SYNOPSIS: The church in the city of Sardis receives no commendation, only warnings, and a summons to repent – Revelation 3:1-6.
The city of Sardis was approximately sixty kilometers south of Thyatira, near the crossroads between the cities of Smyrna and Pergamos. This situation made regional commerce integral to the economic and cultural life of the city. Woolen goods figured prominently in the local trade.
Sardis is first mentioned in the Bible in Obadiah 20 (“They of the captivity of Jerusalem who are in Sepharad shall possess the cities of the South”). “Sepharad” is the Hebrew and Aramaic forms of the name ‘Sardis.’
In addition to commerce, the city derived wealth from gold found in the nearby river Pactolus. According to legend, gold coins were first minted at Sardis by its ancient king, Gyges (716-678 B.C.). In Assyrian inscriptions, Gyges is Guguand, most likely, the source of the biblical name “Gog” (Ezekiel 38:1-2, Revelation 20:8).
In the past, Sardis was the capital of the kingdom of Lydia (‘Ludim’ – Genesis 10:13). Later, it became the regional capital city of the western Persian Empire. The famous Persian “royal road” began in Persepolis and terminated in the west at the city of Sardis. It remained under Persian rule until its capture by Alexander the Great in 334 B.C. Later, the city came under Roman rule when the region was organized as the Roman province of Asia (133 B.C.).
Sardis featured a temple to the goddess Artemis or Diana, sometimes worshiped by locals as Cybele. Also prominent was a temple to honor the Roman emperor. The imperial cult played key political and economic roles in Sardis, as well as the other cities of Asia.
(Revelation 3:1-6) – “And unto the messenger of the assembly in Sardis, write:—These things saith he that hath the seven Spirits of God, and the seven stars: I know thy works,—that a name thou hast, that thou art living and art dead. Become thou watchful, and strengthen the things that remain, that were about to die; for I have not found thy works fulfilled before my God. Remember, therefore, how thou hast received and didst hear, and keep it and repent. If then, thou shall not watch, I will have come as a thief, and in nowise shalt thou get to know during what sort of hour I will have come upon thee. Nevertheless, thou hast a few names in Sardis which have not defiled their garments; and they shall walk with me in white, because they are worthy. He that overcometh shall, thus, array himself in white garments, and in nowise will I blot out his name from the book of life; and I will confess his name before my Father, and before his messengers. He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit is saying unto the assemblies.” – (The Emphasized Bible).
The letter to the “messenger” begins with the description of Jesus as the one “who has the seven Spirits of God and the seven stars.” The “seven spirits” are found a total of three times in the book of Revelation:
(Revelation 1:4-5) – “John, unto the Seven Assemblies which are in Asia, Favour to you, and peace, from—Him who Is, and who Was, and who is Coming, and from—The Seven Spirits which are before his throne, and from—Jesus Christ,—The Faithful Witness, The Firstborn of the Dead, and The Ruler of the Kings of the Earth” – (The Emphasized Bible).
(Revelation 4:5) – “And out of the throne are coming forth lightnings, and voices, and thunderings; and [there are] seven torches of fire burning before the throne, which are the seven Spirits of God.”
(Revelation 5:6) – “And I saw in the midst of the throne and of the four living creatures, and in the midst of the elders, a Lamb standing, showing that it had been slain,—having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the [seven] Spirits of God sent forth into all the earth.”
Like the “seven stars,” Jesus possesses the “seven spirits” due to his victory over death – The “spirits” serve at his command. It is the Lamb who sends them “out into all the earth.” The image alludes to the “seven eyes of Yahweh” sent throughout the land from the book of Zechariah. Jesus now exercises this power to observe, correct, comfort, and deliver his people (Zechariah 4:1-12).
The preceding passages stress that the “seven spirits” are “before the Throne,” the one on which sits God, the one “Who is and Who Was and Who is coming.” At his first appearance, the slain Lamb immediately approached the Throne to receive the “sealed scroll” and remained there for the duration of the book’s visions. This points to his rulership which is implemented from the presence of God (Revelation 3:21, 5:6-10).
The “seven spirits” are identified as the “seven torches” or “lamps” situated “before the Throne” (lampas – Strong’s #G2985). Presumably, the seven “lamps” sit on top of the seven “lampstands” to illuminate their surroundings.
“The seven stars” represent the seven angels or “messengers” of the seven churches. They are held tightly in the right hand of Jesus – He has both his “messengers” and events firmly in hand (Revelation 1:16-20).
“I know your works; that you have a name; that you are living and are dead.” He knows the “deeds” or “works” of the “messenger.” However, he receives no commendation. Only the “messenger” of the church at Laodicea also receives no praise. The church at Sardis may appear healthy to human eyes, however, the one who commands the “seven spirits of God” sees the true condition of the church. Jesus was once dead and now lives, whereas, Sardis once lived, but now is dead.
“Become watchful and strengthen the things that remain that were going to die.” If the “messenger” of Sardis fails to “wake up and repent,” Jesus will come “as a thief.” The simile occurs elsewhere in the New Testament and, apparently, originated in the teachings of Jesus. This “coming” refers to his visitation in judgment upon the congregation, not to his arrival at the end of the age. The conditional clause confirms this understanding – “If therefore, you do not wake up, I will come as a thief” (Matthew 24:42-44, Luke 12:39-40, 1 Thessalonians 5:1-6, 2 Peter 3:3-10).
The adverb rendered “how” or pōs has the sense, “in what manner” (Strong’s #G4459). It refers to the way in which the congregation received the gospel. Considering its past, Jesus summons the church to repent, watch, and to remain awake. The summons to “watch” and “wake” suggest spiritual slumber is a problem, like in the parable of the ten virgins when all ten women fell asleep before the arrival of the bridegroom. The point of the parable – “Be watching, therefore, because ye know neither the day nor the hour” of the coming of the Son of Man.
The problem in Sardis is not pagan opposition but, instead, Christian apathy and accommodation to a pagan culture. This is borne out by the description of a faithful few in the church who have not “defiled their garments.” No mention is made of external opponents or internal deceivers – The problem is internal, a loss of faith and zeal.
In the church at Sardis, most members are in a poor spiritual condition – only a few of them still wear “undefiled garments.” “Defile” or molunō suggests accommodation with idolatry and immorality (Strong’s #G3435). Those who follow the Lamb faithfully are characterized as wearing “undefiled garments.” An inference is that those clothed with defiled garments do not follow the Lamb “wherever he goes”:
(Revelation 14:4) – “These are they that were not defiled with women; for they are virgins. These are they that follow the Lamb whithersoever he goeth. These were purchased from among men, to be the firstfruits unto God and unto the Lamb.” – (American Standard Version).
The reference to Jesus coming “like a thief,” and the commendation of those with “undefiled garments,” anticipate the “sixth bowl of wrath” that culminates in the final battle (‘Armageddon’). In the middle of the description of the sixth bowl a warning rings out – Jesus is coming, just “like a thief,” therefore, the saints must “watch” and keep their garments undefiled:
(Revelation 16:12-19) – “And the sixth poured out his bowl upon the great river: [the] Euphrates; and the water thereof was dried up, that the way might be prepared of the kings who were from the rising of the sun. And I saw out of the mouth of the dragon, and out of the mouth of the beast, and out of the mouth of the false-prophet, three impure spirits, as frogs; for they are spirits of demons doing signs, which are to go forth unto the kings of the whole habitable earth, to gather them together unto the battle of the great day of God the Almighty.—Lo! I come as a thief! Happy he that is watching and keeping his garments, lest naked he be walking, and they see his shame.—And he gathered them together unto the place that is called, in Hebrew, Har Magedon.”
In contrast to those in “defiled garments,” the saint who “overcomes” will be “arrayed in white garments and his name will not be blotted out from the book of life.” Greek cities kept lists of their citizens. When a citizen committed an egregious crime, his name was expunged from the roll of citizens. Likewise, the “book of life” is the list of the citizens of the heavenly city, New Jerusalem. Anyone who fails to “overcome” has his or her name blotted out of the book and, thus, is excluded from life in the city of God:
(Revelation 21:27) – “And there shall in no wise enter into it anything unclean, or he that maketh an abomination and a lie: but only they that are written in the Lamb’s book of life.”
Names inscribed in the scroll can be “blotted out.” Only “he who overcomes” has his name preserved in it. Watchfulness and obedience are necessary. Conversely, disobedience results in the removal of one’s name from the scroll.
As with the six other letters, the one to Sardis ends with the exhortation to “hear what the Spirit is saying to all the churches!” It is a message for all the churches of Asia.