Sardis was an ancient city founded over one thousand years before Christ was born. In military terms, it seemed an impregnable fortress set upon a hill that appeared rock solid. However, according to Sir William Ramsay, this belied its vulnerability because the hill in places was no more than compacted mud, which was easily eroded and not difficult to scale. Ramsay wrote: “It was an appearance without reality, promise without performance, outward show of strength betrayed by want of watchfulness and careless confidence.”
On a number of occasions the defense of the city was found wanting, and not totally because of its position; the soldiers had sometimes fallen asleep on their watch and the enemy had taken advantage of their laxity. Idolatry and immorality were part of the culture enshrined in the temple of Cybele; the Christians would have been under constant pressure to go back to the old familiar ways of life. Of historical interest also was the first use of coinage in Sardis to buy and sell, instead of bartering and exchanging goods. Part of the prosperity of the city was owed to its textile industry, dyeing wool and making carpets. It is claimed that the original “Turkish carpets” were produced in the area.
Christ is described as having the seven Spirits of God – this figurative language suggests the universal and unceasing activity of the one and only Holy Spirit of God (Rev 1:4; 4:5; 5:6). The seven stars have already been mentioned as referring to the leaders, or elders, of each assembly. In this particular case, the only remedy for the deadness and weakness of the church was the quickening power of the Spirit. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit always work together in perfect harmony, and in these opening verses all three Persons of the triune God are alluded to.
The Lord noted that the Name they professed was not being honored in their lives. Indeed, there were very few signs of spiritual life at all in Sardis; they were on the brink of expiring. Their works were marred and the world had made such inroads into their lives that there was little commendable about them. To all but the One who was the most discerning they might have seemed a hopeless case, but notice – with the utmost tenderness, patience and love, the Lord sought to revive them. Christ is the Great Physician who specializes in cases requiring intensive care; there was still hope. He urged watchfulness because they lived in a corrupt and evil society that was influencing them more than they were influencing it. He called upon them to strengthen that which remained. In other words, there was still something worth keeping. His entreaties became more personal in the light of what He went on to reveal: even in Sardis there were a few dear souls who continued in the truth as best as they were able.
We have already noted the Lord’s call to be watchful and strengthen the things which remain. To that He added the need for sober reflection: they should all remember how things once were when their hearts were open and obedient to the Word of God. He urged them to repent – to change both their minds and their behavior without delay. They risked His sudden intervention in discipline. We recall that in the church at Corinth the believers had become so careless that the Lord had intervened in discipline; some were physically weak and had become unwell. Many others had become such a disgrace to the Lord’s Name that He had called them home (1Co 11:30).
Once again in this brief letter we have mention of names: in verse 1, a Name was dishonored; in verse 4, the names of the few faithful saints were remembered; and in verse 5, the name of each overcomer is confessed before the Father and His angels. The names of the faithful will never be blotted out of the book of life (Rev 20:12,15).
An Application for Today
It is not enough to merely profess a name; it is better to live out the true meaning of that name. The Pharisees liked to remind people that they were the true sons of Abraham, but their behavior belied it (Luk 3:8; Joh 8:39-40). By contrast, the early disciples were first called Christians at Antioch. This indicated that their manner of life and witness bore testimony to Christ their Lord (Act 11:26). They were also willing to bear the reproach associated with His Name.
We would do well to walk carefully and humbly with our God. If we belong to a local church that presently seems to be prospering, we should be careful not to become proud and boastful. If this happens, the devil can seize the opportunity to wreak havoc and divide God’s people, so that the apparent strength of the assembly soon becomes only a distant memory. Yes, by all means give God thanks for what He is doing when He is blessing, and be grateful if you are part of it, but “rejoice with trembling” (Psa 2:11). As the late Mr. Frank Knox of Ireland used to say, “Go slow, keep low, and don’t blow!”
On the other hand, we should be hesitant to condemn out of hand other companies of Christians that seem to be struggling. One can only imagine how the few faithful ones in the church must feel. They have not taken the easy option of packing up and moving out to go elsewhere, but they have remained to seek to honor the Lord where He has placed them. We should never underestimate the power of such praying saints who daily cry out to God in their anguish for preservation and revival. The Lord had not given up on Sardis.
The spiritual vitality of any company of Christians is only a reflection of the spiritual condition of its individual members. For this reason, we should be vigilant and nurture our own personal communion with the Lord. This will enable us to give of our best in the context of our own local assembly and remain true to His Name.