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7 Letters of Revelation Sardis: Reputation vs Character

Reputation is what can more easily be seen. Character is often unseen.

The Revelation letter to the church in Sardis is not like the others. The most difficult part of this letter is that you will find it applicable to churches and Christians today. Difficult when you see why Sardis is condemned the harshest. It comes down to a fruitless and spiritually dead church who happens to have a great reputation.

Ever hear of a church like that?

And to the angel of the church in Sardis write … ‘I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God.’

Revelation 3:1-2

The fifth of the seven Revelation letters is unlike the first four: there is no encouragement or approval from Jesus to the church in Sardis. The believers here were complacent and looked alive, but were spiritually dead.

Byzantine church ruins at Sardis
Byzantine church ruins at Sardis. By simonjenkins, CC BY-SA 2.0, Wikimedia

It was a church that looked really good to the world on the outside, but inside there was no spiritual life.

Sardis was found 30 miles (48km) southeast of Thyatira and was the capital of the Lydian Empire from the 6th century. They were known for tremendous wealth, were a center of the woolen and textile dyeing industries, and sported an enormous temple to the pagan god Artemis.

Map of Lydian Empire. Revelation letter to church in Sardis and others were sent here.
Sardis is located almost center of the Lydian Empire c. 50 A.D. By Caliniuc – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=58363917

During the times of the Lydian Empire, Artemis was known as Cybele, who, interestingly enough, was believed to bring the dead to life.

That adds to the language Jesus used of being “alive but dead,” doesn’t it?

Sardis was also a secure city, thought to be impenetrable yet was captured twice for failing to keep watch. Read on to find out just how illustrative that is of the church in this city!

The Revelation Letter to the Church in Sardis

And to the angel of the church in Sardis write … ‘I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead.

Revelation 3:1

Reputation alone is not an accomplishment

Sardis had a sizable population and was home to one of the largest Jewish synagogues in Asia Minor. Given the sheer number of people in this city, it’s quite possible that the church in Sardis was successful in terms of their numbers. Maybe even kind of an early “mega church.”

However, numbers alone don’t create a fruitful community of believers, and this one was spiritually lazy and inactive.

Sardis Synagogue ruins, late 3rd century AD, Sardis, Lydia, Turkey
Sardis Synagogue, late 3rd century AD, Sardis, Lydia, Turkey by Carole Raddato from FRANKFURT, Germany – CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=45906671

The letter to Sardis is only 6 verses long, and sadly, in that short space Jesus gives them words of severe condemnation for the condition of their fellowship.

From the beginning of this letter, Jesus points out that the greatest accomplishment of this church is it’s reputation. How sad is that? Isn’t it regrettable when a church’s fame is greater than it’s reality? Or when it’s catchy name is more appealing than it’s impact on society for God’s Kingdom?

It is a sad thing when the only accomplishment of a church is what it names itself, especially if the reality shows the name to be a lie, as here [in Sardis].

Grant R. Osborne, N.T. scholar and theologian

Even today, spiritually dead churches and Christians alike are usually blind to their situation. Even worse, they are completely unaware of the threat facing them for not adhering to the commands of Christ.

Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it, and repent. 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.

Revelation 3:3

Wake up and remember or perish!

Instead of approval, Jesus issues this church a command and a warning. He orders them to wake up and to “become watchful.”

Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God.’ Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it, and repent. 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.

Revelation 3:2-3

This church has not fulfilled any of the standards of Christ. By not meeting His expectations as a community of believers, they are risking His wrath.

The words that Jesus uses in His message to His people in Sardis are significant. Do you recall when I mentioned that Sardis was believed to have been impenetrable? By not keeping watch, the soldiers of this highly fortified city allowed it to fall not once, but twice.

Jesus gives this church the same warning learned by the military of Sardis: be watchful or perish!

Ruins of temple of Artemis in Sardis
By simonjenkins; photos – Flickr: Temple of Artemis, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31629693

This stands as a warning to all churches across the span of time, including today. Jesus has given all of us very clear instructions, like the Great Commission in Matthew 28:19-20. Yet even today, so many Christians and entire denominations elevate the traditions of the church over the expectations Christ has given us!

And he said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.” And he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition!

Mark 7:6-9

Dressed in White

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.

Revelation 3:4

Remember, Sardis was the center of the textile dyeing industry and there was a lot of wealth here. You can think of it as a type of an ancient world fashion-industry central. That means if you walked around Sardis with soiled clothes, you’d stand out in a bad way!

“Soiled” fellowships are like that, too. They’re usually easy to spot to the born again follower of Christ.

Churches of good reputation but that are otherwise dead have been common in every generation. However, you’ll usually find a remnant of faithful saints, even in the most spiritually dead of congregations.

That’s what Jesus is pointing out in His letter to Sardis by mentioning the few who are unsoiled, and it’s as close as it gets to anything resembling commendation.

Playing Church

Sardis was a unique church of the 7 who received letters in Revelation. Here, there’s no mention of persecution as in Smyrna and Pergamum. There was no heretical teaching in the manner of Jezebel or Balaam like in Thyatira.

That means the stink and the problems of the church at Sardis was from the inside.

It’s true that the church which is sheltered has a tendency to become spiritually lazy, welcoming all kinds of compromise which results in having the reputation of being alive, but who are dead, like Sardis.

If you’ll look anywhere around the world today at where the church is growing the strongest, where faith is found in tremendous measure, it’s where the church is persecuted the most.

Sardis Synagogue courtyard ruins, late 3rd century AD, Sardis, Lydia, Turkey
By Carole Raddato from FRANKFURT, Germany – Sardis Synagogue, late 3rd century AD, Sardis, Lydia, Turkey, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=45906673

A threat, a promise, or both?

The one who conquers will be clothed thus in white garments, and I will never blot his name out of the book of life. I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels.

Revelation 3:5

In ancient Greece, as in most countries today, citizens of cities were accounted for through registration. When a person was condemned to be put to death, their name would be deleted from the registry just before they were executed.

It would have been an excruciating thing to see your name erased as you were about to die.

This is the illustration Jesus is giving to the believers in Sardis. He tells them that if they return to Him and remain faithful, He will never delete their name, and will in fact publicly speak their name in Heaven!

Now, there is a ton of debate among Biblical scholars as to whether or not a person can lose their salvation. Christ’s mention of “blotting out names” here is one verse that they point to in that debate.

I cannot tell you if Jesus is saying that here, or if He’s simply making a promise to the faithful. But do know this: if you place your trust in Christ and remain faithful to His commands, you will be saved.

For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

Romans 10:13

The Sardis Letter to the Church Today

No doubt as you’ve been reading about the letter to the church in Sardis, you’ve recognized familiar characteristics of churches and Christians. As with the other Revelation letters, there is a bit of each that lives on in us, for better or worse.

It’s just that it feels like the letter to Sardis hits a little closer to home than some of the others.

Alive but Dead: Reputation vs Character

Maybe you’ve experienced some of the following at some point.

  1. It could be that a church is very much alive in worship and boasts of fine musicians and the best instruments. Committed to rehearsal and getting everything just right, but dead to authentic worship of God. (Matthew 12:7; Micah 6:6-8)
  2. There are plenty of churches that are so alive with programs that they could publish books on effectively running church programs. Some of them are “program pros” and have a program for every aspect of the church, every day of the week, and every season of the year. Segregating the fellowship of Christ into programs that fit every niche, desire, and preference, they can be dead to the spiritual transformation that the Holy Spirit accomplishes through discipleship. (Acts 2:42; 4:33)
  3. Another church may greatly appeal to the culture around them. This church is absolutely alive to social awareness through the lens of a worldly perspective. Their behaviors match the values of the world around them and they’re in step with society. Replacing the commands of Christ with social acceptance, they are like Sardis: dead to the Kingdom of God. (Mark 7:6-7)
iceberg floating in the sea illustrating reputation vs character in the revelation letter to the church in Sardis
Reputation is what can more easily be seen. Character is often unseen. Photo by Alexander Hafemann on Unsplash.

Let’s make it more personal

I don’t point these things out just to bag on program heavy churches. Some congregations can do them well while maintaining the standards that Christ gave His church.

However, there are critical points that Jesus is making in His letter to the church in Sardis that you don’t want to miss. Things that will help your relationship with the Risen Savior become more alive.

Like Sardis, you personally have both reputation and character. When you look at them, what would God say about your relationship with Him? Is the time you spend in His word or in worship building on that relationship?

Have you heard the Good News of Jesus Christ? Is your life any different today because of that word and His presence in your life?

I want you to ask questions like this of yourself because the last thing you want is to be a one-man or one-woman Sardis. Having every appearance of a Christian (reputation) but dead and fruitless in your relationship with Him (character).

This is critically important because of the promise that Jesus gave through His letter to the church in Sardis:

The one who conquers will be clothed thus in white garments, and I will never blot his name out of the book of life. I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels.

Revelation 3:5

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