In this fifth of the seven letters, Jesus teaches us what it means for a church to be “dead” in His eyes; and He teaches us what needs to be done about it. It describes a condition that many churches today can be found in; particularly churches with a long history. Such churches are living a lie. They have a reputation of being living, vital churches that large numbers of people flock to; while, in reality are spiritually dead and unresponsive in the eyes of God. Any church is in danger of falling into this condition.
I. THE CONDITION (v. 1).
A. Sardis was one of the great centers of wealth in its day. It was the home of the famous king Coresus. It was a great commercial center—particularly in the field of garments; and was the place in which the art of dyeing wool was invented. When Cyrus the Meade conquered it, he found the equivalent of multiple millions of dollars worth of booty.
B. Historians tell us that the church in Sardis was begun through the preaching of John. But just like the city of Sardis itself, the church in it had grown lax. It had come to rest on its past glories. It had settled into a comfortable co-existence with the pagan culture that surrounded it. In short, its careless confidence had lulled it into a state of spiritual ‘deadness’.
C. Note how the Lord introduces Himself. He has "the seven Spirits of God" (see 1:4; 4:5) and "the seven stars" (1:16, 20; 2:1). This becomes very significant when Jesus speaks to the problems of His churches. A church can make an appearance of being something that it’s not in the eyes of the world, or even in the eyes of other churches. But Jesus knows the truth. He holds possession of the Spirit who works in the midst of each of His churches; and He holds its leaders in the palm of His right hand. No church can live a lie in His eyes. He knows the truth and is able to speak authoritatively to its condition.
D. He knows all about what the church did. At this point in its history, it was a church that had been in existence for around 40 years; and no doubt, in its history, it had done many great things. It had grown to rest on the reputation of its fine works of the past; but Jesus issues this surprising verdict on its condition in the light of all these great works: “I know your works, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead.” Its apparent “life” as a church was in reputation only. In actual fact, it was “dead” (that is, unresponsive and unproductive) in the eyes of God.
II. THE CAUSE (v. 2).
The Lord had examined it and found the cause to be that its works were not "perfect" before God. This isn't saying that the Lord demands "perfection" (that is, a humanly unachievable standard of lawlessness). Rather, it means that its works were "incomplete". They started strong, but fell short.
III. THE CURE (vv. 2-3).
A. The church needed to "Be watchful". It is in danger of being lulled into complacent 'deadness' by the approval of the world or by the glories of past ministry.
B. strengthen the things which remain"; things that He warns "are ready to die". Such a church needs to go back and see the things that the Lord truly values, and how they received them; and to restore those things that are weak.
B. It needs to do this by going back to "remember therefore how you have received and heard". It must go back to the original steps of faith in God's grace. It must not rest on the past; but seek to continually grow in Him in as much current vitality as when they first received Him.
C. It must "hold fast". It mustn't be passive in resting in its past, but hold on to the things it has in the Lord now. Those things are in danger of slipping away.
D. It must also "repent" of its passivity. It much (as that word means) "change its mind" about its situation.
IV. THE WARNING (v. 3).
If it does not do so, the Lord will come suddenly—at a time when it doesn't expect Him— and find them unprepared (Matthew 24:45-51; Rev. 16:15; 22:7, 12, 20).
V. THE COMMENDATION (v. 4).
There were some "names" in the church ("even in Sardis") that had not "defiled their garments" through losing their zeal or resting on a comfortable reputation in the world. The others may have had a reputation with the world; but Jesus saw their garments as "defiled". He says that they are "worthy" to walk with Him in white (Rev. 16:15; 19:8).
IV. THE PROMISE (v. 5).
He promises that all who overcome shall be clothed in white garments (note the garment industry for which Sardis was famous); and He will not blot their names out of the book of life, but confess them before His Father and His angels (Matt. 10:27-33).
IIV. THE CALL (v. 6).
This is a word of warning to all the churches.