Background

  • The city of Sardis was a principal city in western Asia Minor, located in the Hermus Valley, 80km east of the port city of Smyrna. Until it was captured in 546BC by the Persians under Cyrus II, it had been the capital of the Kingdom of Lydia, but it remained an impor- tant city in the region. It had a great name and reputation based on the past.
  • Its wealth came primarily from gold mining, commerce due to its location on trade routes, and the manufacture of textiles. During Roman times, it is estimated that even though it had declined from the peak of its fame, it still had a population of 100,000 people.
  • Its decline was at least in part due to a major earthquake that struck the region of Lydia in AD17, from which Sardis never completely recovered. The emperor Tiberias assisted recon- struction efforts, and at the time of John, Sardis had a theatre, a stadium and several temples. The testimony of Josephus and the presence of a large synagogue indicate that there was a significant Jewish community in the city.
  • The military history of the city of Sardis is instructive when considering the letter to its ecclesia. It was surrounded by cliffs and high walls and considered to be an impregnable fortress, yet by the time of the Revelation, it had been twice captured due to the defenders’ carelessness.
  • Herodotus records that during the Persian conquest, one side of the city was on a sheer cliff and considered safe from attack and con- sequently was not defended adequately. Taking advantage of this complacency, the Persians scaled the cliff and took the city. Failing to learn from history, the city’s defenders made a similar mistake in 216BC, during Antiochus III’s siege of Sardis. According to the historian Polybius, the Seleucids observed an unguarded section of the city wall and scaled it at night, opening the way for the city’s capture. The watchmen had failed to watch.

Exposition

3:1 seven spirits: Represents the omnipotence and omniscience of God manifested in Christ (see 1:4; 4:5; 5:6).

seven stars: The leaders of the seven ecclesias (1:16,20). The welfare of the ecclesial elders was uppermost in Lord’s mind ( John 10:29).

I know thy works: No compliment from Christ at this point, unlike the previous four letters. Noth- ing good is mentioned until v4. Christ can see in- side every heart and every ecclesia, for good or ill (cp Jer 17:10). But rather than giving up on the ecclesia as a lost cause, Christ addresses the issues before it’s too late (see also Isa 42:3).

name: i.e. reputation. A name implies a set of characteristics (cp Exod 34:5-7). A good reputa- tion is hard to gain and easy to lose (Eccl 10:1). Sardis had a good reputation unmatched by reality.

thou hast a name that thou livest, and art dead: ESV “You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead.”Their works were dead because their faith was inactive ( James 2:17-26).

3:2 Be watchful: A common warning of Christ’s, e.g. Matt 24:42-51; Luke 12:35-48. Sardis was neither watching nor doing, which threatened fatal consequences (v3). A watchman’s role is to prevent death (Ezek 33:1-16).

strengthen – Gk sterizo – to establish, to make fast, to make stable

the things which remain that are ready to die: there was still some faint stirring of life amongst a very few (v4)

I have not found thy works perfect before God: Works were happening, but they weren’t accept- able—they were devoid of faith and done to main- tain the ecclesia’s reputation, not for God’s glory. Activity is no substitute for spirituality. One’s mo- tivation must be correct (1 Thess 2:4) and Christ must be central ( John 15:4-6).

perfect: Gk “to make full”, i.e. complete.

3:3 Remedy verse. Christ may tell you the problem, but he won’t fix it for you – you must do the work.

remember, hold fast, repent: Sorrow when looking to the past should create determination to change for the future (cp 2:5).

  • First step: remember. Remember what Christ has done for us (2 Pet 1:9). Contrast your current state with that when you were first baptised. Return to basics and strip everything back to fundamentals.
  • Second step: hold fast. Gk “keep”, “guard”, “at- tend to carefully” – lack of which historically caused Sardis’ downfall. Keep the command- ments of Christ, with the right attitude. Be on guard against ungodly influences. Be on guard against overconfidence in your spiritual health.
  • Third step: repent. Wake up spiritually. Stop what you’re doing, turn around, and start doing the opposite. Acknowledge wrongdoing while determining to do better in the future. Change motivation and work out of a love for Christ.

If therefore thou shalt not watch (Gk: “stay awake”, “be vigilant”) I will come on thee as a thief: Together with v2,4-5 this warning is repeated for us in Rev 16:15. Alludes to the history of Sardis; twice it was conquered due to the defenders’ complacency and inability to watch. Like the city, the Sardis ecclesia never fell to the obvious problems (cp 2:20) but rather to the subtle. The ecclesia was overconfident and was unaware of the effect of worldliness in their meeting.

thou shalt not know what hour I will come upon thee: It’s never known when a thief is coming, or even if he’s coming, but without watching, one won’t be ready at all! Instead, prepare for Christ’s return like for the arrival of an honoured guest (cp ref v2 watchful).

3:4 Salvation must come from individual conviction. It would not have been easy to labour in a dead ecclesia. Christ’s advice to the faithful in all ecclesias was “Just hold on!” (2:10,25; 3:11).

names: These names live and are known by Christ (cp v1; Matt 7:23). They bear the Father’s name (14:1).

garments…white: Putting on a garment represents putting on Christ (Gal 3:27; Col 3:10) but the flesh can sully that covering (Jude 23). We need to be cleansed from sin by confession and repentance (1 John 1:7; Eph 5:26-27) so that we can be present at the wedding feast (Matt 22:10- 14; Rev 16:15).

they shall walk with me: Because they are walking with Christ now.

3:5 white raiment: The same forgiveness and im- mortality of v4 is offered to anyone that overcomes (Rev 19:8; 2 Cor 5:1-4).

blot out: i.e. totally remove (cp Deut 29:19-20)

name (×2): (cp v1) – If Sardis promoted the name of Christ instead of their own name, Christ would preserve and promote their name for them, and their name would become immortal (cp Isa 56:5).

book of life: A common scriptural symbol of God’s list of those redeemed, e.g. Exod 32:32-33; Dan 7:10; 12:1; Luke 10:20; Rev 20:12

confess: Luke 9:26; 12:8

3:6 he that hath an ear, let him hear: Repeatedly said by Christ during his ministry (e.g. Matt 13:9,15-16,43; Mark 7:16; Luke 14:35), and again here to each ecclesia. There is no point in hearing instruction but ignoring the advice; it must be applied and practised (Luke 6:49).

Theme Highlights

v1 name, v4 names, v5 name (×2)
v1 livest, v1 dead, v2 die
v2 watchful, v3 watch
v3 remember, v3 hold fast, v3 repent
v4 garments, v4 white, v5 white raiment