The Lord closes His letter to Sardis with an encouragement to the small group of faithful believers who remained: “But you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their garments; and they will walk with Me in white, for they are worthy” (Revelation 3:4). In the midst of this dead church were a precious few who had not followed the church into sin and spiritual decay. There were genuine believers among the hypocrites, a few separated and spiritual among the carnal and the worldly. The Lord had a small remnant of true Christians leading pure, wholesome, Christlike lives in the midst of this dead, corrupt church.
The Living Among the Dead
In Romans 11:1–5, Paul reminds his readers that God will always have a remnant of His people Israel, no matter how dire and spiritually dead the nation appears:
I say then, God has not rejected His people, has He? May it never be! For I too am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin. God has not rejected His people whom He foreknew. Or do you not know what the Scripture says in the passage about Elijah, how he pleads with God against Israel? “Lord, they have killed Your prophets, they have torn down Your altars, and I alone am left, and they are seeking my life.” But what is the divine response to him? “I have kept for Myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal.” In the same way then, there has also come to be at the present time a remnant according to God’s gracious choice.
Evidently, the number of faithful believers in Sardis was minuscule; it was small enough not to impact the Lord’s evaluation that the church as a whole was dead. But that did not mean that the Lord would forget or ignore those faithful few that had carried on in love for the truth and perseverance. As the author of Hebrews reminds us, “God is not unjust so as to forget your work and the love which you have shown toward His name, in having ministered and in still ministering to the saints” (Hebrews 6:10).
The Lord did not forget His people in Sardis; in fact, He memorialized their faithfulness to every generation of the church in His letter. He says they “have not soiled their garments” (Revelation 3:4). Translated literally, the word (molunō) means “stained” or “dyed.” In Scripture, garments are often used to refer to the spiritual character of a person. Jude 23, for instance, describes the spiritual contamination of people corrupted by false teachers as “the garment polluted by the flesh.” These unsoiled garments represent the godly character and purity of these few believers—all the more remarkable when you consider the corruption of their church.
Christ says this faithful remnant “will walk with Me in white, for they are worthy” (Revelation 3:4). White robes, like the ones Christ describes here, were commonly worn at celebrations and festivals, or after military victories. Even pagans would come to worship their false gods in clean, white clothes as a symbol of their goodness and virtue. They wanted to present themselves as worthy of the idol’s affection and good will. But these aren’t merely clean robes in this temporal world. Christ is referring to the bright, gleaming spiritual robes of imputed righteousness, covering believers who have been purified by His sacrifice on their behalf. In Revelation 7:14, we read of those who “have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”
This is the glorious truth of the gospel. In Romans 5:19, Paul says, “For as through one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous.” Just as we were made sinners through Adam’s sin, we have been made righteous through Christ’s death. How? Paul proclaims the reality in 2 Corinthians: “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (5:21). On the cross, God treated Christ as if He had lived my life of sin, so that He could treat me as if I had lived Christ’s life of righteousness. As new creations in Christ, we are cloaked in His righteousness. When God looks at us now, He sees only the holy perfection of His Son.
The imagery of soiled garments is a thread that runs through Scripture. Because we are fallen creatures, hopelessly defiled by our own sin, even the righteous deeds we do cannot cover our sins. Indeed, “All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment” (Isaiah 64:6). The very best things we do are still tainted by sin. Thus, anyone who expects to stand before God clothed in the “righteousness” of his or her own good works is trusting a garment that is polluted by the flesh.
God demands perfect righteousness. Jesus said, “Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20). How high is the standard? “You are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).
That sets an unattainable standard. But Christ provides a perfect righteousness by imputation for all who truly trust Him as Lord and Savior. God imputes righteousness to believers apart from any good works that they do (Romans 4:6). The righteousness of Christ covers them like a gleaming white, spotless garment of absolute perfection. In the words of Isaiah 61:10, “I will rejoice greatly in the Lord, my soul will exult in my God; for He has clothed me with garments of salvation, He has wrapped me with a robe of righteousness.” That’s what the apostle Paul meant when he testified that he had come to be, by faith, “Found in [Christ], not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith” (Philippians 3:9).
Subsequently, the process of sanctification is progressively purifying believers to make them more and more Christlike. We “are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:18). One day, when we go to be with Christ, or when He returns to take us from this world, our glorification will be instantly complete: “Beloved, now we are children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we will be. We know that when He appears, we will be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is” (1 John 3:2).
These are the robes John describes the church wearing at the marriage supper of the Lamb: “‘Let us rejoice and be glad and give glory to Him, for the marriage of the Lamb has come and His bride has made herself ready.’ It was given to her to clothe herself in fine linen, bright and clean; for the fine linen is the righteous acts of the saints” (Revelation 19:7–8).
The small remnant in Sardis had not fallen into pagan impurities. They had not succumbed to sinful practices. They were in a dead church but were alive spiritually. And for their faithfulness, they would walk with their Savior in eternal holiness.
Divine Bookkeeping and Eternal Security
Christ continues this theme in His words to the wider audience of His letter: “He who overcomes will thus be clothed in white garments” (Revelation 3:5). He promises that faithful believers who persevere to the end will be cloaked in His righteousness, and will one day be made righteous. There are no caveats or conditions here; this is Christ’s faithful promise to all who overcome (see 1 John 5:4–5) and remain faithful to Him.
That’s important to remember, as some have misconstrued the rest of Christ’s statement. The Lord says, “And I will not erase his name from the book of life, and I will confess his name before My Father and before His angels” (Revelation 3:5). Although Christ promises not to erase the names of His people, some take it to mean that it could happen, turning God’s promise into a veiled threat. That erroneous view appeals to Exodus 32:33, where “the Lord said to Moses, ‘Whoever has sinned against Me, I will blot him out of My book.’”
In the ancient world, rulers of cities had a census, a record of all the names of their citizens. As a citizen, there were effectively two ways your name could be blotted out of the ledger. You could die, or you could commit a crime against the state and lose your citizenship. The book the Lord referred to in Exodus was like that—it’s a reference to physical death, not eternal damnation.
On the other hand, the Book of Life mentioned in Revelation is God’s book in which He keeps record of those who have eternal life. The apostle John refers to it as the list of names “written from the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who has been slain” (Revelation 13:8; see also Revelation 17:8). God does not add and subtract names from the Book of Life; the names of His faithful believers are written there for eternity.
In John’s vision of the future Great White Throne Judgment, we see the end result of Christ’s promise to keep our names secure:
Then I saw a great white throne and Him who sat upon it, from whose presence earth and heaven fled away, and no place was found for them. And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds. And the sea gave up the dead which were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead which were in them; and they were judged, every one of them according to their deeds. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire. (Revelation 20:11–15)
Christ promises each of His faithful overcomers, “I will confess his name before My Father and before His angels” (Revelation 3:5). This is an echo of a promise Christ made to His disciples in Matthew 10:32: “Everyone who confesses Me before men, I will also confess him before My Father who is in heaven.” There is no greater blessing than the assurance of our salvation and an eternity with our Savior.
In Romans 8, Paul recounts the unbreakable chain of God’s work in salvation, and the tremendous security we enjoy in Him:
And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose. For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren; and these whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified.
What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things? Who will bring a charge against God’s elect? God is the one who justifies; who is the one who condemns? Christ Jesus is He who died, yes, rather who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who also intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? Just as it is written, “For Your sake we are being put to death all day long; we were considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (vv. 28–39)
Christ’s letter to the dead church at Sardis is full of rich hope for His saints. He promises to clothe them in the white linens of eternal life, never erase their names out of the Book of Life, and personally confess them before His Father and the entire heavenly host. Those promises extend to all His beloved ones.
The Lord’s letter to Sardis ends with His familiar charge to the rest of His church: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Revelation 3:6). For the believers listening, there is wonderful news to behold.
And history tells us that the church at Sardis was listening. We know of a faithful pastor and apologist from the second century named Melito. Some say he wrote the first commentary on Revelation. He served as the bishop of Sardis, which gives us reason to hope that revival came to the dead church. It seems the believers did wake up and remember the truth they had received, and perhaps some of the dead were brought to spiritual life through repentance and faith.
We can pray that the Lord will do a similar work to revive, reform, and restore many more dead churches today.
(Adapted from Christ’s Call to Reform the Church.)