The idea of "fake it till you make it" is not foreign to us, especially not to those of us in the workplace or at school. But do we have this same attitude in our walks with God? Today's passage shows us Sardis, the "worst" of the seven churches, and how they had a reputation for being alive but were actually dead - a message just as relevant to us today.
If we examine what Jesus says about the condition of the churches, we find a certain pattern - the first and last church have a similar problem of "the loss of the first love" in Ephesus and the "lukewarm state" of Laodicea. Similarly, both Smyrna and Philadelphia are commended, not reproved, and neither church is called to repent. The three churches in the middle, however, seem to go from bad to worse: the letters to both Pergamum and Thyatira mention false teaching, idolatry, and immorality, andthen we have Sardis - Jesus literally says that the church in Sardis is dead! Without jumping too far ahead of today's study, it might be helpful to recap what we read in the previous four letters:
- To Ephesus he says remember your first love.
- To Smyrna he says do not fear the suffering that is to come.
- To Pergamum he says repent and do not tolerate false teaching.
- To Thyatira he says do not tolerate the culture you are in, rather - hold fast.
To Sardis however, it's something quite different. All the letters thus far have followed a certain structure - to the angel of the church of ___ write, I know ___. And so far it's all been mostly positive, followed by a warning (but this I have against you…) on something not quite right in the church, followed by the consequence of not turning back to Him, and finally the promises assured if they did heed the warning. Here however, we see something different. Look at the passage - the letter starts with a tight slap to the church of Sardis.
The title of this study is wake up and live, and one of the main goals of today's study is for all of us to seriously ask ourselves this question - Am I like the church in Sardis? Do I have the reputation/appearance of being alive, but deep down inside my heart where only God and I can see - there is no passion for Christ? No love for His word? Am I actually dead? The rest of the passage unpacks the promised judgement on those who do not turn, but also holds out a beautiful promise of assurance and grace to those who do, and we praise God for that.
(A) Wake Up: the all-knowing God knows your works and sees your heart (Rev 3:1)
We see in verse 1 the introduction to this letter with very heavy words, and if not the strongest accusation we've heard from Christ in these letters thus far. But Christ begins with this: "The words of him who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars."
While we've seen this picture of the seven stars (Rev 1:20) before, the reference to the seven spirits may be new to us. Cross referencing to Rev 5:6, we see this is a reference to God's eyes, and these spirits were "sent out into all the earth". This carries with it the implication of God being all-seeing and all knowing, and when you put that together with the God who also has the seven stars (the angels of the seven churches), we see a picture of Christ establishing His authority before bringing judgement on the church of Sardis. And rightly so! Who better to judge than an omniscient one who sees all and knows all? Wouldn't it be frightening to be eternally judged by someone who has no clear idea of what is true and what is false?
It is so important that Christ establishes his omniscience because this sets the stage for His judgement on the church of Sardis - that their works are fake and they are spiritually dead (Rev 3:1b). Perhaps the most important thing to see here is that it wasn't that the church wasn't doing anything - on the contrary, there were works! Sardis was still doing works masked as ministry/gospel work, but the heart behind these works were not a love for Christ, but a love for their own reputation of being "alive". These works were hollow, empty and futile, but God knew their hearts were dead. Their walks with God were dead. Spiritually, they were dead.
Let us not gloss over such a heavy accusation. The fact that you are reading this and I am writing this means there is a good chance that we are all involved in some form of ministry. This word is just as much for us as it was to the church of Sardis - do we only have a reputation of being alive? Are our works empty and hollow? Are we just faking this Christian thing? The best part about this is that we don't even need to ask ourselves any probing questions - deep down in the darkest crevices of our hearts, we know if we're just faking this or not.
(B) Live: Strengthen by remembering and repenting every day (Rev 3:2-3)
Thank God that He doesn't just leave us judged and damned. Verse 2-3 offer a stirring call to "turn back", and can be split into two:
Why and how you are to turn back (Rev 3:2-3a), and
what happens if you do not (Rev 3:3b).
It is perhaps most helpful to look at the former through the verbs Christ used to help us trace the logic:
Because you are dead, (hence) wake up (and) strengthen what remains and is about to die, (for/because) I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God.
Strengthen what remains and is about to die by:(Then/Therefore) remember what you received and heard. Keep it, and repent.
The essence is this: Because they are dead, wake up and strengthen their faith in the gospel. Remember the gospel that was taught to them (heard) and accepted by them (received), and cling to it (keep) and repent. Friends this is the Christian life. This is the cycle of repentance and faith that we talk about in the gospel - we need to daily remember how damned we were because of our sin, and repent of that. We need to daily cling to the cross because that is the only way we are counted righteous - do you see it? Any other work we can or might do falls short - Christ has not found our works complete in the sight of God. We cannot and will never be able to earn our righteousness through any hollow work we can possibly do. Wake up and remember this Gospel!
Lest we take for granted the grace shown to us, Christ reminds us that there is also promised judgement to this who do not heed the warning. The picture of Christ coming like a thief in the night is a familiar reference (Lk 12:39-40, 1 Thess 5:2, but is particularly significant to the city of Sardis. The call to "wake up” is a reminder that twice in its history Sardis had been sacked (in 547/546 B.C. by Cyrus II, and in 214 B.C.by Antiochus III) when the watchmen on the walls failed to detect an enemy army sneaking up its supposedly impregnable cliffs and walls (c.f. ESV Study Bible). But more than this we see the main point - that if they do not wake up, God will come against them, and they will not know what hit them.
The stern warning to the church of Sardis comes alongside a promise of judgement, but is first preceded by a wonderful invitation to turn back to God. Such wonderful gospel verbs these are - to strengthen, to remember, to receive, to keep, to repent, and these form the bedrock of our faith in Christ. Daily remembering our sin and the worthlessness of our works, daily being broken by the gospel, daily confessing before a holy God, daily seeing His grace in giving His son that instead of being worthless we are now eternally worthy - that is how we strengthen our faith!
(C) Wake up and Live: the all-knowing God has counted you righteous (Rev 3:4-6)
Perhaps the most beautiful thing about this passage is how it is structured. We see judgement followed by a call for repentance, followed by an assurance of future judgement if the call is not heard. But Christ does not leave us there - instead He gives us an even more amazing assurance of salvation if the call is heard. There are four main things promised to "the one who conquers", and it is so important to see the implications of these.
1. "Walk with me" (Rev 3:4b)
What a beautiful picture this is, of us being able to walk with Christ! It carries with it the idea of a relationship, of us knowing Him and Him knowing us, of being in communion with Him, but more than anything this picture reminds us of God walking with Adam in the Garden of Eden, pre-fall, when everything was perfect. This is assured to us if we heed the call to remember the gospel!
2. "Clothed in white" (Rev 3:5)
The white clothes is contrasted to the soiled garments mentioned earlier in Rev 3:4, and the white clothes is a reference to perfect righteousness. With that, how wonderful is it to hear that we will "thus" be "clothed in white garments"! The picture of being clothed by Christ as opposed to earning our righteousness (Rev 3:2 reference to our works being incomplete before God) is one where righteousness is imputed and given to us as a result of our repentance and faith (thus!). What a gracious and loving God, that knowing our works fall short in His sight, gave us a Savior, His Son, that we might be clothed in white!
3. "Never blot his name out of the book of life" (Rev 3:5)
What exactly is this book of life? Looking at Rev 20:15, it is clear that your name being in the book of life is an indicator of whether you are saved or not. While this can open up a whole can of worms on divine election if we look at other references in Rev 2:17, the point of this reference here in this passage is that of assurance. Christ emphatically claims that He will "never" blot the names of those who conquer out of the book of life, giving those who heed the call to repent utmost assurance of salvation.
4. "Confess his name before my Father and his angels" (Rev 3:5)
This final picture of Christ confessing our (the ones who conquer) names before His Father and His angels is a magnificent one. This is a clear contrast to Rev 3:2, where our works fall short in the sight of God. What a picture - Jesus Christ, the Promised Savior, the Risen King, confessing our names before the Almighty Judge. And this too is promised to the one who conquers!
Do you realize that the same God who promised to "come against them" is the same God who holds out this assurance of salvation? The same all-knowing God who judges is the same God who gave His Son to die for our sins, to give us our righteousness, to mitigate for us, to walk with us? How good and gracious is such a God! Is this God speaking to you today? As we wrap up this study, it is a good time to also pause and do some prayerful reflection. These are strong words in this passage, but they are not just for some ancient church. These are also God's words for us today, in this day and age. Are we listening to what He is saying?
- Have you ever “faked” your faith for the sake of looking a certain way to your friends? How and why did you do it?
- Practically, what does it look like to "Remember what you received and heard" and "Keep it, and repent"? In other words, what is the Christian life about?
- Based on tonight’s teaching, how can we pray for one another? How can we guard ourselves against having the reputation of being alive when we are in fact spiritually dead?