Have you ever had a “wake-up call?” A wake-up call is something which shocks people, making them understand how serious a problem is and causing them to take action in order to solve that problem.
Have you ever attended a dead church? There is not much that is worse than dead tradition or dead liberalism. The services are dull and lifeless. Everyone is bored and nodding off to sleep. No wonder the Lord said, “Wake up!” Sardis was a church that was ready to die.
The fifth church of Revelation was in Sardis, about 30 miles south of Thyatira. It was a commercial and industrial city at the junction of five roads. It was perched on an elevated plateau 1,500 feet above the valley below and at the western end of the Great King’s highway from Susa.
Sardis had seen its day. It had a great history, but it was going downhill.
Sardis had been the ancient capital of Lydia. But its greatest glory was in the past. In the sixth century BC, fabled King Croesus, whom the Greeks called Midas, was known for his golden treasures.
Sardis had a strong fortress. It had a lot going for it. But then it was conquered by the Persians, and later by the Greeks. Twice the city was caught off guard and captured despite its great fortress and steep cliffs.
The town had begun building a massive temple to the goddess Artemis. It would have been as great as the one at Ephesus, but construction was never completed.
In the distance, on the skyline, the people of Sardis could see a massive cemetery with thousands of burial mounds. The city seemed to have a preoccupation with death.
There was a substantial wool industry in Sardis. This may explain the references to clothing in the passage. Some might even suggest that the people took on the lethargic attitude of the sheep they tended.
By Roman times, Sardis was playing second fiddle to the major cities on the coast, Ephesus and Smyrna. An earthquake hit it in AD 17, and it never really recovered.
Just as Sardis had fallen because of a lack of vigilance, so the church was in danger of falling as well. As the city had flourished and decayed, so the church had done the same. The believers had grown careless and indifferent to spiritual things and gradually declined over the years.
Portrayal of Jesus
Jesus describes Himself as the one who holds the seven spirits and seven stars. The sevenfold character of the Holy Spirit rests upon Jesus enabling Him to exercise righteous judgment (see Isaiah 11:2-5). He holds the leaders of the churches responsible and accountable to Him.
Praise for the Church
There is no praise for this church. Later there is recognition of the few faithful in Sardis. The church as a whole, however, was failing.
Criticism of the Church
Jesus knew the deeds, both in reputation and reality, of the believers in Sardis. He says in effect, “You are famous for being alive, but you’re really dead.” We know from history that this was true of the city. We shall see it was also true of the church. This searching judgment of Christ may also apply to churches today.
The church had suffered inward decay, spiritual disintegration and dry rot. I used to go to the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. and look at the exhibits of the animals of North America, lifelike in their natural habitat, mounted exactly as they lived, but they were dead.
Note though that they were once alive and vibrant. We can have eternal life and yet allow our faith to wither and die (see James 2:17 and 26).
The answer to escaping the spiritual graveyard is found in our Lord’s challenge (verses 2-3). The church members were sleeping. The risen Jesus calls them to rouse themselves from their heavy slumbers and to be watchful.
Here are five commands: Wake up! Strengthen the things that remain, which were about to die! Remember what you have received and heard! Keep it! Repent!
Wake up. In what ways might they have been asleep? Perhaps not caring about their faith, not growing in the Lord, not paying attention to the needs of those around them.
Strengthen the things that remain. What are the things that “remain” which they need to strengthen? Perhaps their faith, their fellowship, their commitment to obey Christ. They had apparently taken the first few steps of the Christian life, but they hadn’t let God lead them into full obedience. Jesus wanted them to remember, obey, and repent.
Remember. Get back to the basics of the faith. Hold fast to the truth. This is not a simple recall. The basis for renewal is to bear constantly in mind that which we have received and heard.
Keep. Keep on keeping the body of truth just alluded to in connection with the receiving and hearing. Here is a call to devote earnest attention to rebuilding on what was left from the earlier days of fruitfulness.
Repent of your apathy. Become vigilant and diligent about your walk with Christ.
Wake up and revitalize the good things you have going for you. If you don’t, what you have will “die.” Maintain a living faith.
The divine prescription for curing the church’s spiritual malady is watchfulness (see 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11; Ephesians 5:6-14; 1 John 2:28; 3:2-3). Sentries are to stay awake and watch.
Penalty or Reward
What would happen if they didn’t wake up? Jesus would come suddenly, like a thief to judge them. This may be a reference to the rapture. The sin of Sardis involved a failure to watch for the Lord’s return. A possible negative outcome at the Judgment Seat serves as an incentive for believers in Sardis and today to wake up and stay alert (see 1 John 2:28). This may also be sudden and unexpected temporal judgment.
The earlier verses introduced a remedy for the dying condition of the church. This verse poses a threat that is predicated on the assumption that the remedy will not be accepted. Failure to wake up (watchfulness) exposes them to a possible surprise coming of the Lord in judgment.
The previous history of Sardis would warn the believers concerning sudden and unexpected judgment. Sardis had twice fallen because of overconfidence and failure to watch. In 549 BC the Persian King Cyrus had ended the rule of Croesus by scaling the cliffs under the cover of darkness. In 214 BC the armies of Antiochus the Great captured the city by the same method. Herodotus tells of the incident with Cyrus.
Sardis was considered an impregnable fortress. It was built on the slope of Mount Tmolus, at the base of which ran the Pactolus River. Like a pier jutting out from Mount Tmolus was a ridge of rock with great cliffs on either side. On that high pier of solid rock Sardis had built its impregnable fortress. When Cyrus besieged the city, he could not advance farther until that fortress was taken. So the Persian general said that if any man would find a way to storm the fortress and overwhelm it, he would give large rewards.
A Mardian soldier by the name of Hyeroedes was standing one day watching the cliff and the battlement on top and a Lydian soldier on top of the battlement. As he watched, the Lydian soldier accidentally dropped his helmet over the battlement and picked his way slowly to the base of the cliff to recover his helmet, and climbed back to his place of sentinel duty. The Mardian soldier carefully watched as the Lydian came down and back up, and that night with a picked band of Persian soldiers, he made his way up to the height. It was unguarded, and Sardis fells into the hands of the Persians.
With that story and topography as background we can see the emphasis of our Lord when he says, “Be watchful . . . if you don’t watch, I will come like a thief.”
If we fail to apply the truths we’ve learned in the past, we’ll forget the principles of Christian living, and when we need to draw upon them they won’t be there. This is what Jesus meant when He said, “Be sure to practice what you hear. The more you do this, the more you will understand what I tell you.
There were some believers who had not soiled their clothes. How could believers soil their clothes? This refers to walking in the ways of the ungodly world and being squeezed into its mold. The believers were compromising with their culture, perhaps joining in emperor worship or cult worship. The church had a reputation for being alive but only a few of its number lived up to that reputation.
There’s an element from some of the passages of other churches that we don’t find here. What is that? Persecution. There is no mention of them undergoing persecution for their faith. Why is that? It’s possible that the local authorities didn’t care. The believers were going with the flow, offering incense to the emperor just to fit in, taking part in the pagan feasts to be “good citizens.”
Promises to Overcomers
Jesus promises the overcomer three things.
First, the overcomer will walk with Christ in white.
The Lord promised the overcomers “white garments” – the symbol of their righteous acts (see 19:8). This is not merely the imputed righteousness of Christ given to all who believe in Him for everlasting life. This is an added reward reflected in their royal clothing.
Second, the overcomer’s name will remain in the Book of Life.
The Lord also promised that their names would not be blotted out of the book of life. This raises three questions. Who is the overcomer? What is the book of life? What is meant by being removed from the book of life?
The overcomers in Revelation are the ones who do the will of God to the end, either physical death or the coming of Christ. As a reward they are given authority over the nations. The singular “he” suggests this is an individual thing. Not all overcome and receive this reward.
What is the book of life? In the Ancient Near East the book of life was simply a list of the members of a community. Those unworthy of the community were removed from the book. In ancient Israel it was often the legal register.
What is meant by removal from the book of life? The answer to that question depends on the meaning of “name.” The lexicon lists five usages of onoma: name, title or category, person, reputation or fame, and office. It is possible that the removal from the book of life refers to the removal of one’s reputation, not his person. If name always means “person,” then a contradiction is set up between Revelation 3:5 and 13:8, 17:8, and 21:27. In 13:8, 17:8, and 21:27 we are told that, if our name is recorded in the book of life, it was so recorded from the foundation of the world. In other words, it is an absolute and unchanging thing. But in Revelation 3:5 we are told that a person’s name can be present at one time and absent at another. One emphasizes the permanence of the name and the other the possibility of temporal removal. This is easily harmonized by the simple assumption that “name” means person in Revelation 13:8, 17:8, and 21:27, and “reputation” in 3:5. The overcomer can achieve a new name (2:17; 3:12), a spiritual reputation in the sight of God. He will have a reputation or title in heaven which conforms to his earthly faithfulness. Proverbs 22:1 says a good name is to be desired more than great riches. Job 30:8 notes that those who had a bad reputation were called “nameless.” Being nameless can be compared to having one’s name blotted out of the book of life. If “name” in Revelation 3:5 refers to reputation or title, then God is saying, “I will not blot his title or reputation out of the book of life.” This is clarified by the next statement, “I will confess his name [reputation] before My Father and before His angels.”
Third, Jesus will declare the overcomer’s reputation before the Father and His angels.
The passage focuses on the matter of one’s name. The word occurs four times in the passage: “you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead;” “you have a few names in Sardis;” “I will not erase his name;” “I will confess his name.”
He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
Conclusion: “Wake Up!”
WWJS to the sleeping church: “Wake up!” Watch and keep your name (reputation). It may be time for a spiritual overhaul. What compromises have you been making to fit into your society? What can you do to stop making those compromises? What aspects of your spiritual life do remain? How can you build on these?