This 7th post in our reflective study through Revelation hones in on the letter to Sardis (3:1-6). A video recording is available on the Shofar Durbanville Youtube channel. See the link in the image below.
Revelation, a prophetic letter was written in the Jewish apocalyptic genre, was written to seven churches during the harsh reign of Emperor Domitian (AD 90-92) to comfort and challenge them in their struggle against the evil they endured. As is typical with this symbolic genre, Revelation draws much from the Old Testament canon to reveal what is at play in their day. In noting these symbolic references and the historical context, we get a clear understanding of the intended message to the first readers, which in turn breaks open the word of encouragement and exhortation to us in our day.
This is the case with our reading of Christ’s message to the church in Sardis today. Sardis (present-day Sartmustafa in western Turkey) was once an impenetrable mountain fortress, a wealthy agricultural and wool-trading city characterized by arrogance associated with religious adherence and learning. Temple ruins and statues to the gods of Dionysus (Roman name Bacchus), Artemis, and Cybele remain as witness to the culture of the day.
During his Persian conquest, Cyrus the Great lie siege to both the impenetrable cities of Sardis (547 BC) and Babylon (539 BC). The night of the Fall of Babylon is described in the Bible by the prophet Daniel. The arrogance of emperor Belshazzar and this great city lead to its fall when, besieged by the Persian army, they continued feasting, trusting in its secure walls. That night the Lord wrote in blood on the palace walls “MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN…—God has numbered the days of your reign and has brought it to an end… you have been weighed on the balances and have not measured up… your kingdom has been divided and given to the Medes and Persians.” (Daniel 5:24-28). Ironically, this siege is known as the Bloodless Battle: Cyrus the Great simply diverted the Euphrates river which flowed through the city and marched his army into the capital. Babylon woke up to a conquered city.
The historical Lydian capital Sardis fell in the same way: while the citizens kept their feast, trusting in their ancient, secure walls, a Persian scout noticed how a lookout’s helmet fell and how he retrieved it through a gap in the wall. That night Cyrus led his army through that gap, surprising the guards who were enjoying the feasting inside. And this arrogant security sets the background and tone to Christ’s letter to the church in Sardis (Revelation 3:1-6).
The revelation of Christ (3:1a). Christ reveals himself as the One among them “who has the seven spirits of God” – a reference to Isaiah’s promised King endued by God’s Spirit, who will judge the earth and bring about his eternal, peaceful reign (Isaiah 11, esp. verse 2). He is also the One “who has the seven stars”, preserving and directing the affairs of his church. What great comfort to be held securely by this Great King!
Commendation (3:1b). There is no commendation for this congregation, apart from the fact that Christ knows the activities of this community. The context suggests that this church gained “a reputation” as pious in the city and/ or neighbouring churches by their religious devotion visible in works.
Condemnation and exhortation (3:1c-3). Christ has two charges against this church, both on their works. Firstly, “you have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead.“ Although there is much activity, there is no proof of life-giving witness. Secondly, “I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God”: your works have been “weighed and found wanting” (Daniel 5:27) – it lacks substance. These works are paraded by this church as evidence of Christ’s life and kingdom, but these are merely pretences, void of the life-giving impact it should have on the city.
Christ exhorts the church to “wake up!” and “put on strength” (Compare Isaiah 52:1). It is a call to arms, alerting the members of this church to be on the lookout for immanent, “unexpected” danger “like a thief” in the night. By telling this church they have been weighed and found wanting, and by calling them to be watchful, Christ is drawing their attention to his charge against Belshazzar’s Babylon, warning that there is an enemy outside the city walls, ready to destroy this church.
But in this letter – unlike the other six in Revelation 2 and 3, there are no enemies mentioned. No Jews or trade guilds, no Nicolatians, no Roman proconsul or Jezebel. We know surprisingly little of this church. Yet what we read is enough to wake up the reader: we know that they were spiritually dead, despite much religious activity. By alluding to the fall of Babel (a stinging reminder that Sardis fell the same way), Christ charges them that their pride prevents them to recognize how truly vulnerable they are.
Evidently, the accusation against ancient Edom, that mountain kingdom, could be said of the church in Sardis: “The pride of your heart has deceived you” (Obadiah 1:3). Indeed, “pride come before a fall.” (Proverbs 16:18)
Warning and Exhortation (3:3-4). If there is no enemy in this letter, who should they be on the lookout for? Christ warns the church that he is poised and ready to scale the walls of this seemingly secure city and bring judgment on this proud church. Because it is void of life-giving witness, Christ will come to bring punishment on it.
This is a grim warning, but there is hope – a chance to “remember” what they had, to “obey” Christ’s commands and “repent” from their religious callousness. This letter is a gift of grace – the opportunity to turn and avoid imminent destruction.
Perhaps the phrase “some in the church in Sardis who have not soiled their (white) clothes with evil” give us some insight into the decay of this congregation. The phrase here points to the strong Sadrian cult of Cybele whose “pious” worshipers wore white ceremonial attire. Yet these worshipers would participate in the most vulgar immoral acts during their worship rituals, soiling their clothes. This reveals that the Sardian church fell into acedia – a state of spiritual apathy or carelessness that unravels into immorality.
Although they upheld their religious habits, they were dead spiritually. Therefore their listless hearts gradually degraded into the sexual promiscuity of their city. This left the church callous towards God, and their witness was void of the life and kingdom of Christ, resembling their hypocritical, religious community.
Promise (3:4-5). This grace-filled letter holds two promises. First, those who have stayed pure can be sure that they are “worthy”” to be received by Christ in his Kingdom, “walking with him in white.” Second, those who overcome this spiritual apathy leading to carefree sinning will also be clothed in white with Christ. Their name will never be blotted from Christ’s book of life – another hint to the cult of Cybel whose worshipers were recorded in her “book of life”. To those who repent, Christ declares complete forgiveness and shameless association: “I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels.”
Bringing it home.
This sobering message to Sardis calls us to be aware that sin in all its forms is seductive and deceptive – that we should always “Stay alert! Watch out for your great enemy, the devil. He prowls around like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour.” (1 Peter 5:8)
Pride can give a false sense of security, leading us to fall into acedia. Acedia leads to dead religion at first, allowing our consciousnesses to be seared (1 Timothy 4:2), causing us to live a double life of hypocrisy – like the cult of Cybele and some in the church of Sardis.
How living is your public and private habits in Christ? Search your heart. Remember what you had a first, return to Christ, our Life, and his supremacy as Lord of your life.
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