1. The History of Sardis
2. The letter to Sardis
b. The problem and the solution
i. Alive but dead
ii. How you received and heard
c. The faithful and the promise
i. White garments
ii. The Book of life
iii. Name confession
1. The History of Sardis
Sardis was the capital of the ancient kingdom of Lydia which began in the 13th century BC. It was situated at the junction of the principal or royal highways which linked Ephesus, Smyrna and Pergamum with the high country of Asia Minor. It had a commanding view of the Hermus valley and was founded upon a northern spur of Mt Tmolus.
It is thought that from the times of the first coming of man into this area that Sardis was inhabited, though the precise date of its founding is unknown.
In the middle of the 6th century BC, King Croesus came to rule and became a proverb amongst all the people for wealth and prosperity but also, as Zondervans notes, for
‘...the doom which sometimes falls shockingly upon the rich and fortunate’ (more on this later)
The Pactolus river which flowed nearby was also used as a proverb for its easily won alluvial gold.
Under Croesus, the kingdom of Lydia extended to the Aegean sea and to the cities of the Ionian Greeks (Smyrna, Ephesus etc.,). Croesus noted the rising power of Persia during his reign and, upon receiving reports of their strength after they had advanced into new territory, he began to consider ways in which he could check their growing power before it came to a head.
Having accepted the oracle of Delphi as being true, he offered a great sacrifice, according to Herodotus (Book 1 - available on the Web at http://mcadams.posc.mu.edu/txt/herodotus/), and sent messengers to enquire of the oracle whether he should go to war against the Persians.
The author records the incident (53)
‘The messengers who had the charge of conveying these treasures to the shrines, received instructions to ask the oracles whether Croesus should go to war with the Persians and if so, whether he should strengthen himself by the forces of an ally. Accordingly, when they had reached their destinations and presented the gifts, they proceeded to consult the oracles in the following terms:-
‘”Croesus, of Lydia and other countries, believing that these are the only real oracles in all the world, has sent you such presents as your discoveries deserved, and now inquires of you whether he shall go to war with the Persians, and if so, whether he shall strengthen himself by the forces of a confederate”
‘Both the oracles agreed in the tenor of their reply, which was in each case a prophecy that if Croesus attacked the Persians, he would destroy a mighty empire, and a recommendation to him to look and see who were the most powerful of the Greeks, and to make alliance with them’
This is exactly what he did, trusting the Delphic oracle. He attacked the Persian army and destroyed a great Empire - his own! It had been a deceiving spirit that had spoken through the oracle!
Having engaged Cyrus in a bloody battle from which no king could have been considered to have won (71-76), Croesus withdrew to Sardis, the stronghold, Cyrus of Persia following on his heels and eventually arriving before the city to battle against the Sardian forces (77-79).
After a long struggle, the Lydians under Croesus fled and withdrew into Sardis (80) so beginning the siege. Sardis was considered so impregnable a fortress that Croesus sent messengers off to his allies, beseeching them to come to his aid (81), confident that he could hold the fortress until help arrived.
The Acropolis, today, rises as a sheer cliff face on three sides to a precipitous height of around 1500 feet, it being accessible easily only on the south side but, even so, it is thought to be only about one third of the height that it was in Croesus’ day. It was this citadel, then, that the king put great confidence in and refused to think that such natural defences could or would be breached.
However, in the words of Herodotus (84) this is what transpired:
‘On the fourteenth day of the siege Cyrus bade some horsemen ride about his lines, and make proclamation to the whole army that he would give a reward to the man who should first mount the wall.
‘After this he made an assault, but without success. His troops retired, but a certain Mardian, Hyroeades by name, resolved to approach the citadel and attempt it at a place where no guards were ever set. On this side the rock was so precipitous, and the citadel (as it seemed) so impregnable, that no fear was entertained of its being carried in this place.
‘Here was the only portion of the circuit round which their old king Meles did not carry the lion which his leman bore to him. For when the Telmessians had declared that if the lion were taken round the defences, Sardis would be impregnable, and Meles, in consequence, carried it round the rest of the fortress where the citadel seemed open to attack, he scorned to take it round this side, which he looked on as a sheer precipice, and therefore absolutely secure. It is on that side of the city which faces Mount Tmolus.
‘Hyroeades, however, having the day before observed a Lydian soldier descend the rock after a helmet that had rolled down from the top, and having seen him pick it up and carry it back, thought over what he had witnessed, and formed his plan. He climbed the rock himself, and other Persians followed in his track, until a large number had mounted to the top. Thus was Sardis taken, and given up entirely to pillage’
It is probably quite true to say that the attack was mounted at night even though Herodotus doesn’t specifically mention this fact, the relevance of which will be seen in Rev 3:3. It was Herodotus, incidentally, who found in Croesus and Sardis a fulfilment of his belief that power and wealth breed arrogance, and that arrogance ends in ruin. This may have been the spiritual state of the Sardian fellowship (but more about the letter later).
Sardis then, over the years, passed from hand to hand under successive regimes. It was in 214BC (Ungers 218, NIDBA 213) during an attempt by Antiochus the Great to bring Sardis back under Syrian rule that the lone feat of Hyroeades in 549BC (Ungers 546, NIDBA 547) was precisely repeated.
This over-confidence and neglect cost Sardis dear on two occasions - to be exploited once should have been enough that lessons could be learned from the mistakes, but twice begs the question whether they trusted in their own perception of situations rather than on certain facts.
In 133BC Sardis was part of the Pergameum kingdom when the then king Attalus III bequeathed his kingdom into the hands of Rome (as also Thyatira, Ephesus and Pergamum were).
False worship in Sardis included the worship of Cybele which was eventually engulfed by the worship of Artemis. The Caesar-cult, also, had become strong in 17AD. No direct reference is made to these in Jesus’ letter, neither is there evidence of any persecution. Archaeological excavations have revealed a temple to Artemis of the fourth century BC and, adjacent to this, remains of a christian church have been found from the fourth century AD. Many inscriptions of crosses have also been found amongst the temple of Artemis, indicating that it may have been partly transformed into a christian place of worship.
The Artemis temple of 78 Ionic columns which were around 58 feet in height measured something in the region of 160x300 feet and was built upon the foundations of a sixth century BC temple that had been constructed by Croesus.
Excavations have also hinted at the possibility that Cybele was associated with Artemis worship, that it was, perhaps, jointly offered to the two deities and that the latter’s temple was never finally completed.
There does not appear, however, to be any reference to either of these two main deities in Jesus’ words to the church at Sardis.
There is written evidence that during the Persian rule of Sardis (547-334BC) there were Aramaic speaking individuals within the city. In excavations during 1962, a large synagogue was discovered which indicated that a congregation of several thousand could have been present during the services. In recording the destruction of Sardis by Antiochus III in 214BC, Josephus notes that the king moved many of the Jews from Mesopotamia and Babylon to the most important areas of his newly conquered realm. It is therefore possible that during the third century BC that large numbers of Jews were forcibly migrated here and settled to form a significant diasporic population.
Josephus also notes a letter written between 31-27 BC from a proconsul of Asia commanding the magistrates and council of Sardis to forbid any restrictions being imposed upon the Jewish population from collecting large sums of money and of transporting it to the Temple in Jerusalem. This indicates that the Jews had the means to undermine the economy of Sardis by the quantities of money that would have been at their private disposal and indicates that, even though the population of the city may not have been significant, their wealth was.
The mention of the exiles in Sepharad in Obadiah 20 is usually taken to be referring to Sardis but sites in Spain and Media have also been suggested. If this does mean Sardis, however, it would indicate that a community of Jews existed quite early in the area, though the precise date of writing of the book has been debated over the years and no definitive year can be assigned to it. The two most popular dates are shortly after 844BC or sometime after the exile of 586BC.
It would not be going too far, though, to be conservative by saying that a community of Jews could have been present in Sardis no later than the fifth century BC which confirms the epigraphical evidence noted above.
The city became an administrative centre of Rome in Asia along with other cities. The city was affluent and ‘self-made’ due to its extreme self-sufficiency and grew in economic wealth due to its textile manufacturing (notably the woollen and dyeing industries - it claimed itself to be the first place where dyed wool was produced) and jewellery making. It was in Sardis that the first coins minted under Croesus were said to have been struck but NIDBA notes that the gold derived from the Pactolus river and the other metallurgy that was carried on in the region was the foundation of the wealth of king Croesus from which the coins would have come.
A mortgage deed found and dated to the second or third century BC gives some idea of the wealth of the temple and, therefore, of the city as a whole. A person by the name of Mnesimachus (NIDBA)
‘...acknowledges a huge gold loan and specifies whole villages as security’
However, trusting in their wealth and their position, there were times in their past when they became unwatchful and arrogant, so they fell. As in the case of Croesus’ Sardis, they did not guard the part of the city’s fortifications that they considered to be safe, paying little attention to the possibility that there was a weakness that needed dealing with.
In 17AD, a serious earthquake caused a catastrophe (Pliny is cited as saying that it was the greatest disaster in human memory - see on the History of Philadelphia for a quote from Tacitus concerning the disaster in which he names Sardis as the city which was laid waste the worst), but the city was soon rebuilt with aid given to it by the Emperor Tiberius.
2. The letter to Sardis
Upto this letter, the introductions have all followed the description of Jesus as described by John in the previous passage of Rev 1:12-20 but here there is the first deviation from that consistency with the mention of Jesus as the One who ‘has the seven spirits of God’.
This description appears to be drawn from Rev 1:4-5 where we read
‘...Grace to you and peace from Him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before His throne, and from Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the first-born of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth...’
These ‘seven spirits’ are again mentioned in Rev 4:5 where John notes that
‘...before the throne burn seven torches of fire, which are the seven spirits of God’
throwing no more light upon the interpretation of the phrase as the former quote. The ‘seven spirits’ are also mentioned in connection with the Lamb who has been ‘freshly slain’ in Rev 5:6 and given as the explanation of the seven eyes which it has (the Lamb is Jesus).
The problem we have is that it is not immediately obvious what the ‘seven spirits’ should be taken to indicate and most explanations seem to suffer from objections that are well justified.
The Greek word used here for ‘spirits’ is the same as the one used in Heb 1:7 and 1:14 where angels are being referred to. If the same interpretation is intended here, then Jesus is to be seen as the One who ‘has’ (that is, He possesses for His own use) the seven angels that stand before the throne of God in heaven.
As Mounce notes (on 1:4)
‘...it would seem that they are perhaps part of a heavenly entourage that has a special ministry in connection with the Lamb’
even though, on 3:1, he states that
‘...the [phrase] seven spirits of God are enigmatic at best’
The statement of Rev 3:1 would therefore hold a meaning similar to a play on words where Jesus is the One who has both the seven angels who stand before the Throne of God and the seven angels who are directly over the fellowships of Asia Minor - He is the one who controls both angelic presence and actions not only in heaven (the spirits before the throne) but also on earth (the stars of the churches).
But there are grounds (both within Revelation and external to it) for understanding the ‘seven spirits’ as being a phrase that is used to denote the Holy Spirit.
Firstly, Rev 1:4-5 reads like a declaration of ‘Father, Son and Holy Spirit’ grouped together elsewhere in NT Scripture (Mtw 28:19, II Cor 13:14) even though in this passage, the Spirit would be mentioned second rather than third. The first phrase
‘...from Him who is and who was and who is to come...’
is indicative of the eternality of God who continues to exist both before, within and after our present experience and, the third,
‘...from Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the first-born of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth...’
speaks of the Son and the work performed for mankind through the cross, burial, resurrection (the first-born) and ascension (the ruler). This naturally makes the interpretation almost inevitable that the ‘seven spirits’ should be taken as indicative of the Holy Spirit, even though no ‘action’ or ‘function’ are given to tie the interpretation down more solidly.
Elsewhere in Scripture, however, the Holy Spirit is referred to as ‘sevenfold’, denoting the completeness, perfection and totality of both the Presence of God and His work.
Isaiah 11:2 in the LXX speaks of seven characteristics of the Spirit of God (even though the original Hebrew text reads that there are six - three pairs) and is associated with the Messiah, mentioned in verse 1 of the same chapter.
The seven cups of the candlestick in Zechariah chapter 4 are indicative of the working of the Holy Spirit and, of extra significance, is that the seven spirits are mentioned in Rev 14:5 as being ‘seven torches of fire’.
The significance of Jesus having the ‘seven spirits’ is simply that He is anointed with the Holy Spirit and, therefore, speaks with the authority of God Himself - with the words that God bids Him. The connection between the Holy Spirit and the angels mentioned in the second half of the sentence would simply be that of the message being given under direct inspiration from God to the angels but this is rather clumsy and seems to have little unified purpose of meaning.
Against this interpretation is Jesus’ use of the repeated phrase (used in this letter at 3:6)
‘He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches’
where the Spirit is plainly spoken of in open terms rather than veiled language and where the phrase in 3:1 that ‘Jesus has’ the Spirit in the same way as he has the angels being rather untenable. Mounce also notes (on 1:4) that
‘It is argued that it would be improper to bracket anyone less than deity with the Father...and the Son...especially since in this context all three are given as the source of grace and peace. The argument loses its force, however, in view of such verses as Luke 9:26 which speaks of the return of the Son “when he comes in His glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels” and I Timothy 5:21 in which Paul charges obedience “in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus and of the elect angels”’
Though I originally began studying this letter thinking that the Holy Spirit was meant, the identification doesn’t sit easy with me and I prefer to see a reference to some sort of celestial beings in Jesus’ use of ‘the seven spirits of God’ though very little more can be said on the matter. Mounce tentatively concludes that it means that
‘...they are perhaps part of a heavenly entourage that has a special ministry in connection with the Lamb’
The reason, therefore, why Jesus uses this twin identification of Himself is, as above, that He is demonstrating to the Sardians that He is the one who is Commander-in-chief over all angelic powers whether in heaven or on earth and, as such, His threat to come ‘like a thief’ (Rev 3:3) is not without substance (see, for instance, Mtw 24:30-31, Jude 14-15, I Thess 4:16 and possibly Zech 14:5 where the Lord’s visitation upon an area is associated with angelic accompaniment) and neither is His mention that He will confess the name of those who overcome ‘before my Father and before His angels’ (Rev 1:5).
An identification with the Holy Spirit is not impossible but, in my opinion, it is unlikely.
Finally, the ‘seven stars’ refer us back to Rev 1:20 where ‘the angels of the seven churches’ are being referred to. For a discussion on the identification of these angels see the Introduction to the seven letters.
b. The problem and the solution
This passage begins with the sentence ‘I know your works’ but, unlike the other previous letters, Jesus does not go on to state exactly what those works are. Indeed, when we look at the problem that exists within the Sardian fellowship, although there are many words and descriptions of how Jesus views them, there isn’t any solid substance that we can take and understand just what they were doing (or not doing) that put them in such a precarious position before the Lord.
This hasn’t prevented commentators from making statements that, though they seem relevant, are unprovable and rely rather on the speculation of what the traits mean, rather than on what they actually say.
For instance, Hughes says that the problem has to do with failing to provide fruit which is useful for the Lord and that one final period of time is being given to them to bear useful fruit (on verse 2) and that (verse 3) they have been
‘...distracted by alien voices...preferring ease to hardship...’
Morris asks the question (verse 2)
‘Why did both Jews and Romans leave this church undisturbed (unlike some of its neighbours)? The answer may well be its lack of aggressive and positive Christianity’
which is a conclusion based upon what the letter doesn’t say rather than upon what it does (evidence for persecution in the other churches is Ephesus [2:2 - patient endurance and false apostles, 2:3 - enduring patiently], Smyrna [the entire letter, really, speaks of the tribulation that the church is going through], Pergamum [2:13 - the incident of Antipas, 2:14-15 - false teachers], Thyatira [2:20 - the false prophetess Jezebel] and Philadelphia [3:10 - patient endurance, 3:9 - synagogue of satan as 2:9]. Laodicea is the only other fellowship in which no persecution is even hinted at in the letter).
Though Morris’s statement may be true (and, to give him his due, he does use the phrase ‘may well be’ for he realises that his statement is far from certain) we cannot be certain that it is true and, if we conclude one thing we may, necessarily, exclude others which could be applicable not only to that fellowship of the first century but to the modern church.
The other commentary I’ve been using, written by Mounce gives numerous conclusions which are speculative rather than certain. He states (verse 1) that
‘...the majority had so fully compromised with the pagan environment that the church was Christian in name only...’
and (verse 2) that
‘The believers at Sardis had established a name for themselves in the eyes of the community, but “before God” their works had not measured up’
and (verse 3) that
‘Members of the church had received the faith as an abiding trust at the moment faith came by hearing’
and, finally (verse 4) that
‘...the majority of the church had become thoroughly secularised...’
All these quotes may be good statements that can be made and conclusions that can be drawn from the implications of what Jesus speaks to the fellowship at Sardis, but the problem is that, unlike the previous four churches, Jesus doesn’t put His finger specifically on the problem in unequivocal words that we can understand - that is, though they are told to ‘strengthen what remains’ (3:2), we don’t know what exactly does remain; when we read that they should remember ‘how they received and heard’ (3:3) we don’t know just ‘how’ that was (did they suddenly evangelise the neighbourhood, for instance, or did they suddenly shun the worship of false idols?); even when Jesus says that some have not ‘soiled their garments’ (3:4), just what action is being categorised as having stained the garments of the majority?
There is no doubt they understood what was being said, but we struggle to know exactly the problem because we don’t know the situation. In the previous four fellowships, we read of specific situations that were associated with the church’s problems - in Ephesus we read that the abandonment of love was the problem, in Smyrna there was none mentioned, in Pergamum there was false teaching that led believers to worship false gods and in Thyatira there was more false teaching along similar lines to that which existed in Pergamum).
Whatever we discuss, therefore, as being both the problem and the solution below, will unfortunately be couched in terms that will appear to be vague and parallels with today’s church will be difficult to be certain about.
It appears that, from Sardis, the most that we will be able to say is that there were certain principals that can be determined which can be applied to today’s Church in many varying different situations but it is the principal that’s important - two fellowships may be doing exactly the same works but one may be in a similar position to that of Sardis while the other may not.
i. Alive but dead
Jesus begins by telling the fellowship in very provocative language (3:1b) that
‘...you have the name of being alive and you are dead’
Though, as stated above, we cannot tie this statement down to a specific incident in the life of the church which has produced this condition, there appears to be two explanations as to what the words mean.
Firstly, as Mounce was quoted above in his comments on verse 2
‘The believers at Sardis had established a name for themselves in the eyes of the community, but “before God” their works had not measured up’
That is to say, that ‘the name of being alive’ is a phrase which we should consider as being a commendation from the population and society in which they lived. Although they will have taken the writer to the Hebrews’ statement seriously (12:14) that they should ‘strive for peace with all men’ and Paul’s statement in Rom 12:18 that ‘If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all’ (if they had read them!), they had neglected to be careful to maintain their relationship with God so that their spiritual life was on the point of extinction (whether through omission - they neglected to work with God - or through commission - they went after the gods who were being worshipped in the city. The latter would be unlikely as there is no word of condemnation in Jesus’ letter as there is to the other fellowships where such practices were being performed and the context of the ‘death’ appears to have been their ‘works’ - v.1b and 2).
I can’t help but see a parallel in the life of todays’ western church if this is the correct interpretation of the phrase. Very often, our outreach to the ‘unsaved’ or ‘unchurched’ is on the basis of a more social relationship than evangelical in purpose and, though we make friends with many, we win very few ‘for the Lord’. Instead of remembering that our commission is to ‘make disciples’ we tend to water down our conduct so that we ‘make acquaintances’, even forsaking the words of the Gospel for humanistic principles and doctrines which can never save (such as the brotherhood of all men and Pelagianism).
Alternatively, Jesus could be citing His own words as recorded for us in Mtw 18:18 where He tells Peter that death shall never overcome the Church (‘...the gates of death shall not prevail against it’), the reason being that the life of Christ, resident within believers, cannot be overcome by death - hence the statement of Jesus concerning the Living Water in John 7:37-39 (and, on which, see my notes on the Feast of Tabernacles here under section 3bii).
But, somehow (and again I repeat that we are not told how here), although they maintained their name as being followers and disciples of Christ, the reality of Christ’s life in them and amongst them was not present except in just a few believers (3:4).
The scenario would be very similar to that which was the experience of Israel on numerous occasions when God’s presence withdrew from them, even though they continued to maintain the name of God’s people. The wife of Phineas’ perceptive naming of her son as ‘Ichabod’ (‘the glory has departed from Israel’ - I Samuel 4:19-22) is often looked upon as something that happened ‘then’ but rarely do we stop and consider those words in the light of the letter to Sardis and begin to think whether the possibility may exist within our own fellowship that, though we have a name placed upon us by Christ that is ‘alive’, the reality of our experience is no better than when we didn’t know Jesus and were living in rebellion to His will for our lives.
When God’s presence leaves a fellowship and moves on, many congregations continue on their own way, doing the same old things that they have been doing, thinking that by continuing in like manner, the presence of God must be among them.
But, it is probably quite true to say that if you don’t see God move, He isn’t. If a fellowship is not obviously experiencing the life of God in its midst then it’s dead (see also my notes on the Life of God versus the Religion of Tradition here).
This spiritual death was tied up in the works that they were performing (3:1b as a summary of what follows in 1c and 3:2) and Jesus says to them that He has ‘not found your works perfect in the sight of my God’. Mounce interprets the italicised word to give the meaning that Jesus
‘...has not found any of [their works] carried out fully’
along with Hughes who comments that
‘...this church’s works, no doubt enthusiastically begun, are unfulfilled, and thus stultified by the blight of incompletion’
and Morris, who says that
‘its works were not brought to fulfilment’
The word does not have to imply that works had been begun that had not yet been completed (that is, that they had begun to do good works but had failed to bring their intentions and initial actions through to completion) but that their works were ‘lacking’, not in quantity but in the presence of life, the charge that Jesus levels on the fellowship in verse 1b.
The solution is to ‘Awake’ (Rev 3:2 - commentators see the word as being better translated by ‘be watchful’ as also in 3:3), to wake up to the reality of their situation, be honest about it and ‘strengthen what remains’ of the life of God in their midst which is imminently to die if they neglect to address the problem.
As Mounce writes
‘As in history, so in life, to consider oneself secure and fail to remain alert is to court disaster’
The historical incidents of 549 and 214BC are particularly relevant here (see the section on Sardis’ history) when a surrounding army was able to gain entry into the citadel (or acropolis) through a place that the inhabitants thought impregnable. Such confidence in their own security because of the natural fortifications that defended their position were false and, even though the incident happened once, they failed to learn by their mistake and were overthrown a second time some three centuries later.
It is not sufficient, therefore, for the Sardians to rely on their ‘good name’ - that is, their name that denotes that they are ‘alive in Christ’ but they must take steps to make the label a reality and an accurate description of what takes place within.
The solution is to strengthen what remains and, consequently, to forsake what is dead. What Jesus is asking them to do, therefore, is radical - but if they are not to have Jesus come against them (3:4) then they must be careful to heed His warning.
ii. How you received and heard
The RSV (along with NASB, NIV and GNB on the italicised word) translates Rev 3:3 as
‘Remember then what you received and heard; keep that, and repent...’
though the AV records the translation as
‘Remember therefore how thou hast received and heard, and hold fast, and repent’
There is quite a fundamental difference here, the former translation speaking about the content of what was presented to them, whereas the latter dwells on their reception, rather than the content, of the message.
Hughes opts for the translation ‘how’ (even though his exposition of the verse relies more on the translation of ‘what’!) and Morris notes that
‘What is rather “how” and refers to the manner of their hearing of the gospel...’
but Mounce comments in a footnote that
‘Although [pos] regularly indicates manner (“how”), the connection with [terei], which needs an object, suggests it should be translated “what”’
There is little agreement, therefore, but I opt for the translation ‘how’, throwing, as it does, the Sardians’ thoughts back to the manner in which they received the Gospel rather than upon its actual content. But the problem is to determine what the Lord is actually referring to here as there are no descriptions that illuminate it any clearer than the generalisation.
I noted above in the introduction that commentators have added specific details of what Jesus had against the fellowship but that it is very difficult to speak in absolutes when we know nothing of the state of the church or what it considered the words to be referring to within their ranks.
But, Chilton (who uses the translation of ‘what’) manages to know exactly what Jesus is referring to when he writes that the content of what they had received and heard is
‘...the Gospel, the ministry and sacraments, and (in the case of the elders to whom this is specifically addressed) the privileges and responsibilities of office-bearing in the Church of Jesus Christ. All these things they were to keep, to watch over and guard; and that meant that they must repent of their slothful attitude and conduct’
If the translation of the verse should imply a remembrance of ‘how’ they both received and heard the Gospel, it is the reaction of the believers that is being called to mind and not the content of the message. Perhaps this is as far as we should go and not try to attempt to put any flesh on these bare bones but, as an example of what this could have meant, let me offer a couple of suggestions.
If the fellowship is now suffering from a complacency that they need to do no more than what they have already done, then, in the past, they would have been individuals who were eager to make sure that their lives met the demands of the Gospel. If the fellowship, on the other hand, had allowed itself to become entangled in the worship of the local gods and assimilated their worship back into their individual lives, then initially they would have been careful to shun anything to do with these. And, if the fellowship had made friends with the society around them by words that were soothing to their listeners then, upon initial conversion, they would have been people who had actively proclaimed the Gospel throughout the city and cared little for the offence caused.
But there are probably so many other possibilities that could be thought up here (all of which could be correct - or none!) that it is best only to state that the manner in which they had first received the Gospel when it was preached to them is what they need to recapture. In the previous section we saw that their deficiency was caught up with their ‘works’ but, as it is the general Gk word that is being used, just about anything could be included.
The solution is, simply, ‘repent’ - to return to their first state and forsake their present way of living before Jesus.
If they don’t arouse themselves from sleep and stand watchful over their spiritual lives then Jesus
‘...will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come upon you’
This is another direct reference back to the historical incident when, because of the inhabitants’ complacency, they found themselves overrun by a besieging army not once but twice - because they failed to guard that part of their defences which they thought was secure and unconquerable.
Relying on their strength, they had fallen, because they had failed to perceive that inherent weaknesses were present which undermined their safety. Like those conquering armies, Jesus also threatens the church with an unexpected assault upon the church (words of warfare are not present in the letter, here, but if the historical incident is being referred to, the concept will not be far from the words of Jesus) in which, it is presumed, judgment will be poured out upon them.
It may be worthy of note here, also, that the implication of Jesus’ words are that He is a stranger to the fellowship seeking to gain access within. Either they reform their fellowship so that He takes up His place as sovereign over their lives, or else He will forcibly and unexpectedly gain access when they least expect it.
Although the church has the name of being alive (Rev 3:1), Jesus is not in their midst but He will put that right - either for their benefit or their detriment.
Finally, as the phrases ‘thief in the night’ and ‘thief’ are used in the NT to indicate the return of the Lord (Mtw 24:43, I Thess 5:2, II Peter 3:10, Rev 16:15) a few words are in order as to why that interpretation is not applicable here also.
It is wrong to think that one phrase or word must be interpreted the same way wherever and whenever it occurs. ‘Leaven’, for instance, can be associated with sin (I Cor 5:6-8) but it would yield a wrong interpretation of certain Scriptures if this meaning were pressed upon every passage (for example, Mtw 13:33).
Besides, in the context in question in Revelation, it is not possible for us to interpret the Scripture to say that the Lord’s return to earth will occur if the Sardians do not repent of their way of life - which would necessarily be the interpretation if we were to take the phrase ‘thief in the night’ (or ‘thief’) to necessarily refer to the Second Coming. Their own repentance will not hasten the Lord’s return anymore than anyone else’s will.
So the natural interpretation of the passage is to see Jesus’ words as referring to a local visitation upon the fellowship at Sardis if they continue in their own course and neglect to repent.
c. The faithful and the promise
These two verses run together but, perhaps, need to be dealt with separately even though verse 4 rightly refers to the few believers within the Sardian fellowship who are not guilty before the Lord as outlined in the previous verses and verse 5 relates to those believers who stand condemned and in need of repentance to be restored back into a right relationship with Him.
The ‘white garments’ is a problematical phrase which seems to have been variously interpreted even though it is normally associated with ‘justification’ - that is, the white robe is indicative of a believer being in a right relationship with God on the basis of the work of Christ and that he has maintained what has been delivered to him.
Therefore JFB (my italics) writes concerning the garments which have not been defiled (verse 4) that they are
‘...the garments of their Christian profession, of which baptism is the initiatory seal...[the church] is not to sully her Christian profession with any defilement of flesh or spirit, but to “keep her garments”. For no defilement shall enter the holy city’
Morris agrees with Farrer and quotes him when he says that
‘...the parallel with the name left in the book of life in the next verse “strongly suggests that the white robes signify justification”’
while Mounce states that
‘In the context of the following verse, where those arrayed in white garments do not have their names blotted out of the book of life, it would seem that walking “in white” is a way of describing those who are justified’
However, the real problem when the text is thought through is that it is solely because the names not being blotted out of the Book of Life is mentioned that it makes it impossible that the white garments should be taken as ‘justification by faith’ - that is, salvation before God through Christ.
Without covering too much of the ground that I intend covering below under the three separate promises given to those who overcome (that is, those who repent and cleanse themselves from their impurity), we need to consider the state of both those who are ‘worthy’ (Rev 3:4) and those who have need of repentance (Rev 3:1b-3).
The ‘worthy’ have not soiled their garments and will therefore walk with Christ in white (3:3). As above, this is indicative of being ‘saved’, of being ‘justified in Christ’. They must also have their names written in the Lamb’s book of life (the implication of the second promise to the overcomers in 3:5) and we know that this book contains all the names of those men and women who are ‘justified by faith in Christ’ - that is, those who have put their trust in the work of Christ and who are continuing to live for Him in the world (Rev 20:11-15, 21:27). Both phrases, then (‘white garments’ and having one’s name in the ‘book of life’), are equally indicative of a believer’s right relationship before God on the basis of the work of Christ.
Now consider the ‘unworthy’ who are part of the fellowship of Sardis - it is quite true that ‘membership’ of a local body of believers does not constitute ‘salvation’ but they are referred to in similar terms to the ‘worthy’. They have ‘soiled garments’ (the implication of 3:4 and 3:5). If clean garments are indicative of being justified by God through Christ, then these ‘believers’ cannot be in a right relationship with God - that is, they cannot be expected to be saved from the final judgment that will come upon all men (Rev 20:11-15). However, that the threat of having their names blotted out from the Book of life remains a future possibility (Rev 3:5) shows us that they are justified by faith or else their names could not be found to be there (Rev 20:15, 21:27).
Therefore, the mention of the Book of Life excludes the possibility that the garments can be referring to ‘justification’, ‘salvation’ or ‘being saved’ and it must, consequently, refer to another concept that was probably obviously apparent to the recipients of the letter.
There are some who have remained faithful, God says (Rev 3:4), and they shall walk with Him in white - but the majority of the church must put themselves into the position of becoming overcomers in order that they may obtain three rewards that the true believers must already possess:
i. White Garments
What we need to determine is what the phrase ‘white garments’ is supposed to mean in this context. As noted above, an allusion to a believer’s salvation cannot be in mind here as it would contradict the further statement that those who overcome would not have their names blotted out from the Book of Life.
Morris notes that
‘Moffat...speaks of votive inscriptions in Asia Minor which show that dirty clothing was held to dishonour the deity, so that those who wore soiled garments were debarred from worshipping’
though Mounce informs us that Moffat fails to cite any references that his assertion may be established from Archaeological evidence.
But there is a better interpretation than this, one that can be taken from a passage in Revelation that occurs later on. Rev 19:7-8 begins with a quote of the voice of a great multitude before going on to comment on the last phrase of their statement
‘”...Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready. It was granted her to be clothed with fine linen, bright and pure” for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints’
Here, the pure linen garments of the believers are said to be reflections of their works. That is, instead of saying that they have earned their salvation by doing these good works, they represent the expression of the saints’ righteousness in Christ - it is their faith which has inspired these deeds and it is, therefore, granted to them that they be clothed in them as they are a natural outworking of the initial work of Christ.
Instead of referring to salvation, therefore, they refer to the outworking of it.
This interpretation fits in perfectly with the situation at Sardis. Jesus has said that He knows their works (3:1b) and that He had not found their works perfect in the sight of God (3:2) but commands them to repent (3:3). But there are some, He says, who don’t fall into this category of having incomplete works and it is they who shall be granted to walk with Him in white (3:4) because those garments are indicative of the purity and completeness of the works that have arisen within their lives as a response to the work of Christ received by faith.
Therefore, to overcome is to aspire to perform ‘complete’ or ‘perfect’ works and, when this is achieved, they shall be granted the right to wear white garments which reflect it. For the time being, though, the errant believers are still saved in Christ because their names are still written in the Book of Life (3:5) even though there remains the danger that, if they fail to live out the truth of what they received, they will be removed from the roll of the Book.
Concluding, white garments in this context is indicative of the works of the believers and soiled garments denotes deeds that are ‘imperfect’. It is fitting to offer the overcomers the right to be clothed in garments that reflect the reality of their repentance but also to remind them of the dangers that would face them should they choose to ignore Jesus’ words (which follow - the Book of Life).
ii. The Book of Life
The ‘Book of Life’ as a phrase first occurs in Phil 4:3 where Paul talks about
‘...Clement and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life’
Though it is not possible from this Scripture alone to determine what the early Church understood by that phrase, it is used a few times in the Book of Revelation (3:5, 13:8, 17:8, 20:12, 20:15, 21:27). The last three references show us that to have one’s name in the Book is to be free from the ‘second death’ (the entire passage runs Rev 20:11-15) - that is, admission into the lake of fire (normally referred to as ‘hell’) following the judgment before the great white throne of the things done on earth/while alive.
This concept seems to begin with the passage Ex 32:32-33 where Moses pleads with God to forgive the nation Israel’s sin and, if that is not possible, to blot his name from the ‘Book’.
Though God does not at that time say it is a possibility - and refuses to do as Moses requests Him to do - that possibility does raise its head in the passage in the letter to the Sardians.
There are only two other passages in the OT (as far as I can see) that refer to this ‘Book of Life’. In Ps 69:28, written several hundred years after the incident with Moses, David prayed concerning his enemies that they might be
‘...blotted out of the book of the living; let them not be enrolled among the righteous’
and in Dan 12:1, Daniel was told concerning a time of great tribulation towards the end of all things and was reassured that
‘...your people shall be delivered, every one whose name shall be found written in the book’
though this could be referring only to a deliverance from a specific event in earth history rather than from an event that has eternal consequences.
The idea, then, is that there is a record of all those who are righteous before God and who will be brought into the presence of God, through the resurrection of the dead. This isn’t directly obtainable from most of the Scriptures above but, if it is just those whose names are written in this Book that do not face the consequences of being thrown into the lake of fire following judgment, it seems fairly certain that having one’s name written in that Book is the only guarantee - but that the names are written in is dependent upon a correct response to the work of Christ.
I don’t suppose that there is an actual Book - but that the concept of one is necessary for us to realise that our names are recorded and never forgotten. There again, I could be wrong - perhaps there is?!!
More importantly, in connection with Rev 3:5, are the passages Rev 13:8 and 17:8 which both speak of the compilation of the Book as having occurred ‘before the foundation of the world’ and ‘from the foundation of the world’ respectively - that is, that, in God’s foreknowledge, He has already compiled the names of those who He knows will become believers (the righteous) before the world ever began.
This sounds as if the list is fixed and that nothing can be done either way to either have one’s name written in or to have it removed once recorded - but we are not thinking about predestination here, only foreknowledge (see my teaching notes on the problems we have distinguishing between Foreknowledge, Freewill and Predestination and how they interrelate and overlap here). The Revelation passages demonstrate God’s foreknowledge but not His predestination of believers to be ‘saved’.
When we come to Rev 3:5, however, we find a promise from Jesus that those who overcome will not be blotted out of the Book of life.
Mounce quotes Kiddle as saying
‘when a criminal’s name was removed from the civic register of an Asiatic town, he lost his citizenship’
but, although this may explain to us how the Sardians were to understand the words of the letter, the statement does little to explain how it is that such an occurrence might happen when the ‘Book’ has already been written with names before the Creation took place.
It is incongruous with the character of God to even consider the possibility that He is stating something that cannot happen in order to spur the wayward believers into action - it would be an idle threat from the God who tells no lies! There was a real possibility that the Sardians’ names could have been removed from the Book of Life even though the list of names was written before the foundation of the world.
Although Hughes is correct when he writes that
‘It would be altogether wrong to imagine an activity of constant book-keeping in heaven, involving not only the registration of new names but also the removal of names previously entered and the restoration of names previously removed’
he does not base his statement upon the Scriptures which inform us that the compilation of the names has already occurred ‘before the foundation of the world’ and an explanation needs to be found which adequately harmonises these passages.
The statements that the names of the saints are written in the Book before the foundation of the world (foreknowledge) is not independent of a correct response from man (freewill). What Jesus is saying here is that, if repentance does not meet with His words, their names will be removed from the list before the foundation of the world also (I have, however, had to explain this in rather ridiculous language for I do not imagine that God, having compiled the Book of Life before Creation, then went through it to cross out those who would not respond to His message!! The imagery is purely for us to be able to understand concepts about God that it would difficult for us to otherwise understand, in the same way as God is often talked of as having a Right hand and eyes or a mouth).
Rather, these words meet us at our level and put into words the reality of what will happen - that is, repentance (the ‘overcoming’) is what will secure their lives as united with Christ and allies with Him. If they decide to reject the Words of the One who they profess to serve, then there is no place for them in His habitation where the faithful will dwell and therefore they can be spoken of as being removed from the Book.
iii. Name confession
Angels figure substantially in this letter (3:1 [directly] - the seven spirits and seven stars [see above] and 3:3 [indirectly] angels normally accompany a visitation from God) and it concludes by another reference though, this time, it is coupled with a reference to God the Father.
The ‘confession’ of which Jesus speaks here is one of ownership and it should really be seen as a continuation of the previous clause which speaks of the overcomers not being blotted out of the Book of Life - instead, their names will be confessed before both the Father and the angels as belonging to Jesus and, therefore, in covenant relationship with Him.
Mtw 10:32-33 and Lk 12:8-9 are both cited as paralleling this passage where both the positive and negative aspects (confession and denial) of the action are present. These passages seem to relate to the believer’s experience now, while still alive, whereas Mk 8:38 and Lk 9:26 appear to refer us to the return of the Lord Jesus Christ and the confession which takes place before the Throne at the final judgment.
This last concept certainly appears to be a better representation and interpretation of what Jesus is implying here, seeing as the promise to overcomers in the other letters is eschatological and that it follows the statement concerning the names recorded in the Book of Life which points us to the final day.
In the Gospel references, Jesus’ confession of His disciples’ names is dependant upon confessing the name of Jesus before men (Mtw 10:32-33, Lk 12:8-9) and being unswerving in their commitment to Jesus’ teaching (Mk 8:38, Lk 9:26) and these two principles may point towards an interpretation of why the Sardians’ works were not found to be ‘perfect in the sight of My God’ (Rev 3:2). Perhaps (and this is no more than a loose comment rather than a definitive statement), in their excelling of doing good within their own community, they had failed to do all ‘in the name of Jesus’ and were doing them for the works themselves.
Instead of having the name of Christ upon everything they were engaged in, they may have hidden Him ‘under the covers’ and so obtained a good name that befriended the people of their city rather than challenge them through the simultaneous preaching of the Gospel. It’s only a suggestion, but there may have been some denial of the Saviour rather than a bold witness to His work on and in the cross.
If this is the case, we would do well to consider how we also reach out into the society in which we find ourselves but, specifically, in the area of the ‘good works’ that we do. It is important to realise that our ‘works’ are expressions of our faith and have great power to substantiate and support the testimony of our lips towards the One we serve. Social action is all well and good but it can become the be-all-and-end-all when the Christ of the NT remains hidden, veiled behind ‘our goodness’ that causes us to become acceptable in the world’s eyes.
Just the positive aspects of confessing Christ are mentioned here because the reason for speaking thus is to show what reward the overcomers will receive (though those ‘who have not soiled their garments’ [Rev 3:4] will already have these as their right).
This reward is more a restoration into Christ than something that they are aspiring to. These three aspects of the reward are all the rights of believers but, because they have stood against Christ in their lives, there needs to be a reconfirmation of what they have presumed to be unforfeitable.
Sardis was a city that had fallen twice through its complacency and self-sufficiency, thinking that their safety was guaranteed because of their natural defences. But, just like those two incidents in its past, the fellowship has need to wake up and rediscover the reality of what they think they have but which they are so close to losing.