In 1968, the Swiss dominated the watch industry producing 65% of the watches in the world and 80% of the profits, however just ten years later they had only a 10% market share. What happened? Their own researchers invented the electronic (Quartz) watch and the Swiss executives rejected it. The Japanese on the other hand saw a new paradigm with this technology and took over the market that the Swiss dominated with the technology that the Swiss themselves invented. The Swiss were so sure that electronics were not the future of watch making that they didn’t even protect their own invention with a copyright.
What is true of industry is also true of churches. If we rest on past accomplishments, we can start to slide. If we are not careful, we will become increasingly irrelevant.
In Revelation 1:11, Jesus sent a message to each of seven local churches in Asia Minor. In the letter to the church in Sardis, Jesus rebukes the church for its compromise that is leading to spiritual death and reassures the faithful few with promises of heavenly citizenship. This letter points out the key principle, We need to take an honest look at our present circumstances. Rather than rest on past accomplishments, we need to obey Christ and live for him in the present.
The Church (1a) – Not much is known about the church. It was possibly founded as an outreach of Paul’s ministry at Ephesus (Acts 19:10).
The City (1a) – The city was located about 30 miles southeast of Thyatira and about 50 miles inland from Ephesus. It was located on an important trade route that ran east and west through the kingdom of Lydia. The city was one of the most ancient, founded about 1200 BC. It became the capital of the wealthy and powerful Lydian kingdom.
The citadel of the ancient city of Sardis occupied a long ridge on Mount Tmolus which rose about 1,500 feet above the area below. The city occupied a large portion of the valley below; and the acropolis, to which threatened citizens could repair in time of war, served primarily for the defense of the city. The approach to the acropolis was sheer at any point except across the saddle of Mount Tmolus, which was also steep and difficult. Hence, Sardis was considered to be almost impregnable for opposing armies.
The city was conquered by the Persians, then the Greeks under Alexander the Great, and finally by the Romans. On two separate occasions, the city was conquered because the sentries failed to keep watch and defend the city. It had fallen due to overconfidence and the failure to watch. “Capturing Sardis” became a saying for achieving the impossible.
Important industries included jewelry, dye, and textiles, which had made the city wealthy. It was the center of the dyeing industry. It was known for its manufacture of woolen garments. From a religious standpoint it was a center of pagan worship and site of a temple of Artemis. The temple dated from the fourth century B.C. They worshipped the mother goddess, Cybele. Her worship was of the most debasing character, and orgies like those of Dionysus were practice at the festivals held in her honor.
The Character of Christ (1b) – Jesus holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. The seven spirits represent the Holy Spirit. The seven stars are the pastors of the churches. Christ holds each one in his hands. Christ introduces himself as the one who works sovereignly in the churches through the Holy Spirit and godly leaders.
The Condition of the Church: Commendation – What sounds like a word of approval is actually a word of rebuke. There is no compliment, only criticism. Their “strength” is their “weakness.”
The Condition of the Church: Concern (1b) – The church had the appearance of being alive. They were regarded by their contemporaries as an effective church. The reality is that the church was dead. Their outward appearance was a façade hiding their lack of life. The church had grown comfortable and content living off its past reputation.
The Command (2-4) – Jesus exhorts the church using five commands.
Wake up – Wake up from their spiritual slumber. The first step toward revival in a dying church is honest awareness that something is wrong.
Strengthen what remains – The verb means to “support” or “stand something on its feet” and has the idea of establishing a thing by making it strong. This was vital because what little that remained was about to die.
Remember – Remember the time when they had been spiritually alive. It is not merely a matter a remembering past truths, however, it is also putting them back into practice. “Received” refers to the truths they have been taught. “Heard” refers to believing and acting on the teaching.
Keep it, Obey it – Be obedient to the heavenly vision. Spiritual vigilance is seen in perseverance and obedient living of these spiritual realities.
Repent – Change direction of your life. The church needs to change its downward spiral and get right with God.
The Consequences (3b) – Jesus promises sudden and immediate judgment. He will come suddenly and unexpectedly like a thief to destroy them. Just as the city of Sardis had succumbed to unexpected military attack, so the church of Sardis will be visited by Christ’s judgment—if it does not change.
The Commitment (4-5) – While the church is dead and dying, Christ recognized a godly remnant in the Sardis church who had not soiled their clothes with sin. He promised the true believers will be dressed in white, symbolic of the righteousness of God. Their names will remain in the book of life. Christ will acknowledge them as his own before his father and his angels.
It is possible for a dead church to change. As long as a few people remain faithful, God can breathe new life into the church.
The Challenge (6) – Take the message to heart. Hear and heed the message.
When Mickey Cohen, a famous Los Angeles gangster of the late 1940’s, made a public profession of faith in Christ, his new Christian friends were elated. But as time passed, they began to wonder why he did not leave his gangster lifestyle. When they confronted him concerning this question, however, he protested. “You never told me I had to give up my career. You never told me that I had to give up my friends. There are Christian movie stars, Christian athletes, Christian businessmen. So what’s the matter with being a Christian gangster? If I have to give up all that—if that’s Christianity—count me out.” Cohen gradually drifted away from Christian circles and ultimately died lonely and forgotten.
Principles (1) What matters most is not our religious reputation before human beings but our standing before God, which is related to how we live. (2) For a sick and dying church to regain its health calls for specific action prescribed by Jesus Christ, and made effective by the Holy Spirit.
This is the synopsis of a message preached at First Central Bible Church in Chicopee, MA, on February 11, 2018. It is part of a series on The State of the Church. Please click on the link to download a copy of the sermon notes.