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The Message to Sardis (Rev 3:1-6)

“Deadness in the Church”

The City and the Assembly
(3:1a)

The City of Sardis

Sardis was a city exceedingly fabled for its past wealth and splendor, but it had deteriorated greatly. Its greatness lay in the past. Sardis had, at one time, been considered to be impregnable because of its ideal physical arrangement and topography for defense. It sat on a hill or mountain surrounded by steep cliffs almost impossible to scale with only one narrow way of approach. Yet Sardis had been attacked and conquered twice because of its arrogance manifested in its lack of watchfulness (3:2-3). The city was also famous for its woolen, textile, and jewelry industry.

Sardis was devoted to the worship of the mother-goddess Cybele and no temple worshipper was allowed to approach the temple of the gods with soiled or unclean garments. A white and clean robe was required to approach its so-called gods. Yet note the following account of the actual moral conditions of this idolatry. Andrew Tate writes,

Her worship was of the most debasing character and orgies like those of Dionysos were practiced at the festivals held in her honour. Sins of the foulest and darkest impurity were committed on those occasions; and when we think of a small community of Christians rescued from such abominable idolatry, living in the midst of scenes of the grossest depravity, with early associations, and companionships, and connections, all exerting a force in the direction of heathenism, it may be wondered that the few members of the church in Sardis were not drawn away altogether, and swallowed up in the great vortex.52

From this, you can see the obvious allusions to the historical setting in the Lord’s words in 3:4-5.

The Church of Sardis

Though filled with external works and activity, this church is known as the sleeping church. As Paul put it in 2 Timothy 3:5, they had a form of godliness, but, because of their failure to walk with the Lord, they were denying the real power of God through their hypocrisy. They were out of touch with elements of true spirituality. Some may have been only professing Christians engaged in religious activities who had never truly trusted in Jesus Christ. More than likely, however, they were carnal believers who had made a good start, but had failed to move on, to grow and experience true spirituality. They were active, engaged in works, but temporally dead, out of fellowship with Christ (Eph. 5:14-18).

The Christ, the Author and Answer
(3:1b)

The answer, as always, is centered in Who Christ is—The Savior who has the seven Spirits of God and the seven stars. These two aspects of Christ’s ministry to the church are brought immediately to the forefront because they give us the key to both the problem of this church and its solution.

The Seven Spirits of God

“The seven Spirits of God” is a reference to the Holy Spirit who proceeds from the Father and the Son to the believer (John 7:37-39; 15:16, 26). He is the Son’s gift to enable believers to experience genuine spirituality through the multiple ministries and work of the Spirit symbolized here in the number seven which is a clear allusion to the seven-fold ministries of the Spirit mentioned in Isaiah 11:2-5. But believers have a responsibility to walk by the Spirit who indwells them. The responsibility is to walk by faith in His enabling power and to deal with the sin in their lives through honest confession or they will hinder (grieve and quench) the work of the Spirit. So part of the problem was the believers in the church at Sardis were grieving and quenching the ministry of the Holy Spirit (Eph. 4:30; 1 Thess. 5:19).

The Seven Stars

In the introduction I shared my reasons why I, along with many others, have believed the seven stars referred to the spiritual leadership which is primarily responsible to hold forth the light of the Word to the local flock of believers. Here, it appears, was another key area of weakness; the failure to communicate and receive the Word in a consistent and an in-depth way with personal application and response of the mind, heart and will. Therefore, the two life-giving provisions of God for man—the Holy Spirit and the Word—were being neglected. The result was spiritual deadness (Zech. 4:6; Heb. 4:12; Eph. 3:16-19; 1 Thess. 2:13).

The Church and its Affairs
(3:1c-6)

The Condemnation Declared (1c)

As with all the churches, the Lord declares, “I know your deeds.” That which is invisible to men is perfectly clear to the Lord who is in the business of revealing our true condition regardless of how spiritual we may think we are. He uses His Word, the convicting work of the Spirit, and other agents (trials and members of the body of Christ) as mirrors of reproof to show us our need and draw us to Himself. The question is, as He will challenge us in verse 6, do we have eyes to see and ears to hear?

So, in the very next words, we see a rude awakening and reality:

  • We see that they had a name, a reputation—what men thought.
  • We see they were alive, that is, they were an active church full of programs and church activity—what men see.
  • But, regardless, they were dead, without true spiritual vitality—what the Lord saw and knew.

The point is they had a reputation, they were known far and wide, and they were active, filled with activity, action, and programs, just like a great deal of the church today all across America. By the world’s standards they were successful and they were probably proud of their church, but our Lord says not so, “you are dead.” So what does He mean by “dead?”

In Scripture, death stands for the concept of separation as well as the absence of life.

  • For the unbeliever, death means without spiritual life, unregenerate, and without God—separated from relationship with God.
  • But for the believer, death, like sleep, is sometimes used as a symbol for carnality, for being out of fellowship with God, separated from Christ as the source of the abundant life (Eph. 5:14).

Some could have been only professing believers, and so they were spiritually dead, just professing believers involved in an active church. But I don’t think that is the emphasis here. He was talking to true believers who were spiritually carnal and working from the energy of their own resources rather than from His (the Word and the Holy Spirit).

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.

This illustrates the problem of institutionalism in the church, but today, we also have a new scenario that can be a part of this picture, the megachurch which has become a part of American jargon with megabucks, megatrends, and the megamall. Our megamalls have been styled as “cathedrals of consumption” because they are designed to feed the consumer appetites of our lifestyle today. But if we are not careful, churches can become “cathedrals of consumption” as well.

The Counsel Advised (2-3)

“Be watchful.” We could translate this, “become and stay awake” or “get awake.” By the analogy of Scripture this was a command for believers to get back into fellowship, i.e., to repent or confess their sin and start walking in the Spirit and in the light of the Word (Eph. 5:14-18).

For the unbeliever or the merely apparent believer, this becomes a call to become genuine with Christ, to put one’s faith in the Savior (cf. 1 Thess. 5:4-8).

“And strengthen the things that remain.” Strengthen is an aorist imperative of the verb sthrizw which means “to strengthen, make stable, firm.” The aspect of the verb (an aorist imperative in the Greek) carries the idea of urgency like, do it now, before it is too late. This is basically a command to get with God’s plan for spiritual stabilization and strength. And what is that? A life in the Word. If you have any doubt about that, spend some time reading and meditating on Psalm 119.

Note the following verses where sthrizw is used:

(1) Romans 1:11, compare this with Luke 22:32 (Christ’s warning and command to Peter) and John 21:15-17. Here is the principle of pastors and teachers strengthening believers by feeding the lambs and the sheep with the Word.

(2) Romans 16:25-26. Here we have the principle of believers receiving the Word in the assembly as well as from personal study.

“The things which remain.” When people stop operating from the base of God’s Word and from the power of His Spirit, spiritual decline always begins. It’s a kind of law of spiritual degeneration. But even in such a state there is at first some semblance of what is right in a man’s life—good habits, traditions and actions, a remembrance of morality, even though people forget the source. Remember, the church of Ephesus had good works (Rev. 2:2), even though it appears they too lacked the right spiritual source when we compare them with 1 Thess. 1:4, but eventually even this was lost because Ephesus failed to go back to do the first works.

Even human good is better than evil and God uses such morality to benefit society and even His own church. This is one of the purposes of good government, to restrain evil and promote good. Morality in parents helps to produce the same in their children. But the point is, without the proper spiritual base and the absolute guide of Bible doctrine even this will be finally lost. So, He quickly warns, “which were about to die.”

“For I have not found your deeds completed …” “Perfect” is the verb plhrow which may mean “to fill, make full,” or “complete.” The verb is in the perfect tense which means its aspect (how the writer perceives its verbal action or state) is stative, resultative, or completed. It conceives the verbal idea as completed, or as completed with continuing results and looks at an existing condition. The word “complete” refers to “the deeds” done. This is what was incomplete or not completed. But does this mean they need more works, or that there was something incomplete about the works accomplished, or both? The context suggests both, but perhaps the focus is on the second, a missing element in their deeds. Their works were incomplete in that they lacked the proper source and motive. They had not measured up to God’s standards. They were not Spirit produced and could not stand the test of His examination. At the judgment seat of Christ they would fall under the category of wood, hay and stubble (1 Cor. 3:12-15). They were imperfect either in quality (works of the flesh) or they were imperfect in content.

“Remember therefore what you have received (perfect aspect) and heard (aorist)” (3:3). This represents faith and the truth they had received as a trust and the perfect aspect of the verb “received” calls attention to the abiding responsibility incumbent upon the receiver.

“And keep it, and repent.” Compare this verse with Colossians 2:6 and 1 Thessalonians 2:13. They were to remember the early days of their life in the Word, when the Word was received by faith and was their source of strength and wisdom for all of life. This former life of faith they were to keep, to hold fast to continually, but it was also vital that they repent carefully because a true change of mind and heart is necessary for a genuine and consistent walk with the Lord (Prov. 4:23, 26).

The Commendation Stated (4a)

They are comforted and commended because there were a few who had not fallen into the above condemnation.

“Soiled garments” speaks of the contamination of the life and witness by accommodation to the standards of the world prevalent in any society. More precisely, it refers to the unrighteousness of men in immorality, apostasy, idolatry, or of their own religious works of righteousness in mere external religion and legalism (Isa. 64:6; John 6:63).

The Certainties Promised (4b-5)

They are next comforted and assured by calling their attention to certain verities or certainties that the Lord promises to every believer in Christ. The certainties come in three distinct parts: (a) arrayed in white garments, (b) name not to be blotted out, and (c) their name confessed before His Father.

    The White Garments (5a)

“Walking with Christ in white” is a reward for faithfulness. Note that the reason given in 3:4 is stated in the words, “for (the causal use of %oti, “because”) they are worthy.” 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 Revelation 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 (Bema) Seat of Christ (1 Cor. 3:13).

No person is ever worthy of salvation righteousness. Justification, or salvation righteousness, 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; Tit. 3:4-7), but the white garment mentioned in 3:5 is related to the garment of 3:4 and is given as a reward for a worthy walk. While some writers assume that all Christians will wear these white garments in the kingdom, this verse teaches us that only overcoming believers, those who haven’t defiled their garments (verse 4), will wear these particular garments representative of the righteous acts of the saints in the kingdom.

    His Name Never to be Erased (5b)

In verse 5, the overcomer is also promised he can never have his name erased from the Book of life. Could this suggest the possibility of the loss of salvation? Such a concept is totally contrary to the analogy of the faith in the New Testament which teaches us all believers are kept secure by the power of God and the finished work of Christ (cf. John 10:28-29; Rom. 8:38-39). As Charles Stanley so aptly put it, “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?”53

Because so many do not understand the nature of salvation as a finished work of God in Christ and are insecure in their faith, verses such as this are misunderstood as suggesting the possibility of the loss of salvation, or as a proof for the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints. This results in a fixation on what the verse does not say rather than on what it is saying in the context biblically, historically, and culturally. This verse was never intended as a warning. Instead, it is a promise of encouragement in view of the historical setting of John’s day. To say that verse 5 suggests the possibility of losing salvation is at best, an argument from silence.

If we understand the promise of 3:5 in its historical and contextual context, we will find that it is not dealing with the issue of losing or proving salvation at all. By the use of a figure of speech known as litotes (an affirmation expressed in negative terms), we have an emphatic declaration that stresses the certainty of the promise. In other words, a positive point is made by denying its opposite. This not only stresses the security of the believer—for every believer’s name is written in the book of life—but is a way of promising something special to the overcomer in the kingdom and eternal future. Bob Wilkin, who agrees with this view, quotes William Fuller and writes:

William Fuller, who defends this understanding of Rev 3:5, writes, “A command that everyone keeps is superfluous, and a reward that everyone receives for a virtue that everyone has is nonsense.” The eternal-rewards interpretation takes the command seriously, views the reward as a powerful motivation to obedience, and doesn’t distort the Gospel!54

Tatford also interprets Revelation 3:5 in a similar way when he writes,

Practically every city of that day kept a role or register of its citizens … one who had performed some great exploit, deserving of special distinction, was honoured by having his name inscribed in golden letters in the citizens’ roll. Our Lord’s emphatic statement, therefore, implies not merely that the name of the overcomer shall not be expunged, but per contra that it shall be inscribed in golden letters in the heavenly roll.55

There is even evidence that a person’s name was sometimes removed from the city register before death if he had been convicted of a crime.56 When these messages were written, Christians were under the constant threat of being branded as social rebels and stripped of their citizenship if they refused to recant or denounce their faith in Christ. So here, as a source of motivation and encouragement, the Lord personally reminds the overcomer not only of the safety of his heavenly citizenship, but of the special acknowledgment the Lord Himself will give before the Father and before His angels.

    His Name Confessed Before the Father and His Angels (5c)

As just indicated, this promise is related to the previous promise and may really be a part of that promise. It is likewise not dealing with salvation, but with reward by way of an accolade, a special acknowledgment or public recognition for faithfulness. Again we need to keep in mind the historical background mentioned above. Though the overcomer may experience blame and ridicule and loss of citizenship before the world because he or she refuses to follow after the world or bow to its threats, the overcomer will experience special reward in the form of public recognition. Undoubtedly, special accolades like, “well done, you good and faithful servant,” is in mind.

The Challenge Needed (6)

See the preceding studies for the nature of this challenge to have ears to hear.

Some final lessons:

(1) The means for living the Christian life so vital for spiritual reality is a knowledge and a careful application of the Word through the various ministries of the Spirit (vs. 1).

(2) The signs of a successful church, one truly in touch with God is not names, noses, and numbers, but Christlikeness. How much do the people of the church demonstrate the Savior in their personal lives, in their families, in their values, priorities, ministry, etc.? It is never just activity or works or size or reputation. Activities and reputations by themselves are never a proof of true spirituality.

(3) Genuine godliness is the foundation of moral goodness. Moral goodness is always incomplete and on the verge of degeneration without godliness through the Spirit and the Word with its absolute truth.

(4) God is always faithful to reward His people for their faithfulness to Him. Salvation is by faith alone, sola fide, in Christ alone, but rewards are the product of overcoming faith in the life of Christ appropriated in the Christian’s life.


52 Andrew Tate, The Messages to the Seven Churches of Asia Minor, p. 299, quoted by Walvoord in The Revelation of Jesus Christ, Moody Press, Chicago, 1966, p. 79.

53 Charles Stanley, Eternal Security, Can You Be Sure? Thomas Nelson, Nashville, 1990, p. 181.

54 J. William Fuller, “I Will Not Erase His Name from the Book of Life (Rev 3:5),” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (Sept. 1983), p. 299, quoted by Bob Wilkin, Grace Evangelical News, March, 1995.

55 Fredk. A. Tatford, Prophecy’s Last Word, p. 63.

56 Alan Johnson, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 12, Frank E. Gaebelein, general editor, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1981, p. 450.

Related Topics: Christology