Let’s get right to the point. This letter to the church in Sardis ought to alert us to the fact that a church can be confident of its place in the community, increasing in membership, energetic in its religious activities, liquid in its financial assets, fervent in its outreach to the broader culture, and yet dead!
I fear it is precisely those reading this who say, in response, “Yes, but that’s not us,” who are particularly in jeopardy. It is the unsuspecting church, the unexamined church, the spiritually smug church that simply can’t believe a congregation that appears to have been so richly blessed by God (“After all, look at how many turned out for our Christmas pageant!”) could possibly be the focus of a divine rebuke such as we find in the words to Sardis.
Take a closer look with me at our Lord’s words of warning:
"I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God. Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it, and repent. 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” (3:1-3).
The particular problem that moved our Lord to speak in such forceful terms is found in the phrase: “I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God” (v. 2b). What is Jesus saying? A brief glance at the list of works in 2:19 will help: love, faith, service, patient endurance. All these were no doubt evident in Sardis, but in a hypocritical, haphazard, half-hearted, or again, “incomplete” way.
Perhaps their motives were wrong. Perhaps they performed the deeds well enough, but did so for selfish, even mercenary reasons. The words “in the sight of my God” indicate that whereas their deeds may gain human approval, God’s evaluation was another matter. George Ladd has a suggestion:
“The church was not troubled by persecution; it was not disturbed by heresy; it was not distressed by Jewish opposition; it was well known as an active, vigorous Christian congregation, characterized by good works and charitable activities. But in the sight of God, all of these religious activities were a failure because they were only formal and external, and not infused with the life-giving Holy Spirit” (56).
Their efforts were perfunctory, lacking that zeal informed by knowledge, noted for beginnings that rarely or ever came to anything of lasting worth. They were the works of a church that had become addicted to mediocrity. They were, in a word, wishy-washy!
This is stunning! The world looked at this congregation and said: “Wow! What impressive works you’ve performed. What a powerful impact you’ve had. You’ve done so much for so many.” God looked at this congregation and said: “You’re dead! I admit, your works are many, but they are motivated by pride, greed, and are driven by a desire that you be known as great rather than that I be known as great.”
Sardis may well be the first church in history to have been filled with what we call today nominal Christians (see Isa. 29:13; Mt. 15:8-9; 23:25-28; 2 Tim. 3:5). Thus far we have noted the marks of the church of which Jesus approves: doctrinal orthodoxy, suffering for Christ’s name sake, love, growth, and now at Sardis we learn of the importance of reality, genuineness, authenticity, a life-style that matches profession.
Our Lord’s instruction begins with the exhortation, “wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die.” Such words leave room for hope, for they indicate that, although death is near, the possibility for renewal remains. There is an ember, so to speak, which is quickly cooling off, but may yet be fanned into flames of life if only the appropriate action is taken. There’s a slight possibility that “what remains and is about to die” is a reference to individual members of the church, making this a call to the faithful few to minister to those who are languishing in spiritual lethargy.
The exhortation to “wake up” suggests that a church can experience “spiritual slumber,” having fallen asleep and thus inattentive to what matters most. “You’re in a dream state,” says Jesus. “You’re living in an unreal world created by your own false criteria of what is pleasing to God. Shake yourself awake and return to reality.” Being asleep, the church is oblivious to its perilous condition, unaware of the threat it faces. This is no time to take a nap.
If one sleeps incessantly, one becomes weak: sluggish, with slow reflexes, incapable of resisting temptation or fighting the onslaught of the enemy. Not everything has altogether died. But much is on life-support, hanging on in spiritual intensive care. Therefore, “strengthen” what remains of what is good. Apply yourself to revitalize your commitment to Christ and your pursuit of all things holy.
There are three ways this can be done. First, remember. Just as Jesus exhorted the Ephesians (2:5), so also those in Sardis. Past history should challenge them (us) to present endeavor. Recall the blessings of divine grace and be strengthened by the assurance that what God once did he can certainly do again.
Second, hold fast (“keep it”; cf. 2:24b-25). You don’t need anything new; simply hold firmly to what you’ve already received. The terms used here (“received and heard”) probably “refers to the Christian traditions transmitted to the Sardinians when their congregation was founded” (Aune, 1:221).
Third, repent. Stop sinning! Start obeying! When was the last time you witnessed (or participated in) a church that repented corporately, confessing its failures without pretense or pride, and committed afresh to the “main and plain” of Holy Scripture?
The threatened chastisement for failure to do so is vivid (see v. 3b). It’s unclear whether this refers to an impending “coming” of Christ in judgment and discipline against the church in Sardis or a broader reference to the second “coming” of Christ. In either case, the emphasis is on the unexpected (“like a thief”) nature of the coming. It would seem, however, that since repentance would forestall the need for Christ’s “coming” that a historical visitation in the first century is in view, not the second coming at the end of history.
Most churches rarely if ever consider the potential for Jesus himself taking disciplinary action “against” (v. 3) them. We envision ourselves solely as individuals who are accountable to him, but rarely do we think in corporate terms. The church is more than a collection of individuals: it is a community, in which spiritual solidarity of vision and mission must be embraced and nurtured. There were a few faithful folk in Sardis who hadn’t yielded to the problems that plagued the congregation as a whole. But they will inevitably suffer from whatever disciplinary action the Lord might take against the public witness and financial stability and very existence of the church as a whole.
So, in what ways is the contemporary church (perhaps your church) asleep, on the verge of death, facing the sure disciplinary visitation of Christ himself?
It is enough that I point to the abandonment of the centrality and supremacy of Jesus Christ. Most churches would scoff at the suggestion they are anything less than Christ-centered. But how does our professed commitment to being Christocentric express itself in how we worship, in the frequency and fervency with which we celebrate the Eucharist, in what we sing, in how firmly we embrace and how loudly we publicly confess our theological convictions?
How does our alleged Christo-centricity make itself felt in the way we instruct (or merely entertain) our children in Sunday School, or the way we evangelize our community, or how consistently we unpack in our preaching the inspired and authoritative word that Christ himself has given us in Scripture?
If we are as energized and driven by the supremacy of Christ as we allege, would visitors to our Sunday service, or to a small group meeting on Thursday night, immediately recognize it? When our annual report is published in January, would the centrality of Jesus Christ be seen in how funds were used, in how missionaries were supported, in the sort of literature we purchase for the church library and bookstore, in the criteria by which Elders and Deacons are selected to serve?
This letter was then and is now a literal “wake up call” for the church(es) of Jesus Christ. If unheeded, we may well experience a “visitation” from the Lord, but unlike what we hoped for.