I don’t know if you’ve noticed it or not, but we have a really broad range of quality of churches in chapters two and three. Just to give you a head’s up, out of the seven churches Jesus sent letters to, one of them he praised without any reservation, one of them he absolutely couldn’t find one good thing to compliment them on, and the rest of them—as you’d expect—fall somewhere in between. Of course, there’s no such as thing as a perfect church, since a church is made up of imperfect believers. But apparently one church (Philadelphia) was good enough that he didn’t feel the need to correct them on anything in his letter. And one (Laodicea) was so bad he had absolutely nothing good to say about it. But I think my point is still valid: Most churches aren’t as bad as they could be. From what I can tell from these letters, if they really are rotten all the way through, they won’t be lasting as a church at all for long.
Today we’re going to look at a church that fell on the “mostly bad” area of the spectrum, the congregation in Sardis. Once again, here’s the background from MacArthur: “Situated on a natural acropolis rising 1,500 feet above the valley floor, the city (modern Sart [in Turkey]) was nearly impregnable. Around 1200 B.C. it gained prominence as the capital of the Lydian kingdom. Its primary industry was harvesting wool, dying it, and making garments from it. The famous author, Aesop, came from Sardis, and tradition says that Mileto, a member of the church in Sardis, wrote the first-ever commentary on certain passages in the book of Revelation.”
In case you missed it before, whenever you read “the seven spirits of God” (multiple times here in Revelation), I prefer the translation “sevenfold Spirit,” since there’s only one Holy Spirit. Seven was the number of completeness, so when someone said “I did X seven times,” it could mean they didn’t literally do it seven times but did it the number of times it took to be completed. So in other words, the Lord Jesus is saying that he has “in [his] hand” the complete Holy Spirit. Not that you can have anything less than 100% of the Spirit (as if you could divide him up like a pie), but Jesus is saying that he’s the source of the Spirit, and that there is no other source. If you want the Holy Spirit, you have to come to him. Also, this could be a reference to the sevenfold ministry of the Spirit from Isaiah 11:2. He’s also described as the One who has the seven stars, which as we say in chapter one represents the seven churches (again, completeness, so he holds up all the churches that were or ever will be).
These descriptions are really important as we read Jesus’ evaluation of the “church” there. I put it in quotes because according to the Lord, there is no church in Sardis, at least not a live one. As I mentioned above, this is almost the worst-case scenario for a church; it’s on the “mostly bad” area of the spectrum. If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you might be expecting me to trot out my well-worn illustration of the old and huge tree which looks fine on the outside but inside is rotting away from termites (I know, too late!). But I was thinking of an even-better illustration. As I write this, our pop culture has been taken over by zombies: Movies, hit TV shows, and videogames are crawling with them. These are creatures which used to be alive but now they’re. . . well, not dead exactly, but not really alive either. The technical term is “undead”: They were dead and in their grave, but an unholy force of some type has reanimated their corpse. They walk around, talk sometimes, and eat (thus using up resources). In most depictions, they’re hungry for human flesh.
I’ve seen churches like Sardis. I’ve visited quite a few. They were once a live church, reaching out to the community and taking part in the worldwide Great Commission, but no longer. They once had worship inspired, empowered and led by the Holy Spirit, but no longer. They’re no longer growing in numbers or in closeness to the Lord. Quite frankly, the most likely scenario is that its members will die off and the church property will be sold off. If that’s what occurs, then quite frankly the sooner it happens the better. They’re using resources which could actually be utilized by the Kingdom. I’ve heard some similar things about most churches in Europe.
What happened? What’s the diagnosis? Well, at the risk of overgeneralizing, like the Ephesians they forsook their First Love. Jesus is the only source of the Spirit, so as they turned away from him, the Spirit stopped showing up. They took their focus off actually doing what Jesus told them to do (like reaching out to the lost and being salt and light to their community), and they let their church turn into a country club with stain-glass windows. What they’d “received and heard”-- things like the word of God, and a passion for exalting Christ and reaching the lost--they let slip away. Jesus says that he’ll come like a “thief”: This isn’t referring to the Second Coming, but the fact that if they don’t turn around he’s going to sneak up on them in judgment. It won’t be like an explosive blowout but a slow leak in the tire. A thief doesn’t come in with fanfare and a wrecking ball; he sneaks in and steals what somebody already has, and the better the thief is, the longer it’ll take the owner to figure out that something’s missing.
But the church isn’t the absolutely worst-case scenario (we’ll see that in a couple of days); close, but not quite there. The church as a whole was dead, but there were a few who saw what was happening. They walked with Jesus “dressed in white.” From the rest of Revelation, we know that “white robes” belong to all the redeemed. They make their robes white by washing them in his blood, and apparently the white robes also represent personal righteousness which is the byproduct of belonging to him. The point is that these are true followers of Christ, and if you’re a believer, you have this too. Keep in mind that every believer is “victorious” or “an overcomer” in the sense that John’s talking about. No truly redeemed person has to worry about having his name taken out of the book of life, and we know that Jesus will acknowledge us before his Father and the angels. We belong to him, and he’ll proclaim it in front of the entire universe.
This does raise a thorny question: At what point should a true believer abandon a Sardis-like church? I know that personally I couldn’t stand to be in a church like that for five minutes. But Jesus doesn’t tell the believers there to leave the church. Maybe there were enough of them to possibly bring the church back from the brink. I don’t know. Another thing to take into consideration would be the very likely fact that there wasn’t any other local gathering of believers for them to attend. It was the official church in Sardis or nothing. If that was the case, then it certainly wouldn’t apply nearly as much here in America. If you’re attending a Sardis-like church, I’d advise you to pray long and hard about staying there if there’s an actual biblical church that’s available.
My friend, the Lord Jesus ended each of these letters with a warning to “LISTEN UP!!! Listen to what the Spirit is saying to your church!!!” But if there were any of these warnings which applied specifically to a lot of churches here and now in America, I’d say it’s this one. I’d say that there are a ton of churches which this applies to. Quite frankly, I’d say there are entire denominations which this applies to. And the ones which it doesn’t apply to yet are always in danger of it. Please pray for your church. Invite the Spirit to speak to you about the condition of your church; let him do an audit. If he says it doesn’t apply, then breathe a sigh of relief. If you hear him sounding the alarm bells, don’t ignore them. Please.
Lord Jesus, there’s no room, or there shouldn’t be, for any judgment or pride on my part. When I read stuff like this, help me to take it as a warning for me, for my church. Search us out, oh God, and give us listening ears for any alarm bells your Spirit is ringing.