3 ‘To the angel of the church in Sardis write: These are the words of him who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead. 2 Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have found your deeds unfinished in the sight of my God. 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. 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. 5 The one who is victorious will, like them, 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. 6 Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
Key OT/NT passages on how this passage fits within the Bible story as a whole
Jesus promised in his earthly ministry that he would come like a thief in the night. His servants need to be awake, working at the mission he’s given them and watching for him. (Matthew 24:43, also 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11). Jesus reaffirms this in this letter.
From the time of Daniel’s prophecy, God’s people were expecting great and powerful rulers to intensely persecute them. (Daniel 11-12). Those who were written in the book of life would resist and be made pure during this time of resistance (11:35, 12:10). Ultimately, they would be delivered (12:1). The author of Revelation re-applies the imagery of those prophecies to those worthy in Sardis, and all in churches now who take the reassurances they’re given to heart. Christ will return and he will deliver his people who persevere and maintain faith in his word when under pressure. 3:5 alludes to Luke 12:8 and Matthew 10:32 – men and women who are not afraid of those who can kill but instead acknowledge Jesus will be acknowledged by him.
Brief note on key themes of book
The book of Revelation is written by John to the suffering church (Revelation 1:9) under the Roman Emperor Domitian (81-96AD). It is an epistle (Revelation 1:4), about the gospel of Jesus Christ (Revelation 1:6), founded on the sovereignty of God (Revelation 1:7-8). Having presented us with a picture of Jesus in all his glory (Revelation chapters 1-3), it shows us a glimpse of heaven (Revelation chapters 4-5) and the way in which the lamb deals with God’s wrath. What follows is a series of overlapping picture that take us through from the present age to the return of Christ (chapters 6-7, 8-11, 12-14, 15-16, 17-18, 19 and 20). The final vision shows the New Jerusalem – Eden exceeded, and the temple fulfilled (chapters 21-22). This glimpse of heaven (‘Revelation’ literally means ‘an unveiling’) has a pastoral purpose. It is to show the suffering church that whatever is going on, God is on the throne, and is bringing everything to an end – his people, cared for by the risen Lord Jesus, will be safe.
Brief notes on the immediate context of the passage, and how we should apply it today:
This is the 5th of seven letters to seven Turkish churches that Jesus is ‘sending’ through John’s prophecy. The letters are addressed to individual churches and yet are to be heard by all the churches (3:6). As a result, these letters aren’t just giving each church an individual appraisal of what Jesus thinks of it. They’re not even just giving individualised instructions on what each church uniquely needs to do and not do in order to keep going until the end. Jesus is giving all 7 churches a composite picture of what is important to Jesus and what should matter to them. Jesus shows them what all 7 local churches – and all churches for all time - need to keep caring about so that they will last until the end.
Structure of the passage
The letter to Sardis in Revelation 3:1-6, like each of the letters to the seven churches, contains seven main elements, but the fourth element contains some variation from the usual pattern.
a command to write to the church’s angel (v1)
Christ’s self-description (v1 – him who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars’)
Christ’s knowledge of the church (v1 – I know your deeds)
A commendation and/or rebuke (v1 – A rebuke: despite your reputation you’re dead.
A command/warning to repent or persevere: Repent: (v2-3 – the church needs to wake up and strengthen what is there. This will look like holding fast to what they have received and repenting where they have not done so in order to finish the deeds God sees and cares about. If they do not, Jesus will come against them.).
A promise for those who are victorious (v4-5 – there is also a reassurance – Jesus knows and cares for those few within the church who have been persevering with faith and testifying to him and they will walk with him at his return. Whoever is like the ‘few people’ there who are worthy will be acknowledged by God).
A call to hear the Spirit’s message (v6 – whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches).
Jesus’ introduces himself as the one who has divine authority (he holds the seven-spirits of God) and intimate knowledge of his churches (he holds the seven stars, revealed in 1:20 to be the ‘angels’ or ‘messenger-leaders’ representing the local church). What he has to say to them will be both utterly reliable and deeply relevant and needs to be heard by every church (v6). Jesus wants us to know that the church that lasts is the church that stays alert (the controlling ‘Wake up!’ command of v2). Specifically, the local church that lasts will:
1) Stay alert to our continuing mission (v1-3a)
Jesus cares about the mission (deeds) of the church. (v1) A church is meant to continue in faith and love, worked out in persevering service. But despite its reputation for being alive to this mission, the church in Sardis is dead. A good reputation can take a church’s eyes of its mission and lead to it falling into a coma of complacency. Jesus wants the church to come alert – to wake up to – the mission they’ve been given by God. It is a mission that is unfinished (v2) because a church can always keep growing in faith, love and service until Jesus returns or brings that church’s time to an end. We are not Sardis, and are not described as dead like them, so the message for us is stay alert to our mission and have a ‘growth mindset’. As we actively reflect on each part of Trinity’s work, we should ask: are we displaying the faith, love and service that God would want to see in this area? Where we can see room for growth, we should follow the commands of Jesus in v2-3: strengthening the areas where faith, love and service are already displayed in our church, remembering and holding fast to the gospel of grace and repenting where we need to.
2) Stay alert to our coming future (v3b-5)
As well as being alert to our continuing mission, this letter reveals that God wants a local church to be alert to its coming future. That means being a church that responds to the warning of v3b. Jesus will come back at any moment, and a church that has not stayed alert to its mission of lasting and growing love, faith and service will be judged by him. Just as the apparently impregnable city of Sardis would not have fallen to attack if its defenders had been alert, a church will not find Jesus coming against them if it takes this warning seriously. Real churches respond to real warnings. The church that knows Jesus can come as judge will stay alert. Such an alert church will also be made up of believers who stay alert to the reassurance Jesus offers in v4-5. Those who continue to trust that Jesus has saved them and persevere under pressure can be confident he already finds them worthy. Though they may face hostility, their name is secure in God’s book of life. Though they may feel forgotten, they will be acknowledged by Jesus in the end.
Suggestions for any tricky bits?
Who are the seven Spirits of God?
This name is also used in 1:4 in the introduction of the letter, and may mean seven-fold Spirit. Either way, the number 7 in the book of Revelation means complete and full, and so this is a figurative description of the one Holy Spirit of v6. He has complete knowledge of all 7 churches (in 5:6 the ‘seven Spirits’ are described as Jesus’ eyes in the world) and so speaks to all 7 churches authoritatively (v6). The point is that the ‘seven-spirits’ are held by Jesus, and so his words to the churches come with complete knowledge and authority.
Who are the seven-stars?
1:20 identifies the seven stars as the seven ‘angels’ of the seven churches. It’s not 100% clear what the ‘angels’ represent – they may signify (1) the heavenly angels who protect the church, or (2) the human leaders of the church, or (3) the personality of the church itself. Commentators differ as to which is the most likely. All have their problems, but because human beings can be ‘angels’ or ‘messengers’ (see Luke 7:24 and 9:52), and human leaders are the most natural recipients of the letters, this seems the most likely. Either way, these ‘stars’ represent the churches. Jesus holds the churches’ representatives in his hands, which means that he can protect or judge his church, and he knows their true identity.
What are the deeds?
It doesn’t say in this passage, but the earlier letters are helpful. 2:19 unpacks ‘deeds’ as meaning love and faith, service and perseverance. This isn’t about activity. It’s about a heart of trust in God and affection for him and each other that can be seen in a communal life of lasting service. This is the mission they have been given to complete in God-eyes (v2) and Jesus is alert to whether a church is like this.
How can they be both dead and about to die?
Jesus is using two different but related images to make two different but related points. In contrast to their reputation for being alive (in terms of love, faith, service and perseverance), Jesus knows the truth. The church is the very opposite of that. The church has stopped growing in love, faith, service and perseverance – it might as well be dead. Jesus wants the church to know how dangerous its situation is. But he also wants them to know there is hope! He’s rebuking them so that they change, not declaring a final judgement. If the church becomes alert to its mission and strengthens those ‘deeds’ which God approves of among them, they can come out of their coma of complacency and be what they are meant to be.
Do we have to earn our place with Jesus (e.g. be worthy v4?)
Its important to note that Jesus declares them worthy in the present because they have not soiled their clothes. These are the clothes of righteousness that Jesus has already given them, equivalent to the white robes they’ll wear in the future that mark them as being washed in the blood of Jesus (7:9, 13). They are worthy because Christ has made them worthy by cleaning them of their sin through his death on the cross. The point is that they have persevered in holding onto their faith when under pressure. They have done nothing to ‘soil’ the worthiness they have been given because they have kept holding on to faith in Jesus’ death and victory and have not denied him. The worthy are simply those saved by Christ who are persevering in faith.
What’s all this about being dressed in white?
See the above answer. It is a mark of being washed in the blood of Jesus, being made right – or clean- with God through his self-giving death on the cross. It also denotes victory and celebration, appropriate for those who will see Jesus’ glorious return and enjoy close fellowship with him (e.g. walk with him) in the lasting goodness of the new creation.
Am I one of the few, or one of the dead?
For those of us with a more tender conscience this is an understandable question to ask. But it’s the wrong question! We are not the church in Sardis, which was close to death in a complacent coma. Our church is not characterised as only having a ‘few’ who have continued to hold onto the faith and persevered in hostility. For us, this letter pushes the importance of us staying alert to our mission and future. It isn’t saying we’ve failed to do so. However, even if we were like Sardis, this letter is a gracious warning with a gracious promise. Although Jesus notes that there are ‘a few’ in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes he goes on to say that ‘the one who is victorious’ will be ‘like’ those few, dressed in white robes. Even in Sardis the expectation is that the few will not be alone, others will also be victorious as a result of heeding this letter. Real Christians will listen to the real warnings in this letter. They will find reassurance as they repent of any lack of growth in faith and love and hold tighter to Jesus’ words. They can be confident that because they persevere in faith they will be victorious.
Will Jesus blot out unworthy names from the book of life? (v5)
The passage doesn’t say anything about blotting out names. It reassures those whose life on earth may be in danger from human hostility that their life with God cannot be blotted out. Their names are known. Those who follow Christ have been in the book from before creation (17:8) and their eternal life in the new creation with Jesus is utterly secure.
Summary of author’s main point
Jesus cares about his church continuing in deeds of faith, love and service. Churches will persevere when they are watching for his return and looking for his acknowledgement.
Purpose for original audience
Don’t value your reputation with others. Instead, persevere in your mission because he will return to acknowledge those who do and punish those who don’t.
Purpose for us today
A living church cares about its God-given mission, not its reputation: stay alert to this current mission and focus on Jesus’ future verdict.
Key area of application
To the whole church:
Are we alert to our mission as church?
Ask these four questions of any area of our church life (whether preaching and teaching, hospitality, evangelism etc.). They are taken from Jesus’ commands in v2-3.
1) In this area, are we displaying the faith, love and service that God wants to see?
2) How can we strengthen the signs of faith, love and service that remain?
3) What aspect of the gospel do we need to remember and hold onto to keep growing?
4) What might we need to repent of?
Are we alert to our future as a church?
If Jesus was to return in 10 seconds what would he make of Trinity? Are we making decisions now on the basis of his future verdict?
To individual Christians:
However alone or forgotten you feel, if you believe in Jesus despite the pressures of the world, know that Jesus knows your name, counts you worthy and will acknowledge you in front of the heavenly audience. Be reassured and keep persevering until he returns.
To sceptics & explorers:
Do you realise that Jesus’ return is more certain than anything else? Test yourself, if he was returning in 10 seconds how would you feel about that? Why?