Revelation--Sardis: Wake UpDecent People with a Dying Witness
Leslie Basham: Nancy Leigh DeMoss says when you’re facing a new challenge you grow more alert. The opposite is true as well.
Nancy Leigh DeMoss: When there is no persecution, when there’s no opposition, when there’s no adversity—it’s even true in our lives—it’s easy to get lulled to sleep, to become comfortable, content, complacent.
Leslie Basham: This is Revive Our Hearts with Nancy Leigh DeMoss for Monday, November 2.
Wake up! It’s an appropriate thought for a Monday, and that’s the name of a new series we’re launching today. It’s one of several series this year based on the letters to seven churches we read about in the book of Revelation. Here’s Nancy to get us started.
Nancy Leigh DeMoss: We live in a culture that is obsessed with appearance. How we look to others matters supremely to a lot of people. I came across an article recently about how a lot of people today are making advance arrangements to have extensive plastic surgery after they die. This has become big business for what this article called “plastic surgeons of the dead.”
People are so concerned about their final appearance that they want to look their best for their funeral. One woman summed it up by saying, “If my family has an open casket, I want to be fixed up to the max. I want people to say, ‘She looks great! She looks better dead than alive.’”1
Now that may seem humorous or weird or unthinkable to some of us. But as we come to the fifth of the seven letters in the book of Revelation, we come today to a group of people who were obsessed with how they looked even though they were dead.
As we’ve been looking at these seven letters to the churches in Revelation, we’ve seen that each of them is relevant and each of them is needed not only for 1st century Christians but also for believes and churches in the 21st century.
For example, back in Ephesus we saw this church that was orthodox; it was doctrinally sound. They were doing the right things. But what were they lacking? They were lacking love. They were lacking heart. They were lacking passion for Christ.
Then we came to Smyrna the suffering church, the church that was facing opposition and persecution. And Jesus’ word to them simply was, “Be faithful. Be faithful all the way until the end.”
And then we looked over the last few weeks here at the churches in Pergamum and Thyatira, churches that had compromised with the world and they were seeing God’s grace as a license to sin and were justifying accommodation to the world.
And we saw that those letters are very relevant to churches today. But I don’t know that there’s any letter of the seven that is any more relevant and needed than this fifth letter, the one that is to the church in Sardis.
In this letter there is no commendation given to the church, one of only two that that would be true of. But there is expressed instead of commendation a grave concern of Christ. And the concern He expresses for this church is a concern that has been much on my heart for many years.
So I come into this new series on the church in Sardis with a fresh and great burden on my heart that God will speak to the churches and the so-called believers of our day. Those in our churches will speak the Word of Christ and His Spirit and that we will have ears to hear what He has to say.
Now Sardis was a city that was about 30 miles southeast of Thyatira. So the postman who’s delivering these letters, so to speak, is making this circle route. Sardis will be the next city he will come to. At one time Sardis had been the capital of the wealthy kingdom of Lydia. It had been an important commercial center.
It was known for manufacturing textiles. Sardis took credit for inventing the art of dyeing wool. Sardis was the place where modern money was invented. The first silver and gold coins were minted in Sardis.
In fact, speaking of money, if you’re a little older you’ve probably heard the phrase “rich as Croesus.” It’s a phrase that used to be used a lot. Today we’d probably say “rich as Bill Gates” or something like that. But Croesus was at one time in the 6th century B.C. the king of Lydia. He was famous for his wealth. He was fabulously wealthy.
So it became proverbial. People would say somebody is as rich as Croesus.
But Sardis was an affluent, pleasure-loving city, which means that it became, as affluence has a way of tending to do to people, it became soft and ended up with a lack of character, a lack of discipline, and a lack of vigilance.
As we’ll see later in this series, Sardis was built on a plateau that was about 1,500 feet off the valley floor. It was considered secure. It was considered impregnable, so the people became overconfident. They became complacent. And on two occasions that we’ll talk about later the city walls of Sardis were breached by enemies because of carelessness, because the entrance to the city was left unattended.
In 17 A.D.—now keep in mind the book of Revelation is being written in the latter part of the first century—Sardis was destroyed along with the city of Philadelphia in Asia Minor there. It was destroyed by a devastating earthquake. The city was rebuilt by the Emperor Tiberius, but it never regained the glory and the importance that it once had.
Sardis had been a magnificent city at one time, and it was still a trade center in the day in which this letter was written in the book of Revelation, but it was in decline. The glory days of Sardis were in the past. This city was in the process of decaying and dying.
Now I say all that to say that what was true of the city of Sardis was a picture of the church in Sardis. So let’s look at the letter. I want to read the entire letter, and then we’ll start into it and see what the Spirit has to say to the churches and to us in our day.
Revelation chapter 3. I’m reading the first six verses.
And to the angel of the church in Sardis write: "The words of him who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. 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.
"Yet you have still a few names in Sardis, people who have not soiled their garments, and they will walk with me in white, for they are worthy. The one who conquers will be clothed thus in white garments, and I will never blot his name out of the book of life. I will confess his name before my father and before his angels. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”
In each of these letters the description of Jesus, who is the one sending the letter . . . We sign our letters at the end, but in those days people would sign their letters at the beginning and maybe tell you something about themselves that would indicate who they were or what their characteristics were. Paul would say, “Grace and peace to you from Paul and my spiritual son in the faith Timothy," etc.
So this is his signature on the letters, and in each case His description, His signature gives us an indication of what that church needs and what that church’s condition is and what His prescription is for that church.
So in this case to the church in Sardis He says, “I am the one who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars.”
And you say, “Seven spirits of God? What does that mean?” Well, we know that there’s only one Holy Spirit. But the number seven in the Scripture and particularly in the book of Revelation where that number is used many, many times, the number seven symbolizes completeness or fullness.
This is a description of the Holy Spirit of God who is complete. He comes in His fullness to meet the needs of His people. It speaks of the all-seeing, all-knowing Spirit of Christ who is alive. He is active, and He is at work in His churches and throughout the world.
Revelation chapter 5, verse 6 says, “I saw a lamb standing”—this is the vision that John had of heaven. And he said, “In heaven I saw a lamb standing,” that’s Christ, “although it had been slain with seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth.”
So this is the Spirit of Christ, the all-seeing eyes of Christ, the Spirit of Christ, the Spirit of God that is sent out into all the earth. The Spirit of God is moving even as it did in Genesis chapter 1 where the earth was dark and formless and void.
But it says, “The spirit of God was hovering over the face of the earth” (Genesis 1:2). Jesus is the one who has the Spirit of God who is still alive and well and at work in our world today.
Now John 3 tells us that God the Father gives to His Son, Jesus, the Holy Spirit without measure. Again, the fullness, the seven spirits of God; God gave to His Son Jesus the fullness of the Holy Spirit.
And in Isaiah chapter 11 we read about that sevenfold Spirit that rested on Christ. It says, and this is speaking prophetically of the coming of Christ,
The Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
So if you count up in that verse, Isaiah 11:2, there are seven descriptions of the Spirit, the sevenfold Spirit that rests upon Christ.
But not only does he rest upon Christ in fullness and in abundant measure. But there are seven churches in Revelation. And the seven spirits that Christ has speak of the fullness of the Holy Spirit that is given by Christ to every church and to every believer within those churches.
Now why this emphasis on the Holy Spirit? Well, as we’re going to see in this church, the Holy Spirit who is the source of life was exactly what they needed. They needed Him in order to be revived. They needed Him in order to be resurrected and brought to spiritual life.
We said earlier at the beginning of this lengthy series on the letters to the seven churches that the seven stars represent the seven angels of the churches. And we don’t know what those angels represent.
Many think that those angels represent the spiritual leaders of the churches. If that’s the case, then perhaps what is being said here is that not only do the churches need the Holy Spirit of God in His fullness, His plentitude, His abundance, but the leaders of those churches need the Holy Spirit.
And certainly it is true that anything we do in speaking the truth to others, speaking the Word of God to others in discipling, in ministering to others, it’s all useless without the enabling, the empowering and the anointing of the Holy Spirit of God.
Now as you read the letter to the church in Sardis, you notice that there’s no indication of there being any external opposition or persecution. Now certainly that was going on because they lived in the Roman Empire, and there was persecution going on across the Empire.
But it’s interesting to me that it’s not referenced in this letter. Further, there is no heresy or false teaching named as there is in some of the other letters. And there’s no rebuke given for worldliness or for corrupt, unholy living as there is in some of the other letters.
You see, the problem in Sardis was even more basic than those issues because this is a church that was fundamentally spiritually dead. There was no life there or very little. The little bit of life there was was about to die out. The people in that church were dead; the church was dead.
As a result there’s nothing in that church that apparently bothered or stirred up Satan. So why would he need to bring about persecution? There was nothing to persecute. And when there is no persecution, when there is no opposition, when there is no adversity—it’s even true in our lives—it’s easy to get lulled to sleep, to become comfortable, content, complacent.
This was a church that was spiritually flabby. They were not well conditioned because they hadn’t experienced hardship, and they hadn’t experienced hardship because they were dead. And yet, curiously, here’s a church that apparently thought everything was fine.
Warren Wiersbe in his commentary on this passage says,
The impression is that the assembly in Sardis was not aggressive in its witness to the city. There was no persecution because there was no invasion of the enemy’s territory. No friction usually means no motion! The unsaved in Sardis saw the church as a respectable group of people who were neither dangerous nor desirable. They were decent people with a dying witness and a decaying ministry.2
Now as I read that I think, “If that doesn’t describe so many of our churches in this country today, I don’t know what does.”
A respectable group of people who are considered by the unsaved around us as neither dangerous nor desirable. They don’t want what we have. They’re not impressed with what we have, and they’re not bothered by what we have.
Now increasingly that is changing as battle lines are drawn between truth and error. But for the most part, most of us are not bothering Satan’s kingdom. Most of our churches are not bothering the powers of darkness.
You read the gospels and you see that wherever Jesus went, hell shattered at His feet. Demons were confronted. And I don’t mean just with exorcisms, but the power of darkness, the kingdom of Satan was confronted wherever Jesus went.
Should it not be true that if Jesus is Lord and present in His church in our lives today that there would be this confrontation between the kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of Satan?
Now the fact that Satan wasn’t bothered or exorcised about that church, the fact that they were neither dangerous nor desirable, decent people with a dying witness and a decaying ministry, that doesn’t mean there wasn’t anything going on there.
In fact, Jesus said, “I know your works.” This church had works, and they had a lot of activity that impressed others. We’re going to see that they had a reputation for being alive. But inwardly they were dead. They looked alive, but life was the thing they most needed.
I found it interesting that in Sardis there was at this time a huge very impressive temple that had 78 columns each 58 feet high. That’s a big temple. This temple was dedicated to the patron goddess of Sardis who was known there as Cybele, the same goddess that was known in Ephesus as Artemis or Diana—same Greek goddess.
And this goddess, Cybele, was believed to have power to raise the dead to life. Here in this city of Sardis she had this huge temple dedicated to her.
Now, of course, Cybele was a figment of the imagination; she has absolutely no power to raise the dead or do anything else. But I find it interesting that that is exactly what the church in Sardis needed was a miracle of life, resurrection, a miracle that only the true and living God could perform.
Now before we look at the rest of this letter I want to take us back to a passage in the book of Ezekiel, Ezekiel chapter 37. In the first 14 verses of this passage, Ezekiel 37, we see this progression of moving from death to life.
As I read through this passage notice that we have here a valley that was full of very many dry bones. When you see dry bones, human bones, do you think of life or do you think of death? The death comes to life.
And the word live you’ll see in this passage six times. Twice you’ll see the phrase, “Raised up from your graves.” The emphasis is death is moving to life. There’s resurrection power here.
- Now what makes the difference?
- What takes them from death to life in this passage?
- What takes anybody from death to life?
- What takes a church from death to life?
Well ten times in these first 14 verses, depending on your translation, you will see the words spirit, breath, or wind. And in the Hebrew language those are all translating one word. It’s the word ruach. Spirit, breath, wind all translate this one word. It’s the Spirit of God, the breath of God, the wind of the Spirit of God that brings life out of death.
Let me read the passage and catch these words—the death, the life, the spirit, the breath and the wind that makes the difference. Beginning in verse 1.
The hand of the Lord was upon me, and he brought me out in the Spirit (ruach), of the Lord and set me down in the middle of the valley; it was full of bones. And he led me around among them, and behold, there were very many on the surface of the valley, and behold they were very dry.
And he said to me, "Son of man, can these bones live?" And I answered, "Oh Lord God, you know."
Then he said to me, ‘Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, O dry bones hear, the word of the Lord.
Now I just think it goes without saying that dry bones, dead bodies, cannot hear anything including the word of the Lord unless the Spirit causes them to have life so that they can hear.
Thus says the Lord God to these bones: "Behold, I will cause breath [ruach], to enter you, and you shall live. And I will lay sinews upon you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath [spirit] in you, and you shall live, and you shall know that I am the Lord."
So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I prophesied, there was a sound, and behold, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. And I looked, and behold, there was sinews upon them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them. But there was no breath [ruach, spirit] in them. [They were still dead.]
Then he said to me, "Prophesy to the breath [the wind, the spirit, ruach]; prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath, ‘Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds [ruach], O breath, and breathe on these slain, that they may live."
So I prophesied as he commanded me, and the [ruach], the breath, [the spirit] came into them, and they lived and stood on their feet, an exceedingly great army.
Then he said to me, “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. Behold, they say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are indeed cut off.’ Therefore prophesy, and say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord God: Behold, I will open your graves and raise you from your graves. [That’s resurrection life!] And I will bring you into the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will put my [ruach], my Spirit within you, and you shall live. . . .Then you shall know that I am the Lord’” (verses 1-14).
Do you see the connection there? How do dry bones become alive again? How did the dead people of Israel become alive again? How does a person who’s on the verge of dying who’s spiritually comatose, how do they come back to life? It’s the ruach, the wind, the spirit, the breath of God.
The Spirit of God gives life. He raised Christ from the dead. He alone can bring dead bones to life and dead churches. There is no human effort. There are no human programs, no human ingenuity that can solve the problems of this lifeless church in Sardis or of our lifeless churches today.
The Spirit of God must breathe life into those who are dead. We can do nothing apart from Him. We are dependent upon Him. As we cannot live physically without breathing oxygen, breath, wind, spirit, so we cannot live spiritually, individually, or as churches without the breath of the Spirit of God.
It’s the Spirit of God that animates, brings to life the Body of Christ.
Leslie Basham: Wake up. It was the message to the 1st century church of Sardis and one we need to hear today. A message like this one from Nancy Leigh DeMoss is received by women in all walks of life in a variety of settings.
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Well it’s possible for church to look good on the outside, involved in a variety of activities and programs, and still be spiritually dead. We’ll address that tomorrow on Revive Our Hearts.
Revive Our Hearts with Nancy Leigh DeMoss is an outreach of Life Action Ministries.
All Scripture is taken from the English Standard Version.
1 http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/28114566/ (12/9/08)
2 Wiersbe, W. W. (1996, c1989). The Bible exposition commentary. "An exposition of the New Testament comprising the entire 'BE' series"--Jkt. (Re 3:1). Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books.Offers available only during the broadcast of the radio series.