Revelation 3:1-6

The modern Turkish city of Sart occupies the location where Sardis once stood. In John's time, this city was one of great wealth and was the capital of the province of Lydia. Its reputation as such had spread throughout the Roman Empire. Thus, the church at Sardis was situated in the middle of enormous wealth and fame and it is likely that those who comprised the congregation were also wealthy people. Furthermore, Jesus says that they have the reputation of being a "live church". However, the reality was rather different. Jesus says bluntly: "but you are dead!"

What a condemnation! Jesus says that they had started something there, but it was unfinished and was in such poor spiritual health that it looked about to die completely. How often, when things appear to be going well do we become complacent? Many churches today in the West had the benefit of being established in a society where the majority of people considered themselves to be "christians". They attended church regularly and contributed faithfully, allowing impressive buildings to be raised up, many staff to be employed, all sorts of mission work to be set up and gaining a good reputation for supporting the poor and needy in all sorts of ways.

But, as one generation passes away and a new one takes its place, things can change. If we do not keep God's word and God's Spirit at the heart of all we do, we start to be distracted by the form and outward appearance of what takes place, rather than the heart and soul of growing together in a relationship with the Lord, Jesus Christ. If those in the church no longer have Christ in their hearts, the life begins to ebb away. People continue to go through the motions of holding church services and meetings without the presence of the Holy Spirit, so there is no life. Everyone "goes through the motions" but, spiritually, the church is dying.

A thief in the night

Sardis had been built on the top of a high outcrop of rock - an acropolis. It was thought to be impregnable to military attack, but its very invincibility led to its downfall. Its leaders were so confident in their position that they considered it necessary to have only a small band of soldiers guarding it during the night. Not once, but twice, this was put to the test when invaders managed to scale the cliff and enter the city, overwhelming the few defenders there and capturing it. With this history in mind, Jesus tells them: "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!" (Revelation 3:3)

There is a story told about an incident at a church in Poland, during communist times, when being a Christian was a crime punishable by imprisonment or death. People met there regularly but, one day, some soldiers marched into the church and, at gunpoint, commanded that all those who believed in God should remain seated but anyone else could take the opportunity to leave immediately and never return. Most of those present got up and, rather shame-facedly, walked out. After a further opportunity for any who wished to leave to do so, the doors were locked. The soldiers then put down their guns and declared themselves to be Christians who wanted to join in worship, but only with genuine believers. They praised God together and shared in taking bread and wine, rejoicing to be part of such a band of faithful believers!

Being a Christian can be a costly business and we need to be on our guard against complacency. In many churches in the West (principally North America and Europe), liberal, secular values have overtaken Christian faith to a large degree and, in many churches, the form of religion - a lively church, full of people and with lots of activities going on - has become more valued than a true relationship with God. Elsewhere in the world, churches are holding to historical declarations of faith, but this brings them into sharp contrast and conflict with the prevailing culture in which they live. The result for many believers is separation from family, loss of job opportunities, even imprisonment, torture and death.

The church at Sardis had constructed a false image of God, which was every bit as idolatrous as those who worshipped at the nearby temple of Artemis. If we want a personal, intimate relationship with Jesus, we need to be in a church where He is alive by the power of His Holy Spirit and where signs follow the preaching of His word. (Mark 16:17)

Repentance and restoration

And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson and Jephthah, about David and Samuel and the prophets, who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies. Women received back their dead, raised to life again. There were others who were tortured, refusing to be released so that they might gain an even better resurrection. Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated — the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.” (Hebrews 11:32-38)

One day, if we stay strong to the end, we shall meet these men and women who were not prepared to compromise God’s word for temporary comfort and security that lasted only a short time. It is, perhaps, time to take stock of our lives and to make a habit of reading the word of God, obeying it, believing it and receiving it - putting it into practice as if our eternal lives depended on it... because they do!

In some of our cosy, western churches, surely it is time - like those at Sardis - to wake up and fortify what is left of our relationship with God? Many churches are in danger of allowing compromise and worldliness to dominate their spiritual lives. In his gospel, Matthew quotes a passage from the prophet, Isaiah, that describes God's servant bringing hope, not as a conquering hero but as a healer. He links this to what he has just been describing about Jesus' ministry of teaching and healing. Jesus never makes things worse than they already are, no matter what the damage may be, for those in His kingdom. He encourages those who feel worthless and inspires those who have lost hope. His whole aim is for us to have victory in our lives - in and through Him. (Matthew 12:20-21)

The Lord is gentle with us but doesn't want us to stand still. We may have started out well. For a while, perhaps, the excitement of new birth motivated our lives. We listened to God and obeyed His word, but then it all became too much for us. Now, some years on, we are suffering from disappointments. There is unfinished business in our lives. Lethargy and low expectations (both of ourselves and - if we dare admit it - sometimes of God too) have overcome our focus on God and our desire for knowing Him better.

Time to change

As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man.” (Matthew 24:37-39)

Jesus found the church at Sardis practically dead, sound asleep with unfinished business on its hands. The church in Sardis was dabbling instead of doing. It seemed it was great for starting things but not for completing them. It may have had a dozen programmes, no doubt started with a great excitement, but none of them had come to anything. The answer Jesus offered was simple but radical and needed to be applied individually. It is described so well in "The Message" (a contemporary, American version of the Bible):

Up on your feet! Take a deep breath! Maybe there's life in you yet. But I wouldn't know it by looking at your busy work; nothing of God's work has been completed. Your condition is desperate. Think of the gift you once had in your hands, the message you heard with your ears; grasp it again and turn back to God. If you pull the covers back over your head and sleep on, oblivious to God, I'll return when you least expect it and break into your life like a thief in the night.” (Revelation 3:2-3 - "The Message" version) "Grasp it again!" When we realise that we have slipped away, Jesus makes it so simple to just repent and turn back to Him wholeheartedly.

Remembering where we have come from – how it all started in such a thrilling way - is a good place to begin. The last thing that Jesus did, before going to His death on the Roman cross, was to celebrate a feast of remembrance with His disciples. This has been adopted in just about all churches today as "communion" or "The Lord's supper". Jesus knew that we need to be reminded regularly to come back to Him, again and again, on our earthly journey.
let's take Him up on His offer and use every opportunity to refresh and keep alive our sense of strong dependence on Him through sharing bread and wine with our brothers and sisters in Christ.

The end of the age

In Matthew's gospel, chapter twenty-four, Jesus spoke to His disciples who had come to Him privately, looking for some answers to questions which troubled them about the end of the age (that is, the "Church Age" in which we are living). "Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom the master has put in charge of the servants in his household to give them their food at the proper time? It will be good for that servant whose master finds him doing so when he returns. Truly I tell you, he will put him in charge of all his possessions." (Matthew 24:45-47)

It is our responsibility to explain the good news about Jesus to those who have never heard this best news of all - before it is too late. We cannot, in fact we dare not and should not, leave it to others, even if they are the greatest evangelists in the entire world. Jesus says that it is our responsibility, individually to witness. (Compare Ezekiel 33:6-9.) For those of us who are challenged by this suggestion, we need to repent! Repentance is the only solution offered by Jesus. As we shall see when Jesus speaks to the church at Laodicea, He wants us to be honest with ourselves, for it is from this position of honesty that we can move forward.

The church at Sardis was collectively deceived. They believed that their wealth of resources and their programme of activities indicated great spiritual life - but they were wrong! There are similar churches today where many people come to meetings to take part in loud and extravagant praise and worship. A "learned" sermon is preached but is it God who has inspired this comprehensive spiritual programme? Where is the fruit, seen in changed lives and a serious desire to help others? Jesus was laser-focused when it came to identifying the true spiritual state of a person or a whole institution. “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like white-washed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside, but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean.” (Matthew 23:27)

Pressing on to maturity

Churches are first established when the Holy Spirit moves in the heart of a few people and brings them together as a local congregation. From there, they begin to grow and become established. But the passage of time can lead to change - not always for the better. The same danger exists in a marriage. What begins with passionate love, excitement and commitment can become overly familiar as years pass by to the point where both partners "go through the motions" but have stopped working at their developing relationship and begun to stand still. Churches settle down and become institutionalised. The drive and dynamism of those first years, are replaced by ever more stylised, traditional and formal ways of worship, which may be note perfect but have no involvement of the heart. God’s answer is for us to remember our heritage and then to press forward.

Jesus warns the believers at Sardis that, if they do not take a good, long look at themselves and turn things around, He will appear Himself, suddenly and unexpectedly, like a thief in the night, to take away what little they do have left. (It is a remarkable fact that western Asia Minor - now Turkey - was once the brightest spot on earth for Christian witness. Today, it is one of the darkest.) Nonetheless, there were a few people at Sardis who had not been taken in by the lies of the Enemy or succumbed to his deceit. These people held firmly to the basic principles of the good news and were prepared to stand for what they believed, despite opposition from society at large. Jesus promised that they would walk with Him in eternity, dressed in the purity of His salvation. (Revelation 3:4-5)

A warning about complacency

Clothes can only be soiled if they were clean in the first place. When cleanliness is referred to in the Bible, it can only come from one source: salvation. Jesus gives a strong warning in this passage about the possibility of losing our place in the kingdom of heaven. People argue at length in theological terms about whether or not salvation can ever be lost once people come to Christ, confess their sin and accept Him as Lord. Many people like to look at this question from the point of view of a lawyer, but our God is perhaps more of a gardener than He is a lawyer. So much of His creation is about growing and nurturing new life until it reaches the point of maturity, when it is complete and dies.

Jesus describes our relationship with Him in terms of growing things - crops, sheep, brothers and sisters - rather than legal judgments. Whilst ever we are growing and continuing in our relationship with Him, no-one can snatch us out of the Father's hand. (John 10:29) It is only when we stop growing and stop bearing fruit that we are in danger of being "cut off" from the branch. Even when we are growing properly and producing fruit, we are likely to be "pruned". (John 15:1,2) As believers, there are times when we may want to turn our back on God, but He keeps us. Praise Him for His love! Neither is it for us to judge others or try to guess at their true relationship with God. There are so many things that are totally unknown to us. Our sole responsibility is constantly to keep our zeal (passion for God) alive through prayer, fellowship and the study of God's word. (Hebrews 10:25)

The heavenly goal

First and foremost, becoming a Christian is something that is between the individual and Jesus. We cannot (and should not) seek to "drum it up" by manipulating peoples' emotions. It is not a feeling, an emotion or something to do just because you want to be with your friends. No, it is an act of the will and, only when the individual takes that step for herself, will it produce a desire and perseverance that presses on to maturity, through good times and bad. Being a Christian is a constant - a constant state of growth and of fellowship with the one who redeemed us, to whom we now belong and with whom we shall spend all of eternity.

When we find ourselves slipping back into patterns of behaviour or thinking that were part of our nature before we knew Christ, there is only one solution: repentance. We must turn back again to Jesus. If there is no repentance, then we must ask ourselves whether we really are believers at all. If we truly want to be part of His kingdom and make heaven our goal, then we need to turn and kneel down before God. We must confess our sins, repent and ask Him again to be the Lord of our lives. If necessary, you can do that right here and now - no time like the present!

We may never feel worthy of what Jesus did for us, but we simply have to accept that He loves us as we are. He chose to give His own sinless life in payment for all our sin and we have to recognise that this is the only way by which we can enter the kingdom of heaven. We can never earn our place there through any amount of good deeds or brave actions. It is His gift to us. But, having accepted His gift, we cannot sit back and rest. He calls us to walk (live) with Him every day of our lives, growing in grace and producing the fruit of the kingdom to pour blessing in the lives of all those around us.

When we enter His kingdom, He dresses us in white - in clothes that He provides for us. He also promises that He will never blot out our name from "The Book of Life" - those enrolled in the kingdom of heaven. This is what it means to be victorious, pressing on to maturity, dressed in the purity of His salvation. (Revelation 3:4-5)

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