The Lord has created a vast and magnificent universe, and our finite minds can comprehend only a small fraction of it. And even what we think we see in the vast recesses of space can be deceptive. For example, a light year is the distance light is able to travel—moving at more than 186,000 miles per second—in a year. The distance works out to more than six trillion miles. So as we look up into the sky at night and gaze at the stars, we’re not seeing the light they’re currently producing. We’re seeing light from five, ten, and even twenty years ago. In fact, we could be looking at light from decades in the past, even from stars that long ago burned out. And it could be years or even decades more before we realize the light had gone out.
Today there are many churches in a similar situation. From a distance, they shine bright and brilliant, but that light is an illusion. It’s merely a reflection of the past, lingering long after any light inside the church has been extinguished by sin and false teaching. The church at Sardis was like that. From the outside, you wouldn’t have known anything was wrong. But in His letter to the church in Revelation 3:1–6, the Lord pronounces it dead.
About thirty miles south of Thyatira, the city of Sardis rested in the foothills of Mount Tmolus, near the Pactolus River. The river was home to large deposits of gold, which made Sardis one of the richest cities in the ancient world. It was the capital of the Lydian empire, whose king Croesus is still a benchmark for wealth (“As rich as Croesus”). In fact, Sardis is reported to be the city that first minted gold and silver into coins. Tradition tells us that Sardis also first developed the process for dying wool; textiles continued to be a major industry for the city through the first century.
A city of such vast wealth had to be able to protect itself. Sardis stood fifteen hundred feet up into the hills, surrounded by sheer cliffs and hillsides, with only a steep path that led into the city. The city was thought to be impregnable. And it might have been, if not for the carelessness of men:
Despite an alleged warning against self-satisfaction by the Greek god whom he consulted, Croesus the king of Lydia initiated an attack against Cyrus king of Persia, but was soundly defeated. Returning to Sardis to recoup and rebuild his army for another attack, he was pursued quickly by Cyrus who laid siege against Sardis. Croesus felt utterly secure in his impregnable situation atop the acropolis and foresaw an easy victory over the Persians who were cornered among the perpendicular rocks in the lower city, an easy prey for the assembling Lydian army to crush. After retiring one evening while the drama was unfolding, he awakened to discover that the Persians had gained control of the acropolis by scaling one-by-one the steep walls (549 B.C.). So secure did the Sardians feel that they left this means of access completely unguarded, permitting the climbers to ascend unobserved. It is said that even a child could have defended the city from this kind of attack, but not so much as one observer had been appointed to watch the side that was believed to be inaccessible.Robert L. Thomas, Revelation 1–7: An Exegetical Commentary, (Chicago: Moody, 1992), 241.
While the city continued to prosper under Rome, it never returned to its former glory. In fact, it was a degenerating city, home to a degenerate church. Scripture doesn’t give us any details on the founding of the church at Sardis, but it likely got its start during Paul’s ministry in Ephesus (Acts 19:10).
Christ’s letter to the church at Sardis stands out in some ways for what it doesn’t say. There is no mention of persecution. There’s no mention of bad theology or false teachers. There’s no discussion of compromise with the world or any specific sin corrupting the church. But we can reasonably assume that all those were issues for the congregation at Sardis, that they were further down the spiritual slide the Lord has been describing. In fact, He says the worst thing that could be said about a church: It’s dead. In less than forty years, they had left their first love like Ephesus, were seduced by compromise like Pergamum, and had succumbed to corruption like Thyatira. How else could they have so rapidly descended into the kind of spiritual decay the Lord describes in Revelation?
The Divine Solution to Desperate Needs
In His letter to Sardis, Christ identifies Himself in a compelling way, as “He who has the seven Spirits of God and the seven stars” (Revelation 3:1). As we’ve seen, Christ borrows imagery from John’s initial vision to illustrate specific aspects of His character that reinforce His words to each particular church. But the reference to the “seven Spirits of God” points back further, to John’s own greeting to the seven churches in Revelation 1:4: “John to the seven churches that are in Asia: Grace to you and peace, from Him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven Spirits who are before His throne.” It’s a phrase he uses repeatedly throughout the book (see also 4:5; 5:6). But what does it mean, since there is only one Holy Spirit (Ephesians 4:4)?
There are two ways to understand the imagery here. First, we can look back at Isaiah 11:2, where Isaiah describes the Holy Spirit’s relationship to the Messiah. He writes, “The Spirit of the Lord will rest on Him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and strength, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.” Isaiah identifies seven key features of the Spirit’s empowering work: He is the Spirit of the Lord as well as the spirit of wisdom, understanding, counsel, strength, knowledge, and the fear of the Lord. This is what is commonly referred to as the sevenfold Spirit of the Lord; it’s a way to understand the Spirit in the fullness of His power and work.
The other way to understand what Christ means when He says He “has the seven Spirits of God” is to see a reference to Zechariah’s prophetic vision of the Holy Spirit as a golden lampstand made up of seven lamps in Zechariah 4:1–10. In either case, this is a certain reference to the Holy Spirit, who was given to the church by Christ.
So to the church at Sardis, the Lord describes Himself as the one who possesses the Holy Spirit in His fullness, and also the “seven stars”—a reference to John’s initial vision (Revelation 1:16) that depicts the Lord’s sovereign care for the messengers to the seven churches. In short, the divine author of the letter is the one who gives the Holy Spirit to the church, and who sovereignly leads the church through His shepherds.
How does that relate to the congregation at Sardis? Why isn’t He coming in omniscient judgment, with eyes of fire and feet of bronze? As we’ll see, there’s not much judgment in this letter because the Sardian church is already dead from the start.
Christ describes Himself as the One who possesses what this church needs most: the Holy Spirit and faithful shepherds. The church at Sardis had neither. They were devoid of the Holy Spirit and without spiritually qualified pastors. There was no godly leadership; the church was being led astray by men who did not know and love the truth. The life and power of the Holy Spirit was not there. The illuminating, enabling work of the Spirit had all but ceased. Without the Holy Spirit and without faithful leaders, the church was dead. It was a church dominated by the flesh, sin, and unbelief—and mostly populated by the unregenerate. The church at Sardis had desperate spiritual needs that only Christ could meet.
The Deeds of the Dead
The Lord’s pattern in these letters has been to include some words of commendation or praise up front for those in the churches who have remained faithful to Him and His Word. His letter to Sardis breaks that pattern. He writes, “I know your deeds, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead” (Revelation 3:1).
Our God is omniscient; He sees everything and He sees through everything. The church at Sardis looked fine to the naked eye. Christ says they “have a name that you are alive, but you are dead.” He could see through the façade of their deeds to the true nature of their hearts. This isn’t merely physical death He’s talking about—they’re spiritually dead. It’s what Paul describes in Ephesians 2:1 as “dead in your trespasses and sins.” In Colossians 2:13, he writes, “You were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh.” That’s the kind of death the Lord is describing in Sardis. He can see that this church is unsaved, that it might as well be the world.
Sadly, we see a lot of churches like that today. The world is full of liberal churches that don’t believe the Bible is the Word of God. They deny the deity and atoning work of Christ; they deny His gospel. They still go through the motions of piety and the forms of worship, but there is no spiritual life inside. Pretended devotion to Christ is a sham; there’s no drive to see the unregenerate saved because they themselves are unregenerate, too.
In a sense, it is easy to spot a dead church. It’s a church that’s wrapped up in religious tradition practiced by rote but devoid of real faith. It’s concerned with liturgy and form, but not true worship. It’s a church consumed with healing social ills and promoting public welfare, but not preaching the power of the gospel to transform lives. It’s a church that tolerates sin rather than confronting it. It’s a church that is more interested in the fashions and opinions of men than the Word of God. It’s a church devoted to material things, even vaguely spiritual things, but not the Scripture in its fullness. It’s a church that has no desire for holiness.
And only thirty or forty years after it was founded—from the time the gospel exploded throughout Asia Minor (see Acts 19:10) to John’s exile on Patmos—the church at Sardis had died. Such rapid decay is a warning in itself.
What could kill a church so quickly? Error kills the church. False teaching and false doctrine confuse and corrupt the church, draining the life out of it. Sin kills the church. Little by little, sin tears away at the life of the church. It twists your character and warps your mind. Sins of omission and commission slowly suffocate the will of the church to maintain holiness and purity. Sinful leadership can quickly deal death blows to a church. Compromise with the world kills the church, too. Contrary to the current trend, there’s no better way to introduce the killing power of sin into a church than with an influx of unbelievers. Accepting and putting those unbelievers into positions of leadership grips the church by the neck and strangles it. Ultimately, churches die for one reason: They tolerate sin, which includes the seminal sin of not taking Scripture seriously.
(Adapted from Christ’s Call to Reform the Church.)