The Revelation of Jesus Christ
Importance of Chapters 2-3
When most Christians study the Book of Revelation, they skip over chapters 1-5 so that they can get to the good stuff--chapters 6-19 which deal with all the plagues and wrath God pours out upon the enemies of His people. By being so impatient, they end up doing damage to the interpretation of the Book of Revelation because understanding chapters 1-3 is critical for understanding the rest of the Book of Revelation.
First of all, no matter who else this book applies to, it especially applies to the 7 churches mentioned in Revelation 1:4, 11 and chapters 2-3: "John to the seven churches in Asia," "Write in a book what you see and send it to the seven churches: to Ephesus, etc. . . ." This letter was written to them first, and as such, it applies to them first. Now whereas there may be some passages in the Book of Revelation which seem to go beyond what John would say to these churches, we need to make sure that those passages really don't apply to these 7 churches and what they're experiencing before we junk them and apply them to somebody else. Unfortunately many Christians forget this and apply Revelation only to the future. Such an approach is as wild as me writing a letter to my family and then a third person claiming that the letter had nothing to do with my family.
Second, why did John address this book to these 7 specific churches? Probably because they represented the other churches in Asia Minor. To be sure, other churches existed in Asia Minor besides these 7, for example, the churches at Colossae and Hierapolis; however, John did not have time to address each and every congregation in the area. Instead, he chose 7 churches which represented all the other churches. He also probably selected these 7 because they were all located on a large circular road which connected the cities. The road started in Ephesus, went north to Smyrna, further north to Pergammum, then southeast to Thyatira, due south to Sardis, east-southeast to Philadelphia, southeast to Laodicea, and then back west to Ephesus. As the letter traveled to all these cities, they in turn became the places from which the book would be disseminated throughout the rest of the region; these 7 churches served as centers of distribution for the book throughout the rest of Asia Minor.
Before we go on, we need to address a topic that many of us were taught growing up. Many well-meaning Christians claim that the 7 churches represent 7 church ages in the history of Christianity. For example, the church at Ephesus is supposed to represent the first few centuries of the church, whereas today we are supposed to be living in the church age of Laodicea. Whereas no one can absolutely claim that this interpretation is wrong, it is hard to justify this interpretation based on the text. Where in chapters 2-3 does John claim that the churches represent 7 church ages? It just seems that people who make this claim are claiming this because they are trying to make everything that happens in chapters 6-19 refer only to the future. No one can absolutely say that this interpretation is wrong; nevertheless it appears to be a careless way of interpreting Revelation. If we justify interpreting Revelation this way, then we can probably justify interpreting the rest of the NT any way we want to.
Finally, Revelation 1-3 is so important because these chapters serve as a type of decoder for much of chapters 6-19. Just what do the symbols in chapters 6-19 symbolize? Well, as we look at Revelation 2-3, we will gain insight into the way John uses some of these symbols. They will then help us to discover who are some of the principal players in the rest of the book. What you will find throughout these 3 chapters is that John applies OT and Jewish symbols in a positive way to the Christian church; on the other hand, John says that the Jews are not really Jews but actually members of the synagogue of Satan (Revelation 2:9; 3:9). For example, he claims that Christians are a kingdom of priests to God (the same label applied to the people of Israel at the foot of Mt. Sinai--Ex. 19:6). He claims that the Christians at Ephesus will eat of the tree of life in the Paradise of God (Revelation 2: 7) and that the Christians at the church of Philadelphia will be pillars in the new Temple and permanent citizens of the new Jerusalem if they remain true to Jesus Christ (Revelation 3:12). On the other hand, because the Jews were taking the lead in persecuting the Christians by informing the Romans against them, John calls them the synagogue of Satan. (I have attached to the end of this study a sheet which lists all the positive OT, Jewish symbols in chapters 1-3 and show how they symbolize the church and not the Jewish people, and then show how John addresses the Jewish people themselves.)
Now some may think that I do not believe that the Jews will play a significant role during the Great Tribulation before Christ returns. That's simply not true. I do believe that God is going to work once more in a marvelous way among the Jewish people before Jesus returns. I just believe that Rom. 11:25-36 concerns this issue and that Revelation does not. Revelation is referring to the role of the church in the Great Tribulation and not to Jews.
Characteristics of the Letters Sent to the Churches
Before we look at the letter to the church at Sardis, we need to remark on several characteristics which characterize nearly all the letters. First, Jesus will indicate which church he is addressing. Second, Jesus will highlight one of His characteristics found in 1:10-20; for example, when addressing the church at Pergammum, Jesus describes Himself as having a sharp 2-edged sword coming out of His mouth. The characteristic of Christ in each instance applies specifically to the church He is addressing. Third, if Jesus can commend the church for any good thing, He will at this point. Fourth, Jesus will rebuke the church if any rebuke is needed. Finally, He will give the church a promise which He will keep if the church repents and remains true and loyal to Christ.
LETTER TO THE CHURCH AT SARDIS (3:1-6)
Although our literature skips over the church at Sardis and zeroes in on the church at Laodicea, I felt like we needed to focus on the letter to the church at Sardis because of recent events in the life of our church. Over a month ago, Deadra Gage shared with the church what she felt like God was saying to our church. Most of her comments centered on what John wrote to the church at Sardis. Since many at First Baptist have agreed that God was speaking through Deadra, we need to look in-depth at what Christ said to this church and determine how it applies to our present situation at First Baptist.
Characteristics of Christ (3:1)
Jesus describes Himself as having the 7 Spirits of God and the 7 stars. When we look at John's greeting in Revelation 1:4-5 to the 7 churches, he claims that grace and peace are coming to them from God the Father ("who is and was and is to come)", the 7 Spirits before the throne of God, and Jesus Christ. Looked at in this context, the 7 Spirits refer to the Holy Spirit who along with Jesus and the Father make up the Trinity. The 7 Spirits then refer to the Holy Spirit.
Why not call Him the Holy Spirit instead of the 7 Spirits? John knows that there is only one Holy Spirit; however, he calls Him the 7 Spirits in order to express the fullness of the Spirit. In Jewish thought, the number 7 represents fullness or completion. By describing the Holy Spirit as being the 7 Spirits, Jesus is saying that He has complete spiritual fullness. Does the church at Sardis need spirituality? In a moment, we'll see that Jesus says that they are spiritually dead. Well then, in order to become a spiritual church again, all they need to do is come to Jesus who is more than adequately qualified spiritually to give them spiritual life since He has the fullness of the Spirit.
Very briefly, how does one become spiritual? By praying? By studying the Bible? Essentially spirituality is listening to God's voice and doing whatever it is He wants me to do. That's why I pray and read the Bible--so that I can hear God speaking to me. If God is not speaking to me, then one of two things is true: either I'm not exposing myself to the ways God speaks to me (thru Bible study on Sunday mornings, through the preaching in worship, and in daily devotions) or I'm not willing to do what God wants me to do. God is not going to waste His time communicating His will to me if I am not willing to obey Him whenever He speaks to me. If, however, I am exposing myself to His Word and if I am willing to obey Him, then I need never fear that He won't speak to me. He wants to speak to me more than I want to listen!
Since Jesus has the 7 stars, He holds the destiny of the 7 pastors in His hand. The response of the pastors and the churches to Jesus and what He says to them will determine the destiny Jesus will mete out to the churches. If they respond positively, then Jesus will fulfill the promise He makes to them at the end of this section. If not, Jesus will severely discipline the church and its pastor.
Word of Rebuke (3:1)
Unlike most of the other churches Jesus addresses, Sardis does not receive a word of praise until only later in the letter. Why? There is so little to commend the church for and so much to rebuke it for that Jesus rebukes first and commends second (so Ray Summers, Worthy is the Lamb, pp. 119-120). What is the rebuke? The church at Sardis in the eyes of the world is alive and doing well, when in actuality it is dead spiritually. To be sure, the church is operating smoothly. It's following policies, guidelines and procedures; however, being organized is not necessarily a sign of life. There is nothing more organized than a cemetery. Moreover, the church is full of hustle and bustle. They're doing a lot of activities, but it is spiritually dead. Sardis has made the mistake that many churches in the past have made by confusing activity with spirituality.
The church at Sardis has mistaken activity for spirituality. Whereas true spirituality leads to activity, activity is not always necessarily spirituality. I fear that some churches have quite deluded themselves into thinking that because they are doing activities, they are being a legitimate church. Well, you can claim all day that you are worshipping God; however, if the worship leaders have not truly sought God's face as to what He desires to do that day in worship or if the people have not opened themselves up to what God is saying to them that day, then true worship has not occurred. Only the form of worship has been observed and not the content. The same holds for prayer meetings. Some churches view prayer meeting as nothing more than delivering a devotional, mentioning the sick, and then offering up some generalized prayers for the sick, and then leave the building feeling good about themselves because they have deluded themselves that they have been involved in prayer meeting. Jim Cymbala, the pastor of Brooklyn Tabernacle, has challenged the churches with the following principle--the power that we experience on Sunday mornings in worship is directly proportional to the power released by God's people in prayer during prayer meeting. Each church will be spiritually powerful only to the extent that God's power is released through prayer in prayer meeting. (All the above applies to the teaching hour, missions organizations, evangelistic activities, etc.)
Word of Challenge (3:2-3)
Jesus challenges the church to wake up and strengthen the things that remain. This seems to be a strange command. The church appears to be very much awake. Since she is doing all that activity, you would think she is very awake. Well, the truth is that they are sleep-walking through their activities. Molly is the sleep-walker in our family. Every now and then around 11:00 p.m., I'll hear some noise in the den. I'll go in there, and there she is watching TV. I'll talk to her for a little bit, then tell her it is time to go back to bed. She willingly complies and jumps back into bed. The next morning, I'll ask her if she remembers what she did the night before. She doesn't. Although she did all these things, she has no idea what she did.
Some churches are like that. They go through the motions without really being engaged in what's happening. Some churches do not need the worship bulletin on Sunday morning because they are so mired in a routine that most people could and probably actually do sleep-walk through the worship service. Are we really engaged during prayer meetings or are we totally zoned out? Is the teaching hour a time when God really encounters us, or are we hoping that the hour will pass quicker so that we can get out of here and go watch some sporting event, etc.? All the activity we've done soothes our guilty conscience, deluding ourselves into thinking that we have pleased God with our actions, whereas we have been so far from Him even though we were in His presence. God tells us to wake up! Get spiritually engaged! Become spiritually alert and sensitive to what God is saying and doing in our midst. How? By being sensitive to His word and committing ourselves to doing whatever it is He wants us to do!
In addition to waking up, Jesus also wants the church to strengthen the things that remain. He commands them to remember what they have received and heard so that they may keep it and repent. In other words, Jesus is not necessarily wanting them to do away with the activities of the church. He is not wanting them to do away with worship services and prayer meetings. He's just wanting them to worship when they do come together for worship. He is wanting them to pray when they come to prayer meeting. The teaching hour is to be a time when they truly encounter Christ. They don't have to do away with the forms; they just have to energize them!
Jesus follows this with a threat that has special significance for both the church and city at Sardis. Sardis was built on top of a hill surrounded by dangerous cliffs on 3 sides. Only on its southern side was it vulnerable to attack; therefore, the forces at Sardis would place most of their forces on the southern perimeter of the walls surrounding the city. Well, twice during her history when she was surrounded by the Persians and Greeks, her sentries on the northern, eastern and western perimeters had fallen asleep on the job, with the result that the Persians in the sixth century BC and the Greeks in the 3rd century BC were able to sneak into the city and capture her. Jesus says that the church is in danger of experiencing the same thing herself; however, this time the thief won't be the Greeks or Persians but Himself! He will enter and remove her lampstand from her, that is, He will make sure that she ceases to exist as a church. Christ would rather have no church than a sorry one.
Word of Commendation (3:4)
Now Jesus comes to the word of commendation. Whereas for the most part the church at Sardis is spiritually dead, there are nevertheless still a few people in the church who are spiritually alive--they have not soiled their garments. Jesus promises these that they will walk with Him in garments that are pure and white because in His opinion they are worthy. People like these in the church at Sardis need to be heeded. The church needs to look at them to discover what it is that makes them tick, what makes them worthy of walking with Christ in garments that are pure and white. Unfortunately, many times these are the last people we want to listen to because of pride. Instead of confirming us in our ways, they challenge and even convict us. These are the last people in the world we want to listen to. We'll listen to Billy Graham, Anne Graham Lotz, Chuck Swindol, etc. but never to them. What we have to determine though is whether we want to be spiritually dead or alive. We can choose to be spiritually dead; however, we just need to remember that spiritual death leads to Christ coming as a thief to remove the lampstand from the church.
Word of Promise (3:5)
Jesus then promises those who "overcome," that is, those who wake up spiritually and strengthen the things that remain that they will walk with Him in white garments. Whenever the Bible speaks about walking with Christ, it means that we are having a relationship with Him. It means that you are passing through life communicating with Him. Whereas this may mean that on earth they will have a dynamic relationship with Him, it more especially means that when Christ returns and brings an end to human history, they will be with Him in loving fellowship forever.
Moreover, those who become spiritually awake and strong will have their names written in the Book of Life. Jesus will not erase their names from this book. One of the best images of eternal security in the Bible is that of having your name written in the Book of Life. In Revelation 20 at the end of history, God will look into the Book of Life to see who qualifies to enter heaven and who qualifies to enter into the lake of fire. Jesus promises the faithful at Sardis not to worry because their names are written in this Book.
The third element of this promise is that Jesus will confess their names before His Father in heaven. This probably points to the pride that Jesus will feel in singling them out before the Father. "Look, Father, these loved Me so much that they listened and obeyed My word." Even more than that though, this is necessary for their eternal salvation. Only those Jesus confesses before His Father in heaven will actually enter the kingdom of heaven. Jesus is promising them eternal security.
Jesus concludes this letter with a warning: "He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches!" In other words, if this applies to you, listen so that you may receive the promise and not experience the threat Christ issues to the church at Sardis.
This brings us back to the introduction to this letter. If Deadra was right in pointing us to this church, then we need to examine ourselves with regards to the following issues:
Are we spiritually dead or alive as a church? Individuals in the church may be spiritually alive; however, as a whole are we spiritually dead?
Have we substituted or mistaken activity for spirituality?
Are we paying attention to those who are spiritually alive, or are we trying to squelch their enthusiasm and commitment to the Lord?
Are we sensitive to what the Lord is saying to us, and are we willing to commit ourselves to doing whatever He wants us to do?
Ancient documents tell us that at one time in her history, Sardis was a powerful and influential city in Asia Minor. She had been wealthy and prosperous. By the time John wrote to this church though, she was just a shell of her former glory. She was aristocracy living in and always looking at the past. FBC Corsicana has had a wonderful, glorious past. We're always hearing how wonderful things were in the 40's, 50's, 60' and early 70's. Let's just pray that we not live in and just look at the past but that the glory of this church in the future will even outshine the glory of this church in the past.