Revelation – The letter to the dead church in Sardis – (01) Intro

We move on to the fifth of the seven letters in Revelation.  We’re on the home-stretch.  This time the letter to the dead church in Sardis.  Jesus has very little in the way of good things to say about the church in Sardis.  And, of course, bad things.  In this church, the examination will again be about the relationships between the good and bad statements.  But this time, Jesus very clearly points out the differences to the church.  And therefore, to us as well.

Revelation – The letter to the dead church in Sardis – (01) Intro is article #19 in the series: Seven Letters to Seven Churches. Click button to view titles for entire series

Once again, the title comes from the section title in the NKJV.  As with most of the churches, the title refers to the content of the letter, rather than how Jesus referred to Himself as the author of this letter.  Therefore, looking at the corruption – how it came to be, who is following and / or supporting it, Etc. – will be high on our list of things to check out.

ruins - letter to the church in sardis

Once again, the title comes from the section title in the NKJV.  As with most of the churches, the title refers to the content of the letter.  However, here in Sardis, there’s a warning (threat?) in how Jesus referred to Himself as the author of this letter.  Therefore, looking at the concept of a “dead” church  – how it came to be, who is dead and who isn’t – will be high on our list of things to check out.

As we do in each of the letters, let’s start with something David wrote.  An excerpt from Psalm 139.  Something we should do often.  Something that will help us learn what the message in these letters might be for each of us – even as individuals.

Psalm 139

For the director of music. Of David. A psalm.

Ps 139:1 O LORD, you have searched me
and you know me.

Ps 139:2 You know when I sit and when I rise;
you perceive my thoughts from afar.

Ps 139:3 You discern my going out and my lying down;
you are familiar with all my ways.

Ps 139:4 Before a word is on my tongue
you know it completely, O LORD.

Ps 139:23 Search me, O God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.

Ps 139:24 See if there is any offensive way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.

Now, with that in mind and with open hearts, let’s invite the Holy Spirit to be with us as we examine the letter to the persecuted church in Smyrna.

To the Church in Sardis

Rev 3:1 “To the angel of the church in Sardis write:

These are the words of him who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead. 2 Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your deeds complete in the sight of my God. 3 Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; obey it, and repent. But if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you.
Rev 3:4 Yet you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes. They will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy. 5 He who overcomes will, like them, be dressed in white. I will never blot out his name from the book of life, but will acknowledge his name before my Father and his angels. 6 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”

What’s your initial impression here?  Good news or bad news for this church?  

As usual, before we get into any details, let’s take a look at the graph we built in parts 1 and 2 of the series.  Based on what we just read, where would you put the church of Sardis on the graph?  Why there?  Don’t worry if you don’t know anything beyond the verses we just read.  Part of the study will be to see how your placement might change as we go through more about the church in Sardis.  Context and culture are usually important.  So is what it might mean to us today, in our context and our culture.

psychology of the Parable of the Sower - blank

Some Sardis history

Sardis was a flourishing city located on a major east-west highway during the Persian, Hellenistic, and Roman periods.

Like many of its sister cities, Sardis exhibited strong pro-Roman sentiments, seen in its bid to house provincial imperial cults and in the prominence of the imperial cult in its second- and third-century architecture.

The Jewish community in Sardis had ancient and strong roots and was likely well-established from the Hellenistic period. If one can extrapolate from its fourth-century synagogue, it had been better integrated into the life of its city than was true for many Jewish diaspora communities.

Very little has been discovered in Sardis to shed light on the origins of, or challenges to, the Christian community there in the late first century beyond these generalities. 

Sardis sits sixty miles (97 km) east of Smyrna and thirty-five miles (56 km) southeast of Thyatira, within the horseshoe-shaped circuit of these seven congregations that John the prophet may have traveled before his removal to the island of Patmos.  [1]deSilva, D. A. (2019). The Social and Geographical World of Sardis (Revelation 1:11; 3:1–6). In B. J. Beitzel, J. Parks, & D. Mangum (Eds.), Lexham Geographic Commentary on Acts through … Continue reading

The city of Sardis, the old capital of Lydia, had become famous for its red dye and woolen goods.

So we see, Sardis was home to an acropolis that was nearly impregnable, with 800 foot rock walls that were nearly vertical on three sides.  And yet –

Twice in its history it had been conquered—by Cyrus, in 549 B.C., and by Antiochus the Great, in 218 B.C.—because of failing to keep adequate watch. It may be with allusion to this historical fact that Jesus exhorted the church to be watchful (v. 2) against the encroachment of sin which might conquer the church.  [2]Gregg, S. (1997). Revelation, four views: a parallel commentary (p. 73). Nashville, TN: T. Nelson Publishers.

Can you even imagine that?  Twice!  And for the same reason!

Of course, if we’re honest, we do believe it, because we’re really no different.

The church in Sardis is referred to by some as the dead church.  Others call it the dying church.  That’s one of the things we need to pay attention to as we study it.  Is this church really dead?  Is there some hope for it?  Or maybe, it’s some of both?  You decide – just understand why you picked the one you will choose.

Sardis is about twenty-seven miles due south of Thyatira. It was one of the oldest and greatest cities of western Asia. In ancient times it was a proud, wealthy city, the capital of the kingdom of Lydia. It had a history of many wars, and it was the city of the wealthy Croesus. The patron deity of the city was Cybele, whose form appeared on their coins. She was represented as half-human and was regularly associated with a pair of lions or single lion. The deity was supposed to have power to restore the dead. The city fell before Cyrus the Great of Persia in the sixth century B.C. In A.D. 17 the city suffered greatly from an earthquake. When John wrote this letter, the city was a city of the past. Later, it was restored and continued to flourish until A.D. 1400–1403, when the Tartar Tamerlane swept over the area and destroyed everything. The city has never recovered from this desolation.  [3]Hindson, E. E., & Kroll, W. M. (Eds.). (1994). KJV Bible Commentary (p. 2664). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

The bigger they are – the harder they fall?

The letter to the church in Sardis

So – let’s break down the letter to the church in Sardis.  So, here’s what I have for it. 

Notice that I put I know your deeds in there twice – in both “Divine Knowledge” and in the “But” section.  That’s to reflect what I wrote earlier regarding scholars’ thought about whether this church is (a) dead, (b) dying or (c) maybe some of both with a possibility of hope for the dying.  Rather than give away my thought now, I’m presenting all options to give you something to think about.

Tothe angel of the church in Sardis
Fromhim who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars.
Divine KnowledgeI know your deeds;
...
Yet you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes. They will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy.
But -I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead.
So -Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your deeds complete in the sight of my God. Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; obey it, and repent. But if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you.

HearHe who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
To those who overcome....
He who overcomes will, like them, be dressed in white. I will never blot out his name from the book of life, but will acknowledge his name before my Father and his angels.

The tradition To and From headings are present. 

To:

Obviously, it’s to the church in Sardis.  As we saw in the letter to the Ephesian church, it’s most likely not to an actual Heavenly angel.  Rather it’s probably to someone, probably of a high position, within the church.  To that end, Young’s Literal Translation says:

‘To the messenger of the Ephesian assembly write:”  [4]Young, R. (1997). Young’s Literal Translation (Re 2:1). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.

From:

The letter is from he who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars.  

Uh oh.  The seven stars again.  That wasn’t good news for Ephesus.  It’s kind of unnerving to hear them again for Sardis.  But before we jump to conclusions, let’s see what the seven spirits of God is about.

The Seven Spirits of God

There are only four references to the seven spirits of God – and all four of them are in Revelation.

The first reference to the seven spirits of God is at the very beginning of Revelation.

Greetings and Doxology

Rev 1:4 John,

To the seven churches in the province of Asia:

Grace and peace to you from him who is, and who was, and who is to come, and from the seven spirits before his throne, 5 and from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.

To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, 6 and has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father—to him be glory and power for ever and ever! Amen.
Rev 1:7 Look, he is coming with the clouds,
and every eye will see him,
even those who pierced him;
and all the peoples of the earth will mourn because of him.
So shall it be! Amen.
Rev 1:8 “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty.”

Verses 4 and 5 together seem to indicate the Trinity.  Of course, while the Bible never actually uses that word, it does indicate the three “persons” of God.  Today, we normally talk about the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.  However, in those verses, I believe we see the Father, the Holy Spirit and the Son – in that order.

The Father – him who is, and who was, and who is to come
The Holy Spirit – the seven spirits before his throne
The Son – Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth

I suspect we get a bit confused about who the Holy Spirit is.  Some of that may come from trying to assign the Holy Spirit to either the Father or to Jesus.  But who says there must be a distinct separation between the three of them into non-overlapping “persons”? 

We read where Paul says the Holy Spirit is the mind of Christ.

Wisdom From the Spirit

1Co 2:16 “For who has known the mind of the Lord
that he may instruct him?”

But we have the mind of Christ.

And maybe we think “the mind of the Lord” refers to Jesus.  It would have been really nice if Paul had been more specific.  But in that sentence, he wasn’t.  As for context, it seems to be pointing to God, the Father.  And we have access to God the Father through the mind of Christ, by way of the Holy Spirit.  Or at least something possibly along those lines.  Who are we to know?  We just can’t.

But to try to bring this thought to a close, the Greek word we read as Lord in that phrase “the mind of the Lord” could refer to either the Father or to Jesus.

So – when we read the Greetings and Doxology section of Revelation, verses 4 and 5 do appear to be saying it’s from the Father, the Holy Spirit and the Son.  

Therefore, the question becomes how the Holy Spirit comes to be called the seven spirits of God.

The second instance of the seven spirits of God is in the letter to Sardis, which we’re studying now.

As such, there’s nothing to put here – unless I want to put an endless number of copies of the whole thing here – like looking into a mirror with another mirror behind you.

I really only put that line about the mirrors here so it doesn’t look like I forgot something.

The third instance of the seven spirits of God is in Chapter 4

Not surprisingly, it’s in a description of what John saw at the Throne in Heaven.

I underlined verse 5 below for reasons we’ll get to in a moment.

The Throne in Heaven

Rev 4:1 After this I looked, and there before me was a door standing open in heaven. And the voice I had first heard speaking to me like a trumpet said, “Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.” 2 At once I was in the Spirit, and there before me was a throne in heaven with someone sitting on it. 3 And the one who sat there had the appearance of jasper and carnelian. A rainbow, resembling an emerald, encircled the throne. 4 Surrounding the throne were twenty-four other thrones, and seated on them were twenty-four elders. They were dressed in white and had crowns of gold on their heads. 5 From the throne came flashes of lightning, rumblings and peals of thunder. Before the throne, seven lamps were blazing. These are the seven spirits of God. 6 Also before the throne there was what looked like a sea of glass, clear as crystal.
In the center, around the throne, were four living creatures, and they were covered with eyes, in front and in back. 7 The first living creature was like a lion, the second was like an ox, the third had a face like a man, the fourth was like a flying eagle. 8 Each of the four living creatures had six wings and was covered with eyes all around, even under his wings. Day and night they never stop saying:

“Holy, holy, holy
is the Lord God Almighty,
who was, and is, and is to come.”

Rev 4:9 Whenever the living creatures give glory, honor and thanks to him who sits on the throne and who lives for ever and ever, 10 the twenty-four elders fall down before him who sits on the throne, and worship him who lives for ever and ever. They lay their crowns before the throne and say:
Rev 4:11 “You are worthy, our Lord and God,
to receive glory and honor and power,
for you created all things,
and by your will they were created
and have their being.”

Here’s the thing about verse 5:

There’s a bit of a problem with the NIV translation.  Again.  It’s too simple.  There’s a word left out that can lead to difficulties for us today.  Something that would have been obvious at the time, but maybe not so much today.  Worse yet, the missing word is in verse 5 – the very one we’re looking at.  Here it is from Young’s Literal Translation.

5 and out of the throne proceed do lightnings, and thunders, and voices; and seven lamps of fire are burning before the throne, which are the Seven Spirits of God,  [5]Young, R. (1997). Young’s Literal Translation (Re 4:5). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.

The NIV:  
5 From the throne came flashes of lightning, rumblings and peals of thunder. Before the throne, seven lamps were blazing. These are the seven spirits of God.

So it’s actually seven lamps of fire burning before the throne.  And it’s those seven lamps of fire that are the Seven Spirits of God.

If you’re interested, here’s the KJV translation as well, which is in line with the YLT wording.

5 And out of the throne proceeded lightnings and thunderings and voices: and there were seven lamps of fire burning before the throne, which are the seven Spirits of God.  [6]The Holy Bible: King James Version. (2009). (Electronic Edition of the 1900 Authorized Version., Re 4:5). Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.

I point out the fire, because these days we don’t need a lamp of fire to have something to give bright light.  LED lights today can light up even a fire.  The difference matters because of the implications of fire in the Bible.  In addition to providing light, fire also has the power to destroy or to purify.  For the church in Sardis – the significance of fire in those terms cannot be overstated.

But let’s keep going so we can get one final look at the seven spirits of God.

The fourth and final instance of the seven spirits of God is in Chapter 5 where the Lamb opens the scroll.

The Scroll and the Lamb

Rev 5:1 Then I saw in the right hand of him who sat on the throne a scroll with writing on both sides and sealed with seven seals. 2 And I saw a mighty angel proclaiming in a loud voice, “Who is worthy to break the seals and open the scroll?” 3 But no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth could open the scroll or even look inside it. 4 I wept and wept because no one was found who was worthy to open the scroll or look inside. 5 Then one of the elders said to me, “Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals.”
Rev 5:6 Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing in the center of the throne, encircled by the four living creatures and the elders. He had seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth. 7 He came and took the scroll from the right hand of him who sat on the throne. 8 And when he had taken it, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.

Let’s go to an outside source to bring all of this to a close.

Seven horns (κερας [keras]) is a common symbol in the O. T. for strength and kingly power (1 Sam. 2:10; 1 Kings 22:11; Psa. 112:9; Dan. 7:7, 20ff.) and often in Rev. (12:3; 13:1; 17:3, 12). Fulness of power (the All-powerful one) is symbolized by seven. Seven eyes (ὀφθαλμους ἑπτα [ophthalmous hepta]). Like Zech. 3:9; 4:10 and denotes here, as there, omniscience. Here they are identified with the seven Spirits of Christ, while in 1:4 the seven Spirits are clearly the Holy Spirit of God (3:1), and blaze like torches (4:5), like the eyes of Christ (1:14). The Holy Spirit is both Spirit of God and of Christ (Rom. 8:9). Sent forth (ἀπεσταλμενοι [apestalmenoi]).  [7]Robertson, A. T. (1933). Word Pictures in the New Testament (Re 5:6). Nashville, TN: Broadman Press.

Since we’re already seen the verses in Revelation, let’s bring up the passage from Romans to clear this up.  As usual, I include the entire passage for context, but especially pay attention to the underlined verses.

Life Through the Spirit

Ro 8:1 Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, 2 because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death. 3 For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in sinful man, 4 in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit.
Ro 8:5 Those who live according to the sinful nature have their minds set on what that nature desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. 6 The mind of sinful man is death, but the mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace; 7 the sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. 8 Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God.
Ro 8:9 You, however, are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ. 10 But if Christ is in you, your body is dead because of sin, yet your spirit is alive because of righteousness. 11 And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you.
Ro 8:12 Therefore, brothers, we have an obligation—but it is not to the sinful nature, to live according to it. 13 For if you live according to the sinful nature, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live, 14 because those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. 15 For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba,Father.” 16 The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. 17 Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.

Again:

Ro 8:9 You, however, are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ. 10 But if Christ is in you, your body is dead because of sin, yet your spirit is alive because of righteousness. 11 And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you.

So – the Holy Spirit is both the Spirit of God (the Father) and of Jesus (the Son).

We also know the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, from Rev 1:20.

And, what seems like the most reasonable explanation of the seven spirits of God (the Holy Spirit) comes from Isaiah 11-16.  It”s part of a prophecy about the coming of Jesus.  The first few verses tell of the seven spirits – and the remaining ones demonstrate them.

The Branch From Jesse

Isa 11:1 A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;
from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.
Isa 11:2 The Spirit of the LORD will rest on him—

The Spirit of the Father, resting on the Son,
with the seven spirits being the underlined items below.
Keep in mind, seven is a number representing completeness or fullness. 

the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
the Spirit of counsel and of power,
the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD
Isa 11:3 and he will delight in the fear of the LORD.

That’s six, if you counted.  What’s number 7?  It’s actually at the beginning of the verse – 
The Spirit of the LORD will rest on him

It’s beyond our understanding to figure that one out.  It looks like the six I underlined are part of the overall Spirit of the Lord.  And yet – somehow – maybe having to do with the concept of completeness, or the perfection that comes from the synergy of all of them together,  it’s seven.

And as I mentioned, the remainder of the passage shows examples of each of them. 

He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes,
or decide by what he hears with his ears;
Isa 11:4 but with righteousness he will judge the needy,
with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth.
He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth;
with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked.
Isa 11:5 Righteousness will be his belt
and faithfulness the sash around his waist.

Isa 11:6 The wolf will live with the lamb,
the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
and a little child will lead them.
Isa 11:7 The cow will feed with the bear,
their young will lie down together,
and the lion will eat straw like the ox.
Isa 11:8 The infant will play near the hole of the cobra,
and the young child put his hand into the viper’s nest.
Isa 11:9 They will neither harm nor destroy
on all my holy mountain,
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD
as the waters cover the sea.
Isa 11:10 In that day the Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples; the nations will rally to him, and his place of rest will be glorious. 11 In that day the Lord will reach out his hand a second time to reclaim the remnant that is left of his people from Assyria, from Lower Egypt, from Upper Egypt, from Cush, from Elam, from Babylonia, from Hamath and from the islands of the sea.
Isa 11:12 He will raise a banner for the nations
and gather the exiles of Israel;
he will assemble the scattered people of Judah
from the four quarters of the earth.
Isa 11:13 Ephraim’s jealousy will vanish,
and Judah’s enemies will be cut off;
Ephraim will not be jealous of Judah,
nor Judah hostile toward Ephraim.
Isa 11:14 They will swoop down on the slopes of Philistia to the west;
together they will plunder the people to the east.
They will lay hands on Edom and Moab,
and the Ammonites will be subject to them.
Isa 11:15 The LORD will dry up
the gulf of the Egyptian sea;
with a scorching wind he will sweep his hand
over the Euphrates River.
He will break it up into seven streams
so that men can cross over in sandals.
Isa 11:16 There will be a highway for the remnant of his people
that is left from Assyria,
as there was for Israel
when they came up from Egypt.

From: — conclusions

So – what can we ultimately say about this letter being from he who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars?

This doesn’t appear to be a good sign.

Jesus is holding the angel of the church in Sardis.  And, He’s holding the Holy Spirit.  

Remember, after Jesus’ ascension to Heaven, for better or worse, we are now His representatives here on earth.  Since the seven churches in Revelation represent the overall church on earth, Jesus holding onto the Holy Spirit and the angel for that church can’t be good.  

The description Jesus uses for Himself always has something to do with the state of the church.  This sounds very much like Jesus is warning them about losing the Holy Spirit.  And if they do that, they also lose their connection to Him, by way of the Holy Spirit.  Which also means they lose their connection to God.  A dire warning if that’s the case.

It occurred to me, it seems like we spend a lot of time on the From section of each letter.  And we do.  But I feel it’s important, because it sets the tone for everything that follows.  Jesus could have just said, “this is from Jesus, your Lord”.  But He didn’t.  Instead, He chose to describe Himself.  And those descriptions have specific meanings to each church that are tied in with the content of each letter.


With that in mind, we can move on to the next portion of the letter to the church in Sardis.

Footnotes

Footnotes
1deSilva, D. A. (2019). The Social and Geographical World of Sardis (Revelation 1:11; 3:1–6). In B. J. Beitzel, J. Parks, & D. Mangum (Eds.), Lexham Geographic Commentary on Acts through Revelation (p. 665). Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.
2Gregg, S. (1997). Revelation, four views: a parallel commentary (p. 73). Nashville, TN: T. Nelson Publishers.
3Hindson, E. E., & Kroll, W. M. (Eds.). (1994). KJV Bible Commentary (p. 2664). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.
4Young, R. (1997). Young’s Literal Translation (Re 2:1). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.
5Young, R. (1997). Young’s Literal Translation (Re 4:5). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.
6The Holy Bible: King James Version. (2009). (Electronic Edition of the 1900 Authorized Version., Re 4:5). Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.
7Robertson, A. T. (1933). Word Pictures in the New Testament (Re 5:6). Nashville, TN: Broadman Press.

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