THE DEAD CHURCH
by Bob Wheeler
If Jesus were to come back today and visit our churches, what would He think? What would He say? Believe it or not, it is actually possible to know. In Revelation chapters 2 & 3 we have letters from Christ Himself to seven different churches. What He says to them is telling – and convicting. We would do well to listen. One of them could be us.
The letters are addressed to seven churches that were located in the ancient Roman province of Asia, located in the western part of what is now the modern nation of Turkey, just across the Aegean Sea from modern Greece. Of particular interest to us is the church as Sardis (Rev. 3:1-6). In many ways it bears a disturbing resemblance to a typical modern American evangelical church.
Sardis, in earlier times, had been the capital of the ancient kingdom of Lydia, whose king, Croesus, had been legendary for his wealth. By Roman times much of its past glory had faded, but it was still an significant commercial center. It lay on an important trade route, and it was a center for the manufacture of woolen garments. As for the church itself, we do not know much about it apart from what we can glean from this letter.
The letter describes the condition of the church at Sardis this way: “I know your works, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead” (v. 12; NKJV). Here we are struck by two elements. First, the church had a reputation that it was “alive.” Everything appeared to be going well. Its “works” were well spoken of. It was a church that was busy and active, and to all outward appearances was actively serving the Lord. But then Christ adds a disturbing element: “but you are dead.” Appearances can be deceiving. Outwardly the church was busy and active in the Lord’s work. But in actual reality things were quite different. The church was spiritually dead – inwardly there was no real spiritual life.
Is this not a picture of many of our churches today? We measure success by numbers, by church attendance, the size of budgets and the cost of the physical plant. But where is there prayer? Where is there holiness? Where is there preaching with real power, worship with real fervor? Most of us go to church merely to get comforted and reassured. Serious discipleship is the farthest thing from our minds.
The judgment that Christ pronounces on this church is alarming. For the text later says, “I have not found your works perfect before God” (v. 2). The word translated “perfect” might better be rendered “complete” (ESV) or “completed” (NASV). The church at Sardis had started well, but did not bring things to a successful completion. The outward forms were still there, but the inward, vital piety was gone. It was a church that was “just going through the motions.” It had become a pale shadow of its former self.
Not surprisingly, then, what Jesus tells this church is to “Be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die” (v. 2). The church was still nominally orthodox; it still retained many of the old forms of worship. But it was in danger of losing even this if it did not wake up and sense its danger. The foundation was rotting and the whole superstructure was in danger of collapse. What the church needed to do was to keep what it still had, and turn to Christ with heartfelt repentance. Christ tells them to “Remember therefore how you have received and heard . . .” (v. 3). They once had it right. They need to remember what it used to be like – how they first heard the gospel and embraced it. What joy! What love! What faith! There had once been a time when the presence of God had been deeply felt, when Christ was the focus of their attention. They need to go back to that, to recover that lost piety and spiritual vitality. Only then will they function as a church is supposed to.
And what happens if it doesn’t? “ . . . I will come upon you as a thief, and you will not know what hour I will come upon you” (v. 3). The exact nature of this visitation is not stated, but it will be sudden, unexpected and arresting. God has ways of getting our attention, and they are not always pleasant.
The situation at Sardis was not entirely bleak, however. “You have a few names even in Sardis who have not defiled their garments” (v. 4). When He says that they “have not defiled their garments,” the implication is that most of the members of the church had become worldly and had compromised their testimony. But even in times of spiritual decay there were a few Christians who still remained faithful, who still genuinely loved the Lord and sought to live lives that were pleasing to Him. To them Christ promises that “they shall walk with Me in white, for they are worthy” (v. 4). Even though the church as a whole may fall under divine chastisement, Christ will not deprive those who are faithful to Him of His comfort and care.
As with the other letters to the seven churches, this one ends with a promise to those who overcome. In this case three things are promised. First it says he who overcomes “shall be clothed in white garments” (v. 5). Sardis, as we have seen, was noted as a center for the woolen garment industry, and the imagery here must have struck home. Those who are saved are those who have “washed their robes and made them clean in the blood of the Lamb” (Rev. 7:13,14). To enter heaven one must be cleansed from all defilement of sin.
We are also told that Christ “will not blot out his name from the Book of Life.” The Book of Life is the record of all those who are saved (Rev. 20:11-15; 21:27). Those who overcome are assured of salvation.
And then finally Jesus says, “I will confess his name before My Father and before His angels.” In Matt. 10 Jesus taught His disciples to expect opposition as they went out preaching the gospel, and He warned them, saying, “Therefore whoever confessed Me before men, him I will also confess before My Father who is in heaven. But whoever denies Me before men, him will I also deny before My Father who is in heaven” (vv. 32, 33). The only ones who are saved are those who remain faithful to Christ in the face of persecution.
I fear that much of modern Evangelicalism bears a strong resemblance to the church at Sardis. We can trace our roots back to the Reformation, the Puritans, and the great revivals of the 18th and 19th Centuries. But how little spiritual fervor and piety do we see now! People will come out to a fellowship dinner but not to a prayer meeting. Yet without prayer where is our relationship with God?
We would do well to go back in history and read what God has done in times past. May God show us something of our spiritual deadness and cause us to repent. Lord, revive us again!