What comes to mind when you hear someone speak of a “dead church”? Do you think of a handful of elderly people in an older building meeting weekly to hear a dry, emotionless sermon?
When we consider this week’s church, we find a “dead church” can be filled with people and be the one that has a great reputation in town.
The important characteristics of an “alive” church, are not measured in the number who attend, the beauty of the building, or the reputation in the community. The important characteristic is: Are you living in the life giving presence of Christ? Are you abiding in the vine (Jesus) from whom all spiritual life flows?
The church of Sardis reminds us that like Samson, we can seem to be flourishing, and not even know that God, the source of true life, has left us.
This is a sobering and searching message to us today.
Astronomers tells us that the light from the Polar Star takes 33 years to reach us. That means that for all we know, the star may have burned out 20 years ago and we wouldn’t know it for another 13 years. It looks like it is alive, but it is dead. Looks are deceiving!
When Jesus introduces Himself as the one that hath the seven Spirits of God, He is referring to the fullness of the Holy Spirit. We know there is one Holy Spirit, here, and in Isaiah 11:2 it depicts the Holy Spirit’s seven fold ministry. A Jewish lampstand, or Menorah, had seven flames and was used as a symbol of the Holy Spirit, but there was one lampstand. This may have significance in that they were trusting in their human means instead of relying on the Holy Spirit’s power.
To understand more of Jesus’ message to Sardis, let us look at the city of Sardis. It was a city that sat on a 1500 foot high plateau. It was the capital of Lydia and founded around 1200 BC. The city was surrounded on three sides by steep cliffs and there was only one narrow road that led into the city. That made the city easy to defend, and because of this the inhabitants of the city sometimes became lax in their watching out for the enemy. It was this overconfidence that allowed the city to be taken twice. Once, an enemy soldier watched as a soldier of Sardis took a secret path down the side of one of the cliffs, and the enemy soldier was able to use that path, enter the city, and cast open the gates. Another time, the guards were caught sleeping, and the enemy invaded and overthrew the city. This makes the command of Jesus: “Be watchful!” even more appropriate. Your city was overthrown because you had become lax and sleepy in watching for the enemy, your church will die unless you wake up and watch out!
Sardis was a very rich city. The Greek historian Herodotus tells us that the Lydians were the first people to mint coins. During the reign of Croesus, the king became so rich that the phrase “As rich as Croesus” is still in use in some places today!
Their riches seemed to make them complacent, even lazy. They trusted in what their gold could do, and not in what God could do.
The phrase in verse 1 “Thou hast a name that thou livest…” refers to their reputation in Sardis. If you would come to that city and ask where to find a good Christian church, they would point you to this church. It had the reputation from the past of being a faithful Christian church. At this time, Jesus rebukes them because all that was left of their glorious past, was a reputation!
When a church first starts, there is usually near 100% involvement. There has to be since there are not very many people, the ones that do come have to step up to keep the church going.
This first stage would be called the MOVEMENT stage. People have a vision and are motivated to do something for Jesus and their community.
As the church grows, more people are added, things that couldn’t be afforded before are bought and there is what could be called a stage of MAGNIFICENCE. During this time, involvement dips to between 50-70%. Since there are more people, some begin to think that they can step back into the shadows and let someone else do the work, or service of the church.
As the church continues to move forward, systems and methods are set up to ensure the proper working of the church. The church enters what one man called the MACHINE stage. A great lumbering mechanism maintained by systems and checks. It is here that involvement dips again to around 20%.
Finally the church declines, involvement reaches levels of just 10%, and what was once a living, life giving movement, becomes just a MONUMENT of what it once was. A church in this stage is dead or near dead.
***While in the Philippines, I entered an ICU unit in a public hospital and was astounded that the artificial respirator, was a bag that another person had to squeeze to make sure the patient had each breath. Each breath required the visitor to squeeze the bag for the patient.
When we think of that in terms of a church, and in terms of reaching others, if we don’t squeeze the bag, someone will die! We must all be involved in fulfilling God’s command of going into all the world and making disciples. We must all be involved in telling them about Jesus!
The strange thing about Jesus’ message to this church is that we see no external enemy. There are no “depths of satan” there is no “Jezebel” or other false teachers named. It seems that the church of Sardis’ biggest and worst enemy was themselves!
This rings true of us today. For many in the church in America, do not face persecution, they are not forced to bow to Caesar or some other false god, but our chief and potent enemy is our luxury, our complacence, and our comfort which lulls us asleep.
Jesus calls us to be a marching army, sacrificing ourselves, our time, and our resources to take captive souls from the clutches of the enemy.
When in reality, many have become snoozing soldiers who are allowing the enemy to sneak into their city and throw open the gates to the world.
There was good news in Sardis. There were those, even in this sleepy, self-satisfied, near dead church, that had kept their garments white. They had not given in to the sin that surrounded them. They had learned to stay in the presence of Jesus! These, Jesus says, will one day walk with Him in white, for they are worthy.
It was to these that Jesus instructs to strengthen the things that remain. Get involved! If we don’t do something, it will die!
James tells us:
Let us pray the prayer of the Psalmist:
Jesus promised that those that overcame, would not be blotted out of the book of life. That shows us that it is possible to be blotted out, or the promise wouldn't mean anything.
What are some of the signs of a living church?
All living things are characterized by growth. As long as we are alive our bodies are growing, maturing, changing, when we stop growing, we are dead!
A living church is one that works in harmony one with another. Cancer is when cells in the body refuse to work with the other cells and actually begin attacking its own body. A living church has a harmoniously working body.
A living church feels joy, sorrow, elation, and sadness. We, like our Savior, can relate to what others are going through. Because we are alive, we laugh, cry, sigh, and sing.
The life in us leads to us moving. Dead bodies don’t move, but living bodies, and living churches are filled with action, doing things for Jesus, and serving one another.
Jesus final words to them could be summed up in four statements.
1. Revive! Strengthen the things that remain. They still had some things that had a spark of fire in them. Stir them up! Take action!
2. Remember! Look back at all the things that God has done for you, and where He has brought you from to fan the flames of love for Him again.
3. Resolve! Hold Fast…The church was to hold on tightly to the things that are still alive and not to let them die.
4. Repent! Change the way they are living. Get rid of the sin that was killing them.
1. One man has said that the fervency of our prayer life is one sign of the fervor of our spirituality. What other ways can we “take the pulse” of our spiritual life?
2. If involvement is one way to stay awake spiritually, what ways can you become more involved in the church?
3. We know that money is not the root of all evil, but the LOVE of money is. We are blessed with great prosperity in America. How can we make sure that this prosperity doesn’t dull us to the spiritual necessities in our community?
4. There is a promise to those that overcome, that they would not have their names blotted out of the book of life. What are some of the ways that those in the bible overcame? (Rev. 12:11, Rom. 12:21, 1 John 5:4-5)