A Study of the Seven Churches of Asia
by Al Maxey

(Revelation 3:1-6)

Sardis had a reputation for being a "peaceful, little church." It was not being persecuted by the world, nor was it being plagued with heresy from within. This was, in part, the problem! It was a peace that came from doing nothing. They were undoubtedly well organized and going through all the "right" motions, but they were dead inside. Few things are more organized and well-formed than a graveyard, but there is no life there!

"Neither the Jews nor the Gentiles seem to have greatly bothered the people of Sardis. Sardis was a very 'peaceful' church. It enjoyed peace -- the peace of the cemetery!" (William Hendriksen, More Than Conquerors, p. 91). "The church of Sardis was completely untroubled from without and from within. The church of Sardis was at peace -- but it was the peace of the dead. It was the peace of the man who has ceased to care, the peace of the man who has sunk into a comfortable lethargy, the peace of the man whose dreams are dead and whose mind is asleep, the peace of evasion and escape" (William Barclay, Letters To The Seven Churches, p. 72). "Neither pagan opposition nor heretical and libertinistic excesses threatened this church; it suffered from spiritual dry rot and deadness" (R.C.H. Lenski, Interpretation of St. John's Revelation, p. 126).


For the congregation itself, the Lord has no real commendation! This congregation is essentially living off of its past reputation, but is doing absolutely nothing noteworthy at the present. However, Jesus does commend certain members who, in spite of the deadness around them, continue faithful to their Lord.

"You have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their garments; and they will walk with Me in white; for they are worthy" (Rev. 3:4). Literally, the Greek text says here: "You have a few names...." "These individuals were known by name to the Father in heaven. They were known individually, each separately. God knows His own" (William Hendriksen, p. 91).

These "few names" constituted the spark of life which still existed in Sardis. If not for them, the congregation would be totally dead, with no hope of revival. "The commendation Jesus gives in His message to the church in Sardis is not of the church as such, but of its few faithful members. The idea is that even in a church where there was such widespread spiritual lethargy, there were still a few persons who had remained faithful to the Lord" (James M. Tolle, The Seven Churches of Asia, p. 60). "The 'few names' reveal that there were yet some who had remained spiritually alive and who testified to the truth that all could have been so. It is comforting to learn that in a church of spiritual corpses the Lord sees and knows the congregation as individuals and is mindful of each as a personal entity" (Homer Hailey, Revelation: An Introduction and Commentary, p. 146).


ONE --- "I know your deeds .... I have not found your deeds completed in the sight of My God" (NASB, NAB, NEB, NIV, SEB, Phillips) ..... "fully performed" (NWT) ..... "far from right" (LB) ..... "perfected/perfect" (KJV, NKJV, ASV, RSV, TEV, Amplified). Jesus knows the "deeds/works" of this congregation; He knows what they are doing, or not doing. Jesus is not saying that this congregation has stopped functioning altogether. Some things are happening in Sardis.

The criticism is: they are not being "completed" or "perfected." This is the Greek word pleroo which means "to bring to an end; to bring to completion; to perform fully; to finish something already begun." This can be viewed in a couple of different ways:

  1. They never finished what they started. "They were good starters but poor finishers, like the Galatians who ran well for a while and then stopped" (Ray Summers, Worthy Is The Lamb, p. 120). "Their works were perfunctory; none of them had been completed. They had made spasmodic efforts, getting enthusiastic for a while, but it never lasted" (James M. Tolle, p. 58-59).

  2. Their works were so cold and lifeless that they never bore spiritual fruit. They may have been "holding to a form of godliness, although they had denied its power" (II Tim. 3:5). Their works/deeds had become "more and more formal, empty, hollow" (R.C.H. Lenski, p. 129). "The forms were there, the ceremonies, the religious customs, the traditions, the services; but the real essence was lacking. The forms were empty" (William Hendriksen, p. 91).

TWO --- "You have a name that you are alive, but you are dead" (Rev. 3:1). Jesus distinguishes here between the congregation's reputation, and its actual spiritual condition. Sardis was living on past glories and accomplishments; they had a reputation for being alive, but they were in fact spiritually dead. It is additionally possible that their reputation came from an appearance of life as a result of the deeds they were performing. However, if these deeds consisted only of form, and had no inner substance, they might fool the world into thinking they were alive spiritually, but they weren't fooling the Lord.

"Viewed externally the church looked peaceful and acceptable, possibly a model church, but from the Lord's point of view it was spiritually dead" (Homer Hailey, p. 144). "In this church there was plenty of outward activity, but no inner spirituality. No doubt the organization was perfected and running smoothly. An outsider looking on would see the ideal church as far as outward manifestation went, but there was no life, no real life, in the church" (Ray Summers, p. 120).

William Barclay lists several things that can contribute to a congregation being pronounced "dead" by the Lord:

"Sardis had a splendid reputation as a model congregation, spiritually alive and active. There are churches today that are like Sardis in that they enjoy a fine reputation but are virtually dead in the eyes of the Lord. They have a look about them of general well-to-do-ness. They meet in fine buildings. Their services are well attended and conducted in an orderly manner. They seemingly have well-organized programs of work. Their members abstain from the more obvious sins of carnality. But the Lord knows that in the things that basically count -- genuine commitment to Him, unceasing prayer, love for God and all men, zeal for good works, worshipful spirit, living witness of Christ -- they are sadly deficient. Their good reputation has as its basis a form of godliness, but they are devoid of the power of godliness" (James M. Tolle, p. 58). "The forms were all right, but they needed to be filled with power and devotion. A Christian cannot prosper on ritual alone" (Ray Summers, p. 120).

(NOTE ..... The following five points are stated in the form of commands to be heeded by those in Sardis. From these commands we derive qualities that our Lord finds unacceptable in them. There are five imperatives (the Greek mood of command) used in Rev. 3:2-3a, the largest grouping together of imperatives in Revelation!)

THREE --- "Wake up" (NASB, NEB, NIV, LB, RSV, NAB, TEV, SEB, Phillips) ..... "Be thou/become watchful" (KJV, NKJV, ASV, NWT) ..... "rouse yourselves and keep awake" (Amplified). The Greek word arupnein refers to "the process of waking up when one has been asleep." The word used in this passage, however, is a different word: gregoreo which means "to be wide awake; fully awake and alert once roused from sleep; watchful and vigilant and attentive."

The city of Sardis itself had been captured more than once due to lack of vigilance. The Lord warns the church that they are spiritually asleep and that unless they wake up and become alert, they also will suffer defeat. "Awake, thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall shine upon thee" (Eph. 5:14). Jesus is seeking to "arouse the church in Sardis from its spiritual lethargy and to incite it to alertness in meeting its Christian responsibilities" (James M. Tolle, p. 58). See also: Matt. 24:42-44 and Luke 12:35-40. Jesus warns them: "If therefore you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come upon you" (Rev. 3:3b).

FOUR --- "Strengthen the things that remain, which were about to die" (NASB, NWT, NEB, LB, KJV, NKJV, NIV, RSV, NAB, SEB, TEV, Phillips) ..... "establish" (ASV) ..... "Strengthen and invigorate" (Amplified). This is the Greek word sterizo which means "to make firm, settled, immovable; to set fast; steadfast."

There are "things that remain" in Sardis; a flicker of life still exists. That weak pulse needs to be strengthened; that spark of life needs to be fanned into a flame. This can still be done if they wake up and take immediate action.

That small flicker of life is "about to die." This is the Greek word apothnesko which means "to die utterly; total extinction" ... "to die so as to be no more" (Thayer's Greek - English Lexicon of the New Testament, p. 61). Only a few coals remain which can yet be fanned into flame --- the rest is ashes!

FIVE --- "Remember therefore how you received and heard." Some translations read "what" instead of "how." The "what" would be the gospel message, and the "how" would be the heartfelt attitude with which it was received. It is the Greek word pos which is an adverb meaning "how; in what manner." Thus, Jesus is commanding them to recapture the attitude they had when they had first heard and received the Good News.

SIX --- "...and keep it" (NASB, NWT, ASV, RSV, NAB) ..... "Observe it" (NEB) ..... "Hold fast" (KJV, NKJV) ..... "Hold to it firmly" (LB) ..... "Hold to those thing" (Phillips) ..... "Obey it" (NIV, TEV, SEB, Amplified). This is the Greek word tereo which means "to watch over protectively, to guard; to preserve; maintain, heed or keep strictly."

Not only must they faithfully guard the Word with which they have been entrusted, but they must also faithfully guard and maintain the heartfelt attitude with which they heard and received it. "Memory is indeed a precious ally in the Christian life" (James M. Tolle, p. 59).

SEVEN --- "...and repent" (NASB, KJV, NKJV, ASV, NWT, NEB, RSV, NIV, NAB, Amplified, Phillips) ..... "turn to Me again" (LB) ..... "turn from your sins" (TEV) ..... "change your heart" (SEB). This is the Greek word metanoeo which means "to repent, reform; to undergo a change in frame of mind and feeling" (The Analytical Greek Lexicon of the New Testament, p. 266). "To turn away from one thing to another" (Arndt and Gingrich, A Greek - English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, p. 512).

Jesus was asking the congregation at Sardis to think back on where they had been spiritually, and to turn themselves around and recapture that state of being. To continue in their present state of spiritual lethargy would result in their extinction. They must revive what little life remains, and come alive!

Thyatira Philadelphia

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