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Sardis – The Church of Dead Pretension

 

7 Churches in Revelation: (Part V)

by Rev. Jerry Lepasana

 

Revelation 3:1-6 (NIV)
1 “To the angel of the church in Sardis write: These are the words of him who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead.
2 Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your deeds complete in the sight of my God.
3 Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; obey it, and repent. But if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you.
4 Yet you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes. They will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy.
5 He who overcomes will, like them, be dressed in white. I will never blot out his name from the book of life, but will acknowledge his name before my Father and his angels.
6 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.

Many of us can identify with the experience of families going to a popular vacation destination where on a Sunday, they would have to decide on a Christian church they could attend for worship. More often, the churches most would end up attending are the churches that have an attractive facility. Unfortunately, a nice building doesn’t always translate into a healthy church. Today in America it is not unusual to walk into a church with a nice building that has a seating capacity for several hundreds of people, only to find around 20-30 people in a worship service. Yes, the church is still there, but it barely exists. The common question that people often ask is, “How did this happen?”

There are some church experts who studied these churches and have identified the four stages they went through.

  • Movement Stage – This is the beginning stage of most churches. They start small with a group of close friends who are very driven believers, focused on reaching their community. In this stage, nearly 100% of the membership is thoroughly committed to the church and its mission. When they gather, they talk excitedly about how to reach more people. Their church and its ministry are always foremost in their minds.
  • Magnificence stage – This is when the church reaches its highest level of attendance—and because of their size, they can do things they could only dream about before. However, the commitment level of the group begins to dip to between 50% and 70%. They still have the vision and dream, but the intensity has definitely diminished.
  • Monument stage – In this stage, the church members still do things to increase growth, but they begin to talk less about the future than they do about their past. They work at maintaining their past reputation. They do things primarily because that’s the way they’ve always done them. During this stage, commitment levels dip to between 10% and 30%.
  • Mausoleum stage or “the dead church stage.” – Most of the founding members have either drifted away or died. Attendance levels are between 10% and 50% on any Sunday. When new people show up, the older members are suspicious of them, fearing these new people might try to take control. This is the attitude that simply hastens the demise of this congregation.

Today, each member of BCI needs to pray that we don’t end up being in the third and fourth stage. Let’s continue to seek God’s help and favor in order for us to remain in the magnificent stage because this is what God wants to see in His church. This is exactly what we have been seeing in these letters that Jesus Christ wrote the church in Asia Minor. One by one, Jesus addresses these churches in order to straighten out some of the issues that are affecting the spirituality of the church.

This morning, we are studying about the church in Sardis. Before looking at the letter in Revelation 3, let’s first familiarize ourselves with the city of Sardis. The city was located about 50 miles east of Smyrna and about 30 miles south of Thyatira. During the ancient times, this city became known for two things. First, it was considered one of the wealthiest cities in Asia because of textile manufacturing, jewelry trade, and the dye industry. Then it became known for its military. Since it was located 1,500 feet above the main roads, the city was practically an impregnable fortress. Sardis was not easily accessible to enemy armies.

But again, more than the wealth and military strength of this city, Christ was more concerned with the condition of the church. Let’s not miss this truth. In every city or country, God is most concerned with the condition of His people, His church. Let’s examine the four important truths that God would communicate to the church in Sardis.

I           THE DISTINCTION BETWEEN REPUTATION AND REALITY: (v.1)

First of all, in all these letters we have studied so far, we have seen a pattern. There was the picture of Christ and then he proceeded with some commendations to the church. Once again in this letter, we find the image of Christ described as the one – who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. We have already identified in 2:1 that the stars are the pastors of the 7 churches. With regards to the phrase “seven spirits,” this simply refers to the Holy Spirit who works within the churches. Once again this picture of Jesus Christ is designed to establish His lordship over His church. No one deserves to lead and rule the church except Jesus Christ. What is unique in this letter is the absence of the usual commendation to the church. As the Lord addresses this church and reveals His evaluation with them, He begins again by saying, “I know your deeds.” Indeed, Jesus knows exactly our true condition. We can hide the truth from our family, friends, and colleagues, but we can never hide anything from our Lord.

If you examine the assessment of the church in Sardis, the Lord said – “I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead.” Here is a church that has earned a remarkable reputation, but the Lord knows the reality of their true condition. Clearly, their real condition is the exact opposite of their reputation.

Isn’t it tragic when a church has worked so hard to build a good reputation, only to be told by the Lord Himself that it is all just a show, an outward image? The truth of the matter is – from a human perspective, this was an impressive church, but God was not impressed at all. I believe this can be a great reminder for us. Often, the things that impress us in churches are the things that least impress the Lord. We are often captivated by the externals, but God is more concerned with the internals.

Jesus often rebuked the religious people of His time concerning the tendency to pursue a reputation more than true relationships with God.

Matthew 23:27
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean.

The word Hypocrite in Greek literally suggests a stage actor. In other words, a hypocrite is simply someone who is acting or pretending. This kind of Christianity is dead in the sight of God.

Technically speaking, we consider a person dead when the soul and spirit has separated from his or her body. Spiritually, a Christian or a church is dead when the Holy Spirit is inactive, with no manifestation of His presence and power. This was the condition of the church of Sardis. They may have been impressive with their programs, their numbers, and in their facility, but without the active working of the Holy Spirit, this church is dull, empty, and irrelevant. It will not produce believers who are being transformed into the image of Jesus Christ.

I hope and pray that we will never be a church that will be more concerned with our reputation than our true spiritual condition before God. We have to do our best to not become a dead church in the sight of God. Dr. James Merrit, president of Touching Lives Ministry studied carefully the New Testament church and concluded that a dead church has three signs.

  • She marginalizes the Bible
  • She doesn’t exalt Jesus Christ
  • She doesn’t celebrate the grace of God

So based on these truths, we ought to be a church that always preaches from the Bible, not our personal opinions; our central message should always be bringing people to a personal relationship with Jesus Christ; and we should magnify what He has done for us, not what we are doing for Him.     Let’s do our best to not be a church that has a label but no life, a church that has form, but no force.

II         THE DEMAND FOR RESUSCITATION: (vs. 2-4)

After the Lord has plainly stated what was wrong with the church, He shifted to providing some specific commands to the dead church. Obviously, these are commands for resuscitation, to come back to life.

As you begin verse 2, the direct command is “Wake Up.” With this command, we find a sense of hope for the church. Although the church appeared to be dead, there was still some signs of life. The fact is that not every single one of them was spiritually sleeping. When you read the next statement – Strengthen what remains and is about to die.” The best way to understand this is  to connect it with verse 4 which says, “Yet you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes. They will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy.”

The hope of reviving this church will come from the few people who remained solid and did not allow their lives to be corrupted by the impurities around them. These Christians who remained true and faithful needed to wake up and strengthen the spiritually sleeping Christians in the Church. Instead of being indifferent towards the carnal Christians, the more spiritual Christians needed to take the responsibility of bringing obedience and repentance within the church. I love the comment of Dr. Warren Wiersbe concerning this truth,

The encouragement is that no church is beyond hope as long as there is a remnant in it, willing to strengthen the things that remain.

This is certainly a powerful truth. I believe in every church of the Lord Jesus Christ, there are Christians who are more mature who could be a source of strength for other believers. If you are one of them, then you have the responsibility to help others become better believers, and in the end, help the church become a more vibrant church. This same principle is taught by Paul in

Galatians 6:1-2

1 Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted.
2 Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.

Notice what these verses teach. If there is someone who is living in sin, those who are spiritual must restore that person gently. It doesn’t say condemn or criticize, but restore. The word “restore” literally means to mend a broken bone. Restoration is always a painful process, so it must be done as gently as possible. If you consider yourself mature or spiritual, then you have to take some responsibility.

I believe this truth reinforces the E12 discipleship that we have within our church. In discipleship, the more mature ones must invest their time and energy in the lives of other believers who need to grow and become much better believers in Christ.

Before we move to the last point, let us highlight the last part of verse 3 – “But if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you.” This is a serious warning coming from Jesus Christ. If the church does not respond by waking up and repenting of their sins, He will come and bring judgment.

I’m sure we will not miss the metaphor used to describe the coming judgment, which is coming like a thief. Interestingly, the same metaphor is used in the second coming of Jesus Christ.

Revelation 16:15

“Behold, I come like a thief! Blessed is he who stays awake and keeps his clothes with him, so that he may not go naked and be shamefully exposed.”

The point is that no one knows when a thief is coming, so homeowners must always be prepared. Christ’s coming judgment is the same, we don’t know when it will come, so if we are to repent, let’s do it now. It would be foolish on our part to be complacent, knowing He can come any time. We must be watchful at all times.

III        THE DIVIDENDS OF THE REMNANTS: (vs. 4-6)

Lastly, Jesus ends this letter with three precious promises to those who will heed His words and become overcomers. Looking at verse 4, the sad reality is there are but “Few people . . . who have not soiled their clothes. They will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy.” Here are the promises:

  1. A. Perfection – He who overcomes will, like them, be dressed in white”

The white garment in heaven speaks of the purity of Christ’s righteousness. The Bible clearly talks about an exchange of garment between forgiven believers and Jesus Christ.

2 Corinthians 5:21
God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

The reason why those who believe in Christ will be accepted in heaven is because Jesus took their sinful garment, giving them His righteous robe. All the believers in heaven will wear the same garment.

Revelation 7:9

After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.

  1. B. Preservation – “I will never blot out his name from the book of life”

This promise is a simple yet powerful statement of assurance to all who place their faith and trust in Jesus Christ. No one can remove your name from the book of life. No true believer can ever lose their salvation.

Romans 8:38-39
38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers,
39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

  1. C. Proclamation – “I . . . will acknowledge his name before my Father and his angels”

I love this idea that when a believer enters the kingdom of God, Jesus Himself will acknowledge him before the Father and His angels. I look at this as Christ’s personal proclamation that we belong to Him.

This should remind us of the warning that Jesus Christ gave in Mark 8:38.

Mark 8:38
If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.”

When we fail to proclaim Christ today, before our friends and family, then He will not proclaim us too before His very own Father and angels.

Here are precious promises that should continually inspire us to live for Christ. Remember, it is not enough to wear the label of a spiritual Christian or a successful church. Reputations are often different from the realities in our lives. God knows our hearts. Let’s take the time to examine who we really are, not in sight of people, but in the sight of God.