The Church in Sardis (Rev. 3:1-6)
Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die…
Sardis was located about thirty miles south of Thyatira. In 6 BC, it was one of the most powerful cities of the ancient world, marked by times of commercial and military notoriety. Three main landmarks were prominent. First was the temple of Artemis. Second was the Acropolis, which rose eight hundred feet above the north section of Sardis. Third was the Necropolis, or cemetery of a thousand hills, which consisted of burial mounds that could be seen on the skyline from a distance of seven miles.
King Croesus lived in Sardis with all his pomp and wealth. Through negligence and lack of vigilance, however, Sardis was attacked and defeated several times. An earthquake also devastated the city in AD 17, and only through the generosity of Tiberius Caesar was the city able to recover and become a successful center for the wool and dye industry. As a city it had been known for luxury and laxity and came to represent the peace of the man whose dreams are dead and whose mind is asleep; the peace of lethargy and evasion.
No other church incurs a more severe rebuke from Jesus than Sardis. Here is an example of a bride in name only. Her reputation was without reality, her creed without Christ, her religion without relationship. The church in Sardis became a perfect model of inoffensive Christianity, the first example of nominal Christianity in the New Testament. We imagine how Christ’s heart breaks when he thinks of this church, for they are his Bride in name only, and he calls them to Life, to reality.
The One “who holds the seven spirits” confronts this deadness. The Bride of Jesus is not to be a lifeless mannequin in the window of the religious marketplace or a fading image in the scrapbook of ecclesiastical memory. We are called to life in the Spirit, which is generated and sustained by Jesus himself. Is it possible for entire congregations to be in church but not in Christ? Jesus’ very sobering words seem to answer in the affirmative:
…I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead.
But how does a church fall into such a lamentable condition? Do you think this rebuke was addressed primarily to individual Christians who simply needed to be revived? Or is it possible that religious and social enculturation can be so strong and deceptive that large groups of professing Christians can go through the motions of religious life and neither understand the Gospel nor experience its saving power?
Jesus warns us in the Sermon on the Mount that many will come on the day of judgment assuming membership in His Kingdom based on participation in spiritual activity or even supernatural manifestations of God’s Spirit. But he will say to them, “I never knew you; depart from me.” (Mat. 7:23)
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.
Jesus recognized, however, that there were some genuine Christians in Sardis – as there are in most dead churches. These are not examples of those in “the deeper life club” or some type of spiritual elite in the church. Rather, they alone are the Bride. I assumed, like many, that I was a Christian until that very morning I was converted. We dare not equate being in the pews with being in Christ. Would that God keep us from ever confusing mere enthusiasm with real life in the Spirit. Our goal should be not just to ignite religious flesh, something that can easily be done by simply “pushing the right spiritual buttons.” Rather, we should express our longing in terms of becoming a church in which the real presence of the Lord would be known, a fellowship in which men and women could have a genuine encounter with the Living God.
Let us realize the importance of continuing to preach the Gospel within the Church and to never be presumptuous about who is and who is not in Christ. In a culture like ours, there are so many individuals who come to church for years without ever coming to Christ. It should be our joy to see members of churches become members of the Body of Christ.
The Church in Philadelphia (Rev. 3:7-13)
I know your works. Behold, I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut. I know that you have but little power, and yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name.
Philadelphia was situated thirty-five miles southeast of Sardis. It was at the eastern end of a broad valley near the river Cogamis. The city was at the juncture of trade routes leading to Mysia, Lydia and Phrygia, earning for Philadelphia the title Gateway to the East. Her economic prowess was based on agriculture and industry. The historian Strabo called Philadelphia a city full of earthquakes. The great earthquake of AD 17 may have hit Sardis, but it nearly destroyed Philadelphia. By the time of John’s writing, however, the city had been rebuilt. It came to be known as Little Athens, a city flush with temples and teeming with religious festivals.
The church in Philadelphia needed encouragement for their hearts to be strengthened. The people there were placed in a key position to impact their own culture and the nations as well. Jesus wanted to use them for his glory. He reveals himself to the beloved of Philadelphia as the Lord of opportunity. He has the “key of David”, which controls the opening and closing of all doors. What he opens, no one can shut; and what he shuts, no one can open (3:7). In this church we find a thrilling example of strength in weakness. This small and seemingly insignificant body of believers is called to go through a great door of opportunity into a life of substantive impact. What a paradox. But the Gospel is full of such paradoxes. The way to live is to die. The way up is down. We find ourselves by losing ourselves. As Paul wrote, “But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us” (2Co. 4:7).
As we read Jesus’ words to his bride in Philadelphia, we are both encouraged and rebuked. We are encouraged that he is the One through whom and by whom all ministry is realized. Jesus calls us, gifts us, and empowers us to be involved in his eternal purposes. The great commission, for example, is not a job to get done but rather a reality in which we participate. We need to see the ministry as the overflow of hearts filled with the grace f the Gospel. Jesus uses his people to do things they cannot do in their own power. The church in Philadelphia was to see itself like Gideon’s army, a little people with a big and faithful God.
1 Corinthians 1:27-28
But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are
The message also rebukes many of us in the fortress contemporary church. Believers in Philadelphia were placed in a strategic location in a pagan culture. All they had to do was walk through the door of opportunity and ministry. Their calling was not to build “Camp God” and be a community of ingrown navel-gazers merely holding on until the Rapture. Their calling – and ours! – is to be salt and light (Mat 5:13-16). We are not to merely selfishly fill up our calendars with endless fellowship opportunities with those who are also Christians. This is our Father’s world. Non-believers are not our ultimate enemy – Satan is. Why does such a strident us-versus-them dichotomy persist? We are to build bridges, not burn them so we can hide within our “pure” communities.
Ministry can get very messy, exhausting, and painful. Persecution is the predictable consequence of a commitment to witness faithfully. And the persecution that the Christians in Philadelphia experienced did not come from pagans as was usually the case but from hostile Jews. But Jesus makes an awesome promise to those whose ministry is based on following the Lord through any and every door that he opens:
Revelation 3:9 Behold, I will make those of the synagogue of Satan who say that they are Jews and are not, but lie—behold, I will make them come and bow down before your feet, and they will learn that I have loved you.
The bottom line is that Jesus is the friend of sinners – but are we? We can draw three conclusions from this for our church families:
We can resolve not to become a busy, program-driven church
There are some churches that keep their members so preoccupied with meetings and activities that they have precious little time to have relationships with non-Christians. We need to encourage all our members to be in a relationship with those in our culture who, like us, need the grace of God.
We can extend the welcoming heart of God through all the ministries of our church.
Non-Christians can experience love and acceptance as they begin their spiritual quests in our midst.
We can commit to outgrow our church.
By embracing and keeping a high emphasis on world evangelism, we can step up and out. In so doing, we will guard against becoming an ingrown fellowship that is stagnant and cannot produce.
The Church in Laodicea (Rev. 3:14-22)
I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot!
Laodicea was situated in the Lycus valley near the cities of Hierapolis and Colossae, about forty miles southeast of Philadelphia. Laodicea was considered the chief city of the southern region of Phyrgia. A very wealthy town, it was known for its banking industry and its medical school, which produced Phyrgian powder, a popular eye salve. After being severely devastated by another earthquake, this one occurring in AD 61, the city refused financial assistance from Rome, choosing instead to rebuild from her own treasury.
Ranchers in Laodicea raised a prized species of sheep whose black, glossy wool was in great demand. The city had a major weakness, however. It lacked a convenient source of clean water. The city was planned and built based on the trade routes and ignored the need for such natural resources. So here we have a picture of an immature and spoiled bride who is blind to her own faults. Jesus confronts his beloved with the spiritual self-satisfaction, complacency and indifference that the Bride displays. Jesus’ rebuke to the Laodiceans manifests the depths of his compassion and concern for his people. “Faithful are the wounds of a friend”, Proverbs tells us, and this friend is Jesus.
Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent.
Laodicea is an example of a church – or a Christian – that fails to realize the power that living the good life has over us. It dilutes our wholehearted affection for Jesus, blinding us with fool’s gold. Hear the cry of the lover of our souls as he calls out to us, “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me” (3:20). This is not an evangelistic appeal to non-believers. It is Jesus’ appeal to his Bride to realize the tragedy of allowing worldly comforts to replace communion with him. He longs for the rich fellowship of the table, and every time we partake of the Lord’s Supper we should long for the day when we will eat with him at the “wedding supper of the Lamb” (19:9).
So Who is the Bride Beautiful that Jesus Longs For?
- A passionate “first love” relationship with the Lord that spills over into all other relationships
- A willingness to suffer for our Bridegroom
- A growing knowledge of the truth of the Gospel, and a commitment to defend the faith “once and for all delivered unto the saints” (Jud 1:3)
- A purity of heart and holiness of lifestyle that is driven by love for God and empowered by grace
- An aliveness in Jesus that is generated by his real presence in our midst and hearts
- A commitment to follow Jesus into a live of other-centered living through evangelism, missions, and cultural impact
- An undivided and abiding allegiance to Jesus which treasures communion with him more than the comforts of the world or anything else