Sardis (1517-1776 A.D.)
Sardis was the ancient capital of the Kingdom of Lydia and was located about 50 miles inland, almost directly east of Smyrna. It was where gold and silver coinage began in the 8th century B.C.
Sardis was first established as a citadel on the top of a hill overlooking the Pactolus River, from which the people panned gold dust that flowed down from nearby Mount Tmolus. The Lydian metallurgists had discovered a way to separate gold from silver during the reign of Croesus, the wealthy king who ruled from 560-546 B.C.
The city developed in two distinct parts. The lower city near the river was settled by the poor, lower-class people living in huts made of reeds from the river. In the upper city, bordering the king’s citadel on the hilltop, the upper class, wealthy people lived, surrounded by a protective wall.
The Precious Remnant
Sardis is a precious stone (sardius), uncommon, a remnant. This dual city may have served as a carnal type of the division between the church and the overcomers, pictured in Scripture as the difference between common and precious stones.
Likewise, its reputation for being the first city to learn how to separate silver from gold also suggests the separation of church and overcomers into separate contegories.
This church represents the remnant of grace in the time of church idolatry. In the Old Covenant Church, God had preserved a remnant of 7,000 who had not bowed their knees to Baal according to the decrees of Jezebel. It should be noted, too, that these were only the survivors. Many more had already been killed.
Though we do not know a specific number of overcomers in the time of the Jezebel church under the New Covenant, we know they existed. Historically speaking, this remnant was expressed in the Protestant Reformation. This does not mean that all (or even a majority) of Protestants were overcomers. Nonetheless, the Protestant movement represented the church of Sardis, for they came out of great tribulation and were successful in establishing separate churches.
As they separated themselves, many asked them: “How can your beliefs be right when so many great theologians say you are wrong?” The answer is simple: “By their fruits you will know them” (Matt. 7:20). The fruit of church creeds produced a host of murderers and torturers who were devoid of the love of God, regardless of their claims.
There were Protestants, too, who after establishing new and perhaps better creeds, failed to manifest the love of Christ. It would be a long road back to the knowledge of truth and the mind of Christ. But yet there were many moves of the Holy Spirit along the way which paralleled Israel’s journey from Egypt to the Promised Land, each contributing a new or better understanding of the word of God.
The first of these truths came from Martin Luther, who reinstated the great Passover truth: by faith alone in the blood of the Lamb. Later came the truth of the Holiness movement (the Red Sea); then the revelation that God still heals people (Marah); then the missionary movement (Elim); then Pentecost (Sinai); and finally, the revelation of Tabernacles and the five-fold ministry in the Latter Rain movement (Kadesh-barnea).
Today we await the final move of the Holy Spirit, carrying the revelation of the law (administered by the mind of Christ, that is, Joshua) that will bring us into the Promised Land.
The point is that the overcomers in history continued to remain as rare jewels among the rocks of violent and hateful men.
The Church’s Name or Reputation
Christ’s message to the church of Sardis begins in Rev. 3:1,
1 And to the angel of the church in Sardis write: He who has the seven Spirits of God, and the seven stars, says this: “I know your deeds, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead.”
This refers back to Rev. 1:16, where John first saw the glorified Christ, “and in His right hand He held the seven stars.” In Rev. 1:20 we read, “the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.” These seven angels can hardly be distinguished from the seven Spirits of God, which were supposed to speak through the leaders of each church.
The church leaders held a position similar to that of the shaliach tzibbur in the Jewish synagogues. These were the “messengers of the congregation,” called to read the public prayers while the people said AMEN. He was also known as the Chazzan, or Cantor, and this title was also used later by the church. The Chazzan was supposed to be a righteous man of good reputation.
Since a messenger is an “angel,” whether spiritual or physical, Scripture blends both together, in that the chazzan was supposed to manifest the presence of his assigned angel. The criticisms in Christ’s messages to the seven churches shows that their leaders had not fully absorbed the character of their personal angel, and so the word in the angel had not yet fully become flesh in them.
In the message itself, verse 1 says that Christ recognized the deeds—both good and bad—of the Sardis church. Secondly, He says, “you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead.” What does this mean? Many have focused upon the meaning of the Greek word onoma, “name.” However, we must remember that John was expressing Hebrew concepts through Greek language. Hence, we should interpret “name” according to its Hebrew equivalent, shem, which is more than a name; it is also “reputation, fame, glory.”
We see the word shem translated “famous” in 1 Chron. 12:30 and again in 22:5. One who had made a name for himself was a man of reputation. This is the sense in which the word is used in Rev. 3:1. The church—or perhaps, more narrowly, the shaliach tzibbur or chazzan of that church—had a good reputation, yet is “dead.”
The Concordant Version translates it more literally: “you have a name that you are living, and are dead.” In other words, this church or its leader had a good reputation that it was living out, or walking out in real life experience, and yet was spiritually dead. In other words, the church was a zombie, dead men walking around as if they were alive.
So far, this is not a good testimony of a church that is supposed to represent the overcoming remnant of grace. Rev. 3:2 continues,
2 Wake up, and strengthen the things that remain, which were about to die; for I have not found your deeds completed in the sight of My God.
Sleep is a common metaphor for death throughout the Scriptures. So the solution is to “wake up.” The leader’s calling was to serve as a watchman on the wall. Watchmen were supposed to be watchful, but if they slept at their post, the city might fall. The leader of Sardis, in this case, was the watchman who was exhorted to “wake up” and “establish the rest who are about to be dying” (Concordant Version).
In other words, people were in danger of dying by following the example of the sleeping leader. There was much work to be done, “for I have not found your deeds (works) completed in the sight of My God.” This is a prophetic statement about the Sardis church era from 1517-1776. Although they had done well in breaking away from worshipping men, there was still much work to be done to enjoy a good reputation with God. Their work was yet partial.
This prophesied that the Protestants were by no means perfect.
Remember and Repent
Revelation 3:3 continues,
3 Remember therefore what you have received and heard; and keep it, and repent. If therefore you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come upon you.
What had the Sardis church “received and heard” that they were supposed to keep (preserve)? We are told nothing about the church in the city of Sardis itself that might tell us what exactly they were supposed to preserve, guard, or keep (Greek: tareo). Our greatest clues come from understanding that they represent the remnant of grace, both in the Old Covenant church as well as the New Covenant church.
Elijah knew little about the remnant of grace, other than that they had been killed. Paul tells us more in Rom. 11:2-7. The lesson he draws from the story of Elijah and the 7,000 is stated in Rom. 11:5, 6,
5 In the same way then, there has also come to be at the present time a remnant according to God’s gracious choice. 6 But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace is no longer grace.
The obvious answer is that the remnant had been given an understanding of grace itself. And so we find in the Sardis church era that the foundation of Protestant theology rested on their concept of grace, as opposed to works. This was what they were supposed to “keep,” if it were possible. But because Christ tells Sardis to “repent,” it is obvious that they would either lose this concept or that their understanding of grace would be incomplete.
So in history we find that some of the Protestants abused Roman Catholics as much as they themselves had been abused. John Calvin burned Michael Servetus at the stake in Geneva on October 27, 1553.
There were other Catholic “martyrs” in other places such as in England after King Henry VIII broke from the Roman church and established the Church of England. The Roman church points to their 300 martyrs, hoping that their own actions in killing and torturing multiplied millions of dissenters will be overlooked or forgotten.
Although the Protestants elevated grace to a great extent, they still did not comprehend its full significance under the New Covenant. Their understanding of grace was incomplete, mostly because they did not know the foundational principle of the New Covenant—that it is based upon God’s vow to man, rather than man’s vow to God.
This is why even the remnant was called “according to God’s gracious choice,” as Paul said in Rom. 11:5. By contrast, a remnant of works (i.e., by man’s Old Covenant vow) would be according to man’s choice and man’s will. Israel’s vow in Exodus 19:8 is the prime example of a remnant of works. But Paul tells us that if it is by works, it is no longer by grace. Because grace is chained to God’s choice, rather than man’s “works,” it is plain that the “works” include the matter of will. God chose by His own will and therefore vowed to do something (“works”). So also when men choose by their own will, it is also a matter of “works” as they strive to fulfill their vows to God.
The Protestants shed many of the “works” that the Roman church required for salvation, but they failed to address the root of those works—man’s will. In other words, they chopped down the tree of works, but they failed to pull it up by its roots. They retained the idea that man’s will—that is, his decision to follow Christ—is what obtains saving grace to us. But this is a reversion to the Old Covenant. which cannot save anyone, unless that person is fully able to fulfill His vow to follow Christ. See my book, The Two Covenants.
Psalm 80:3, 7 appeals to God to turn us (shuv) so that we may be saved. It is the same with our love for Christ, for 1 John 4:19 says, “We love, because He first loved us.” Paul traces the genealogy of salvation plainly in Rom. 10:13-15,
13 for “Whoever will call upon the name of the Lord will be saved.” 14 How then shall they call upon Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? 15 And how shall they preach unless they are sent?
Until God takes the first step to make that happen, it is foolish to say that men everywhere should believe in Christ. When men “call upon the name of the Lord,” it is only the final step in a series of events tracing back to God’s grace in sending a preacher. In other words, God took the initiative to fulfill His New Covenant vow to make us His people and to be our God (Deut. 29:12, 13).
Grace, then, is the work of God on our behalf. No believer, then, can take credit for his own salvation, for he has only responded to the grace-work of God. This is why we are begotten of God, not by the will of man, nor by his flesh, but by God’s will alone (John 1:13). He has wooed us by His great love; therefore, we have responded with love that He has implanted within our hearts.
The Sardis church era produced Protestants, but these had an incomplete understanding of grace. Hence, they were partially works-oriented; that is, their doctrine was a mixture of grace and works. At any rate, since we are to judge by their fruits, we see much that is good, but also much that is deficient.
Coming as a Thief
Christ threatens the Sardis church, saying that if they do not wake up and finish the course laid before them, He would “come like a thief” (Rev. 3:3). In other words, Christ says, “you will not know at what hour I will come upon you.”
In those days, thieves came in companies. The “thief” metaphor was not meant to conjure up thoughts of a cat burglar, who silently creeps into a house at night to steal jewelry. The Eastern metaphor depicted a band of thieves riding into town early in the morning while men slept, throwing everyone into chaos, and killing anyone who resisted their plundering.
Paul used this same metaphor in 1 Thess. 5:2-6,
2 For you yourselves know full well that the day of the Lord will come just like a thief in the night. 3 While they are saying, “Peace and safety!” then destruction will come upon them suddenly like birth pangs upon a woman with child; and they shall not escape. 4 But you, brethren, are not in darkness, that the day should overtake you like a thief… 6 so then let us not sleep as others do, but let us be alert and sober.
The thief comes while men are sleeping. This is the warning to Sardis, which was “dead” and needed to “wake up.” If they did not repent and wake up, then they would find themselves plundered, shaken, and possibly even killed in “the day of the Lord.” Many Christians expect to be raptured, of course, not understanding the prophecies of the feast of Tabernacles. They do not realize that they are in danger, because the watchmen are asleep, and those who are awake are too few.
The message, then, is to be awake and alert, so that we will not be taken by surprise when the day of the Lord comes. This implies that those who are awake will NOT be surprised. In other words, they will have enough understanding to see that day coming, in spite of what Jesus told His disciples in Acts 1:7,
7 He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or epochs which the Father has fixed by His own authority.”
It seems to me that if we are watchful, we may be given some general knowledge of the times in which we live. The message to Sardis implies that those who are awake and sober, not having imbibed upon the wine of Babylon, will have sufficient knowledge of the timing of the day of the Lord so that they will not be surprised when it comes.
God commends the church in Sardis, saying in Rev. 3:4, 5,
4 But you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their garments; and they will walk with Me in white; for they are worthy. 5 He who overcomes shall thus be clothed in white garments; and I will not erase his name from the book of life; and I will confess his name before My Father, and before His angels.
God first gave garments to Adam and Eve in Gen. 3:21. These, of course, were substitute garments made of skins, which represented physical flesh. Later, the priests were instructed to wear white linen garments when ministering to God in the tabernacle and the temple (Lev. 16:32). Even the common people were instructed to wash their garments before approaching God at Mount Horeb (Exodus 19:10).
Having clean garments symbolized having clean hearts and being clothed on the outside with righteous works in daily life. In fact, they were all supposed to put a blue cord or string on the tassels of their garments in order to remember God’s commandments (Num. 15:38-40). No garment was complete without this, and this was a symbol of their obedience to God and to His law.
Garments of Salvation
Isaiah 61:10 prophesies,
10 I will rejoice greatly in the Lord, My soul will exult in my God; for He has clothed me with garments of salvation, He has wrapped me with a robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
These garments necessarily include the blue cord to show lawful (obedient) behavior when people are led by the Spirit. But perhaps more important is the fact that it is God Himself who clothes His people with these garments. In the Old Testament type and shadow, men clothed themselves with physical garments, but under the New Covenant, it is God who does it by His grace.
Further, these are garments of yesha, “salvation.” The word yesha is just another form of Yeshua, which is translated later as Jesus. So Paul says in Gal. 3:27,
27 For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.
This clothing also represents the New Creation Man, which is to say that we have become new creatures, new beings having new identities, and no longer of the old Adamic man. Paul says in Eph. 4:24,
24 and put on the new self [anthropos, “man”], which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth.
This is repeated in Col. 3:10,
10 and have put on the new self [anthropos, “man”] who is being renewed to a true knowledge according to the image of the One who created him—11 a renewal in which there is no distinction between Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and freeman, but Christ is all, and in all.
These new garments are thus available on an equal basis to all men, regardless of their ethnicity or social class. All have equal opportunity to put on the garments of Jesus Christ—or rather, for God to clothe them with the garments of Jesus.
Yet no one is clothed with these garments until they are begotten by the seed of the gospel, for it is only the new man that can receive such garments. The fact that all will eventually receive these garments does not contradict this, because God has not yet drawn all men to Himself (John 12:32). Neither do we yet see all things subjected to Christ (Heb. 2:8). This divine plan is necessarily done in steps, because not all men live in a single time or generation. Neither do all who live in a given generation come to believe the truth of the gospel.
Furthermore, even believers in Christ are not necessarily worthy to receive these garments, as we see in the message to Sardis. This does not mean that they will lose their salvation, but that they will not be changed at the time of the first resurrection (Rev. 20:4-6). Those who do not qualify for the first resurrection will be given immortality in the second resurrection, where all the dead are summoned to the throne (Rev. 20:12). That resurrection will include both believers and unbelievers (John 5:28, 29; Acts 24:15), and the believers at that time will be “saved yet so as through fire” (1 Cor. 3:15).
The message to the Sardis church makes it clear that only a few people in that church were walking in clean garments—that is, living lawfully according to the commandments of God, rather than living legalistically by the traditions of men. These few “will walk with Me in white; for they are worthy” (Rev. 3:4). The clear implication is that the others in the church will NOT be clothed in white, for they are unworthy of such garments. Only “he who overcomes shall thus be clothed in white garments” (Rev. 3:5).
Not all believers are overcomers.
The Book of Life
Rev. 3:5 says of the overcomers, “I will not erase his name from the book of life.” Putting this as a negative statement implies that He intends to erase the names of non-overcomers from the book of life. One cannot erase a name unless it is already pre-written. This implies that some believers, those who were genuinely begotten by the seed of the word, those who truly had Christ in them as their hope of glory, can lose their place in the book of life.
Here we have stumbled upon the centuries-old dispute between Calvin and Arminius. Calvin taught “once saved, always saved,” while Arminius said that one may lose his salvation if he repudiates Christ. Both were half-right. What they did not understand was that the finished work of Christ on the cross sealed the fact that all men would be saved in the end, but that the timing of their salvation was yet to be determined (from man’s perspective).
Hence, “once saved, always saved” is absolutely true if we tie it to the cross. Even if they are “lost,” Jesus will find them in the end (Luke 15:4-7). Likewise, believers may lose their salvation (temporarily) if they renounce Christ. They may find their name erased from the book of life, but not forever. The book of life records the names of those who are currently eligible to receive the garments—the immortal body—that Christ secured for them by His death and resurrection.
It is obvious that if names can be erased from the book of life that this book is constantly being updated, as it were. It is not a book that records the ultimate goal, which is the salvation of all men, for then it would never need updating, nor could any name be erased. So Arminius was partially correct in saying that salvation could be lost. His error was in not recognizing the power of the cross to save all mankind in the end.
In fact, that was Calvin’s main error as well. The Restoration of All Things was the missing ingredient in both of their teachings, which, if they had known, would have gone far to reconcile the two teachings and bring peace between the two reformers.
Confessing Names Before the Father
Rev. 3:5 says of the overcomers, “I will confess his name before My Father, and before His angels.” This confession comes in a divine court setting. Obviously, no name will be confessed unless it is written in the book of life.
The word “confess” is from a compound Greek word homologeo, which means “to say the same thing as another; to agree with, assent.” Therefore, this idea of confessing one’s name in the divine court establishes the fact that two parties are in agreement. This is, of course, the prime characteristic of the overcomers. Those believers who have experienced Passover have faith in the blood of the Lamb. Those who experienced (true) Pentecost are the obedient ones, being led by the Spirit. But those who experience Tabernacles are in agreement with Christ.
In Matt. 10:32, 33 Jesus says,
32 Everyone therefore who shall confess Me before men, I will also confess him before My Father who is in heaven. 33 But whoever shall deny Me before men, I will also deny him before My Father who is in heaven.
In other words, everyone who is in agreement with Jesus in this present age, and is not afraid to state this publicly, will hear Jesus’ testimony telling the divine court, “I am in agreement with him/her. This is my son, one who has been begotten of Me, a new creation.” When will Jesus’ public confession be made? In a sense, of course, He backs His people in every age and epoch, regardless of time. However, the context of Rev. 3:5 shows a specific divine court setting, which fully manifests at the Great White Throne in Rev. 20:12, where the book of life is opened.
So the Sardis church—the church of the remnant of grace—is warned not to presume that their names are all written in the book of life. The overcomers among them are in agreement with Christ. The rest need to “wake up” and “repent,” lest Jesus come upon them “like a thief” to “steal,” as it were, their names from the book of life. It is far better to pray that Jesus steals and removes all things that hinder our understanding of His grace, so that we may come fully into agreement with His will and His plan for creation.
Revelation 3:6 concludes,
6 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.