Consumerism and apathy are endemic diseases in the church of our day but this is not new for the church of Sardis suffered from this same malady nearly 2,000 years ago.
There are some very cool facets to the letters to the seven churches. One of them is the way the names of the cities represent a key characteristic of the church there. Another is how the Lord Jesus uses the geographic, historical, religious, and commercial attributes of each city to help the church members understand what He is saying to them.
Today we look at the 5th city church addressed in Revelation Chapter Two and Three – Sardis. There is some debate about the ancient meaning of this name but the most plausible is that it means ‘precious remnant’. Jesus has nothing to commend this church for but He does say that they have ‘a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes’; in other words there is a faithful remnant within this church.
Sardis was a center for the wool trade in that part of the world so, unsurprisingly, Jesus weaves this into His letter by referring to the soiled clothes of the many and the white garments of the righteous few (Revelation 3:4). The Lord rebukes the church with the words, “Wake up!” and warns them that if they do not then He will come like a thief (Revelation 3:3); it is obvious from the context that this will not be a happy visitation. Now the city of Sardis was built around a steep plateau some 460 meters above the valley floor and only accessible by one narrow and very steep road. The original town was on top of this cliff but at the time of writing only the decaying remains of the citadel were at the top and the main city was at the foot of the cliff. The fortress city had been invaded only twice in ancient times. On both occasions a party of enemy soldiers had found their way up via the deep cracks in the cliff face. When they ascended to the top they found the citadel completely unguarded for the occupants had thought that they were unassailable.
The lesson to the church both then and now is obvious – Wake up! Like the complacent ancient inhabitants of the citadel city we too are to wake up, repent and obey. If we relate to the condition of Sardis then we need to wake up from the delusion that we are alive when we are in fact dead, despite an alive reputation. This applies particularly to churches that are surviving on the reputation of past vitality, but I think it also applies to churches that appear to be alive but are not. Programmes and social activities are easily mistaken for spiritual vitality but only the presence of the Lord in a church community gives it life.
A couple of weeks ago I was chatting to a friend who has been traveling to many parts of South Africa during the last couple of years. She and her husband stay at each location for a few months, freely serve the local church there with their gifting and talents, and then move on. They have interacted with about 15 churches so far. I asked her if there was any stand-out characteristics shared by these churches. Her answer was, “Yes, in every church the pastors are working frenetically and the church members are largely apathetic and uninvolved”. O dear! Perhaps we need to take Jesus very seriously when He says, “Wake up!”
The Lord’s prescription for this deathly disease is firstly to remember what we have received and heard. What all members of a once alive church have heard in the past undoubtedly concerned the centrality and lordship of Jesus Christ, the inspiration and authority of the Bible, and the need to be dependent upon the Holy Spirit. If only our reputation is alive then we have no doubt forgotten or no longer obediently live by these foundational truths. The medicine is a large dose of Repentance and the treatment regimen is daily Obedience.
Repentance + Regimen of obedience = Righteous Remnant.