Sardis: “The Dead Church” Revelation 3:1-6
The message to Sardis is written to a church that outwardly seems to be alive, that is, it was probably seen as successful by those both inside and outside of the church but in the eyes of Jesus it was inwardly dead (v1). Nevertheless, even in this particular church there are some that are commended for their faithfulness (v4).
Commendation: Some have kept the faith.
Criticism: A dead church.
Instruction: Repent, strengthen what remains.
Promise: Faithful honoured and clothed in white.
- Sardis was an ancient city known today as Sart which is located in Asia Minor (Turkey).
- The city itself was built on a steep hill and was considered unconquerable because of its situation. However, both Cyrus (549 BC) and Antiochus (218 BC) were able to conquer the city because of its over-confidence and its failure to defend a secret path that allowed access to the city.
- It was destroyed by an earthquake in AD 17 and although it had been rebuilt, it was no longer the great city that it had once been, though it still remained the capital of Lydia.
- The local economy depended largely on the manufacture, the colouring and sale of wool and woollen goods.
- It was the centre of the worship of the goddess Cybele whose worship included drinking, shouting, singing and immoral sexual activity.
“angel” – The Greek word for “angel” here is G32 “aggelos” (pronounced ang’-el-os) which literally means “messenger” and according to the original Greek could either be speaking of an angelic representation of the churches themselves or their senior pastor/s. Personally, I think this is speaking about the pastor or leadership team of the church.
“seven Spirits of God” – Biblically the number “seven” is used much in the same way as it is used today that is to denote a complete or perfect or immeasurable number (ie The way we might say “there were several types of cake in the supermarket”). Here it is used to show not that there are “seven Spirits” but that Christ has the fullness of the Spirit, for this reason the NKJV translators capitalise the word “Spirits,” something that is only ever done when used in reference to the Holy Spirit.
“seven stars” – The term “seven stars” has already been translated in 1:20 as the “angels of the seven churches” because of the Greek term used for angel above this seems to be a metaphoric description of Christ being the One to whom all of the churches belong. Literally the seven churches in Asia Minor and metaphorically all the churches, in all places and at all times.
“you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead” – I like the way the NCV translates this: “people say that you are alive, but really you are dead.” Basically, this church was able to deceive everyone into thinking that this church was doing better than it actually was. However, the ambiguity in this phrase leaves us to wonder if this church was:
- theologically dead (a church that tolerated or encouraged heretical teaching and/or theological immaturity).
- emotionally dead (lacking in any emotional intensity to the things of God).
- morally dead (a number of Christians would have come from pagan backgrounds therefore the tendency for immorality or a loosening of standards could easily been a reality amongst them).
- missionally dead (as Revelation was written at a time of persecution it would not be beyond the realm of reason to suppose that the church was neglecting its mission to those outside of its confines).
- spiritually dead (by this I mean a sheer absence of power to do any of the above).
There is no way of knowing for sure what was happening within this church, but whatever it was it seems that many people were deceived into thinking that this church was doing extremely well.
“strengthen the things…that are ready to die” – Nowadays we seem to be constantly encouraged to think and talk positively and whilst that can be commended in part this church is strongly encouraged to look at their situation realistically. It matters very little how this church is perceived from those inside or outside of it, what really matters is how they are seen by God. This church is not seen as successful within the eyes of God.
“I have not found your works perfect before God” – Unfortunately, the NKJV translates the word G4137 “pleroo” (pronounced play-ro’-o) as “perfect.” This is sometimes cited as a proof-text for sinless perfection. However, although I believe we must strive for sinless perfection I believe it is unobtainable in our mortal bodies and within this fallen world. Therefore, because of my theological presuppositions and my understanding of this word in the Greek, I think that this word should be translated “complete.” The word “perfect” is not used by a number reputable bible translations here (see YLT, NLT, NCV, ESV etc).
“Remember…how you have received and heard” – It seems that the main problem facing the church in Sardis is one which we face within our own time. That is that although the church is always called to be culturally relevant, she is also called to be spiritually pure; built on the foundations of present leadership and the historical foundations of the Church’s teaching (see Ephesians 2:19-22 & 4:11-16). For this reason, I am often sceptical of the faddish nature of ‘popular Christianity,’ which seems to be, in many instances, a scam used to sell goods and services. Sardis is being reminded to “remember” the nature of the gospel she was given.
“hold fast and repent” – Hold onto to what you have received and been told and turn away from all conscious forms of rebellion.
“I will come upon you as a thief” – In the same way that the city was historically taken by surprise with an earthquake and the military conquests, the church is reminded it is in the same way she shall be taken by surprise again.
“you will not know what hour” – I have heard it said that we might not know the hour but we might know the generation, the year, the month, week and the day. This is completely ridiculous! This phrase is repeated a number of times in Scripture and it talks here of temporal judgement and eschatological (end-times) judgement coming without warning (see Matthew 25).
“You have a few” – Even within the midst of a church that is predominantly unregenerate there are “a few…who…are worthy.” This is known as the theology of the ‘remnant,’ which was the Old Testament belief that not all who called themselves Jews were Jews, something that is developed in the New Testament particularly by Paul (see Romans 9:6-8) and is applied to the Church by Jesus (see Matthew 25:31-46).
“who have not defiled their garments…they walk in white” – White clothes were not normally worn in the ancient world because of the dusty roads except by the religious or the rich. They were also a symbol used by the apostle John to speak of “good deeds” (see 19:8) which may support an accusation that this church looked and sounded great but did very little in the way of deeds. It must be pointed out to the reader that one is not saved by deeds but deeds are the natural outflow of a saving work of grace (see James 2:14-24).
“He who overcomes shall be clothed in white” – Sardis, as mentioned earlier, was renowned for the manufacture of dyed garments. Possibly, the “white” mentioned here and in v4 are a reference not to “good deeds of the saints” (see 19:8) but the righteousness of God (see Isaiah 64:6a). Consequently, that would mean that the problem was not the absence of “good deeds” but the church’s reliance on “good deeds” to earn them favour before God. They did what they had to do for other motives and not as an outworking of their appreciation for what God has done (see Matthew 23:1-36).
“I will not blot out his name from the Book of Life” – Citizens’ names would have been kept on a city roll and when they died their name was erased. This, then, speaks of Zion, the heavenly city and is a reference to salvation, which brings up the question; can a believer lose their salvation?
Firstly, what must be understood is that salvation, in reference to the ‘parable of the Sower,’ found in Matthew 13:1-23, Mark 4:1-20 & Luke 8:1-13 is marked not by germination (the birth of a shoot) but by fruition (the production of fruit)
Secondly, Jesus promises that He and the Father are able to keep us from falling (see John 10:25-30).
You see although spiritual experience (ie visions, healing or dreams), emotion, intellect or tradition may play a part in bringing us to a point of repentance and faith, ultimately the work must begin, and continue in the Spirit or it is not of salvific merit. We must come to God through Jesus and ask for the strength to give all we know of ourselves to all we know of Him. As salvation is an act and process of God, we must refrain from trying to manipulate people into the faith through clever arguments or emotional pressure. People must make a conscious decision to worship Jesus and become like Jesus. Brainwashing and salesmanship are not biblical, sometimes our doubts are stepping stones to greater faith.
“I will confess his name before My Father and before His angels” – Regardless of how much we can fall short of the standard of Christ, if our hearts genuinely cry to Him for mercy and if we long to be like Him then He Himself will confess our names to the Father and our place with him shall be secure and He will intercede for us (see Hebrews 7:25).
“Let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” – This is a standard close within this section and it means that although the message will be made public (churches plural) not everyone will be able and/or willing to listen.
Philadelphia: “The Faithful Church” Revelation 3:7-13
Within the messages to the seven churches (see ch2-ch3) Philadelphia is only one of two churches that receives no criticism – the other being Smyrna (see 2:8-11). Interestingly enough both churches seem to be suffering for the sake of the gospel which has led some commentators to suppose that true faithfulness to the gospel invokes misunderstanding and persecution, something which seems to be in keeping with the teaching of Jesus and Paul (see Mark 8:34-38 & Romans 5:1-5).
Philadelphia seems to be suffering a double persecution, firstly from the Roman authorities and secondly from the followers of Judaism.
Commendation: Preserved in the faith
Instruction: Keep the faith
Promise: A place in God’s presence, a new name, and the New Jerusalem
The City of Philadelphia
- Philadelphia was known for its active volcanoes and its devastating earthquakes, in fact the city was destroyed by an earthquake in AD 17 and had to be rebuilt.
- Philadelphia means “the city of brotherly love” and was a popular name in the ancient world as it is today. For example it has been a popular name for churches, town/cities and even a Hollywood movie.
- This particular city mentioned is now known as Alasehir and was found in the Roman province of Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey).
- Alongside Smyrna (see 2:8-11) and Pergamum (see 2:12-17) it was one of the major centres of Emperor worship in which resident would have to burn incense in worship to the Emperor and confess that he was Lord (God).
- Alexander the Great had conquered the known world and spread the Greek language, religion and culture this is known as Hellenism or what we would know today as Globalisation this is the reason that the NT authors wrote in Greek. Philadelphia which was in Asia Minor (Turkey) was particularly proud of its Greek culture and continued to remain influential in its spread.
“angel” – See 3:1.
“He who is holy (and) true” (brackets my own) – These are terms which are often applied to God within the Old Testament and here are used to highlight the divinity of Christ and express that He is the very essence of holiness and truth. We should therefore not only place our faith in Christ, but acknowledge His life as the prototype on which we try and pattern our own (see Matthew 28:16-20).
“He who has the key of David” – This is an allusion drawn from Isaiah 22:20-23; Christ is the new Eliakim who holds the palace keys.
“He who opens and no one shuts…” – It seems that some group or groups (probably the pagan authorities and the Jewish religious authorities) were trying to close this church down or shut them up. Here Christ is saying it is He that “opens” and He that “shuts.” As Philadelphia was known as a missionary city for Greek culture and religion and because of the wider context it is highly probable that “opens” and “shuts” is a reference to opportunities for mission/service.
“I have set before you an open door, and no one can shut it” – With a full understanding of this church’s “works” Christ assures this church of its continued survival.
“you have little strength” – It is likely that this church is numerically small, possibly a number of the saints have been martyred or fled to nearby cities because of persecution (it was located between Sardis (see 3:1-6) and Laodicea (see 3:14-22), two cities in which persecution seemed absent). Although it is also possible that some may have betrayed the church and sought sanctuary in the synagogue (Jews were allowed to practise freely at this point) or had conceded into worshiping the Emperor it seems that the bulk of this church’s losses were not due to betrayal.
“kept My word…not denied My name” – There is the implication here that in the midst of adverse situations this church had remained faithful to the faith and example of Christ.
“those of the synagogue of Satan, who say they are Jews” – Historically, because of Luther’s anti-Semitic (anti-Jewish) beliefs and his particular reading of the book of Romans, a number of Protestant groups see two people of God (Christians and Jews) divided into two separate and distinct covenants (Law and Grace). However, what Romans teaches that God has always dealt with people in accordance to His grace (see Romans 4:9-12) and therefore there is in fact only one people of God which is made up of Jews and Christians who have come to God by grace and through faith (see Romans 9:6-8).
This “synagogue of Satan” then seems to be a derogatory term for a Jewish group/s that had rejected Christ and were actively persecuting the church.
“I will make them come and worship before your feet” – Partly as a result of the Holocaust and partly due to the influence of American Christian media (there are more Jews in New York than in Israel) many Christian went from an anti-Semitic stance to a pro-Semitic stance in which all things Jewish seemed to be desirable. However, although there should be a deep reverence for the Jewish roots of our faith, the role of the church was actually to “provoke the Jews to jealousy” and not to imitate them (see Romans 11:11-14).
This particular phrase promises a small, persecuted group that a day would come when their faith would outgrow Judaism and the Jews would seek its protection from Christians, something that was to happen a few hundred years after the birth of the Christian Church.
“I will keep you from the hour of trial” – It is possible that this is talking about a temporal “trial” such as famine or persecution or an eschatological (end-times) “trial” such as the final judgement. Whatever, it is this church will be saved because of its perseverance in the face of hostility.
“whole world” – This can be understood a number of ways, such as:
- Every nation which would imply eschatological (end-times) judgement.
- This could be an example of hyperbole, which is basically metaphoric exaggeration. This is a literary term popular within Scripture, for example we are told that “there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews…from every nation” in Acts 2:5 but when they are listed in Acts 2:9-11 they seem only to be Jews from the Diaspora. What I mean is, it is highly unlikely that there were any Jews even in England let alone at the festival of Pentecost in Jerusalem, and if there were, they are not listed. If this is an example of hyperbole it would emphasise the severity of the judgement.
- If the “trial” spoken of earlier is temporal it is also possible that this is a reference to the ‘civilised world,’ which was the Roman Empire.
Personally, there is no way of being sure but personally I think that (a) seems to be more likely.
“Behold, I am coming quickly!” – As I read the “trial” in v10 as a reference to the eschaton (the end-time) I think this is a reference to the second coming which is normally spoken of in Scripture with a sense of urgency and immediacy. This is one of the reasons why all generations have always considered their generation as the last for we are to live in such a way that we are not taken by surprise if Christ suddenly appears.
“crown” – The Greek word here is G4735 “stephanos” (pronounced stef’-an-os) which although here is translated “crown” is in fact a wreath made up of foliage or precious metal. This was given to athletes and royalty and probably implies the combined virtues of endurance and dignity.
“He who overcomes” – Salvation is both an event and a process; this myth of salvation being a one-off event is a half-truth and negates the importance of finishing well (see Matthew 13:3-8). Here the emphasis is focused entirely on finishing well.
“I will make him a pillar in the temple” – To understand what is meant here we need to be aware of two things:
Firstly, because the main antagonism seems to be coming from the Jews this is a metaphor that the temple of God, that had been destroyed earlier in 70AD, was now made up of people and not bricks and mortar (see Ephesians 2:19-22). The reference to “pillar(s)” here would be a reference to the two pillars within the porch of Solomon’s temple (see 1 Kings 7:13-21). The pillars were called “Jachin” (H3199 – He will establish) and “Boaz” (H1162 – strength).
Secondly, because Philadelphia was known for the regular activity of volcanoes and earthquakes the metaphor of huge pillars named “He will establish” and “strength” would serve as a reminder that even under the most adverse circumstances God would enable them to remain standing as a church.
“I write on him the name of My God and…the city of My God” – Within the pagan world people often wrote upon their forehead the name of their god, here Christ shall not only write upon people the name of God but the name of the heavenly city.
“the New Jerusalem, which comes down out of heaven” – Within our own age there seems to be a flippant and casualness about the Church in which there are many who believe in Christ but have little if anything to do with His body the Church (see 1 Corinthians 12:12-18). The term “the New Jerusalem” is synonymous with the Church and seems to be extremely important here, in fact its name is written upon the pillars alongside God’s.
Due to our present state we have those who have been deluded into thinking that Christ came preaching a message of individual conversion and not the message of a new society – the Kingdom. The Church is supposed to be a counter-cultural community but has become a group of individual spiritual consumers. Here the heavenly nature of the Church is illustrated.
“My new name” – Alongside the name of God and the name of “New Jerusalem” is the “new name” of Christ. Possibly, this is an illusion to the picture of the all-conquering Christ found in 19:11-16. You see although it is important to pattern our lives upon the earthly Jesus, we must not forget that He is also the cosmic Jesus and that He shall return again in great glory and splendour.
“Let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” – This is a standard close within this section and it means that the message will be made public (churches plural) and highlights the doctrine of illumination. That is that the truth of God is revealed (revelation) and written for further generations (inspiration) but remains truly hidden unless illuminated by the Spirit (illumination).