“To the angel of the church inSardis write: He who has the seven Spirits of God and the seven stars, says this: ‘I know your deeds, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead. 2 Wake up, and strengthen the things that remain, which were about to die; for I have not found your deeds completed in the sight of My God. 3 So remember what you have received and heard; and keep it, and repent. Therefore if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come to you. 4 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. 5 He who overcomes will thus be clothed in white garments; 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. 6 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’
Sardis was, even in the days of the writing of the letter, a very old city on a hill overlooking the Hermis valley that, at one time, was seen by the majority of the cities in Asia Minor as one of the most glorious cities in the area. It was majestically situated approximately 1500 high and was virtually almost impenetrable. The city however had been attacked on several occasions and, at the time that the Revelation was being written, was suffering from extreme decay. The city had a very large Jewish population as well as a lively pagan culture which saw the goddess “Cybele” as their prominent deity.
The Lord Jesus refers to Himself to this church as the one who “has the seven Spirits of God and the seven stars. We had spent some time on the seven spirits earlier in v.1:4 which is probably speaking of the fullness of the Holy Spirit within the church as a whole. Without the Spirit, the church would die as He is the one who gives life to the churches. (Acts 2) The seven stars is a reference to 1:16 which has already been exegeted in our opening chapter.
The phrase “you have a name that you are alive” is referencing the manner in which they were viewed. In other words the church in Sardis had a very good reputation as being “alive” but the reality was that they were dead. The church was a spiritual morgue which earned one of the most serious rebukes out of all the seven churches. The question is: who was it that presumed they were alive as an assembly? One thing that is fascinating is that the letter to Sardis has no mention of any oppressors, persecutors or false teachers listed. Johnson writes:
No Nicolaitans were luring Christ’s servants in Sardis into immorality and idolatry. No Balaam-like prophet or Jezebel-like prophetess misled the unwary. Although Sardis is known to have had a strong Jewish community and vibrant paganism…, the letter mentions no external sources on intimidation, social rejection, or persecution, such as other churches encountered from Satan’s throne or Satan’s synagogue.[i]
It seems the church was quite friendly with “the world” and concerned with social acceptance to such a degree that it had almost totally abandoned its witness to Christ. It seemed like a church that was alive (perhaps referring to numbers) but in all reality is had no life in it. This is the epidemy of the churches found in North America which are “seeker sensitive” and compromising. It seems that many churches are so deparate to become large and relevant that they are willing to compromise in order to achieve this. The churches, much like Sardis, seem to be filled with spiritual life due to their numbers however they are an ecclesiastical corpse decaying from the inside.
The text in verse two begins with an imperative which in which they were commanded to “wake up” (NASB) or “be watchful” (NKJV). They are demanded by the Lord of the churches to “strengthen the things that remain”. The urgency of their situation is expressed in “which is about to die”. This church is on life support and needing to vitalize what it had. These were things that remained from a time when they had been a faithful church. Most commentators are agreed that this is probably referring to their lack of witnessing Christ before the pagan culture and being a bit too “seeker-sensitive”. There was probably a serious lack of offense in their society. The reaction in any culture to the exclusive message that Jesus Christ is the only way, the only truth and the only means of life (John 14:6) generally brings tremendous offense. They were not being faithful witnesses of Christ and probably mingling quite comfortably with the pagan culture in Sardis. We get this from the phrase I have not found your deeds completed in the sight of my God. This probably refers to their works not having God’s approval even though it seems they received it from men.
The means by which they could prevent their church from collapsing was to wake up and strengthen the things that remained. From what we can gather in the language, there probably wasn’t much remaining for them to work with yet the Lord still commands these things of them. This is further explained in v.3 where we read “remember what you have received and heard; keep it and repent”. So many today abandon ship when they have a small disagreement with the congregation yet this text supplies us with an exhortation to continue on. I am not convinced however that this is stating that we should stay in a church that is teaching false doctrine but that we must continue to persevere even in the most dire of situations. The Lord states that “IF” they do not wake up and heed these things that He would come like a thief. The “thief” language is used throughout scripture and especially in reference to the “parousia” of Christ however, in this context, it is probably referring to “a historical visitation of Christ before His final appearance”.[ii]
With the church on the brink of death, the Lord Jesus states that there were still some believers in Sardis who had walked faithfully with the Lord. John writes that they had not “soiled their garments”. The term “soiled” or “stained” (molunw) is also used in Rev. 14:4 “These are the ones who have not been defiled with women, for they have kept themselves chaste” which I feel in this context and in 3:4 is referring to idolatry. Those who had not been lax in their witness and watered down their testimony by being overly “friendly” to the local pagan customs and even participating in them will (future) walk with Him in white garments. White garments are generally associated with vindication and purity.[iii] The reason why they are worthy to walk with Him in all purity was because they had not stained their garments. They were faithful to Him!
This passage further explains the statement made in v.4. It was promised that their past faithfulness would lead to them walking with the Lord in white garments in the future. The passage in v.5 is an exhortation to “overcome” and speaks of the requirement for a continuing witness. This may seem to some to seem almost contradictory since there is the promise of walking in white garments in v.4 yet an exhortation, if accomplished, will lead to them being clothed in white garments. The point that needs to be stressed is that the fact that a v.4 state that they will walk in white garments guarantees that they will overcome! The believer in sure to be clothed hence his conquering is implicitly assured.[iv]
Not only will these believers be clothed in white garments but their names will not be taken away from the book of life. There have been many interpretations offered as to the identity of this book which I feel deviates from the whole of the book of Revelation. The book of life is consistently used in the book of Revelation for “salvific destiny” (Beale).[v] Quite obviously this wouldn’t have been anything new since the expression is one that was close in its phraseology to Daniel 12:1-2. The “erasing” the name from the book of life is certainly not an easy expression to deal with seeing there is a consistent testimony throughout scripture that one cannot lose His salvation.[vi] I still am fully a believer that what God commands He gives hence those who are truly His people will overcome and hence never be erased from the book of life.
The third promise for the overcomers is that Christ will confess their names to His Father and the angels. This really gives us insight into the whole situation in Sardis as it is clear from this text that the majority of the church had not confessed Christ’s name before men but to those who had, He would confess theirs before the Father and His angels. The parallel statement in Matthew 10:32 & Luke 12:8 are references spoken in light of persecution that would follow for those who confess His name.
[i] Triumph of the Lamb, D. Johnson, Page 83
[ii] The Book of Revelation, New International Greek New Testament Commentary, G.K. Beale, Page 275
[iii] See the imagery used in 6:9-11; 7:13-14 for the usage of “white robes”
[iv] There are those who attempt to differentiate between the people mentioned in v.4 with the people mentioned in v.5. I see no warrant in separating these texts in two groups especially when we examine the usage of outwV
[v] See 13:8; 17:8; 20:12,15 and 21:27 (also see Philippians 4:3; Luke 10:20 & Hebrews 12:23)
[vi] The expression seems to be used in the OT as well (see Exodus 32:32-33 & Psalm 69:28)