Jesus’ Letter to Sardis

To the angel of the church in Sardis write…  Revelation 3:1 NIV 

Sardis was the fifth of the seven churches in the book of Revelation to whom the Apostle John wrote letters. Sardis is located near the village of Salihli, Turkey. Extensive 20th century archeological excavations have unearthed the ruins of the acropolis with the Temple to Artemis, a Roman era gymnasium complex with baths, Jewish synagogue, and Byzantine era shops. Settled in 1400 BC on the wide fertile plain of Hermus along the banks of the river Pactolus, Sardis developed into a prosperous city known for its fruit, wool and pagan temples of Delphi, Artemis, and Didyma. It became a center for trade as a crossroads of major north/south, east/west trade routes and the western terminus of the Royal Road that linked Sardis with Susa, the capital of Persia. During the reign of King Croesus (560-546 BC) the city’s wealth and fame grew to legendary proportions with the discovery of gold in the river. His father, King Alyattes, is recognized as having minted and distributed the world’s first coins, and so Sardis has the distinction of being the place where modern currency was invented. As a result of the convergence of natural resources and its strategically beneficial geographic location, a culture of prosperity, ease of life, and self-sufficiency marked the city for over 2000 years. In 1402 AD near the end of the Byzantine era, Sardis was completely destroyed by the Muslim Mongol ruler Tamerlane and never rebuilt.

At the time of the writing of the Revelation letter to Sardis, the city of 100,000 people had both a strong Jewish and Christian presence. Tradition has it that the church there actually began through the preaching of the apostle John which gives added import to the letter he is dictating from the mouth of Jesus. Because a large community of Jews made their home in Sardis we can surmise that many of the early Christian converts were Jewish. The synagogue discovered there from the 4th Century AD is the largest ancient synagogue of the Jewish Diaspora. It is noteworthy that Jews inhabited Sardis dating all the way back to when it was the western most satrapy of the Persian Empire and Queen Esther, a Jewess, was the chosen wife of King Ahasuerus (478-465 BC). Her intervention to thwart the edict of the wicked Haman to exterminate all Jews in the empire secured the salvation of the Jews in Sardis as well (Esther 8:1-9:5). With the advent of Christianity the church in Sardis thrived well into the Byzantine era. A man by the name of Melito, known for his “Homily on the Passion” was a prominent bishop in Sardis in 2C AD. When some 27 Byzantine shops and their colonnade dated from the 4th C AD were excavated it was discovered that 6 of the shops were occupied by Jews and 10 by Christians indicating the enduring, if not growing prominence of people of those two faiths in the city.    

 In its long history, two major setbacks marked the psyche of the city in a way that, etched in its memory, may have been brought to mind with the Sardis letter’s stern warning of a surprise judgment from God if they failed to repent. Six hundred years earlier Sardis had been overthrow by the Persians in a strange twist of fate during the reign of King Croesus. The king and his army, blinded by wealth and ambition, became careless in the defense of their seemingly impregnable fortress when a soldier inadvertently exposed a secret entrance by retrieving a dropped helmet. It literally “opened the door” to the fall and capture of Sardis by King Cyrus. That led to centuries of subjugation, first by the Persians, then by the Greeks when it was conquered by Alexander the Great in 334 BC, and eventually by the Romans. The other tragic event that was very fresh in the minds of every inhabitant of Sardis was the devastating earthquake of 17 AD which leveled the city and the surrounding area including another seven churches city, Philadelphia. Only a huge Roman Empire financial investment during the reign of Tiberius made it possible for the rebuilding process and restored hope for the survivors.

Now, while keeping this important background information on Sardis in mind, here is an overview of their letter from the Book of Revelation with some explanatory comments (3:1-6 NIV). It follows the pattern and order used in all seven of the letters as outlined in the introductory blog post on the Letters to the Seven Churches.

  1. Revelation of Jesus– “These are the words of him who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars” (v. 1). This revelation of Jesus is taken from John’s description in chapter one, verses 4 and 16. The meaning of the “seven stars” is of course clear as it is stated they represent the seven churches. There has however been much conjecture as to the meaning of the “seven spirits before his throne” since the Bible makes it plain that there is just one Holy Spirit (1:4). The understanding I most resonate with is the view that the “seven spirits” are the seven attributes of the Holy Spirit as revealed in Isaiah 11:2. Prophesying of the anointing that will rest upon the Messiah it states “And the Spirit of (1) the LORD (Lordship) shall rest upon him, the Spirit of (2) wisdom and (3) understanding, the Spirit of (4) counsel and (5) might, the Spirit of (6) knowledge and the (7) fear of the LORD” (NIV). The acceptance of this view gives us insight into what it means through having a faith relationship with Jesus to live, move and have ones being in the fullness of the Holy Spirit (Acts 17:28). It brings a sense of completeness and the promise of the lack of no good thing when one considers that “God gives the Spirit without measure” (John 3:34 NIV). Sardis is not the only church that would do well to heed this revelation, as it is only by the Spirit of the living God that His plans and purposes are established (Zechariah 4:6). There must be an utter dependence upon the Lord through the power of the Holy Spirit for any church to walk in victory.
  2. Commendation– “Yet you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes. They will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy” (v. 4). Thank God, He always sees to it, even in the midst of great apostasy, that there is a holy remnant as in the days of Elijah “who have not bowed the knee to Baal” (Romans 11:4 NIV). His revelation of this brings great encouragement to those who feel they stand alone in the face of sinful compromise, and assurance they will have the company of others as they continue to walk with Jesus.
  3. Corrective Rebuke – “I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have found your deeds unfinished in the sight of my God”(vs. 1-2). This portrayal of a slumbering church at Sardis, relying upon past achievements which have long ago ceased, is sadly all too familiar throughout the Scriptures as it pertains to God’s people. The worldly temptations in Sardis because of its culture of prosperity and ease of life appears to have infiltrated the church in the city leading to its complacency and passivity with regards to the things of God. This corrective rebuke is a universal one, and reminiscent of Paul’s exhortation to the Ephesians “Wake up, sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you” (Ephesians 5:14 NIV).
  4. Predictive Warning or Counsel“Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; hold it fast, and repent. But 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” (v. 3). This sober warning of God’s surprise judgement, like a thief plundering a household when it least expects it, doubtless brought to mind the shock and terror accompanying the earthquake of 17 AD. History seems to indicate because of the longstanding Christian presence in Sardis, that at least for some, this warning did bring a spiritual awakening accompanied by change of heart and renewed dependence upon the Lord in serving Him without compromise.
  5. Overcomer’s Promise“The one who is victorious will, like them (those “who have not soiled their clothes” – v. 4), be dressed in white. I will never blot out the name of that person from the book of life, but will acknowledge that name before my Father and his angels. Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (vs. 5-6). The promise of having your name acknowledged “before the Father and his angels” reiterates the very words of Jesus during his earthly ministry to those who would confess and not deny His name (Luke 12:8-9, Matthew 10:32-33). It serves as an encouragement not only to those in Sardis, but to everyone who thinks of themselves as followers of Christ to fight through the temptation to deny His name, either verbally or through silent conformity when pressured to partake in ungodly behavior. It is noteworthy, that when God sees people like that, He gets out the indelible ink with which to write their name in the book of life. That is the one and only place, when all has been said and done, where every person should want to be sure their name is recorded. It determines our eternal destiny, so, as John is want to say at the end of each letter – “listen up!”

Be sure to check out the three and half minute video posted above which was filmed at Sardis for a first-hand look at this historic city. Stay tuned for more videos and blog posts on the remaining two churches of Revelation soon to follow!

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