Now we turn to the “So …” portion of the letter from Jesus to the church in Sardis. We know there are two groups of people. One is following Jesus. However, a much larger group is on the edge of being spiritually lost. Forever.
Now we find out what Jesus has to say to these two groups. Will He encourage the first group? Warn the second group? Or will we find out that our assumption about this church being “dead” is wrong? Are they really spiritually dead, with no hope of returning to the path that leads to Jesus?
Here’s where we left off:
Now that sounds bad, doesn’t it? Fatal? Generally, when someone is spoken about as being dead, there’s no chance for them. But we’re talking spiritually dead here – not physically dead. We’re also talking about something Jesus said. If they can come back to life, who better to be there but Jesus?
So the church in Sardis has a reputation of being alive. Most likely, that means they were spiritually alive at some point.
And remember, Jesus referred to Himself as holding the Holy Spirit and the angel of the Sardis church. He hasn’t yet taken them away. As we’ll see in a moment, it’s a very real possibility that Jesus will take them away. But it hasn’t happened yet. So maybe there is hope?
Let’s keep going and find out.
But before we resume with the letter to the church in Sardis, here’s the breakdown for this particular letter.
|To||the angel of the church in Sardis|
|From||him who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars.|
|Divine Knowledge||I 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. |
|Hear||He 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.
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.
It’s interesting that’s there’s nothing in here to encourage the group that is following Jesus. I did not come across anything in my research that addressed this lack of encouragement. It’s like something’s missing. Or is it? Is the “So..” message intended for all members of this church? Was the split between the two groups so complete that they had no interaction with each other? In other words, did the ones who seemingly follow Jesus do nothing to help the others get back on the right path?
If that’s the case, and we really can’t say whether it is nor not, did they fail to keep their brothers and sisters from straying? And was that failure to such an extent that Jesus is telling them to be part of the solution?
We just don’t know. However, as I often write, I believe these seemingly missing important items are left out intentionally. The fact that we aren’t given specific information prevents us from putting limits on what Jesus said. At least, it should do that. In a church where one group just watches while their brothers and sisters fall off a spiritual cliff certainly isn’t acting in love. Therefore, I think it’s something to keep in mind as we read on. And, something to watch out for in our own churches.
Are the people in the church in Sardis “dead” or “sleeping”?
When we read something like this letter – “you are dead. Wake up!“, thoughts probably go to Lazarus. Raised from the dead. But Lazarus wasn’t spiritually dead. Jesus brought him back to physical life. And the Greek words behind what we read bear that out.
“Lazarus was dead:
599 ἀποθνῄσκω [apothnesko /ap·oth·nace·ko/] v. From 575 and 2348; TDNT 3:7; TDNTA 312; GK 633; 112 occurrences; AV translates as “die” 98 times, “be dead” 29 times, “be at the point of death + 3195” once, “perish” once, “lie a dying” once, “be slain + 5408” once, and “vr dead” once. 1 to die. 1A of the natural death of man. 1B of the violent death of man or animals. 1C to perish by means of something. 1D of trees which dry up, of seeds which rot when planted. 1E of eternal death, to be subject to eternal misery in hell. Strong, J. (1995). Enhanced Strong’s Lexicon. Woodside Bible Fellowship.
Regarding Lazarus, this is physical death.
The church in Sardis was also dead. But a different kind of “dead”:
3498 νεκρός [nekros /nek·ros/] adj. From an apparently primary nekus (a corpse); TDNT 4:892; TDNTA 627; GK 3738; 132 occurrences; AV translates as “dead” 132 times. 1 properly. 1A one that has breathed his last, lifeless. 1B deceased, departed, one whose soul is in Hades. 1C destitute of life, without life, inanimate. 2 metaph. 2A spiritually dead. 2A1 destitute of a life that recognises and is devoted to God, because given up to trespasses and sins. 2A2 inactive as respects doing right. 2B destitute of force or power, inactive, inoperative. Strong, J. (1995). Enhanced Strong’s Lexicon. Woodside Bible Fellowship.
As we saw earlier, for the church in Sardis, note that it’s a metaphor for spiritual death.
So while we use the same word in English for both cases, in the Greek the difference becomes clear.
We know then, that when Jesus tells the Sardis church to wake up, it is about waking up spiritually. They are physically alive. But spiritually, for all practical purposes, they border on death.
Yes, I did say border on death. Why? Because of the passage below.
12:25-29 pp — Mk 3:23-27; Lk 11:17-22
Mt 12:22 Then they brought him a demon-possessed man who was blind and mute, and Jesus healed him, so that he could both talk and see. 23 All the people were astonished and said, “Could this be the Son of David?”
Mt 12:24 But when the Pharisees heard this, they said, “It is only by Beelzebub, the prince of demons, that this fellow drives out demons.”
Mt 12:25 Jesus knew their thoughts and said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and every city or household divided against itself will not stand. 26 If Satan drives out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then can his kingdom stand? 27 And if I drive out demons by Beelzebub, by whom do your people drive them out? So then, they will be your judges. 28 But if I drive out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.
Mt 12:29 “Or again, how can anyone enter a strong man’s house and carry off his possessions unless he first ties up the strong man? Then he can rob his house.
Mt 12:30 “He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters. 31 And so I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. 32 Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.
Mt 12:33 “Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit. 34 You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks. 35 The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him. 36 But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken. 37 For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.”
Notice – And so I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. Remember, Jesus is holding the Holy Spirit and the angel for this church. They’re in grave danger of losing both. But, they haven’t lost either of them yet.
It’s important for us to remember – until we reach that point, there’s always hope for us. Also, in keeping with somethings Jesus said in the letter to the church in Laodicea, we will be warned, just as the Sardis church is being warned.
Rev 3:20 Here I am! I stand at the door and knock.
We’ll get into this further when we get to that church. But for now, suffice it to say that if we truly wanted to follow Jesus, He won’t just walk away from us without trying to get us back.
Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your deeds complete in the sight of my God.
Yet another indication that the church in Sardis isn’t quite dead. However, also an indication that “staying the course” will lead to death. The Sardis church is essentially in hospice care – just waiting to die.
Why? Well, Jesus states that very clearly:
for I have not found your deeds complete in the sight of my God
Depending on which translation you read, you might see complete, finished, fulfilled or perfect in the phrase above. Since there can be different connotations depending on the word, let’s look at the two Greek words that make up “not complete” in the 1984 NIV – and unfinished in the 2010 NIV.
First – complete, finished, fulfilled or perfect:
4137 πληρόω [pleroo /play·ro·o/] v. From 4134; TDNT 6:286; TDNTA 867; GK 4444; 90 occurrences; AV translates as “fulfil” 51 times, “fill” 19 times, “be full” seven times, “complete” twice, “end” twice, and translated miscellaneously nine times. 1 to make full, to fill up, i.e. to fill to the full. 1A to cause to abound, to furnish or supply liberally. 1A1 I abound, I am liberally supplied. 2 to render full, i.e. to complete. 2A to fill to the top: so that nothing shall be wanting to full measure, fill to the brim. 2B to consummate: a number. 2B1 to make complete in every particular, to render perfect. 2B2 to carry through to the end, to accomplish, carry out, (some undertaking). 2C to carry into effect, bring to realisation, realise. 2C1 of matters of duty: to perform, execute. 2C2 of sayings, promises, prophecies, to bring to pass, ratify, accomplish. 2C3 to fulfil, i.e. to cause God’s will (as made known in the law) to be obeyed as it should be, and God’s promises (given through the prophets) to receive fulfilment. Strong, J. (1995). Enhanced Strong’s Lexicon. Woodside Bible Fellowship.
Next – a word to negate the one above to become incomplete, unfinished, unfulfilled, not perfect, Etc.
3756 οὐ [ou, before, a, vowel), ouk, and (before an aspirate) ouch /oo/] particle. A primary word, the absolute negative (cf 3361) adverb; GK 4024; 1453 occurrences; AV translates as “not” 1214 times, “no” 136 times, “cannot + 1410” 55 times, and translated miscellaneously 48 times. 1 no, not; in direct questions expecting an affirmative answer. Additional Information: Wigram’s frequency count is 1535 not 1453. Strong, J. (1995). Enhanced Strong’s Lexicon. Woodside Bible Fellowship.
I think maybe we need to be careful about translating this as perfect. Not because Jesus said something wrong – but because we might get the wrong impression. Nothing from us is ever perfect. It can’t be. The Holy Spirit can make our efforts perfect. But in the church in Sardis, the Holy Spirit seems to be ignored. That’s why their deeds aren’t perfect.
Having said that, using words like finished, or complete can lead us to think there’s more “work” the people in the Sardis church can do to make their deeds acceptable. That, of course, is also missing the point. Again, the the failure to incorporate the Holy Spirit into their deeds that’s the problem here.
Either way, without the description Jesus gave of Himself to the church in Sardis, this point may very well be lost. That’s why we need to really pay attention to everything when we study the Bible. Words. Context. Culture. The people at the time. A close look at ourselves now. The Bible as a whole.
If not, we can easily come away with a wrong impression of what’s happening in Sardis. One other requirement when we study the Bible is the Holy Spirit. Unfortunately for the church in Sardis, He was the major ingredient left out of their deeds. So in order for them to not lose the Holy Spirit, they need to turn to none other than the Holy Spirit.
And isn’t that the problem we all face from time to time? The occasions we want to run away from God, or hide from Him, are exactly the times we need to be running to Him! Fortunately, Jesus will try to get our attention and remind us of that very truth. It’s part of Him being faithful. Integral to who He is.
Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; obey it, and repent.
Hopefully you noticed, there’s a pattern developing here. Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard. Every letter is a reminder of something. The church in Smryna was even reminded to not be afraid of what was coming. How often do we read, “do not be afraid”, or some variation of it in the Bible? And yet, we still need reminders. How easily we get distracted and forgetful.
Since Jesus tells them to remember, there must have been something to remember. In other words, at some point in the past, this church was acceptable to God. Their doctrine and teaching was sound. In the past. Their works were complete and accomplished with the Holy Spirit. In the past. But that’s gone.
So many things must go wrong for that to happen. Sermons / messages in the church aren’t what they used to be, or are being ignored. The teaching in the church must have dropped off, or been ignored. Accountability within the congregation is likely non-existent. And even as things were getting worse, no one spoke up. Or they did speak up, but were ignored. It’s possible that if some did speak up, most of them left after being ignored.
Regardless of how it happened, it did.
We don’t read of much persecution against the church in Sardis. That may very well be because they compromised, to fit in with society, as did the church in Pergamum. As we saw then, compromise leads to watered down beliefs. And when that happens, faith, reliance on the Holy Spirit, effectiveness of deeds, and spiritual life all take a turn for the worse. If no one really pays attention, the church ends up in the situation we see in Sardis. As one commentary puts it:
What follows next is the somewhat normal: I know your deeds. But what follows this is anything but normal, since the “deeds” in this instance are not those to be commended, but those for which they come under Christ’s judgment. It is not that there is no one or nothing to commend—there is indeed (v. 4)—but that their overall condition is utterly desperate in the eyes of the living Christ, although almost certainly not so in their own eyes, or in the eyes of others. What makes this warning so poignant is that the judgment makes no mention of either external pressures or immorality. They are not racked by suffering from without, nor wrenched by heresy within, nor ruined by internal moral decay. Their judgment is singular: they have a reputation of being alive, but in fact are dead, which evidenced by the reality that none of their works has ever been brought to completion: I have found your works unfinished in the sight of my God. Hence the first word to them is a wake up call; and in so doing they are to strengthen what remains and is about to die. From the outside they look fine, they have all the appearance of life; but on the inside there is no life at all, they are as good as dead. From our distance we cannot know what all of this entails; perhaps, just like their city, they are living on their past reputation. Indeed, anybody visiting either the city or the church would think it vigorous and alive, but in both cases that is mostly illusion.
In the case of the church, this probably also represents subtle accommodation to the culture (as in Thyatira). As someone put it well, “they are a perfect model of inoffensive Christianity”—not lukewarm, as Laodicea, but looking very much alive, while in fact they are stone dead. This now also makes sense of the designation of Christ as the one “who holds the seven spirits of God,” which offers further evidence in support of the view that this term is symbolic for the Holy Spirit. This is especially so for Johannine Christianity, since for him the Spirit is clearly the giver of life; and what has been lost in Sardis is the life that the Spirit alone brings. Fee, G. D. (2011). Revelation (pp. 46–47). Eugene, OR: Cascade Books.
But there’s more to what the church in Sardis needs. Remembering isn’t enough. As I often write here – action must follow. Belief without action is not truly believing. As James puts it, faith without deeds is dead. And as Jesus puts it, deeds without the Holy Spirit leads to death.
That’s why wake up is followed by obey it, and repent. Merely recognizing that we’re in danger of spiritual death solves nothing. Unless we actually obey Jesus’ commands and unless we repent for our straying away, spiritual death is still the certain outcome.
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.
To really catch their attention, Jesus then tells the church in Sardis what’s going to happen if they don’t wake up.
However, before we go there, let’s look at “wake up”. We probably miss something in English. Wake up is a nice grammatical translation. But here’s what the two Greek words we read as “wake up” really meant.
1096 γίνομαι [ginomai /ghin·om·ahee/] v. A prolongation and middle voice form of a primary verb; TDNT 1:681; TDNTA 117; GK 1181; 678 occurrences; AV translates as “be” 255 times, “come to pass” 82 times, “be made” 69 times, “be done” 63 times, “come” 52 times, “become” 47 times, “God forbid + 3361” 15 times, “arise” 13 times, “have” five times, “be fulfilled” three times, “be married to” three times, “be preferred” three times, not translated 14 times, translated miscellaneously four times, and “vr done” twice. 1 to become, i.e. to come into existence, begin to be, receive being. 2 to become, i.e. to come to pass, happen. 2A of events. 3 to arise, appear in history, come upon the stage. 3A of men appearing in public. 4 to be made, finished. 4A of miracles, to be performed, wrought. 5 to become, be made. Strong, J. (1995). Enhanced Strong’s Lexicon. Woodside Bible Fellowship.
Notice: 2A to take heed lest through remission and indolence some destructive calamity suddenly overtake one
Now, think back to the history of Sardis.
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.
Oops! Sardis was already conquered twice because they didn’t keep watch. They had a city that was supposedly situated and fortified enough to be safe. And yet, due to a lack of anyone keeping watch, they were defeated not once, but twice. Clearly, a lesson not learned.
And now Jesus is telling them, a third time, that they haven’t been watchful. Except this time, it’s their eternal souls that are about to be conquered and lost forever.
With that in mind, the warning becomes even more poignant.
I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you.
It’s the same mistakes from the past all over again. But with much higher consequences.
And to make it even worse, the warning to keep watch is something we read multiple times in the Bible. For instance, the passage below.
Mk 13:32 “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33 Be on guard! Be alert ! You do not know when that time will come. 34 It’s like a man going away: He leaves his house and puts his servants in charge, each with his assigned task, and tells the one at the door to keep watch.
Mk 13:35 “Therefore keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back—whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or at dawn. 36 If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping. 37 What I say to you, I say to everyone: ‘Watch!’ ”
We get complacent. We figure we can get by. And we’ll be OK in the end. We learn that in school even. Don’t study all semester long. Then the final comes and we cram like crazy. Sometimes it even works. For some, most of the time it works. And so we get used to it. We do it with everything.
However, when Jesus comes back, there’s no time to cram. Jesus warned us about what’s going to happen in the end.
24:1-51 pp — Mk 13:1-37; Lk 21:5-36
Mt 24:1 Jesus left the temple and was walking away when his disciples came up to him to call his attention to its buildings. 2 “Do you see all these things?” he asked. “I tell you the truth, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.”
Mt 24:3 As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately. “Tell us,” they said, “when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”
Mt 24:4 Jesus answered: “Watch out that no one deceives you. 5 For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am the Christ,’ and will deceive many. 6 You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. 7 Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. 8 All these are the beginning of birth pains.
Mt 24:29 “Immediately after the distress of those days
“ ‘the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light;
the stars will fall from the sky,
and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’
Mt 24:30 “At that time the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and all the nations of the earth will mourn. They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory. 31 And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other.
Mt 24:32 “Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. 33 Even so, when you see all these things, you know that it is near, right at the door. 34 I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. 35 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.”
No cramming. No last chance to study. And no last chance to let the Holy Spirit into our lives, after we’ve pushed Him away. It’s just not going to happen. We always need to be watchful and be ready.
Since I write so much about the Great Commission, I feel the need to bring it in here as well. As a reminder, here it is.
Mt 28:16 Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
Here’s something to think about. If we are actually performing the Great Commission, we are so much less likely to be in the position the Sardis church finds itself in. If all we do is baptize people, yes, it can happen. But if we actually teach people to obey everything Jesus taught, truly make them disciples, how can we become complacent? The answer is, quite simple, we cannot. Actually doing what Jesus commanded here is good for the church as a whole. It’s certainly good for the people who decide to follow Jesus and obey His commands. But it’s also good for us, because it keeps us from forgetting. It keeps us from spiritually falling asleep. And that means Jesus won’t have to wake us up!
We’ll pick up the final portion of the letter to the church in Sardis in the next segment.