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
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
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
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.
"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
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
"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
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:
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).
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.
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).
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"
"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
"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.
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.
"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.
"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
"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.
"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.