In the book of Revelation there are letters to seven churches. In my most recent reading of Revelation one of these letters stood out as something rather scary. The words of Jesus to the church must be heeded as they apply to many in the church in Australia today. The words of Jesus which I believe are most relevant at the moment in the Australian church are the ones addressed to the church in Sardis.
Revelation 3:1 “And to the angel of the church in Sardis write: ‘The words of him who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. “‘I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead. 2 Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God. 3 Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it, and repent. If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you. 4 Yet you have still a few names in Sardis, people who have not soiled their garments, and they will walk with me in white, for they are worthy. 5 The one who conquers will be clothed thus in white garments, and I will never blot his name out of the book of life. I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels. 6 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’
Unlike most of the seven letters in Revelation, this letter begins with a rebuke rather than a commendation. When Jesus comes to speak to the church with a word of rebuke then our response must be to take notice of that and look for the path of repentance. But before we can come to a place of repentance, we first need to understand what Jesus is saying and how that applies to what is happening in the church in 21st century Australia. So let us work our way through the letter carefully, beginning with the greeting.
3:1 “And to the angel of the church in Sardis write: ‘The words of him who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars.”
The words with which Jesus describes himself to the church in Sardis are important, because they provide for us something which helps to interpret the rest of Jesus’ words in the letter. Firstly, Jesus is the one who has the seven spirits of God. This most likely refers to the Holy Spirit. The seven-fold Spirit is described in Isaiah 11:2 “And the Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.” In Rev 5:6 Jesus is described as one “with seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth.” The seven horns represent his divine omnipotence, the seven eyes mean his divine omniscience, and the seven spirits of God are the means by which Jesus both works sovereignly in the world and sees and knows all which happens there. In Rev 3:1 Jesus is also described as the one who holds the seven stars. The seven stars are explained in Rev 1:20 – “the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches.” Many commentators equate the angels of the seven churches with the elders of the churches. Importantly, the opening words of Jesus give the clear message that Jesus is sovereignly aware of what is truly happening in the churches over whom he is Lord. He is not fooled by appearances.
The first words of Jesus to the church in Sardis are: “I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God.” In years gone by I have been taught in some Pentecostal churches that this statement is about the need to be more passionate in worship or more enthusiastic in the Christian life. I think these ideas are somewhat foreign to the biblical text. Alive and dead have meanings which should be derived from the book itself, rather than from our own cultural experiences. In the book of Revelation “alive” is something attributed to God the Father or to the Lamb. God the Father is also said to be the one who lives forever (Rev 4:9-10; 10:6; 15:7) because he is the living God (Rev 7:2). Jesus is the one who died and is now alive forever (Rev 1:18; 2:8). Those who are faithful to Jesus will live although they have died (Rev 20:4-5). The dead will be judged (Rev 11:18), but the saints will be found in the book of life (Rev 20:12). What all this means is that life is properly attributed to God, to the Lamb and to those who are faithful to Jesus. Death is the ultimate fate of those who are not faithful to Jesus. The saints may die but they will come to life again forever. The proper order for followers of Jesus is death and then life, just as Jesus died and came to life. But what was happening in the church at Sardis is that the church was going from being alive to being dead. Instead of being alive in Christ they were actually dead and therefore heading for judgement.
Just in case the notion that judgement was coming on the church in Sardis is not clear, Jesus then tells them: “Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it, and repent. If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you.” The imagery of being watchful because Jesus is coming like a thief is present in several places in the Bible. It is found first in Matthew 24:42-43: “Therefore, stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But know this, that if the master of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into.” This passage is part of a series of parables about the eschatological coming of Jesus. The one who is not watchful will be cut to pieces and assigned a place with the hypocrites where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matt 24:51). The metaphor of the thief catching people unawares referring to the coming of Jesus is used again in 1 Thess 5:2-4 and 2 Pet 3:10. It is also revisited in Revelation 16:15 – “Behold, I am coming like a thief! Blessed is the one who stays awake, keeping his garments on, that he may not go about naked and be seen exposed!” This final passage suggests that those who are not watchful will be ashamed on the day of the Lord, because they will have nothing to cover their sins.
The metaphor of the thief is strengthened by Jesus’ statement “you will not know what hour I will come against you.” In every instance except one in Revelation, “hour” is used in relation to judgement (Rev 3:3; 9:15; 11:13; 14:7, 15; 18:10, 17, 19). The hour when Jesus comes will be an hour of judgement. The conclusion is that Jesus is warning the church in Sardis that he will come to them in judgement if they do not repent. This is a scary statement. It also seems somewhat contrary to grace. Aren’t we under grace and justified by faith? Yes. But there is no guarantee that being a part of the church is the same as being united to Christ by faith.
There is a contrast in the letter between those to whom Jesus says, “I have not found your deeds complete in the sight of my God” and those “who have not soiled their garments”. Some in the church are not truly united to Christ and acceptable in him. But some are. Those who have not soiled their clothes will walk with Jesus and will not have their names blotted out of the book of life. Jesus will confess their names before the Father because he is not ashamed of them. The implication is that those who deeds are not complete will NOT walk with Jesus and they WILL have their names blotted out of the book of life. Jesus WILL be ashamed of them. In other words, those whose deeds are not complete will not be saved, but rather judged. Jesus will come against them.
It is scary that Jesus will come in judgement against his own church. But there is no value in merely being scared as such, if that fear does not lead to repentance. What is necessary is to heed the words of Jesus. “Remember, then, what you have received and heard. Keep it, and repent.” In order to obey these words of Jesus, it is first necessary to understand what is meant by the statement “I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God.” To begin with the works which are commended in Revelation are “your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them false” (Rev 2:2); “you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate” (Rev 2:6); “your love and faith and service and patient endurance, and that your latter works exceed the first” (Rev 2:19); “the one who conquers and who keeps [Jesus]’ works until the end” (Rev 2:26); “you have kept [Jesus’] word and not denied [Jesus’] name” (Rev 3:8). On the other hand some of the churches are not commended. In Ephesus they did not do the works they had done at first (Rev 2:5); in Thyatira the church tolerated a false prophetess and must repent of her works (Rev 2:20-22); and the church in Laodicea had works which were neither hot nor cold (Rev 3:15). Those outside the church are condemned because they refused to repent of their deeds (Rev 9:20; 16:11; 18:6). The conclusion is that there are godly deeds which are commendable because they are in accordance with the will of Jesus for his church and there are deeds which are unacceptable to Jesus because they are based on false, idolatrous beliefs. The unacceptable deeds align the church with the godless, who are unrepentant of their deeds.
What makes deeds complete? I could find no parallels in Revelation so to explain this statement I looked elsewhere. The word translated “complete” (plēroō) can mean “fill” or “fulfil” in other passages. The Pharisees were told to “fill up the measure of their fathers” (Matt 23:32), which in its context suggests that they would also shed the blood of a prophet as their fathers had done. People may be filled with unrighteousness (Rom 1:28-29) or be filled with the fruit of righteousness (Phil 1:11). Christians are to be filled with the Spirit (Eph 5:18) and filled with the fullness of God (Eph 3:19), and we are filled or made complete in Christ (Col 2:10). Those who walk according to the Spirit fulfil the law (Rom 8:4) and the law is fulfilled by love (Rom 13:8; Gal 5:14). We should be filled with the knowledge of God’s will (Col 1:9). Paul was called to make the word of God fully known (Col 1:25) and he fulfilled this ministry by the power of the Spirit (Rom 15:19). My conclusion is that to be complete deeds must be deeds of righteousness, reflecting the fullness of God through the Spirit. Love is necessary in every deed and this is made possible by the Spirit. The fact that Jesus began with a statement about how he holds the seven spirits suggests that the church at Sardis were not living according to the Spirit.
The church in Sardis, then, was acting like the godless world around them. Instead of being alive by being like the living Jesus and the living God, they are dead like the godless world. Their deeds are not complete because their deeds are far too close to the deeds of the godless world. In Revelation the division between the church and the world is quite clear. You are either in one or the other camp, either heading for judgement and eternal punishment or following the Lamb and heading for eternal joy in the presence of God. But the church at Sardis was perilously close to the world. They were dead, that is on the side of judgement. One commentator put it like this: “Like so many churches today it was defiled by the world, characterised by inward decay and populated by unredeemed people playing church.”
The church in Sardis, or parts of it, was dead and facing immanent judgement, but this is not the end of the story. Jesus was not content with this state of affairs and he spoke a word which gave the church an opportunity to change. He says: “Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God. Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it, and repent” (Rev 3:2-3). Wake up might be better understood as being watchful. It is used in contexts where people are told to be watchful for the coming of Jesus (parables in Matt 24 and 25, also Mark 13 and Luke 12). It is also used of being watchful in prayer (Matt 26:38-41; Col 4:2). The Ephesian elders were told by Paul to be watchful, because people will come into the church and distort the truth (Acts 20:30-31). Paul’s final words to the Corinthians include the words: “Be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong” (1 Cor 16:13). Elsewhere “be watchful” is connected with being sober-minded (1 Thess 5:6; 1 Pet 5:8). The church needed to be watchful and aware. They were unaware that they had become so acclimatised to the pagan culture that there was no difference between the church and the pagans. The commendation of some in verse 4, “Yet you have still a few names in Sardis, people who have not soiled their garments, and they will walk with me in white, for they are worthy” makes it quite clear that the rest of the church had soiled their garments. In other words, they had become polluted by compromise with the pagan culture.
Jesus commanded the church in Sardis to “strengthen what remains and is about to die”. Grammatically, the most likely thing which this refers to is their works. Their works were not complete so they needed to strengthen their works. This is not so much about working harder as doing works which were in accord with the Spirit rather than the flesh. Anything which is not done in the Spirit is a worthless work. Witness to Jesus is not a matter of looking good but a matter of being faithful to the truth of the gospel. If we imagine that having a façade of wonderful life will bring people to Jesus we are mistaken. This happy façade of excitement and enthusiasm and looking like people who have it all is simply a concession to cultural expectations. Instead as we follow Jesus there must be a willingness to suffer for our obedience to the gospel. The saying “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church” (Tertullian) is an indication that people are drawn to the reality of the gospel when Christians have a message for which they are willing to die. That kind of message is powerful. A message which is so accommodated to worldliness may have an outward appearance of being effective, but it has no possibility of being transformative.
The purpose of the letter from Jesus to the church in Sardis is not to condemn the church but to bring the people to repentance so that they might live. They looked alive, but were really dead. However, because Jesus is the sovereign one who has the seven spirits of God who go out into all the earth he knows the truth. And he is not content to allow the situation to continue. Therefore the church is told to remember what they had received and heard. Keep it, and repent.” What had they received and heard? This must be a reference to the gospel. But the way this sentence is expressed in Greek might be better translated “remember how you received and heard.” This brings to mind the parable of the sower. The seed sown is the word and that word is received in different ways. Some forget all about the word the minute they hear it (Mark 4:15). Others receive the word with joy but abandon it when things get difficult (Mark 4:16-17). A third group of people hear the word and begin to grow until they become more concerned with wealth and the desire to do something else (Mark 4:18-9). Finally, the last group of people receive the word and obey it and bear a crop (Mark 4:20). It is not simply a matter of hearing the gospel but a matter of how that word about Jesus is received and obeyed. Being a disciple of Christ involves persevering through trials, consistent obedience to Jesus, and not getting caught up in worldliness.
But how does this all apply to the church in Australia? I believe that Jesus is saying the same thing to the church in Australia today. “I have not found your deeds complete in the sight of my God.” Jesus will come to judge many in the Australian church because they are dead, even though they seem to be alive. What I am saying is that I believe that there are many people attending church on Sunday who are actually unredeemed, yet they do not know it. This scares me and troubles me greatly.
Let me tell you about a church that I visited recently. This church is committed to making sure that people are entertained on Sunday morning. There was a lot of talk about how exciting things were in church and in the youth ministry. Everything about church was exciting. The music was professional, loud, and full of enthusiasm. Even the church announcements were given in a well orchestrated video presentation. Church activities outside of Sunday were intended to draw people into church by their entertainment value. The goal appeared to be to make sure that people enjoyed church. However, there was very little biblical content. At the end of the day there was little biblical instruction, little preaching of Christ. The church is left ignorant of the Bible, ignorant of Christian teaching and doctrine, and ignorant of the demands of being a disciple of Christ. It is quite possible to attend a church like this for years without ever being instructed in the truth about Christ.
The church at Sardis seems to have fallen into a place of being indistinguishable from the world around them. They appeared to be full of life but really they were dead in their sins. My concern is that many people in the church in Perth are also in that place. Churches so often appear to be full of life. There are many people present on Sundays. There is lots of activity during the week with lots of programs going on. Pastors are busy doing this and that. The people are always eager to go to church because there will be something new and exciting to see and hear. Sermons are preached with great sounding wisdom about how to live life, how to have a happy marriage, or how to manage your finances. There are not too many demands made on anyone.
But what about Christian discipleship? Many people go to church week after week and the demands of obedience to the gospel are never proclaimed. Someone may be asked to pray a sinner’s prayer, but never told that they must obey Jesus as Lord. I recall one instance in church where a group of people were told that they should accept Jesus as Saviour and one day make him Lord. This is actually making Jesus nothing more than fire insurance. Pray a sinner’s prayer and get a free ticket out of hell. Then get on with the business of life with a nice motivational speech on Sunday morning along with some entertainment in the form of a band and some creative filming. The Christian life is reduced to entertainment, excitement and happy thoughts. I am scared for these people because the day will come when Jesus appears as King of Kings and Lord of Lords. What will become of these supposed Christians when they must give account of themselves? Is going to church and being entertained the same thing as taking up your cross and following Jesus?
A large percentage of Australian Christians do not read the Bible on a regular basis. This is not merely a symptom of an age in which print media is being phased out. It is a symptom of a lack of spiritual hunger. Instead of sustained Bible reading and seeking God in prayer, much of the church has substituted a happy message on Sunday and some exciting songs played by a band. We can buy the CD and imagine that this will help our relationship with God. But where is the deep spiritual hunger for the living God? Where is the hunger and thirst for righteousness? Where is a desire to do the will of God no matter what the cost? Where these things are lacking in the church we must question whether the church is like Sardis, that is, dead while appearing to be alive.
So what of the church in Perth, or the church in Australia? In what way do we need to repent? Is the church so influenced by the culture around us that we are indistinguishable from the world? The church must be in the world in order to be salt and light to the Australian culture. Yet we must be careful that we are not of the world. My sense is that there are some places in which the gospel has been watered down in an effort to make people so comfortable that they will come in to church. I have experienced a church where this philosophy of church reigned. There is a line between making people welcome and making people so comfortable with church that no demands are ever placed on people by a true proclamation of the gospel of Christ. And if the demands of the gospel are not proclaimed then salvation is unlikely to result. Week by week people can be present in church, singing songs, enjoying the band, being entertained. This may look like being a Christian, but it falls short of being a disciple of Christ.
What is it then to be a disciple of Christ? An example from the Gospel of John will demonstrate how Jesus was concerned with disciples rather than great crowds of people. In John 6:1-13 Jesus feeds the five thousand. After this event Jesus crossed Lake Galilee and crowds of people followed him (vv 16-24). But Jesus said to them “I tell you the truth, you are looking for me, not because you saw miraculous signs but because you ate the loaves and had your fill” (v 26). In other words the people were not following Jesus because they perceived that he is the Messiah and in him the Kingdom of God had come. Rather they were following him for the free food. As John 6 goes on Jesus tells the crowd that he is the bread from heaven and that only those who eat his flesh and drink his blood will have life (vv 32-59). This saying offended many people and so “from this time on many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him” (v 66). Jesus was not interested in gathering great crowds to himself as if having a large number of people as followers was the goal. He desired followers who would be genuine and accept the demands of discipleship.
The question for the church in Australia which comes out of the letter to the church in Sardis is this: are we happy to acclimatise ourselves to the pagan culture of Australia so much that we are indistinguishable from the pagans? Does the church prefer to collect as many people within its walls as possible without faithfully proclaiming the demands of discipleship? If we set out to make people comfortable in church by providing happy thoughts and entertainment each week are we lulling people into believing that they are alive when in fact they are still dead in their sins? Where do you and I stand in relation to the gospel? Is the gospel of Jesus an offence to us? Is the gospel which is proclaimed in church so denuded of offence that it is no longer the gospel at all?
 John MacArthur Revelation 1-11 MacArthur NT Commentary p 111.