Letter to the Church at Sardis – Sermon notes – Rev. Part 8

Revelation Part 8 – Sardis

Revelation 3:1–6

1 Cor. 10:1-12


Our study has now led us to the 5th city Jesus is addressing in His letters to the churches.

On one hand this is one of the most severe letters, and on the other, one of the most comforting. We’ll see just how this is as we move on.

By far, Sardis – historically – was the most prominent city among the 7.

Set in a valley through which the Pactolus river runs, Sardis had its acropolis – the main part of the city 1,500ft above the rest of the city – where its inhabitants could run for protection when there was trouble.

In fact, Sardis had a reputation for being an impregnable stone city. Its main portion sitting in this high perch among rocks and stone which were highly friable – would easily crumble – making attacks extremely difficult. Unless one knew the well hidden and difficult way up – you could not attack it with any success.

The hubris this supposed impregnability fostered in the Sardian citizens will make its way into what Jesus has to say to the Church there as well.

In truth, for all its vaunted impregnability the city had been conquered twice in the past, even though its people still boasted and thought of themselves as quite safe and unassailable.

And, it was a very, very wealthy city.

In Greek mythology King Midas asked a god that everything he touched might turn to gold.

However, once given the “Midas touch” – even his food and daughter turned to gold when he touched them. His “blessing” became a curse. And eventually he had to wash off that touch in a river to become normal again.

That river was this one – the Pactolus. And due to the large amount of gold-dust which was found here over time, the myth became legend, and a way to explain why Sardis had so much gold and was so fabulously wealthy.

I. 3:1a & b. Appeal to the Rev. of Ch. 1: “And to the angel of the church in Sardis write: ‘The words of him who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars.

Jesus is about to say some of the hardest things He has to say to any of the 7 Churches, but He prefaces it with a reminder that He still OWNS them or “has” them as the text says.

As much as He has the 7 Spirits of God – an allusion to the Holy Spirit in all of His perfections – so too, He still holds the Churches.

“I’m about to say some very hard things to you, but I say them as one who still loves you and claims you as my own. Even with what I am about to say – I have not disowned you. You are mine.”

What a wonderful approach to a heavy, disciplinary confrontation.

Would to God we would be so affirming with our children our spouses or others when hard things need to be said.

He says them with the reminder that they are loved, owned and not written off, tho even in a very dire condition.

It is why the writer to the Hebrews reminds us all: Hebrews 12:5–11

And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons? “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.” It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.

So it is Christ Jesus will come to the Sardian Church speaking hard words, that they may share in His holiness, NOT, to beat them down.

Which leads us to what it is that is so difficult to hear, that they need this reassurance at the outset –

II. 3:1c & 2c Declaration of Insight:

1c – I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead.

2c – for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God.

Jesus’ concerns with them are wholly unlike those in the other churches thus far.

Sardis does not appear to have a problem with sexual immorality like Pergamum.

There is no mention of spiritual adultery or mixture with pagan worship like Thyatira.

There is nothing said regarding compromises with the culture brought on by fearing persecution.

And nothing about a loss of their first love like Ephesus.

Nevertheless –  like their city which had a reputation for being impregnable but wasn’t – this Church had a reputation of being alive and vibrant, when in fact it was dead!

In modern parlance – they self-identified as spiritually alive, when they were actually dead.

“I know your works” He says and that they are not “complete” (2c)

It isn’t that they’ve outwardly done wicked things, it is more that they have failed to complete their mission – their call. Something’s missing.

In some way, they have failed at what it means to be Christ’s representatives, His witness and His Church in this place.

In this is a very important lesson. All of sin falls roughly into 2 categories: Sins of COMISSION – where we act contrary to God’s desires, and sins of OMISSION – where we simply fail to do what we are called to. When we refuse to take up the roles and responsibilities that are ours as Christ’s people in the world.

Jesus gives us several examples of this in Matthew 23. We’ll only look at 1 briefly. :23–24 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!”

The problem there wasn’t overt acts of disobedience – but failure to incorporate all God had called them to – calls us to! Attention to details but missing bigger things.

Now in what way this was true in Sardis, Jesus’ unpacks in the next section.

III. 3:2-3 The Call: a. 2 – Wake up: Here’s the chief indicator that the problem is one of VIGILANCE. Wake up!

Remember how I mentioned that Sardis’ acropolis was a stone city and considered impregnable?

Of the several times it WAS conquered, the fatal error was due to a failure to be vigilant, and over trusting their condition.

In one account, when Cyrus (yes, the same Cyrus as in Daniel) was besieging the city, he was stymied at how to scale the fragile cliffs to attack.

One evening, a Sardian guard, not paying good attention to his duties, had taken his helmet off and set it on the wall. Inadvertently he knocked the helmet off the wall and it fell below. Not thinking, and wanting to quickly fix the mistake so as not to be found out, he took the hidden passageway down the side of the cliffs to retrieve it. Not knowing that all the while he was being observed by a Persian soldier. The soldier then carefully noted the route by which the Sardian guard went back up, told his commander, and they then used that route to enter and take the city!

Jesus draws on this popular history of Sardis to drive home the point about their current problem. VIGILANCE was lacking in some way.

  1. 2b – and strengthen what remains and is about to die, [ ]

Now this sounds pretty dire, and indeed it is. Something is remaining, of what they ought to have been vigilant over, but it is very little and even now about to die. What is it then?

  1. 3a – Remember, then, what you received and heard.

They were failing to be vigilant over what they received and heard, so much so, that without immediate attention – all would be lost.

And the language is suited to help us see the problem pretty clearly. It is very similar to Paul’s wording in 1 Cor. 15:1–2 Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.

Similar too to John’s  words in 1 John 1:1–3 That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— 2 the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us— that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.

So Paul’s admonitions to Timothy: 2 Tim. 1:13–14 Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you.

2 Tim. 2:1–2 You then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus, and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also.

The Sardian Church hadn’t fallen into overt or external sin, but what appears to be slipping, is faithfulness over, vigilance in guarding and keeping – the Gospel they had first heard preached and received.

This is one of the greatest, most subtle and deadly dangers any Church can fall into. For it is the assumed things which eventually become the lost things.

The Gospel can be lost through lack of vigilance a number of ways.

We can lose the Gospel when we preach it in such a way that a transformed life isn’t part of the picture. Just believe in Jesus and don’t worry about fighting indwelling sin or putting to death the deeds of the flesh – a Gospel without repentance.

Too, we can lose the Gospel when we preach a Christ who died simply as an example of love and not as a true substitute for sinners.

Imagine someone drowning in the ocean, and someone else saying “Let me show you how much I love you!” and jumping into the ocean and drowning too. How does that show love? It doesn’t. And the idea that Jesus simply died to show us how much He loved us without reference to suffering our just penalty for sin is the same absolute nonsense.

Thirdly, the Gospel is especially lost – tho so religiously subtly – when it is turned into a Gospel of niceness or goodness saves.

I show you the following video not to pick on a person – in this case the comedian Jim Carrey, but to show you how this has infected American Christianity. This video came with the title: “Jim Carrey speaks about salvation and the love of Jesus.” And the comments appended to it declared how he gave the Gospel.

The video played can be found in full HERE

Did you hear that?

We do not need God the Father to forgive us and cleanse us from our sins by the blood of Christ – WE forgive others – and that is salvation! It is suffering which leads to salvation – not faith in Christ!

Forgiveness “leads to grace”. Grace isn’t freely given, we earn it.

Our compassion and forgiveness opens the gates of Heaven.

In these cases the Gospel ceases to be the Gospel at all.

We lose the reality that man is a willful sinner – fallen and bound to sin in such a way that he cannot save himself, and indeed does not WANT to save himself.

Lost, is the fact that salvation requires a substitutionary death to pay the penalty for our sin so that we can be found not guilty.

That we need the righteousness of another – even Jesus Christ to be imputed to us that we might be counted worthy, and reconciled to God the Father.

That without the shedding of blood there is NO remission of sins. And that faith in the atoning, substitutionary work of Jesus on Calvary is absolutely essential.

That as Jesus told Nicodemus in John 3 – one must be born again. And that apart from that new birth by the Spirit of God, we cannot even SEE the Kingdom of God.

When we forsake the Gospel for a view of man that makes us essentially good so that all we need is just a little help or enlightenment or a hand up.

Or when the Gospel is twisted into just being a good person as we might deem good people. Nice people go to Heaven.

Or when the need for the blood of Christ as the just penalty for our sins is denied.

Or as has been documented so well recently as the American Gospel of “moralistic, therapeutic, deism.” Just be moral, have some sense of “God” and know He is there just when you need Him to help life go well – then we too might be a Church that has a reputation for being alive, but is in fact – dead.

All the outward trappings of Church. Bible. Hymns. Good works. Charity. Classes. But no Gospel! Not the Biblical Gospel. The Gospel of American success and niceness.

  1. 3b – Keep it, and repent. Keep this Gospel. Guard it. Cherish it.
  2. 3c – If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you.

IV3:4-6 Reminder: 4 Yet you have still a few names in Sardis, people who have not soiled their garments, and they will walk with me in white, for they are worthy.

How had some soiled their garments? White garments are a common figure in Scripture for righteousness. And we soil the imputed righteousness of Christ which is needed for genuine salvation when we muddy it up with religion and works and self-righteousness.

But some in Sardis had still not surrendered the Gospel – they were still clothed in Jesus’ righteousness alone by faith.

5 The one who conquers will be clothed thus in white garments, and I will never blot his name out of the book of life.

And the guarantee is – no matter if the entire Church perishes there, those who are still clinging to the true Gospel of Jesus Christ – of salvation by grace alone vs. personal effort; of faith alone vs. personal merit, because of Christ alone as the sole substitutionary sacrifice for our sins to be received by faith: They WILL be preserved. No matter how harshly Christ must deal with that Church. The Gospel saves!

So Jesus ends on this promise: I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels.

For those who place their faith entirely in His cross-work, and confess Him before men in clinging to the Gospel, He promises He will own them as His own saved ones before the Father in the final judgment.

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

This then, as in the other letters, He wraps up by appealing not just to the Church as a body, but to each individual in the Church.

A Gospel that cannot find me dead in my trespasses and sins, and raise me from the dead is NOT GOOD NEWS!

A Gospel that tells me I have save myself by being a good person – when I know in truth I can do nothing equal to the perfect righteousness God requires – even His own – It isn’t GOOD NEWS.

A gospel that says Jesus loves me – but did nothing to take away my sin and my guilt and satisfy the justice of God on my behalf as my substitute on the cross isn’t just NOT GOOD NEWS, It is a damning lie – no matter how pretty or inviting it sounds.

Now more then ever – the Church needs to be sure we cling to the Gospel of Jesus Christ – of the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world – who dies on behalf of wounded, broken, sin-saturated, condemned sinners – and satisfies God for us in His death, takes the final penalty in His burial, justifies us in His resurrection, and returns to glorify us in making us fully into His image.


1 WITH Satan, my accuser, near,
My spirit trembled when I saw
The Lord in majesty appear,
And heard the language of his law.

2 In vain I wish’d and strove to hide
The tatter’d filthy rags I wore;
While my fierce foe insulting cry’d,
“See what you trusted in before!”

3 Struck dumb, and left without a plea,
I heard my gracious Saviour say,
“Know, Satan, I this sinner free,
I died to take his sins away.

4 This is a brand which I, in love,
To save from wrath and sin design;
In vain thy accusations prove;
I answer all, and claim him mine.”

5 At his rebuke the tempter fled;
Then he remov’d my filthy dress;
“Poor sinner, take this robe,” he said,
“It is thy Saviour’s righteousness.

6 And see, a crown of life prepar’d!
That I might thus thy head adorn;
I thought no shame or suffering hard,
But wore for thee a crown of thorn.”

7 O how I heard these gracious words!
They broke and heal’d my heart at once;
Constrain’d me to become the Lord’s,
And all my idol-gods renounce.

8 Now, Satan, thou hast lost thy aim,
Against this brand thy threats are vain;
Jesus has pluck’d it from the flame,
And who shall put it in again?


John Newton and Richard Cecil, The Works of John Newton, vol. 3 (London: Hamilton, Adams & Co., 1824), 390–391.

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