The Church That Is Alive Yet Dead
July 26, 2015 | Speaker: Bro Jurem Ramos
19th Anniversary of SDGCC, July 26, 2015
Today, for our anniversary message, we look at the 5th church addressed by the Lord Jesus here chapters two and three of Revelation. I think this message is providential. Perhaps even if we did not do a series on this portion of Revelation, I will still use this portion of Scripture for our anniversary message because it is very appropriate. You will see why in a little while.
Again as in our usual approach I will use the outline that I have used in our previous studies. Let me go quickly with the first.
The church addressed (3:1a)
1a “ And to the angel of the church in Sardis write:
The character of the city of Sardis.
Founded in 1200 B.C., Sardis had been one of the greatest cities in the ancient world. It was once the wealthy capital of the ancient kingdom of Lydia, one of the provinces of Asia Minor. One of the sources of its riches was the gold taken from a river in that area. Gold and silver were first made coins at Sardis so that others say that modern money was born there. It was also an important commercial city because of trade and its main industry of producing wool, carpets, and garments. Its greatest king was Croesus, who was legendary for his riches so that they would say, "As rich as Croesus," to describe a really wealthy person.
The original Sardis is located on a hill some 1500 hundred feet above the valley floor. Its location made the city nearly invincible. The hill on which Sardis was built had smooth, nearly perpendicular rock walls on three sides. Only from the south could the city be approached, via a steep, difficult path.
As a result of its wealth and perceived security the people of Sardis lived in excessive pleasure and luxury. William Barclay says, “The great characteristic of Sardis was that, even on pagan lips, Sardis was a name of contempt. Its people were notoriously loose-living, notoriously pleasure- and luxury-loving. Sardis was a city of decadence.”
Although Sardis was almost impregnable because of its location, it had twice fallen to their enemies because of overconfidence and carelessness. The first time the city of Sardis was captured was in 549 B.C. Croesus the king of Lydia initiated an attack against Cyrus the king of Persia but was defeated. He retreated to Sardis to recover and rebuild his army for another attack, but he was quickly pursued by Cyrus. When Cyrus approached Sardis he found the location of the city surrounded by steep cliff walls almost impossible to scale. Cyrus then offered a special reward to anyone who would find an entry into the city. One of Cyrus’s soldiers had seen someone who had been defending Sardis accidentally drop his helmet over the cliff walls, and then make his way down by a crack in the rock. That night the soldier led a party of Persian troops through that same path by scaling the steep walls one-by-one until they reached the top. The people of Sardis felt so secure that they left this means of access completely unguarded, permitting the climbers to ascend unobserved. It is said that even a child could have defended the city from this kind of attack, but because of the Sardians overconfidence and carelessness, they did not even appoint one person to watch this side that was believed to be inaccessible.
History repeated itself more than three and a half centuries later when Antiochus the Great conquered Sardis by utilizing the services of a mountain climber from Crete (214 B.C.). The army of Antiochus entered the city by another route while the defenders in careless confidence were content to guard the one known path to Sardis on the south.
The Sardians had thought themselves too safe to need a guard; and so Sardis fell. A city with a history like that knew what the Risen Christ was talking about when he said: "Be watchful!" 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.”
In A.D. 17 an earthquake severely damaged the city but was rebuilt by Roman emperor Tiberius. By the time the Romans controlled Sardis, its greatness lay in the past. In John’s day Sardis was prosperous but declining. Its rapid decline in wealth and importance caused some observers to call Sardis, “the city of death.” Today, that once great and wealthy city is a heap of ruins and a poor village, bearing the name Sart.
The character of the church in Sardis.
Though not recorded in Scripture, the church at Sardis was probably founded in the early fifties A.D. through representatives of the apostle Paul during his three-year ministry in Ephesus (Acts 19:10). At first the church may have been a healthy and truly spiritual church. But unlike the church at Thyatira whose latter works exceed the first, the church at Sardis grew careless and indifferent to spiritual things and gradually declined over the years. Their church was perhaps the worst of the seven churches described in chapters 2 and 3 of Revelation.
The church in Sardis was not troubled by persecution from outsiders. Nothing is said about pressure from pagan religions, though doubtless there must have been some. Nor is anything said about opposition from the Jewish community, fake apostles, the Nicolaitans, and other sources that were problematic in other cities. Yet some combination of those things was obviously present at Sardis since the church was spiritually dead.
It is interesting to note that the history of the city of Sardis is reflected in the history of the Church of Sardis. When John wrote Revelation, the city was already beginning to decline although it was still a place of importance and retained the reputation of greatness. The church of Sardis was no different at this time. They too had a reputation that they were alive, but they were actually dead according to Christ.
A description of Christ (3:1b)
1b ‘The words of him who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars.
Christ’s describes Himself first as the One who has the seven spirits of God.
Remember that when Christ uses a specific description of Himself when He addresses a local church, it always has a bearing on the condition of the church. What is the connection?
First, what does that unusual phrase, “seven spirits of God,” mean? According to William Barclay says, “The seven spirits signifies the completeness of the gifts of the Spirit and the universality of His presence.” Seven signifies completeness. The seven spirits could also denote the Holy Spirit with His sevenfold gifts, an idea based on the description of the Holy Spirit in Isa 11:2, 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.
[Here] is the antidote for a dead Church: a living Spirit in the sevenfold perfectness of His operations. … Here, and here only, is the hope of a dead Church, and here is the explanation of that which is unique in the history of Christianity as compared with all other religions … [W]hen it is apparently nearest extinction, the marvellous, the miraculous, way in which it flames up again [is by] the Spirit of the Lord … poured forth.
Now Christ is described as the One who has the seven spirits of God, it means that He has the sovereign authority to impart the Holy Spirit to whomever He wills. Our Lord Jesus imparts divine life and energy through the Holy Spirit to him or to the church that is spiritually dead.
Our Lord Jesus also describes Himself to the church of Sardis as the One who has “the seven stars.” Rev 1:20 tells us that the seven stars are “the angels of the seven churches.” I would like to remind you that that the Greek word for “angels” is “anggelos” and it can be translated as “angels” or “messengers” (Lk 7:24; 9:52 and Jas 2:25). Here in chapter 3:1 it is better to understand the seven stars as the seven messengers.
MacArthur says, “Since Christ is said to hold them in His right hand, they were more likely leading elders and pastors, one from each of the seven churches.” Since Christ holds these messengers, it means that he has authority and control not only over the messengers but also to the local churches those church leaders represent.
What a great reminder to all that the leaders and members of the church are the possession of Jesus. William Barclay says,
Many a time men act as if the Church belonged to them, but it belongs to Jesus Christ and all in it are his servants. In any decision regarding the Church, the decisive factor must be not what any man wishes the Church to do but what Jesus Christ wishes to be done.
Christ’s diagnosis of the church (3:1c)
1c “‘I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead.
- I know your works. As Jesus says to each church, He also says to Sardis. What a church is and what a church does is never hidden from Jesus.
- You have the reputation of being alive. If you looked at the church in Sardis, you would see signs of life and energy. In the church’s view of herself and others' esteem, she was alive and well. They have a reputation for being an excellent church. Their organization was not in disorder, their members were not divided, their pastor was not ready to resign. It was a well organized and efficient church. Their worship was lively, their meetings were regular, their committees were efficient, their members busy. Everything about the church appeared well in their observation and the observation of others.
- Despite their reputation of life and good appearance, Jesus saw them for what they really were. He says, But you are dead.
In other words most of the members in the church of Sardis were nominal Christians. Some Bible teachers tell us that the Christians who were being addressed here were second generation Christians. The original Christians lived about 40 or 45 years earlier. When the gospel first came to them they welcomed it with great joy. They worshiped the Lord with excitement and true reverence. They lived the truths of the gospel and boldly proclaimed them to others. They lived in purity and separated themselves from evil men and compromising situations; they loved and served each other from the heart; they disciplined their members and removed from their midst the unrepentant and the false teachers; they were faithful to Christ. As a result of this they too gained a reputation of being a model church. But when these first generation Christians passed away, their children quickly departed from the spirituality of their parents and declined to the point that all they had was a reputation of great spirituality. We are not sure how this happened but this scenario is possible both historically and biblically.
For example we read this sad story in Judges 2:7-12: And the people served the LORD all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders who outlived Joshua, who had seen all the great work that the LORD had done for Israel. 8 And Joshua the son of Nun, the servant of the LORD, died … 10 And all that generation also were gathered to their fathers. And there arose another generation after them who did not know the LORD or the work that he had done for Israel. 11 And the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the LORD and served the Baals. 12 And they abandoned the LORD, the God of their fathers, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt. They went after other gods, from among the gods of the peoples who were around them, and bowed down to them. And they provoked the LORD to anger.
This is a startling reality. The previous generation led by great and godly leaders like Joshua and the elders, who outlived him, were faithful to the Lord. That generation served the Lord; they feared the Lord; they were committed to Him and they obeyed Him. While Joshua and the elders led them, they won their battles, drove out their enemies, and conquered lands. What is surprising is that immediately, just after this generation passed away, in just less than 30 years, another generation arose after them who did not know the Lord or the work that He had done for Israel.
What happened to Israel during the time of Joshua also happened to the church of Sardis during the time of John. In just one generation, the church turned from a lively and spiritual church to a dead church.
But what does it mean to have life in the church?
James Hastings, a Scottish Presbyterian minister and biblical scholar born in the 1800s wrote:
What is the life of a Church? The life of a Church is loving loyalty to Jesus Christ, present more or less in the … heart of all the members. The life of a Church is the living, real presence of Jesus Christ as a daily influence on the conduct, the thoughts, the words, the deeds of all the members of that Church. The life of a Church is the living presence of Jesus Christ in every committee of management, in every meeting of Sunday-school teachers, in every social gathering of the congregation; a living loyalty and devotion to the Lord Jesus Christ, born out of a grateful certainty that He died to save us, … and under the belief that He is willing to save all the men and women and all the little children who are round about us. That is the living life of a Church, and nothing else is.
We may have a perfect orthodoxy and death; we may have great activity, and yet we may have death. Nothing is the life of a Church but actual, living loyalty and love to the real, living Lord of the Church, Jesus Christ. A living Church will show its life in such things as hearty singing, earnest prayers, faithful service, generous liberality to every good cause. A living Church will show its life by bravery and courage in taking up new responsibilities that may offer themselves, and working them most heartily. A living Church is living, not because it does one or all of these things, but because it loves loyalty to the Lord Jesus who died for it, and feels that goodness and holiness are the grandest things in the world.
The church of Sardis had this life about 40 years before John wrote Revelation. But by the time he sent this book to the church of Sardis, most of the congregation there were only nominal Christians. They just had a reputation of being spiritually alive but they were spiritually dead.
It is not difficult to find true examples of this condition in many Protestant churches today. Btu let us not be quick to point an accusing finger on others. Before we look at the speck in the eyes of others, let us see the log in our eyes first.
Let us therefore ask ourselves, is this condition true of SDG today. What about our children. Our church has a reputation that it is a doctrinally sound church and a balanced church because of the Shepherd’s Call radio program. We have a reputation in the community that we have a good school. There are some of us here who have been with us in the early stages of the church when we had to battle the compromises to the gospel. But what about our children? Do they even know what happened in 1996 to our church? Could we really say that most of the members in our church are really devoted to prayer, to doctrine, to pursuing a holy life, to loving other believers, to sharing the gospel and defending the faith? Let us be careful that we do not become careless and complacent just because we have a good reputation. Let us not rest on our laurels. We must remain watchful and faithful.
We will skip the Words of Praise or Reproof
in our outline and jump to the Words of Exhortation
from the Lord.
Words of exhortation (3:2-4)
- The exhortation of the Lord begins with the words, “Wake up.” The verb in the original is actually stronger than just “wake up. It is a present imperative which means “make it as you continual attitude and habit of life to be watchful.”
The two notable incidents in the city’s past history should serve as a motivation to do this. Remember that Sardis fell to the Persians and later to Antiochus the Great because of carelessness. These tragedies could have been averted through even a minimal amount of watchfulness, but there was none. The same was about to happen to the Christian community at the hands of its spiritual enemy. A quick return to vigilance was needed.
- Strengthen what remains and is about to die for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God. The spiritual condition of the majority of the church haven’t measured up to God’s standard.
MH: [T]here is something wanting in [their works]; there is the shell, but not the [seed]; there is the body, but not the soul; the shadow, but not the substance. The inward thing is lacking, their works are hollow and empty; prayers are not filled up with holy desires, alms not filled up with true charity, sabbaths not filled up with suitable devotion of soul to God; there are not inward affections suitable to outward acts and expressions. Now when the spirit is wanting the form cannot long [survive].
Their spiritual condition was on the verge of dying, but it was not hopeless. Jesus had not given up on them. And so he says, “Strengthen what remains.”
- 3 Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it, and repent.
is the present imperative and it means "keep on remembering; never allow yourself to forget." Our Lord says, “Remember what you have received and heard.” The comment in the NET Bible says, “[This] probably refers to the initial instruction in the Christian life they had received and been taught; this included doctrine and ethical teaching.” [This is why we have in our manual, “That we may not forget. Read it.]
Other Bible translations render this verse a little differently. For example, the KJV, NKJV says, “Remember therefore how
(instead of “what”) you have received and heard.”
William Barclay says, “The Risen Christ is telling the lethargic Sardians to remember the thrill with which they first heard the good news.”
Matthew Henry: [The Lord Jesus tells the believers in Sardis] not only to remember what they had received and heard
, what messages they had received from God, what tokens of his mercy and favour towards them, what sermons they had heard, but how they had received and heard,
what impressions the mercies of God had made upon their souls at first, what affections they felt … how welcome the gospel and the grace of God were to them when they first received them.
(2) "Keep it."
is again a present imperative indicating continuous action. It means "Never stop keeping it.” It could mean never stop cherishing the gospel; never stop keeping the commands of the gospel.
is in a verb tense that describes one definite action, a decisive moment, when a person makes a firm resolve to turn around from the old way and begin the new.
Albert Barnes: “Repent in regard to all that in which you have departed from your views and feelings when you embraced the Gospel.”
- 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 warns them of the great danger in failing to watch. If they ignore His command to be watchful, then Jesus will come upon them as a thief, at a time completely unexpected by them. This could mean that nominal Christians will be judged immediately. The Lord may so harden their hearts and remove all means of grace in their lives so that they have totally no interest in the things of God and fall away. Or it could mean that God will take their lives and so they will have no opportunity to repent.
- 4 Yet you have still a few names in Sardis, people who have not soiled their garments: Even among the dead Christians in Sardis, there is a faithful remnant. But there were only a few names.
It is said of the faithful that they "have not soiled their garments." … In the heathen world no worshipper was allowed to approach a temple of the gods with soiled clothes. For the heathen this was an external thing; but this may describe the man who has kept his soul clean so that he can enter into the presence of God and not be ashamed.
A promise to the overcomer (3:4,5)
To those who conquer and have been faithful comes the threefold promise.
- and they will walk with me in white, for they are worthy: Jesus also promised that these pure ones would walk with Me. This picture of close fellowship and friendship is seen in Enoch, who walked with God; and he was not, for God took him (Gen 5:24). “Walk with Me” is the greatest reward Jesus can give His followers. The Christians in Sardis who forsake the sinful compromise of their city will be rewarded with a closer, more intimate walk with Jesus.
- The one who conquers will be clothed thus in white garments: Jesus identified the overcomers with the few who have not defiled their garments (Rev_3:4). These overcomers will wear white garments, received from Jesus.
MacArthur: In the ancient world, white garments were also worn for festive occasions such as weddings. True Christians will wear theirs at eh marriage supper of the Lamb (19:7-9). White robes were also worn by those celebrating victory in battle. All true Christians are victorious through Christ over sin death and Satan. However, white robes here primarily represent purity and holiness. Christ promises to clothe Christians in the brilliance of eternal purity and holiness.
- and I will never blot his name out of the book of life.
Does this mean that someone can lose their salvation? That someone is saved one day - their name is in the Book of Life
- and another day, they have fallen away and their name has been blotted out from the Book of Life
MacArthur: Christ further promises every true Christian that He will not erase their name from the Book of Life, but “will confess their name before the Father and before His angels.” Incredibly, although the text says just the opposite, some people assume that this verse teaches that a Christian’s name can be erased from the Book of Life. They instead turn God’s promise into a threat.
Some think that Exodus 32:33 supports the idea that God may remove someone’s name from the Book of Life. In that passage the Lord tells Moses that “whoever has sinned against Me, I will blot him out of My book.”
But this does not specifically say that God’s book here refers to the Book of Life.
In fact the Bible mentions several kinds of books of God:
- For example, in Malachi 3:16 talks about a book of remembrance. This passage talks about the Lord paying attention to the conversations and actions of those who fear the Lord and esteem His name and their deeds are recorded in a book so that their deeds will not be forgotten.
- Another book is mentioned in Ps 139:16: “Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.” This is not referring to the Book of Life. This seems to be a book that records the unique features of a particular human being and the number of days he will live.
- In Ps 69:28 we read of another book that called the book of the living where names could be blotted out. It says, “Let them be blotted out of the book of the living; let them not be enrolled among the righteous.” This verse is a wish of the psalmist for his enemies to be blotted out of the book of the living. This book cannot be the same as the Book of Life mentioned in the NT which contains the names of those who are already saved and have received eternal life. What is the book of the living then? I think this refers to the book that contains the record of those who are alive. And so to wish for the name to be blotted out is a vivid way of asking that his enemies die prematurely.
An so there is no contradiction, between the Exodus 32:33 passage and Christ’s promise in Revelation 3:5. The book referred to in Ex 32:33 is not the Book of Life described here, in Philippians 4:3, and later in Revelation (13:8; 17;8; 20:12,15; 21:27). Instead, it refers to the book of the living,
the record of those who are alive. The threat, then, in not eternal punishment, but physical death.
In John’s day, rulers kept a register of each city’s citizens. If someone died or committed a serious crime, their name was erased from that register. Christ, the King of heaven, promises never to erase a true Christian’s name from the list of those whose names were “written from the foundation of the world I the book of life of the Lamb who has been slain (Rev 13:8).
A command to hear what the Spirit says to the churches (3:6)
6 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
- I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels. “This is an amazing promise. It simply makes sense that we should be willing to confess the name of Jesus. But it is amazing that He would not be ashamed to confess us!”
We must all hear what the Holy Spirit says to the church at Sardis. It is easy to drift in sleepy apathy towards spiritual death, especially when you are in a church with a good reputation. Sardis teaches us that we must beware of our success. The city was wealthy and secure and so it made the people living there overconfident and careless.
Sometime ago, a brother gave me a book entitled Mission Drift.
Mission drift is a term used by nonprofit or faith-based organizations when they unintentionally move away from their original mission. It is the opposite of the term Mission True.
Mission True organizations are organizations that remain remain faithful to what they believe God has entrusted them to do. They know why they exist and protect their mission, values and purpose at all costs.
The authors of the book wrote that Mission Drift is a very real possiblity for every organization. The more you believe you are immune the more you are vulnerable you are to drift. The zeal and beliefs of the founders are insufficient safegaurds. There is no immunity, no matter how concrete your mission statement is. Or how passionate your leaders are. Or how much you believe it could never happen to you. Once an organization ignores it drift is only a matter of time. Rarely is there a dramatic change of course. Rather, it is the accumulated impact of small decisions that lead to drift.
In his book Knowing the Times
, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, the great 20th
century Bible preacher and theologian wrote something about mission drift that struck me. He wrote:
All institutions tend to produce their opposite... There is this testimony from history to the terrible danger of institutions, which start on the right lines and excellently, gradually changing, almost imperceptibly, into something which is almost the exact opposite... There is danger of assuming that because a church or an institution, or a movement, was once right, it will continue to be right.
Example of mission drift in Harvard University.
Founded in 1636, this university employed exclusively Christian professors, emphasized character formation in its students above all else, and rooted all its policies and practices in a Christian worldview. This school served as a bastion of academic excellence and Christian distinction. Harvard began as a school to equip ministers to share the Good News. Sadly, today, Harvard has little evidence to suggest that it was a distinctly Christian school.
If we are not going to be continually vigilant and watchful, this can happen to us as well. We can also come to a point where we will only have a name but we are a dead church. This is why the first portion of our manual is a call for our church to remember our history and challenge to be watchful. Read our Church manual. Read it to your families this afternoon so that we can remember our history, how SDG church was born. Remember those turbulent months of the first half of year 1996 and do not forget how God delivered us from a danger that could have led to a massive spiritual downfall. And may God give us and our children the grace to remain faithful till Christ returns.
Let me close with these words from William Barclay’s commentary:
If anything is to be rescued from the impending ruin of the Church in Sardis the Christians there must wake from their deadly lethargy and watch. No commandment appears more frequently in the New Testament than that to watch.
(i) Watchfulness should be the constant attitude of the Christian life. Romans 13:11-14 Besides this you know the time, that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. 12 The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. 13 Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. 14 But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.
(ii) The Christian must be on the watch against the wiles of the devil (1Pet 5:8 - Be sober- minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. …
The Christian is under continual attack by the powers which seek to seduce him from his loyalty to Christ. Often these attacks are subtle. He must, therefore, be ever on the watch.
(iii) The Christian must be on the watch against temptation "Watch and pray," said Jesus, "that you may not enter into temptation" (Matt 26:41). Temptation waits for our unguarded moments and then attacks. In the Christian life there must be unceasing vigilance against it.
(iv) The Christian must be on the watch against false teaching. In Paul's last address to the elders of Ephesus he warns them that grievous wolves will invade the flock from outside and from inside men will arise to speak perverse things. "Therefore," he says, "watch!" (Ac 20:29-31).
(v) Repeatedly the New Testament urges the Christian to be on the watch for the coming of his Lord. "Watch, therefore," said Jesus, "for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.” (Matt 24:42-43). No man knows the day and the hour when for him eternity will invade time. "The last day is a secret," says Augustine, "that every day may be watched." A man should live every day as if it were his last.