The Church of the Living Dead

Bible Book: Revelation  3 : 01-06
Subject: Church; Sardis, Letter to; Faithfulness
Series: Revelation

The title of this message may remind you of some horror movie you have seen. I will admit, it seems a little morbid for the title of a sermon. In reality, the pronouncement made by the One who knows every believer and every church is worse than the title suggests. But before we get into that, let us look at the city at Sardis and the church that was located there.

Ancient Sardis lay some fifty miles east of Ephesus and thirty miles south of Thyatira at the junction of five major roads, which made it more or less the commercial hub of the region. Located on an almost inaccessible plateau, Sardis was an important military city. The acropolis of Sardis was about 1,500 feet above the main roads and some 800 feet above the main section of the city. Rock walls were nearly vertical except on the south side. In a time of siege the acropolis became the refuge for the inhabitants of the city.

Historians tell us that only three times in its history was the fortress ever captured, at least in ancient times. In the sixth century B.C. a very observant Persian solder observed a soldier of Sardis descend the winding path on the south side to retrieve a helmet he had dropped, some say while playing with it. The Persians followed the path back to the summit and captured the whole city. A similar incident led to the fall of the city to Alexander the Great. It was defeated by Antiochus the Great in 214 B.C.

Sardis was known for its wealth and King Croesus is remembered proverbially for his riches. People until recent times used the expression, "Rich as Croesus", much as one might have mentioned Solomon’s wealth, or as one might mention Bill Gates today. Sardis retained its wealth into the second century of the Christian era but its political importance as the capitol city of Asia under the Persian Empire lay well into the past.

The luxurious living of the people of Sardis led to moral decay. The city was said to be a city of peace, "the peace of a man whose dreams are dead and whose mind is asleep, the peace of lethargy and evasion." The city of Sardis was, at the time the Revelation was written, a mere shadow of its former splendor. The church, like the city, was alive in name only.

This was the place where the dyeing of wool was discovered, seat of the licentious worship of Cybele and the ruins of the temple still there, called by Ramsay (op. cit., p. 354) "the city of Death," city of softness and luxury, of apathy and immorality, "a contrast of past splendour and present unresting decline" (Charles). Along with Laodicea it was blamed most of all the seven churches - [ATR, Word Pictures in NT].

Now as we look at the letter to the church at Sardis, we need to remind ourselves that there are seven letters in Revelation, one to each of seven churches. These were real, historical churches - but they were not the only churches. They were not the only churches in that region. The number seven is the number for completion, the perfect number. Whatever else we may glean from our study of these letters, there is one thing we should keep in mind. Each letter will find an application in churches around the world, from the first century to the twenty-first. When we read each letter we must look at our church to see if there is a message there for us.

I feel that I should make one more point here. I know many people interpret these letters differently, preferring to relate each church to a different age, invariably declaring this to be the Laodicean period, the final period before the Lord returns for His bride. Others may try to either spiritualize the letters or place everything here in the future. My point in this series is to remember the promised blessing in 1:3 and glean that harvest of blessings here and now - today. We will see what lessons the Lord has for us today. Gleaning those blessings for today will in no way deprive us in the future,

In Jesus you can have your cake and eat it, too!

Now, let us look at the seven parts of this letter.


Revelation 3:1a, To the angel of the church in Sardis write: "The One who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars says: I know your works."

1) The letter is addressed to the angel of the church in Sardis.

As we have already seen, the word translated angel is the word meaning messenger. Thus, as in the case of all the other letters, this letter was addressed to the pastor of the church who would read it before the congregation. A scribe would make a copy of the entire Book of Revelation and then sent the original on to the next church where the same procedure would be repeated.

2) The Author of this letter is "The One who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars."

We are introduced to the seven spirits in 1:4-5:

"Grace and peace to you from the One who is, who was, and who is coming; from the seven spirits before His throne; and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead and the ruler of the kings of the earth."

The number seven is the perfect number, the complete number, or the mature number. The seven spirits denotes the Holy Spirit. One can hardly miss that either in 1:4-5 or in this passage. Jesus is the One Who sent the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost to empower His church.

The seven stars are the pastors of the seven churches. Jesus calls pastors and other ministers, and He anoints them to preach and teach His Word. In 1:16, we learn that Jesus holds the pastors in his right hand. The right hand is the hand of power. He does not say that He will use that power to prevent trials and tribulations. I do not know anyone who is anxious to face persecution, torture, or martyrdom for the Lord, but the simple fact is that we belong to Him. That means He has the sovereign right to use us, or may we say invest us in any way that serves His purpose. He did not keep Paul, Peter, James, or John from persecution or death. Why do we think we deserve better than they?

3) He knows the church.

As we have seen, Jesus has eyes like flames of fire, or in our day we might say, like laser beams. His vision penetrates each heart and each mind. He knows what is in every believer and He knows what is in every church. Let us be even more specific: He is the only One who is absolutely qualified to judge His church. We may think a church is great when He knows it is not. We may overlook a church as insignificant when He knows that it is a church that honors Him. I have seen people who had such pride in their church or denomination that they tended to dismiss others as insignificant.


Revelation 1b:"You have a reputation for being alive, but you are dead."

1) They had a name for being alive.

Wow! What if this letter really does have an application in churches around the world today? What is it that gives a church a reputation? A number of years ago Paul Yongi Cho was touring America telling preachers how he had grown the largest congregation in the history of the world in South Korea. What he did not tell people was that he was using some New Age methods in his ministry. The most popular television preacher in America - to some people - was Robert Schuler. Only the most astute preachers, like Dave Hunt, were aware of the fact that Schuler was influenced by Cho, and that Schuler preached a New Age Gospel, a gospel stripped of much of the specific teachings of Jesus.

Norman Vincent Peale, author of the popular book, THE POWER OF POSITIVE THINKING, was caught up in some New Age ideas before they were called New Age. I remember reading somewhere that Norman Vincent Peale declared at some point that he had been born-again - in a Shinto temple in Japan! Peale advocated positive thinking instead of positive believing. To Schuler, hell is low self-esteem.

Priests from one major denomination smugly defend their vote to elect an openly homosexual priest to the office of Bishop. When challenged by Catholic talk show host and television personality Sean Hannity about what the Bible says about homosexuality, one priest declared, "The Bible is not our authority."

Across America and around the world, some churches are calling women as pastors. A prominent professional woman told me she had just read my commentary on Philippians and the she really liked it. She quickly added, “and I normally don’t like Paul." She smiled and confidently added, "Paul was strictly a product of his own time, wasn’t he?" Well, let me tell you something: the Scripture is not a product of the mind of Paul, it is product of the mind of the Holy Spirit.

A woman once told me she was concerned about her son’s relationship with his new girlfriend. When I asked why, she told me he was going to church with her. I suggested that it was good that he was going to church. She lady then told me she was concerned about that particular church. When I asked why, she said, "The pastor has three living husbands."

There are whole denominations that have reputations for being alive. They have a large membership, they have pastors, they have impressive buildings, they have highly educated ministers, they have sophisticated programs. What more could we ask of any church? Jesus knows whether the church or the denomination is dead or alive. I have been involved in the conservative resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention for many years. During this time, I have talked with people who agreed with my position (that the Scripture is the inspired, infallible, inerrant Word of God) on the local field. I have seen some of these leaders go to a convention and fight for all they were worth for the other side. I really believe there have been some people I have known who were not as committed to either side of the issue as they were control and recognition.

2) In truth, they were dead.

The church at Sardis had a reputation for being alive. They had everything many look for in a church. They must have had a pastor with some reputation. Surely, they had a great youth program. They had an educational program, a mission program, and a local church ministry. They may have had a great church plant, though I doubt it..

This was the kind of church that ran ads in the local paper. They had spots on the local television stations. They were written up in the state Baptist newspaper. Their pastor received accolades from denominational leaders. Members were downright proud of their church. How do we know what people thought about this church? They had a reputation for being alive!

Enter Jesus. We know what men thought about the church. What does He think? Is He about to give them His stamp of approval? He offers his diagnosis: "They are dead!" I wonder what Jesus would say about some of the churches with a reputation today. I wonder what He would say about our church! Would we dare ask Him? It would not be surprising to hear Jesus declare that there are some dead churches in the world today, but it would probably be a shock to a lot of people to learn that their church was one of those that He diagnosed as dead. After all, they have such a great reputation.

We live in a day in which praise is valued more highly than preaching and that is a clear sign that something is wrong. Praise is good - but is praise not supposed to be a response to a blessing? Sadly, to many people today the praise is the blessing. They come to church looking for a warm fuzzy feeling, not to hear a message that condemns the way they lead their lives. They do not want to be confronted with sin. One young woman, while serving Becky and me at one of our favorite restaurants, assured me she would never go to a Baptist church. When I asked why, she said, "They are too judgmental." I did not have an opportunity to reply to the young lady - I was distracted by my wife’s toe which was for some reason or another making contact with my shin under the table. I have no doubt that we have some members who are too judgmental, but I doubt that we are the only church that has that problem.

Many young adults today will change churches or denominations at the drop of a hat - so churches are holding conferences to try to determine just what hat to drop, and when, and how to drop it. They come up with innovative youth programs. Let me stress that our children and youth are very important to us. We must provide for them. However, in many cases a church elects to turn over them most precious thing they have - their young people - to the least experienced, and often the most immature person on the staff, giving him/her an incredible influence over their young people. Should a youth minister wants recreation or activities to takes precedence over the preaching of the Gospel, sound doctrine, pastoral leadership, and the wisdom of deacons and teachers problems often surface. The youth minister can be a blessing or a curse. Those who get caught up in the world may have a reputation for being a live when, in fact, they are dead.

If we are to receive the blessing I believe the Lord would have for us today, surely we must look at other churches and try to decide which ones of those other churches are dead! Or do you think the Lord would have us to take a serious look at our church and see if there are signs that we may be a dying church? We can always point to those who were baptized here years ago, but, as they used to say, "never darken the door of the church" today. If we are going to apply this letter today to our church, I believe we must take a look at ourselves first. We must take a look at our prayer life, our commitment to the Word of God, our obedience to our Lord’s Great Commission, and to the command to love Him and to love one another.

We go to the doctor and he checks our blood pressure, our pulse rate, our blood sugar, our cholesterol, and our temperature. Then he makes a diagnosis and offers a prescription. Do we dare go to the Great Physician and permit him to check our vital signs and diagnose our spiritual condition? Let me ask you this, how long has it been since you shared your faith with a lost person? I don’t mean asking someone to come to church, I mean asking someone to come to Jesus.


Revelation 3:2: "Be alert and strengthen what remains, which is about to die, for I have not found your works complete before My God."

1) They are warned to be watchful.

"Be alert". He commands. They must guard what remains of that which would identify them as a church. Ritual and ceremony will not suffice. They must go back to the basics and guard that. They must focus on their relationship with the Head of the church and with one another.

2) They must strengthen what remains before they die.

Some have suggested that this means that there are faithful members who are in danger of being put to death because of their witness for the Lord. But, it is possible that He is saying that there was still a sign of life in the church, but if they were not alert, if the did not wake up to their condition and repent, the whole church would soon be dead.

3) Jesus did not find their works perfect (complete).

The church as a whole was dead. It had a great reputation but the One who has the authority to judge said that it was dead. However, there were still a few faithful members there. There were others who were "active" members, but their works were not at all what the Lord expected of them. This is where individual members must do some serious praying in our church today.


Revelation 3:3a:"Remember therefore what you have received and heard; keep it, and repent."

1) You must remember what you have received and heard.

What had they received and heard? They had received the Gospel. They had received the Word of God. They had heard sound doctrine. They must remember the Gospel and return to what they had heard.

2) You must keep it.

I will never forget the lecture when a favorite Old Testament professor stressed that when the Lord commands us to hear Him, he means to hear with a mind to obey. We do not really hear the Lord if we do not hear with a mind to obey Him. It is not enough to hear the Gospel or sound doctrine, we must hear with a mind to obey it. The emphasis here is on obedience to Him. The late Dr. J. Hardee Kennedy, a true theological giant of the past century wrote a commentary on Jonah in which he made the statement, "Obedience to God is man’s most sacred obligation."

3) You must repent.

Repentance is not an emotion. Conviction may be emotional, and probably will be. After we repent we will certainly feel certain emotions. But repentance means a change of mind that is reflected in a change in one’s life. It means an about face in which we are moving in one direction but when the Lord convicts us we do an about face and go in another direction.

Lost people need to repent, but the emphasis here is upon believers. We must repent when the Holy Spirit convicts us of our unfaithfulness. We have our Lord’s assurance that He will forgive us when we confess our sins and repent.

"If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:0).

It burdens me that we are living a day of moral relativism, a culture so saturated with New Age religious philosophy that no one seems to see the need of repenting of anything. Sadly, a lot of those people are members of churches. Is it possible that some of these churches are dead churches?


Revelation 3:3b: "But if you are not alert, I will come like a thief, and you have no idea at what hour I will come against you."

1) They must repent or face the sovereign Lord.

When Jesus came the first time He humbled Himself more than any other person ever has. He submitted Himself to verbal abuse, slander, gossip, and threats, as well as conspiracies by those who professed to be trying to kill Him to honor God. Radical Muslims committed one of the most brutal murders anyone has witnessed, and they committed it on tape and had it distributed, and all the time they were crying our that Allah is great. Jesus submitted Himself to human judges, to soldiers who mocked Him, fitted a crown of thorns on His head, slapped Him, scourged Him, and crucified Him.

Jesus is coming again as King of Kings and Lord of Lords. He will put all enemies under his foot; they will be no more than a footstool to Him. There is more here, however, and that is the fact that Jesus can pay His church a visit anytime he chooses. If you dishonor His church He can deal with you right now. How should that concern us? What can He do right now to deal with a dead church?

We have already seen in the letter to Ephesus that Jesus warned that if they did not repent He would come quickly and take away their candlestick. They would no longer be a light to the world. How can a church call itself a church if the light has gone out? It cannot justify that claim. It is a dead church. The Lord may not even see it as a church.

I said many years ago that the average church member has become so apathetic that if the Lord suddenly withdrew His Holy Spirit today millions of church members would continue to go to church each Sunday. And what’s more, they would never know the difference.

2) He will come when we least expect Him.

He will come as a thief in the night at the time of the Rapture of the church. He can also deal with rebellious church members and a dead church any time He chooses. He is sovereign in His will, His methods, and His schedule.

3) He will come against the enemies of the Cross.

He came first as the Suffering Servant but when He comes again He will come as King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Never again will He submit Himself to the abuse and mockery of any person, any nation, or any power on earth, under the earth, or above the earth. He is coming to put every foe under His foot. They will be crying for the rocks and hills to fall on them to cover them from the wrath of eternity’s Judge.


Revelation 3:4: "But you have a few people in Sardis who have not defiled their clothes, and they will walk with Me in white, because they are worthy."

1) There were a few saints even in Sardis who were undefiled.

Even is a dead church today there may well be some faithful individuals who have never compromised the faith. That was the case at Sardis. Who knows how many churches have been preserved for the sake of a few faithful believers. God promised to spare Paul when the ship on which he was sailing would be wrecked in a storm. All the lives of the crew and all the passengers would be saved because Paul was on that ship. God knows those who are faithful to Him.

2) They will walk with Jesus in white.

One can hardly read the Revelation without becoming aware of the significance of being dressed in white. Here the Lord pictures one who flings a coat around his shoulders.

In 4:4, we read:

"Around that throne were 24 thrones, and on the thrones sat 24 elders dressed in white clothes, with gold crowns on their heads" (4:4).

"After this I looked, and there was a vast multitude from every nation, tribe, people, and language, which no one could number, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were robed in white with palm branches in their hands" (Rev 7:9).

White, in apocalyptic literature represents righteousness. Why do you think that is? Is it possible that in those ancient times they made clothes of wool or other fabric that were white when clean. Those clothes were easily soiled and required a lot of effort to clean. Jesus wants His followers to walk in purity and righteousness. He is absolute purity and He is absolutely righteous. It is the ministry of the Holy Spirit to conform us to the image of our Savior (Rom. 8:8ff).

3) They walk in white because they are worthy.

Let me stress this one thing - they are not worthy because of any merit of their own. They are worthy because they are clothed in white. That is, they are clothed in the righteousness of Jesus Christ.


Revelation 3:5: "In the same way, the victor will be dressed in white clothes, and I will never erase his name from the book of life, but will acknowledge his name before My Father and before His angels."

1) The faithful will be given white clothes.

A lot of people seem to look at the Lord with the attitude, "What’s in it for me?" This attitude was fed, and is still being fed by some radio and television preachers who are continually pleading with people to send they "seed money" and God will bless them - and the clear implication is that He will bless them materially. Let me stress that the greatest blessing you should anticipate is that He will dress you in white clothes. He will clothe you in righteousness. Sanctification is a process in which the believer is being conformed to the image of Christ (Rom 8) through the ministry of the Holy Spirit.. There can be no greater blessing than that.

2) Their name will never be erased from the book of life.

In ancient times, in some places, the names of citizens of a city were recorded in a register until their death. At death their name would be erased or removed from the book of the living. What we have here is a strong statement that not even death can separate us from Jesus Christ, or from eternal life.

Under some circumstances a citizen’s name might be removed from the book before death. It is possible that some of the faithful believers at Sardis had seen their names removed from the book because of their commitment to Christ. Being stripped of citizenship was a serious matter. This will never happen in Christ.

3) Jesus will confess them before the Father.

Jesus is the One Who will judge each person. Lost people will hear Him say, "Depart from me, for I never knew you." Those who trust Him and follow Him will hear Him say, "Come ye blessed of my Father." Which is it going to be. Let me urge you to settle that before you leave here today.


Revelation 3:6: "Anyone who has an ear should listen to what the Spirit says to the churches."

There is in these words both a warning and an invitation. Once again, we must hear Him with a mind to obey Him. If the Lord is impressing upon your heart and mind the need to remember, repent, and confess Him in a fuller and more meaningful ay, let me urge you to make that commitment right now. If the Holy Spirit is speaking to your heart right now let me urge you to obey Him right now - don’t risk having Him deal with you in a different manner.