John Bradshaw - Sardis
The nation of Turkey has a fascinating history. The early Christian church made a major impact here. Three books of the New Testament were written to churches in what today we call Turkey. Ephesus, Colossae, and Galatia were all located in Turkey. That's not to say Christianity ever dominated here way back then. The environment in which the early church existed was extraordinarily pagan. An entire pantheon of gods was worshiped. Emperors were worshiped. Immorality was common. Christianity was in the minority here 2,000 years ago, and things haven't changed. Although as many as 25 percent of Turkish residents were Christian in the early 20th century, today that number may be as low as 0.3 percent or lower.
About 100 years ago there was a population exchange between Turkey and Greece. About 1.25 million Greek Orthodox Christians in Turkey were resettled in Greece, while about 400,000 Muslims in Greece were moved to Turkey. Today you can still find abandoned villages from that time. Once populated by Greek Orthodox Christians, they're now deserted. At around that same time, a revolutionary movement massacred large numbers of Armenians. Just how many isn't easy to know as it's a subject few people want discussed in this country. Some say 800,000. Others say a million. Some say it could have been as many as a million and a half Armenians who perished, while some estimates place the number even higher.
Fast forward to the present day and about 99 percent of Turkish residents are Muslim. There are more Muslims here in Turkey than in Iraq and Saudi Arabia combined. In fact, there are only a handful of countries that have a higher Muslim population than that of Turkey. And as you might expect, Islam is very visible here. Every day the Islamic call to prayer echoes throughout the country. The call is broadcast five times a day, according to the sun's position in the sky. But beside the Islamic influences, there are also plenty of structures and buildings from the Byzantine era. Among the most famous is the enormous Hagia Sofia. The Hagia Sofia was built as a church in 325 AD, back when Istanbul was known as Constantinople. The church was later rebuilt by the emperor Justinian. It was the largest cathedral in the world for nearly 1,000 years. But in the 15th century, Istanbul was conquered by the Ottoman Empire, and the church was converted to a mosque. The Hagia Sophia is magnificent. For 85 years it was a museum before becoming a mosque again in 2020. Now, right next door, just a quarter of a mile away, is the Blue Mosque, another stunning building.
As we visit Sardis, the fifth of the seven churches of Revelation, we see a very clear connection to the prophecies of the Bible. Isaiah, chapter 45 starts like this: "Thus says the Lord to His anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have held, to subdue nations before him and loose the armor of kings, to open before him the double doors, so that the gates will not be shut". This anointed one spoken of, Cyrus, was a Persian king who was used by God to overthrow the Babylonian Empire, the kingdom that destroyed Jerusalem at the time Daniel and his friends were taken captive. Babylon ruled from 605 BC to 539 BC, at which time the armies of Cyrus entered the city of Babylon and overthrew the Babylonian Empire. That was the night the writing was on the wall for the Babylonian king, Belshazzar. A mysterious hand appeared and wrote on the wall of the room in which a blasphemous party was being held.
This divine intervention was triggered by Belshazzar's decision to blaspheme God even further. The king brought out the holy vessels that were taken from God's temple in Jerusalem. These objects were consecrated to the worship of God but had been in storage as Babylonian spoils of war. But now the grandson of the great Babylonian monarch had them retrieved, and the people at that party drank alcohol from them in praise of their pagan gods. They took things holy to God and used them in false worship. That's when God said, "Enough is enough". Babylon was fallen. And the Medo-Persian general who led the overthrow of Babylon was Cyrus, named by God 150 years ahead of time. In 546 BC that same man led his armies here and took the city of Sardis. It was taken again a couple of hundred years later by Alexander the Great as he was on his way to conquering the Medo-Persian Empire and establishing the Greek Empire.
The history of Asia Minor confirms the record of Bible prophecy, which stated that Babylon would rise, then Medo-Persia, then Greece, and then Rome. The prophecy goes on to say that the Roman Empire would split into various nations, which is exactly what happened. The prophecies also say that the antichrist would rise up from among the nations that had emerged from Rome. This is mentioned in Daniel 7. And according to Daniel 2, Jesus would return during the time of those very nations. The Persian royal road passed right through Sardis. It started more than 1,600 miles away in Susa, the ancient capital of the Persian Empire in what we call today Iran. You read about Susa in the Bible; Nehemiah was in the palace in Shushan, that's Susa. And Esther was in the same place. Follow this road in that direction and eventually you'll get to Esther's house.
The road was important for communication throughout the empire. While it took about three months to walk the road, a chain of messengers could ride the entire length of the road in just nine days, crossing both the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. The Greek historian Herodotus wrote that "it is said that as many days as there are in the whole journey, so many are the men and horses that stand along the road, each horse and man at the interval of a day's journey. These are stopped neither by snow nor rain nor heat nor darkness from accomplishing their appointed course with all speed". An adaptation of this quote is inscribed on the building that once served as the main U.S. Postal Service building in midtown Manhattan. Jesus spoke to the church in Sardis very directly. One thing He knows is dangerous is when people of faith fool themselves. Jesus got confrontational with the people of Sardis. We'll look at that in just a moment.
When Jesus addressed the church of Sardis, He did so unambiguously: "And to the angel of the church in Sardis write, 'These things says He who has the seven Spirits of God and the seven stars: I know your works, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead. 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. 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. He who overcomes shall be clothed in white garments, 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.'"
That's some tough medicine, and it tells you something about the heart of God. God speaks directly because it's important that the message is understood. First, Jesus introduces Himself as having "the seven Spirits of God and the seven stars". He's making it clear to this church that the Holy Spirit is His to give to His people and that the leadership of these seven churches rests in His hands. The church of Sardis was in desperate need of the Holy Spirit, which Jesus poured out on the early church in the first chapters of the book of Acts. And He wanted to do the same for Sardis. It seems He's telling them the solution to their problems in His introductory words. "Don't forget, I can give the Holy Spirit to you to supply all your needs and to grow you into just what you need to be".
The people of Sardis were flawed, and they couldn't fix themselves. God could. The Spirit of God could anoint them, remake them. The experience of Sardis was the inverse of the church of Smyrna, away to the west. Jesus said, "You have a name that you are alive, but you are dead". Sardis was the capital of Lydia, a kingdom that once covered much of western Anatolia. And it was quite a place. One historian described Sardis as "one of the great cities of primitive history: in the Greek view it was long the greatest of cities". There was plenty of water, and there was gold. The Pactolus River runs through this area, and that's where the gold was found that fueled the great wealth of this place.
So where did all that gold come from? Well, there was a king who lived not far from here whose name was Midas. Midas was the king of Phrygia. Phrygia was west of Galatia and east of Lydia. And that's where we are now. The legend has it that in answer to his wish, Dionysus, or Bacchus, granted Midas that everything he touched would turn to gold. And before long that became a problem because everything Midas touched turned to gold. So he asked Dionysus if he would reverse this, which he did. He told Midas to wash in the Pactolus River, which he did. And that is where, according to legend, all the gold dust came from. That gold brought an economic revolution, as Sardis could manufacture gold and silver coins that could be trusted for their value.
Coins that were identified with a kingdom were first used right here in Lydia. The weight of the coins made in Sardis was guaranteed by a royal stamp, which further established their worth to those who traded with them. On these coins were engraved the head of a lion, the royal emblem of Sardis. So things were good, maybe too good. As Paul wrote, "Let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall". Sardis was one of the greatest cities of Asia Minor for over 1,000 years. And this Greek gymnasium is one of the most well-preserved sites in the city. It was built during the second and third centuries AD, shortly after John wrote the book of Revelation. This impressive complex included not only exercise facilities but also baths, much like a modern fitness center. And while most of the modern excavations have taken place here, the ruins of Sardis extend far beyond this site, offering a glimpse into the fascinating history of this ancient city.
No city in this part of the ancient world had a more impressive history than Sardis. And it might be that there was no more impressive building in town than this. These are the ruins of the temple of Artemis. And looking around, you can see that it had to have been magnificent and massive. Jesus said to this group, "Be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die, for I have not found your works perfect before God". That is, your deeds are unfulfilled, not complete, lacking. The church at Sardis was mailing it in; they weren't fully committed to God. You can see why the letter would conclude with Jesus saying, "Let [everyone] hear what the Spirit says to the churches".
This is important for every generation, but especially in today's world, where immorality and paganism are becoming the norm. Let's be honest; the internet allows people to indulge in behaviors that rival those of ancient Rome. Even books and children's TV programs can be filled with references to the occult. It's a dark world, and we can't ignore it. But even though Jesus could say, "Your works aren't perfect before God," this was a religious place. The Jewish synagogue here is the oldest known synagogue preserved from the ancient world. The Seleucid king Antiochus III appears to have encouraged Jews from throughout his empire to come and settle in Sardis. The Jewish historian Josephus writes of a Roman official in about 50 BC who also encouraged Jews to move here and apparently promised them freedom to practice their faith.
And there was a church here, obviously, a thriving congregation. And as with others of the seven churches, the church here was influential, owing to its location on important trade routes. After a devastating earthquake in 17 AD, the city was rebuilt by the Roman emperor Tiberius. This means that when John wrote to the church at Sardis, it would have been a newly rebuilt city. The people of Sardis had already strengthened the things that remained in rebuilding their city, but Jesus speaks about something much more important: "Strengthen the things that remain". There's something there, something that can be salvaged, He says. Strengthen that. In a moment, a message from 2,000 years ago, especially for us today. I'll be right back.
The message to the church of Sardis is a message designed to encourage people today who are struggling spiritually. There's no question the message is uncompromising. Jesus sees people in a state of spiritual crisis, and so He arrests their attention. But that doesn't mean that His message isn't one of love and mercy. He says, "Be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die.... Remember therefore how you have received and heard; hold fast and repent". What this suggests to us today, as we stand in the ruins of what was once a thriving city where Christianity took hold, is that the little spiritual life you have can be strengthened by God. "But I'm too weak". Well, no. You might be weak, but you're not too weak for Jesus. Remember, He can send the Holy Spirit into your life just as He did at the time of Pentecost. You might be weak, but Jesus said, "My strength is made perfect in weakness".
The presence of Jesus in a person's life is the key to the gospel. There are too many people today who incorrectly assume that Christianity is about being strong, being good, being better. What it's about is being surrendered to Jesus so that His strength and goodness can show up in your life. Remember what Paul wrote to the Colossians: "Christ in you, the hope of glory". To the Galatians he said, "Not I, but Christ [lives] in me". To the Philippians he wrote that, "it is God [which] works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure". This wakeup call issued to Sardis is for today's church just as much as it was for the church close to 2,000 years ago. Activity does improve their spiritual life.
The best music or the best programs or the biggest crowd don't prove anything. What's truly important is the life-giving, converting presence of Jesus that lifts a church up above just making claims to the place where they're actually carrying out the will of God. Remember, Jesus introduced Himself as the one who has the Spirit of God. In the book of Acts, Peter said the Holy Spirit is "given to those who obey [God]". So, in this age where style seems to matter more than substance, Jesus appears to us to be substantial. Obedience matters. Professing Jesus is good. Possessing Jesus is where it's really at. Jesus said, "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". That white they walk in? That's the righteousness of Jesus. Those who give their lives to Him surrender their sin and receive His perfect righteousness.
There's a parallel between the church of Sardis and the period right after the Protestant Reformation. During that time, many European countries supported the ideas of the reformers. But when God's people begin receiving the world's approval, there's a danger that they'll take their faith for granted. Unfortunately, this happened to much of Protestantism in the following generations. The Protestant Reformation began based upon the premise of "sola scriptura," the Bible alone, as the rule of faith and practice. In this way, they stood against the use of tradition as the church's authority. The old saying claims that history repeats, and Protestants became guilty of exactly what they'd accused others of doing. They started settling into tradition, and they moved away from the Bible as their rule of faith and practice. There came a time when Protestant Christians began to lose their zeal for faith. The church of Sardis lost its zeal.
Jesus said, "You can get this back, and it's important". If your faith is strong, don't let it slip. If your faith is weak, God can strengthen that. If you have no faith, if you've never walked with Jesus, the same Jesus invites you to have faith in Him today. And then Jesus says, "He who overcomes shall be clothed in white garments, 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". Here we encounter imagery from the great judgment scene portrayed in Daniel, chapter 7, where "a thousand thousands" are depicted as ministering to Jesus as He takes the seat of judgment. And "ten thousand times ten thousand [stand] before Him. The court was seated, and the books were opened". At the end of Daniel's prophecy, the angel Gabriel assures him that at the end of time "your people shall be delivered, every one who is found written in the book".
This is the Book of Life that Daniel's talking about, the same one Jesus mentions in His promise to the church of Sardis. The first time we read about this book in Scripture is in Exodus 32, where Moses pleads with God to grant mercy to Israel following the golden calf apostasy: "'Yet now, if You will forgive their sin, but if not, I pray, blot me out of Your book which You have written.' And the Lord said to Moses, 'Whoever has sinned against me, I will blot him out of my book.'" So how does a person escape being blotted out of the Lamb's Book of Life? Let's go back to the message Jesus gives to the church of Sardis: "He who overcomes shall be clothed in white garments, 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". In other words, those who receive His robe of righteousness, which the book of Revelation later calls "the righteousness of saints", Jesus will confess them before His Father. They'll be saved.