All Scripture quotations are from the 1901 American Standard Version unless otherwise noted.
Mentioned only here in Revelation (see 1:11).
City of Sardis: In the Manisa Province of Turkey, in the region of Lydia.
A present-day village named Sart, composed of a few paltry huts, is all that remains of the once proud capital of the Lydian monarchy, and which probably existed even before the Lydian kingdom came into being in 1200 B.C. Great names of ancient history were associated with the place, such as Croesus (with fabulous riches), Cyrus, and Alexander the Great. When Xerxes launched his disastrous invasion of Greece, Sardis was the staging area for his immense army. It was strategically located on top of a plateau protected on three sides by almost perpendicular cliffs overlooking the Hermus valley, giving the city strong military protection. Despite this, however, the city was twice destroyed through their overconfidence in leaving the supposedly unclimbable cliffs unprotected. Such overconfidence is understandable; for on all but the south side, “Its perpendicular rock walls rose 1,500 feet above the valley, and provided a natural citadel.” Both Cyrus in 546 B.C. and Antiochus the Great in 218 B.C. captured Sardis by scaling the undefended cliffs. The great importance of the city in ancient times, however, had sharply declined in apostolic times; and the city itself partook somewhat of the “deadness” that this letter ascribes to the church there. The principal temple of the place was that of Cybele, identified with Artemis, and like all other pagan temples a center of immorality. Ruins of it lie along the Pactolus river in the valley below the cliffs, the once gold-laden sands of which were one source of the city’s wealth. The worship of the emperor was also strong there; and, out of gratitude to Tiberius who had aided financially in rebuilding the city after an earthquake in 17 A.D., they competed for the honor of building a temple to him; but they lost out to Smyrna. Tiberius remitted their taxes for a period, but Sardis never regained its place of importance, except for a brief while in the reign of Diocletian. It existed continuously until 1402 when it was so completely destroyed by Tamerlane that it was never rebuilt. Scott reported that “only two or three shepherds inhabited a hut there” at the time of Arundel’s visit in 1826, and that in 1850 “no human being was found living in the once mighty and populous Sardis.”
The fact that no New Testament records tell of the establishment of the church in Sardis should not be thought strange; because only a small fraction of the activity of the apostles and first generation Christians is mentioned in the New Testament. Sardis probably learned the truth about the same time that other churches in the area were planted, and possibly from the very same sources.
Some things still remain
A few names that have not defiled their garments
In name only
They are dead
No works perfect before God
Establish the things that remain
Remember and keep
Jesus will come as a thief upon them
The faithful will walk with Jesus in white
They will be arrayed in white garments
Their name will not be blot out of the book of life
Jesus will confess their name
Revelation 3:1-6 (Sardis)
1 And to the angel of the church in Sardis write: These things saith he that hath the seven Spirits of God, and the seven stars: I know thy works, that thou hast a name that thou livest, and thou art dead.
“to the angel”
(See commentary Rev 1:20 and Rev 2:1 – Ephesus)
“seven Spirits of God”
(See commentary on Rev 1:4)
(See commentary on Rev 1:20)
“I know thy works”
As the all-knowing Son of God, He knew their works — both good and bad, right and wrong. Jesus is the Supreme Overseer of His churches. Nothing escapes His attention. He is ever watching. He observes faithfulness and unfaithfulness. He observes good works and evil works. He observes right teaching and false teaching. He observes true worship and those who merely go through the motions. He observes the quality of their ministry to see if it has true depth or if it’s shallow. He observes the spirituality of the people to see if it’s genuine. He observes their lives to see if they are living a separated life unto Him, or walking in worldliness. He observes the pastors (elders) to see if they’re leading and teaching in faithfulness and boldness as true men of God. He looks to see the difference they’re making in people’s lives as a church. He looks for the faithful preaching of the gospel message, and for the fruit of changed lives as a result.
In the case of Sardis, the works Jesus observed were mostly negative. The church as a whole was unfaithful.
“thou hast a name that thou livest, and thou art dead”
As a church, they were an assembly of Christians in name only. They had a reputation for being alive, but were, in fact “dead.” Although they did have some true faithful followers of Christ in their midst, the majority were dead, spiritually dead. Jesus knows the heart and saw many who had a profession of faith, but were in fact people who were deceived about their salvation. They believed themselves to be true Christians, but Jesus knew the truth. Others may have known they were not true believers, and were just putting on a good show — and not a very good one at that!
We live in a day of shallow and worldly and materialistic churches, where doctrine and verse by verse teaching has been replaced by the fluff of “felt-needs” topical messages (2 Tim 4:3). We live in a day where the life and gospel of Christ has been reduced to the A, B, C’s of salvation. We have become a Christian community of biblically illiterate people. While we certainly have personal responsibility, I attribute this largely to the leaders. They set the example. They’re the one’s who provide the pattern to follow. If the church leaders don’t place the highest value and priority on the teaching of God’s Word, and if they don’t emphasize the importance of separated, Spirit-filled living – in contrast to those who have one foot in the world and one foot in the church – then the people will generally follow suit. Church leaders have been given a great responsibility to lead in faithfulness to the ways of Christ. If they fail to do so, they will give an accounting for it (He 13:7,17; Ja 3:1).
I believe many pastors today are guilty of such shallow teaching, that I think there are many people sitting in churches today believing that they’re true Christians and on their way to Heaven, when in reality, they’re deceived. Pastors must be aware of how important it is to present the Word of God and the gospel of Jesus Christ in a manner that produces true followers of Christ, and not those who are Christians in “name only.”
2 Be thou watchful, and establish the things that remain, which were ready to die: for I have found no works of thine perfected before my God.
“Be thou watchful”
Jesus instructed them to be “watchful,” because as we just discussed, Jesus is watchful. We’re to have the same heart as our Lord. We’re to watch what goes on within our assemblies, and we’re to watch ourselves to make sure that we’re in harmony with the will of God. We need to be watchful to make sure that we’re fulfilling the purpose to which He’s called us as His representatives in the world. The church in Sardis was doing a very poor job of that.
“establish the things that remain, which were ready to die”
Although this was a church that was generally characterized by a false faith and dead or incomplete works, they still had a few faithful followers of Jesus Christ. Those few were the backbone of that church. Whether there were any leaders among those few, it’s not known. Whatever difference they could make, they were to do so. They were to do what they could to influence their assembly to live for Christ and to fulfill the plan and purpose God had for them.
However, in regard to those things, Jesus said that they “were ready to die.” Against the majority, it can be overwhelming being among the faithful few, and those in Sardis were apparently losing ground. The majority didn’t want to follow those who were living and serving in the will of God. Nevertheless, as was true then, is true now, we’re to remain faithful to our Lord no matter who opposes us. To this church overall, Jesus commanded them to “establish the things that remain.” Whatever faithfulness they still had left, they were to build upon it, they were to strengthen it before it slipped away and died like the rest of their service to Christ. If they didn’t, they would become fully apostate. In such a situation, it would have been good for the faithful few to leave and start their own church — in my opinion. Of course, if Jesus had “removed their lampstand” (Rev 2:5), they would have had to do that anyway, for then that church would have ceased to exist — and that obviously eventually happened. It’s quite likely that there was no church option for the faithful at that time.
“for I have found no works of thine perfected before my God”
“perfected” (Gr. pleroo – 4137)
To fill to the full, or to complete to the point of no lack.
Jesus looked upon the church in Sardis and could not find even one thing about them that was perfect or complete in the eyes of God. They lacked in every area of life and ministry. This was a church that was sorely wanting. Whatever they may have been doing for Christ in the beginning, either disappeared or was barely surviving. Whatever they had left was weak and losing ground fast.
What a sad description of any church that represents the Lord Jesus Christ. Every Christian church should be Spirit-led and fully alive, doing the works of the Lord in a manner that is readily approved by the Lord — for then we will one day hear His words, “well done, good and faithful servant” (Matt 25:21). Every church ought to strive for excellence. We should not accept anything short of that. What we do for Jesus should be done with our whole heart.
3 Remember therefore how thou hast received and didst hear; and keep it, and repent. If therefore thou shalt not watch, I will come as a thief, and thou shalt not know what hour I will come upon thee.
“Remember therefore how thou hast received and didst hear; and keep it, and repent.”
The people were to “remember.” They were to remember how the Word of God had spoken to their hearts. They were to remember how the life-changing gospel had led them to faith in Christ. They were to remember the love they used to have for Him, what He meant to them. They were to remember the difference He made in their lives. They were to remember the peace and joy in their soul they experienced from having their sins forgiven and being in a right relationship with God. The were to remember how the emptiness had disappeared and how fulfilled they were in knowing Jesus as their Lord and Savior. They were to remember how they used to look forward to an eternity in His presence. And so should we as Christians today.
“keep it, and repent”
They were to embrace what they had, to return to all that they had departed from.
“If therefore thou shalt not watch, I will come as a thief, and thou shalt not know what hour I will come upon thee.”
In verse 2, Jesus instructed them to “be watchful.” They were to be watchful about their spiritual lives personally, and they were to be watchful to make sure that we’re fulfilling the purpose to which He had called them to as a church. If they didn’t, if they remained in the same sad spiritual condition that they were in, Jesus would “come as a thief” against them in judgment — whatever judgment that be, and it would catch them by surprise.
And ye shall not know what hour I will come upon thee – You shall not know beforehand; you shall have no warning of my immediate approach. This is often the way in which God comes to people in his heavy judgments. Long beforehand, he admonishes us, indeed, of what must be the consequences of a course of sin, and warns us to turn from it; but when sinners refuse to attend to his warning, and still walk in the way of evil, he comes suddenly, and cuts them down. Every man who is warned of the evil of his course, and who refuses or neglects to repent, has reason to believe that God will come suddenly in his wrath, and call him to his bar, Proverbs 29:1. No such man can presume on impunity; no one who is warned of his guilt and danger can feel that he is for one moment safe. No one can have any basis of calculation that he will be spared; no one can flatter himself with any probable anticipation that he will have time to repent when God comes to take him away. Benevolence has done its appropriate work in warning him – how can the Great Judge of all be to blame, if he comes then, and suddenly cuts the sinner off?
4 But thou hast a few names in Sardis that did not defile their garments: and they shall walk with me in white; for they are worthy.
“a few names” (the faithful few)
Apparently, this was once a church filled with true believers, but had drifted in their faith. They “defiled their garments.” That’s very strong language to describe a person’s spiritual condition. As this verse makes really clear, since they (the majority) had “defiled their garments” (returned to sin in the absence of true faith), they would not “walk with Jesus in white,” for they were now “unworthy” — a clear description of someone without true salvation. They had literally “died” spiritually (vs 1).
Those who believe the Bible teaches unconditional eternal security, must explain away passages such as this one. They must avoid the obvious conclusions that one must come to regarding eternal security — that our salvation can indeed be lost (forfeited). True believers can indeed walk away from the faith. As verse 5 confirms, many in this church had already had their name blotted out of the “book of life.” Truly scary to think that this can happen in such a church-wide manner. Therefore, we must take the warning here by Jesus very seriously.
It’s important to note that Jesus instructed them to “repent” (vs 3). Thus they could at anytime return to faith in Christ. The opportunity is always there for anyone who falls from grace. As long as someone doesn’t make a final decision in their heart to turn away from Jesus and the Christian faith, Jesus will receive anyone back with open arms. As long as the desire to return is there, the opportunity is there.
“they shall walk with me in white”
This is a clear description of salvation. Those who profess Christ and remain faithful to Him throughout their lifetime, will walk with Jesus in the white of salvation throughout eternity. True faith is an abiding faith. True faith continues and is characterized by faithfulness. As we can see, the majority of people in this church were not faithful, revealing an absence (loss) of true saving faith. They did not save true faith, so they did not have a true faith that could save.
Alos, it’s quite likely that there were people in their assembly who were never saved to begin with.
“for they are worthy”
Again, it’s a life of faithfulness that reveals a sincere heart of faith. The two work in harmony to reveal that we are “worthy” to “walk” with Jesus in Glory.
5 He that overcometh shall thus be arrayed in white garments; and I will in no wise blot his name out of the book of life, and I will confess his name before my Father, and before his angels.
“He that overcometh”
This is meant to be both an encouragement and a warning to endure in faith and faithfulness, to respond to His words in obedience — because faithfulness is the outward fruit of inward faith. We’re to endure no matter what we may have to go through for the name of Christ….
….because as was true with the faithful in Sardis, there’s an eternal reward that awaits each of us:
“shall thus be arrayed in white garments”
The “white garments” is a clear description of someone who has true salvation, and it will never be taken away from those who “overcome,” that is, they will not have their names blotted out of the “book of life.” This is a true possibility and a true warning. If it were not truly possible to have one’s name removed from the Lord’s “book of life” (a record of those who have salvation), then it wouldn’t make any sense to give this warning. As I said above, those who believe the Bible teaches that one cannot lose their salvation, have to explain away verses like this one. We must be careful about not accepting the plain statements of Scripture. We must be careful not to interpret passages like this one according to a positional bias. We must be honest about what’s being said.
“I will confess his name before my Father, and before his angels”
Jesus says these words in Matthew 10:32 and Luke 12:8. Those who confess Christ, He will confess before His Father and before His angels. But what does that really mean? Confessing Christ takes into account who He is: He is King of kings and Lord of lords. He is the Creator and Ruler of the universe. He is the Son of God, the Second Person of the Trinity of God. He is the Savior of the world. Thus when someone confesses Christ, they confess Him not only as Savior, but as Lord and King. Meaning, they don’t confess Him as Savior while refusing Him as Lord of their lives — something I believe many people do, which is a false conversion. Confessing Christ is a confession of being one of His followers, that we’ve surrendered our lives to His authority and care. It means we’ve chosen a new Master for our lives, that we’ve chosen to turn from going our own way, to go His way.
There were probably many people in Sardis who started out as true believers, but at some point chose to return to their self-willed way of life – the way of the world. And, as is typically the case in churches, there may have been people who were never saved to begin with, but were Christians only by verbal profession, but not by the way they lived. They would have been people who believed they were saved, but weren’t. As is also typical in churches, there may have been people who simply put on a good show, knowing full well they were not true Christians. How this could happen to, basically an entire church, is amazing — and scary. It think it’s safe to say that they allowed false teachers into their assembly, and were led astray in mass. We must guard doctrinal purity at all costs.
This serves as a serious warning to every Christian church.
6 He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith to the churches.
(See commentary on Rev 2:7)