The letter to the church at Sardis was the fifth in a sequence of seven. The word Sardis means that which remains or the escape of the remnant. In reality, the period of time covered by the church of Sardis points to an epoch of deep apostasy within the church.
Yet it seemed that there was a remnant who managed to escape the apostasy and uphold the light of truth. However, though this message points forward to a distinct period of church history it also refers to the church at Sardis during the time the letter was sent and is a reflection of the spiritual condition of the church at that time.
In his commentary, W.M. Ramsay speaks of Sardis as the city of death and makes this interesting observation “Smyrna was dead and yet lived, Sardis lived, and yet was dead...the letter to the Sardian church breathes the spirit of death, of appearance without reality, promise without performance, outward show of strength betrayed by want of watchfulness and careless confidence”
The church at Sardis doesn’t really receive a commendation. Jesus just points out to them the fact that he knows that they’re hypocrites. They pretend to be alive, present themselves as being alive but are in fact dead.
Among the sins that Jesus seems to hate most hypocrisy, especially spiritual hypocrisy, tops the list. Think about the heavy punishment that was meted out to Ananias and Sapphira in the early days of the church. They received swift and final judgment for lying to the Holy Spirit and pretending to be something they weren’t.
The period covered by the message to Sardis stretches into the period of church history beyond the Reformation. While the Reformation had begun with great promise, with giants like Luther, Clavin, and Knox as time progressed the church began to grow spiritually listless and content to rest on the laurels of past victors. It seemed as though Sardis was living on its past reputation with no new fruit or progress to show.
Instead of continual forward momentum, the church seemed to stall. It seemed as though they professed to have a name that they were alive but in fact, they were dying and didn’t really want to address the issue.
Jesus advises the church of Sardis to watch and repent. It is simple but sage advice. If they are to salvage any semblance of their salvation or to retain their place among the redeemed then they need to acknowledge their problem and turn back.
Jesus urges them to do this twice. Repent. Repent for your works are not perfect before God. There were many during the post-reformation era that indeed were deeply spiritual. Jesus alludes to this fact by stating that there were many in Sardis who had not defiled their garments. But there were others who were sliding towards a lukewarm and barren religious experience and Jesus desired to jolt them awake and present them with the danger that seemed to be edging closer to them.
While the leaders of the Reformation were men of faith and spiritual depth their followers began to sink into a state of contented listlessness. While the early movement had been fueled by the zeal of a grassroots movement the post-reformation period saw the stagnation of organized religion sinking into the quagmire of institutionalism.
Commenting on this Roy Allan Anderson writes “Forms are all right, providing they are filled with power; but too often forms become mere formality and dead works.” This was the case with Sardis.
And yet there were slivers of hope during this period. Cromwell’s revolution in England shook the ingrained perception of the divine right of kings and the birth of the American colonies gave rise to religious liberty and a renewed pursuit of spirituality.
Jesus warned Sardis that if she did not repent then he would come to her like a thief in the night, unexpectedly and without warning, and take away her place. In other words, allowing herself to sink into spiritual inertia would mean jeopardizing her eternal salvation. It was a solemn and stark warning designed to pull the church up short and force her to rethink her current trajectory.
Jesus promised the overcomer a white robe and the assurance of eternal life. The assurance that his or her name would be written in the book of life that Jesus himself would confess their names before the Father and the angels and one who is worthy and faithful.
Jesus came to rescue us from the horrific penalty of sin. When he sees his professed people wasting that gift it is in their best interest for him to step in and issue a warning. When he sees us veering off the path he needs to tell us exactly what we are doing so we can reassess and recalibrate.
Part of that is a reality check but another part of it is also helping us to see beyond the circumstances that surround us and offering us the eternal realities that he came to give us through his life, death, and resurrection.
It is easy for us, like Sardis to begin to lose our grip on our faith. It is easy to sink into spiritual lethargy but Jesus tells us that holding on, and pushing forward is worth it. He presents to us what lies ahead if we are willing to press forward; a white robe and the assurance of eternal life. It’s ours for the taking if we are only willing to reach out and grab it.