The church at Sardis received no commendation, only warnings, and calls to repent while time remained – Revelation 3:1-6.
Sardis was situated approximately sixty kilometers south of Thyatira, near the crossroads between Smyrna and Pergamos. Therefore, regional commerce was vital to the economic and cultural life of the city. Woolen goods figured prominently in local trade. Sardis is mentioned in Obadiah – (“They of the captivity of Jerusalem who are in Sepharad shall possess the cities of the South”), “Sepharad” being the Hebrew form of ‘Sardis.’
In addition to commerce, the city derived wealth from gold mined from the 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 spelled Guguand, and most likely, it is the source of the biblical name “Gog” – (Ezekiel 38:1-2, Revelation 20:8).
In antiquity, Sardis was the capital of the kingdom of Lydia (‘Ludim’ – Genesis 10:13), and later, became the regional capital of the western Persian Empire. The famous Persian “royal road” began in Persepolis in the east and terminated at Sardis in the west. It remained under Persian rule until its capture by Alexander the Great in 334 B.C. It came under Roman rule when the region was organized as the province of Asia in 133 B.C.
Sardis featured a temple to the goddess Artemis, also known as Diana, and sometimes worshiped as Cybele. Also prominent was the temple dedicated to the Roman emperor. The veneration of Caesar played key political and economic roles in the city.
- (Revelation 3:1-3) – “And to the angel of the church in Sardis write: These things says he that has the seven Spirits of God, and the seven stars: I know your works, that you have a name, that you live and are dead. Be watchful, and establish the things that remain, which were ready to die: for I have found none of your works perfected before my God. Remember, therefore how you have received and heard; and keep it, and repent. If therefore you will not watch, I will come as a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come upon you.”
Jesus is 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. He possesses them because of his victory over death, and they serve at his command. The image alludes to the “seven eyes of Yahweh” sent throughout the land in Zechariah. Now, Jesus exercises this power to observe, correct, comfort, and deliver his people – (Zechariah 4:1-12, Revelation 1:4-5, 4:5, 5:6).
In the coming vision of the “throne,” the “seven spirits” are identified as the “seven torches” or “lamps” situated “before the throne.” Presumably, the “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,” and they are held tightly in his right hand; Jesus 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” of the “angel” at Sardis, but this “angel” receives no commendation. The church may appear healthy to human eyes, but the one who commands the “seven spirits” sees its true condition. Jesus was once dead but now lives, whereas, Sardis once lived, but now is dead.
“Become watchful.” If the “angel” fails to “wake up and repent,” Jesus will “come like a thief.” This simile is from the teachings of Jesus. The “coming” refers to his visitation in judgment on the congregation, not necessarily to his arrival at the end of the age. The conditional clause confirms this understanding, “If 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.” It refers to the way in which the congregation received the gospel. Considering its past, Jesus now summons it to repent, watch, and remain awake. The exhortation suggests spiritual slumber is the problem, as in the parable of the ten virgins when all ten fell asleep before the arrival of the bridegroom.
- (Revelation 3:4-6) – “Nevertheless, you have 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 overcomes 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 angels. He that has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches.”
The problem in Sardis is not pagan opposition, but Christian apathy and accommodation to the city’s culture. That is borne out by the description of the faithful few in Sardis who have not “defiled their garments.” No mention is made of external opponents or internal deceivers. The problem is the loss of faith and zeal.
In Sardis, most members of the congregation are in poor spiritual condition, and only a few retain “undefiled garments.” “Defile” suggests accommodation to idolatry, pagan ideas, and even immorality. Those who follow Christ faithfully are characterized by their “undefiled garments.”
- (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 goes. These were purchased from among men, to be the first-fruits unto God and the Lamb.”
The description of Jesus coming “like a thief” anticipates the “sixth bowl of wrath” that culminated in the final battle at “Armageddon.” In the middle of that “bowl,” the same warning rang out, he was coming just “like a thief.” Therefore, the saints must “watch” and keep their garments free from defilement – (Revelation 16:12-19).
In contrast to believers that compromise, 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 citizens, and when one committed an egregious crime, his name was expunged from the roll of citizens. Likewise, the “scroll of life” lists the citizens of “New Jerusalem.” Anyone who fails to “overcome” will have his name blotted out of that “scroll” – (Revelation 21:27).
Names inscribed in his “scroll” can be “blotted out.” Watchfulness and obedience are necessary to have one’s name remain on the list of citizens of the holy city. As with the other letters, this one 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, and beyond.