"Write this letter to the angel of the church in Sardis. This is the message from the one who has the sevenfold Spirit of God and the seven stars: "I know all the things you do, and that you have a reputation for being alive--but you are dead. Wake up! Strengthen what little remains, for even what is left is almost dead. I find that your actions do not meet the requirements of my God. Go back to what you heard and believed at first; hold to it firmly. Repent and turn to me again. If you don't wake up, I will come to you suddenly, as unexpected as a thief. "Yet there are some in the church in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes with evil. They will walk with me in white, for they are worthy. All who are victorious will be clothed in white. I will never erase their names from the Book of Life, but I will announce before my Father and his angels that they are mine. "Anyone with ears to hear must listen to the Spirit and understand what he is saying to the churches. -- Revelation 3: 1-6 (NLT)
It seems sometimes in modern Christianity we can get so good at playing church that we lose sight of how Christ truly intended for us to be as the church. The entire Bible is useful according to Paul for teaching and instructing us. The Bible also says that God includes in it what has happened as a tool to teach us what we need to avoid doing in our own lives today. That includes Revelation, given to the Apostle John by Jesus Christ Himself, while John was exiled on the Island of Patmos. Revelation is filled with prophetic warning and powerful imagery to prepare us for the end times we now find ourselves living in. When you see the level of moral depravity across this world, the increase in natural disasters, wars, and sin -- there is little doubt that Jesus is coming back soon. While that notion traditionally causes eruptions of cheer in Pentecostal churches I think we need to temper our excitement for two very important reasons. The first reason is that there are still too many people on the outside of salvation looking in, including too many people I know personally. I find the cheering somewhat selfish on a Christian level. Secondly however, is the brash assumption that we are definitely OK in the eyes of God. Remember the verses in the Gospel of Matthew where Jesus says people will come to Him at judgment absolutely shocked that He does not even know them, despite what appears to be a lifetime of what they thought was serving Him! I do not desire for anyone to question their salvation but rather to respect it more and to take a serious look at where we are all at and where our church may be at as well. Because before Jesus revealed to John the great and awesome prophecies He dealt with some housecleaning in the church as it existed then. The key verses are His entire critique of the Church in Sardis. Within the verses are important criticisms from our Lord and Savior for what we need to be wary of within our own churches today; lest we perish for a refusal to apply the knowledge we have been given.
In his book, A Commentary on the Revelation of St. John the Divine, G.B. Caird calls Sardis "The perfect model of inoffensive Christianity." That seemed like a great place to start when examining this church considering the desire of the modern church to be as relevant and inoffensive as possible. The first thing from the key verses is the charge from Jesus that the church had a reputation for being alive -- but was actually dead. This rings very true today as many churches are far more concerned with the appearances than they are with the Gospel. The building is very pretty. The choir robes are all pressed evenly. The singers and musicians are the best, albeit not necessarily saved. The preaching is performed effectively, albeit without the movement of the Spirit of God. They put on all sorts of shows and pageantry. They do outreaches to the community designed to get more people to come on Sunday, not necessarily to lift up the name of Jesus. True sheep are considered troublemakers because they want to hear the uncompromised Gospel. There is so much leaven mixed into the body that you cannot tell them apart from the world. They have the big signs, the big shows, the big numbers even -- but it is all for appearances sake. One of the greatest problems in modern churchianity is the usage of carnal success metrics to measure spiritual successes. Having 12,000 people in your church does not mean you have the favor of God; it means you have good marketing. Just this week a pastor of a church of 12,000 tweeted that we should not bore people with the Bible! Jesus has consistently warned against this:
"What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs--beautiful on the outside but filled on the inside with dead people's bones and all sorts of impurity. Outwardly you look like righteous people, but inwardly your hearts are filled with hypocrisy and lawlessness. -- Matthew 23: 27-28 (NLT)
There are far too many churches today that are whitewashed tombs before the Lord. Leadership says the name of Jesus enough but they are building a building, not the kingdom. The Word of God is a sword that divides. Jesus said it would divide family members against each other. The object is not to see how many people you can get to sing kumbya together as they are all on their way to hell. Yes, hell -- what we seem to forget is the consequence of a false conversion. Sitting in a church does not make you a Christian any more than sitting in a garage makes you a car. Saying a magic prayer does not save you. Going up for an altar call does not save you. The only thing that saves you is when the weight of your sin becomes so unbearable that you call on the name of Jesus Christ and are saved. Sin, repentance, the blood, and the cross -- the forgotten doctrines in the Church in Sardis and some of the church today.
Secondly from the key verses is the state of what remains -- very little. Jesus is making the point that the problems do not need a band-aid they need a tourniquet. Applying a tourniquet may cost us a limb but it saves the body. The good news however is there is still time to wake up! Whatever is left can be strengthened. It requires however the dirty word of repentance. I say dirty, because most people simply refuse to repent by claiming they have nothing to repent of. It is pride at its most arrogant. Repentance always starts with me. But leadership that lords itself over the very people they are supposed to be shepherding have a difficult time seeing their role in things. They need to heed the words of Christ here that their actions do not meet the requirements of God! Note the usage of the word "actions." This is not an issue about words. Most churches have the "words" down pat. So did the Pharisees in Jesus day. This is not about quoting Scripture correctly, interpreting and applying it correctly, or even preaching it correctly. This is about your actions lining up with the Word that you preach. Hypocrisy is rarely missed by the world and never missed by God. Too many churches talk the talk but do not walk the walk. You cannot tell people from the pulpit that they need to leave your church and then preach on the 99 and 1. You cannot show a complete lack of care for anyone who dares to disagree and then preach about the value of each person. God in the end is infinitely more concerned with what we did than merely what we said.
You say you have faith, for you believe that there is one God. Good for you! Even the demons believe this, and they tremble in terror. How foolish! Can't you see that faith without good deeds is useless? -- James 2: 19-20 (NLT)
In the key verses Jesus even gives us the antidote. We must return to what we knew at first. We must hold firmly to what it was when we first were saved. When we were first saved we had a childlike innocence about Christianity. We had a childlike faith about Jesus who had reached down to pick us up and set our feet upon the Rock. We did not care about ministry responsibilities, attendance numbers, tithing, or any of the other distractions we see now. We only cared about the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Here is the real problem with the modern theories of church growth that is corrupting the Body of Christ. They are not based on the Bible. They are based on carnal and worldly philosophies but in the end they are all nonsense before God.
Don't let anyone capture you with empty philosophies and high-sounding nonsense that come from human thinking and from the spiritual powers of this world, rather than from Christ. -- Colossians 2: 8 (NLT)
The seeker friendly theory is based upon a false notion that the Gospel is no longer sufficient to reach the next generation. That we have to somehow meet them where they are at and be relevant to their culture. These are lies of course from the pit of hell. When Paul visited Ephesus one could easily compare that ancient Greek city to modern day San Francisco or New Orleans. They worshipped multiple gods, practiced all sorts of brazen idolatry, and participated in lewd and lustful practices in the open streets. Do you think for one minute that Paul wanted to seem "relevant" to their culture? Of course not! He was trying to save them from their culture! Our job is not to sugar coat the Gospel. It is not to recreate it or make it more "friendly." Our job is to preach it and let the Holy Spirit convict who will come to God. Instead we see the church make one compromise here with the world and a little leaven comes into the church. It may seem harmless and benign but that is not the point. Look at what the Colossians verse says -- these ways of thinking are from the spiritual powers of this world! So churches claim the mantle of Christianity and then adopt the philosophies of Satan. The leaven spreads throughout the entire batch and then another chance to compromise is offered. It too will appear benign; maybe trying to "reach as many for Jesus" or to "help the children", but the premise is completely worldly and the Gospel gets compromised again. Once that path starts, each ensuing compromise seems more and more reasonable while the church starts to blend with the world instead of stand apart from it. THAT is what is wrong with theories of church growth designed to fill the pews or generate more money. The church needs to stop its unhealthy obsession with growth and leadership. Why? Because the Bible says that God provides the increase and we are supposed to be followers. What is the Biblical model for leadership within the church? Follow me as I follow Christ.
Now we move on to the threat from Jesus in the key verses. He actually says that if this church does not wake up that He will come to them unexpectedly like a thief. This is not the first time in the New Testament that we see this language:
For you know quite well that the day of the Lord's return will come unexpectedly, like a thief in the night. -- 1Thessalonians 5: 2 (NLT)
What is Jesus saying here to the Church in Sardis and to us today? That despite our bravado and security we will not be ready for the return of our Lord. What does that mean? That means not everyone who says Lord Lord will enter into the kingdom of heaven. This is where we find those people. The people who spent their lives casting out demons in His name yet not really knowing Him. They are in carnal churches, serving carnal leaders, with a building focus, not a kingdom mindset. Some may say that is too harsh but these are the end times and we need to stop playing games with each other. The Bible says we are to work out our salvation with fear and trembling not arrogance and stubbornness. I say this out of love because God does not want any to perish, especially those who thought they were on the narrow road to heaven and didn't see all the people around them.
How can we be so sure that this is what Jesus is saying here in these verses? Because of the great news that comes next -- not all of the people within the dead church were dead! The bad news of course is Jesus is making a direct comparison of people within the church. Some put on a show and think they are serving the Lord but compromise the Gospel and are found lacking in the requirements of salvation while others have chosen to not soil their clothes with evil. Paul Washer once preached that what you have in the modern church is more goats than sheep and the leadership caters to the goats because they are the majority. God have mercy on us. But the promises Jesus mentions here for those that are still right before Him are reassuring to us who believe. We still will have our names written in the Lamb's Book of Life. Realize what this means beloved"our personal relationship with Jesus is far more important than anything that might happen within a church building! Jesus will still announce our names before the Father and all the angels that we are His! Hallelujah to the Lamb of God.
The key verses close with a phrase Jesus used quite frequently but we rarely examine. He who has ears let them hear what is being said to the church! Anyone who has ears must listen to the Holy Spirit. It is crucial that we understand what Jesus is saying. Unfortunately too often we see people unwilling to listen to the Spirit, or reason, or even the Bible. We have gotten so good at "doing church" that we lost sight of how to be the church. What do I mean by that? Realize that probably 70 percent of the American churches today are following this Sardis model. They have bought into the church growth theories and are setting about the course of compromise. And realize that I am not speaking about intent or character. As my pastor says, you can be sincere and sincerely wrong. It is not about God knowing our heart. When we stand before Him He will be discussing what we did, not what we intended to do. It is a tremendous burden placed upon those called to minister the Gospel and lead in the church. It is something that is not appreciated enough. But to whom much has been given, much will be required. We will answer for every sheep entrusted to us, not just the ones that liked us. We will answer for every careless word. I understand the lure because the world measures success by the number of people attending, not the number of people delivered. Because the true nature of the death surrounding the Church at Sardis was a spiritual death. It was a church living on reputation but without the Spirit of the living God within its walls. Is that possible today? Absolutely if we are not careful. Loud music, flashy performances, and even eloquent preaching does not indicate that the Spirit of God is moving in a church. Where the Spirit is we look for fruit. How do the people behave? How do they treat each other? Do people respond to the spoken Word and altar calls naturally or does it have to forced and coerced? Are their supernatural signs? Are people being healed and delivered? Those are signs of a true move of the Spirit.