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The church in Sardis had a great reputation. But despite their reputation, Jesus tells them that on the inside they’re dead and dying. Today we read Jesus’ letter to The Dead Church.
Revelation 3:1-6 (ESV)
3 “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.’
A few years ago I was doing some work on the pipes under the kitchen sink when a pipe snapped. It wasn’t a little plastic pipe either. It was an ancient metal pipe that was almost three inches in diameter. The pipe had done it’s job for a long time but had corroded so thin on the inside that it finally snapped clean in two. On the outside it looked fine. But the inside was a different story.
That was the church at Sardis. Jesus doesn’t have many words of praise for them. He says they have “works”. That is, they have been doing things in the name of Christ. People have seen these things. Perhaps they had been preaching and teaching the gospel. Perhaps they were bearing up under the weight of persecution. Maybe they were caring for the poor. Whatever it was, they were doing it. But behind the thin veneer of their outward deeds was a dead and dying faith. Jesus says…
“…I have not found your works compete in the sight of my God” (Revelation 3:2 ESV).
Why? Why were their works incomplete? They were doing good things. Why were their works incomplete?
It WASN’T because they needed to do more. I mean , just think of the thief who died on the cross next to Jesus. He had lived a life of crime. There at the end he came to trust in Jesus as his Savior. Just about the only thing this thief ever did in Jesus’ name was tell the guy on the other side to stop ridiculing Jesus. And yet, Jesus told this changed thief…
“Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43 ESV).
It wasn’t a truckload of good deeds that made this man acceptable to God. It was his simple faith in Jesus.
Or think of the poor widow whom Jesus saw at the temple. While rich people were pouring in their offerings at the offering box, she put in two little coins—the least valuable coins that there were. But Jesus told his disciples that in doing this, she had actually put in MORE than the rich.
It wasn’t the value of her coins that made her offering precious to God. It was her faith.
Jesus once said…
“24 Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life” (John 5:24 ESV).
Forgiveness can’t be earned by sinners. Forgiveness comes to us as a gift from Christ. Jesus let the punishment for our sins fall on him while he was on the cross. He suffered the hell our sins had earned. He paid our debt.
Our salvation is not about what we do, it is about what Christ did. We receive credit for what HE did, through faith in him. The apostle Paul explains…
“…what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness… …to the one who does not work but believes in [God] who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness…” (Romans 4:3,5 ESV).
You and I are not righteous. But through faith in the Righteous One, we are counted as righteous by God.
So why does Jesus say that the works of the Sardis church are incomplete? Why do their works even matter?
Whatever they were doing, it wasn’t being done out of love for Christ. Whatever they were doing, it wasn’t motivated by faith.
The problem that the church at Sardis faced was HYPOCRISY and EMPTY RELIGION. They were doing good things, but for all the wrong reasons. And while this may have fooled their neighbors, God reads the heart. He searches the inner motives.
Jesus told the woman at the well…
“24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:24-25 ESV).
Genuine worship comes from the heart and is directed at the true God. Anything less is hypocrisy and empty religion.
That’s why Jesus sharply rebuked the Pharisees of his day. The Pharisees said prayers, they gave gifts to the poor, they went to worship, they offered offerings to God, they even went across land and sea on mission trips—but everything they did was for other people to see. “Look at my generosity! Look at how religious I am! Look at how godly I am—and admire me!”
The Pharisee’s religion wasn’t about praising God. Their religion was about obtaining praise for themselves. Speaking to the Pharisees, Jesus once said…
“Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you:
8 “ ‘These people honor me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
9 They worship me in vain;
their teachings are merely human rules’”(Matthew 15:7-9 NIV).
And we do the same thing today. We see hypocrisy in other churches, that’s easy, but we also have it in our own as well. We even have it in our own hearts.
We say that we come here because we’re sinners who need a Savior more than anything. But then we keep our sins secret. We cover over our serious, ongoing struggles against sin. Those sins are too ugly for other people to see. We pretend like everything is fine at home, at work, in our hearts. We keep up appearances without really dealing with our sins and the problems they create. Better to keep it a secret. Better to put on the mask. Wouldn’t want anyone to know the truth. Then they’d think less of us. Then they’d know we really are sinners who desperately need a Savior.
We say that the Gospel is precious to us. But how many times don’t we treat our church like it’s a chore. “Ugh, gotta write another sermon for this Sunday. Ugh, gotta teach Sunday School. Ugh, gotta clean again. Ugh, let’s hurry up and get church out of the way so we can do what really want to do.”
Or how much hypocrisy do we show in our daily lives? How many double standards do we hold? “This is the Christian me, and this is the every day me.”
In the book of James it says…
“9 With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. 10 Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be” (James 3:9-11 NIV).
No, it shouldn’t. It’s hypocrisy.
Martin Luther once wrote…
“When our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, says “Repent ye,” etc., he means that the entire life of the faithful should be a repentance” (The Ninety-Five Theses, theses 1, Martin Luther).
Are we living lives of repentance? Lives in which we genuinely ask ourselves, “Why am I doing this? Is this to help people see the glory of Jesus? Or is this for some lesser reason”. When our acts of worship aren’t done for God, aren’t done out of love for him, aren’t done out of faith in him, they are dead worship. God give us the strength and wisdom and grace to cut the hypocrisy out of our hearts. Help us Holy Spirit.
That’s what the church at Sardis had to do. Jesus told them that there was some strength left among them, but it was about to die. And then Jesus told them what to do. He says, first of all you need to REMEMBER.
Remember the GOSPEL that you received and heard.
We don’t know a lot about the demographics of the church at Sardis. Were there a lot of Jewish Christians? Were there a lot of Gentile Christians? We don’t know. But we can still imagine what it was like for them to hear the Gospel for the first time. Because the Gospel was like nothing else the world had ever seen. The pagan churches taught that you had to somehow appease God by your offerings. The Jewish church taught the same. It was all on YOU.
But then along came a different Message. A story about how this whole salvation thing REALLY works. God’s plan for salvation. The eternal God decided to become human. And not just to play around. He came to live like we live. He came to be a son, a brother, a kid, a teenager, an adult. He came to live like we do—but better, without sinning even once. And he did this so that he would be able to BE a pure sacrifice for our sins.
This God-Man then allowed himself to be disrespected, arrested, beaten, crucified, taunted, murdered. He even accepted the wrath of God as it was poured out on him while he hung on the cross. He endured all this to erase your sins—forever. And after three days in a tomb, God the Father raised him from the dead to show that it was true.
This is the message the people at Sardis had heard, and believed.
It was astounding to them. Everything wiped clean off their souls without a penny being paid by them. This was the power of Christ, this IS the power of the Gospel. This was what the Dead Church needed to remember.
Jesus told a couple of parables to illustrate what our attitude toward the Gospel should be. They’re super short, so I’ll read ‘em now.
“44 “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.
45 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, 46 who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it” (Matthew 13:44-47 ESV).
I recently learned an interesting fact about the California gold rush. The largest nugget found at that time weighed about 195 pounds. It was about the size of a kangaroo. What would you do if you found that out at the local pumpkin patch? You’d cover it up, sell everything you had, take out a big loan, and try to get buy that pumpkin patch!
That’s how we need to treat the Gospel. It’s free, but it’s not common. It didn’t cost US anything, but it cost GOD dearly. We need to hover over the Gospel and cherish it. Study it. Memorize it. Love it. Guard it. Protect it.
A great big gold nugget would be our ticket out of debt and work, but the Gospel is our ticket out of sin and hell. The Gospel is our ticket to eternal peace, rest, and joy with God.
Jesus tells the dead church of Sardis to REMEMBER the Gospel, to KEEP it as a treasure, and to REPENT.
“Repent” just means to “change your mind”, that is, “turn around and go in the right direction”. Away from hypocrisy. Away from empty religion. Away from deeds done merely for others to see. Start living for the God who saved you!
With each of these letters, Jesus ends in the same way. To the people in the congregation who were holding on to Christ as their Savior, to them he holds out a comforting promise.
In this letter he says that those who “conquer”, that is, those who trust in Jesus as their Savior to the very end, will be clothed in white. The image there is pretty easy to understand. White is a symbol of purity. In heaven we’ll have no more sinful heart to battle, no sinful record to explain. Because of Christ we’ll walk in the white garments of God’s righteousness.
Jesus promises those who trust in him that he’ll never blot their names out of the book of live. The book of life is the guest list for eternal paradise. If your name is on it—you get in, if not—you don’t. Jesus promises that in heaven there will be no blotting our name out. We’ll be God’s people forever.
And the last promise is the best. Jesus says he’ll confess the faithful Christian’s name before God the Father and all the angels. Just imagine this scene. You’re standing in the crowd before God’s throne. The judgment is going on. One by one the people stand before God and receive what they deserve.
But then your name is heard. And Jesus is motioning with his hand. He’s motioning to you. “Come up here,” he says, “There’s someone I want you to meet. This is my Father. Father I want you to meet one of my dearly loved friends.”
If we hold onto our faith in him, Jesus is going to confess our names before the Father and all his angels. That’s a promise worth clinging to. Who cares what other people think in this world. Who cares what our reputation is here, if Jesus is going to speak up for us in heaven.
Prayer: Lord Jesus, sometimes we’re fools. Sometimes we value what others think of us instead of what you do. Sometimes we lie by our words, and other times by our expressions, and by the things we do. We pretend. We’re hypocrites. But we believe in you. We trust in you. We know that you took all our sin away on the cross. Help us to cherish your gift to us, and as we cherish forgiveness and the peace it brings us, destroy all hypocrisy in us. Make us transparent. Open. Honest. Loving. Godly. By faith you, Lord Jesus, we are spiritually alive. Strengthen our faith that we may never die. And make our works complete, because they flow from a heart of faith in you. Amen.