1 “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. 2 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. 3 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. 4 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. 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. 6 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’” – Revelation 3:1-6 ESV
In opening His address to the church in Sardis, Jesus once again uses imagery provided in chapter one to describe Himself. This time, He mentions the seven spirits of God and the seven stars as being His possessions. If you recall, in Revelation 1:4, John described seeing the seven spirits before the throne of God. And in verse 16 of that same chapter, John described seeing Jesus holding seven stars in his right hand. The seven spirits of God is thought to be a reference to the Spirit of God. Throughout the Scriptures, the number seven is symbolic of perfection or completeness. By referring to the Spirit as being seven in number, it is a way of describing His perfection. He is lacking in nothing. And Jesus addresses the church in Sardis, assuring them that He comes to them with the Spirit of God. And this is important, because the indictment that Jesus levels against the congregation there has to do with their spiritual apathy. They are dead. But it is the Spirit who brings life. The Spirit regenerates non-believers, providing them with new life. Paul told his young protegé, Titus: “he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life” (Titus 3:5-7 EASV). The Holy Spirit brings new life. And yet, as Jesus will accuse the church in Sardis, “You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead” (Revelation 3:1 ESV). It would seem that Jesus is saying that some within the fellowship there had never really been renewed or regenerated. They remained in their former dead spiritual state. During His earthly ministry, Jesus had clearly equated new life with belief, telling those who followed Him:
“It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But there are some of you who do not believe.” – John 6:63-64 ESV
By bringing the Holy Spirit with Him, it is as if Jesus is offering the unbelieving, spiritually dead members of the church in Sardis with an opportunity to experience new life through the power of the Spirit. It is important to note that Jesus describes the congregation as a whole as being dead. They were ineffective and incapable of doing what they were supposed to be doing. Their works were incomplete. They had a reputation for being alive, but were really lifeless. Nothing can rob the life out of a local congregation than the presence of unbelievers masquerading as believers. That is why Jesus demands that the church wake up and strengthen what remains. They were to recall the message they had received in the beginning, the gospel message of new life made possible through faith in Christ. They had walked away from the basic truths of the gospel message and allowed spiritual compromise and moral complacency to infiltrate their fellowship. And by describing Himself as having the seven stars in His hands, Jesus is reminding the spiritual leaders of the church at Sardis that they belong to Him. They answer to Him. He is their authority and they are responsible to the flock He has placed under their care. Peter has a similar warning to elders in his first letter:
2 shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; 3 not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. 4 And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory. – 1 Peter 5:2-4 ESV
Poor leadership in a local church can result in spiritual apathy and provide an atmosphere in which falsehood can thrive. Unbelievers can easily find access into the fellowship, bringing their false understandings of what it means to be saved. They can practice the outward signs of religion, creating a church that appears spiritual, all the while missing the very thing they need to be truly alive and empowered by the Spirit of God. The apostle Paul warned the elders from the church at Ephesus:
28 “So guard yourselves and God’s people. Feed and shepherd God’s flock—his church, purchased with his own blood—over which the Holy Spirit has appointed you as leaders. 29 I know that false teachers, like vicious wolves, will come in among you after I leave, not sparing the flock. 30 Even some men from your own group will rise up and distort the truth in order to draw a following. 31 Watch out! Remember the three years I was with you—my constant watch and care over you night and day, and my many tears for you. – Acts 20:28-31 NLT
Paul told them to remember. He wanted them to recall the time, energy and effort he had poured into making them a healthy and vibrant fellowship. And Jesus tells the leadership at Sardis to remember as well, and He warns them to repent. They need to wake up and recognize the problem in their fellowship. If they don’t, Jesus warns, He will come like a thief in the night. When they least expected it, He would bring judgment against them. Jesus takes seriously the spiritual well-being of His bride, the church. He will hold the leadership of His church responsible for how they care for and protect those for whom He died. Sadly, Jesus indicates that there are only a few in Sardis who had not “soiled their garments” (Revelation 3:4 ESV). That means that the majority of those who claimed to be members of the local fellowship in Sardis had soiled their garments – they were stained by immorality and sin. In comparison, a faithful few had remained pure, and Jesus promises that they will one day walk with Him in His Kingdom wearing the white robes of sinless perfection. John will later describe seeing these very people standing before the throne of God in heaven.
After this I saw a vast crowd, too great to count, from every nation and tribe and people and language, standing in front of the throne and before the Lamb. They were clothed in white robes and held palm branches in their hands. – Revelation 7:9 ESV
And Jesus promises those who overcome, who maintain their spiritual integrity and faithful commitment to their calling, that He will reward 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 his angels. – Revelation 3:5 ESV
Jesus is not demanding sinless perfection in this life. He is not saying that only those who remain sin-free on earth will enjoy the reward of eternal life. The one who conquers is a reference to the those who truly belong to Christ. They are conquerors because He has already conquered. Jesus defeated sin and death on the cross. And those who place their faith in Him are already victorious. Their salvation is secure and their eternal state, already prepared for them. As followers of Christ, they pursue holiness in this life, in the power of the Holy Spirit. They seek to live righteously, refusing to pursue the old sinful habits of the past. The apostle Paul put it this way, “anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun!” (2 Corinthians 5:17 NLT).
The church in Sardis had a reputation for being alive, but Jesus knew the truth. He could see the spiritual apathy and the debilitating influence of those who claimed to be followers of Christ, but who were really non-believers. Their presence was destroying the church from within. The church’s leadership had been asleep at the wheel and had allowed the enemy to infiltrate their ranks and begin to destroy the church from within. It is interesting to note that the city of Sardis, which sat on a high hill, had been thought to be impregnable to attack. But there was a hidden pathway that led to a secret entrance into the walls of the city. And about 548 B.C., Cyrus the Persian captured Sardis by using this hidden pathway to breech the city’s walls. The same thing happened again in 218 B.C., when the city was taken by Antiochus. One of the greatest dangers to any church is a spirit of complacency and over-confidence. When the leadership of a church no longer recognizes the reality of spiritual warfare and the need to protect the flock of God at all costs, the enemy takes advantage of their apathy and brings destruction from within.
So, as He has done before, Jesus warns every one who has ears to hear what He is saying to the churches. His wake-up call to Sardis applies to each and every church in every age. As Paul said, “we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Romans 8:37 ESV), but if we fail to remain faithful and committed to His cause, we can find ourselves becoming the conquered. While Jesus promised that all the powers of hell would not prevail against His church (Matthew 16:18), Satan is still going to do everything in his power to destroy the church. The victory has been won, but the battle is real. And we must remain awake and alert.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.