To The Church in Sardis
Key Verse 3:3a
“Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; obey it, and repent.”
When the Lord, who holds all things in his hands, both heavens and earth, life and death and all that’s in between, commands to “remember”, we must put aside all else in our lives and give careful thought to what it is we must “remember”. How important it is for us to remember! Memory is a powerful tool of mind, a tool that has shaped civilizations built on what has been known and built upon. A memory of a burn we’ve had protects us from being burnt again, otherwise life itself could be so easily extinguished. In the same way, memory is also a most powerful tool of heart and more so of soul. On countless occasions the Lord God commanded his people Israel to remember their suffering in Egypt and how he had carried them on eagles’ wings from slavery to freedom in the Lord their God. And always a remnant of people had remembered this grace and remained faithful to Him. In that way the torch of faith burnt throughout history till this very day. Spiritual life and death depends on how well we remember, and how we choose to remember such things as our past sinful life, our sins, the things that please God and those that displease him. Most of all spiritual life and death depends on how well we remember his amazing grace in our lives. To him who remembers, to her who overcomes, to them who hold fast to Gospel faith— to such the promise is given that eternal life will be theirs forever. So we must learn to remember!
Read verse 1. “To the angel of the church in Sardis write: These are the words of him who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead.” This letter was given to the church at Sardis. Sardis existed a time before the sixth century BC. It grew into a rich, luxurious, rich and famous city. After being destroyed by an earthquake in 17 ad, the city of Sardis was rebuilt by Rome. Because of Sardis’ worldly glory its citizens became lax and hedonistic. They say that the city was captured twice because its guards failed to be vigilant. It’s a sad day when a city is taken because of drunken and dulled caretakers. Sardis had always been a rich and lively city. But inwardly, the city and its people, and church was dead!
Look at verse 1 again. “To the angel of the church in Sardis write: These are the words of him who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead.” The Lord Jesus rebukes the church at Sardis that they reflect only an outward reputation of being alive, but in fact they were dead. That was their problem. It did not matter how alive they may have seemed. To the eyes of God, they were spiritually dead. To this church Jesus identifies himself as the one who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. The seven spirits of God is another name for the Holy Spirit who sees all things outward and inward; the Holy Spirit who judges the thoughts of the heart and the inmost soul, and determines what is alive and what is dead. He alone can judge what is in the heart of a man, and what is at the heart of a church. He also holds the seven stars, who were the messengers or spiritual leaders of the church. He holds them to account, because the leaders of the church are the shepherds responsible for the condition of the church. They are responsible collectively and they are responsible individually, for they had been called and chosen by God to serve his ministry in every age and every generation and in every church. Jesus holds these to account. He holds these to account for he has appointed them to remember all things and to act accordingly to the glory of God. We must know that God holds the leaders of the church accountable to him.
When the Holy Spirit examined the hearts of the elders of the church of Sardis, he found them wanting. He found that while they were outwardly active, they were inwardly dead. That was their main problem— spiritual death. He gives no words of encouragement, no words of commendation. Only that he knows their deeds, their activities, their outward rituals and religious ceremonies and that they’re not enough. What happened to them that while still outwardly doing the work of God, inwardly they died spiritually?
It is possible that the members of the church of Sardis were converts of Paul or of Paul’s disciples, who went out to preach the gospel in every city. They had once been hedonistic and physical, following the trends of the time, doing as others did, not giving a care to the end result of their lives, nor to their deadly influence on each other. Then they heard the gospel of life, and they knew how much their sins grieved God. They were moved that Jesus had shed his blood for the forgiveness of their sins. They turned their hearts to Jesus in faith. They made decisions to no longer live for the pleasures of sin but for the glory of God and to his purpose. They had also received the mission in their hearts to bring the gospel of life to all people. Then they had gone out to preach the gospel and in that way they had grown from a handful of believers into a glorious church. Once their very presence challenged sinners to come and see what is happening in their small church community. And when others came, they saw lives changed and genuinely lived for the glory of God. And they too believed and put their faith and trust in Jesus.
Then what happened to them? Its likely that their success corrupted their hearts. It’s likely that while once they had depended on God, they started depending on their own efforts. Likely they did not remain faithful to the grace of God which saved them. Likely they had grown proud at heart and arrogant in their souls. Likely they began to criticize and complain against each other. The love they once held for each other was snuffed out as their love grew less for the Lord and more for their own good church. What a wretched end to them. Once they had been spiritually alive, but now they were spiritually dead. Jesus was distraught over them. Such a church that is outwardly alive but inwardly dead is a festering sore that soon corrupts everything around it.
Jesus never intended for us to be alive on the outside and dead on the inside. Yet it happened to the Christians of Sardis. They had once been alive but now they were dead. And the Lord who had once kept them as the apple of their eye could only grieve that they had exchanged the glory of God for worldly glory. For that is what happens when a man or woman seems to be Christian but makes no effort to maintain Christian values in their hearts. What Christian values are we talking about? Jesus tells us: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul? If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.” (Mk.8:34-38) These are the Christian values the Lord had given us to embrace and to nurture in our hearts. These are the Christian values that we must live by from day to day— and every day. Jesus’ words are eternal. They shine on the path of our lives, and guide our feet to where we should walk and where not to walk. Many had begun well, denying themselves, carrying the cross of mission and following Jesus. They had done so even when it was painful to do so for body and soul. Many begin well doing as their Christian conviction compels them to do, serving and honoring the Lord who shed his blood for their sins. But soon their love for the Lord fails and their hearts turn away from him. They do service habitually, but there seems to no longer be any fire in their hearts to keep them alive in the Lord. What happened to them? How could active faith and fervent mission be reduced to nothing more than ceremony?
Read verses 2 & 3. “Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your deeds complete in the sight of my God. Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; obey it, and repent. But if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you.” When is a church considered dead? When is a heart considered as dead? A church or a man is considered as dead when they are sleeping; when the heart no longer beats with love and devotion to Christ who set that soul free; when that heart is no longer awake to the Lord of glory but asleep to him— as it wakes up to the world and its glitter. How shameful it is for a man or church to go to sleep in the heat of battle! We have a mission to bring the gospel to the whole world. But we must not forget that we are also in a perpetual state of warfare struggling to remain alive in a world that wants us dead. And at times the world wins and puts to sleep the very people who should have remained awake to defend the church and the flock of God. How shameful it is when a Christian turns his or her back on Christ and his calling in order to enjoy the glittering dead things of the world! The church at Sardis had a serious spiritual problem. They were dead because they slept when they should have kept vigil. They were sleeping when they should have been fighting the good fight of faith. They were sleeping when they should have been caring for their souls as well as the souls of those whom God had entrusted to their care. They were sleeping. They had become dull to God and alive to the world. So Jesus rebuked them. He rebuked them to wake up. Jesus warned them with ominous consequences if they did not wake up. (3) He rebuked them to strengthen what remains, but is in danger of dying. Not much had remained though! For they had forgotten the most important thing in their lives. What had they forgotten?
Read verse 3a. “Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; obey it, and repent.” Jesus rebuked them to wake up from their spiritual slumber. He gave them spiritual direction to rise from the deadness of their hearts. How could a church that is dying or dead come to life again? How could a heart that no longer beats for the Lord and his purpose rise from the ashes? How could it come alive? And how could it once again achieve its purpose? Jesus tells us how. He tells the church at Sardis to remember what they had received and heard. He tells them to obey what they heard and repent of that which had caused them to go wayward. Jesus clearly commanded them to remember. He also commands us to remember.
But what exactly did they need to remember? They needed to remember what they had received and heard. What had they received and heard? They had once received the gospel. They had once heard the gospel. They had once known their own sinfulness, and the wretched condition of their souls. They had once known that they had put the Lord of glory to shame on the cross, that their sins had crucified Him. They had once known that they were going to hell, and that their lives were offensive to God. But then they had heard the gospel. They had once repented. They had once renounced their sins. They had once been diligent in studying the Bible and in serving the Kingdom’s cause. They had once been active spiritually, bringing many people to the Lord through prayer and the powerful work of the Holy Spirit in them. So they must remember the gospel. They must remember the grace that saved them from an empty way of life and brought meaning to their meaningless existence lost in the futile things of this world. They must remember that Word of God which lifted their spirits when their spirits were down and despaired, and had brought them peace and joy. They must remember to love each other in the Lord, to support each other, to unite in faith and in love, all for the sake of the Lord. There are so many things to remember, but they must remember. They must remember all that the Lord had done in and through them. And they must wake up from their long sleep. How could they remember?
Read our key verse again. “Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; obey it, and repent.” They must not only remember, but they must obey the word of God. What exactly must they obey? Many things! But mostly obey God’s call to repentance. Repentance is the only solution to the problem of spiritual slumber or spiritual death. Repentance is the power of the heart and soul to get up from sleep, to rise from the dead, to strengthen what is has, and to ascend to the throne of God all over again and to live again for the glory of God. Repentance is easy when the soul is tender and genuinely grieves over its spiritual condition and its sins. At the same time, repentance is not easy. Repentance requires the cutting off of all that has brought a division between a soul and God— that sin, or bad habit, or desire that was allowed to take hold of the heart. Repentance requires determination to do what is right in the sight of God, at any cost. To do that, one must first know how he or she had offended God. Then they must have a passion to give up their sin(s) and turn their hearts back to God again.
The patriarch Abraham was once childless. Then a son, Ishmael was born to him by his union with his wife’s maidservant. It was not God’s will that Abraham have a son yet, and therefore, having Ishmael by some human plan was a spiritual compromise. It was a sin he needed to repent of. For 13 years Abraham enjoyed his son Ishmael. When God visited him, Abraham was not awake, but slumbering in the joys of fatherhood: He was alive to Ishmael and dead to God: he was also dead to God’s call and purpose for Abraham to be the herald of faith to a faithless world. But God loved Abraham and commanded him to repent of living before his son and to begin to live before God. He needed to repent. He needed to put away his son in order to make room again for God in his heart. He needed to put aside the glory of fatherhood and to honor God as Father and Lord of his life. Abraham needed to repent. It was not easy. But he did. And he made history. Abraham passed down the faith to us— the faith to trust God and to repent and to follow him all the days of our lives. Repentance is the remedy to any heart or any church that is dead and that needs to wake up and live again.
Read verse 4 “Yet you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes. They will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy.” Was the whole church dead? No! There was a small group of people who were still alive. They were the few who were faithful to God and to his purpose in their lives and in the church. They were the remnant! Ironically, Sardis means “remnant”. They were a glorious remnant who kept the flame of faith burning when all other flames had been extinguished. No doubt they were looked upon as fanatic and strict and legalistic. How they must have suffered from false accusations of being old fashioned and unreasonable! But they had to harden their hearts to the world and soften their hearts to Christ. They had to live in daily repentance and in the word of God. They were the ones who could never forget the grace of God that saved them, and gave them life when they were dead in their sins. When they looked at the pitiful condition of their church, at the hypocrisy, at the criticisms and worldliness of the church, they prayed that God might send his spirit of repentance so that all the church might live and not die. How wonderful they were. Praise God for the remnant who always stands fast in the faith, who always maintain the spirit of God in a dark and sinful times.
Read 5 “He who overcomes will, like them, be dressed in white. I will never blot out his name from the book of life, but will acknowledge his name before my Father and his angels.” To be “clothed in white” is to be made pure and set apart for the Christ. God promises those who would repent these words: “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” (Ezekiel 36:26) “I will give them an undivided heart and put a new spirit in them; I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh.” (Ezekiel 11:19) How can we overcome the dullness of our hearts, how can we overcome the deadness of soul? We can when we have a mind to remember what God has done; when we have a humble mind to repent of our contentment to labor physically for the Lord, while giving no heart neither to his work nor his Word. We can overcome when we remain faithful to what we have received and heard—when we have a heart to be bathed all over again in his grace and in nothing else. May God have mercy on our souls. Read verse 6. “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”