Sardis: The Church Without Passion

By: Everett Vander Horst

Scripture Reading: Revelation 3:1-6

July 5th, 2009

Randy Sly, writing last year for Catholic Online, recalled the time in his childhood when his father came home from a business trip on the New England coast. He returned with four live lobsters. To prepare them for dinner, he did not drop them into boiling hot water, but set them in a pot of cool water and then turned up the heat. The lobsters relaxed, settled down, fell asleep and cooked to death as the water reached the boiling point. Like the proverbial frog in the kettle, this unique dining experience serves as a warning to Christians to always be on guard against subtle changes in the cultural temperature all around us. If confronted with outlandishly offensive heresy, we react quickly and loudly. But as the world around us slowly changes, we hardly notice what is going on around us, and are in danger of only waking up when it is too late. We have been reading through the seven messages to seven churches in Revelation chapters 2 and 3, and finding that, on numerous occasions, the believers of those churches waffled when confronted with direct challenges to their faith, in the form of persecution, idolatry or immorality. But in at least one case, that of the Christians in the city of Sardis, the pressures on them had crept up slowly, so slowly in fact that Jesus says he finds them asleep in their faith. In order for us to better appreciate the subtleties of this portion of God’s word, let me take a few moments to introduce you to this city. As we wind our way 60 miles inland from the Aegean coast, through rich fertile valleys, we once again find ourselves at the gates of a prosperous, thriving city. Nestled in a region abundant with agricultural products, Sardis was also made wealthy through the mining of gold. Gold was washed down from the steep, craggy mountains along the Pactolus River. In fact, it is ancient Sardis that is credited with the invention of the coin, back in the 6th century BC. Partly through the security that its massive wealth could buy, Sardis was, for a time, the city that stopped the advance of the Persian Empire. Sardis was not only a wealthy city; it was the capital and center of operations for an empire. Croesus, a famous king of the Lydian kingdom made his home in Sardis from 560—547 BC. He had a very secure throne on the acropolis of Sardis; the city’s upper temples, royal palaces, and the treasury were situated on a small plateau 1500 feet about the valley floor, on a spur of a mountain peak. It was surrounded on 3 sides by high, vertical cliff faces. It made the upper city, the focal point of the kingdom and all its wealth, seemingly unconquerable. In fact, an ancient saying still in use well after the writing of Revelation, ‘to capture the acropolis of Sardis’, meant to attempt to do the impossible. Yet the city was conquered in ancient times—twice. The rulers of Sardis suffered humiliating defeats due to their own complacency. In the first instance, King Croesus had attacked the approaching Persians, lost and retreated. Cyrus, the leader of the Persians, followed him to Sardis, and so Croesus took refuge in his high citadel, the acropolis. One day a Persian soldier, on duty during the siege, observed a Lydian solider climbing a short way down the acropolis to retrieve a dropped helmet. He figured there must be a hidden pathway somewhere along the side of acropolis. And so, that night, he scaled the cliffside, finding the elusive pathway, and he then climbed the city wall and entered the city. He was able to do so because the Lydians had posted no guard through the night; so great was their confidence in the strength of their fortress, that, instead of watching, the soldiers were sleeping! So it was that a soldier entered the upper city, single handedly opened the gate for the Persian army, and the battle was lost. And the same thing happened a second time in 215 BC. The Seleucid king Antiochus III laid siege to the city for over a year. As recorded by the Greek historian Polybus, a soldier from Crete named Lagoras who "had considerable experience in war, and had learned that as a rule cities fall into the hands of their enemies most easily from some neglect on the part of their inhabitants, when, trusting to the natural or artificial strength of their defenses, they neglect to keep proper guard and become thoroughly careless." Accompanied by 15 men, Lagoras climbed the cliff of the acropolis at an unguarded spot, entered the city, opened the gates and so again, Sardis was conquered by a surprise attack and through their own sleepy negligence. These two accounts became quite famous stories, told and retold throughout the Greco—Roman world as a parable of the danger of excessive pride. By 95 AD, the time of the writing of Revelation, Sardis had significantly declined in influence. It was a city of somewhere between 60,000 and 100,000 people. For a time, it had been considered by many to be the greatest Greek city of all. But by 95 AD, a first time visitor would discover that the city’s reputation as a great and powerful city exceeded the reality. But there were two other major features of Sardis in 95 AD that are significant for our look at Christ’s message to the Christian community there. A major landmark of the city was a large temple to Artemis, dating back to time of Croesus. You may remember that we first met the Artemis cult in the city of Ephesus. The temple in Sardis was not as great as the one in Ephesus, but it was still significant; it was the 4th largest Ionic temple ever built, with columns 58 feet high. What’s significant about this for our purposes was that the temple was badly damaged by an earthquake in 17 AD. It stayed in a semi destroyed state until mid 2nd century, some 50 years after Revelation was written. It is also important to note that Sardis had a large Jewish population. One act of Antiochus III that had a long lasting impact was that, after storming the acropolis and conquering Sardis, in 210 BC he relocated 2,000 Jewish families from greater Babylon to the provinces of Phrygia and Lydia, where Sardis was the capital city. Thus by the end of the 1st century, a large, wealthy and influential Jewish community was well established in Sardis. If you visit the ruins of Sardis today you can walk along a commercial street that is almost like a mid—western strip mall, with shop next to shop, from the Byzantine era, including those owned by Jewish merchants. The most prominent remnant of the Jewish community in Sardis is the excavated ruins of the largest ancient synagogue ever discovered, dating back to the 3rd century. Its main hall could hold 1,000 people and was beautifully decorated with mosaic floors and walls. Eighty inscriptions have been found in the synagogue, most of those regarding donations made over the years. These show that many members of the synagogue were not only wealthy, but held offices in the city government. But what was most unusual about the synagogue is its location. Connected to the synagogue was a huge Roman gymnasium, or philosophy and bathing center. It had an open courtyard, a room dedicated to the Roman imperial cult, changing rooms, and pools for bathing. It, along with the synagogue, was all a part of the same major downtown complex, suggesting a very close and comfortable relationship with the dominant pagan culture. One can even find today, on the altar table of the synagogue, eagles carved into the legs of the table that bear a very close resemblance to the eagle that stood as a symbol of the Roman legions. It appears that the Jewish community was OK with worshiping Yahweh as the one and only God in the same complex with a gymnasium where the Roman emperors were also worshiped as gods! So how well did the church at Sardis maintain its passion for Christ and its integrity as a community of his dedicated disciples? For that, we take a closer look at Christ’s message to that community. Note Jesus’ opening words: "These are the words of him who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars." The Christians in Sardis are assessed by the one with divine power and dignity. The seven spirits are the one Holy Spirit. Christ is the one who sends the Holy Spirit — the same sevenfold or complete Spirit first mentioned in the greeting of the letter — "Grace and peace to you from he who is, and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits before his throne…" This introduction is a warning, but hopeful: Jesus comes in power, but has sufficient power to resurrect a dead community. In every letter thus far, the introduction has been followed by a commendation. Here there is none! Its absence is important, for there is a message in what is not said. Jesus goes immediately to asses them—"I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead." The church in Sardis is so spiritually dead; Jesus has nothing good to say. There is later only a minor concession: they have a few people among them who have not ‘soiled their clothes.’ That is, there are only a few who have not lost their integrity through compromise with the dominant, pagan culture. Before we go too far beyond this point, it is worth noting here that the few who were faithful were not encouraged to leave, to join some other healthier church, such as the one down the road in Philadelphia, or start a new congregation on their own. Many Christians today with a tendency to church hop would do well to note here that Christ didn’t direct them to leave. Skipping the commendation then, Jesus goes straight to the complaint: he faults them for being spiritually dead, for being complacent about their faith. Like the city, the church community seems to have enjoyed a greater reputation (based on their past) than they really deserved. These Christians are now only maintaining a low profile in an idolatrous context. There is no mention of any kind of hardship or trial, no persecution by Romans or Jews from the outside, nor were there false teachers influencing them from the inside. So they couldn’t place blame for their lack of health at the feet of some enemy; the Christians is Sardis were themselves, all on their own, corrupt. Bible scholar Leon Morris sums up the trouble with the church in Sardis: "Why did both Jews and Romans leave this church undisturbed, unlike some of its neighbors? The answer may well be its lack of aggressive and positive Christianity. Content with mediocrity, lacking both the enthusiasm to entertain a heresy and the depth of conviction which provokes intolerance, it was too innocuous to be worth persecuting." Yet we see there is hope. Christ calls them to strengthen what remains and is about to die. To help in this, he has already reminded them of the Spirit’s presence. Because there is hope, Christ offers the way of repentance. They have to return to their prior passion, their prior spiritual vigilance. "Wake up!" he calls. Literally, he says "Be watchful." We find this same phrasing in Matthew’s gospel, when Jesus warns, "Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come." Here, the importance of wakeful watching is emphasized by its location as the start of five commands — wake up strengthen what remains, remember what you have received, obey it, and repent. And then he repeats, wake up! Clearly, Christ is making an allusion to city’s famous history of arrogant pride that led to humiliating defeat when their supposedly impregnable acropolis was captured. Strengthen what remains and is about to die. "I have not found your deeds complete." Their deeds are like the destroyed Artemis temple, lying in ruins. They fall short of completion. And the matter is serious, because there is little time left, and little life left in the church. How do they find strength again? By remembering. Remember what you have received and heard. Jesus tells them to go back to the basics of the gospel. Remember and obey. Because remembering not enough; spiritual complacency is corrected by obedient living. Finally, Jesus draws it all together in the call to repent. He seeks the genuine inner attitude of remorse that is part of the change of the heart, and so too a person’s very focus. As he has done in previous letters, Jesus follows up with a description of the negative consequences that will follow if they continue as is: Christ will come like a thief. Again, we are reminded of the background in the history of the city. Also, again, we are returned to Matthew’s gospel: In it, Jesus warned, "Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into." Jesus seems to have in mind here for the Sardis Christians not his final return, but a warning of judgment on them, as with the Ephesian church which was told to return to love for one another lest Christ come among them and remove their lampstand or snuff out the church on that place. Their greatest need is for renewed spiritual vigilance, a guarded attitude towards the surrounding culture. And so Jesus offers up a promise of blessing if they repent: they will walk with Christ, dressed in white; their names will not be blotted out from the Book of Life and Christ will acknowledge their name before his Father. In many cultures, to be dressed in white is a common metaphor for moral purity. In various places in Scripture, God, his angels, and the righteous at the banquet supper of the Lamb are all described as being dressed in white. The way walking with Jesus is described, it sounds like the practice of victorious Roman generals, who returned to Rome for a victory parade dressed in a white toga, accompanied by their soldiers. Here, those who overcome their complacency will be as white clad attendants of the victorious Christ at his triumphal procession. Their names will not be blotted out from the Book of Life. In that day, criminals would have names blotted out of public register when exiled. But we are promised that Christians who overcome need not fear losing status as citizens of the kingdom of Jesus Christ. Instead, they can look forward to being acknowledged before the Father and his angels. Recall Matthew 10:32: "Whoever acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge him before my Father in heaven. But whoever disowns me before men, I will disown him before my Father in heaven." It seems as though the Christians in Sardis, worried about their public reputations, suppressed their identity as disciples, both in their actions and, it is suggested in the language here in Rev. 3, in a courtroom context. However, those willing to stand up and be counted as Christians in Sardis and elsewhere could count on a favorable verdict in the heavenly courtroom of God with Christ standing up as their advocate at the final judgment. In many of the same ways, Christians today too must avoid complacency and be vigilant. The fact is pride can still lead us into a false sense of security. Christians can feel very secure of themselves. By being baptized, faithfully attending church and avoiding the really bad sins, we can become spiritually lazy. This becomes most obvious in a community that lives expressing an unhealthy comfort with the status quo. Many Christians look back to a one time profession of faith or praying of the sinners prayer and depend on it alone as proof of their salvation. When Mickey Cohen, a famous Los Angeles gangster of the late 1940’s, made a public profession of faith in Christ, his new Christian friends were ecstatic with joy. But as time passed, they began to wonder why he did not leave his gangster lifestyle. When they confronted him, he told them, "You never told me that I had to give up my friends. There are Christian movie stars, Christian businessmen, Christian athletes. So what’s the matter with being a Christian gangster? If I have to give up all that—if that’s Christianity—count me out. Chuck Colson noted years later, "Cohen was echoing the millions of professing Christians who, though unwilling to admit it, through their very lives pose the same question. Not about being Christian gangsters, but about being Christianized versions of whatever they already are, and are determined to remain." We can also find here a word about concern with reputation. The Christians in Sardis had a reputation in the area, probably among the other churches of Asia Minor, of being alive and active. But they were on the edge of spiritual death. Ironically, this seems to be in part because they were worried about their reputation among their fellow citizens, both Romans and Jews. Too many churches today can be the same way — resting on the past, settling in comfortably, and showing too much concern for their reputation. You know the language: "You should have been here in 1973 — that’s when this church was really on the map. We had baptisms just about every month! We were well known as a vibrant, healthy congregation. Those were the good old days." We who are part of churches ought not to care so much about our congregational reputation in the community. We ought to be deeply interested in what Christ sees in us and among us. We ought to be so connected with the Holy Spirit and ministry driven that we say that the good old days are right now. No matter your church’s past, don’t bother resting on or trying to salvage your reputation. Instead, be found saying, "How can we best impact our congregation and community for the kingdom of God?" Are you as a believer, and in your church home, so committed to Christ and the coming of his kingdom that it turns heads? Is your work and ministry notable because you are overflowing with grace and love? Do you worship Jesus through a deep seated commitment to bringing justice to a struggling city? Are you celebrated and cheered on by the angels of heaven because you have such a big, broken heart for lost people? We worship him who holds the seven spirits, who commands the seven stars, the Lord of all who gives us the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of power. It is he who lives among us, calls us to wake up, gives us life out of certain death, and the promise to all who persevere in faithfulness that they will be a part of his victorious celebrations when he comes in the fullness of time. Let us remember the gospel, repent of our pride, obey his commands, and live the Christian life with passion. And so we will demonstrate that we too hear what the Spirit says to the churches.

About the Author

Everett Vander Horst

Everett Vander Horst is the senior pastor at Shawnee Park Christian Reformed Church, in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He and his wife Christa have been married for 14 years, and have 3 children: Laura (10), Eric (7) and Jason (5). A Canadian, Everett grew up on a dairy farm in southwestern Ontario. After graduating from Calvin Theological Seminary in 1996, he and Christa moved to British Columbia where Everett was ordained as pastor in the Telkwa Christian Reformed Church. They took the call to Shawnee Park CRC in 2001. When he is not pastoring, Everett enjoys digital photography, fishing as well as building toys and furniture in his basement woodshop.

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