I have said it before, and I still believe it to be true. The local church we choose to attend matters. In this section of John’s Revelation, John has been addressing seven particular local churches. His addresses apply to Christ’s complete church. In the previous four addresses, Jesus spoke through John concerning sound doctrine and the deeds that outwork from that doctrine. Each local church so far has had some praiseworthy quality. Today, we see what a dead local church is like. Christ does not commend Sardis for any of her qualities; He only indicts her and makes a promise. The question at the forefront of our minds is: Are we in living or dead local churches? What does it mean for a local church to be dead? What is the response of Christ’s true children if they are in a dead local churches?
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. 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. So remember what you have received and heard; and keep it, and repent. Therefore if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come to you. 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.
He who overcomes will 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 has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”
The indictment (v. 1-3)
To the angel of the church in Sardis write: He who has the seven Spirits of God and the seven stars, says this:
John addresses the messenger, or teaching pastor, of the church in Sardis. He presents Jesus as the one who has the Holy Spirit and the messengers in each local church (Cf. 1:4, 20), and He speaks.
“I know your deeds, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead. 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. So remember what you have received and heard; and keep it, and repent.”
The church at Sardis has a reputation of being alive. The local church seems to be thriving, spirit-filled, dynamic, and profitable; But, she is actually dead. This local church’s reputation is not an accurate representation of her heart condition. Though there might be much happening outwardly, the local church at Sardis is unregenerate; She has the outward appearance of life but is dead inside. There is still some hope for her to wake up if the people remember the true gospel and come to sincere repentance. (1) What does it mean for a church to be dead instead of alive? (2) How can a dead church come to life?
(1) A dead church is a church that has not grown in her deeds. Her deeds are not completed in God’s sight. This answer is still a little vague. We must think back to the previous address and to 1 John 2:1-6. When we considered John’s address to the local church at Thyatira, we saw that the local church was growing in her deeds. When we saw what John meant when he referred to the church’s deeds, we saw that it mean the local church was coming to know Christ more through sound doctrine. Greater knowledge about Christ was the root that led to the fruit of obedience to God’s word. If the local church in Sardis’s deeds are not being completed in her, then she is not coming to know Christ more and bearing the fruit that is consistent with knowing Christ more. The roots of a dead church are such that Christ is not being known more fully. The fruit produced by a dead church is such that the members of that church are not growing in their obedience to Christ’s word—because the more we know Christ, the more we are transformed and God’s law written upon our hearts. It is very important for us not to read legalism into this passage. These deeds are not merely outward. Outward religiosity is the problem John is addressing here. This church has a reputation of being alive and being godly. That reputation is not an accurate picture of the congregation’s heart. They may be doing good things, having a good time, and appearing to be religious, but they are not knowing Christ or being conformed to His image.
There are many churches today who are dead but have the reputation of being alive. We focus so heavily on our reputations—branding, advertising ourselves, exalting religious rules, bragging about how we help others or support missions, glorifying our own denominations, exalting the way we do church, obsequiously exalting our own traditional confessions, or developing plans to attract people into our seats so they can count their attendance—that we fail to know Christ and glorify the Father. Dead churches focus on people and their works and wealth. Alive churches are coming to know Christ more, and their members are experiencing real sanctification. Christ cares little about our reputations and much about being known rightly; After all, He taught His people through Paul to:
…preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths (2 Timothy 4:2-4).
Whether popular or not, whether others will praise or condemn us, whether in or out of season, we preach the word—reproving, rebuking, and exhorting with great patience and instruction (reasoning, not shoving it down people’s throats). It is never the case that God desires we avoid certain things in order to preserve our reputations or witness. God wants us to tell others about Him no matter the hit to our pride. There are dead churches that are large and small. Similarly, there are alive churches that are large and small. I must admit; Early in my own ministry I was concerned about building my reputation and gathering an audience. Jesus is perspicuous as He communicates through John here; That is the way of a dead church no matter what we are able to persuade people of by all manners of persuasion. Better to know Christ more and glorify the Father than to build a big church or promote our own ministries. Whereas people cannot really know our hearts, God does. He sees whether we are dead or alive.
(2) I picture, here, an elderly middle-eastern man slapping a corpse and yelling for it to wake up. What does it mean for a person to wake up? Waking up requires one to open his or her eyes and perceive the world. The local church, here, had been fooled into thinking that her work is all about her own reputation and attracting people to the gathering. Wake up! The church’s presence on the earth was never about attracting many people by luring them in or by seeming spiritual. To wake up is to finally see that Christ is the seeker and the one to be sought after. John emplores the corpses; Remember the Gospel, and forget trying to be so attractive by striving to make yourselves look religious or appealing. Look to Christ, not to unrighteous people.
“Therefore if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come to you.”
If the local church at Sardis does not repent, Jesus will come like a thief in the night, without warning, to judge the local church. Whenever we see the “coming of the Lord” imagery, it is often an idiomatic reference specifically to judgment, not to Christ’s second coming. The statements about the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11:5, Sodom in Genesis 18:21, and Egypt in Exodus 3:8, in Matthew 24:44, 1 Thessalonians 5:2, and Revelation 1:7 are also statements about Christ’s perpetual judgment and not the second coming, parousia, or a rapture—eschatological ideas that these references are so often quoted out of context to defend. To the contrary, the text indicates that those who are judged will ultimately be taken off the earth and Christ’s people will remain to inherit the earth at Christ’s second coming. These popularly used prooftexts serve to exemplify the widespread misinterpretation and misappropriation of Scripture in the modern day.
If the local church does not wake up Christ will come like a thief. To wake up is to open one’s eyes, but John gives no indication, here, as to how one comes to have eyes to see. In his Gospel, John explained his doctrine of regeneration:
Now there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews; this man came to Jesus by night and said to Him, “Rabbi, we know that You have come from God as a teacher; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.”
Jesus answered and said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
Nicodemus said to Him, “How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born, can he?”
Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be amazed that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
Nicodemus said to Him, “How can these things be?”
Jesus answered and said to him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and do not understand these things? Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know and testify of what we have seen, and you do not accept our testimony. If I told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven, but He who descended from heaven: the Son of Man. As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life.
For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil.
For everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But he who practices the truth comes to the Light, so that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God” (John 3:1-21).
The Spirit does what the Spirit wills and no one can see where the Spirit is coming from or going. The Spirit grants spiritual birth according to His will. Until then, we are born of the flesh and only interested in fleshly things. We cannot predict who will be born again, at what time, or in which location. We also cannot determine when or where we will be born again because it is the Spirit’s work. In this work, Christ alone is exalted and whoever believes as a result of the Spirit’s work has eternal life and shall not perish. Those who do not believe have been judged already; notice the past tense, here—they are not born again; They are unregenerate. Those who practice the truth, whose deeds are completed according to John’s language to the visible church in Sardis, have been born again and their deeds are manifested in God—not self. John’s message is consistent in all of His books and coherent with the rest of Scripture. How do we gain ears to hear? How can we be born again? Only by the work of the Holy Spirit. Jesus, through John, pleads with a dead, unregenerate church knowing that only the Holy Spirit can raise the church to life. In the same way, God reveals Himself generally and Christ preaches the Gospel to people without ears to hear, and they are without excuse (Cf. Romans 1:18-23). It takes a miracle of the Holy Spirit to bring someone who is only of the flesh and cause him or her to be born of the Spirit. What is flesh is flesh. What is spirit is spirit. We call this regeneration. We also preach the Gospel to corpses hoping that the Holy Spirit will regenerate the hearts of those who hear.
The promise (v. 4-6)
“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.”
There are a few who have not soiled their garments with what? The context, here, seems to indicate that they have not pretended to be Christian even though they do not know Christ. They know Christ and their deeds are shown to be accomplished by Christ through the Holy Spirit. Even in a dead church that is growing in number and attracting worldly people, there is a small congregation of those who truly know Christ. These few people present in the midst of the unregenerate Sardisian church will walk with Jesus in white, a color representing purity. Why are they worthy? They are worthy because like a garment (Cf. v. 5) they are clothed in Christ’s purity and measured not by their outward works but by their Christ—who fulfilled all righteousness on behalf of His chosen people. His righteousness has been imputed to them.
“He who overcomes will 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 has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”
Those found in Sardis who have overcome, who have really repented and take part in Christ’s victory (1 John 5:1-5), will be clothed in purity by Christ, not subject to Christ’s coming judgment.
Jesus will not erase the names of those who belong to Him from the book of life. The book of life will come into fuller view in Chapter 20, verses 12 and 15. John is using the imagery of Exodus 32:31-34. Moses went up to hear from God. While he was away, the people made a golden calf to worship. Moses asked God to forgive them. If God was unwilling to forgive them, Moses asked that he be blotted out from God’s book. God rejected Moses’s request on both counts. God would not forgive the people; He would also not blot Moses’s name from His book. Whoever sinned against God in this instance would be blotted out of God’s book. God would not pass over their sin. What can be said about the book of life at this point in Revelation? Those whose names are listed in the book are those whom God passes over in judgement. Those whose names are blotted out are subject to God’s wrath because they are not to be born again—they are ever subject to their own unrighteousness, people of the flesh who will never be born of the Spirit. They are dead in their sin and will be that way forever. Those who are born again will retain their place in the book of life by grace. Christ will confess his name before the Father and before the angels. What glory to be listed on Christ’s census by His grace!
John recognizes, again, that the Holy Spirit is one with Christ. Those who have ears to hear, those the Spirit regenerates, will hear. This message, like the others, is a message for every local church.
Is the local church dead? Is she only focused on people and their works? Or, is the local church alive and focussed on knowing Christ and His work according to His word? If you are born again and you are in a dead local church, what is your response? The only answer presented from this text is: Remain faithful to knowing Christ and His work as you can. You have the freedom to discern whether to find a more Biblical church or not. Hold on to what you have. Jesus promises that, when all is said and done, even though most of the congregation you are in will not be with Christ or clothed in His purity, you will be. The only qualification is that you are born again. We know we are born again because we are more concerned about truly knowing Christ and His work—not glorifying ourselves or our works through outward religiosity. If you are dead, my prayer is that the Holy Spirit regenerates your heart today by His grace alone.