Relying on past success is a recipe for destruction—just ask the city of Sardis.
Strategically located on the banks of the gold-laden Pactolus River, Sardis was once the prosperous capital of Lydia’s empire. At its peak, history suggests Sardis’s king Croesus financed construction of the Temple of Artemis—one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Croesus’s father, King Alyattes, who reigned from about 610 to 560 B.C., minted the world’s first coins from Sardis’s resources.
However, Sardis had a fatal flaw: its lower city lacked a defensive wall. Rather than fortifying his city, Croesus had fortified his political favor with the Greek world.
Sardis fell to Cyrus the Great of Persia in 547 B.C., Alexander the Great in 334 B.C., Rome in 133 B.C., and a succession of massive earthquakes. Its citizens trusted the towering rock cliffs surrounding them for protection, but this casual arrogance left them unprepared when disaster struck. You see, there was a cleft in the rock that allowed invaders to assail them, and in the wake of earthquakes, those towering rocks became their tomb. Somehow, despite all this, the city was repeatedly rebuilt and was prosperous at the time of Paul’s writing.
The same apathetic arrogance that characterized the city of Sardis was also evident in the church at Sardis. Its believers grew content, complacent and self-satisfied. They had created a name for themselves, but a spirit of smugness left them open to sin’s assault. Sardis’s church drifted into spiritual unconsciousness and died.
Christ wastes no time confronting their sin. Here is what He says in Revelation 3:1: “I know your works, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead.”
Sardis was perhaps the first church in history with what we would call nominal Christians—people who claim to be Christians but are not. The church was full of people who made professions of faith, but it was clear the Holy Spirit was not present—they were not bearing the fruit of genuine faith. While the church appeared outwardly alive, it was inwardly dead, and the Lord was frank in His rebuke.
Jesus detected the same defective faith in the Pharisees when He was on earth. They gave alms, prayed, and fasted in dramatic fashion so that other men would notice how spiritual they were. Jesus confronted them in Matthew 23:27-28 saying, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. Even so you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.”
God is never fooled by outward appearances, yet He is ever patient—“not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). Therefore, He graciously provided four instructions to the Sardis believers for correcting their ways. We, the modern Church, need to heed these four instructions as well. We must not allow our beautiful church buildings, bustling with activity, to disguise spiritual stagnation.
Step 1: Be Sensitive to Sin
First, Christ warns the church to “be watchful” (Revelation 3:2). This warning conveys the idea of chasing away sleep. In other words, stay alert! Or as the apostle Paul wrote in Ephesians 5:14, “Awake, you who sleep, arise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.”
Jesus is not suggesting insomnia as some sort of spiritual solution. His point is to be watchful, to be perpetually on guard against sin. As the Lord instructed Cain, “If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it” (Genesis 4:7, NIV). We must stand guard, remaining sober minded and alert.
Step 2: Be Submissive to the Holy Spirit
In verse three, Jesus charges the church to, “Remember therefore how you have received and heard.” He is referring to the importance of the Holy Spirit. It is the power of the Holy Spirit that enables us to engage our sinful culture from a position of redemption and receive the Word of God in a life-changing way.
Failing to live in the power of the Holy Spirit while continuing sinful habits quenches God’s Spirit and separates us from our life source. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians puts it this way: “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption” (Ephesians 4:30). Sin is personal to God; it pains Him deeply. Activities that grieve the Spirit include bitterness, rage, anger, harsh words, evil speaking or slander, and all types of evil behavior. These are to be replaced with kindness, tenderheartedness, and Christlike forgiveness.
So, living in the Holy Spirit’s power will transform our relationships. Living in the Holy Spirit’s power will also transform the manner of our worship.
Consider your attitude toward worship. Do you worship through music, giving, service, etc., out of ritual and duty? Or do you worship out of love and joy and excitement?
Scripture is clear that God values the spirit of our giving, not the substance of our giving (see 2 Corinthians 9:7, Luke 21:1-4). No matter what styles of worship we practice or how much we give, the power of the Holy Spirit should be evident in our lives.
Step 3: Be Subject to the Authority of God’s Word
The next instruction given to Sardis is to “hold fast” (Revelation 3:3), which means “to keep.” It is used four other times in the book of Revelation in reference to keeping the Word of God (Rev. 1:3, 3:8, 12:17, and 22:7). In a companion article to this one about the faithful church at Philadelphia, I suggested the greatest threat to biblical soundness today is the removal of God’s Word from the pulpits. The death of the church at Sardis bears testimony to this truth.
Jesus charges His people to know the Word of God and obey it. We must allow it to govern our corporate and personal lives, by this I mean the lives of our churches and the lives of individuals within our churches. Hiding God’s Word in our hearts is the key to avoiding temptation. It should form the foundation for our choices and actions.
Step 4: Repent
Finally, the church in Sardis is instructed to repent. This same instruction had been given to the church in Ephesus that had abandoned its first love, and the church in Pergamos that had been corrupted by their pursuit of immorality and idolatry. Recognizing that sin grieves God’s Spirit, we, too, are called to repent of our sins.
God’s method of recovery never changes. For those of us in the process of spiritual decay, the only remedy is repentance. We must ask God to forgive us for abandoning His Word as we turn away from our sin and move in a new direction. We are called to love the Lord with all our hearts, souls, and minds (Matthew 22:37). There is no room for unrepented sin.
While hypocrisy and pride characterized the church of Sardis, it was not too late for them to admit their sin, submit to their Savior and His Word, and repent. The same is true for us today. We need to be alert and guard ourselves against the inroads of sin in our lives. If we are diligent to live the truth we claim to believe, we will experience newness of life through Jesus (Romans 6:4). When we find ourselves drifting from the rock of our salvation, we can turn to this four-principled pattern found in Revelation 3, trusting God will faithfully restore us and allow us to walk in newness of life.
Companion article: 4 Signs of Faithfulness from John's Letter to the Church of Philadelphia.
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