Dear Dead Church (Rev. 3:1-6)
In his book, Drunk Tank Pink, Adam Altar points out the curious phenomenon known as “nominative determinism”. It’s the idea that our names can often have a profound effect upon how we live. Our name predetermines the outcome. He shows how people are often preoccupied by ideas related to their name. The Chief Justice of England and Wales from 2008-2013 was Justice Igor Judge. His colleague, Justice John Laws, was on the court of appeals from 1999-2016. The fastest man in the world is named Usain Bolt. If sprinting hadn’t worked out, I guess he would have been a good mechanic. Probably one of the more fascinating examples he provides is of two urology experts who wrote an article about painful urination for New Scientist magazine. Their names were Drs. A.J. Splatt and D. Weedon. Altar concludes,
It’s tempting to dismiss these anecdotes as scattered coincidences, but researchers have shown that our names take root deep within our mental worlds, drawing us magnetically toward the concepts they embody.
The keyword in our passage this morning is “name”. In the Greek, it occurs four times in verses 1, 4, and twice in 5. While our name in this life might bear some significant weight in how our interests develop, or how others perceive us, it is far more important how God views our name. Nominative determinism has absolutely no effect upon God’s perspective of who we are. The way God views us has everything to do with whether we are united to the One whose name is above all names (Php 2:9).
This fifth letter provides the climax of the three middle churches who have become compromised by integrating with pagan culture. The previous two churches were specifically rebuked for tolerating false teaching. Pergamum was holding onto the name of Christ in one hand, while holding onto false teaching in the other. Thyatira was growing, but seriously compromised by the teaching of Jezebel who encouraged integrating with the pagan trade guilds. In Sardis, there is no mention of false teachers, but they have become so complacent, that they’re about to lose everything.
Read Rev. 3:1-6
Jesus opens with the image of him holding the seven spirits and seven stars (1a). This dead church might find revival if it is willing to submit to their Sovereign Lord whose Holy Spirit is at work through the preaching of his word. Will they heed the warning of this letter despite the unexpected nature of its purpose?
At one time Sardis was a flourishing city located along an active highway near the Pactolus River, a source of gold. This is the same river where it was said that King Midas washed off his “Golden Touch”. The wealth and splendor of this city has faded considerably by the time John is writing this letter. It’s population was roughly 60,000. Its temple of Artemis, although smaller than the one in Ephesus, was the eighth largest temple in the Greek world. But, unfortunately they were never able to finish the project.
Like Ephesus and Smyrna, Sardis earned the title of neokoros (temple warden) several times. Apparently there was a large population of Jews. The third largest building in Sardis was a synagogue. Although the current remains only date back to the fourth century AD, they reveal some telling features about the level of compromise there. The central table was engraved with an eagle on its base, which was the symbol of Rome. Statues of lions decorate the main hall, which may have been taken from a shrine of Cybele, a goddess often portrayed with lions on either side. In other words, the synagogue was filled with the kind of idolatry that was condemned by Ezekiel.
It was a context where hypocrisy could flourish.
I. The Empty Name of the Unrepentant (1-3)
If the Jewish synagogue is any indication of the character of monotheism in Sardis, then we can safely assume that Christianity was thriving there. Many probably saw the church as a model of growth in Asia Minor. Publishers were likely hounding the local pastor to share his methodology. Other churches watched closely to follow his every step. Surely, he was on the conference circuit throughout the region.
They had a reputation (lit. “name”) that they were alive. They appeared healthy and strong in numbers and they probably thought they were making a positive impact upon the culture. They thought their reputation reflected well upon the name of Christ. But His assessment of them isn’t so glowing…
Jesus tells them, “Your works show that you have a reputation of being alive, but you’re dead.” On the exterior, you check all the right boxes. But Jesus sees their interior. This is the first church that doesn’t receive an opening commendation. She may have a prestigious name, but it’s empty. As Wilcock says, “In name she is alive, in fact she is dead.” The enjoyed the kind of favor they did in their context, because they fit in perfectly. Instead of challenging or subverting the culture, they complemented it. It was nominal Christianity at its finest. Christianity in America may know something of this experience. Faith is professed, but not truly possessed.
So Jesus commands them to “Wake up!” They have fallen asleep. The light of their lamp has grown dim. They must strengthen whatever remains if they are going to survive. At least there is an acknowledgment of somewhere to begin. She possessed something with which she could revive the strength of her testimony.
In Ezekiel 37 God will call the prophet to go into the Valley of Dry Bones and prophesy over the dead bones saying, “O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord” (Ezek 37:4). While preaching God’s Word, “the breath came into them, and they lived and stood on their feet, an exceeding great army” (37:10). This is the picture of the kind of spiritual revival that was needed in Sardis.
Her works were incomplete like the temple of Artemis. As long as the works of the church did not match her name, she would be incomplete “in the sight of God”. How might they go about strengthening what remains?
- Remember what you have received and heard. Roughly a generation prior, they received the gospel through an uncompromising faith in Christ alone. That’s the only way Christ would commend their reception of him. Can they remember being broken by their sin? Do they recall finding Christ’s life and death all-sufficient?
- Keep the gospel at the heart of their community as it was from the beginning. They have allowed many things to crowd Christ out of the central spot. They are on the verge of losing Christ altogether. This means they will swiftly return to him and…
- Repent of their compromise. They must be enlightened and enabled to heed the Spirit’s warning.
If you do not wake up, Jesus will come against you like a thief. We often associate this language with Christ’s second coming. However, the second coming is not conditioned upon the repentance of believers. This is an immediate consequence that awaits should they remain in their state of compromise.
Sardis had the appearance of being impregnable. Their fortress looked strong. But, on two separate occasions, the city had been attacked and defeated. The attackers came while the city slept and scaled giant 1,500ft. cliffs where no guards were stationed. Their appearance of strength gave them a false sense of security that was not supported by reality.
The church would have a similar history if they did not wake up. Christians in Sardis might have looked spiritually mature on the outside, but they were dying on the inside.
It would make sense that this church avoided persecution because they didn’t commend anything that contradicted the cultural practices. The only church that received no opening commendation from Christ also appears to have received no condemnation from the culture. Apparently, the Christianity that was represented by the church in Sardis posed no threat to the idolatry and worldliness of the city. They were at peace with the world, which left them at odds with Christ. Something had to change.
And there is hope for true believers to receive…
II. The Indelible Name of the Conquerers (4-6)
The Remnant (4)
There was a small group of “people who have not soiled their garments.” We see the same word translated “defiled” with reference to eating food that had been sacrificed to idols (1 Co 8:7) and sexual immorality (Rev. 14:4). The implication seems to be that they faced the same challenges in Sardis as well. Only a few had kept themselves clean by rejecting the false teaching that had defiled most of the church.
It is this worthy few who will walk in white with Jesus. The color of the garments indicates a that they have been washed pure by the blood of the Lamb (Rev 7:14). These believers will have access to the tree of life (Rev 22:14). They are worthy because they are united to Christ by faith. They walk contrary to the culture not in order to be saved, but in response to their salvation.
The Conquerers (5)
The conquerers are likewise clothed in white garments. God will give them pure garments which represent the righteous acts of the saints (Rev 19:8). There are a couple of allusions to the Old Testament worth pointing out.
First, we see echoes of Joshua, the high priest, in Zechariah 3. He is seen standing in “filthy garments” before the throne of God. Satan accuses him of his guilt and their is no denying that he has become stained by sin. But the angel of the Lord has Joshua’s sin-stained garments removed. His iniquities had been taken away so that he might receive pure vestments.
There is also a connection to Daniel 11-12, which refers to the end-time tribulation that purifies the saints so that they are “made white” (Dan 11:35). Michael, the angel, promises the deliverance of “everyone whose name shall be found written in the book” (Dan 12:1).
Jesus promises the conquerers will never be blotted out of the book of life, the membership rolls of heaven. “Indelible” means not able to be forgotten or removed from memory. The names of those who conquer cannot be erased from the book of life.
Like many of the warning passages in Hebrews, this text shows that you can belong to an earthly church and not have your name written in the heavenly Book of Life. Many will credibly profess faith, but not genuinely possess faith.
On the other hand, those whose names are known in heaven, will never be blotted out of the book. Instead, Jesus will confess their name before his Father and angels. This applies to anyone who has been enabled to read and hear the Spirit’s words (6).
Jesus calls the spiritually dead to wake up and promises eternal life to all who conquer!
In 616 AD the city was invaded and destroyed by Persia. All of the inhabitants were scattered. There was a Christian chapel in the southeast corner of the precincts of the temple of Artemis. In other words, the area had been repurposed after the worship of Artemis had died off, and the Christian church was growing. Another church structure was found near Cybele’s shrine.
Apparently, the remnant of conquerers in Sardis held fast to the truth. Their hope outlasted the idolatry. They remembered the gospel message they had received. They kept God central and repented of their compromise. And Christ was faithful to fulfill his promise to grant them eternal life.
Christ alone offers us the white garments that we need. You may be clothed in garments that have been stained by the world. Maybe you feel unworthy to stand before the throne of God, incapable of speaking your own name. The glorious truth you need to hear is that when you place your faith in Christ, He is the one who will confess your name before his Father. We have an advocate with the Father who ever lives to intercede for us.