Seven churches were described by John in the Book of Revelation. In the context of Revelation, these seven churches received personal letters from the risen Christ. It appears that Christ laid out these churches as types for the entire church age. Just as these churches coexisted in the First Century, so they coexist in every century.
- The issue is not: Which church-type corresponds to what era of the church?
- The issue is: What are Christ’s lessons through every church to every church in every age?
The first question leads to fruitless debates and historical fallacies. The second question allows the sharp sword of Christ to perform His surgery and excise the diseases that ail His churches.
There are several commonalities to be kept in mind when considering these churches:
- Every church was called a “church”, and was therefore a real expression of Christ’s Church.
- While the ideal of the so-called “universal Church” was taught in Ephesians 5, the existence of sin within the churches of Revelation parallels the reality of churches throughout the ages and into the present time.
- Each of these church-types had its own personality, its own strengths, and its own weaknesses
In the mix of these seven churches was the church of Sardis, fifth out of the seven (Revelation 3:1-6). Jesus made the jarring statement of the church of Sardis: “you are dead.” It is quite surprising in the sovereign providence of Christ: (1) That He allowed the Church of Sardis to exist during the time of John; (2) That He allows it to be one type of his churches throughout Church history; and (2) That He would still refer to the Church of Sardis as a “church” even though they were on life support.
Christ did not miraculously wave His sovereign hand over the Church of Sardis and supernaturally cure it of its ailments. Rather, He wrote them a letter. These words were to be sufficient for them. And through these words the sovereign Christ continues to exert His lordship over His Church.
Jesus stated that a super majority of those who attended this church were actually backslidden at best. Christ stated, “You have a few names even in Sardis who have not defiled their garments.” Only a few names were not defiled. Then in the next verse Christ added, “He who overcomes shall be clothed in white garments, and I will not blot out his name from the book of life.” They had a moral problem in the church. Only a small group of their members remained undefiled. Later Christ promised “white garments” only to those who overcame!
Further, there existed a problem of priorities in this church. Jesus stated to them, “Strengthen the things that remain.” He addressed Sardis’ priority problem. Organizationally, they had deemphasized and defunded the priorities of Christ.
So, in Christ’s warning to them, He echoed His own words when He was on earth. He promised the overcomer, “I will confess his name before My Father and before His angels.” Now this same terminology was found from the lips of Christ in three of the Gospels. In Matthew, Jesus stated this concept speaking only of His “Father who is in heaven” as His audience:
“Therefore whoever confesses Me before men, him I will also confess before My Father who is in heaven. But whoever denies Me before men, him I will also deny before My Father who is in heaven. Matthew 10:32-33.
In Luke, Jesus repeated these same conditional elements using “the angels of God” as His audience:
“Also I say to you, whoever confesses Me before men, him the Son of Man also will confess before the angels of God. But he who denies Me before men will be denied before the angels of God.” Luke 12:8-9.
In the Gospel of Mark, However, Jesus repeated this concept combining “His Father” and “the holy angels” as His audience:
“For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him the Son of Man also will be ashamed when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels.” Mark 8:38.
Jesus was refreshing the memory of His people in the dying Church in Sardis that they needed to return to the bold proclamation of the gospel. They were not to be ashamed either of Christ or of His words.
So “How Might the Church of Sardis Have Evangelized”?
In this short letter we find little indication of a misguided message, as was evident in Christ’s words to the Church of Thyatira. Rather, we read: (1) that they lacked watchfulness; (2) that they had misplaced priorities; (3) that they were defiled in their lifestyle; and (4) by inference, that they lacked boldness in proclaiming the gospel.
Perhaps they had succumbed to a mere lifestyle evangelism methodology. Perhaps the people of the Church in Sardis feared to speak of Jesus and His words. They relied on their soiled lives to sufficiently communicate the gospel of righteousness—which is to be received by faith alone. Their attention had moved away from Jesus. Now their focus was on themselves and pleasing the world around them.
How did Jesus warn this dying church? He told them to remember “how” they had received. Surely, they had a commendable past! Jesus told them, “Remember how you have received and heard.” Their need was not to project forward toward the future. Rather, they needed to reach back into their past, to observe “how” [πῶς] they had received the word and “how” they in fact heard it.
This same “how” of receiving and hearing the gospel was used by Paul to correct the drifting church members in the churches of Galatia:
“But even if we, or an angel from heaven, evangelize you other than how we evangelized you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again, if anyone evangelizes you other than what you have received, let him be accursed.” Galatians 1:8-9. Translation mine.
The primary issue for Paul was not merely the message of the gospel (important as that is), but also its method of propagation and reception. Similarly, Christ urged the Church of Sardis to look back at their past.
- “But,” a theologian once said, “You can’t go back 30-50 years.”
- “Remember,” responds Jesus, “You must go back 30-50 years!”
Sometimes church members don’t “go back” far enough. They consider the time when their church was in the “Maximum Efficiency” stage. Their happy past consists of the time when the church was full of people, with plenty of activities and staff, and bills could be paid. But they have not moved back far enough. They must look toward the “Incipient Stage” of their church, when people were first being led to Christ and the baptismal waters were first moving. It is because of the revival fires burning in the early stages of a local church that the church grew to enjoy its ministry in the “Maximum Efficiency” stage.
Churches must go back to the roots of their work of salvation and true Christian discipleship. They must reconsider their early obedience of the Great Commission. They must reawaken the urgency of earlier days and their methods of evangelism. If the evangelism methods were biblical then—then they continue to be biblical today. Biblical evangelism methodologies are timeless, and they are always effective in accomplishing God’s will!
We must fight the deceptions of contemporary sirens urging us to move beyond our biblical past.
“And to the angel of the church in Sardis write, ‘These things says He who has the seven Spirits of God and the seven stars: “I know your works, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead. Be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die, for I have not found your works perfect before God. Remember therefore how you have received and heard; hold fast and repent. Therefore if you will not watch, I will come upon you as a thief, and you will not know what hour I will come upon you. He who overcomes shall be clothed in white garments, and I will not blot out his name from the Book of Life; but I will confess his name before My Father and before His angels. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”’” Revelation 3:1-6.