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Author:Dr. Reuben Bredenhof
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Congregation:Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary (CRTS)
 Hamilton, Ontario
Preached At:Free Reformed Church of Mt. Nasura
 Mt. Nasura, Western Australia
Title:An Almost-Dead Church is Called Back to Life
Text:Revelation 3:1-6 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Ps 147:2,4                                                                                          

Ps 147:1,6                                                                                                      

Reading – Daniel 12:1-3; Revelation 7:9-17

Ps 50:4,8,10,11

Sermon – Revelation 3:1-6

Ps 56:4,5

Hy 3:1,2,5

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved congregation, if you look in your Bibles at the text for this service, there might be a shocking title. Above Revelation 3:1-6 you might see the heading, “The Dead Church.” And if you look back, you might see other headings over each of these letters to the churches in Asia Minor. There’s been the Corrupt Church. The Compromising Church. The Persecuted. The Loveless. Yes, and now the Dead Church. That’s a pretty grim way to describe a church isn’t it?

These headings aren’t part of the text. These were added by an editor of the translation, in order to help us as we read and study this part of Scripture. That’s good, but often a heading just can’t capture everything that’s going on in the verses below it. Because was the church in Sardis really and truly dead? Without life entirely? Were these believers hopeless?

Certainly Sardis was in an appalling state. We’ll see that. They’d lost almost all their spiritual vitality. They’d been contaminated by the world. They had a reputation for being a strong church, but that’s about all they had—just a reputation, a name. For in reality, they’d degenerated to almost nothing. Yet they weren’t dead yet. Jesus will speak about “strengthening the things that remain.” Something was still left. He’ll acknowledge that “a few” in Sardis haven’t “defiled their garments.” Yes, here and there were pockets of life.

Let’s look at who this letter’s from. Consider who writes, “He who has the seven spirits of God” (v 1). We know that God has one Spirit, his Holy Spirit, so we could translate this: “the seven-fold Spirit of God.” This is the Spirit in fullness, the full range of divine power at work. Why is that important? A church might be almost dead, but God by his Almighty Spirit has every ability to make her alive!

The letter-writer also holds “the seven stars” (v 1). The seven stars are the angels, the messengers, of the seven churches. Like He does in the other letters in Revelation 2 and 3, Jesus is addressing firstly the church’s leaders. For they’re at all points accountable to him. These elders in Sardis had allowed the church to crumble, but it wasn’t too late. Now they’re called to repent, to turn around, to seek the God of life. And if they do, and if we do, there’s the promise of life-everlasting. I preach to you God’s Word from Revelation 3:1-6,

  Christ writes to Sardis, a church that is almost dead:

  1. He knows her true condition
  2. He warns her with sudden judgment
  3. He calls her to real change
  4. He assures her of everlasting life


1. He knows her true condition: When you study these letters of Jesus, it’s interesting to learn about the cities that each of the seven churches called home. For the local setting of a church always has an impact on the believers in that place. Even our setting in this area and this country influences the kind of struggles we face, and the kind of opportunities we have.

So for the church of Sardis. What kind of city was this? Well, it was one of the oldest cities in Asia Minor, with a history going back at least to 1200 BC. And for a very long time, Sardis had been a powerful place. In the days before the Greeks conquered Asia Minor, and then the Romans, Sardis was the capital city. By the time that a church of Christ was founded there, however, Sardis had declined. It was almost entirely destroyed in a major earthquake, in the year 17. But after the earthquake, the city got rebuilt, situated as it was on a strategic bit of land—much of Sardis was built into a rocky hill, with the city centre on highest point.       

And what kind of church was there? It’s one that comes under the most severe rebuke. In these letters to the churches usually there’s something for Jesus to praise, but here it’s almost all criticism and censure. Which is strange, in a way. The church of Sardis seems like it’s untroubled by any of the heresies that were bothering the other congregations. The church also appears not to have been persecuted or harassed, unlike what was happening in Smyrna and elsewhere. No, Sardis enjoyed smooth sailing—and maybe that was the whole problem. It was too smooth. As one commentator puts it, “Satan must have felt that Sardis was coming along rather nicely without his interference, and it was better off left alone.”

There’s some truth to that, isn’t there? When Christ’s people aren’t fighting hard for the truth of the gospel, contending for the faith, maybe it’s because they don’t know any more what a heresy sounds like. Or when Christ’s people aren’t getting ridiculed by unbelievers, maybe it’s because we’re simply not causing them offense—we’ve simply blended in with the culture. Too harmless to persecute!

The peculiar thing was, Sardis had a reputation of being an active church: “I know your works,” says Jesus, “that you have a name that you are alive…” (v 1). Within that group of churches in Asia Minor, Sardis was known as being vibrant, full of zeal. Because they’d been that way, some years before. In verse 3, Jesus reminds them how it used to be, “Remember therefore how you have received and heard.” Once they’d given the gospel a warm welcome. They’d heard the message of Christ, and they’d put it work right away. Used to be good.

But now they’ve faded—kind of like the city they lived in, a place that had declined a long way from its former glory. If you drive around the countryside, you can find places like this: “ghost towns,” they’re called. Cities that used to be booming because of a gold rush, or some other industry, now deathly quiet. No one living there. Just old run-down buildings. Still a name on the map, but not worth visiting.

How sad that a church can be that way too: like a ghost town. Memories of being alive and well, but now stale and empty. Despite their reputation, Jesus knows their true state. Sardis had lost its vitality. We can also think of how Jesus speaks of “deadness” in his parables. More than once, He compares a believer to a tree—maybe a fig tree, or the branch of a vine. He says that if that tree doesn’t bear fruit, if that branch doesn’t produce grapes, then it’s dead. It’s good for nothing but to be cut off and burned. Well, Sardis wasn’t bearing fruit.

What makes that happen? How does a church become dead, or almost dead? Or how does an individual believer become almost dead in the faith? How do you get to be just a name in the directory, without any living commitment? Let’s be reminded of the importance of being nourished with the Word of God, and by prayer. If a person isn’t being regularly connected to the means of God’s grace, those means like Scripture, and worship, and prayer, and fellowship, then death can’t be far behind. As believers, we simply will not live if we’re not filled with the Spirit, and those tools that the Spirit uses, like his Word and prayer.

Spiritual ruin is caused by a neglect of the holy things. But it can also be brought on by our sin, when we’ve become indifferent to evil. When a church is busy conforming to the pattern of the world, it’s near impossible to be renewed in God’s image. Sin that we leave in our life—sin that we don’t repent from—has a deadening effect. It’s like draining all the blood out of a limb. Sin has a proven ability to close the heart to God’s Spirit. Not that God can’t overcome sin’s power, or transform a hardened person—He can, and He does! But sin will kill.

This is how the Lord sees the church of Sardis, and how He sees everyone who doesn’t bear fruits of faith. If there’s no repentance, no fruit, the Lord can only draw one conclusion: that tree is dead. That church has been boarded up.


2. He warns her with sudden judgment: It’s been a tough read so far, this letter. But notice how the Lord hasn’t written them off, or given up. You could say that they’re on life-support right now. Jesus still gives a warning, though, that they might respond: “Therefore if you will not watch, I will come upon you as a thief, and you will not know what hour I will come upon you” (v 3). We all understand that a thief doesn’t ring ahead and let us know when he’s going to show up. Otherwise we’ll be ready for him, sitting up with our baseball bat. No, a thief comes when we’re not ready—when we’re fast asleep, or out of town.

So for Christ’s return. When people are feeling secure, and they’ve stopped thinking about the power and authority that He really has, it’s then that He’ll come. And for those who aren’t ready, his visit will be a complete disaster. So in love, Jesus gives advance warning to Sardis and his church. He’s coming! This warning is like what Jesus said another time, in Matthew 24, “Know this, that if the master of the house had known what hour the thief would come, he would have watched and not allowed his house to be broken into. Therefore you also be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour when you do not expect him” (vv 43-44). Don’t be sleeping, but be ready!

The church of Sardis should’ve been able to relate to this warning—especially if they knew something about their local history. Their city was built on a mountain, we said, with an almost impenetrable fortress at its centre. It was a good and secure location if you’re fending off attackers. Yet there’d been two times in the past when Sardis had been captured, and mostly because of a lack of watchfulness and care. Its defenders had become lazy up in their stone fortress, and they’d stopped being vigilant. Five hundred years before, Cyrus the king of Persia had taken Sardis by sending up a single climber. He was able to work his way up into the city through a crevice, and then open the gates for the rest of the army to storm in. A couple centuries later, the Cretans did the same thing, sneaking in with a band of fifteen men.

As in history, so in life: If you think you’re spiritually secure without Christ, you’re not. If you think you’re safe behind whatever walls you’ve put up, you’re inviting disaster. Sardis needed to know that if they didn’t watch for Christ, and live differently because He was coming again, He’d find them in their sin. He’d judge them, and then they’d truly be dead! Never to live again. So “be watchful!” (v 2), says Christ. “Hear what the Spirit says to the churches!” (v 6).

We need to hear that too. We’ve probably never doubted that Christ will come back—it’s in our creed every Sunday. But do we really think about that truth? How does Christ’s coming “like a thief” change how we live today? There’s a great danger that we get lulled to sleep. Because for the most part, things are good. Many of us enjoy good health, we have lots of blessings, lots of earthly activities and plans, and this is enough. Any thought of eternity has been crowded out of our minds, because we’re so busy enjoying today. But Jesus says, “You don’t know what hour I’ll come upon you.”

Sometimes parents ask their kids to think about this. They might ask, “Would you want the Lord to come back when you’re doing that? Would you be happy to see him at such a moment, or would you be ashamed?” It’s a good question, for Sardis, and for all of us. We need to live in constant watchfulness. Is our conduct holy? Is the way we’re acting worthy of the kingdom of Christ? If He came today, would we be ready to receive the Lord?    


3. He calls her to real change: Christ’s call to Sardis rings loud and clear. With three separate commands, He exhorts Sardis to real change. Don’t just have the reputation for being alive. Don’t just have your name in the church directory, but live! The first command is this: “Strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die” (v 2). In Sardis there was yet the possibility of coming back to life. What things “remained”—what had not yet died—and could still be strengthened? Jesus doesn’t tell us. But there must’ve been a few good qualities and practices left among them. Maybe they were still meeting every Lord’s day for worship. Maybe the children and young people were enthusiastic to live for God. Maybe the church was diligent in showing mercy to the needy. There were some things that remained—but for how much longer? How long can a church stay on life support, getting overrun by sin?

Not long. Jesus says their present works are falling short of completion: “I have not found your works perfect before God” (v 2). That English word “perfect” can be misleading. God wasn’t expecting the believers in Sardis to be flawless, without sin. The original Greek speaks more of being “complete,” being “whole,” conforming broadly to God’s will. Something essential was missing from church life in Sardis: they lacked the right motivation, perhaps, the right direction. So they had to “strengthen” whatever good was left, make it complete and pleasing to God.

That’s our challenge too. That we press on toward love and good works. There are great things that Christ has done in our midst—He has worked the power of his Spirit among us, and it’s evident in our faith and service and patience and love. But we have to strengthen it. Keep growing it. Make your works complete before God. Consider what you could do yet to honour him more!

The first command: “Strengthen what remains.” The second command: “Remember… how you have received and heard” (v 3). We said before that there was a time when the church in Sardis was alive and well. They’d received the gospel, the Word they heard. Now it wasn’t lost entirely, but the danger was there. So they must remember! We have to remember. Recall what the gospel of salvation means. Don’t let the good news become old news, but hear it and receive it with joy. “Remember how you have received and heard.”

And then the third command, the third call to change: “Hold fast and repent.” Just like in the letter to Ephesus, to Pergamos, and to Laodicea, Jesus calls those in Sardis to repent. The very repetition of that command tells us that it’s something that we as church need to hear as well: “Hold fast and repent.” Leave your sin, strengthen whatever is weak, and keep your grip firmly on the Word of Christ.

We need to hear that call—and it’s a radical call—for sometimes we get into a rut in life, and a rut in our faith too. Same old sins. Same old struggles. Nothing seems to change. We’ve been this way for years now, so we don’t expect it’s ever going to be different. But Christ doesn’t allow us to stay where we are. He doesn’t want us to keep doing what we’re doing. That’s why He says, “Repent. Change. Live.” Oh, if it was up to us, we’d never get started. But if we ask him, Christ gives all the motivation and strength we need. He does it with his promise of everlasting life.


4. He assures her of everlasting life: Three commands, now three promises. Despite all the problems in Sardis, a church “almost dead,” let’s notice how Jesus holds out to them a sure hope. If they repent, they’ll get arrayed in white garments, they’ll have their names recorded in the book of life, and confessed by Jesus before God and the angels.

Let’s begin with the garments. Jesus says, “You have a few names even in Sardis who have not defiled their garments; and they shall walk with me in white” (v 4). In both parts of that verse, the Lord is speaking about much more than putting on clothing, like wearing a sweater or donning a skirt. According to the Bible, you are what you wear! For instance, when Scripture says our God is “clothed in righteousness,” that means He IS righteous, through and through. Or that an evildoer is “clothed with deceit,” that means he IS a liar.

So what did many believers in Sardis have on? Defiled garments. Their very lives had been contaminated by sin. Polluted by the world. And for all of us, it’s hard not to be infected. We have to fight hard the impurity of this world. Wherever we go, it clings to us. But to those who are clean—to those who are putting off the cheap and smelly coverings of sin—Christ says, “They shall walk with me in white” (v 4). He repeats that in the next verse, “He who overcomes shall be clothed in white garments” (v 5). We find these white garments throughout Revelation. The Laodiceans will be told to buy them, in order to cover the shame of their nakedness. The martyrs who await vindication are also given white robes, just as the 24 elders will. And we read from Revelation 7, about the vast multitude standing before the Lamb, “clothed with white robes” (v 9), robes “made white in the blood of the Lamb” (v 14).

For every Christian, this is our glorious apparel, given by God! For the white robes that we’re promised mean a life free from the stain of guilt, hearts cleansed of pollution, now bright with gladness. For by faith we can be clothed with Christ. We no longer have to be naked in our shame. We no longer need to cling to the flimsy rags of sin. But now we can be wrapped up in all his glory, with robes made white in Jesus’ blood.

And then this promise. Jesus says to those who overcome, “I will not blot out his name from the Book of Life” (v 5). This too, isn’t the only place we hear about God’s “book.” Think of Daniel 12, about the judgment ready to fall on earth—despite this great catastrophe, Daniel says, “At that time your people shall be delivered, everyone who is found written in the book” (v 1). Daniel says that if you’re in it, you’ll be saved, and you’ll live! Back then, cities would keep an official book of the names of their citizens. To be on that list meant everything for a person and his family. Because if you’re on, you can stay within the walls, and you can receive all the benefits of protection and support. But if you were missing from that list, or if you’d somehow forfeited your place, outside the gates you went.

Beloved, Christ says if we overcome—if we persevere in faith, if we repent of sin and live in him—then we won’t ever be forgotten or blotted out. Because we’re inscribed in his book! Engraved in that heavenly volume! Page after page, God sees the full number of his people in Christ. And by his grace, we’ll be among them.

Says Christ, his third promise to those who stand fast, “I will confess his name before my Father and before His angels” (v 5). We often think about our own confessions, whether our confessions of faith, or our confessions of sin. These things are important. But the far more important confession is the one that Christ makes. If we’re faithful, if we overcome temptation, Christ will acknowledge us with joy!

What a glorious thing for him to say about a person on that day He returns, “Father, this one belongs to me. I know this one, for he did my will. I know his name, and he knew mine.” As Jesus said during his ministry on earth, in Matthew 10:32, “Whoever acknowledges me before men, I will acknowledge him before my Father in heaven.” Yes, Jesus hears all our weak and hesitating words here on earth. He takes note of all those who are willing to speak his name, to speak of him in the church, to speak of him in the home, and to speak of him in the world. If we acknowledge him, He’ll acknowledge us.

Beloved, think about how perfect this letter is for the church of Sardis. They had a “name” of being alive, when they were really almost dead. Yet to those who were resisting, repenting, and keeping watch, Christ promises a real name—a name never blotted from the Book of Life. And He promises a heavenly name, one acknowledged before God the Father and all his angels. For Sardis and for us, that’s the only name that matters. So may Christ’s name be on our lips, and in our hearts. May we not die, but live, in him!  Amen.

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 2015, Dr. Reuben Bredenhof

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