The Church at Sardis: Part 3 of 5 (series: Lessons on Revelations)
by John Lowe
Our Lord fiercely condemned every outward appearance of religious activity not directed by the Holy Spirit. He warned those hypocrites who made their contributions “that they may have glory of men”; who said their prayers “that they may be seen of men”; and who “disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men too fast” (Matthew 6:2, 5, 16-18). Toward the end of His ministry, He said, “But all their works they do for to be seen of men” (Matthew 23:5). “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchers, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead man’s bones, and of all uncleanness. Even so ye also outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within ye are full of hypocrisy and iniquity” (Matthew 23:27-28). These are stinging remarks aimed at all hypocritical make-believe. The Lord is never deceived by the outward attractiveness of a well-kept mausoleum, knowing that on the inside there are the bones of a dead man. The sight of death is bad enough, but a corpse that is made to look alive is a ghastly, frightening spectacle.
From every one of us Jesus Christ is looking for something; and for every one of us, there is something to do.
3 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.
In verse three we have a series of necessities or commands.
• The Risen Christ says: “Remember how you received and heard the gospel.” It is important and necessary and it means: “keep on remembering; never allow yourself to forget.” The Risen Christ is telling the lethargic Sardinians to remember the thrill with which they first heard the good news. Forever and ever, the Christian must stand before the Cross and “remember” again what God has done for him.
However, it doesn’t end with remembering, for next, he says (obey it),” that is, obey the Christian truth they had heard when they had first believed in Christ—to get back to the basics of the faith and i.e., the gospel. They needed to return to the apostolic teaching that had changed their lives and once again make it their central focus. These believers had slipped away from that teaching into compromise with the world, so they would need to obey and repent. Only a change of heart could save them from punishment. That would mean taking God’s word seriously and purposefully obeying it. If they refused to and see what was happening to them, Christ “would come like a thief,” unexpectedly, as had the soldiers who had climbed the walls to capture the city gate. The soldiers had brought destruction; Christ would bring punishment, giving them what they deserved. In this context, the phrase refers not to the Second Coming (1 Thessalonians 5:2; 2 Peter 3:10), but to judgment.
• The Risen Christ says: “Repent!” This is a crucial command and describes one definite action. In the Christian life, there must be a decisive moment, when a man decides to be done with the old way and to begin on the new. Unless they “repent”, He will come to them as a judge—unknown, unlooked for, and unexpected. The Lord Jesus will come to the Church as the Morning Star. To Israel, He is the Sun of Righteousness. To the world and to professing Christendom, He will come in sudden surprise as “a thief in the night.”
• The Risen Christ says: “Keep the commands of the gospel.” Here again, we have an important command, indicating continuous action. It means: “Never stop keeping the commands of the gospel.”
• There is the command to watch. There is an old Latin saying that “the gods walk on feet that are wrapped in wool.” Their approach is silent and unobserved, until a man finds himself without warning facing eternity. But that cannot happen if every day a man lives in the presence of Christ; he who walks hand-in-hand with Christ cannot be taken unawares by his coming.
The coming of the Lord means different things to different people. The attitude one has toward this doctrine is a sure test of his spiritual condition. If I am like the “many” in Sardis, the announcement of His coming is one of terror. If I am of the “few,” the very thought of His appearing is like a lovely refrain to the soul. The “many” in Sardis desired to see His coming postpone, the “few” were living in the spirit of joyful expectation. This is a very real test of our spiritual condition. Every time the “few” in Sardis heard that Christ was coming again, they responded with the words,
“Even so, come, Lord Jesus.”
Christ does not come upon His waiting bride as a thief, but in such manner, He will come upon all apostates and the unregenerated. Paul wrote, “for yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so cometh as a thief in the night . . . But you, brethren, are not in darkness, that that day should overtake you as a thief” (1 Thessalonians 5:2, 4). The Thessalonian believers were witnessing, working, and waiting for God’s Son from Heaven (1 Thessalonians 1:9-10). Is the coming of the Lord your daily expectation? “Remember,” when He comes, it will be too late to “repent” of your deeds.
4 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.
In verse 4 there shines through the darkness a ray of hope. Even in “Sardis”, there are the faithful few, who kept themselves “unspotted from the world” (James 1:27). Here the church is told, “You have a few.” In Luke 12:32 the Lord called his church “little flock.” Now it is much easier to live for Christ when you are surrounded by honorable and godly Christian people. But the “few” in Sardis were the spiritual among the unspiritual, the sincere among the hypocrites, the humble among the proud, and the separated among the worldly. They were the saints who were leading pure, wholesome Christian lives in the midst of corruption. When Abraham is pleading with God for Sodom, he appeals to God: “to slay the righteous with the wicked, far be that from thee” (Genesis 18:25). God never abandons his search for the faithful few and they are never lost to his sight in the mass of the wicked.
The word “clothes” is used in a figurative sense. What clothes are to the body, so habits are to the real self. How we dress is important. It makes a difference whether our clothes are clean or dirty, whether they fit or do not fit, whether they become us or do not. Read our Lords parable of the wedding supper. When the king examined the guests and discovered there a man who did not have on a wedding garment, he ordered that man to be banished to outer darkness, and then He concluded the parable with the words, “For many are called, but few are chosen” (Matthew 22:11-14). It was the few in Sardis who were properly clothed.
“White” is always the color of Heaven. The redeemed of the Great Tribulation are seen wearing robes washed white (not a dull white, but glittering, dazzling white.) in the blood of the Lamb (7:14). Then there follows the white cloud (14:14); the white horse (19:11); the white horses (19:14), and finally the great white throne (20:11).
It is said of the faithful that they “have not soiled4
.” James spoke with respect and admiration of the man who kept himself “unstained from the world” (James 1:27). There are two possible pictures here.
• In the heathen world, no worshipper was allowed to approach a temple of the gods with soiled clothes. For the heathen this was an external thing; but this may describe the man who has kept his soul clean so that he can enter into the presence of God and not be ashamed.
• Someone said that the white garments stand for the profession a man made at baptism; and that the phrase described the man who had not broken his baptismal vows. At this stage in the Church’s history baptism was adult baptism, and a man took his personal pledge to Jesus Christ. This is still the more likely because it was common at baptism to clothe a man, after he had emerged from the water, in clean “white” robes, symbolic of the cleansing of his life. The man who is faithful to his pledge will, beyond a doubt someday hear God say: “WELL DONE!”
To those who have been true the promise is that “they will walk with God.” Again there is a double background.
• There may be a heathen background. At the Persian court, the kings most trusted favorites were given the privilege of walking in the royal gardens with the king and were called “The Companions of the Garden.” Those who have been true to God will someday walk with him in Paradise.
• There may be a reference to the old story of Enoch. “And Enoch walked with God and he was not; for God took him” (Genesis 5:24). Enoch walked with God on earth and continued to walk with Him in the heavenly places. The man whose walk with God is close on earth will enter into a nearer companionship with Him when the end of his life comes.