Breathing Life Into Dead Faith

Revelation 3:1-6

March 3, 2024

Lead Pastor Dr. Timothy Melton

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“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 5:3

In today’s wording we might say it more like this.

Blessed are those who realize the spiritual bankruptcy of their souls, for only they are prepared to truly receive the riches found in Christ Jesus.

Blessed are those who daily realize the weakness of their flesh, for only then will they give up control and walk in the power of the Spirit.

Blessed are those who enter through the doorway of humility and dependence and find themselves at home in the presence of God.

This morning, we return to the book of Revelation, and Jesus’ words to the church in Sardis. Let’s take a moment to consider the history of this city so that we can better understand Christ’s words to them. 

Present day Turkey, the location of the seven churches that Jesus addresses in the book of Revelation, has a long history. This area of the world is a crossroads between continents and has been coveted by many conquerors throughout history. 

In the time of the book of Revelation this area was part of the Roman Empire. Before that this area had been known as the Seleucid kingdom, of which Pergamum had been the capital. Before that Alexander the Great and the Greeks had ruled this area. Before that they had belonged to the Persians. Before that, this area in the western part of modern-day Turkey had been known as Lydia. In the seventh century BC, Sardis had become the capital of Lydia. 

Sardis was known for several reasons. One was that this capital city was impregnable, untouchable, undefeatable. It sat up 1500 feet on a small plateau, and the cliffs that surrounded most of it were so steep and so difficult to climb that it seemed invincible. 

Its second claim to fame was its wealth. The River Pactolus runs in the valley at the base of the mountain. Gold was discovered in this river, so much gold that during this “Iron Age” of history the Lydians of Sardis were thought to be the wealthiest people in the world. It was during this time of wealth that Croesus, their greatest king, lived in splendour but then led his people to destruction.

In 547 BC, Croesus led the Lydians to challenge Cyrus the Great and the Persians. At the Battles of Pteria and the Battle of Thymbra the Lydians lost. They retreated to their invincible capital at Sardis thinking they could recuperate and fight again later. 

Cyrus laid siege to the city of Sardis. After 14 days Cyrus offered a special reward to anyone who could enter the city. The step cliffs were covered by a substance that was similar to dry mud. When on stepped or tried to climb on it, it would crumble. It seemed impossible. 

During the siege, a Persian soldier, named Hyeroeades, had noticed a soldier from Sardis who had accidently dropped his helmet over the edge. The soldier from Sardis had then climbed down the cliff part of the way and retrieved his helmet. This event showed the Persian soldier where the cracks in the cliffs were that could be used as footholds to make the impossible climb. 

That night the Persian soldier led a group of soldiers up the cliff and when they reached the top they found no one. The people of Sardis were so sure that they were out of the reach of danger that they had not even placed guards to keep watch. Because of this overconfidence they were conquered by the Persians.

Eventually Sardis and all of Asia Minor was taken as part of the Roman Empire. Through the centuries the city grew too big for the vaulted plateau and had now spread to the surrounding valley below. 

In A.D. 17 Sardis was destroyed by an earthquake. Tiberius, the Roman Emperor, gave money to rebuild the city down below. 

When Jesus spoke these words to the church in Sardis, the city was wealthy, but had passed its heyday. It had become a center for wool trade. Many worshipped the pagan goddess Artemis. The citadel up on the hill was now nothing more than an empty monument to the great days of the past. What had once been a vibrant city now lacked significance and vitality. They now just went through the day more thinking about the glory of the past than the purpose of the present. In many ways the church had become like this as well. 

(High school football player)

This is the situation of the church in Sardis to which Jesus spoke. Let us now turn to His words in Revelation 3.

3 “To the angel of the church in Sardis write:

These are the words of him who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead. 2 Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have found your deeds unfinished in the sight of my God. 

Jesus starts out reminding the church in Sardis who He is, the authority with which He speaks and the fact that church is His. He holds it all in His hands. With our minds we might remember that scripture tells us that Christ is the head of the church, that the church is ultimately His, but if we are not careful we act as if it is ours. We make our plans. We use our strategies but at times lack prayer and inquiring of the Lord. We are to watch and pray, seeking to see where God is working so that we can join Him in the midst of that. It is His church and he initiates what direction we go and how we reach out to the world around us.

Jesus then confronted them with the fact that He knows their deeds. They must have been busy doing the work of the ministry and looking spiritual. So much so that they had a reputation of being alive. But Jesus could see through their façade. It is He who knows the heart of man. They appeared to be spiritually alive, but the were spiritually dead. 

In the New Testament we see other examples of this life and death imagery. The Prodigal son was dead and is alive again. (Luke 15:24). We were dead in our sin and are now alive in Christ. Romans 6:13 instructs us to “offer yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life.” 

Even to the Pharisees Jesus said, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean.” (Mathew 23:27)

It could have been that they were knowingly being hypocritical, acting like Christians on the outside and living like sinners on the inside, acting like Christ in public and living in sin in private. Or it could have been that they had gradually grown complacent and were not even aware of how far they had drifted. 

Regardless of the reason, Jesus then commanded that they, “Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have found your deeds unfinished in the sight of my God.”

It is interesting that there is no mention of heresy, false teachers, sexual immorality, or eating meat sacrificed to pagan gods. There is no blatant sin listed, but it could be that their problem was with the more subtle, unseen, heart level, sins that still had the ability to squeeze the life out of one’s faith. Apathy, unbelief, pride, bitterness, unforgiveness, lust, anger, a critical spirit, lack of love for one another, neglecting God’s Word, neglecting prayer and neglecting God’s people. Perhaps they were guilty of sins of omission. Those are sins that are not based on what they had done, but on what they had not done. Maybe they were trusting self, more than trusting God. Or perhaps they were content in just fellowshipping with Christian friends but had turned their back on a dying world. 

Maybe it was like being in a spiritual coma, where their spiritual vital signs were still present, but there was no life being lived. It had just become a monotonous, going through the motions, auto-pilot, type of Christianity void of any abiding in Christ and bearing fruit. Perhaps Paul’s words to Timothy in 2 Timothy 3:5 apply here, “they had a form of godliness but denied its power.”

Whatever was happening, Jesus, who knows the hearts of man, could see it all. Jesus was calling them out of their stupor before it was too late. Jesus said, “strengthen what still remains,” so we know there was some sort of faith still there, but it was flickering and about to go out. 

It could be like a campfire that has been neglected. There are still a few embers that can be blown on or stoked, but if it is left alone, in a few moments the fire will go out completely.

Jesus spoke of no persecution. Perhaps because of their lifelessness it was not even worthy of a spiritual attack from the evil one. We are to have good relationships with Christians and non-Christians, but from the other side we find these words in Luke 6:26,  “Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you, for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.” 

As we speak the truth of scripture it should be common that some people of the world disagree and at times even come against us. That is not a license to speak in a way that causes animosity, but it is realizing that even when we speak in a loving manner, the truth of the gospel will at times offend an unbelieving world. 

Jesus’ call to “wake up” is a call to watchfulness. This is a common theme in the New Testament. Those in Sardis would have known the stories of history and the consequences when their city did not remain watchful. In 1 Corinthians 16:13 Paul instructs those in Corinth to, "Be watchful, stand firm in your faith.” Peter warned the believers to be “on watch against the wiles of the devil” (1 Peter 5:8). In the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus told His disciples to “Watch and pray, that you may not enter into temptation” (Matthew 26:41). We are to “watch. . . for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming” (Matthew 24:42).  In the words of the Apostle Paul to the Thessalonians, "Let us not sleep, as others do . . . Let us keep awake and be sober." ( 1 Thessalonians 5:6).  In his final words to the elders of Ephesus Paul warned them that “grievous wolves would invade the flock from outside and from inside men would arise to speak perverse things. “Therefore,” he says, “watch!” (Acts 20:29-31)

As Christians we rest in Christ, but we must continually be vigilant and watchful. As one writer has said, “not a nervous paranoia, but a confident guard.

The church had a reputation of being alive. They had started well, but somewhere along the way they had gotten off track, maybe resting on their past successes. In some ways it mirrored the story of Sardis. Their reputation was based on the riches and the glory of the past, and now the city was degenerating. The church, too, had established a reputation of being alive, but that was from the past and in the present, spiritually they were dying away.

Jesus was letting them know that they were not yet finished. That there was still more that He wanted to do through them, but for that to happen they would need to wake up and strengthen what remained. It was a reprimand but also and invitation. He was reassigning a purpose to a church who had grown accustomed to status quo.

Jesus then continued in Revelation 3:3,

3 Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; hold it fast, and repent. But if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you.”

Like in earlier verses, one of the solutions is to “remember.” Grammatically the word actually means to “keep on remembering.” It is not a one-time event. It is to be an ongoing practice, much like baptism or the Lord’s Supper. They were to continue recalling what they had received and heard. This was not just from their teachers, but from the Holy Spirit. What had they received from God? They were to take hold of it and turn away from their sin and back towards Christ. 

But then it was followed by a warning. If they did not wake up, become attentive and responsive, Christ would come unexpectedly at a time of His choosing. It is the idea of accountability. That Christ, who knows all things about them, would come to hold them accountable for their deeds. This would be fearful for some, but would be welcomed by those who walked with Him daily. 

The key was not some knew knowledge, it was the idea of obedience and returning to what they already knew. At times we could benefit from this as well. We often long to move ahead spiritually so we think we need to learn more, when really the key is greater obedience to what we already know. Christ said, “remember.”

Jesus then continued in Revelation 3:4-5,

4 Yet you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes. They will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy. 5 The one who is victorious will, like them, be dressed in white. I will never blot out the name of that person from the book of life, but will acknowledge that name before my Father and his angels. 

In this church in Sardis there was still a remnant of God-fearers. Those who walked in obedience were still alive in Christ. Christ told how those “who have not soiled their clothes” would walk with Him in white. The idea of white and victory often were joined together in the Roman Empire. Whether in athletic victory or a parade after a military victory, white was the color of choice. For the parades of victory through the streets of Rome all would dress in white to take part in the festivities. Christ’s words might have been  just symbolic, or He may be speaking of a literal white victory parade that awaits the faithful ones in heaven. 

Jesus then told them how He would “never blot out the name of that person from the book of life, but would acknowledge that name before my Father and his angels.”

This idea of names in the book of life is found throughout scripture. In Exodus 32:32-33 Moses volunteers to be wiped out of the book which God has written if that will somehow save his people. In Psalms 69:28 the psalmist hopes that the wicked will be blotted out of the book of the living. In Daniel 12:1 we see that in the time of the judgment those whose names are written in the book will be delivered. In Philippians 4:3 Paul writes that the names of his co-laborers for God are written in the book of life. Revelation 20:15 tells us that those whose names are not written in the book of life is cast into the lake of fire. Revelation 21:27 tells how those whose names are written in the book of life shall enter into blessedness.

Commentator, William Barclay helps us understand this imagery of the book of life. He writes, “In the ancient world a king kept a register of his citizens. When a man committed a crime against the state, or when he died, his name was erased from that register. To have one's name written in the book of life is to be numbered amongst the faithful citizens of the Kingdom of God.”

The beautiful part of the gospel is that all who have turned from their sin and put their faith in Jesus Christ are now permanently in the book of life. Through Christ our past present and future sins have been paid for. We are secure. One might say our names have been written in pen, not pencil. All who are in Christ have their names written in heaven, and this will be confirmed as they overcome with Christ. Like a hostess at a restaurant who looks at the reservation list, our names will be found in Christ, in the book of life and we will be granted entrance into heaven. Not on our own merit, but as a guest of Christ. 

Jesus then says that He, “will acknowledge that name before my Father and his angels.” All who are in Christ will have their names written in the registry book as citizens of the kingdom of heaven . . . and then Jesus will acknowledge their name before God and His angels. 

You might have heard the question before, “If you died today and stood before God and He asked you, “why should I let you into my heaven?” what would you say?” It would be at that moment that Jesus would speak up, before we could even answer and declare to God and the angels, “He’s with me. She’s with me.” That answer, that acknowledgement would settle everything. 

Jesus Christ, the perfect Son of God, who laid down His life to pay for our sins, is the writer of our name in the book of life, and the acknowledger of our relationship with Him. Through Christ, all who have put their faith in Him have been forgiven and are eternally citizens of the Kingdom of God. 

It was Jesus who promised that, “Therefore, everyone who confesses Me before people, I will also confess him before My Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 10:32)

This was both the warning and the guarantee that Jesus spoke to those in the church in Sardis. He then concluded in Revelation 3:6 with these words once again. 

6 Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.

Do you have an ear to hear? All who have put their faith in Christ have access to the voice of the Spirit, but access does not always mean we have ears to hear. Have you ever walked through a season of life that you would say you did not have “ears to hear?” Maybe you were walking in disobedience or apathy. Perhaps you were chasing your own desires or agenda. Maybe you were choosing to listen to the voices of the world. At other times have you been humbled and broken before God. Dependent on His grace and His truth. Desperately seeking His will and listening intently for His voice. If so, remember those times of intimacy with the Father and lend Him your ear.

Christ’s words to the church in Sardis are rich with symbolism. The church felt untouchable, like everything was fine. The church, like the city had let down their defenses and ceased to guard their hearts. Unobserved cracks had formed in their church and had given the evil one a foothold and a way to attack them. They still gloried in the success of the past, and were not aware of the coming death that was awaiting them if they did not wake up and strengthen what remained. They had a reputation of being alive, but the truth was that they were dead. 

Sir W. M. Ramsay said of Sardis that “nowhere was there a greater example of the contrast between past splendour and present decay.” The church of Sardis and the city of Sardis in many ways were mirror images of each other.

As we look at the way that Jesus spoke to the church in Sardis may we be encouraged. Jesus spoke their “language.” He communicated in a way that they would understand. His imagery, His wording, His examples in line with their present struggle, their past, the city’s history of riches and invincibility. As written in previous chapters, He is our Savior who walks amongst us. He knows our faults and our failures, our strengths and our successes. He knows the present condition of our hearts and the condition of our church. He sees all things and draws near to us. 

Jesus has come to encourage those who are walking in holiness and to discipline those who need to repent and return home. His love is at work. Be encouraged. Regardless of where you find yourself today, lend Him your ear, remember His call and allow Him to breathe life into dead faith.