Revelation 3: Sardis - The church that fell asleep

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Bible Study Series: Revealing Jesus in Revelation

Revelation Chapter 3:1-6 Sardis: The church that fell asleep

by I Gordon

Ever been to a church and left thinking "Hmmm seems a wee bit dead. That church seems to have fallen asleep!" Well, that was Jesus' message to the next church whose report card we'll explore today. And that is the church at Sardis. As we'll see, Sardis had a great reputation in the eyes of men, but the reputation didn't match the reality in the eyes of the Lord. And, as I'm sure you know, it's what He thinks that counts! But there were some in this church that walked with the Lord and had somehow, thankfully, not slipped into this comatose state! So that's what we will look at today starting with a general overview of this letter.  

Quick Sardis Overview

"The important commercial city of Sardis was located about 30 miles southeast of Thyatira, on an important trade route that ran east and west through the kingdom of Lydia. Important industries included jewelry, dye, and textiles, which had made the city wealthy. From a religious standpoint it was a center of pagan worship and site of a temple of Artemis, which ruins still remain."
Bible Knowledge Commentary

  • Meaning of Sardis: 'Those escaping' - A pointer to the true believer's who escaped both the world's system and the false religious system we saw especially in the letter to Thyatira 
  • 500 years before this letter was written, Sardis was one of the most powerful and richest cities in the region. But it weakened through moral failures and was conquered by both the Persian and Grecian empires.
  • In 'There's a new world coming' Hal Lindsey writes that at the time of Revelation, 'while still a comparatively important city... the people tended to live in the glories of the past and the church in Sardis was guilty of the same backward look.'
  • This is interesting because as a prophetic age this church points to the churches established through the Protestant reformation. They had a good beginning but many slowly died. They looked back at what used to be and not forward. Many became state churches like the Anglican in Britain and the Lutheran in Germany, leading to their eventual description seen in this letter, as showing few signs of life!

As an overview, the letter has the following:

  • Commendation - Very light! "You have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes."
  • Complaint - They were a dead church! They were asleep and there deeds were not complete in the sight of God.
  • Counsel - Jesus says remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; obey it, and repent.
  • Warning - They are warned of missing the time of Jesus' coming - 'if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you.'
  • Challenge/Promise - He who overcomes will be dressed in white. There names will never be blotted out of the book of life, and Jesus will acknowledge them before His Father and angels.

Over-riding thought: This letter is hard hitting and somewhat surprising. As mentioned, prophetically it points to the church age starting from the reformation right down to the end of the age. But Jesus has little to commend this church for. They are said to be mostly dead. They are said to be asleep, desperately needing to wake! There is the warning of getting overtaken when Jesus returns. So this letter should be seen as a wakeup call for many who just 'do church' but don't have a true relationship with the Lord.

Sardis Report Card - The problem

Rev 3:1  "To the angel of the church in Sardis write: He who has the seven Spirits of God and the seven stars, says this: 'I know your deeds, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead. 

Jesus introduces Himself as the One who has the seven Spirits of God. The seven Spirits will again be seen in chapter 4 around the throne of God. This reference is a pointer back to Isaiah 11:1-2 which speaks of the seven fold Spirit that was upon Jesus. So remembering that each description of Jesus in these letters is specific and needed for the church addressed, why would Jesus use this title for this church? Well, because they are showing no signs of life and no signs of the Spirit at work! They had a reputation of being alive, and there was likely a time at the start that they were... but as time has gone on the church slipped into a coma! Now the church programs didn't stop, but Jesus saw the reality of where they were at. Pastor Vance Havner has it right when he says:

"We are not to get the impression that Sardis was a defunct affair with the building a wreck, the members scattered, the pastor ready to resign. It was a busy church with meetings every night, committees galore, wheels within wheels, promotion and publicity, something going on all the time. It had a reputation of being a live, wide-awake, going concern."
Vance Havner

And yet Jesus looked not at the programs and meetings but at the heart. He looked for life. His life1, without which we are, and can do, nothing. There are lots of churches that have a reputation as being alive but substitute lights and music for spiritual life from the Spirit. So Jesus said of this church that 'you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead.' It is fair to say that that is not something you would want to hear from the Lord about yourself or your church! Pastor Ray Stedman writes: "Hollywood has given us a name for people like that: it calls them "Zombies" -- corpses that are alive, that walk about as though they are living but they are really dead. As we read this letter, we are looking at the First Zombie Church of Sardis!" Yikes!

Jesus says they have a name that they are alive... "A name" speaks of their reputation. They were thought to be "something", and quite likely that was based on something real at the beginning. But their earned reputation had long since passed... and they were now just going through the motions of a dry and dead routine. They were playing Christianity and playing Church. And this is not meant to be the Christian life! Have you heard of the term 'nominal Christians'? Nominal means 'to exist in name only'. These were Christians in name only. And unfortunately that is often the 'Christianity' that the world sees and has no desire to be part of.  

The prophetic church age pointer
Right about now it is worth pointing out the age which this letter points to. I mentioned it at the beginning but it looks at the period beginning with the Reformation right down to the coming of Jesus at the end of this age. 
This period had a great beginning! The Reformation was desperately needed and freed many from the works based bondage of the Catholic church.  The Sardis age church had many great 'names' that came out of this period like Luther, Calvin, Wesley, Knox etc. Entire denominations came from these men such as the Lutheran church, the Methodist church and the Presbyterian church... Not to mention theological systems like Calvinism and movements like the Wesleyan Holiness movement. But it often ended up, unfortunately, with dead orthodoxy and lifeless profession.2

That's what makes this letter so surprising.. and, well, sad. Sardis points to the post Reformation and Protestant church era which we would think would be commended by the Lord. But He sees the entire picture. He sees how it started when there was life within these traditional churches but also what they became. He says 'I know your deeds, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead.' That's a sad testimony! 

My Grandmother's testimony

As an example, my grandmother on my father's side was a life-long Methodist. She spent most of her adult life at this church. She was on the cooking committee and helped where she could. Her Methodist minister said, and I quote, 'she ruled the church kitchen with a rod of iron!' Now I don't know if that is a good thing or not but she sure was a great cook and loved to help out! Yet here is the thing... she didn't know the Lord! The church she went to was more of a social event and outing than a place where the 'ecclesia', 'the called out ones' came together to learn about their Lord. Now my Mum witnessed to my Grandmother and prayed for her for many decades but there was no sign of change. It looked hopeless. My Grandmother just thought she was a good person, had tried to live a good life, had gone to church, and all would be well. 

Yet in the last few weeks of her life, Grandma got really down and, well... scared. Scared of dying and what happens next. She was in an old folks home at the time and the staff could see that she was very bothered. Now there was a Christian lady in that old people's home who normally wasn't allowed to tell people about Jesus, yet on this occasion the staff came to her and gave her permission to 'go and talk to Mrs. Gordon'. So this lady went and seeing my Grandmother said straight of the bat 'are you afraid of dying?' My grandmother said she was, to which this lady replied 'is it because you don't know Jesus?' And finally, after all the years of church committee's and attendance, she said that was true - she didn't know Him and hadn't experienced forgiveness and salvation. But she wanted to!

She was born spiritually that day and died physically, in perfect peace, happy to die, only a few weeks later! 

Now I certainly don't want to say anyone involved with this type of church is asleep! That is not true. One of my favorite authors whom I quote quite a bit, A.C Gaebelein, was a Methodist minister. And as we shall see in this letter, good solid true believers remain and are acknowledged by Jesus later in verses 4 and 5. But unfortunately there are many that are spiritually dead and asleep. They may not even know it! It is to those that Jesus now says in verse 2:

Rev 3:2  'Wake up, and strengthen the things that remain, which were about to die; for I have not found your deeds completed in the sight of My God. 

So Jesus gives this counsel - wake up and strengthen the things that remain! My Grandmother didn't wake up till the last few weeks of her life but thankfully she did! And with this church all was not lost. There were certainly signs of dying yet something still remained and the condition had a remedy. To quote Miracle Max from the movie 'The Princess Bride' (and ahh, ok, I've never quoted from him before and likely never will again!):

"It just so happens that your friend here is only MOSTLY dead. There's a big difference between mostly dead and all dead. Mostly dead is slightly alive."
Miracle Max, The Princess Bride : )

So what did they have? What could they build on? What could they strengthen? This is all a reminder to be watchful of our own heart. We are to be sensitive to the deceitfulness of sin as it deadens and draws us away from Jesus. 

Strengthen the things that remain
Maybe you have slipped in your Christian life. Maybe you have fallen asleep. Yet what do you still have? Maybe all that remains is faith the size of a mustard seed. Then strengthen that wavering faith. To the weak amongst Israel God said:
Isa 52:1-2 Awake, awake, O Zion, clothe yourself with strength. Put on your garments of splendor, O Jerusalem, the holy city... Shake off your dust; rise up, sit enthroned, O Jerusalem. Free yourself from the chains on your neck, O captive Daughter of Zion. 
To those struggling in the letter to the Hebrews the writer says:

Heb 12:12-13 Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees. Make level paths for your feet, so that the lame may not be disabled, but rather healed.

There is always a way back with God. There is always a path to spiritually healing and He will respond to the one who genuinely sees their need and asks for His help. Strengthen the things that remain!

Jesus' counsel

Rev 3:3 Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; obey it, and repent. 

J. Vernon McGee writes well on this verse stating:

"Remember therefore how thou hast received and heard, and hold fast, and repent." The idea is that they were to hold fast to these things because they were about to die. The great truths which were recovered in the Reformation are being lost. For instance, the Protestant church, by and large, has lost the authority of the Word of God. Rather than holding to the doctrine of the total depravity of man, many of our conservative churches are improving and using cosmetics on the carnal nature, thinking that somehow or another you can get up a few little rules and regulations which are going to enable you to live the Christian life. Also, the great doctrine of justification by faith has been pretty much abandoned, and a legalistic message is given that you have to do something in order to be saved. These are the things which characterize Protestantism today; it is very far from its original position."
J. Vernon McGee (from back in the 1980's... It's worse now!)

Jesus tells them three things to do:

  1. Remember  - This type of church should remember. They should remember their foundations. They should remember what they received from the Lord. As should any wayward believer. From a prophetic point of view the Protestant church was founded upon the following five-fold footing: Grace alone, faith alone, Christ alone, scripture alone, Glory of God alone. Each of these is Biblical and should be remembered, received and rejoiced in again. 
  2. Obey - Stay strong to that which you knew to be the truth. Don't move from it. Many are moving from grace, faith, Christ and scripture alone in this day. But we need to obey what the Lord says and not man.  
  3. Repent - Turn around in the way they are walking. Turn around with how they are thinking! Come back to that which is true. This is the message for this church in their day and ours!

Jesus' warning - and the prophetic implications!

Rev 3:3 ...But if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you.

So here is the warning - if you don't wake up Jesus' coming will catch you unprepared! If they didn't wake up Jesus would come to them unexpectedly and those members of this church, that was previously described as both 'dead' and 'asleep', would be be found unprepared for the Lord's return. J. Vernon McGee gives the following illustration concerning this city:

Sardis was built high upon a mountaintop which was impossible to scale except at one point... In spite of that, there were these two occasions when enemy soldiers gained entrance to the city. This was very embarrassing to this city—two times it was captured because the guard went to sleep. The Lord says to the church at Sardis, "Don't you go to sleep. Wake up and watch out." He could come at any moment. The people of Sardis did not know when the enemy was coming, and we do not know when the Lord Jesus is coming.
J. Vernon McGee

To those that had fallen asleep Jesus' coming would be like a 'thief'. This should not be new language to us. It should remind us of what Jesus said in the Gospels and also what Paul write:

  • Jesus' coming is likened to a thief for those not watching: Mat 24:42-44 Watch therefore, for you do not know what hour your Lord is coming. (43) But know this, that if the master of the house had known what hour the thief would come, he would have watched and not allowed his house to be broken into. (44) Therefore you also be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.
  • The day of the Lord is likened to a thief for unbelievers: 1Th 5:1-4 But concerning the times and the seasons, brethren, you have no need that I should write to you. (2) For you yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so comes as a thief in the night. (3) For when they say, "Peace and safety!" then sudden destruction comes upon them, as labor pains upon a pregnant woman. And they shall not escape. (4) But you, brethren, are not in darkness, so that this Day should overtake you as a thief.

So let's be clear - All true believers will be raptured when Christ returns. He is coming for His body and His bride. Not just part of it. But there are many who just go to church, like my Grandma did for many decades, who do not know the Lord. They can and normally are 'good' people. You would like them... but don't be one of them! For they haven't been born again and the churches they go to are dead. They are asleep. These churches don't talk about the true Gospel. They don't talk about the Lord's return. The people attending don't think about His return or even think He is coming. They have their plans for this life and for those of their children. They don't give much thought to eternal matters. So His return to them will be like a thief. It will be completely unexpected and they will miss the time of His coming. The door to their escape before the tribulation will be closed. This is a serious warning. It is why, when I drew the diagram of the seven churches, I had three of the last four churches going on into the tribulation. Sardis, this church, was one of those. The warning should be taken very seriously. 

It is also a serious warning to true believers who have fallen asleep. We want to be found watching and ready for His return. We want to hear those words 'well done good and faithful servant'. We do not want to shrink back in shame from His coming, as 1 John 2:28 states, knowing that we largely wasted our life and lived just for ourselves. 

Rev 3:4  'But you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their garments; and they will walk with Me in white, for they are worthy. 

God always has a remnant. As mentioned earlier, there are true believers within these denominations... within all denominations. They walk with the Lord just as Enoch walked with God all those years ago - until he was not because God took him (Gen 5:24). As He will to all true believers when He comes for His bride! These, Jesus says, have not soiled their garments and will walk in white3. This is seen of true believers right through the book of Revelation as we shall see as we continue (Rev 4:4, Rev 6:11, Rev 7:9, Rev 7:13-14, Rev 19:8). This brings us to the promise made to this church...

Jesus' promise to overcomers

Rev 3:5  'He who overcomes will thus be clothed in white garments; and I will not erase his name from the book of life, and I will confess his name before My Father and before His angels. 

The true believers will be clothed in white and the promise is given that their names will never be removed from the Lamb's book of life. This book is a registry of all true believers throughout the ages that have eternal life. While some take this phrase of not erasing names from the book of life as a warning, others see it as a promise. I see it as a promise because of when this book was written. For example, are names added to this book when a person is saved? When they die and still believe? When was this book written? In God's foreknowledge of all events, it was actually written before the foundation of the world!4 

Rev 13:8  All who dwell on the earth will worship him (the Antichrist), everyone whose name has not been written from the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who has been slain.
Rev 17:8 "...And those who dwell on the earth, whose name has not been written in the book of life from the foundation of the world, will wonder when they see the beast, that he was and is not and will come.

The implication from both verses is that names were written, and not written, from the foundation of the world. Now above all things the greatest joy we receive should come from knowing that our names are written in this book. You probably remember when Jesus' disciples came back after their time of ministry, they were rejoicing over all that happened and that even the demons obeyed them. Jesus Himself was joyful because of their joy but also said:

Nevertheless do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rather rejoice because your names are written in heaven. (Luke 10:20) 

Illustration - Jesus confesses us before the Father and His angels
Concerning the true believers, the overcomers, Jesus adds this '...and I will confess his name before My Father and before His angels.'

Let me give you a recent true story that illustrates this. This past week was my sister's birthday who decided to have an all-female lunch for her friends and family. During the lunch she decided to thank each person individually and say why she appreciated them. Brave, I know! First up was my Mum. Now I, being a male, clearly wasn't there but Mum said my sister said some of the nicest things about her that she had ever heard in her life. Many of the things raised, Mum had long forgotten. Some things were right back from my sister's childhood that Mum didn't even know meant so much to her or would be remembered. There was so much praise, in front of so many people, that Mum was taken back. In fact the more my sister spoke, the smaller my Mum got! She is very small to begin with but with all eyes on her, she began visibly shrinking even more in embarrassment! 

And yet part the way through, not really knowing how to react, Mum suddenly heard the Lord speak to her. She wasn't thinking of the Lord, or even talking to Him. Yet while the stories and praise from my sister continued, the Lord spoke to Mum's heart saying 'we must all appear before the judgement seat of Christ.' And Mum said it wasn't in a condemning or fearful way at all. It was a reminder that He too, in a public setting, will be looking for that which is worthy of praise. Maybe they are things we didn't think too much of or had long forgotten. But they were done in faith, trusting in Him, and the Lord hasn't forgotten them. 

Jesus says in our passage that He will confess the name of His followers before His Father and the angels. That will be a public confession. Can you imagine that? Can you imagine getting praise from God Himself? The judgement seat of Christ normally scares believers. We read verses like:

1Co 4:5 Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait till the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of men's hearts... 

And our hearts start to sink and we let out a small gulp! And yet do you know what comes straight after that, right in the same verse? Do you know what it is that He is bringing to light for believers? The rest of the verse says 'At that time each will receive his praise from God.' As I write this, the thought of that literally brings a tear to my eye. I don't understand that. I don't feel worthy of praise from God! And I can't even imagine what that would be like in front of the angels and church. But maybe, just maybe, it is something like what my Mum experienced... but on a whole different level and scale!  

All I do know is that it makes you want to live for Him in the here and now!      


This 6-verse letter concludes as do all the letters: 

Rev 3:6 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.

This letter wasn't just written to Sardis. It was written for all churches. It wasn't just written for the 1st century. It is as relevant today as it was on the day it was written. Like I said at the start it is quite a sad letter but one ending with hope for the true believer. It speaks of a church that was slipping into a coma and was being shaken by the Lord to wake up. And yet it also had those that walked in truth with the Lord. It goes without saying that we want to be the second group! We want to be those that are not overcome, shamed or at a loss when the Lord returns. But those that are found waiting for their Lord, having spent our time apart wisely, and rejoicing to see the One we have so longed to see.

God Bless!

  1. Life, His life, is always the answer to being dead. It isn't more programs or more services. It is getting back to the heart of Christianity - which is Jesus Himself. It is making a move back to Him and He will give you life and light. Therefore He says: "Awake, you who sleep, Arise from the dead, And Christ will give you light." (Eph 5:14)

  2. "The assembly at Sardis is often taken as a picture of the Post-Reformation period when the church became formal, ritualistic, worldly, and political. The Protestant state churches of Europe and the American colonies were leaders in this drift."
    William MacDonald, Believers Bible Commentary

    "In Copenhagen, a pastor said to me, with tears in his eyes, "Oh, I wish I could preach the Word like you do in America, but I have no time. I have to marry everyone. I have to baptize all the babies that are born and bury everyone who dies in this whole parish, and I simply have no time to study." (They often describe it as having to hatch, match, and dispatch everyone!). He longed to study, but he was unable to impart the truth of the Word to his congregation because of the tie to the state.This is still widely true in Europe today. Churches there are almost totally empty. There may be a few believers among those present, but the membership of the church is made up of people who have a name to live but are spiritually dead."
    Ray Stedman

  3. "Why does Jesus refer to defiled garments? In the heathen worship of the day, the pagan gods could not be approached with dirty clothes. The analogy can work for the worship of Jesus, because He gives His pure ones white garments."
    David Guzik

  4. This is an area of disagreement. For example in his book 'The Revelation of Jesus Christ', esteemed Bible teacher and prophecy scholar Dr. John Walvoord writes:

    "Some have indicated that there is no explicit statement here that anybody will have his name blotted out, but rather the promise that his name will not be blotted out because of his faith in Christ. The implication, however, is that such is a possibility. On the basis of this some have considered the book of life not as the roll of those who are saved but rather a list of those for whom Christ died, that is, all humanity who have possessed physical life. As they come to maturity and are faced with the responsibility of accepting or rejecting Christ, their names are blotted out if they fail to receive Jesus Christ as Saviour; whereas those who do accept Christ as Saviour are confirmed in their position in the book of life, and their names are confessed before the Father and the heavenly angels."

    I could be wrong but I can't quite see this. The verses about the lamb's book of life specifically show that unbelievers were NOT written in this book from the foundation of the world. I have written more about this here:

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