"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. -- Revelation 3: 1 (ESV)
As we continue in our journey through the churches in Asia that Christ pens letters to in the Book of Revelation we come to a church that represents so many churches today unfortunately. Sardis, the dead church. Before we go thinking that is too harsh a judgment, read the opening line of the letter, which is our key verse today. Dead is exactly how Jesus describes the Church in Sardis. He does not mince words as the modern church is wont to do. In the church today we have spineless leaders who refuse to call sin, sin. Leaders who will find any reason to excuse wolves that are tearing apart the sheep of the Lord. The Book of Titus makes it clear that if we are called to minister the Gospel then we are in fact required to rebuke those who teach falsely. It is not an option. Discernment is not a gifting. It is a shame that someone as learned as Dr. Michael Brown refuses to call what is plainly false, false. To defend and promote the likes of Bill Johnson and Benny Hinn to name a few, Brown now must be marked as they are -- false. Dr. Brown is hardly alone. It seems most in ministry are more concerned about people in the pulpit than they are with the sheep they have been called to tend to. The first lesson for us today from Sardis is the directness of our Lord and Savior. Time is short and the Lord is returning. There is time left but as the Bible says it must be redeemed. We cannot be caught playing church while people are going to hell. It is not about the delicate sensibilities of whoever was pastoring Sardis. It was about the dead people there who thought they were alive. It was about the new people who might stumble across this little church and be so deceived as well. We write often about those who stand before Christ in Matthew 7 and say "Lord Lord" only to be sent away because He knew them not. Those people are the people in the church at Sardis beloved. They are many who are in the church today. It is time to stop calling evil good and to stop calling what is dead, alive.
Staying with the opening line the other interesting point to note is that this dead church had a reputation of being alive. This is what happens when you use carnal metrics to measure spiritual success. Sardis was a well to do city. It had a fascinating history of wealth and opulence. It was strategically located so that it had great success in war through the ages. But it started to think itself unbeatable. It started to decay from the inside out. Today it is a pile of rubble and stone. Within this decaying city, this church started. Scholars believe probably as an offshoot of the work Paul had done in Ephesus. Maybe they started with the best of intentions. Maybe they started strong. Somewhere along the line however they began to believe their own press clippings. Somewhere along the line they started living off of their reputation, consuming itself. The lure can be very strong to believe that you arrived somewhere of your own power. But as Jesus reminds the pastor at Sardis in this opening line -- He holds the seven stars! He is the one that is the source of power and sustenance for the church.
How salient a point for us today as we look out across the purpose driven landscape. We have churches today that have replaced Christ with a cult of personality. A charismatic leader fills the pulpit so he can try and fill the pews. Sure it is under the guise of the Gospel but it is devoid of the complete teachings of Christ. It is a false gospel. The church is well known. It does great and mighty charitable acts throughout the community and world. It provides clothing for the poor. It builds playgrounds in third world countries. It maintains and exercises political influence. It has a reputation. Lakewood Church has a reputation. The Potter's House has a reputation. Saddleback Church, Willow Creek Church, and Hillsong Church all have reputations. They are known for being vibrant. They are known for the tens of thousands of people who attend. They are known for their television programs, their satellite stations, and their national conferences. But they are dead beloved. As dead as Sardis was on the day Christ wrote this letter. It is not that the works are not important. We ought to do good works because of who we serve. But they are an outgrowth of preaching the uncompromised Gospel of Jesus Christ; not a replacement for it. Too harsh you say? You will not hear about the cross, your sin, and repentance at Lakewood Church. Sure, you will have that 30 second sound bite at the end of every television program but that is utterly meaningless without preaching the Gospel. TD Jakes is a modalist who denies the trinity and is in bed with the queen of new age spiritualism, Oprah. No one has done more damage to the modern church than Rick Warren through his purpose driven slop. He actually advised pastors to not preach the Gospel on Easter so their visitors would "have a reason to come back." When Bill Hybels started Willow Creek he asked the unsaved residents of the area what they wanted and when they said the cross offended them, he removed all crosses from his church. His allegedly Christian leadership conference usually has only about 20% Christian speakers. Hillsong is a million dollar cartel that is the backbone of the false youth church movement. They teach the prosperity and word faith heresies proudly. Their internationally famous music industry is riddled with false theology and new ageism. No beloved. It is not harsh to call these churches what they are. They are Sardis. They have built a huge reputation but their popularity is an expression of love from a sinful world, not a sign of the blessings of God. It is time to stop calling evil good and what is dead, alive. Because you must understand beloved. There are still people in those churches and they still matter to God. I have received emails from people so grateful to have finally come out from among such wicked teachings and beliefs. People who firmly believe they were not saved until they had done so. Remember those folks in Matthew 7 think they are saved until they stand before Jesus on the last day.
These are the people we ought to be concerned about. Can you imagine having spent years if not decades serving in Sardis only to discover on the last day that Christ never even knew you? How is that possible you might ask? Because your leaders swore to you that you were saved. Consider two examples. In the world famous best seller, The Purpose Driven Life, Rick Warren addresses salvation exactly one time. On Page 58. There he says the following:
I invite you to bow your head and quietly whisper the prayer that will change your eternity: "Jesus, I believe in you and I receive you." If you sincerely meant that prayer, congratulations! Welcome to the family of God! -- Rick Warren
Welcome to the family of God? After nine words? All of history boiled down to nine measly words. The sacrifice of Calvary, God's only Son, a sinless life, and God's great plan of redemption covering over 6000 years -- nine words. That is how little Rick Warren thinks of salvation. Joel Osteen always looks in the camera at the end of his television program and asks people to repeat after him. There is a mention of sin. The name of Jesus creeps into it a little bit. Mostly however it is this wishy-washy three sentence credo that has zero relevance since he just spent a half hour talking about how to feel better about yourself. Rick Warren or Joel Osteen would have fit right in as pastor at Sardis. While we do not know what the doctrine was in Sardis, we can be assured it was egregiously false. How do we know this? Where the Gospel is preached, the Holy Spirit operates and where the Spirit operates there is always life. Sardis was 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. -- Revelation 3: 2-3 (ESV)
Remember that even within a dead church there are a remnant beloved. There are people not willing to bow their knee to Baal. There are new people coming in who simply do not know any better. So Jesus compels them to wake up! Strengthen what remains for that too is about to die. Death only leads to more death. The Bible teaches us that just a little leaven will eventually leaven the entire batch. Small compromises always lead to bigger compromises. Then we see a very telling statement from Christ. I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God. Remember the Church at Sardis had a reputation for being alive and it does take some work to maintain a reputation. Even the churches we spoke about today have the appearance of godliness. They have the best trained musical voices and instrumentalists for their worship sets. They have cutting edge youth and children's ministries. They have that charismatic pastorprenuer who has such great anecdotes and just the right mix of humor and folksiness. They have a great program on Sundays. Everyone is out within an hour and a half. They even go through some of the Gospel motions. They sprinkle a little Jesus here and a little mention of the cross there. They call Him Lord without bothering to explain what it means. They call Him Savior without getting into the messiness of what He saves us from. Their gospel is partial. Their testimony is partial. It is incomplete. They believe that the portion they delve into is enough and because the world loves them so much they take that as a sign that God approves. But He does not. In His sight, their works are not complete. Consider the Word of Paul to the Ephesian elders:
Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God. -- Acts 20: 26-27 (ESV)
The whole counsel of God beloved. The entire Gospel. An incomplete gospel is no gospel at all. It has no power to save anyone. Think about the entire premise of the Seeker Friendly Industrial Complex. They posit that there are a plethora of people who would seek God if only churches weren't so"doctrinal. If they were not so "negative." This despite Romans 3 teaching us that none are good. There are none that seek after God. In order to draw these "seeking" goats, the complex teaches that we ought to make the church friendlier. Do not talk about the fact that they are a sinner destined for hell without Jesus Christ as their Savior. Don't focus so much on God. Make it relevant to them and their lives. Instead of singing How Great Thou Art, switch it up to Friend of God. The problem is that this is not the entire counsel of God! Without understanding one's position as a sinner deserving judgment, one cannot be drawn by the Holy Spirit to the cross. If you refuse to discuss sin then you cannot possibly get to the point of discussing repentance. It is patently absurd to think that because someone repeated a three sentence or nine word "prayer" after hearing a half hour sermonette that had nothing to do with sin or repentance that anyone will get saved. So Jesus implores the Church in Sardis to remember what they originally heard and received. Remember they probably started strong. I can believe that TD Jakes, Joel Osteen, Bill Hybels, Rick Warren and Brian Houston started with the best of intentions. Osteen and Houston were children of pastors. This message from Jesus is comforting in that there is time to return to the Gospel. Drop the purpose driven paradigm and the seeker friendly schemes. Return to the Gospel while there is still time. Incomplete works may satisfy the world. Having the appearance of godliness may be enough for those not truly seeking God. You can build a fine reputation upon incomplete works within a world that embraces superficiality. It will not be enough to save anyone though. Time is running out. It is time to stop calling evil good and to stop calling what is dead, alive.
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.' -- Revelation 3: 4-6 (ESV)
Yet even within such death there is the remnant we spoke of. Biblically speaking, garments refer to a person's character. They are what we are clothed in. Even in Sardis there were some who refused to partake in the show. They refused to soil their garments. They refused to sully their character. So why did they stay there then? In practical terms, the days of Sardis are not like today. This may have been the only church in their city they could go to. Still even today, we all know of good people who fear the Lord and stay in apostate churches. For some the reason is simply that God has not released them yet. That they intercede for the church from within. That they still walk in white as a light in the church. I mentioned in this series my friend's father who attends a church very much like Sardis. He believes God gave him a vision that his church was 98% in darkness but he had to stay for the sake of the 2%. Remember beloved, everyone matters to God. He leaves the 99 to pursue the one. Not only that but it is only through the 2% that this church can ever recover. It is ironic that the modern church is so obsessed with revival. You cannot revive what is already dead. This is why Jesus closes the letter talking to the only people that could give Sardis a shot -- the people still alive. They are still worthy. They will walk with Jesus. He will give them divinely white garments. Their names will never be blotted out from the Book of Life. How does this revival truly work for the dead church? How can the remnant turn around a church built on reputations but filled with dead men's bones? Pastor John MacArthur outlines five steps contained directly in this letter, which I will cite and add to:
1) Wake up -- stop the tolerance. Stop the indifference. Doctrine matters greatly for the eternal lives of people in any church. Death will only persist if we continue to walk around in a spiritual stupor, apathetic to the only thing that has the true power of God unto the salvation of man -- the Gospel.
2) Strengthen what remains that is about to die -- hold onto what is good. It is hard enough to revive without more parts dying each day. Whatever portions of the Gospel that are still preached -- keep preaching them. Whatever spiritual values that are still honored -- still honor them.
3) Remember what you have received and heard -- this is not rocket science beloved. These churches have heard the Gospel. They were probably built upon it but have been steadily moving away from it. We do not need to reinvent the wheel. We do not need marketing schemes and ploys to draw people in. We just need to remember what we have already received and heard.