Sermon: Sardis – A Reputation For Life, But Really Dead: Revelation 3:1-6

Old Testament Reading: Isaiah 42:1–9

“Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be discouraged till he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his law. Thus says God, the Lord, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people on it and spirit to those who walk in it: ‘I am the Lord; I have called you in righteousness; I will take you by the hand and keep you; I will give you as a covenant for the people, a light for the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness. I am the Lord; that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to carved idols. Behold, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth I tell you of them’” (Isaiah 42:1–9, ESV).

New Testament Reading: Revelation 3:1-6

“And to the angel of the church in Sardis write: ‘The words of him who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. ‘I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God. Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it, and repent. 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. Yet you have still a few names in Sardis, people who have not soiled their garments, and they will walk with me in white, for they are worthy. 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 his angels. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches’’” (Revelation 3:1–6, ESV).


We have now come to the fifth of seven letters written to seven churches that were alive in 90 A.D. in the region of what is today called Turkey. To two of the churches Christ had nothing negative to say. He commended them for their willingness to stand for his name and encouraged them to press on and to remain faithful to the end. The other five churches, though they might have had strengths, also had weaknesses. They were rebuked by our Lord, some more severely than others. Our objective is to learn from these letters, for they address strengths and weakness that are quite common in churches, even to this present day. These letters are for us, friends.

A few things have become very clear so far in our study of the book of Revelation:

One, the book is principally concerned to show us how things are going to go with the kingdom that Jesus the Christ has been given. It is a book about the kingdom of Christ. I cannot take the time here to repeat all that was said in previous sermons about Revelation 1 where this theme was discussed in some detail. I can only briefly remind you that the opening vision of the book of Revelation is a vision of Jesus the Christ who is the Son of Man of Daniel 7. He is portrayed as the Son of Man who, now that he has accomplished his mission to redeem his elect through his life, death, burial, and resurrection, has been given the kingdom that was promised beforehand through the prophet Daniel, and others. The message of the New Testament is that the kingdom that was for a long time promised is here now that the Christ has come. Christ is king of his kingdom now. Call it the “kingdom of God”, the “kingdom of Christ”, or the “kingdom of heaven” – any of these titles will do, for they describe the same thing. They describe the thing that Christ was given upon the completion of his earthy ministry. It was the reward for his obedience. He has been made by his Father the king of this kingdom. Those given to him by the Father are the citizens of this kingdom – he has redeemed them for himself by his shed blood. And the kingdom is advancing now. It does not yet fill the whole earth, but it will one day when the Lord returns and establishes the new heavens and new earth. The book of Revelation is a book about this kingdom that belongs to Christ. It describes how things will go with it from the time of Christ’s resurrection on to the consummation of all things when Christ returns. The scriptures refer to this period of time as the “last days”. The book of Revelation makes clear that in these last days the kingdom of Christ will advance, but not without resistance. It will be brought to a consummate state upon the return of Christ, and it will fill all the earth. You and I, if we trust in Christ, belong to a kingdom. I rush through this principle because it has already been presented to you. This is reminder and review.

The second thing that has become clear in our study of the book of Revelation is that Jesus the Christ, who is the Son of Man – the one to whom the kingdom of God has been given – is clearly administering his kingdom now through local churches. The book of Revelation is a church book, written to local churches, for the purpose of strengthening local churches.

Do you know what I mean by this? Revelation 1 makes it very clear that Christ is the son of Man who has been given a kingdom by the Ancient of Days. But very quickly everything comes to focus on the local church. When I refer to the local church I am referring to churches like ours – churches like the seven that are mentioned in Revelation 2 and 3. Local churches are visible churches. They are made up of Christians – officers and members – that is, elders, deacons, and congregants. The book of Revelation, after establishing the kingship of Jesus who is the Christ quickly sets its focus upon the local church. In other words, it is not a book written to individual Christians. Revelation is a church book. It is addressed to local churches – specifically the churches of Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea.

I’m belaboring the point a bit, I know. But it is for good reason. For we live in a day where Christianity has been made to be all about the individual. Many think that we advance the kingdom of Christ when we preach the gospel and see individuals come to salvation. And I will not deny that this is indeed an essential aspect of kingdom work – the promotion and proclamation of the gospel leading to the conversion of individuals. But notice that Christ, when inspecting his kingdom, and when preparing his people for life in his kingdom, inspects them, not as individuals, but as churches. He considers individual Christians, not individually, but in the context of local congregations.

What’s the point, you ask? The point is that the advancement of Christ’s kingdom involves more than the proclamation of the gospel and the conversion of individuals. In fact the kingdom of Christ advances when local churches are established and maintained according to the word of Christ. The task of advancing the kingdom of Christ and the task of establishing and maintaining local congregations are inextricably linked – the two things cannot be separated. They are, in many respects, one and the same. To plant a church is to advance the kingdom. To refine a church is to refine the kingdom. To strengthen a church is to strengthen the kingdom. Church work is kingdom work, and kingdom work is church work. Of course all of that involves the conversion and discipleship of individuals – but our work does not end there. That’s the point I’m laboring to make.

It is this truth that is sadly neglected in our day as we make everything to be about the individual. The general Evangelical sentiment in our day seems to be this: we are doing kingdom work when we evangelize the individual, when we disciple the individual, and when we provide a wide variety of ministries specifically designed to help the individual. But these works are often done separate from, or irrespective of, the local church. There is something very incomplete about it when compared to the decidedly corporate and congregational pattern established in both the Old Testament and the New.

Do you think that Christ cares for individuals? Of course he does! But look at how he addresses his people in the book of Revelation. He addresses them as churches, and not as individuals. The same can be said for all of the other books in the New Testament. The New Testament is a church book from beginning to end. Christ is administering his kingdom through local churches.

Perhaps an illustration would help. If a portion of the US ARMY is to be inspected I would imagine that they the would come out for inspection, not as individual soldiers, but in battalions and companies, platoons and squads. The ARMY, though certainly made up of many individuals, is administered in a particular way. So too with Christ’s kingdom. When he is seen by John walking amongst the citizens of his kingdom to inspect them, he is seen walking, not amongst individuals, but individuals situated in local congregations. It is to the local church that the book of Revelation is addressed.

Revelation is a kingdom book, and it is a church book.

The third thing that is clear from our study of the book of Revelation is that Christ is concerned that his churches be healthy and whole. He is seen walking in the midst of his churches, and he is there to inspect. Where they are found to be strong he commends them and urges them to be faithful. But he rebukes them where they are weak. His desire, then, is not only to have churches, but to have churches that are healthy and whole. In fact if a church is found to be severely delinquent in doctrine or life he threatens to remove them. To Ephesus he said, “I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent” (Revelation 2:5, ESV). To Laodicea he said,  “I will spit you out of my mouth” (Revelation 3:16, ESV). Christ is concerned that his churches be healthy and whole.

But I have a question for you. Why? Why is he concerned to have churches that are healthy and whole? Is it just for the sake of being able to say, “the church is healthy”? Is that it? Or is there a purpose – an end goal – for the inspection, the encouragement, and the rebuke? Is there a purpose for the health? And if so, what is it?

When I take my car in for an inspection and tune up, I do it for a reason. It is not just so that I can say, “my car is in good shape”. I take it in for a tune up so that it might run well – so that it would carry my family to and fro safely and efficiently. There is a reason and goal motivating the inspection and tune up. We maintain things so that they might do the work they were designed to do.

When I picture the priests under the Old Covenant working in the temple, tending to the lamps on the lampstand in the holy place – trimming the wicks and refilling the oil – I envision them doing it for a purpose. They walked among the lampstand and maintained the lamps so that they would never fail to give the light that God intended for them to give. That was the purpose for the maintenance. You see, it is maintenance with a purpose.

It is the same with Christ and his churches. He, the great hight priest, inspects his churches and maintains them so that they would function as God intended them to function – so that they would do what God has called them to do.

But the question still stands: what is the purpose – the end goal – for the inspection, the encouragement, and the rebuke of the churches? What is it that God has called them to do with their health and wholeness?

The answer is that they are to do the very thing that the lampstand in holy place did. They are to shine forth as light into the darkness. This is why Christ is so concerned to have churches that are healthy and whole – so that they might shine as lights – as witnesses – to the non-believing world around them.

To put it another way, the mission of the local church is to witness.

Listen also to Acts 1:8 where Christ says to his disciples, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8, ESV). We are to function as witnesses in the world. We are to testify concerning the risen Lord through our words and deeds.

Jesus put it another way in Matthew 5:14, saying to his followers, “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:14–16, ESV).

I’m wanting you to make the connection between the vision of the Son of Man seen walking amongst the lampstand in Revelation 1 and the letters to the seven churches in chapters 2 and 3. The two things are indeed connected.

What was symbolized in chapter 1 by the vision of Jesus Christ, the great high priest walking amongst the lamps to tend to them so that they might burn bright as God intended, is actually happening in chapters 2 and 3. The word of Christ is delivered to the churches to refine them and to strengthen them – to make them healthy and whole – so that they might indeed burn bright as witnesses for Christ in the dark world in which they live.

The goal is health, not for the sake of health. But health for the sake of the accomplishment of mission.

To put it another way, though it is true that 5 of the seven churches were unhealthy in a variety of ways, Christ’s critique of each of these churches could have been the same. He could have said this, “I have this against you, you’re failing to witness. You’re falling to shine as lights in the world. You’re failing to live in a such a way that brings glory to me. Specifically, Ephesus, you have failed to love as you did at first. Pergamum, you have compromised in regard to doctrine – some have grown immoral and idolatrous. Thyatira, you have tolerated false teaching and immorality in your midst. You’ve all become like the world. You’ve compromised. Your light has become darkness. You are unhealthy, and are no longer fulfilling your purpose – you are no longer witnessing in word and deed.” A healthy church will witness in word and deed to the glory of God and for the promotion and proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Sardis is interesting.

Really nothing good is said about her, except for that not all within the church had been compromised. This is what separates her from churches one and seven – Ephesus and Laodicea. Those churches were compromised, but in a thorough way.  Sardis was compromised, but in verse 3 we read, “Yet you have still a few names in Sardis, people who have not soiled their garments, and they will walk with me in white, for they are worthy” (Revelation 3:4, ESV). That is the only positive thing mentioned.

Christ’s critique of the church was this: “I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead” (Revelation 3:1, ESV). The language here is hyperbolic, or exaggerated, for we are quickly told that Sardis was not completely dead. Look at verse 2. There Christ says, “Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God” (Revelation 3:2, ESV). What we have, then, is a church that has grown sleepy and lethargic in the faith and was on the verge of death. They had grown apathetic. The body of Christ in Sardis had begun to atrophy. Death was at the door.

Isn’t it interesting that in the letter to Sardis we find no mention of external pressures or threats to the church. Persecution does not seem to be a major problem. Nor is there any reference to the presence of explicit false teachings. The same can be said of the letter to Laodicea, which is the seventh church. No external threat is mentioned in the letter to Laodicea, and they are described as being lukewarm. Sardis is dead. Laodicea is lukewarm. Both share this in common: they seem to be in a rather comfortable place. It is important to recognize that comfort, prosperity, and security can posse a real threat to the church. A comfortable situation can lead to complacency.

It is interesting that Sardis had a reputation for being alive, when in fact she was more dead than alive. How she came to have this reputation, we are not specifically told. Perhaps she once possessed a lively faith, but had lost it – her reputation had not caught up with the new reality of things. Or perhaps she had the appearance of life, but never really had it. This is also possible. A church can look alive on the surface – many involved, elaborate ministries, fancy facilities, etc. – but in fact be dead spiritually. We do not know how Sardis came to have this reputation. The point is that Christ knew the truth of the matter. It is his word – his opinion – that matters.

In verse 2 Christ calls the church to, “Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die… (Revelation 3:2, ESV). The Greek words translated “wake up” really mean to “wake up and be vigilant, alert, and on guard.”  The church had grown sleepy. They had grown comfortable with the culture. They had failed to keep watch and had begun to compromise in regard to their devotion to Christ.

The history of the city of Sardis becomes significant at this point The city had been conquered, not once, but twice due to a lack of vigilance and complacency in the heart of it’s people. In the 6th century B.C. Cyrus, king of Persia conquered the city. Croesus, king of Lydia, thought he was safe in Sardis. He assumed that no army could ever scale the wall of the fortress. One day, a soldier dropped his helmet down the wall and went to retrieve it, climbing down and then back up again. He, in his carelessness, demonstrated that the wall could be climbed at that point. That night, the wall being left unguarded, the Persians climbed the wall and took the city. Ironically, “in the third century before Christ, Antiochus the Great of Syria sent his armies against Sardis (214 b.c.). His soldiers scaled the unguarded walls of the city and captured it in much the same way as the Persian warriors did in 546 b.c.” Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

When Christ said “wake up” or “be alert” to the church in Sardis, they would have undoubtably made the connection. They, like those in their city’s past, had grown complacent. They were too comfortable. They felt too secure. They underestimated their enemy. They were unaware of the fact that death was a the door. “Wake up”, Christ said, “and strengthen what remains and is about to die… (Revelation 3:2, ESV).

Christ said, “For I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God” (Revelation 3:3, ESV). As Christ considered the life of this church he saw that, the first generation believed upon Christ and faithfully served the Lord, but the later generation failed to advance. They failed to build upon the foundation they were given. The work in Sardis was left unfinished as the church fell into apathy and complacency.

He then urges them, saying, “Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it, and repent” (Revelation 3:3, ESV). They had received a good heritage from that first generation of Christians. Now they were to “keep it”. The Greek word translated “keep” caries the idea of continuing in something. It is not “keep it”, as in burry it in the ground, but “keep it”, as in continue to build. The gospel that was entrusted to them was to be proclaimed; the word they received was to be obeyed. They were to turn from their idleness and begin to walk faithfully before the Lord once more.

Christ threatened them, saying, “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” (Revelation 3:3, ESV). This language should certainly remind us of the way that Christ spoke concerning his second coming at the end of the age. He warned his disciples, saying,

“Therefore, stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But know this, that if the master of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect” (Matthew 24:42–44, ESV).

The apostles also spoke in this way concerning the eschaton. Paul warned the Thessalonians, saying, “For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night” (1 Thessalonians 5:2, ESV). Peter put it this way: “But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed” (2 Peter 3:10, ESV).

Clearly, these are all references to the second coming of Christ – his final and consummate coming – the eschaton. And the book of Revelation certainly will describe this event. In Revelation 16:15 we read the words of Christ: “Behold, I am coming like a thief! Blessed is the one who stays awake, keeping his garments on, that he may not go about naked and be seen exposed” (Revelation 16:15, ESV)!

But here in Revelation 3 we do not have a reference to the second coming of Christ. Instead, Christ uses end time, second coming, eschatological language, and applies it specifically to the church in Sardis. “If you will not wake up”, he says, “I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you.”

This should not surprise us. We know that Christ will come again at the end of the age to judge the world fully and finally, but he is active in judgment even now. He judges his churches because he loves them. He disciplines them as children for his glory and their good. This has been demonstrated time and again in the letters to the churches. He has threatened to remove Ephesus’ lampstand. He has threatened to war against Pergamum with the sword of his mouth. He threatened to throw Jezebel and her followers onto a sickbed. Here he warns Sardis that he will “come like a thief”. He uses the language that is elsewhere used to describe the second coming and he applies it specifically to Sardis.

His desire for them was that they would repent of their sleepy slumber; that they would wake up and be alert; that they would remember what they received at first, and continue in it, serving Christ faithfully and without compromise. He desire for them was that they would live as Christians in the world, shining as lights in the darkness as his witnesses.

His promise to them is found in verse 5: “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 his angels” (Revelation 3:5, ESV). Their eyes were directed to the eternal reward. They had fallen in love with the world and had grown complacent. Christ set their eyes upon the eternal reward. The last thing mentioned is that Christ would confess their name before the Father and the angles. If they would confess Christ (witness) then he would confess them.

The good news is that the church has all she need to succeed in this. For it is the one who has “the seven spirits of God and the seven stars” that speaks to them. The seven spirits of God is a way of speaking of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is perfect in power. The Holy Spirit is given to all the churches. That is why the number seven is used – perfect in power and given to all the churches. Christ has the Spirit and he gives the Spirit to those who are his to empower them. And he hold the seven stars, which represent the angels of the seven churches, in his hand. This is to remind the churches of their heavenly status and position. They are not of this world. They are seated with Christ in the heaven places. We are sojourners passing through. This is not our home. Our life is hidden with Christ. Our hope is in the life to come. Christ is all that we need to live as we ought in this world. We are to look to him and trust in him.


Brothers and sisters, have you grown complacent? Our situation is quite comfortable, isn’t it? Have you been lulled to sleep? Are you naive to the fact that the enemy is at the gates? Have you lost your zeal for serving Christ?

If so, Christ is calling you to repent.

Remember the word that has been taught to you. Remember the basics of the gospel. Do not forget the foundational things of the faith, but rather remember them, keep them, and build upon them.

Live a life devoted to Christ. Obey his commands. Keep his words. Walk in his ways.

May our lives be marked by holiness. May we be Christ-like so that, indeed, we shine as lights in the darkness.

It is in this way that we will be effective witness to the grace and mercy found in our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.


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