Please take a copy of the holy Scriptures and turn with me in them to Revelation chapter 3. Revelation chapter 3 at verse 1. You’ll find that on page 1029 in our church Bibles. We’re reading the message of the risen Christ now to the church in the city of Sardis. You will recall, if you’ve been with us over these weeks as we’ve studied the book of Revelation and the letters to the seven churches that Christ’s message to the church in Ephesus came to a church in the condition of backsliding. The church in Smyrna was a suffering church. The church in Pergamum was a compromised church. The church at Thyatira was the church on its last chance. But the church at Sardis, to which we now turn, is neither in the throes of backsliding, nor submerged beneath terrible suffering, nor caught in the grip of compromise, nor in danger of final apostasy. The church at Sardis, most tragically of all, is spiritually dead. This is a word for counterfeit Christians. It is an alarm to the falsely assured and it is a strong warning for the superficial church that has substituted the appearance of life for spiritual life itself. Before we read the message to the church at Sardis, would you please bow your heads with me as we pray? Let us pray!
O God, we pray now that You would send us the Holy Spirit to give life where there is spiritual death, to open the blinded eyes of those who, by unbelief, are ignorant of the truth, to bring revival and renewal to Your church as Your Word is preached. Do it, we pray, for the glory of Your name, for we ask it in Jesus’ name, amen.
Revelation chapter 3 at the first verse. This is the Word of Almighty God:
“And to the angel of the church in Sardis write: ‘The words of him who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars.
I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God. Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it, and repent. If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you. Yet you have still a few names in Sardis, people who have not soiled their garments, and they will walk with me in white, for they are worthy. The one who conquers will be clothed thus in white garments, and I will never blot his name out of the book of life. 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.’”
Amen, and we give thanks to God that He has spoken in His holy, inerrant Word.
Margaret Halcro was a daughter of Danish and Scottish nobility from the northerly Scottish island of Orkney. In 1674, Margaret married a widower by the name of the Reverend Henry Erskine, a Presbyterian minister in the Church of Scotland. Not long after their marriage, however, Margaret became gravely ill and was eventually pronounced dead. Henry loved Margaret, he mourned her deeply, and he buried her wearing her jewelry, especially a valuable ring on her finger. Now the local carpenter in the village where they lived apparently served as something of a funeral director. He would build the coffins, he would dig the graves, and he would inter the deceased. And when he came to screw down the lid of Margaret’s coffin, he noted the ring on her finger and the jewelry around her neck and he thought it a terrible waste to bury such finery. Margaret wouldn’t need it after all. And so after burying his dear wife, Henry left the graveside and went home to seek what comfort he could find, but the carpenter stayed behind. And when he was alone, he immediately dug up Mrs. Erskine, removed the coffin lid, and proceeded to remove the jewelry as well. The ring, however, he could not pry loose. And so taking out his knife, he made to amputate her finger. And as the knife made its cut, Mrs. Erskine woke up! She apparently had been in a deep coma and, as you might expect, the terrified carpenter ran for his life leaving poor Margaret Erskine as best she could to climb from the grave in the dead of night and make her way, on unsteady legs, back to her home where Henry was waiting. When the maid answered her knock at the door, she fainted at the sight of the mistress she thought was dead, but Margaret was no apparition and she was soon ushered into the warmth of her home and quickly nursed back to full strength. Margaret became the mother of the two famous brothers, both of them Gospel ministers, Ralph and Ebenezer Erskine who were close associates of George Whitefield, correspondents of Jonathan Edwards, and under God mighty instruments of revival and spiritual renewal in the Scottish church.
Now if you could find him and get him to stop shaking long enough to speak to you, I’m sure that the carpenter in the village that night could tell you the moral of the story, at least one of the morals of the story – “appearances can be deceiving.” “Appearances can be deceiving.” Mrs. Erskine looked dead but she was alive after all. The church at Sardis, however, looked alive, but it was in fact, spiritually dead!
- The Dangerous Deception of Spiritual Death
And that’s the first thing that I want you to see as we come to our passage this evening. If you’ll look with me in the first three verses, here’s the dangerous deception of spiritual death. Look at the text, “I know your works,” Jesus says to them. “You have the reputation for being alive but you are dead.” They looked good! The other churches, doubtless, thought well of them. Their reputation declared them vibrant and vital and healthy. If you will remember in Ephesus and in Pergamum and in Thyatira, there were dire words from Christ for those who were teaching false doctrine in the churches tempting the believers to embrace sexual immorality and food offered to idols. But there’s none of that in Sardis. There’s no compromise at Sardis, no trouble with error, no threat from false prophets. The Balaamites and the Nicolaitans and the followers of Jezebel have no place in the church at Sardis. But if there are no internal threats from false doctrine, neither is there, if you’ll notice, any external threat from persecution either. The people at Sardis do not seem to be troubling those who have attached themselves to the local church and have professed to follow the Lord Jesus Christ. This, in so far as the other churches were concerned in the region, is a vital, thriving church in an enviable situation. But appearances can be deceiving!
Looks Can be Deceiving
They look alive! Everyone thinks them healthy and vibrant. But Jesus says, “You are dead.” He can see what no one else has noticed. He is, after all, the one who holds the seven stars in His hands. These are the angelic representatives of the seven churches. He is endowed with the Holy Spirit without measure. The seven spirits are His. He knows the truth even when the church at Sardis has done a number on everyone else. “The Lord does not look at the things man looks at,” 1 Samuel chapter 16 at verse 7. “Man looks at the outward appearance but the Lord looks at the heart.” And so Jesus says to them in verse 2, “I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God.” They had plenty of work going on apparently, no doubt they were busy with committees and meetings and events of all kinds. This is not a church where there are no signs of activity. They look alive, remember. But under the microscope of divine scrutiny and under the unblinking gaze of the Christ who says to the church, “I know your works,” their best works are found incomplete. So they were busy but they had little to show for it. They were active but fruitless.
Abide in Christ
Now why is that? How does that happen? After all our hard work, all our effort, what might cause our works to be incomplete? Well Jesus Himself told us that, if you will remember His words in John chapter 15, “Abide in me and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit and apart from me you can do nothing.” Apart from Me you can do nothing! What is the reason for fruitless labor? We’re not abiding in Christ. “Apart from Me,” Jesus said, “you can do nothing.” Nothing works. Nothing bears fruit apart from Him. It may look lively but the branch has withered. It will bear no fruit and it will soon be cut off and thrown into the fire.
And so to fill the vacuum in place of the life that Christ gives, secret sin has crept into the church at Sardis. That is the implication of Christ’s words to the small remnant who remain faithful in verse 4. Look at verse 4. Unlike the rest, apparently there are people at Sardis who have not soiled their garments. The Greek historian, Herodotus, records that the inhabitants of the city of Sardis had a reputation that had grown over the years for lax moral standards and for open licentiousness. But it was Ephesus and Pergamum and Thyatira where you would see those things. There were false teachers leading believers to practice openly sexual immorality. But you don’t find that at Sardis. Sardis was clean and respectable on the outside. But there is a secret defilement festering all unnoticed in the heart of the congregation nevertheless. When the reality of spiritual life has been replaced by a mere reputation, a mere form and appearance of life, when the church works and busies itself and exists cut off from the vine, no longer abiding in Christ, its works become incomplete, lifeless, fruitless, and dead. And instead of true, living communion with Jesus whose name they still formally honor, now filling the vacuum that should have been filled with communion with Jesus, now the hidden vices of worldliness begin to infect the congregation.
And so you might see if this were a church in our day the unseen abuse of alcohol, secret dependency on sleeping pills or pain killers, the pervasive, although covert use of pornography, hidden infidelity, marriages that keep up appearances but are living without love or intimacy. Unless we abide in the vine, we become dead, lifeless branches just going through the motions. That’s what was happening in Sardis. They were just going through the motions. Unless Christ is in us and we are in Him, we become whitewashed tombs – clean and bright on the outside, but inside full of dead men’s bones. “I know your works,” Jesus says. “You have the reputation for being alive but you are dead.”
No Life in the Church of Sardis
And you know, in all probability that’s the real reason there’s no false teaching in Sardis. That’s the real reason there’s no persecution at Sardis. The truth is, Satan doesn’t need to worry about Sardis at all. He needn’t send sly peddlers of subtle heresy to confuse and divide the church or deploy the brutality of totalitarian political pressure to weaken or wound the church. The church at Sardis is dead. It’s no threat to him at all. As my old minister back in Glasgow used to say, “There’s no trouble in a graveyard.” And that’s why there was no trouble in Sardis. It was a spiritual graveyard. Which, by the way, ought to be strangely comforting to us, don’t you think? We have trouble! For the most part, we are a happy, unified, mission-minded congregation, by God’s grace. But we have our weaknesses, we have our fault lines, we have our struggles. Sometimes there’s division. Sometimes doubt. Sometimes there’s error. Sometimes there’s compromise. We have our troubles. Let’s not allow the fact of trouble to obscure the more important face that we have them at all, these troubles, because there’s life here, by the grace of God. God is at work among us. And the kingdom of Satan is under threat which is why we have become a target. And so we ought to take courage by both hands and recognize that we are in a spiritual combat zone and saddle up for the fight.
But that was not happening at Sardis. They had a reputation for being alive but they were dead and that’s also a warning that we need to hear clearly. It is possible, after all, to have all the outward appearance of life but to be spiritually flat line, no vital signs, no spiritual pulse at all. Well what if that is you? What if God’s Word to Sardis is describing your condition? You have the appearance, the reputation of life, but not the reality of it. What’s to be done? Five things.
Look at verses 2 and 3 please. First, Jesus tells them to wake up. You see that in verse 2? We must be awake, He says – ready, prepared. There’s to be watchfulness. And Jesus isn’t asking the believers at Sardis to do something novel or unique to their own situation. He’s calling them, really, to the most fundamental habit that characterizes every truly, living child of God. There is a pattern of spiritual alertness, a sensitivity to what is going on around them and a receptivity to the work of God and the Word of God by His Spirit in their midst. They’ve been called to wake up. As Jesus puts it in Matthew 24:43, “If the master of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have allowed his house to be broken into. Therefore, you must also be ready for the Son of Man is coming at an hour that you do not expect.” Isn’t that precisely what John says, or Christ through John says again here in verse 3? “If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief and you will not know what hour I will come against you.” Jesus is coming at the end of the age. It will be sudden and unexpected, like a thief breaking in when no one’s paying attention. Only the spiritually awake, only the living disciple of Christ will be ready when He comes. “You know the time, that the hour has come, for you to wake from sleep, for salvation is nearer us now than when we first believed. The night is far gone. The day is at hand. So then, let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light” – Romans 13:11-12. “Wake up! Awake, O sleeper! Arise from the dead and Christ will shine on you” – Ephesians 5 and verse 11. This is a call to spiritual awakening! Stop dozing contentedly, secure in the mere appearance of Christian vitality. Wake up! Christ is coming like a thief in the night, and only those who watch and pray will be ready when He does. Are you awake? Wake up!
Strengthen What Remains
Then secondly, He calls us to strengthen what remains and is about to die. However bad things have gotten in Sardis, as we noted a few moments ago there remains a remnant according to the election of grace in that congregation. There are, verse 4, “a few names that have not soiled their garments.” Under pressure, no doubt. Like pebbles in a shoe, they must have been an irritant beneath the formalism and superficiality of the congregation. But these few tender shoots of spiritual reality and life pushing through the arid, parched soil of the church at Sardis must not be sidelined or marginalized or pushed out or trampled underfoot or left to whither by neglect. These few that remain will not remain for long unless they are nurtured and strengthened and tended. Wake up and strengthen what remains. Life will follow life. Vitality in the Christian life is infectious. Let those who have remained shine, let them shine. Strengthen their hands, follow their lead, and learn to follow Jesus from them and with them. Do you worry that you are all show and not for real? Do you worry you have only the reputation, only the appearance of Christianity but not the life? Go and find a living, passionate disciple of Jesus Christ and watch and listen and learn vitality is infectious in the Christian life. And maybe you will find yourself turning for real at long last to the true vine, the Lord Jesus Christ, that His life may fill you too.
Wake up, strengthen what remains, thirdly, remember. Look at verse 3. “Remember then what you have received and heard.” That word translated, “received,” is used over and over again particularly in John’s writing for the reception of the Christian Gospel. That is what has been passed on to them – the truth they had heard. Actually, the Greek is, “Remember how you received and heard,” now just what you received and heard, not just the content, but the force and the power with which it came. The life and compelling force that marked its communication when God first planted the church at Sardis. Then, there were those who received the Word of God as it really is, not simply the word of man but the Word of God. It had come to them in the demonstration of the Holy Spirit and in power. From the mouth of the one who has the seven spirits of God, the Holy Spirit, in all His fullness, and who holds the seven starts, these angelic representatives of the seven churches. Once upon a time at Sardis, He had brought the two together with great effect – the church and the Spirit – and assembled together a congregation of the people of God in the city of Sardis and He can do it again. That’s the point. He can bring the Spirit to the church anew in revival and renewal. “Remember how you received and heard the Word. It can be that way again. Wake up, strengthen what remains, and remember how you received and heard the Word.”
Keep the Word
And then fourthly, do more than simply remember the Word – keep it. He isn’t calling them to melancholic nostalgia, looking back to the glory days of spiritual dynamism in the church now forever in the past. Remember, yes, but keep the Word too. And the first thing that the Word calls us to do as we keep it is the last thing Jesus tells the church at Sardis to do here. He tells them to repent. Turn back. Bring your secret sin into the light. Confess and get help. Stop using Christ and His worship as a front for a life driven by the world’s priorities and values. Is that what you’re doing? Using Christ and His worship as a front, a screen to obscure the fact that you today are still living on the world’s terms according to the world’s values and priorities? Jesus, tonight, is calling you to repent. Go to Jesus for mercy before the thief comes at an hour you did not know. If you’ll repent, the glory of the Gospel is that Christ can make you clean. He will wash you clean and He will give you a place among those who have not soiled their garments. Isn’t that good news? Guilty, dirty, ashamed though you may now feel, if you will hear the warning of Christ and turn back to Him, those whom He affirms here as those who have not soiled their garments, who will walk with Him in white, that will be the company among whom you will find your own place, by His grace. He will make you clean. The church at Sardis is a dead church, but even so, all is not yet lost. Jesus, here, is offering life to them and He’s offering life to us if we find ourselves described here.
Look at verse 5 as we close. “The one who conquers will be clothed thus in white garments, and I will never blot out his name from the book of life. I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels.” Three things to see, very quickly, and then we’re done. First, He will make you clean – white garments. Secondly, He will give you life forever; permanent and enduring life in union with Him, never blotting out your name from His book. And thirdly, He will confess your name. That’s a staggering promise. We are to confess His name, right? We’re not simply to go through the motions as they seem to have been doing at Sardis. We are to own Jesus as Lord and King and Savior and Friend. We are to confess His name. But here is Jesus owning and confessing our name. “Guilty, vile, and helpless we; spotless Lamb of God was He.” There’s the great difference between us. What a contrast. He is holy, harmless, undefiled separate from sinners. We are immoral, unclean, and filthy in our sin. And yet if we turn back to Him, if we will wake up and repent, He will stand before the Father and the countless company of angels in glory and He will claim you as His own. Your name, your name sounding from the lips of the Lord of glory with love and joy and pride as Jesus Christ says, “John, David, Emily, Laura, William – mine, mine! Peter, Kevin, Sue, Kathryn, Robert, Andrew, and on and on. Mine. She’s mine. He’s mine. I’m hers. I’m his. Forever.”
Sardis was a dead church, and some of you might be dead, professing Christians. And Jesus here is calling you to life. Sardis was superficially lively but secretly soiled and filthy. And that may just be a description of some of you. But Jesus here is offering you cleansing. So come back to Jesus. Wake up. Strengthen what remains. Remember how you received and heard the Word. Keep it and repent. And He will give you a place among those with white garments. He will never blot out your name from His book but will instead confess your name with a shout of triumph before the Father and His angels in great celebration.
Let’s pray together!
O God, would You make us by the mighty working of Your Spirit through Your Word those who conquer by repenting, waking up, remembering how we heard and received the Word, strengthening what remains, keeping the Word, fleeing back to Jesus in our guilt, in our filth, in our need, in the recognition that apart from Him we can do nothing, seeing our spiritual death and poverty and bankruptcy and sin, and receiving from Him cleansing and life and hearing Him confess our name, own our names, name us with joy as beloved children of God. Have mercy on us. Save us from ever being or becoming like the church at Sardis. Give us life. Help us abide in the vine, in Christ, that in Him we might bear much fruit to the glory of Your name, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
©2016 First Presbyterian Church.
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