Addresses to the Seven Churches in Asia
Sardis is about 30miles south of Thyatira, continuing the circuit from Ephesus which ended at Laodicea.We have learned already that the seven churches in Asia can be looked at as giving us a prophetic picture of the history of the Christian church on earth in the period from when the apostles lived right up to the coming of the Lord. The last four of these seven churches,Thyatira to Laodicea, describe conditions which will continue until the coming of the Lord. Sardis, the second church of this group, forms part of that prophetic history; the so-called Sardis period from about 1500 AD, beginning with what is commonly referred to as the Reformation. However, it must be said very clearly that the address to Sardis is not a description of the Reformation itself.
Historically, the moment came when God raised up men who were determined that their faith and practice would be governed by the Word of God alone. Giants of the faith at that time included those like Martin Luther, who insisted, from scripture, on the truth of justification by faith. Another,William Tyndale, martyred at only 41 years of age, said he could not rest until every plough boy in England had in his own hands a personal copy of the Bible in his own native language. This was truly a work of the Holy Spirit, following many centuries of spiritual darkness and superstition, which we have considered as the Thyatira period. How very sad it is that so few in our day are really in the enjoyment of the blessing men like them secured, at such great personal cost
We shall also consider the local conditions in Sardis and apply the moral challenge to our own heart and conscience, to judge the measure of our own faithfulness. Now let us look at our text to confirm that it supports the propositions we have made.
Verse 1 "And unto the angel of the church in Sardis write;These things saith he that hath the seven Spirits of God, and the seven stars;I know thy works, that thou hast a name that thou livest, and art dead."
The angel represents the responsible element in the local church; those who are able and willing to accept local responsibility. Clearly, they must be fully dependent upon the Lord to do this effectively.
To each church, the feature quoted from the description of the Judge given in chapter 1 verses 12-18 is significant and relevant to the conditions at that particular church. Here, the term "He that hath the seven Spirits of God" signifies the plenitude of the Holy Spirit. He and His power are available in abundance, controlling and guarding God’s interests. The Son of God as such, in all His personal dignity and majesty, had something to say to Thyatira, which gave Him a small place (Roman Catholicism relegates Him to being Son of Mary-exemplified significantly in the many statues which depict a large Mary and a very small Jesus). At Sardis the emphasis is likewise very apt. It is the Spirit of God Who has something to say to Sardis, which gave little place to the Spirit. The great sin of Protestantism generally is the little place they give to the Spirit of God.
The Dark Ages were ended by the Reformation, from which Protestantism emerged. But control of God’s interests is in His hands, not in the hands of those who promoted the Reformation. They had been called out to do a specific job, which they did very well, but their exercise was limited to essential basic matters. As a picture of this, the church at Sardis started well, but soon lost its early life and vigour.
Next,it says, "He has the seven stars." Simply put, these stars represent those in each church who bear light, and give due witness, in life and word, to the truth of God.
The Lord’s first words are, "I know." He can see below the surface. Like the tribute to the written Word of God, Hebrews 4:12, He "is able to discern the thoughts and intents of the heart."
"Thy works." There is no specific commendation given to this church. The inertia into which Sardis had sunk is highlighted by the fact that more is commended even in Thyatira than in Sardis. It would seem that what was done at Sardis was done by way of habit, rather than by the leading and guidance of the Holy Spirit. This is a constant danger in any sphere of Christian life and service.
The Lord goes on to say, "thou hast a name that thou livest, and art dead." The word "name" here is not an actual personal name, but means a reputation. The Christians at Sardis were proud of their accomplishments. There had been initially a real work of God, with great spiritual energy. But the Lord gives His personal judgment of this church. They had become morally and spiritually dead! All that was left was a reputation! What had started so well had just tailed off. What really counts in the Lord’s work is an ongoing dependence upon Him, empowered by the Holy Spirit, if it is to continue in vitality.
Verse 2 "Be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain,that are ready to die: for I have not found thy works perfect before God."
"Be watchful." The Lord Jesus requires watchfulness(we shall return to this point when we consider verse 3). But what is the point of calling upon dead people to be watchful? If they had been alert, they would not have drifted into this condition. We, too, must be watchful, in prayer and in deed, lest Satan gains a foothold.
The next call is, "Strengthen the things that remain."There was urgent need for renewed strength, to be steadfast and true to what they believed. We have thought about one or two historical examples. Think,too, of those like Elijah, Ezra, Nehemiah, Haggai, and the list of faithful men in Hebrews 11, who have left us such sterling examples to follow.
"Ready to die"-not actually dead, but on the point of dying. There was a necropolis, a cemetery, in nearby hills-the regional centre for the dead, indeed "a city of the dead." The citizens of Sardis had a reputation for being alive, even lively, but in God’s eyes they were as good as dead, like the occupants of the nearby necropolis. They would be particularly sensitive to this, to them, offensive comparison.
The call to strengthen is followed by a rebuke. "I have not found thy works perfect,"that is, complete, "before God." In what way?
The Lord does not refer to their words, but to their works, their deeds. Our teaching may be orthodox, but there must be a parallel practical response along with it. The Reformers abandoned some of the trappings of Roman Catholicism but they did not go all the way. There was not that full reliance on the power, control, and leading of the Holy Spirit which is available in abundance. The moral lesson must be learned and applied,put into practice, otherwise this is merely a history lesson. Mere profession does not complete anything. The address to Sardis describes the aftermath of the Reformation. Because of the intense hostility of the ecclesiastical system which had held so many in bondage for several centuries, the Reformers turned for protection to the political powers.This in turn led to worldly associations and eventually a giving up of many of the spiritual gains won by the reforming pioneers at such personal cost. Instead of seeking the world’s protection, there should have been dependence upon the One in whose hand were such great resources As a result, we have now what is known as Protestantism with its many variant denominations. There was indeed, and continues to be, a need to repent!
Verse 3 "Remember therefore how thou hast received and heard,and hold fast, and repent. If therefore thou shalt not watch, I will come on thee as a thief, and thou shalt not know what hour I will come upon thee."
"Remember." Take account of "what" you have been through, the victories won, but also "how," the cost involved. Do we hold dearly the advantages we possess today? It is a continuing challenge to every true believer, especially when we consider the cost involved for the stalwarts of former days. Hold fast, indeed! Otherwise there will indeed be a renewed need for repentance.
"If thou shalt not watch." In the sixth century BC,under siege by Cyrus, Sardis fell on the fourteenth day of a siege because there was no sentry at what they thought was the strongest point in their defense. They assumed, mistakenly, that they were impregnable at that point. This led to lack of watchfulness, and an unexpected defeat. Those on sentry duty had failed in their vigilance.
Let us think now of the way in which the Lord Jesus refers to His coming again. It is given along with a warning. "If therefore thou shalt not watch, I will come on thee as a thief." This is certainly not the way He will come for His own. It is the way He will come to the world, lying asleep and indifferent to Him. Just listen to Paul’s words writing to the Thessalonians, "But ye, brethren are not in darkness, that that day should overtake you as a thief" (1 Thessalonians5:4). He was writing of sudden destruction coming upon the world. Much at Sardis had become a mere profession, identified with the world, and therefore in danger of being judged with the world. The Lord will come for His church as the Bridegroom, claiming His bride, not as a thief.
Verse 4 "Thou hast a few names even in Sardis which have not defiled their garments; and they shall walk with me in white: for they are worthy."
"A few names." The system was dead. But there were a few individuals who were livingly, actively responding to the leading of the Holy Spirit.
"Which have not defiled their garments." Personal holiness and righteousness are essential in witness and service for our blessed Lord.
"They shall walk with Me in white." Roman citizens welcoming a victorious general returning from a successful campaign were robed in white, and those of particular renown were granted the honour of walking with him in his triumphal procession. There was, evidently, a remnant in Sardis, just a few, and known personally to Christ, of whom He can say, "They have not defiled their garments; and they shall walk with Me in white: for they are worthy." During times of difficulty and stress, and maybe opposition, they remained faithful. What an honour, from the Lord’s own lips, "they are worthy."
Verse 5 "He that overcometh, the same shall be clothed in white raiment; and I will not blot out his name out of the book of life, but I will confess his name before my Father, and before his angels."
Each of these addresses closes with a promise to the overcomer, one who is true to the Lord in an evil day. It is not now "they,"but "he"; an individual matter. Here the promise is threefold.
The first is very similar to the promise of verse 4. "The same shall be clothed in white raiment." As we have considered, prominent Roman citizens welcoming a victorious general returning from a successful campaign were robed in white, and those who were deemed worthy were granted the special honour of walking with him in his triumphal procession. The overcomer shall be part of the victory parade of Christ, associated with Him in His day of glory.
The second of these promises is another encouragement, "I will not blot out his name out of the book of life." This is possibly a reference to excommunication. At the latter end of the first century AD,the Jews secured partial protection for those enrolled in the register at the synagogue. Offenders against the Jewish authorities incurred excommunication,and exposure to persecution from the Roman authorities for not worshipping Caesar. Those who were contending strongly for the Christian faith were sometimes blotted out of men’s books at the local synagogue, but they are given the promise that they shall not be blotted out of God’s book. This promise would have a parallel significance for the Reformers in their day.
No true believer will ever have his or her name erased out of God’s book. Their eternal destiny is secure. There may be others who pride themselves in having their names in earth’s roll of honour, but their position there as such would always be insecure, dependent on their future behaviour and performance. The overcomer can be assured of his place in the book of life, from which his name can never be erased.
The third promise is a place of honour, "I will confess his name before my Father,and before his angels." The Lord Jesus will remember, and honour, the faithfulness of His servants!
Verse 6 "He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches."
As we come towards the end, the call to the overcomer becomes more urgent and distinctive. In all the difficulties of our day, let us take courage. Let us be watchful, strengthened, and holding fast until the Lord comes."He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says unto the churches."