The Living Dead (Revelation 3:1-6)
Jumbo shrimp, ill health, good casserole, freezer burn, old news, and pretty ugly. What do all six of these phrases share in common? They are all oxymorons. An oxymoron is two words that seem to be contradictory, but are joined together. They are terms that shouldn’t fit together, but they do.1
But what about this one…a dead church? That has to be the ultimate oxymoron—the greatest of all contradictions. How can you have a dead church? How can a congregation be dead if the living Lord indwells it? You would think this would be impossible. Sadly, it’s not. Many churches are dead! Their sanctuary is a morgue with a steeple. They are congregations of corpses. They have undertakers for ushers, embalmers for elders, morticians for ministers, and the pastor graduated from the cemetery. Such churches lost vital signs years ago.2
So what, if anything, can be done about a dead church? How can a dead church be revived? How can we prevent our church from dying? Jesus will answer these questions and more in Revelation 3:1-6.
1. The Character (3:1a). Jesus describes Himself as the One who “has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars.” The word “has” (echon) conveys both ownership and control. Jesus holds or possesses the seven spirits and stars. The number “seven” is the number for perfection or fullness. This does not mean that there are seven Holy Spirits. There is only one Spirit of God. “The seven spirits of God” represent the fullness of the Holy Spirit sent to the seven churches (cf. Rev 1:7, see also Isa 11:2-5; Zech 4:2, 10).3 It is through the Spirit that God brings revival to His church. This means that revival comes only by God’s choosing, not by man’s doing. This principle is recorded for us in Zechariah 4:6, “‘Not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit,’ says the LORD of hosts.”
Jesus also has “the seven stars.” This speaks of His sovereign control of the angelic realm (cf. Rev 1:20). Through the angel responsible for each church, Jesus protects and controls His churches. The church in Sardis needs to be reminded of their spiritual resources. Not only do they have the full measure of the Holy Spirit; they have angels watching over each church. These angels are held in the palm of Jesus’ hand.
2. The Condemnation (3:1b). With each of the previous four churches, Jesus begins with a word of commendation. But when Jesus speaks to the church in Sardis, He starts with a word of condemnation. He does so because a dead church is deadly to the cause of Christ. Ironically, Jesus’ condemnation focused upon that which the church felt was their strength—her name. He says, “I know your deeds, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead.” Jesus’ knowledge about the church in Sardis pertained to their deeds, which were woefully inadequate. They had a name, but that was it.4 From God’s perspective, they were as good as “dead.”5 It is important to recognize that the church in Sardis doesn’t appear dead. This church has a reputation for being alive.6 People are impressed. This church’s deadness is not man’s evaluation but God’s.
So why did Jesus consider this church dead? It would seem that to be “dead” is the opposite of possessing “unsoiled garments” in 3:4. In this sense, “dead” could be equated with “defiled” and “undefiled” could be equated with “living.”7 Apparently, the church had probably begun not only to read but to believe their own press clippings. Such acclaim could have deadened their sensitivity to the spiritual warfare in which they were engaged. The result would have been to sense little need for prayer, little reliance on the power of the Holy Spirit, and great confidence in human wisdom, human effort, and human programs. While their doctrine had not changed, their dependence upon God had greatly diminished.
This is a warning. A church is in danger of death: when it begins to worship its own past or history, its reputation or name, or the names in the church, when it is more concerned with forms than with function and life, when it is more concerned with numbers and noses than with the spiritual quality of life it is producing in its people, when it is more involved with management than with ministry or with the physical over the spiritual. Interestingly, most churches do not die in one fell swoop. They die gradually. Almost all liberal churches today started as evangelical churches. Churches die by degree.
It is rather startling to realize that there can be such a contrast between what people say about a church and what Jesus might say about the same church. This truth is also relevant to every individual Christian. Friends may think that we are spiritually alive by what they see us do, but it is possible for us to be spiritually dead in the eyes of the Lord, no matter what others say. Here is a good lesson: don’t be too quick to judge outward appearances or performance. The important questions deal with the inward man, the realm of the unseen, the heart of the individual. Are we really in fellowship with the Lord in the innermost recesses of our hearts?8
3. The Correction (3:2-3). In life, identifying the problem is the first step toward solving it. The problem with the church in Sardis was that she was dead. But as hopeless as that sounds, all was not lost. Jesus saw the glow of embers among the ashes and exhorted the believers in Sardis to fan the flame with renewed commitment to Him. How could they do this? What steps were they to take? Christ gave them five directives that, if obeyed, would burn new life into their church.9
Wake up.10 Every time the phrase “wake up” is used in the New Testament, it conveys the notion that God’s people are spiritually asleep when they should be awake. Jesus uses a very effective metaphor. In the physical realm, when we are asleep we are unconcerned, apathetic, and indifferent. Unfortunately, the same can be true in the spiritual realm. Many Christians have dozed off and they don’t even know it. They are in need of an abrupt wake-up call.
When I am at home, I use two alarm clocks to ensure that I will get up early each morning. One is on my nightstand and the other requires me to get out of bed and turn it off. They are set five minutes apart just in case I climb back into bed. In a spiritual sense, I like to envision my first alarm clock as the Word of God. It should always wake me up but if it doesn’t, I have a back up. My back up should be a brother or sister in Christ that will keep me from drifting into a deep sleep.
It is worth mentioning that the Greek word translated “wake up”11 can also be translated “keep being watchful.” Jesus wants His church to be vigilant. Christians can decline into spiritual lethargy if they do not stay alert. Whenever we do not watch our spiritual condition, we begin to decline.
Have you taken a good look at your own spiritual condition lately? Do you do this often? I would encourage you to memorize Psalm 139:23-24: “Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me and know my anxious thoughts; and see if there be any hurtful way in me, and lead me in the everlasting way.” This is a passage that is worth going through every morning. This will ensure that you wake up well and are spiritually watchful. Mark this well: there is very little difference between living in either a sinful condition or an apathetic condition.
Strengthen.12 The word “strengthen” means “to establish or stabilize something.”13 Jesus commands this church to “strengthen the things14 that remain which were about to die.” This is likely a reference to various opportunities remaining for this church. Sardis is living on borrowed time. Yet, as long as a church remains, God still has a purpose for it.
Once the church loses its life God’s purpose for it is over. No matter how a church may have failed God still has a purpose for it, if it secures a right relationship with the Lord.
Remember. Jesus says, “Remember, what you have received and heard.” The word “remember”15 means “to constantly call to mind.” The church at Sardis is to remember how they responded to the good news of the Gospel at the first. While the NASB renders it, “Remember therefore what you have received…” the marginal note indicates that “what” is literally “how” in the original text. The “what” (the doctrines of the faith) had not been forgotten or forsaken, but the “how” (their response, prompted by the power of the Holy Spirit) had been. The cure for this nearly dead church was to keep in mind the way that they had first responded to the truth of God and to once again respond in the same way, prompted and empowered by God’s Spirit. The key to the Christian life begins in the mind.
There is a reason (“for”) that Sardis is almost out of time. Jesus’ explains, “I have not found your deeds completed in the sight of My God.” Could they be good deeds done for the wrong reasons? Giving applause and recognition, serving out of guilt or obligation, loving in order to be loved—these are all incomplete deeds.
I’d like you to notice that Jesus knows what God has called us to do and if we fail, the deeds are not “finished.” Finishing works is very high on God’s value system (John 17:4; 19:30; Rev 21:6). God is after our perseverance. I can’t emphasize that enough. That theme dominates these seven letters.
Retain. Jesus says, “Keep it”16 (1 John 2:3). God has called us to apply the truth of His Word. He’s not after information overload but transformation overload. Are you a different kind of spouse, parent, employee, or friend because of your faith? Do others see the difference in your life without being told that you’re a Christian?
I met with a pastor last week and he said that the most important thing in fellow staff pastors was loyalty. He then said that he is seeking that very same thing in his congregation. If loyalty is so important to this pastor, how much more important is it to God? He wants your unswerving loyalty to Him. He wants you to keep His commandments over the course of your lifetime.
- Repent.17 This last exhortation sets the previous four in motion. The New Testament uses of “repent”18 (metanoeo) always mean a change of thinking for the better (except in Luke 17:3-4). Repentance implies a change of life because of a complete change of thought and attitude. While the emphasis in the English is on sorrow or contrition, the Greek word carries the idea of a total change in thinking and behavior with respect to both how we think and act. Whether the focus is on attitude or behavior depends on the context. Jesus wants the Christians at Sardis to completely change their thinking and orientation about their sin.
If the church in Sardis ignores these five commands, Jesus will deal with them. “Therefore if you do not wake up, I will come19 like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come to you.” Our Lord Jesus is patient with our apathy and indifference. Yet even the Lord has limits. If they refused to repent, Jesus promised to come to the church as a thief.20
Thieves come when we do not expect them to come. Thieves do not make appointments to steal from us. They do not say they are going to come in two days or at two in the morning. No, Jesus will come unexpectedly. Christians out of fellowship will be totally unprepared.21 Choose today that you will not be one who will be caught unaware.
4. The Call (3:4-6). Jesus gives a commendation after the condemnation in this letter. He commends a few spiritual giants that did not soil their garments. Jesus declares, “But you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled22 their garments; and they will walk with Me in white, for they are worthy.” The worthiness here is linked to the fact that these were believers “who have not soiled [defiled] their garments.” Clearly Jesus isn’t praising them for using Tide on their togas! This is a figurative way of saying that there were a few who had not walked in disobedience (cp. Rev 22:14; Jas 1:27; Jude 23). Walking with Christ in white garments refers to a practical righteousness not a positional righteousness.23 This must be seen as a reward.24 Otherwise Christ is teaching salvation by works here!
Of course, we know from Jesus’ teachings and from the entire Bible that no one but Christ is worthy to be in God’s kingdom because of his or her deeds. Salvation is a gift given through faith in the finished work of Christ. It is based on His worthiness and record, not ours (Eph 2:8-9; Titus 3:4-7). We are only worthy to enter God’s kingdom because we have trusted in the worthy One. Nevertheless, Jesus still exhorts us to, “walk in a manner worthy of our calling” (Eph 4:1). We could say that the worthier the walk, the whiter the garments.
This verse suggests that believers will not be clothed identically in the kingdom. Some will wear special white garments. These special garments will signify that the wearer is one who honored Christ until the end of his or her Christian experience. A comparison with Rev 16:15 makes this evident: “Behold, I am coming like a thief. Blessed is the one who stays awake and keeps his clothes, so that he will not walk about naked and men will not see his shame.” This verse contains all the same elements, the coming of the Lord as a thief, the need for watchfulness, the need to keep one’s spiritual garments clean, the prospect of walking with Christ in white garments or no garments, and the prospect of joy verses shame. Only the believer who is watchful will walk in white. A distracted believer will “walk naked” and others will “see his shame.” He doesn’t have the good works necessary to provide adequate spiritual clothing. The result is shame at the judgment seat of Christ.25
In 3:5, Jesus says, “He who overcomes26 will thus be clothed in white garments; and I will not erase his name from the book of life,27 and I will confess his name before My Father and before His angels.” The individual who overcomes literally “shall clothe himself” (reflecting the future middle voice) in white garments.28 These kinds of garments are only promised to Christ and church-age individuals. More than likely these are glory garments. In the Greek Old Testament (LXX), this word translates bridal garments in Psalm 45:8 and Jesus’ garments in Psalm 22:18.29
Now I acknowledge that Christlike character and action is not the dress of choice in the human scheme of life. Popular culture assembles lists of the Ten Best-Dressed, Worst-Dressed, and Sexiest people, but it is difficult to imagine widespread interest in people who spent time and money “clothing” themselves in actions that are pleasing to the eyes of God. Yet this is of eternal importance. Peter, James, and John caught a glimpse of what these glorious garments will be like. When Jesus was transfigured before them, “His face shone like the sun, and His garments became as white as light” (Matt 17:2). It may well be that the brightness of an overcomer’s clothes will be proportional to how Christlike he or she was in this life (cf. 1 Pet 4:13).
Now we will look at the controversial phrase in 3:5: “I will not erase his name from the book of life.” The first question that enters many people’s mind is: does God have an eraser in heaven? Three things should be observed in relation to this expression. First, whatever it means, it can’t contradict other Scripture or the clear meaning of the rest of the passage or of other Scripture (e.g., John 10:28-29; Rom 8:38-39; 2 Tim 2:13).
Second, 3:5 does not say, “He who does not overcome I will erase his name from the book of life.” This is a very important point. This verse doesn’t say anything about the fate of those who don’t overcome. It certainly doesn’t say that God will erase the non-overcomer’s name out of the Book of Life. The focus here is on the overcomer, not on the non-overcomer.
If I said, “All fathers are men,” that wouldn’t mean that the opposite is true, that all men are fathers. There are plenty of men who aren’t fathers. In the same way, the corollary to our verse is not true. God will not erase the name of the non-overcoming believer from the Book of Life!30 Once a person has spiritual life, it can never be taken away (cf. John 10:28-29; 1 John 5:12). No Christian will have his name blotted from that book. His eternal identity rests on the fact that he is an individual whose name is written in heaven (Luke 10:20).
Before we move on we must understand some very important truths. If we did not become Christians by good works, then we cannot become non-Christians by bad works. God bases our salvation on the finished work of Christ, not on our works. A person can never have eternal security by what he does; he can only have eternal security based on what Christ did.
Third, there is a well-established figure of speech called litotes (lie-tuh-tease). This figure serves as an understatement in which a positive point is made by denying its opposite.31 The secret of understanding any statement involving litotes is found in knowing that the negative idea is not the point. For example, this afternoon when my family sits down for our Sunday meal, I could say to my second child, Justin, “If you finish your meal today, I won’t make you eat brussel sprouts.” Now, let’s assume that I’ve previously guaranteed Justin that he will never eat brussel sprouts. Justin would thus know that even if he didn’t finish his meal, he would not eat brussel sprouts. In reality, what I’m promising him is a special dessert if he finishes his meal.32 So too, when the Lord says that He won’t erase the name of the overcoming believer from the Book of Life, He means that your everlasting name is supremely secure.33
In the final stanza of 3:5 Jesus states, “I will confess his name [the overcomer’s name] before My Father and before His angels.” This is rewards language. The word “confess” (homologeo) means “to acknowledge, claim, profess, praise.”34 Jesus will acknowledge faithful believers before the Father and before His angels (cp. Matt 10:32-33; Luke 19:11-19). He will say, “Well done, good slave” (Luke 19:17). This is a reward that faithful believers will receive. It is to have the Lord publicly approve of one’s character and service. Only those Christians who acknowledge Christ now will be acknowledged by Him then. Conversely, not having one’s name acknowledged is to forfeit the Master’s, “Well done!”35
Jesus closes this letter with the familiar words, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (3:6). We must heed the words of this letter.
A brilliant young pianist was giving his very first concert. As the final chord of his flawless performance reverberated in the hall, the audience rose to its feet and broke out in thunderous applause. Only one member of the audience remained seated, clapping politely, but without particular enthusiasm. Tears welled up in the young pianist’s eyes. His head dropped slightly as he left the stage in utter defeat.
The stage manager in the great hall was a sensitive and observant man who had noticed the lone gentleman and saw how this cool response affected the star performer. “Son,” he said, “you’re a hit! Everyone was overwhelmed. The critic from the Times was in tears. By morning you’ll be famous. Don’t let one guy get you down.” “You don’t understand,” the dejected young man replied. “That man was my piano teacher. It only matters what he thinks.”36
1 Copyright © 2004 Keith R. Krell. All rights reserved. All Scripture quotations, unless indicated, are taken from the New American Standard Bible, © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1975, 1977, and 1995 by The Lockman Foundation, and are used by permission.
2 See Steven J. Lawson, Final Call (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1994), 151.
3 The Holy Spirit guides, guards, and governs the church (cf. John 16:7-15).
4 Dr. Vance Havner is quoted as saying that spiritual ministries often go through four stages: a man, a movement, a machine, and then a monument.
5 This word “dead” (nekros) is the same word used in referring to the prodigal son. Elsewhere, a different Greek word for “dead” (thnesko) refers to an unfaithful Christian (e.g., 1 Tim 5:6).
6 Sardis is the only church thus far not troubled by persecution or false teaching. Ephesus, Pergamum, and Thyatira were all under tremendous attack from within by false teachers. Smyrna was under attack from without by unbelievable persecution. But neither heresy nor persecution is mentioned in the letter to Sardis. Why did the Jews and the Romans apparently leave this church undisturbed, unlike its neighboring churches? The answer may well be its impotence to impact the surrounding culture. In other words, Satan had nothing to fear in this comatose church and therefore had no reason to marshal his forces against it from either the inside or the outside.
7 Arlen L. Chitwood, Judgment Seat of Christ (Norman, OK: The Lamp Broadcast, 1986), 86.
8 David Hocking, The Coming World Leader (Portland: Multnomah, 1988), 80.
9 Charles R. Swindoll, Letters to Churches Then and Now (Fullerton, CA: Insight for Living, 1986), 34.
10 In 1 Thess 5:10, a context dealing with Christ’s return as “a thief in the night” (5:2), Paul wrote, “[Christ] died for us, that whether we wake or sleep we should live together with Him.” In this context, “waking” (gregoreo) was used metaphorically to mean walking in the light, being sober, faithful, and loving. On the other hand “sleeping” (katheudo) meant to walk in the darkness to be drunk, unfaithful, and unloving (5:4-8). Paul was saying that all believers will be raptured, whether they are morally alert or asleep, when Christ returns for them. The believer who is morally asleep when Christ returns is not overcoming. Yet he will live together with Him as well!
11 Gk. gregoron is a present tense active participle.
12 Gk. sterison, aorist active imperative.
13 Jesus wanted Peter to establish his brothers in Christ (Luke 22:32). Paul visited Rome that the saints might be established (Rom 1:11; cf. 1 Thess 3:2, 13; 2 Thess 2:17; 1 Pet 5:10; 2 Pet 1:12).
14 Gk. ta (“things”) is a neuter noun and does not refer to people, but to spiritual realities. They were to establish the church with new vitality so to arouse it from its sleeping death.
15 Gk. mnemoneue, present active imperative (cf. 2 Tim 2:8; Rev 2:5).
16 Gk. terei, present active imperative (cf. John 9:16; 14:24; 1 Tim 5:22; 1 John 5:18).
17 Jesus orders four of the seven churches to repent (cf. 2:5 [twice], 16, 21 [twice], 22; 3:19).
18 Gk. metanonson, aorist active imperative (cf. Acts 8:22; Rev 2:5, 16; 3:19). The aorist tense calls for urgent action. The only hope is for a radical reorientation, a paradigm shift!
19 The verb for “come” (heko) means a solemn appearance of the deity.
20 That repeats a comparison of His coming that He had used twice during His earthly ministry, that of the head of a house being caught by surprise when a thief comes (Matt 24:42- 43; Luke 12:39). Paul also used the comparison when speaking of the surprise beginning of judgment in the day of the Lord (1 Thess 5:2). Likewise, Peter spoke of the coming of the day of the Lord as a thief (2 Pet 3:10). The Lord makes the comparison later in Revelation as he continues His larger message to the seven churches (Rev 16:15). The comparison of a thief’s surprise visit was widespread in the first-century church to remind people of the imminence of Christ’s return.
21 Before His crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension Jesus had instructed His followers to watch for His return (Matt. 24:42) and to be prepared for it (Matt. 24:44; Luke 12:39-40).
22 The word “soiled” (moluno) means, “to smear, to stain, to defile, or to pollute.”
23 Gk. axios (“worthy”) is used in a good sense elsewhere in Revelation only of God and Christ (cf. 4:11; 5:9).
24 The worthiness here is linked to the fact that these were believers “who have not defiled their garments.” This shows us that walking with Him in white is a reward for personal righteousness or deeds of righteousness. Note also how this fits with Revelation 19:8. Walking in white must refer to the white garment of fine linen mentioned in Rev 19:8. There we are told the bride of Christ (the church) is “…to clothe herself in fine linen, bright and clean.” This is then declared to be the righteous acts of the saints, a reference to deeds or acts of righteousness produced in the life of the believer by the Holy Spirit because only these deeds will stand the test of the Judgment Seat of Christ (1 Cor 3:13).
25 Robert N. Wilkin, Confident in Christ (Irving, TX: GES, 1999), 123.
26 If every Christian is an overcomer, we have a bit of a problem. Fuller explains, “A command that everyone keeps is superfluous, and a reward that everyone receives for a virtue that everyone has is nonsense.” J. William Fuller, “‘I Will Not Erase His Name from the Book of life’ (Revelation 3:5),” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 26 (1983): 299.
27 In addition to the Book of Life, there are other categories of records or books mentioned in Scripture. These are
(1) Book of Wars (Num 21:14). This was a collection of war songs celebrating the glorious acts of God on behalf of Israel. (2) The Book of Jasher (Josh 10:13; 2 Sam 1:18). This was an early chronicle of the history of Israel.
(3) Book of Remembrance (Mal 3:16-17; Ps 56:8). This was a book of remembrance for special blessings and rewards for faithfulness. (4) Book of those physically alive (a dooms day book, Exod 32:32-33). This refers to a register of the physically living. To be blotted out meant to experience physical death (cf. Exod 17:14; Deut 29:20; Ps 9:5-6). (5) The Book of Works (Rev 20:12-13). This consists of a record of the deeds of unbelievers as a basis of their judgment proving they all fall short of the righteousness of Jesus Christ (Dan 7:9-10; Rom 3:19-24). See Hampton Keathley III, Revelation (Dallas: Biblical Studies Foundation, 1997), 425.
28 Wallace classifies this as a causative middle, which can be translated: “the one who conquers will cause himself to be clothed in white clothing” (author’s emphasis). Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 424.
29 It is worth noting that tribulation saints are awarded a different style of garment (Rev 7:13-14). This offering of different clothing to different groups should not be overlooked when studying the book.
30 John’s choice of grammar rules this possibility out. The word translated “not” is the Greek construction ou me. This is the strongest way possible to negate something in the Greek language.
31 Other biblical examples include John 6:37: “All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out.” = Jesus will welcome those who come to Him. Romans 1:16: “I am not ashamed of the gospel.” = Paul is very proud of the Gospel. When Paul says of the rebellious wilderness generation, “Nevertheless, with most of them God was not well-pleased” (1 Cor 10:5), he means that God was extremely displeased with all of them but two! Hebrews 6:10: “For God is not unjust so as to forget your work and love.” = God’s character guarantees He will remember.”
32 Americans use litotes all the time in ordinary speech without being aware of it. Some additional examples might be: “you won’t go unrewarded.” = “You’ll be repaid.” “That suit is no bargain.” = “It’s expensive.” “The quiz wasn’t a snap.” = “It was tough.” “He sure isn’t Santa Claus.” = “He’s a Scrooge.” “Retailers are not saints.” = “They’ll cheat you.” “Theologians are not given to simple language.” = “They’re hard to follow.”
33 The great Calvinistic expositor, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, held to this understanding of Rev 3:5. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Romans 8:17-39: The Final Perseverance of the Saints (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1975), 314ff.
34 BDAG, Electronic Ed. See Matt 7:23; John 9:22; 12:42; Rom 10:9; 1 Tim 6:12; Titus 1:16; Heb 13:15; 1 John 2:23; 4:2-3, 15; 2 John 7.
35 See also Joseph C. Dillow, The Reign of the Servant Kings (Hayesville, NC: Schoettle, 1992), 486.
36 Dr. Tony Evans, The Victorious Christian Life (Nashville: Nelson, 1994), 249-50.
Related Topics: Eschatology (Things to Come)