Seven Churches of Revelation
5. Sardis: Forgot Historyís Lessons
The fifth Church, Sardis, was thirty miles southeast of Thyatira, on the side of Mount Timolus, on the river Pactolus. One of the worldís great trading centers, Sardis commanded the Hermus Valley. It was the center of five different roads, and like a magnet drew trade and wealth to itself. At one time, the Greeks viewed Sardis as the greatest of all cities.
Sardis was the ancient capital of the old kingdom of Lydia. In 560 B.C., the last Lydian ruler, King Croesus (whose name is a proverb for wealth) minted the first coins in Asia Minor at Sardis, the birthplace of modern money.
Why is the key word for Sardis "Watch!"? Sardis was regarded as impregnable because it was built on a natural rocky citadel, a position defying assault. Sardis is inaccessible except at one point, a neck of land on its south. On all other sides, the rock walls were smooth, nearly perpendicular. The Titanic was held to be unsinkable, just like the people of Sardis who thought their city could never be taken.
However, Sardis fell twice to opposing armies. Herodotus records how Cyrus the Persian captured the city in 546 B.C. Cyrus offered any man in his troops a special reward if he could devise a means to scale the cliff and take the impregnable fortress. Hyeroeades saw a Lydian soldier drop his helmet over the battlements, climb down to retrieve it, and pick his way back to the top. That night, Hyeroeades led a band of troops up the cliffs the same way, and reaching the top, they found the battlements completely unguarded. Sardis felt completely safe, but fell unexpectedly to Cyrusí army, "like a thief in the night." Ramsay calls the fall of Sardis "one of the most startling and astonishing reverses of all time."
Sardis did not remember the lesson of history (Revelation 3:3). The same thing befell them in the campaigns of Antiochus, 320 years later. Through the exploits of sure-footed Lagoras, Antiochus the Great captured Sardis. Once more, the garrison of Sardis did not guard the whole circuit, believing the cliffs could not be scaled.
Those who think they are secure had better "be watchful." The end of Sardis should teach us to avoid overconfidence in the self, to guard against pride and arrogance, and not to despise oneís enemy. While viewing photographs of Sardis taken by Lawson Briggs, I was struck by the singular quality of the rock of Sardis. It crumbles easily. In the course of time, Sardis did not pay attention to this fact. A weakness had developed in one point, and they did not know it. But the enemy did, and that was the end of Sardis.
Characteristics of Sardis
After its fall to Antiochus, Sardis later became a free and self-governing Greek city. Still later, the Romans made Sardis seat of a district court, and it prospered with Roman governors. In A.D. 17, Sardis was devastated by an earthquake. However, Emperor Tiberius remitted all taxes for five years and contributed the equivalent of over $600,000 to aid the city in rebuilding. By A.D. 26, geographer Strabo described Sardis as a great city having regained its former splendor. Sardis competed with, but lost a bid against rival Smyrna for the right to build a temple to Caesar.
The Goths took Sardis in A.D. 400 Today, all that is left of the grandeur of Sardis is Sart, a miserable village containing a few hovels, standing in an unhealthy desert, with ruins and thorns. Psalm 74 vividly describes the destruction of the Synagogues of God, a striking parallel to the ruin of Sardis.
Here are some outstanding characteristics of Sardis, and how the Savior warns His Church there not to partake of the negative traits of the city:
(1) Sardis was a great commercial center and extremely wealthy. The gold-bearing river Pactolus ran directly through the market place. But though materially alive, Sardis was spiritually dead.
(2) Sardis was a center of the woolen industry, market for the great Phyrgian sheepherders. With Thyatira, Sardis was a center of trade in costly dyes. Jesus refers to those in Sardis "which have not defiled their garments." He is saying that they might be rich in material garments, but their spiritual clothes are soiled and shoddy.
(3) Sardis was a center of Cybele worship, the mother goddess (another form of Semiramis), whose rites consisted of wild orgies like that of Dionysus worship.
(4) Its greatest characteristic was that Sardis was notorious for loose living, pleasure seeking, and luxury loving. Even for pagans, "Sardis" was a byword for slack and effeminate living. The wealthier it grew, the more it lost its claim to greatness. Even the heathen understood that Sardis had a name that it was living, but it was really dead.
Life had been too easy for Sardis, and this rubbed off on the members of the Church in its area. There was no threat of persecution from Caesar worshippers, or malignant Jews, nor threat of heresy from within. Thus there was nothing to provoke Christian zeal. With no troubles, Sardis became dead. Because its people ceased to care, their minds were dead, asleep, and lethargic.
When is a Church in danger of dying? (1) When it begins to worship its own past, living on memories rather than accepting challenges for the future. (2) When it is more concerned with forms and ritual, rather than life. (3) When it holds its constitution, or old-time beliefs, as equal or superior to the Bible. (4) And when it is more concerned with material than spiritual.
Sardis: City of Death
In Revelation 3:1, the Church of Sardis is reminded that the Savior has under His control the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. Christ says this, because this Church needs life, and spiritual life can come only through the Holy Spirit in its completeness. The ministry of Sardis is lacking, dead, and needs the Holy Spirit in greater measure. The Messiah controls and directs the manifestation of Spirit power in the Churches, as well as their history and destiny. There is no resting on oneís laurels with the Almighty!
"I know thy works, that thou hast a name that thou livest, and art dead." I Timothy 5:6 is a parallel passage, speaking of a careless widow, "But she that liveth in pleasure is dead while she liveth." In other words, Sardis did not really die to her past sins, did not repent of all her previous dead works (see Ephesians 2:1, 5 and Romans 6:1-2, 13). Sardis was spiritually dead, Matthew 8:22, because there was no persecution (see Psalm 119:67, 71).
Wake Up! Strengthen The Things That Remain
In Revelation 3:2, the Messiah tells Sardis to "be watchful." They needed to watch their weakest point, and never get complacent. "Remember" in verse 3 is in the present imperative tense, meaning "Go on remembering; donít ever let yourself forget." We have heard and received a body of belief and true doctrine. We must never let the truth die, never forget or slack off. (See Matthew 24:42; Philippians 4:9; II Timothy 3:14.) Christ is saying, "Wake up! Be Diligent!" Just as 1844, 1873, 1914, 1972, etc., were dates anticipated by some for the return of the Messiah, we must be ready and watchful. The ancient city of Sardis was taken over by surprise. That day should not overtake us as a thief in the night. Sardis will be unprepared for the Second Coming because most are spiritually dead. Matthew 13:25 shows the consequences of sleeping and not watchfully guarding. Sardis did not watch, so false doctrine and lethargy were sown which threatened to destroy and kill the whole Church.
Sardis did not heed Paulís warning message how false prophets could arise in their midst, Acts 20:28-31. They needed to awaken to true knowledge of Godís way, I Corinthians 15:34, 16:13. Sardis was asleep to the truth when it was presented to them, I Thessalonians 5:6; Revelation 16:15.
"The things that remain" need to be strengthened. This could refer to the remnant of truth Sardis still had, that was still barely alive. But many commentators agree that this should be rendered, "those that remain," i.e., the people not yet spiritually dead. Sardis ministers are indicted for not instructing the people who are still alive, in order to prevent them from spiritual death. Ministers have to be alive, in order for their people to be alive. The reason why congregations become spiritually "dead" is because "dead" men preach to them.
Remember HOW You Have Received the Truth
Revelation 3:3, "Remember therefore how thou hast received and heard, and hold fast, and repent." The "how" here can mean two things: (1) The matter of their receiving doctrine from their religious ancestors. This could mean Sardis held erroneous beliefs contrary to the "faith once delivered" (see Colossians 2:6; I Timothy 6:20-21; II Timothy 1:13). (2) Or, "how" could mean the manner in which they received their beliefs. The latter meaning is probably intended. Sardis did not have the zeal, the holding fast even unto death, that their predecessors did. Great numbers, even many Sardis ministers, left their former belief in the truth, forgetting how the truth came to them. Truth comes to each of us through the blood of martyrs, passed on through every generation by those who believed until death and would not compromise. Sardis needed desperately to "hold fast the form of sound words," II Timothy 1:13-14, or they would lose what little truth they had. They needed to prize highly the truth and repent of all the coldness and heartlessness with which they had come to regard it, II Peter 1:9-10.
Greeks could well understand what Revelation 3:4, those who "have not defiled their garments," means. For in the Greek religion, it would be a sacrilege to approach the gods in dirty garments. For us, it means that the Eternal demands inner purity of the heart.
Only a Few Names in Sardis Have White Garments
Only a "few names" in Sardis have not defiled their garments. "Names" means truly converted Christians, Acts 1:15, spiritual Israelites, Numbers 1:2, 18, 20. The chief leader of Sardis had a name, but was dead. But some of his flock had "names" that were more than names, having not merely the form of godliness, but the power also, II Timothy 3:5. Those faithful few in Sardis are not overlooked by God, because as a righteous judge, He will never slay the righteous with the wicked, Genesis 18:25. These "few names" were not of high rank or worldly position, but simple people obedient to God. Only a remnant within Sardis are true Christians, those who have kept themselves unspotted from the world, James 1:27; Jude 23; II Corinthians 7:1.
The Scribes desired to walk in long robes, Luke 20:46, but only the spiritually alive walk, since the dead are still. Only those who live Godís way walk with Him, Amos 3:3, having washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb, Revelation 7:14. The "worthy" are those who grow and overcome, Matthew 10:10-11; II Thessalonians 1:5, 11.
Revelation 3:4-5 tells of the promise of "white raiment." In ancient times, white clothes stood for three things: (1) purity, for only the pure in heart shall see God, (2) festivity and perfection, showing the garments necessary to attend the marriage feast of the Lamb, and (3) victory, showing that only those who endure to the end shall be saved, Matthew 24:13. Sardis is not "naked" like Laodicea really is, but most have on the wrong kind of clothes ó false doctrines sullying their garments.
The "book of life" in Revelation 3:5 is an Old Testament expression (see Exodus 32:32-33; Psalm 69:28; Daniel 12:1). In ancient times, cities kept a register of citizens. When a man died, his name was removed from the book. The message to us is that to stay in the book of life, we have to keep our faith alive and burning. Only the living are in the book of life, just as only those alive in dead Sardis shall be in the first resurrection, Ezekiel 13:9.
Lessons From Sardis
Ramsay compares Sardis with Ephesus. Both began enthusiastically but then cooled down. Whereas Ephesus changed to instability and uncertainty, Sardis degraded into false pretense and death. Rather than be asleep at the watch, Jesus is telling Sardis to keep up the enthusiasm with which they began, and be ready for the unexpected hour of trial.
A great empire and the wealthiest of kings fell because of the carelessness of a watchman who slept at his post for an hour. Work which had been begun with great energy was not pushed through to conclusion with the same determination. The Letter to Sardis ties the Church of Sardis inextricably with the city of Sardis. As the city was dead, so were the people. The crumbling, poor character of the rock is associated with the character of the people, who were unstable, untrustworthy, and decadent.
The name "Church of God" canít save you. Only the spiritually alive will be in the first resurrection. Praise the Almighty that there will be a few worthy names in Sardis who will walk in white with Him! Letís be zealous for God, not dead like Sardis.
Seven Churches Beginning.