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Note: This blog post is part of a series titled "Studies in the Book of Revelation." To view all parts, click the link below.
Sardis is a precious stone (sardius), uncommon, a remnant. This church represents the remnant of grace in the time of church idolatry. In the Old Covenant Church, God had preserved a remnant of 7,000 who had not bowed their knees to Baal according to the decrees of Jezebel. It should be noted, too, that these were only the survivors. Many more had already been killed.
Though we do not know a specific number of overcomers in the time of the Jezebel church under the New Covenant, we know they existed. Historically speaking, this remnant was expressed in the Protestant Reformation. This does not mean that all (or even a majority) of Protestants were overcomers. Nonetheless, the Protestant movement represented the church of Sardis, for they came out of great tribulation and were successful in establishing separate churches.
As they separated themselves, many asked them: “How can your beliefs be right when so many great theologians say you are wrong?” The answer is simple: “By their fruits you will know them” (Matthew 7:20). The fruit of church creeds produced a host of murderers and torturers who were devoid of the love of God, regardless of their claims. In fact, there were Protestants, too, who broke away to believe new creeds, but failed to manifest the love of Christ.
The point is that the overcomers continued to remain as rare jewels among the rocks of violent and hateful men.
The Church’s Name or Reputation
Christ’s message to the church of Sardis begins in Revelation 3:1,
1 And to the angel of the church in Sardis write: He who has the seven Spirits of God, and the seven stars, says this: “I know your deeds, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead.”
This refers back to Revelation 1:16, where John first saw the glorified Christ, “and in His right hand He held the seven stars.” In Revelation 1:20 we read, “the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.” These seven angels can hardly be distinguished from the seven Spirits of God, which were supposed to speak through the leaders of each church.
The church leaders held the position that the shaliach tzibbur held in the synagogues. These were the “messengers of the congregation,” called to read the public prayers while the people said AMEN. He was also known as the Chazzan, or Cantor, and this title was also used later by the church. The Chazzan was supposed to be a righteous man of good reputation.
Since a messenger is an “angel,” whether spiritual or physical, Scripture blends both together, in that the man was supposed to manifest the presence of his assigned angel. The criticisms in Christ’s messages to the seven churches shows that their leaders had not fully absorbed their angel, and so the word in the angel had not yet become flesh.
In the message itself, verse 1 says that Christ recognized the deeds—both good and bad—of the Sardis church. Secondly, He says, “you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead.” What does this mean? Many have focused upon the meaning of the Greek word onoma, “name.” However, we must remember that John was expressing Hebrew concepts through Greek language. Hence, we should interpret “name” according to its Hebrew equivalent, shem, which is more than a name; it is also “reputation, fame, glory.”
We see the word shem translated “famous” in 1 Chronicles 12:30 and in 1 Chronicles 22:5. One who had made a name for himself was a man of reputation. This is the sense in which the word is used in Revelation 3:1. The church—or perhaps, more narrowly, the shaliach tzibbur of that church—had a good reputation, yet is “dead.”
The Concordant Version translates it more literally: “you have a name that you are living, and are dead.” In other words, this church or its leader had a good reputation that it was living out, or walking out in real life experience, and yet was spiritually dead. In other words, the church was a zombie, dead men walking around as if they were alive.
So far, this is not a good testimony of a church that is supposed to represent the overcoming remnant of grace. Revelation 3:2 continues,
2 Wake up, and strengthen the things that remain, which were about to die; for I have not found your deeds completed in the sight of My God.
Sleep is a common metaphor for death throughout the Scriptures. So the solution is to “wake up.” The leader’s calling was to serve as a watchman on the wall. Watchmen were supposed to be watchful, but if they slept at their post, the city might fall. The leader of Sardis, in this case, was the watchman who was exhorted to “wake up” and “establish the rest who are about to be dying” (C.V.).
In other words, others were in danger of dying by following the example of the sleeping leader. There was much work to be done, “for I have not found your deeds (works) completed in the sight of My God.” This is a prophetic statement about the Sardis church era from 1517-1776. Although they had done well in breaking away from the worshiping men, there was still much work to be done to enjoy a good reputation with God. Their work was yet partial. The Protestants were by no means perfect.
Remember and Repent
Revelation 3:3 continues,
3 Remember therefore what you have received and heard; and keep it, and repent. If therefore you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come upon you.
What had the Sardis church “received and heard” that they were supposed to keep (preserve)? We are told nothing about the church in the city of Sardis itself that might tell us what exactly they were supposed to preserve, guard, or keep (Greek: tareo). Our greatest clues come from understanding that they represent the remnant of grace, both in the Old Covenant church as well as the New Covenant church.
Elijah knew little about the remnant of grace, other than that they had been killed. Paul tells us more in Romans 11:2-7. The lesson he draws from the story of Elijah and the 7,000 is stated in Romans 11:5, 6,
5 In the same way then, there has also come to be at the present time a remnant according to God’s gracious choice. 6 But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace is no longer grace.
The obvious answer is that the remnant had been given an understanding of grace itself. And so we find in the Sardis church era that the foundation of Protestant theology was founded on the concept of grace, as opposed to works. This was what they were supposed to “keep,” if it were possible. But because Christ tells Sardis to “repent,” it is obvious that they would either lose this concept or that their understanding of grace would be incomplete.
So in history we find that some of the Protestants abused Roman Catholics as much as they themselves had been abused. John Calvin burned Michael Servetus at the stake in Geneva on October 27, 1553.
There were other Catholic martyrs in other places such as in England after King Henry VIII broke from the Roman church and established the Church of England. The Roman church points to their martyrs, numbering in the hundreds, while hoping that their own actions in killing and torturing multiplied millions of dissenters will be forgotten.
Although the Protestants elevated grace to a great extent, they still did not comprehend its full significance under the New Covenant. Their understanding of grace was incomplete, mostly because they did not know the foundational principle of the New Covenant—that it is based upon God’s vow to man, rather than man’s vow to God. See my book, The Two Covenants.
This is why even the remnant was called “according to God’s gracious choice,” as Paul said in Romans 11:5. By contrast, a remnant of works (i.e., by man’s Old Covenant vow) would be according to man’s choice and man’s will. Israel’s vow in Exodus 19:8 is the prime example of a remnant of works. But Paul tells us that if it is by works, it is no longer by grace. Because grace is chained to God’s choice, rather than man’s “works,” it is plain that the “works” include the matter of will. God chose by His own will and therefore vowed to do something (“works”). So also when men choose by their own will to follow God, it is also a matter of “works,” for then they are obligated to fulfill their vow to God.
The Protestants shed many of the “works” that the Roman church required for salvation, but they failed to address the root of those works—man’s will. In other words, they chopped down the tree of works, but they failed to pull it up by its roots. They retained the idea that man’s will, that is, his decision to follow Christ, is what extends saving grace to us. But this is the nature of the Old Covenant, which cannot save anyone unless that person is able to fulfill His vow to follow Christ.
Psalm 80:3, 7 appeals to God to turn us (shuv) so that we may be saved. It is the same with our love for Christ, for 1 John 4:19 says, “We love, because He first loved us.” Paul traces the genealogy of salvation plainly in Romans 10:13-15,
13 for “Whoever will call upon the name of the Lord will be saved.” 14 How then shall they call upon Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? 15 And how shall they preach unless they are sent?
Until God takes the first step, it is foolish to say that men everywhere should believe in Christ. When men “call upon the name of the Lord,” it is the final result of a series of events that trace back to the grace of God in sending a preacher. In other words, God took the initiative to fulfill His New Covenant vow to make us His people and to be our God (Deuteronomy 29:12, 13). No believer, then, can take credit for his own salvation, for he has only responded to the grace-work of God. This is why we are begotten of God, not by the will of man, nor by his flesh, but by God’s will alone (John 1:13). He has wooed us by His great love; therefore, we have responded with love that He has implanted within our hearts.
The Sardis church era produced Protestants, but these had an incomplete understanding of grace. Hence, they were partially works-oriented; that is, their doctrine was a mixture of grace and works. At any rate, since we are to judge by their fruits, we see much that is good, but also much that was deficient.
Coming as a Thief
Christ threatens the Sardis church, saying that if they do not wake up and finish the course laid before them, He would “come like a thief” (Revelation 3:3). In other words, Christ says, “you will not know at what hour I will come upon you.”
In those days, thieves came in companies. The “thief” metaphor was not meant to conjure up thoughts of a cat burglar, who silently creeps into a house to steal jewelry. The Eastern metaphor depicted a band of thieves riding into town early in the morning while men slept, throwing everyone into chaos, and killing anyone who resisted their plundering.
Paul used this same metaphor in 1 Thessalonians 5:2-6,
2 For you yourselves know full well that the day of the Lord will come just like a thief in the night. 3 While they are saying, “Peace and safety!” then destruction will come upon them suddenly like birth pangs upon a woman with child; and they shall not escape. 4 But you, brethren, are not in darkness, that the day should overtake you like a thief… 6 so then let us not sleep as others do, but let us be alert and sober.
The thief comes while men are sleeping. This is the warning to Sardis, which was “dead” and needed to “wake up.” If they did not repent and wake up, then they would find themselves plundered, shaken, and possibly even killed in “the day of the Lord.” Many Christians expect to be raptured, of course, not understanding the prophecies of the feast of Tabernacles. They do not realize that they are in danger, because the watchmen are asleep, and those who are awake are too few.
The message, then, is to be awake and alert, so that we will not be taken by surprise when the day of the Lord comes. This implies that those who are awake will NOT be surprised. In other words, they will have enough understanding to see that day coming, in spite of what Jesus told His disciples in Acts 1:7,
7 He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or epochs which the Father has fixed by His own authority.”
It seems to me that if we are watchful, we may be given some general knowledge of the times in which we live. The message to Sardis implies that those who are awake and sober, not having imbibed upon the wine of Babylon, will have sufficient knowledge of the timing of the day of the Lord so that they will not be surprised when it comes.
Note: This blog post is part of a series titled "Studies in the Book of Revelation." To view all parts, click the link below.