The ancient city of Sardis was situated high on Mt. Tmolus, with natural walls that rose 1,500 feet from the surrounding plain. This afforded the city with protection but also gave rise to the complacency that twice led to its capture. The first was in 549 B.C. by King Cyrus of Persian. Enemy invaders successfully scaled narrow crevices in the rear cliffs upon which Sardis sat, entered the city from the unguarded rear, opened the front gates, and allowed Cyrus and his army to enter unopposed. The lessons of this invasion were forgotten, for 250 years later in 218 B.C. Antiochus III captured the city in a similar way. The Sardians became proverbial for carelessness and presumption. The believers in Sardis were not watchful and almost killed their church.
Only Jesus Christ Can Raise the Dead (v. 1)
Seven Spirit: Full of Grace and Truth
It is worthless to have a reputation for spiritual life but to be dead, to have a form of godliness but to have no power, to profess Christ but not to know him. You can have the name “Christian,” but have no Christ indwelling, no share in his life. You must be born again and believe on the name of Jesus Christ. He possesses the fullness of the Spirit, the living waters (John 7:38-39). Jesus Christ baptizes with the Spirit’s fire all who believe upon his name (Luke 3:16; John 1:33; Eph. 1:13-14). This is the reason our Lord presents himself as he does to the church in Sardis. He is the only one who can resurrect an almost dead and dying church. If you feel your deadness, come to Jesus Christ. He will give you new life.
Seven Stars: Glorious in Light, Power, and Sovereignty
He also holds in his hand the seven stars. These are likely the seven pastors of the seven churches. Stars indicate light and power. Jesus Christ is the light of the world; he possesses all power (Matt. 28:18). When the church grows dark by unbelief and worldliness, we must come back to Jesus Christ. Do so now! When we need strength, we must cast ourselves upon the power of our Savior (2 Cor. 12:9-10). Our Lord has the whole world of men in his hands. He holds his church and her pastors in his hand. Jesus Christ alone has light, strength, and sovereignty to revive a dying church – not new programs, louder music, clever teachers – only Christ giving us light and strengthening us by his Spirit.
Searcher of Hearts: He Knows Our True Condition
The Lord Jesus knows if we are dead or dying. By this “I know” he says to each of us that he is the searcher of hearts. He knows if other people think we are alive while we are in fact dead in sin. He knows if we are resting on the glory of past graces but empty of present vitality. He knows if we hold his truth from a living heart that loves him or a proud heart that wants to be right. He knows if we have brought our American sins into his church and killed it. He knows if we are resting on the forms and words of religion, or if we are in a living union with him and living by the “faith of the Son of God” (Gal. 2:20). It is very sobering that Jesus knows. It is much easier to have a religion of rituals and priestcraft, with Jesus Christ kept at a comfortable distance. A living Savior in our midst who searches our hearts is unnerving and humbling. Nevertheless, we must have dealings with him and invite him to deal with us, “to search and know us, and see if there be any wicked way in us” (Ps. 119:23-24).
The Lord Reveals the Causes of Church Death (vv. 2,4)
Careless: Not Watching, Presumptuous
Twice the defenders of Sardis did not watch their rear. Satan will not attack there – I have already secured that area. Surely Satan will not attack through false doctrine – we are a knowledgeable congregation and love the Bible – but we did not guard against pride and lost our first love, so that our knowledge “puffed us up” and made us forget that Christ alone is our wisdom and that we owe all we know to his grace (1 Cor. 8:1). A true knowledge of Christ is deeply humbling. Our Lord warns repeatedly that we must be “sober and vigilant” (1 Pet. 5:8) and “watch unto prayer” (Col. 4:2; 1 Pet. 4:7). In agony on his face in Gethsemane, we can hear him urging with raw emotion – “watch and pray” (Matt. 26:41). Why must we watch? Satan is stalking us, and we are powerless to resist him unless God is with us. We are soldiers under orders from our Father, and by watching we present ourselves to him to do his will (Rom. 6:13). We watch because our adversity is watching for an occasion against us (1 Tim. 5:14; 1 Pet. 5:7). We watch because we want to be ready for our Lord when he comes (1 Thess. 5:1-7). We watch because “the flesh is weak,” and the old man of sin within us looks for a foothold to regain dominance. We watch because it is a delight to watch with our Savior at the throne of grace.
Complacent: Not Finishing Works unto Perfection
Our Lord “did not find their works perfect before God.” He expects us to “press for the prize of the high calling of God” (Phil. 3:14). This is the opposite of a complacent, self-satisfied attitude. Such a spirit will not watch but pats itself on the back, finds plenty of fault with others but none with self. We have more important things to do than “watch and pray” or “examine ourselves to see if we are in the faith.” Spiritual complacency is a serious disease. Not striving for perfection, we grow cold toward Christ and do not seek him as fervently as we once did. We settle for less holiness and are less embarrassed by sin than we once were. The Lord calls us to perfection: “Be you therefore perfect, as your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:48). How easily we grow indifferent to such a glorious command, which drives us to God’s strength. In his strength, we must keep striving toward godliness, fighting against our sins, seeking to gain the world for Christ, and watching against Satan’s attacks. We are redeemed by Christ to “walk worthy of the Lord unto all pleasing” (Col. 1:11), like Enoch, to walk with him until we are brought before him and perfected in holiness, peace, and joy. Let us “follow on to know the Lord” (Hos. 6:3).
Defiled (v. 4): Not Coming Out of World
In searching the church in Sardis, the Lord speaks of a “few names who have not defiled their garments.” Being washed in Christ’s blood, he calls us not to return to sin’s filth. If we sin, he is our Advocate with the Father, and we must return to him to be cleansed by the virtue of his once-for-all shed blood (1 John 1:9-2:2). Thus, the Christian life has both a definitive cleansing when he gives us faith to believe upon him, and a progressive cleansing. We need this cleansing daily, many times each day. But how can we remain aware of this need if we go to sleep? If we allow our “garments” to be defiled with the world’s sin, if we do not “keep ourselves unspotted by the world” (Jam. 1:27), we cannot see our need of Christ. Then, we do not come to him as we should, and our defilement grows. Sin makes us dirtier. We accept sins that would once have repulsed us, speak words and think thoughts that once sickened our souls. The world is corrupting. We are commanded to “come out from among them” (1 Cor. 6:17), not that we must leave our city – the Lord did not tell these believers to become agrarians – but that we must keep watch so that we are not defiled. The modern church in this land is defiled. It accepts sins and redefinitions of sin so as to lower the offense of the cross and purchase the world’s approval by compromise. If we do not come out of the world, the Lord Jesus Christ will come out of us.
The Lord Calls to an Almost Dead Church (vv. 2-3)
Be Watchful and Strengthen!
Through a succession of five imperative verbs, the Lord calls his dying sheep back into the fold of his living fellowship. They must resume the watch. The church must honestly, prayerfully examine itself – pastor, elders, members. Why have we fallen off so much? Where are we corrupt and compromised? Where have we fallen asleep? By commanding us to watch, the Lord commands us to come back into the light! The answers do not lie in us. We cannot figure these things out for ourselves. We must come to him, ask him to search us, and then to strengthen us to watch against future occasions of sin. Let us say that the Lord recovers us from some particular sin. We confess and look to him for cleansing. We are delivered by his goodness and encouraged by his grace. But, having been recovered, do we watch against falling into that sin again? If not, sin and Satan will discover that we have stopped watching. The attack will be renewed. And our next fall will be worse than the last. Spiritual watchfulness against sin, when it is motivated by a love for God and created in man’s heart by the sanctifying work of the Spirit, will be accompanied by persevering watchful prayer against sin. The more we learn the strength of hidden sin within us and the power of sudden temptation, we will cast ourselves upon the power and faithfulness of God and cry out to him continually until he hears and comes to our defense.
Along with “watch,” the Lord commands “strengthen.” Whatever signs of life remain must be strengthened and renewed. In rekindling the spiritual life of congregations and individuals, we start with what we have. We must strengthen whatever gifts and graces remain. If two or three are gathering for prayer, they must continue and pray more fervently. Others must join. If a few are encouraging church members to attend services more consistently or discipling the young, all must follow their example. Congregations and individual Christians can be preserved from spiritual deadness if they will strengthen the gifts and graces that remain in their congregations. The continuous movement of the soul toward increasing holiness and heaven preserves the believer from spiritual laziness and keeps the congregation alive, alert, and maturing.
Remember! Hold Fast! Repent!
When a church is almost dead, it needs more Bible preaching and living. We must remember what we have heard. We need to hear the gospel again and remember God’s truth. God’s word is living and powerful; it is able to revive us. We must hold fast to it. How manly is our Lord’s counsel to his church – not handwringing over how hard everything is – no, hold fast! Hold fast to me, to my word. And repent – turn from your compromising and complacent ways. Search yourselves and hold one another accountable. Make sure that repentance is real and deep through discipleship and constant fellowship together and discussion of eternal truth. Do not rest on your laurels, on the glories of a past Reformation when you need a present one. Keep seeking me, holding fast to me, and I will recover you.
Our Lord Strongly Commends the Faithful Few (v. 4)
Some of the congregation did not defile their lives through compromise with the world, participation in idolatry and immorality in order to succeed economically and socially. Our Lord commends them for their faithfulness. Their reward for holiness is to “walk with Christ in white.” They will enjoy complete restoration of fellowship with him and the Father in the new heavens and the earth. Do we feel the glory of this? We shall, if “to depart and be with Christ is better by far” and “so we shall be forever with the Lord” stirs our deepest desires! “White” is symbolic of holiness. The pursuit of holiness on earth will be rewarded with perfect holiness in heaven. They will walk with Christ “for they are worthy.” All our righteousness is in Christ (Gen. 15:6; Rom. 3:21-26; 4:1-8; Gal. 3:21-25). Believing him, we must aspire “to walk worthy of him unto all pleasing” (Eph. 4:1; Col. 1:10; 1 Thess. 2:12).
“Worthy” does not mean we earn heaven by works. Our worthy walking is the fruit of Christ’s presence and grace. Because he is living and true, all true believers will walk worthy of the gospel to some degree and remain faithful to Christ. There are degrees of personal sanctification, but a professing believer will not walk with Christ in white unless holy living is a chief concern of his life. We are saved by God’s grace alone, through Christ alone, by faith alone, so that freed from our sins by the power of Christ’s blood and righteousness, we may pursue righteousness by the power of God’s Spirit (Rom. 8:1,4; Eph. 2:10). If the pursuit of holiness is absent, we are still enslaved to sin, or have stopped watching and lapsed into our old ways. Lead us to plead with Jesus our Lord to recover us (Ps. 119:176)!
Three Promises to the Overcomers (vv. 5-6)
Righteous: You Will Walk with Jesus in White
As we read these three promises, remember that Jesus makes them to “overcomers,” victors over sin, the flesh, and the devil. None of these men and women had been to seminary, possessed expansive, personal libraries or a long Christian tradition in their family. They were relatively new believers, but they were united to Jesus Christ. It is his life in us and our drawing life from him that strengthens us to overcome. White garments or robes are heaven’s clothing (6:2,11; 7:9,13; 19:8,9)! “Holiness” is the primary significance of “white.” In Revelation 19:8, the fine linen that is also bright or white is called “the righteous acts of the saints.” To be clothed in white garments means to be rewarded for a righteous life on earth. Believers in Jesus Christ are judicially righteous because of his righteousness imputed to us – no works of righteousness that we have done (Rom. 5:12ff.; Titus 3:5). Those who keep the course of righteousness on earth will be rewarded in heaven for their righteousness (1 Cor. 9:25; 2 Tim. 4:8). They will be confirmed in holiness, admitted to fellowship with God, and crowned with glory and honor. The righteousness we love and strive for on earth will be our joy, our way of life, our crown in heaven. The children whom the Lord brings to heaven he makes holy on earth through the discipline of the cross and power of his Spirit.
Preserved: Your Name Not Blotted Out
The “book of life” is a familiar figure in the Bible, and especially in Revelation where it is called the “Lamb’s Book of Life.” This book contains the names of the citizens of God’s heavenly kingdom, much like an ancient city kept a roll book inscribed with the names of their citizens. The names of the citizens of God’s kingdom were written in his book before the foundation of the world (Rev. 17:8; 13:8). We should reject any idea that a believer can be chosen by God and written in the Lamb’s book, but then at some point lose his salvation. “The Lord knows who are his” (2 Tim. 2:19), and he loses none of his (John 6:39-40; 17:12; 18:19).
But the warnings of Scripture are real, not merely theoretical or for moral and spiritual drama. “We are made partakers of Christ if we hold fast the beginning of our confidence firm unto the end” (Heb. 3:14). “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you both to will and to do his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12). These kinds of warnings are…warnings. They warn us against complacency. They warn us against “having a form of godliness but denying its power” (2 Tim. 3:5), i.e., no real power unto faith and repentance, no living union with Jesus Christ. It is not that God changes his purposes, or Jesus erases names from his book, or we can lose salvation or election – it is that we prove ourselves to be false – dead, fruitless branches. This warning should stir us to seek Christ more constantly and more personally. All who abide in him will bear fruit – they will overcome. It is not because they are good and strong. He is good, gracious, and strong. He transforms by his Spirit all who are united to him by faith. Do you want to hear him read your name from his book? Do not settle for shallow self-assessment, for the faith of your parents, for the forms and words of the faith without the living person, Jesus Christ, who alone can save and bring us into his eternal kingdom.
Owned: I Will Confess You before My Father
Can there be any stronger motivation for a child of God than this! We live for an audience of One, for the approbation of One, for the confession of One, our Lord Jesus. We have an unbreakable appointment at his judgment seat. For him to confess that he knows us, for him to say, “Come, you blessed of my Father, enter the kingdom prepared for you,” will bring more joy to us than we can now conceive or bear. These words may make us squirm a bit, but better to squirm now than be lost in hell forever and hear his “Depart from me,” his “I never knew you.” God forbid! Overcomers confess Christ, and he confesses them. They confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. They confess when it brings the world’s reproach or costs their freedom, money, or their blood. They confess by waking up to these warnings and climbing back up onto the spiritual wall and watching as faithful soldiers at post. Are you languid and lazy? Hear this promise. “I will confess you before the Father and before his angels.” Let this promise melt a self-complacent heart and place you back on highest alert, sincerest dependence upon Jesus Christ. If we deny him, he will deny us. He remains faithful; he cannot deny himself (2 Tim. 2:13).