river Hermus. And in that valley were the unusual spurs of Tmolus Mountains. On one of the spurs, 1.500 feet up, stood the original city of Sardis. The city itself was surrounded on three sides by huge walls, walls that were nearly perpendicular and almost unscalable. At the foot of the cliffs flowed the river Pactolus, and Sardis was famed for its strategic location.
And because it was built upon this elevation that was defended on three sides by cliffs, and because on the fourth side it was approachable only by an isthmus so narrow that a handful of men could actually defend it against hundreds of people that were coming against it, the city of Sardis was considered to be impregnable. In other words, it was safe. Nobody could ever do anything to assault the city. It was totally okay. When John wrote his letter to Sardis, it was a wealthy but degenerate city. Twice, they had lost their city because they were too lazy to watch.
And the fact of history concerning the ancient city of Sardis is the key to understanding the letter that was written to the church that was located there. In other words, the history of the city is a picture of its spiritual downfall. Notice, first of all, the destination of the letter, "And to the angel of the church in Sardis write". Sardis, as I've mentioned, is the fifth of the seven churches, and the word "Sardis" means escaping ones, or those who come out. In a prophetic view of the churches that we are studying in the book of Revelation, Sardis represents the period of the Reformation.
And if you know the Reformation, you know that during the Reformation, there were some who came out of the church and objected to what was going on in the church. Some of those who escaped or came out of the state church were Luther and Knox, Wycliffe and Zwingli. Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany, and Luther's voice was heard throughout Europe. He found many who responded, and they came out of the church as well. The city of Sardis, the church in Sardis is a picture of the Reformation period.
Now, notice how the Lord designates himself in this letter, verse 1, "These things says he who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars". And what are the seven stars? One of the easiest things to ever discover in the book of Revelation because Revelation 1:20 says, "The mystery of the seven stars which you saw in my right hand, and the seven golden lampstands. The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands which you saw are the seven churches".
Now notice, in the first verse, the Lord Jesus begins his denunciation of the church. And he says to them, "I know your works, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead". This letter of unmixed condemnation is a marked change from all of the previous letters. For the poor rich church in Smyrna, the Lord had nothing but words of praise. For the churches of Ephesus, Pergamus, and Thyatira, he had some words of praise, and some words of condemnation. Their letters are a mixture of praise and criticism. But the church of Sardis, he has not one good thing to say about this church. There were a few in the church who he commends, but to the church as a whole, the Lord Jesus doesn't say anything good. It's the first time this has happened.
It's very interesting, especially in light of the reputation that this church enjoyed. What was that reputation? They had a reputation that they were alive, that they were vibrant. But the Lord Jesus looked down beneath the veneer of their church and said, "You aren't alive, you're dead. You're dead inside". It had a good reputation, but it is the first church in history that perhaps was filled with what we today call nominal Christians, people who said they were Christians, but were not.
How many of you know that many of the nominational churches in our culture today, they're Christian in name only because the people who are in the church aren't Christians? They're not Christians because they go to the church or don't go to the church. They're not Christians because they've never received Jesus Christ as their Savior. That's a very good description of what was going on in the church in Sardis. Outwardly, it was a fine church with a reputation. But inwardly, when you got into the reality of the church itself, it was a church that had no life. The Holy Spirit was not involved in this church.
And many times, you and I run into things like that. We maybe have friends that go to churches like that. They started out in these churches years ago when they were fundamental, and over the years, they've slipped away from the things of God, and they've just become sort of a social organization, where there's no spiritual life whatsoever. Now, the Lord Jesus directs this church, and the direction he gives to the church is in verses 2 through 4. He says, "Be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die, for I have not found your works perfect before God.
Remember therefore how you have received and heard; hold fast and repent. And therefore if you will not watch, I will come upon you as a thief, and you will not know what hour I will come upon you. You have a few names even in Sardis who have not defiled their garments, and they shall walk with me in white, for they are worthy". Now, as you read that paragraph, let me unpack it for you real quickly. To this dead church, Jesus Christ gives five exhortations. Number one, the first one is be sensitive to the inroads of sin in the church. Revelation 3:2, "Be watchful". The Greek word for "watchful" conveys the idea of someone who is intent upon something. It literally comes from two words which mean to chase sleep.
In other words, he's saying to the people in this church if you want to maintain your vibrancy in the church, you'd better stay awake. It's no time to go to sleep in the culture in which we live in the church. Ephesians 5:14 says, "Awake, you who sleep, arise from the dead, and Christ will give you light". So, churches die like that. They die spiritually because here's the first thing: they allowed doctrinal error to slip into the membership. So, in the church in Sardis, what happened was they had no restrictions. If you came to church there, perhaps the first Sunday you walked on the property, you could start teaching. And little by little, doctrinal error begun to slip into the church until, after a while, they had no creed whatsoever. It was whoever and whatever, and the church was dead.
Be sensitive to the inroads of sin in the church. Here's the second exhortation: be supportive of those who remain true to Christ in the church. The second verse says, "Strengthen the things which remain, and are ready to die," but they haven't died yet. Verse 4 says, "You have a few names even in Sardis who have not defiled their garments, and they shall walk with me in white, for they are worthy". Here, we see the way of the few and the way of the many. There is never a day so dark but that God has his stars, his men. For instance, in the antediluvian period, God had righteous Enoch and righteous Noah. In the days of universal idolatry, there was Abraham of Ur. And even in Sodom, there was Lot.
Christ is literally saying to this church, "You have some who have not yet capitulated to the times. They are the faithful remnant". And his instruction to the church is to strengthen those faithful few, and encourage them. Here's the third exhortation: be submissive to the control of the Holy Spirit in the church. He says in verse 3, "Remember therefore how you have received and heard". This instruction takes us back to the designation of the Lord as the one who has the seven spirits of God. When Christ challenges this church to remember how they received and heard, he is reminding them of the importance of the Holy Spirit.
Every believer receives and hears the same way, through the ministry of the Holy Spirit. Just as physical death is the result of the separation of the spirit from the body, so spiritual death is the result of the separation of the Holy Spirit from the body of Christ, which is the church. And once again, we need to remember that a church dies when the spirit is no longer allowed to have control in the church, when the Spirit of God becomes an absentee Spirit of God. John Stott, one of the great expositors of our generation, said, "We administer great projects, and we create impressive committees, but we often leave the Holy Spirit out. He has rightly been called the forgotten member of the trinity. Only when the church of Christ is filled with the Spirit of Christ can spiritual death be banished and a name for life have any reality behind it".
If you go to a church and the Spirit of God is not present, that church is either dead or it's in the process of dying. Let me tell you what I've observed. And I don't know that this is an absolute rule, but if you visit around in churches, maybe someday you'll move and you'll have to go to a new place and try to find where to go to church, the first thing you should watch is this: how do these people worship the Lord? Do they do so in a dead, ritualistic way, or is there vibrancy and life in their worship? I'm not talking about the style of worship, that's a whole different deal. But when you walk into a church that really knows how to worship, the first thing you realize is the Holy Spirit is alive and well in this body because it's the Holy Spirit who causes us to worship the Lord.
What is the ministry of the Holy Spirit? For us to glorify God. And what is worship? It is glorifying God. And when the Holy Spirit is alive in the church, you can tell by the worship of the people. That's usually the first sign. So, the Word of God says when you're in a situation where it may be that the church is dying, be sensitive to the inroads of sin in the church. Be supportive of those who remain true to the Christ of the church. Be submissive to the control of the Holy Spirit in the church.
Number four, be subject to the authority of God's Word in the church. Notice verse 3, "Hold fast". This is a very interesting word of instruction, for it is traced through the Bible, and specifically through the book of Revelation. And it is always used, when it is used in the book of Revelation, of keeping the Word of God. Now, I have a whole lot of these references, and I had to pare them down because I don't want to bore you with all of them, but let me just give you some of them. You see if you can figure out what it means to hold fast. The word itself means to keep, it's the same word. "Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things which are written, for the time is near," Revelation 1:3.
Revelation 3:8, "I know your works. See, I have set before you an open door, and no one can shut it, for you have a little strength, and you have kept," what? "My word". Revelation 12:17, "And the dragon went to make war with the rest of her offspring, who keep the commandment of God, and have the testimony of Jesus Christ". Revelation 22:7, "Behold, I am coming quickly! Blessed is he who keeps the words of the prophecy of this book". What does Jesus mean when he says "hold fast"? He means keep the Word of God. Follow the Word of God and keep it. What does it mean to keep it? It means to obey it, allow it to be that which governs your life, not only the life of the church, but the life of the people who go to the church.
Let the Word of God be the center of everything that goes on in your life. So, be sensitive to the inroads of sin in the church. Be supportive of those who remain true to Christ in the church. Be submissive to the control of the Holy Spirit in the church. Be subject to the authority of God's Word in the church. And then finally, be sorry and repent for the sin of the church. Notice again in verse 3, all of these instructions are from one verse, it says repent, which means to turn around and go in the other direction, to stop where you're going, do a 180, and go back to where you started when you were doing the right thing. Repent, ask God to forgive you for abandoning the Word of God.
And this is true for our lives as well as for the church. Maybe you started out on fire for the Lord as an individual. And something in you feels sort of dead. You're not alive to Christ, and the Word of God and the church is not what it once was. If you look down these things that are on this list, these things that cause churches to die, they're almost always the same things that cause Christians to lose the vibrancy of their faith. Go back and put the Holy Spirit in control of your life. Find some time every day to get the Word of God in your heart. Repent of where you've been, where you shouldn't be, and watch how God begins to bring new life into your life, just as he will do in any church that will follow his pattern.
So we've seen the destination of this letter, and the designation of the Lord, and the denunciation of the church, and the direction to the church. Now, notice verses 5 and 6 at the end of the letter, the declaration to the church. Jesus says, "He who overcomes shall be clothed in white garment, 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. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches". To those within the church of Sardis, who are true to Christ, there is a threefold promise that is given. The overcomers mentioned here are the few who have not defiled their garments, the ones in the church who haven't gotten caught up in the dying of the church, the ones that the church is supposed to encourage because they still are alive in Christ.
The Lord Jesus says to those, and he says to all of us who will follow the same pattern, first of all, they shall be clothed in white. "He who overcomes shall be clothed in white garments". Christ was reminding the believers in Sardis that they would walk one day in triumph with Christ. They would wear white. They would walk in the triumphant procession of the victorious Lord. They shall be clothed in white. Notice number two, they shall be continued in the book. "And I will not blot out his name from the book of life". Literally the text says, "I will never, by any means, blot out his name". This is not talking about the possibility of a name being blotted out of the book in heaven. It is an absolute statement that it won't happen. He will never, not ever, under any circumstances allow his name to be blotted out.
Jesus said, "Nevertheless do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven". I hope your name is written in heaven, that your name is written in the Lamb's book of life. Because if it is not, you have missed the register that is necessary for you to be admitted to heaven. And the only way you get your name in the Lamb's book of life is to allow the blood of the Lamb, of the Lord Jesus Christ, to wash away your sin. When you do that, he puts you in his book, and your name is there, indelibly placed, and it will never be erased. They shall be clothed in white, they shall be continued in the book, and then it says they shall be confessed before the Father. "And I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels".
When you stay true to the Word of God, when you demonstrate that you have the real Christian faith, this is what you can look forward to. This is the promise to the overcomers that we get from Jesus. Now, we're trying to find out why this church died. When you do an autopsy, the first thing you do is you rule out things that are not the cause of death. So, let's do a little bit of that. We can rule out death from an outside enemy. It is impossible to kill a church from the outside. Think back to the history of the church and you will discover this to be true.
In the very first days of the church, when the church was turning the world upside down, the Jews set themselves to destroy the church through persecution. And instead, every time they tried to persecute the church, the church grew. The seed of the martyrs was the growth of the church. Every time they persecuted the church, the church broke out into greater growth and greater vibrancy. There was nothing they could do from the outside. When we're trying to figure out how this church died, we can rule out death from an outside enemy because there's no such thing as an outside enemy that can kill the church.
Number two, we can rule out death by suicide. The church did not die on purpose. There was no definite or deliberate break with Jesus Christ. And thirdly, it does not die by abandonment. The church did not die because it was abandoned by God or by those who were true to God. We know this because there was a remnant in this church that remained true to the Lord. We just read about it. They did not defile their garments, says the Word of God. They were alive even though they were surrounded by the dead. You can rule out death from an outside enemy, you can rule out suicide, you can rule out death by abandonment.
Here's how the church died. The church died through the death of its individual members. That's how it died. There is no such thing as a church that is alive without a church full of living members, people who live for Christ. The church died little by little, one by one, as the vibrancy of Christ disappeared from its individual members. And the church died because it relied on its past reputation. Do you see the parallel?
The church was taken captive in exactly the same way that the city was taken captive. How instructive is this letter. Through a heavy dose of overconfidence — overconfidence is a familiar road to defeat, and many churches have died while the members were congratulating each other on their abundant life. And the church died because it let sin creep into the membership.
In verse 4, the people who had not capitulated to the death of the congregation are described as people who had not soiled their garments. Apparently, part of the death of this church was the dirt in this church. Beneath the polished reputation of the Sardian church was secret sin. The church died because it was not sensitive to sin in its membership, and because it was not sensitive to its own spiritual condition. Do you know what the church in Sardis was like? Just like Samson, do you remember Samson?
Samson, who lost God without even being aware that he had lost him. And when danger threatened, he rose up with his old confidence, saying, "I will go out as before at other times, and shake myself free," but it was not to be this time. The Bible says, "But he did not know that the Lord had departed from him". This statement concerning Samson could have been the inscription on the tombstone of the Sardian church. They did not know that the Lord had departed from them.
And once again, I want to remind us all that we have a responsibility as God's people to make sure this church is alive and well, and serving God with all of our hearts, and giving to missions with great generosity, and reaching out to the lost in our community, and touching the lives of people who don't know Jesus Christ, and worshiping God with vibrant testimony to his greatness, and listening to the Word of God with hunger in our hearts, so that we might grow in grace and in the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.