A Dead Church


Renewing the Church (12)

The fifth letter
The letter to the church at Sardis is written to a church existing under a delusion. A group of people can delude themselves as readily as individuals; this is what the church at Sardis did. They deluded themselves. Jesus informs them, I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead. One of the consequences of the Fall is that we can refract reality through lenses which distort, seeing only what we want to us, thus blurring and blotting the true shapes and shadows of the circumstances of our existence.

Jesus’ letter to the angel of the church of Sardis teaches us that Christ insists upon our churches evaluating themselves realistically. Institutions—including churches, which are really never meant to be institutions but allow themselves to become such — will invariably put spin on their images, trying to present themselves in the best light even when they exist in a total lack of light. There is no light in a grave. This appears to be the problem with the church of Sardis. There is no light in this church. They are buried beneath their delusions. What Jesus said in Matthew 23:27 also applies in this instance: "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness."

The city of Sardis
Sardis, as were the other churches receiving this collective letter, was located in what is now modern day Turkey. It was a cultural center situated on a hill 1500 feet high, and its growth made it cascade into a valley below the hill. It sat at the confluence of major highways that linked it to the sea coast and to the lucrative trade routes of the east. It was one of the oldest cities in Asia Minor, founded in 1200 B.C. Sardis had once been the capital of the province of Lydia and had later been ruled by Pergamum before coming under Roman dominion. Its acropolis contained impressive buildings, a gymnasium and a temple dedicated to Artemis. Archeologists have unearthed a sizeable synagogue in the city. According to Josephus in his Antiquities, the wealthy Jewish community of Sardis was a compromised community. In the writings of Herodotus, Sardis was noted as a city of luxury and loose living.

Jesus describes Himself
Jesus opens this letter by declaring, "The words of him who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars." Revelation 1:4 states, "Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne...” Revelation 5:6: "And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, with seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth." The “seven eyes” is a reference to Zechariah 4:10, whereas the “seven spirits” refers to Isaiah 11:2 in which Isaiah is describing the promised and prophesied Messiah: "And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord." In order to properly understand the number “seven” in the Isaiah passage, “the Spirit of the LORD” is the first entity in the number, then follows the other three pairs that comprise the remaining six. Earlier studies in this series have shown that the “seven stars” refers to the seven angels of the seven churches, the angels might well being human messengers—the pastors of the churches.

Jesus criticizes the Church
Sardis and the church of Laodicea are the only churches that receive no complement from Jesus whatsoever. Jesus begins his criticism with, "I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead" (3:1). The church was filled with “fringe” or “nominal” Christians. They were “alive” only in appearance, not in actuality. A corpse might appear — with a stretch of the imagination — to be alive, but on close examination one concludes that it lacks its life-giving spirit. The majority of the “only-in-name” Christians in the Sardis church lacked the life-imparting presence of the Holy Spirit. Yet a few are not totally dead. Jesus tells them, "Wake up, strengthen what remains and is about to die."

Jesus gives a warning
In Jesus’ warning are a series of imperatives, the first already being mentioned: "Wake up..." The reason that Jesus gives is, I have not found your works complete in the sight of God. In Mark 13:32-37, Jesus talks about His second coming and in His discourse He employs the word “awake” four times (Mark 13:33, 34, 35, 37) ending His discourse with this admonition, "And what I say to you, I say to all: 'Stay awake.'" Jesus follows His imperative wake up to the Sardis church with the command: "Remember....what you received and heard." The third imperative of Jesus is: "Keep it," and the fourth imperative is: Repent. Jesus thus sternly informs them what will happen if they don’t wake up, if they don’t remember who He is and what He had done for them, if they don’t keep their love and testimony intact, and if they don’t repent and mend their ways: "If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you."

Jesus encourages the faithful
Even though the majority of the church is dead, and even though more yet are in the process of expiring, Jesus states, "Yet you still have a few names in Sardis, people who have not soiled their garments..." (3:4). Because of the image of soiled garments, some expositors postulate that Sardis’s sins were primarily sexual, but the image could equally well apply to works compelled by show instead of love, as it applied to the scribes and Pharisees Jesus called whitewashed tombs. The works of the Sardis Christians probably puffed them up rather than edified one another and served God. Those who have not soiled their garments might well be the ones who have not succumbed to the sin of pride.

Jesus’ promises to the faithful
Jesus promises the faithful that "they will walk with me in white, for they are worthy." A paradox for the believer who is worthy is that he or she invariably knows how unworthy they truly are. Revelation 5 reveals that there is only One who is truly worthy, and that is the Lamb of God. Yet because He is worthy, He can impart His worthiness to those whose hearts are saturated with His love. Their worthiness comes not from works which they do to puff themselves up, but from love that has been “poured into their hearts” through the power of the Holy Spirit (Rom. 5:5). Jesus can proclaim to them, "The one who conquers will be clothed thus in white garments, and I will never blot his name out of the book of life. I will confess his name before my Father and before the angels" (3:5).

The application of Jesus’ criticism to today’s Church
Some churches will puff themselves up with pride because of their large campuses, their many programs and their lavishly produced services. Others puff themselves up because of their social services to the poor and the destitute. Yet their motive for doing so is not out of love that transforms, but out of pride that fosters a sense of elitism. If one were to do a spiritual assessment of their members, one would undoubtedly find only the veneer of discipleship, and an erroneous sense of being included in the “in crowd,” the crowd composed of “good people.” If works are done without love, the works might indeed benefit those receiving them, but they could be a source of condemnation for the ones doing them.

Here is a list to evaluate your church in light of this letter:
Does your church take undue and misappropriated pride in its works? In its buildings, programs and services?

  • Does love of Christ compel the works of your church?
  • Does your church need to wake up, remember, keep it and repent?
  • Is the overall tone of your church one of gratitude and thanksgiving?
  • Is your church actively involved in discipleship training which emphasizes love of God and love of neighbor
  • Is your church more than a social club?
Pray that your church as well as yourself will grow in its commitment to the Lord and that you and it would be willing to do works lovingly, humbly and with a burning desire to love God and one’s neighbor.

Next steps

How does your church match-up with David’s evaluation list? Talk with some church leaders about any concerns arising from this study. See if there’s anything you can do to help.


For more insight to the Church and its ministry, order a copy of Chuck Colson’s book, Being the Body, from our online store. Or download the free PDF ViewPoint series, “The Vision of the Church,” by T. M. Moore.



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