The Message to the Church in Sardis
Sardis is the capital of the province of Lydia. It is well inland and located near a river. It was one of the oldest cities in the region. The city was located on a rock hill with near perpendicular slopes on three sides. The hill rose to a height of 1,500 feet. The fourth side was easily defended.
In the past, the city of Sardis was only conquered twice by enemy forces who crept up to the city under the cover of night when the watchmen grew lazy and careless.
The region was rich in minerals, had a large fertile plain to its north, and the city is located on a major trade route, contributing to the wealth of the population. “When the city was destroyed by an earthquake in 17 CE, the emperor Tiberius awarded no less than ten million sesterces for its reconstruction, and told the Sardians that they did not have to pay taxes for five years (Tacitus, Annals, 2.47)” [“Sardes”, Livius.org].
Sardis was home to a large Jewish community. Estimates place the numbers in the thousands. A synagogue was discovered in Sardis that covers over 300 feet – the largest synagogue found. The floors and walls were covered with ornate mosaics.
In this letter, Jesus presents himself as the one who has the full measure of the Holy Spirit (John 3:34; Colossians 1:19) and the one who controls his messengers.
Sardis had no tribulations or problems with heretics. There were no external or internal foes. For all appearances, it was a respectable congregation, but like a well-maintained, whitewashed tomb, it was dead inside. It wasn’t growing spiritually. Likely the lack of challenges to their faith allowed the church to stagnate. The wording here is much like the description of the widow who lives for pleasure (I Timothy 5:5-7).
They were not always like this. They had fallen from their start like the church in Ephesus, but, unlike Ephesus, they were close to death. They needed to wake up (Ephesians 5:11-16). They had become like the Corinthians who did not discern the meaning of the Lord’s Supper (I Corinthians 11:28-30).
We do not want to be like slothful guards sleeping at their posts. You never know when the enemy or the ruler will appear (I Thessalonians 5:2-9). Jesus warns the church that he will appear like a thief. This is not referring to the second coming, but to his judgment on the church. It is an allusion to how the city of Sardis fell in its past.
Though it was close to death, it was not dead yet. There was still hope. Among the brethren were some who had remained pure. Soiled garments are a symbol referring to personal sins (Jude 23; Zechariah 3:4). James uses this same symbol when he tells us to remain unspotted by the world (James 1:27). These individuals were declared to be worthy to walk with Christ, as in a victory procession. They would be freed from sin (white garments) because they would be purified by the blood of Christ (Revelation 7:13-14; Isaiah 1:18). Notice that this means that others can be Christians and not saved from their sins. “Once saved, always saved” cannot be true.
Those who do overcome will remain in the book of life. God keeps a record of the true children of God (Malachi 3:16). Those who sin are removed from the book (Exodus 32:32-33). Thus, those who remain in the book are righteous (Psalms 69:28). We want to be people mentioned in the book of life (Philippians 4:3).
Jesus also promised those who overcome that he would confess them before Father and his angels (Matthew 10:32-33; Luke 12:8-9).