church of the living dead
Steven P. Wickstrom
all Scriptures quoted from the NASB
Revelations chapter three
(1) And to the angel of the church in Sardis write: He who has the seven Spirits of God, and the seven stars, says this: I know your deeds, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead.
To the angel of the church in Sardis. The city of Sardis was built around B.C. 500 and was located on a narrow plateau fifteen hundred feet above sea level, about thirty-five miles southeast of Thyatira. Because the city was built in a mountainous region it was a natural citadel. It was the capital of the Lydian Empire and was still an important city during the Roman Empire. Sardis had become famous for their abilities in arts and crafts. They made lavish use of the local brightly colored and semi-precious stones such as fire opal and banded agate.
The Sardians also had a process in which they used blue chalcedony that they mined nearby. Their jewlry was reknown throughout the empire. Some historians claim that Sardis was the first city to mint coinage using the precious metals; gold and silver. The nearby mountains were dotted with gold mines thus making the city the monetary capital of the region. The patron deity, named Cybele, was believed to possess the power and ability of restoring the dead back to life. The Romans built a temple for the goddess Artemis and a large bath-gymnasium complex. An earthquake hit the city in A.D. 17, causing tremendous damage.
According to Matthew Henry, the church in Sardis was founded by the Apostle John. Other people think the church may have been started by the Apostle Paul, and another line line of thinking is it was started by one of his disciples. I could find no data as to when the church was started or by whom. What matters is that the church was real and that it had a real problem.
He who has the seven Spirits of God, and the seven stars. Sometimes I have a really difficult time with symbolism. It can be, and usually is, very complex and difficult to comprehend. For example, what are the seven Spirits of God and the seven stars? What does that mean? Why seven? Why not six or eight? Let's take a look at scripture and see if we can find an answer.
The number seven has a tendency to represent, or be a symbol of, completeness, or perfection. A reference is made in Rev. 1:4 to seven Spirits who are in front of God's throne. The word Spirits is capitalized, which mean they are part of, and are in essence, God himself. The word Spirits is the Greek word “pnedma” which means breath or wind. Perhaps the seven Spirits are personifications of God, or maybe they represent seven of His powers.
In Isaiah 11:2, the prophet speaks of the Spirit of Lord resting upon Jesus the Messiah. Perhaps these are the seven Spirits. Let's take a look at Isaiah 11:2.
And the Spirit of the Lord will rest on Him, the spirit of wisdom, and understanding, the spirit of counsel, and strength, the spirit of knowledge, and the fear of the Lord.
Now let's take this verse apart. And the Spirit of the Lord [number one] will rest on Him, the spirit of wisdom [number two] and understanding [number three] the spirit of counsel [number four] and strength [number five] the spirit of knowledge [number six] and the fear of the Lord [number seven].
If the Spirit of the Lord, wisdom, understanding, counsel, strength, knowledge, and the fear of the Lord, are the seven Spirits in front of the throne, what we are seeing is perhaps, a sevenfold ministry of the Holy Spirit.
Revelations 1:20 explains that the seven stars represent the seven angels of the seven churches which are named in Rev 1:11. Apparently each church had an angel who stood guard over it, or perhaps represented that church before God. I do not know if every church today has an angel. I would hesitate to make a statement like that with only one verse of scripture to back it up. In Rev 1:11 there is one lamp stand for each church which perhaps represents the light given off by that church. In that sense, it shows the mission of the church; which is to shine the light of God in a dark world.
In the middle of Revelations 3:1 we find the phrase, I know your deeds. This indicates two things; one is that Sardis was an active church. They were doing things, having programs, and reaching out to the surrounding community. This was a church “on the go,” a lively church, a flourishing church. It was a church with a good reputation. It was a church that was in good standing with the community. Many churches today don't even have any deeds. They are not doing anything for God. People show up for Sunday morning services and the church does nothing for the rest of the week. Sound familiar?
The second thing that the phrase I know your deeds indicates is that God is watching. This is something that we hardly ever think about. God watches and knows our deeds. He doesn't only know what we do, He knows why we do. He knows us better than we even know ourselves. We should be encouraged by this because even when it seems like no one notices the things we do, God knows. The flip side of this coin is that when we are doing deeds and works that we do not want anyone to know about, God knows.
That you have a name that you are alive. What exactly is a name? My name is Steven which means “a crown,” but that is not what this means. A name carries with it both reputation and character. A name is what other people commonly think and say about you (or the church in Sardis in this case). The church in Sardis has good reputation, a name, that they are alive and active. This was a church that people wanted to be a part of. This was a church that was doing things. How many churches do you know of that have reputations for being alive and active? How many churches do you know of that are dead and inactive? Which are there more of? Sardis sounds like the type of productive church that we would want to attend. But the church in Sardis has a problem, a big problem.
But you are dead. The church had a name, and a reputation for being alive; but that name and reputation were with the world. Their name and reputation did not come from God. They were so busy doing things and trying to entertain and please the world that they forgot what the church is all about. They had stopped doing their works and deeds for God. In all their activity they were too busy to notice that the church had died. They were too busy trying to convince each other that they were “Spiritual” to notice that they were dead.
All the outward manifestations of the Spirit meant nothing. All the works and deeds meant nothing. All the church activity was worthless. Why? It is because the church is really dead. The church is going through the motions, but they are not measuring up to God's standard of Holiness. What looked alive and active to man was dead as far as God was concerned. They thought were very active for the Lord, but they were not intimate with the Lord. God looks at the heart and judges our motives. He watches to see why we do what we do.
As you can see, this church is not what it appears to be. They probably had a form of godliness without any power. Perhaps people were getting healed, and losing their healing, because it was not from God. Perhaps spiritual manifestations were occurring, but they were not from God. Perhaps the ice cream social was more important than the altar call. I imagine that the preaching was no longer focused on God and repentance, but had become watered down into a social gospel. Perhaps a lot of people attended the church because the message did not offend them. Perhaps (dare I use the word) sin was never mentioned. The church may have had a good reputation in the city, but God was not impressed.
1 Corinthians 13:1-3, talks about the uselessness of works without love. “If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. And if I give all my possessions to feed the poor, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing.” This may have been the problem that the church of Sardis had. They had a lot of deeds and works, but God saw through all the activity and looked at their hearts. He saw that they were dead.
In Matthew 7:22-23, Jesus says “Many will say to Me on that day, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?' And I will declare to them, 'I never knew you; DEPART FROM ME, YOU WHO PRACTICE LAWLESSNESS.”(emphasis mine) The phrase “practice lawlessness” can also be interpreted as, “to work evil.” God looks through all the activity and sees the heart. A miracle done in the name of Jesus but not done for the glory of God, is evil. In Matthew 25, Jesus talks about separating the sheep from the goats on the day of judgement. The sheep went to heaven, and the goats went to hell. The pews in the church in Sardis were filled with goats. I am sure the goats were very busy doing things which gave the church a good reputation, but the works and deeds were not bearing fruit. The church in Sardis was in serious trouble.
There is something else I noticed about the church in Sardis and it is this: there was no persecution. There weren't any false apostles, or prophets or teachers trying to destroy this church. Even the Nicolations (they ate food that had been sacrificed to idols and practiced sex outside of marriage while claiming to be Christians) and pious Jews were ignoring this church. No one was being cast into prison or put to death for serving Jesus. It is almost as if this church is so ineffective, that the devil is not wasting any of his time with it. All he has to do is keep the church thinking that they are alive, when he knows all the time that they are actually dead.
(2) Wake up, and strengthen the things that remain, which were about to die; for I have not found your deeds completed in the sight of My God.
Wake up. The phrase, wake up, means to be watchful, awake, and to prevent yourself from falling asleep. This phrase would have been very poignant to the church at Sardis who knew their city's history. Back in 219BC and again in 549BC, the city was captured at night by an invading army, while the city slept. It is a call from God that resounds through the ages to the church today. Especially if you are in a church that seems alive and active! We cannot afford to fall asleep in the Sonlight. Wake up, before it is too late. Wake up, while you still can. This begs the question; how do I wake up?
The first thing I have to do is search my heart to see if I am awake. Are my works and deeds (if I am doing any) done for the glory of Christ, or for my own glory? Whom do I want to get the credit for what I am doing, Jesus, or myself? Not only must I wake up, but I must stay awake and be watchful. I must keep a careful guard of my heart.
Strengthen the things that remain. They had already lost so much, and so little remained. What was it in the church at Sardis that still remained? Their deeds and their works still remained. The church is given a command: to strengthen what remains. This implies that what remains is weak and desperately needs to be strengthened. Their works and deeds were not being done for the glory of God, but for the glory of the church, or perhaps even for personal gain. Their works and deeds were being done to give their church and themselves a good reputation. The church would have to change their focus and work for God in order to strengthen the works that remained.
Which were about to die. The works and deeds that remained were about to die. The church was in serious trouble and did not even know it! This seemingly active and thriving church was heading straight for the spiritual grave. If they don't get their act together and straighten out their priorities, the few deeds that are left will wither and die. Now is the time for the church to get on its knees and seek the Lord. Only by prayer and repentance can Sardis strengthen the things that remain.
The same is true of the church today. We as a church need to get our act together and get on our knees and seek the Lord. Does God see your church today as “dead?” Do we need to strengthen the things that remain in the church today? It is not too late for the church today, provided we act now. Today is the day to repent, tomorrow is not promised to us.
What about your life? What about my life? Have we reached the point where God considers us as almost dead? Are the works that we do, being done for the glory of God? Or are we doing them to get ourselves a good name and reputation. Colossians 3:17 says “And whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God the Father.” I must confess that I don't do this all the time like I know I should. When I see how God looked at the church in Sardis, I realize that He looks at me the same way. He looks at you the same way also. He sees straight through to our heart and knows our motives. Let us take a moment now to change our hearts, while we still have time, while it is still today.
For I have not found your deeds completed in the sight of My God. I find it a bit unnerving that my works and deeds could be incomplete or imperfect in the sight of God. There must be a way to prevent this from happening. Let me share with you what I found in the scriptures. James 1:25 says, “But one who looks intently at the perfect law, the law of liberty, and abides by it, not having become a forgetful hearer but an effectual doer, this man shall be blessed in what he does.” God will bless our works and deeds if we abide in His perfect law of liberty (the word of God). If His word is in our heart and we do as His word commands, He will bless our works. Our works will be complete in His sight.
Hebrews 10:23-24 says “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful; and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds.” These verses show our responsibility to each other: we need to encourage one another to love and good deeds. We should also encourage each other to keep our priorities straight. We should make sure that we do our good deeds for the glory of God. The church in Sardis was not doing this. Their deeds and works were therefore incomplete in the sight of God. The church was essentially wasting its own time.
(3) Remember therefore what you have received and heard; and keep it, and repent. If therefore you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come upon you.
Remember therefore what you have received and heard. The word what should actually be interpreted as “in what way, or how.” God wanted the church in Sardis to remember in what way they had received and heard His word. In 1st Thessalonians 1:5, Paul writes, “for our gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction.” I believe that Sardis had this same experience that Paul was referring to. The power of God had convicted them of their sins. Sadly enough, they had forgotten why they had once accepted Jesus as their Lord and Savior.
Keep it and repent. They were supposed to keep the memory of what (and how) they had received and repent of the fact that they were backsliding. God wanted them to look at their hearts and see the wrong attitudes and motives. God wanted them to repent. You and I must also search our hearts and repent of any attitude or motive that would be displeasing to God. This is something that we sometimes need to do on a daily basis.
If therefore you will not wake up. The church is receiving a wake up call, and God is about to tell them what will happen if they do not heed His warning. God has given us a free will. This means that we can choose to ignore God. God lets us know what the consequences are if we choose to ignore Him. We have no excuse if we choose to go against God. We cannot say “I didn't know,” because we did. Just as God is warning Sardis, He also warns us today. What exactly is His warning?
I will come like a thief and you will not know at what hour I will come upon you. A professional thief can sneak into your house while you are home and you will not know that he is there. The best time for him to sneak into the house is when you are asleep because you are not expecting him. A thief has a tendency to stay away from a home where people are awake and moving around the house. A thief comes without being invited, without your consent, and without your knowledge. The image that God is giving is that like the thief, He will come unannounced and with no warning, and the church will not be ready.
This is in all actuality, a very scary thought. The picture presented here is one of judgement. The church may not be ready and will be judged for being unready. A church that is spiritually asleep is totally unacceptable to God. We cannot be doing His work if we are asleep. We will not be ready for His coming if we are not paying attention.
Even now the question is still valid. Are we as a church, ready? Or will He find us unprepared? God will not announce beforehand what hour He will come. He wants and expects us to be ready. He wants and expects us to be spiritually awake. Spiritual slumber is not an option for us. The consequences are dire. God wants us to be ready, and that is why He has given us a warning. The church would be wise to heed it.
(4) But you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their garments; and they will walk with Me in white; for they are worthy.
But you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their garments. I find it amazing that among all these “dead” church goers, there a few people who were truly alive Christians. The first question that came to my mind was this; why did they stay? Why did they stay in a spiritually dead church? I think I would have left and found an “alive” church. I feel a little guilty about that. These few people in Sardis have stronger character than I do. They have more patience than I do. Their walk with God is closer than mine. They saw through all the hypocrisy and did not let it affect them. They saw all the “dead” people around them and continued to be a living example. If only I had that kind of strength.
There were a few people in the church at Sardis who had not soiled their garments. What does that mean? What does it mean to soil your garment? We know that when we get saved, the blood of Jesus washes away our sin. The blood of Jesus makes our garment clean and white. In order for us to soil our garments after they have been washed clean, we have to remain in sin. This means that most of the people in the church in Sardis were “worldly Christians” or “carnal Christians.” They were living in sin while claiming to be Christians. They were going to church and playing the game. They were fooling everyone except God.
Another option is that they were never saved in the first place. Many commentators believe this to be true (I do not). However, this thought is truly frightening. If this option is true, then the church had lost the mission of bringing people to Christ. The church would have to have become a place where sin was not mentioned. It would have to be a place where people could be comfortable in their fallen state of sin. The message of salvation was not being preached. It would have been a church where people could go to feel good about themselves. It would have been a place where they would not have to hear about and deal with that “sin” issue.
I do not personally believe that the church in Sardis was filled with unsaved people. Here's why: an unsaved person does not have a clean garment to soil. An unsaved person has never had their garment washed clean by the blood of Jesus. My point is that only a garment washed clean can become soiled. Whatever the case was, the church in Sardis had a serious problem. But in the midst of all this, were a few devoted people who served the Lord God.
And they will walk with me in white; for they are worthy. These few people would walk with God in their white garments. God had found them to be worthy. Why? Were these people perfect? Not likely. They were human after all, just like you are, just like I am. These people kept their garments from becoming soiled. How did they keep their garments from becoming soiled? The same way you and I do: by confessing our sin to God. 1 John 1:9 says, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” This is how we keep our garments from becoming soiled. This is how God finds us to be worthy. If we continue to confess our sin to God, He will keep our garments clean, and someday we will walk with Him.
(5) He who overcomes shall thus be clothed in white garments; and I will not erase his name from the book of life, and I will confess his name before My Father, and before His angels.
He who overcomes shall thus be clothed in white garments. The people who serve God, confess their sins, and live for Him, will be overcomers. The word overcomes literally means “victorious.” God wants us to be victorious over the world, victorious over sin, and victorious over evil. He who is victorious will be clothed in white garments. Only those who overcome, who are victorious, will wear the white garments. This means that after we become saved, we cannot just sit back and enjoy the ride. We have work to do. We must constantly be examining our hearts, confessing our sin, and living our lives for Him.
And I will not erase his name from the book of life. This statement is a two-edged sword. It is a wonderful promise for Christians who overcome. It is also a terrible curse to those Christians who are only “playing the game.” How many people in the Church in Sardis had their names erased out of the book of life? Most of them did, if they did not heed the warning. I know that this goes against the “once saved always saved” theory. Please accept my condolences. If God Himself believed the “once saved always saved” theory, He would not have tried so hard to warn the church in Sardis. In fact, He wouldn't have warned them at all. But the fact is, God has his eraser ready, and some names are in great danger of being erased.
And I will confess his name before My Father, and before His angels. When Jesus confesses our name before the Father, he acknowledges that we belong to Him. He acknowledges that through Him, we have overcome. What a wonderful thought that is! What a joyful time that will be! Both for us and for God. There will be a lot of rejoicing on that day. It is truly something to look forward to.
(6) He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the Churches.
God wants His people to be awake and listening. He wants us to hear His message. His message is a call to wake up. His message is for us be alive for Him and not dead in our own works. His message is for us to repent and confess our sin to Him. He wants to clothe us in white garments. He wants to confess our sin to Him so that He can forgive us of our sin. He wants us to be righteous, and holy before Him. He wants our name to be in the book of life. He wants to walk with us. The question is this: do we want the same thing? Does the church you attend want the same thing? If we do, then we must be an overcomer.
This letter in Revelations 3:1-6, was written to the church. Granted, it was written to the church in Sardis, but it was written to Christians. It still applies to us today. The same Spirit who spoke through the apostle John to the church then, still speaks His warning today. Why? Because He loves us. Are we listening? Are we heeding His warning? Remember, God will not force anyone to spend an eternity with Him in Heaven. It has to be something that we choose (and want) to do.
Perhaps after reading this you are thinking to yourself: I attend a “Sardis” church. Maybe the church you attend is a church of the living dead. Perhaps there is no Spiritual life, no one remembers their “first love.” I would like to encourage all of you who attend a “Sardis” church. You may feel like you are the only person in the congregation who is a “practicing” or “alive” Christian. Do not give up! Holiness will be rewarded. Be a seed wherever God plants you. Grow and bear good fruit for Him. Be a lighthouse for God and shine His Light around you. Who knows how many of the living dead God will bring back to life through you?
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