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6. Sardis -- The Dead Church

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Editor's Note: a lightly edited transcription of the attached audio file will be found at the end of this originally written daily study guide. Appreciation for this transcription work goes to Marilyn Fine.

Though the details are not recorded in Scripture, it is believed that the church at Sardis was most likely founded as an outreach of Paul’s ministry at Ephesus (Acts 19:10). It was located about thirty miles south of Thyatira in the fertile valley of the Hermus River. Its location on a hill some fifteen hundred feet above the valley floor made the city very secure. The hill on which Sardis was built had nearly perpendicular walls on three sides and the city could only be approached from the south via a steep, difficult path. Its seemingly secure location caused the inhabitants of Sardis to become overconfident and on two occasions the city was conquered. Overconfidence and complacency led to defeat as they let their guard down.1

There are many lessons to be learned from the letter to the church at Sardis. May we learn from their mistakes and avoid their shortcomings.

DAY 1: THE OVERVIEW AND DESCRIPTION OF CHRIST

I. Looking to God’s Word

Read Revelation 3:1-6

1. How would you describe this church and why?

2. What does the description of Jesus in verse 1 emphasize?

3. Why is this description especially appropriate for this church?

4. In Isaiah 29:13, God addresses some characteristics of spiritual “deadness.” List the characteristics. How are these characteristics evident in some churches today?

II. Looking Upward

5. What do you learn about God and His character from this letter to Sardis?

6. What is one personal “lesson for life” that you can apply in your own life from this letter?

III. Looking Deeper

In Paul’s letter to the Corinthian church he characterizes three types of people in 1 Corinthians 2:14-3:3. How do the three types of people differ?

Which of the three types of people do you see in the church at Sardis and how?

IV. Looking Reflectively

Outward appearances and actions do not necessarily reflect the state of the heart. One can appear to be spiritual on the outside, but dead on the inside. God alone knows the true state of the heart.

Take some time to evaluate your spiritual condition. Are you alive and vibrant for the Lord?

Are any of the characteristics of Isaiah 29:13 that you listed under question 4 true of your life today? If so, confess them and ask God to rekindle the fire in your heart.

DAY 2: THE REBUKE

I. Looking to God’s Word

Read Revelation 3:1-2

1. What was His rebuke to this church?

2. What does it mean that “you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead”?

3. What does it mean that their deeds were not found completed in the sight of God? Does this mean they needed more works, or that there was something missing from their works, or both? (Consider 1 Cor. 3:12-15).

4. How is the church at Sardis like the scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 23:27-28?

II. Looking Upward

5. How does a church become a dead church and what would be some symptoms?

6. Do decreasing numbers indicate a dying church or ministry? Explain your answer.

III. Looking Deeper

What observations concerning “spiritual aliveness” can you make from these passages?

John 6:63

John 7:37-39

John 15:5

Describe the Spirit-filled life according to Ephesians 5:15-21.

IV. Looking Reflectively

We can sing the hymns, led by choir and band or orchestra. We can recite the creed, say the confession, and join in the prayers, while our mind wanders and our heart is far from God.2

“No matter what its attendance, no matter how impressive its buildings, no matter what its status in the community, such a church, having denied the only source of spiritual life, is dead.”3

Is your church in danger of becoming a dead church? Why or why not?

Are you drawing “life” from the Holy Spirit, or are you looking to other sources?

Meditate on John 6:33: “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing.”

DAY 3: THE EXHORTATION AND WARNING

I. Looking to God’s Work

Read Revelation 3:2-3

1. List the five commands or imperatives He gave to this church.

2. Jesus exhorted them to “strengthen the things that remain.” What “things” would be vital to the life of a church to prevent it from dying? How would a church strengthen those things?

3. What is He implying when He says, “I will come like a thief…”?

4. What similarities do you see between this exhortation and the exhortation to the church at Ephesus in Revelation 2:5? How is the condition of these two churches similar and yet different?

II. Looking Upward

5. How does a person or church “wake up”?

6. Jesus exhorts them to remember what they have received. How does one get to the place where he forgets what God has given?

III. Looking Deeper

As Moses addressed the sons of Israel near the end of his life, he challenged them to choose life over death. As you look at his words from Deuteronomy 30:15-20, list all that he commands them to do.

According to verse 20, what do you need to do in order to choose life?

IV. Looking Reflectively

If you sense that your spiritual life is “drying up” or “dying,” don’t just sit there. Do something about it now!

Do you need to “wake up”?

If your spiritual life is vibrant, what do you need to do to keep it that way?

DAY 4: THE COMMENDATION

I. Looking to God’s Word

Read Revelation 3:1b, 4a

1. What are two things this church was commended for?

2. What is meant by the phrase, “… who have not soiled their garments”? Does it mean they have not sinned? (Look also at James 1:27.)

3. How would these promises encourage a “remnant” of faithful believers in a dead church?

Malachi 3:16-18

1 Corinthians 15:58

Hebrews 6:10-12

II. Looking Upward

4. How is it possible to have a “good” reputation and yet be “dead”?

5. How does one remain strong in the faith when he/she is the only Christian in his/her environment?

6. In what ways have your “garments been soiled” by the world around you?

III. Looking Deeper

The main commendation for the church at Sardis was that there were a few faithful ones who had not “soiled their garments.” As you read the words that David penned during a difficult time of his life in Psalm 34, how would these words encourage the righteous and those faithful to the Lord?

IV. Looking Reflectively

Once a week at least take stock before God and see whether you are keeping your life up to the standard He wishes. Paul is like a musician who does not need the approval of the audience if he can catch the look of approval from his Master.” – Oswald Chambers4

It is possible to stand strong for Christ in a world that doesn’t.

What is your reputation outwardly? Does it accurately reflect the state of your heart?

Are you in a situation where you feel “spiritually alone” without much support? Remember that He is always there and is aware of your situation.

Meditate on Isaiah 41:10.

DAY 5: THE PROMISE

I. Looking to God’s Word

Read Revelation 3:4-6

1. What three things does He promise to those who have not soiled their garments and who overcome?

2. According to these passages, what is the significance of being clothed in white?

Revelation 3:18

Revelation 7:9-17

Revelation 19:7-8

3. Some have taken the promise in Revelation 3:5 that He “will not erase his name from the book of life” to mean that one can lose his salvation. How do these verses refute loss of salvation as a possible meaning?

John 10:27-29

Romans 8:35-39

Ephesians 1:13-14

Hebrews 13:5

4. In Revelation 3:5, what does it mean that He will “confess” (NASB) or “acknowledge” (NIV) his name before the Father? (Look also at Matthew 10:32.)

II. Looking Upward

5. How does this letter to the church at Sardis encourage and/or exhort you in your walk with God?

6. What observations concerning salvation and eternal security can you make from 1 Peter 1:3-9?

III. Looking Deeper

Read aloud Revelation 7:9-17 and write down what you have to look forward to in the future. Spend some time praising Him as you meditate on these verses.

IV. Looking Reflectively

Does it make any sense to say that salvation is offered as a solution for our sin and then to turn around and teach that salvation can be taken away because of our sin as well?”5

Do you have any concerns or fears that your name might be erased from the book of life? Rest in the assurance that you cannot lose your eternal security if you have truly trusted in Christ as your Savior (1 John 5:13-15). Thank Him for His death on the cross for you.

Using 1 Peter 1:3-9, spend some time thanking Him for your salvation.


Introduction to the message for Lesson Six – Sardis – The Dead Church [Begin Transcription]

When I was a little girl, I remember one night when I was asleep, my mom and dad came into the room and they shook me and said, “Honey, wake up.” I knew that something was wrong just by the sound of their voices, but I was not sure what. They had me get up and along with my brothers we got dressed. They told us that we were in danger. You see, when I was growing up, in my little town whenever it rained for any length of time the city flooded. The towns completely flooded. We did not have our house right on the ground. We had four steps which came up to the house. At this point in the middle of the night the water had come all the way up to the top of those four steps and was about to come into the house. So, mom and dad had come in and said, “Wake up, honey. Get up. Get ready.” Well, we did not have to leave, but they wanted to make sure that we were prepared if we had to go to safety. This is a picture of what Jesus is telling the church at Sardis. “Wake up, you are in danger and you need to wake up!”

Background

Go ahead and turn in your Bibles to Revelation 3:1-6. While you are turning, I will tell you a little bit about the city of Sardis. It was a very wealthy city located about 30 miles southeast of Thyatira. We are almost at the end of our journey of the seven churches. Like the other cities, it was a center of pagan worship. Today, the rooms of the Temple of Artemis still remain there. Sardis, as I wrote in your study in the introduction, sat on the top of a tall hill. It was surrounded by three very steep, perpendicular cliffs that were very difficult to scale. The only way into the city was through a very difficult path from the south. This city became so secure and arrogant. It was sort of cocky, and did not think there would be any way it would fall. Twice, somebody came in and conquered the city because they were not ready. So, it seems apparent that not only the city, but the church both had a wakeup call. They both needed to wake up.

Description of Christ

Well, He begins this letter in Revelation 3:1 the same way He does in every letter. He says,

To the angel of the church in Sardis write: He who has the seven Spirits of God and the seven stars (NASB)

He begins with a description of himself. This description is especially relevant to this church, just like in every letter. The seven Spirits is a reference to the Holy Spirit in all His fullness. We talked about that in week one. The seven stars are the seven messengers or elders of the church. So Jesus is saying here I am sovereignly working in this church through the Holy Spirit. I am in control of the church. I am in control over the leaders of this church and the Spirit is at work. It is appropriate that He refers to the Holy Spirit in this letter because it is the Holy Spirit who gives life to a church and to a believer. This church was dead. Normally in these letters, He would then move from this introduction and this description of himself to a note of commendation. He would tell them what they were doing well. But, in this letter there was no commendation. He had nothing good to say about this church. He does commend a few as we will see later on, but to the church as a whole He has nothing good or praiseworthy to say. This is a stun letter. It has a very strong message and that message is “wake up.” As we look at this letter, I want to address three things. I want to address the danger, the remedy and the encouragement for this church.

Wake Up!

1. The Danger

We will begin with the danger. Revelation 3:1 goes on and He says,

You have a name that you are alive, but you are dead. (NASB)

The danger for this church is death. You have a name that you are alive, but you are dead. It was a church that was dying and it needed to be resuscitated. They needed to do something before it was too late to bring back any life. When I worked in open heart surgery for all these years, there were a number of times that we had patients who would come in and their hearts would stop. We would have to either do CPR or if their chest was open we would have to massage the heart or we would have to get paddles and shock the patient back. We did this to try to bring them back, to resuscitate them. Most of the time we were able to bring them back, but every once in a while there would be a patient whose heart would be too far. They had gone too long and nothing we could do could bring them back. We would have to solemnly pronounce their death at such and such a time. That is what with this letter is trying to accomplish. This is what they needed – resuscitation. They were in danger. The church was dead and they needed to do something to come back to life before it was too late to bring any life back into this church.

A. Their Name

This church had a great outward reputation, but it did not line up with their inward reality. I want to look at two areas of their reputation. First, their name. He said,

You have a name that you are alive. (Revelation 3:1, NASB)

Apparently, they were regarded by their contemporaries or other people in the town of Sardis as an effective church. “Wow, that’s a great church.” Maybe they thought it was because of the name; maybe it was called, “First Evangelical Church of Sardis.” “That is a great church.” Maybe it is because of its past history. “Oh, yeah, that church has had all these great pastors. It is a great church.” Maybe it is named that it was alive because they had a lot of programs. They had a lot of activities. They had a lot of events that people came to. Their “name” was that they were alive, but in inner reality they were dead. There was no life. It was just outward and their outward reputation did not line up with inward reality. Do we see that today anywhere? I have a friend who went to a Christian school. She went with her siblings and when her younger brother graduated from high school, from this Christian school, he was given the award for outstanding Christian student. I cannot remember the exact name of it, but he got this award because the teachers and the faculty thought that this boy represented all that Christ would be like. He was Christ-like. He was an exemplary model of a Christian student. His sister told me “that is the biggest lie. I do not even know that he is a believer, but the teachers think he is a model of Christianity because outward his name is that. ‘Oh, he is wonderful. Look at how godly this little boy is.’” He knew what to say and he knew what to do in front of the right people. Inward, he was bent. His inward reality did not line up with the outward actions. We may fool some people with our actions, but God knows exactly what was and is in our hearts. He knows who we are.

B. Their Deeds

The second thing I want to look out is their deeds. First, we looked at their name. Now, their deeds. In verse 2, it says,

I have not found your deeds completed in the sight of My God. (NASB)

They were deeds being done in this church, but they were not complete. They were not fulfilled. They did not begin to fulfill God’s purpose. There was just a routine of deeds. They were going through the motions. They were doing things that were expected that a church would do, but the motivation behind it was not fair. These deeds and these things that they did gave them a great reputation to people. Everybody else thought that they were a great church because of what they were doing. But, these deeds were unacceptable in God’s sight. Perhaps they were deeds that were done in the flesh instead of the power of the Holy Spirit. John Stott in his book, “What Christ Thinks of the Church,” says this,

This distinction between what human beings see and what God sees is of great importance to every age. Although we have responsibilities to others, we are primarily accountable to God. It is before Him that we stand and to Him that one day we must give an account. We should not, therefore, weight human opinion too high, become depressed when criticized, or elated when flattered. We need to remember that the Lord does not look at the things that man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart. He reads our thoughts. He knows our motives and He can see how much reality is behind our profession; how much life is behind our façade.

I think he says it well.

Are your deeds complete in the sight of God? Are you working for the Lord in the power of your flesh or are you working for the Lord in the power of the Holy Spirit? What is the motivation for why you do what you do? Is it for Him? Is it to bring Him glory or is it to bring yourself glory? Every day we should ask God. Search our hearts. Search my heart, Lord, show me if my attitude is wrong, if my motives are wrong. We should be in touch with His Spirit at all times and sensitive to that pricking when we are off line.

I want to touch briefly on the congregation because I think that plays a part in why this church is bad. This church, most likely, had all kinds of people. They probably had a large number of nominal Christians. By nominal Christians I mean Christians by name only. They had made a profession of faith. They professed to be Christians, but they really never accepted Jesus Christ as their Savior. Maybe when they were little they prayed a prayer. Maybe they walked down an aisle and joined the church. Maybe they are on a roll, a membership roll, of the church. They are “professing Christians.” They are sitting in the pew, but Christ is not in their heart. It appears that this church had a lot of nominal Christians. Even though they had the Christian name, they were spiritually dead. There is no life, no spiritual life in this group.

It is also likely that there were carnal Christians in this church. Christians who had the Holy Spirit living in them, but they were no longer drawing from the power of the Holy Spirit to live the Christian life. For whatever reason, they were living the Christian life on their own strength now. They were in control and they were not drawing from that power source. This group would become spiritually stagnant. They were just stagnating spiritually. I was a carnal Christian my first three years at LSU in college. I did not understand the ministry of the Holy Spirit. I know that I accepted Christ when I was nine. I know that that was real but nobody ever explained to me growing up that the Holy Spirit lived in me and that I could draw from His power to live the Christian life. It was not until Bonnie, on staff at Campus Crusade for Christ, sat down with me in my dorm and shared with me the ministry of the Holy Spirit in my life. I did not have to try to live the Christian life which I was failing miserably at. What I needed to do is let go of the things that I was trying to run and allow the Holy Spirit to live through me. It changed my life. Once I understood the power of the Holy Spirit and that I would never be able to live the Christian life apart from His Strength, it revolutionized my life.

Sadly, we have a lot of carnal Christians sitting in churches today. Yes, they have Christ in their lives, but they are living the Christian life on their own strength. They are spiritually stagnant. Verse 4 tells us that there were a few who “have not soiled their garments.” The word “soiled” here is from the Greek word which means to stain, to defile, to smear, to pollute. Garments symbolized character in scripture. So, these few had not allowed the world to pollute them, to stain their character. History tells us that this city of Sardis had gotten pretty lax in moral standards and become licentious. Those moral standards evidently had started to creep into the church. There were a few whose garments, whose character, was not defiled or stained by the things around them. This group was spiritually alive, but they were only a few. They were the minority. There were not enough of them to change Christ’s overall evaluation of the church as dead, but He had not forgotten them. He knew that there was this few in this church. He knew they were there. This church was in danger. It was in danger of a death that could not be reversed, of a state from which they could not be revived. So, that brings us to the second area, the remedy.

2. The Remedy

The remedy for this church is revival. In Revelation 3:2-3 Jesus gave them five instructions to move them toward revival and renewal. The first step is to realize.

A. Realize

Verse 2 tells them to “wake up,” to realize their true spiritual condition. They must realize where they are at. Wake up. You better do something about it before it is too late. What are the warning signs that a church is dying? John MacArthur in his commentary on Revelation says,

A church is dying when there is content to rest on its past laurels; when it is more concerned with liturgical forms than spiritual reality; when it focuses on curing social ills more than changing people’s hearts through the gospel of Jesus Christ; when it is more concerned with material than spiritual things; when it is more concerned with what men think than what God’s Word says; when it is more enamored with doctrinal creeds and systems of theology than with the Word of God or when it loses its conviction that every word of the Bible is the Word of God Himself. That is when a church dies.

Interestingly, most churches do not die in one fell swoop. It does not happen overnight. It is a gradual process. It is like the frog in the boiling water. He does not realize he is about to die until he is there. This church needed to wake up. It needed to realize the state that they were in spiritually.

B. Rekindle

Secondly, they needed to rekindle. Again in verse 2 He tells them,

Strengthen the things that remain, which were about to die. (NASB)

The word used for strengthen here was often used in the early church for the nurture of believers. He is telling this faithful remnant to fan into flames these dying embers. Whatever is left in this church, fan it. Rekindle that fire in these believers that are carnal, that are not growing. Nurture them; blow on it, get that flame burning again. Perhaps these faithful believers can save a dying church by rekindling the fire, by fanning those dying embers back into a fire.

C. Remember

The third step is remember. In Revelation 3:3 He says,

So Remember what you have received and heard; (NASB)

Go back to the truth of God’s Word, the basics of the gospel. Go back to what you have been taught from the very beginning. Remember those things that brought you to Christ. Remember those things that gave you a foundation in Christ. Go back to them.

Every time I disciple someone and every time I taught the discipleship class, I always start with basic follow-up. I do not care where you are in your spiritual walk. I start with the assurance of salvation, assurance of the forgiveness of sin, the ministry of the Holy Spirit in your life, how to read the Word of God, how to meet with God – the basics. I think that sometimes we want to go so much deeper that we forget those basic truths that are the foundations of the spiritual walk. We need to remember those things and go back to them.

D. Respect

The fourth step is respect. In verse 3 He says,

Keep it. (NASB)

Obey and live out what you have been taught from the Word. If you respect the Word of God, if you respect those basic truths, you will keep it. You have to respect it and obey it. Live it out in your life. Don’t just say the words – live it.

E. Repent

Then, fifth, repent. Also in verse 3 He tells them to:

Repent. (NASB)

We talked about repenting in almost every letter except Smyrna. We need to confess our sin and we need to turn and go in the opposite direction. When the Holy Spirit is grieved or quenched in a believer, or in a church, then the church begins to lose life and it begins to die. When we confess our sins, when we get right with one another, and we get right with God, then the Spirit infuses new life and there is revival.

Well, those five things are instrumental in spiritual revival. That is the remedy for this church. He warns them at the end of verse 3,

Therefore if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come to you. (NASB)

This warning is not referring to the Second Coming. He is saying that I am going to come and I am going to judge you. I am going to discipline you and it is going to catch you by surprise. Well, we have looked at the danger – death. Now we have looked at the remedy-- which is revival.

3. The Encouragement

Third, let’s look at the encouragement for this church and the encouragement to press on with eternal life. He addresses their eternal life in three ways.

A. Clothing

He starts by talking about those clothing. In verses 4 and 5, He says,

They will walk with Me in white, for they are worthy. He who overcomes will thus be clothed in white garments. (NASB)

The white garments of the believer represent purity and holiness. So, clad in white we will one day walk in purity and holiness face to face in the presence of God.

B. Certainty

The second thing He mentions was their certainty. In verse 5, He says,

I will not erase his name from the book of life. (NASB)

Many have used this verse to argue that you can lose your salvation. But, if you did your study this week, you looked at other passages that contradict that concept and so this is not what He is saying. He is not saying that a Christian’s name can be erased from the Book of Life because what Jesus Christ did on the cross cannot be undone. It cannot be reversed. It is done. It is finished.

This allusion also helps us to understand the culture of the First Century. In that First Century culture there was a register or roll that the government kept. Every time somebody was born, their name went in that book. You are a citizen of this city. You are a citizen of Sardis. If later on that person committed a crime or dishonored themselves in a significant way, then their name was erased out of that book. You are no longer a citizen. Of course, when they died their name would be erased out of that book.

What He is saying here is that I will never in any way ever do that to you. I will never do to you what your government does. I will not erase your name out of the book regardless of what you do. It is secure. It is safe. The emphasis here is eternal security when He talks about this. We cannot lose our salvation. It is solid. It will not be erased.

C. Confession

The third thing He talks about is the confession. In verse 5 He says,

I will confess his name before my Father and before His angels. (NASB)

He is saying that He is going to affirm before God and before the angels that we belong to Him. She’s mine. She is okay. She belongs to me. The emphasis here is approval. We are approved before God.

Conclusion

Well, every week I have told you a period of Church history that the Church parallels or symbolizes. This week the Church seems to align with the Reformation Period. During the Reformation, the Church had a reputation for being sound, but in reality it was bad. The reformers returned us to the doctrines of salvation by grace, and to the priesthood of all believers, but even they could not agree on many other doctrines. So, what resulted was denominationalism. We begin to see all these denominations because they could not agree on some doctrines and it ended up splintering the churches and dividing the unison. Thankfully, there were a few during that time who held to the truths of scripture and brought them to light. The message is loud and clear to the church of Sardis and it is loud and clear to us today. Wake up. The danger is the death of the church. The remedy is revival or renewal and the encouragement to press on faithfully is eternal life.

As I was driving home from the retreat this weekend, I was riding with our speaker, Sandy Delong. Sandy and I were talking about this letter. She was trying to help me think it through. So, we were discussing it on the way home and she was telling me about her church in Dallas. They are not part of it now, but years ago she and her husband were part of this great Bible church in Dallas. It had a great reputation. When I moved to Dallas, I heard about it. I visited it. It was not where I decided to settle, but it had a great reputation.

Sandy said their heritage was so rich in the pastors who pastored that church. Names that you sort of got the thought, “Wow, that’s a great church, that these men would want to pastor that church!” So there began to be a little pride that would spring up among the members and they would say, “Yes, I go to such and suhc Bible church and so and so is our pastor. Before him, so and so was our pastor and before him this man was our pastor. We are a great church. Can’t you tell?” You would think that with such godly men at the helm and in the pulpit that that church would never die. But, Sandy said that church died because they were always dropping names. They were always dropping names of men, but not ever did they say Jesus Christ. It was about the men who led the church. It was not about Jesus Christ. They did not drop the name of Jesus and the church died. It is not there today.

That church died a horrible death because they were worshipping the wrong thing. When a church begins to worship anyone—and we even need to be careful here at First Evan—it is a dangerous thing. I also realize that not everyone here goes to this church. So you need to be careful at whatever church you go to. We need to be careful that we are not dropping names of men. “Oh, yeah, we have had this man as our pastor; this man is our pastor.” There is nothing wrong with godly heritage as long as we are not worshipping the men. It is not the man that gives life to the church. It is the Holy Spirit. If we forget that, we are going to die. My prayer is that it would never be said of us as a church that, “you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead.” I pray that does not happen. So, we need to wake up, and we need to stay awake, and make sure it does not happen.

Let’s pray. Father, I thank You that You are the source of life for us. I thank You that You have blessed many churches with great men, and with great history—but You never want history, past worlds, or greatness to ever takes the focus off where we should be. I pray, Father, that we would never let that happen, that we would not worship someone, but that we would worship You. Father, search our hearts. Show us what is in there. We want to just grow more and more in love with You. We pray these things in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Let’s stand to worship together.


1 MacArthur, New Testament Commentary on Revelation, 110-111.

2 Stott, What Christ Thinks of the Church, 85.

3 MacArthur, New Testament Commentary on Revelation, 112.

4 Chambers, My Utmost for His Highest, March 17.

5 Charles Stanley, Eternal Security, Can You Be Sure? (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1990), 181.

Related Topics: Curriculum, Revelation