Sardis was a prosperous city that by the end of the first century had seen better days. Of the seven churches, Sardis was the most protected. The cliff upon which the city was built gave it only one major access route and thus made the gates of the city easy to protect. When armies tried to attack the city they were always pushed away.
Sardis had never been taken captive as a city by direct assault. However, twice in its history, 549 and 195 BCE, it had been conquered and its leader deposed by enemies who found a “chink in the armor” and were able to scale the cliffs and find a way into the city through a small access hole in the wall. In both cases while the city slept in the knowledge that its gates were secure, the citizens of Sardis awoke to find that they were under surprise attack. In 549 Cyrus captured Sardis by sending a climber up a crevice on one of the nearly perpendicular cliffs on one side of the city. In 195 Lagoras of Crete led fifteen men through the same entry point, opened the gates of the city from within, and allowed the armies of Antiochus the Great to capture the sleeping city. In poetry and wisdom literature of the day, Sardis had become synonymous with the dangers of over-confidence, pride, and arrogance. The history of Sardis demonstrated the need to be aware of enemies who come “like a thief in the night” (3:3).
By the first century the glory days of Sardis were in the past. In the sixth century BCE it had been the capital city of the kingdom of Lydia and later a center of Persian government. Although Sardis was no longer a major power center it was still the meeting place of several trade routes and it prospered from the fertile valley that lay below it. Ramsay describes it as, “A city of the past, a relic of the period of barbaric warfare, which lived rather on its ancient prestige than on its suitability to present conditions.” The people of Sardis were well known in the time of the Revelator for their luxurious and loose way of life. A city of decadence, Gonzalez writes that, “All in all, it probably was a comfortable but unexciting place to live.”
The Revelator’s letter to the church in Sardis is rather brief, however when it is contrasted to the other letters we may learn as much from what is not included in the letter to Sardis as we do from what is included. Unlike the circumstances faced by the other six churches, in this letter there is no mention of persecution, no reference to the danger of heresy, and no allusion to Jewish opposition to the church. It would appear that Sardis is unique among the seven churches in that it is not faced with any of the trials of its sister congregations.
3:1 “And to the angel of the church in Sardis write: These are the words of him who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars: “I know your works; you have a name of being alive, but you are dead.
The words of the Revelator, “I know your works; you have a name of being alive, but you are dead” (2:1) paint a “picture of nominal Christianity, outwardly prosperous, busy with the externals of religious activity, but devoid of spiritual life and power.”
Sardis was coasting on its past glories and achievements with the same kind of assurance that the sentinels guarding the gate of Sardis must have felt before the city was taken by surprise.
This letter reminds me of the words of the prophet Ezekiel regarding the root sin of Sodom. Sodom is best known from the story of Lot in the book of Genesis for its grotesque sexuality and its obvious violence, but in Ezekiel chapter sixteen Israel is warned that they are participating in not only the sin of Sodom but they are also risking the judgment of Sodom as well.
As I live, says the Lord God, your sister Sodom and her daughters have not done as you and your daughters have done. This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. They were haughty, and did abominable things before me; therefore I removed them when I saw it (Ezek. 16:48-50).
Sardis had the reputation of spiritual life and vitality, but in the sight of God it was dead. As Ramsay suggests, “The Church here is addressed, apparently with the set purpose of suggesting that the fortunes of ancient Sardis had been its own fortunes, that it had endured those sieges, committed those faults of carelessness and blind confidence, and sunk into the same decay and death as the city.” The church of Sardis was not alive enough to have enemies or confront heresy. It had simply become the model of non-offensive Christian faith.
2 Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is on the point of death, for I have not found your works perfect in the sight of my God. 3 Remember then what you received and heard; obey it, and repent. If you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come to you.
All is not lost in Sardis. The message to the church contains four urgent commands from the Lord of the churches. These imperatives are a gift of grace. If death was the final word for the church captured by the spirit of apathetic faith no commands would be necessary, but the power of God that resurrected Jesus from the dead also makes it possible for the dead church to live again.
The first command is for the church to “wake up” (2:2). A more literal translation for “wake up” would be “keep watching.” Given the city’s history of vulnerability to surprise attack this command seems particularly relevant for the church in Sardis. The Christians in Sardis were participating in what Lutheran scholar Gerhard Krodel calls “ecclesiastical sleepwalking” but there is still time to wake up. The letter warns Sardis that the intruder it must prepare for is the Lord himself. “I will come like a thief,” says the Lord, “and I will come to you” (3:3). “Christ comes to rob them of the complacency that they mistake for true security.”
The second command is to “strengthen what remains” (3:2). If the church is near the point of death, what remains? Most likely it is the external forms of the Christian life – worship, rituals, disciplines, practices, fellowship – that are left in Sardis. We are often critical of the forms or structures of the church’s life together and there are certainly important moments in the life the church when we should analyze the effectiveness and relevancy of our routines, but it would appear that the Revelator is not critical of the forms that remain in Sardis as much as he is wary of the spirit with which they are lived out. What Sardis needs is not new forms as much as renewed filling of God’s Spirit.
The church is then called to, “Remember then what you received and heard” (3:3). The remembering that Sardis needs to do is a special kind of remembering. The kind of memory it had been keeping is a glorification of the past. Living solely in the past often causes the church to become stagnant as it dwells on all that has gone on before. The kind of remembering Sardis needed to do is the recalling of the presence of God that enlivened and gave power in the challenges of the past so that they could have faith to move forward into God’s future.
I am reminded here of the great faith chapter of Hebrews eleven. In that chapter the stories of the heroes of faith – Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, and the prophets – are recounted as part of the great cloud of witnesses to the life of faith. But these models of faith are not remembered so that the early church can glory in its past but so that they too, “could run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (Heb. 12:1-2).
It is very easy for communities of faith to fall into the wrong kind of remembering. The wondrous work of God in the past can often become a point of reference not for future faith but for stagnant reminiscing. Sometimes when I hear churches rehearse the great days of their past I’m reminded of the words to Bruce Springsteen’s song Glory Days.
Now I think I’m going down to the well tonight
And I’m going to drink till I get my fill.
And I hope when I get old I don’t sit around thinking about it,
But I probably will.
Yeah, just sitting back trying to recapture a little of the glory of,
Well time slips away and leaves you with nothing mister
But boring stories of – glory days.
The stories of the church’s glory days may be taking place in hallways and board meetings rather than at “the well,” but nevertheless the church is called to a unique form of memory that does not simply dwell on God’s past work but remembers his power in order to help the congregation fulfill the fourth command given in the letter to the church – to “obey” what it has heard. Again like the believers to whom Hebrews is written, the church in Sardis needs to remember the great moments of faith in the past so that they can now, “lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather healed” (Heb. 12:12-13).
The church is then called to “repent” (3:3). The letter to Sardis makes reference to some “who have not soiled their clothes” but instead walk with the Lord “dressed in white” (3:4). Those, however, who hear the word of the Lord and conquer the spirit of spiritual apathy “will be clothed like them in white robes” (3:5). These references to white, clean garments are almost certainly connected to the early church’s practice of dressing believers in white robes as they left the waters of baptism, symbolizing the beginning of the new life that they had received in Christ. It is not too late for the apathetic church. The change that they need to make is not radical, they simply need to remember what they already are – new creations in Christ Jesus. As the reformer Martin Luther would cry out when he was tempted – “I am baptized!” – the church in Sardis needs to remember what God had already formed them to be and return to the life of newness to which it had been called.
4 Yet you have still a few persons in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes; they will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy. 5 If you conquer, you will be clothed like them in white robes, and I will not blot your name out of the book of life; I will confess your name before my Father and before his angels. 6 Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.
The renewal of the Sardis church will more than likely include risk. The Revelator writes that if the church can overcome their spirit of apathy, “I will not blot your name out of the book of life; I will confess your name before my Father and before his angels” (3:5). It is quite possible that the reference to the “book of life” is an allusion to the citizenship registries that were common in the Roman world. Some scholars have suggested that it is perhaps the case that the church in Sardis had gained acceptance in the culture by attempting to fit into the system and by at times denying the name of Christ. It may be that the faithful few of Sardis faced being removed from citizenship in the city, but Christ assures them that they will not be removed from the Father’s book of life. To awaken from complacency with the culture and with the city may mean that the Christians at Sardis risk being stricken from the city records of citizenship. However, the Spirit is calling them to seek Kingdom citizenship first and to find their lives recorded and written into God’s on-going history.
I am reminded of the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount that the church is called to be the light of the world and the salt of the earth. “But if the salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot” (Mt. 5:13). Unfortunately, it does not appear historically that the saltiness of a passionate faith was ever restored in Sardis. Ramsay writes that, “Sardis today is a wilderness of ruins and thorns, pastures and wild-flowers, where the only habitations are a few huts of Yuruk nomads beside the temple of Cybele in the low ground by the Pactolus, and at the distance of a mile two modern houses by the railway station.” There are many churches in North America that are in danger of becoming a vacant reminder of better days. For the people of God, the best days are always ahead of us, not because of who we are, but because of the God who calls us into his future.