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Sardis (The Dead Church)

Today Sardis is a ruined city in western Turkey.  Formerly an ancient capital of the kingdom and empire of Lydia located about 50 miles east of Smyrna. It lies in the Gediz Valley (earlier known as Hermus Valley) on a spur at the foot of Boz Dog Mountain, formerly known as Mount Tmolus. Through the city runs the little river Pactolus.

Sardis' growth to wealth and importance was due to its rich deposits of gold, but it also benefited from having an excellent connection between the Anatolian highlands and the Aegean Sea. The gold was washed down from the mountains and was deposited in the sands of the Pactolus river. In the 6th century BC, Sardis made coins from the gold deposited in the sands of the river, which would come to revolutionize commerce.  Sardis was one of the first places on earth to use coins for a medium of exchange for trade.  This was the dawn of the age of currency. 

The wealth of gold near Sardis was explained through this well known myth: According to legend king Midas came upon a drunken satyr named Silenus who was passed out in his garden. Silenus was believed to be the foster father of the pagan god Dionysus.  According to legend, king Midas was kind to him and returned him safely to Dionysus in Lydia.  Dionysus then offered Midas his choice of rewards.  King Midas then requested that everything he touched would turn to gold.  According to myth, this ability was granted and king Midas soon realized that it was hard to eat food that had been transformed into gold.  Some accounts of this story record that Midas also embraced his daughter and transformed her into gold as well.  Realizing the reward he asked for was really a curse, he prayed to Dionysus, begging to be released from his wish.  Dionysus instructed him to bathe in the Pactolus River.  He did so, and when he touched the waters, his power passed into the river, and the river sands changed into gold.  This supposedly explained why the river Pactolus was so rich in gold.   Now of course we know this is only a myth and cannot possibly be true but it is interesting to know where these well known stories we grew up with came from. 

Sardis was likely started as an urban settlement as early as 1200 B.C.   During the time of Daniel, Artaphernes, the brother of king Darius of Persia lived in Sardis.  The Persian empire conquered Lydia about  547 to 546 B.C. under the rule of Cyrus.  Sardis then became the administrative capitol of the newly acquired Persian province of Lydia.  In 539 B.C. Persia then conquered Babylonia and absorbed the Babylonian empire into its own.  It was from Sardis that Xerxes, the son of Darius invaded Greece.  It was from Sardis that Cyrus the younger, son of the Achaemenian king Darius II and his wife, Parysatis, revolted and marched against his brother Artaxerxes and was killed in about 401 B.C.  In 334 B.C. Sardis was then conquered by Alexander the Great.  In 133 B.C. Sardis then passed to the Roman empire.  In 17 A.D. it was destroyed by an earthquake and the ruling Roman emperor, Tiberius, gave back the taxes the city had paid to Rome for the previous 5 years and the city was rebuilt, however it never regained its former stature.  In New Testament times Sardis was a city of no real importance. All that Sardis had was an ancient name and a reputation. In actual fact, it was almost a dead town. At the time the Revelation was written all of Sardis' glory, wealth, and power lay in the past.  In 1402 A.D. Sardis was utterly destroyed and was never rebuilt.  Today, the original Sardis is not much more than an archaeological dig site.

Sardis was built on the edge of a mountain with three sides guarded by near vertical walls that dropped 1500 feet into the valley below with the Pactolus river running along its one open access in the front. With all this natural protection, Sardis was over-confident and none too vigilant a city. Guards and watchmen were rarely posted on the three sides where the mountain's slope dropped 1500 feet into the valley below and because of this failure to watch, they were conquered twice. When King Cyrus of Persia first tried to conquer Sardis he failed in a frontal attack, but that same night, after watching a soldier of Sardis climb down a particular crevice to retrieve a lost helmet, a large number of Persian soldiers worked their way up that same crevice and thus entered and conquered the city from its unguarded rear.  Then in about 218 B.C. by Antiochus the Great the city was again captured in a similar way. Sardis fell because of their failure to watch.

Pagan worship in Sardis
Sardis was a wealthy city with a tendency to become soft and complacent.  They lived in luxury and splendor, and were a proud, arrogant, and overconfiden
t people.  The pagan goddess Artemis, also known as Cybele, was the principal deity worshiped at Sardis, as well as at Ephesus and other cities. Artemis and her brother Apollo were said to be the children of Zeus and Leto.  In legends, Artemis is often pictured as a virgin huntress, fearless in opposing her adversaries. As the goddess of the city, she may have been perceived more in her role as a mother goddess, a provider of fertility and overseer of childbirth.  The worship of this pagan goddess included sexual orgies during festivals held in her honour.  It is interesting to note that the temple dedicated to the worship of Artemis was never completed.   Sardis was a city of uncompleted works.

Sardis had a priesthood dedicated to the goddess Roma by about 100 B.C.  Roma was principally used to instill loyalty among the provinces in the Roman empire, although, later on, she did have a temple in Rome itself. Temples to Roma were erected in Smyrna in 195 B.C. and a cult of Roma was reported in Ephesus and Delos. Her worship was made official by Augustus Caesar as part of a propaganda campaign.  In this way he deified the concept of Rome, building many temples to her (often as a 'Temple of Rome and Augustus' to make the imperial cult of Roma and emperor worship more acceptable to the people), with a copy of his Res Gestae, (The Deeds of the Divine Augustus), alongside inscriptions that popularized the new pagan goddess.  The Roman emperors manufactured gods to help control the populace and with them, they appointed groups of officials responsible for establishing these manmade gods throughout the empire and enforcing their worship. 

In about 27 B.C. Sardis tried to establish Asia’s first temple to Caesar Augustus. Although their initial attempt was not successful, the city had a local temple to Augustus by 5 B.C. To show their devotion to the imperial family, the city also consecrated a cult statue to Augustus’ son Gaius.  Sardis competed for the honor of building a temple to the emperor Tiberius in A.D. 26, although it was built in Smyrna.

Revelation 3:1
"And to the angel of the church in Sardis write: These things saith he that hath the seven Spirits of God, and the seven stars: I know thy works, that thou hast a name that thou livest, and thou art dead."

He that hath the seven spirits of God and the seven stars is an image of Jesus Christ.  Seven is the symbol for perfect completeness.  God has only one Spirit, not seven and the seven stars here is an image of the messengers to the churches as pictured in Revelation 1:20.  As discussed earlier these seven messengers could either be the eldership of each congregation or they could represent the one perfect complete messenger which was responsible for getting the message to man by inspiration. 

"I know thy works"
Jesus wastes no time informing the Christians he is aware of their works.  The application for us today is that irregardless of who we are or where we live and worship, God is aware of our works.  The denominational world will often say that our salvation is not by any works at all on our part, being saved by God's grace alone.  Yet it is the works of Sardis that Jesus first comments on.  

"that thou hast a name that thou livest, and thou art dead."
The city of Sardis had a reputation of wealth and splendor.  They were alive but they were not flourishing, not growing, setting back on their reputation of past glory and not looking ahead.  The city of Sardis thought it was alive, but in reality it was dead.  Jesus draws a parallel here between the overall state of Sardis and of the church.  It appears the church in Sardis was a reflection of the city it congregated in.  The church is Sardis had a name, but it was not growing.  Jesus told them "thou art dead"  I cannot think of anything worse than having Jesus Christ, the Son of God tell me that I am alive, but in reality I'm really dead.  A church that is dead does not give off light, it does not bear fruit, it does not grow.  They were once alive, they had a reputation, but now they are riding on their name, earned in the past, but not sustained in the present. 

Revelation 3:2
"Be thou watchful, and establish the things that remain, which were ready to die: for I have found no works of thine perfected before my God."
Jesus says to be watchful.  What a thing to say to a church in a city that had been twice conquered because of their failure to be vigilant.  Jesus not only knew their present works, but He knew all about the city and all about their history and He made sure they knew He was addressing them personally when He emphasized something they could all relate to. 

Parents do this all the time with their children.  When a parent is confronting a child with an issue, it is common for them to bring something to the forefront that assures the child of the fact that He is indeed the one in the spotlight and that he is guilty before the conversation gets past the first sentence.  The child knows upfront what he is up against.  Jesus was two sentences into the letter and the Christians in Sardis already knew they were the ones being specifically addressed and they were the ones standing in condemnation.  There could be no argument, there could  be no denial, and there should not be any mistaking the message, especially when Jesus said "thou art dead".  It was time for the Christians at Sardis to give pause, shut up and heed His words.  This is serious business and Jesus hit them over the head with a figurative hammer to get their undivided attention. 

Watchfulness should be the constant attitude of the faithful Christian.  This commandment appears in the New Testament more frequently than any other.  As vigilance was the price of liberty for the city of Sardis, so also is watchfulness a part of salvation.  There are many things we are to watch for:

  1. We are to watch against Satan, "Be sober, be watchful: your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour" (1 Peter 5:8).

  2. We are to be on the watch against temptation.  Jesus said, "Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation" (Matthew 26:41).  The faithful Christian must be ever on guard against temptation.  "But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to fulfill its lusts."  Temptation is all around us every day.  The resistance against sin begins with watching, recognizing and avoiding situations we know will cause temptation.  "but each man is tempted, when he is drawn away by his own lust, and enticed.  Then the lust, when it hath conceived, beareth sin: and the sin, when it is fullgrown, bringeth forth death" (James 1:14-15).  In the Christian life there must be unceasing watchfulness against temptation. 

  3. We are to watch against false teaching.  When speaking to the church in Ephesus, Paul had this to say:  "Take heed unto yourselves, and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit hath made you bishops, to feed the church of the Lord which he purchased with his own blood. I know that after my departing grievous wolves shall enter in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them.  Wherefore watch ye" (Acts 20:28-31).  Jesus said "Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly are ravening wolves" (Matthew 7:15). 

  4. We are to watch for coming of Jesus Christ.  He taught, "Watch therefore: for ye know not on what day your Lord cometh" (Matthew 24:42).  "And what I say unto you I say unto all, Watch" (Mark 13:37).  We do not know when Jesus is going to return, so if we are to be assured of being found faithful when He does, we must be watchful and keep ourselves in a suitable position to greet Him when He does.  How ashamed the Christian would be to find himself in a state of sin when our Lord returns "as a thief in the night" (2 Peter 3:10), at a time when they do not expect it.  "Be ye also ready: for in an hour that ye think not the Son of man cometh" (Luke 12:40).

"establish the things that remain, which were ready to die"
Even though they were dead, there were a few things going on that showed a little life, but even these were in danger of dieing.  Those things which were being done that was the last spark of life in this church needed to be fanned to flames quickly.  Jesus is telling them to get lively, get out of their figurative pews and into the harvest.  Do something.  Show a little life, shine a little light, get something done before its too late. 

"for I have found no works of thine perfected before my God"
The word "for" introduces an explanation of what Jesus said earlier.  Why are the Christians at Sardis dead?  Because Jesus did not find their works perfect before God.  What does this say for the doctrine of Salvation by faith only?  Proponents of salvation by faith only claim that since the works of man contribute nothing towards one's salvation that this somehow excludes man from the necessity of obedience to the will of God.  They teach that salvation is by the grace of God and that our works, including obedience to God, do not earn our salvation.  And they are partly right.   The punishment for sin is death.  The only person who ever lived who could offer a life in place of ours did just that and He saved us from an eternity of separation from God.  God gave up His life for us so that we could live.  We can't repay that debt, so those who teach salvation by faith or grace only are correct when they say our works won't save us.  But where they err is when they extend this to obedience of God's will.  The best definition for God's grace I have ever seen is the "undeserved favor of God."  We do not deserve the chance we got for redemption.  We can't earn it, we can't buy it, but it is given freely to all who obey Jesus Christ, (Hebrews 5:9).  By grace we are saved through faith.  What kind of faith?  An obedient, penitent, submissive, active, grateful, loving, faithful to the end, faith. 

The Greek word for "perfected" means "finished" or "completed".  The Church at Sardis had started things they had never finished and were condemned for it.  The application for us today is that works are indeed necessary.  And half planned, unfinished, unperfected works are not acceptable before God.  We can't play Christianity and please God.  We have to live Christianity.  The works of our congregations are expected to be organized, implemented and carried out to completion. 

Revelation 3:3
"Remember therefore how thou hast received and didst hear; and keep (it), and repent. If therefore thou shalt not watch, I will come as a thief, and thou shalt not know what hour I will come upon thee."

Jesus is telling them to remember what they received and what they heard.  This would be the gospel in view here.  The tense of the Greek word for "remember" is in the present imperative which means to keep on remembering.  Do it every day and never allow yourself to forget what you received and what you heard and what you obeyed.

"and keep (it),"
Here is another present tense imperative which means continuous action.  Never stop keeping the commandments of the gospel.  Keep them, obey them, every day, never stop walking in the way of righteousness.  John wrote in an earlier letter about "walking in the light".  He says that "IF" we do this, the blood of Jesus cleanses us continually (1 John 1:7).  Jesus is telling the Christians in Sardis to "walk in the light" daily, for life. 

"and repent"
Repentance is not a one time act on the part of the Christian.  This is without question the most difficult command to follow.  It requires a decisive action, a commitment on the part of an individual to change one's life.  A one time repentance for the moment is no repentance at all.  True repentance is something that is maintained for life.   Anybody can repent and walk the straight and narrow path for a day, or for a week, or for a month.  But how about for a lifetime?  It's not possible to live a sinless life.  So when we stumble, we need to repent anew and refocus our priorities and get back on track.  The Christians at Sardis were guilty of sin.  They were told to repent.  Even though Jesus said they were dead, there was yet hope and the road back to life begins with repentance all over again. 

"If therefore thou shalt not watch, I will come as a thief, and thou shalt not know what hour I will come upon thee"
Earlier Jesus instructed the Church at Sardis to watch.  Now He gives the consequences if they do not.  He will come suddenly upon them in the night, just like Cyrus and Antiochus came upon the city and conquered them.  He did not have to tell them specifically what would happen if and when He came upon them sleeping.  They already knew those consequences from their own history. 

Revelation 3:4
"But thou hast a few names in Sardis that did not defile their garments: and they shall walk with me in white; for they are worthy."
Even though the church at Sardis was dead in her works, there were some Christians there in the church who were still living faithfully.  They had not defiled their garments.  They were walking pure and righteous in their faith.  Those of the church who were not, needed to evaluate their position and use those who were righteous as examples to live by.  The church at Sardis had some among them that the others could observe and emulate.  They had a pattern of righteousness before them. 

The application for us today is that even though a church is dead in her works, there can be within them a faithful remnant who are spiritually alive and who can be found faithful before God in the end.  The exhortation here is for both parties, the unrighteous and the righteous.  Those who are unrighteous need to identify those among themselves who are and emulate their pattern of faithfulness.  And those who are righteous should recognize the importance of their example and keep on keeping on.  It is possible to be righteous when the majority is not.  Faithful unto death means faithful unto death. 

Revelation 3:5
"He that overcometh shall thus be arrayed in white garments; and I will in no wise blot his name out of the book of life, and I will confess his name before my Father, and before his angels."

To the faithful few who overcome Satan and to those who will repent and return to righteousness we have three promises. 

"arrayed in white garments"  White is the symbol for purity in the minds of the first century Christians.  Being clothed in white garments is representative of being presented "a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish" (Ephesians 5:27).

"and I will in no wise blot his name out of the book of life"
The Christians at Sardis are told that those who overcome and remain faithful will not have their names erased from the book of life.  There is a warning in this promise.  The church that Jesus said is dead in her works is in danger of falling short of these three promises if they do not repent.  Having one's name written in the book of life is a blessing of incalculable value and to have that erased is the equivalent of losing one's salvation. 

The book of life is mentioned 7 times in the new testament.  Once in Philippians 4:3 and 6 times in Revelation.  The Jews kept a register of their citizens which was called the book of the living (Isaiah 4:3; Ezekiel 13:9; Nehemiah 12:22).  Jews who were alive had their names registered in this book while they were alive.  Upon their death, their names were removed.  The Psalmist David drew a comparison between the literal "book of the living" and God's book of life when he wrote, "Let them be blotted out of the book of the living, and not be written with the righteous" (Psalms 69:28).  Malachi wrote in 3:16, "Then they that feared the LORD spake often one to another: and the LORD hearkened, and heard it, and a book of remembrance was written before him for them that feared the LORD, and that thought upon his name."  God's spiritual "book of life" is filled with the names of those who are spiritually alive, in Christ and living faithfully.  Those who have their names erased from this book were alive once, but have spiritually died. 

"and I will confess his name before my Father, and before his angels"
This is a direct reference back to what Jesus taught as recorded in Matthew 10:32 and Luke 12:8-9, "And I say unto you, Every one who shall confess me before men, him shall the Son of man also confess before the angels of God: but he that denieth me in the presence of men shall be denied in the presence of the angels of God."  Some will be denied by Jesus before God the Father, (Matthew 7:23; Luke. 13:27). It is significant to note that this blessing is given to Christians as a contrast to what will happen if they do not repent.  It is possible for the Christian to have their name erased from the book of life and find themselves denied by Jesus Christ before God.  Faithful unto death means just what it says. 

Revelation 3:6
"He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith to the churches."
Those who are willing to listen need to heed what the Spirit of God is saying to the churches through the inspired written words of John.  Notice that the churches are mentioned in the plural form.  The things being said to each one, in favor or in condemnation, are applicable to each and every one of them.  The application for us today is that we can take these blessings and warnings and apply them to ourselves today in our local congregations.  By emulating all the good things said to all the churches mentioned in Revelation and rejecting all the bad things which were condemned, we can be assured our local congregations are living and serving acceptably before God.

Church of Christ Lessons on the Revelation of Jesus Christ

1.  Understanding Revelation
2.  Symbolic Objects in Revelation
3.  Understanding the Numerical Symbolism in Revelation
4.  Identifying the Opposition Characters in Revelation
John's Introduction to the Churches of Asia

6.  John's Vision of Jesus Christ
7. The Church who Left Her First Love, Ephesus
8.  Smyrna, the Suffering Church
9.  Pergamum, the church in Hell's Headquarter
10.  Thyatira, the church that Condoned Sin
11. Sardis (The Dead Church)
12. Philadelphia (The Church With Opportunity)
13.  Laodicea (The Lukewarm Church)

14.  Letter to Your Church
15.  John's Throne Vision (chapter 4)
16.  God the Redeemer Revealed  (chapter 5)
17.  God the Avenger of His Children (Chapter 6)
18.  Who Will Be Able To Stand  (Chapter 7)
19.  The First Four Trumpets
(Chapter 8)
20.  The Fifth Trumpet (Chapter 9:1-12)
21.  The Sixth Trumpet Announcement (Chapter 9:13-21)
22. The Little Book and the Unutterable Thunders (Rev 10)
23.  The Seventh Trumpet Announcement (Rev 11)
24. The Conflict (Revelation 12)
25.  Revelation 13 (Identification of the First Beast)

26.  Revelation 13 (Identification of the Second Beast)

27.  Chapter 14 (The Victorious Lamb and the Redeemed)
28.  Revelation 14 (The Turning Point)
29.  Revelation 14 (The Sickle and the Winepress)
30.  Chapter 15 (Comfort for the Saints)
31.  Chapter 16 (Bowls of Wrath)
32.  Chapter 16 (The Battle of Armageddon)
33.  Chapter 17 (The Scarlet Woman)
34.  Chapter 18 (Fallen  is Babylon)

35.  King of Kings and Lord of Lords (Chapter 19)
36.  The Fall of Satan  (Chapter 20)
37.  Heaven, the Home of the Soul  (Chapter 21)
38.  The Spirit and the Bride Say Come  (Chapter 22)
39.  The Dating of the Revelation

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Revelation 21:5-7

And he that sat upon the throne said, Behold, I make all things new. And he said unto me, Write: for these words are true and faithful.  And he said unto me, It is done. I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. I will give unto him that is athirst of the fountain of the water of life freely.  He that overcometh shall inherit all things; and I will be his God, and he shall be my son.