Sardis: The Church of the Living Dead
The Seven Churches of Revelation
Sardis: The Church of the Living Dead
Intro: In the September 20, 2004, issue of MacLean's magazine, Lianne George recounts this tragic story:
One November day in 2002, Jim Sulkers, a 53-year-old retired municipal worker from Winnipeg (Manitoba, Canada), climbed into bed, pulled the covers up, and died. Nearly two years later, on August 25, 2004, police who had been called by concerned relatives entered Sulkers' apartment and found his body in a mummified state. Everything else in his tidy one-bedroom apartment was intact, although the food in his fridge was spoiled and his wall calendar was two years out of date.
Mr. Sulkers' death went undiscovered for several reasons: he was reclusive, estranged from family members, and had a medical condition that prevented his body from decomposing and emitting odors. In addition, automatic banking deposited his disability pension and withdrew utilities and other expenses as they came due.
Terence Moran, who along with Neil Postman co-founded the Media Ecology program at New York University, said, "For many practical purposes, this man was virtually alive throughout that time. This man's life was extended for two years by the technology he used…"
That’s a sad story. A man appeared to be alive on the outside. But in fact he was dead. What a picture of the church we’re looking at today, a church that appeared to have life but was dead. The church I call the church of the living dead.
Let’s visit them this morning...
I. Christ’s Credentials
“To the angel of the church in Sardis write: He who has the seven Spirits of God and the seven stars, says this:’ Revelation 3:1a (NASB95)
Sardis, the city, had a glorious past. She was once the capital of a great and wealthy kingdom. Croesus, her king, was perhaps the wealthiest sovereign ever to sit upon a throne. His name became synonymous with opulence and wealth. However, Lydia’s overconfidence led to two surprise invasions, something thought impossible for a city set upon a towering pillar of stone. This led to Sardis’ downfall so that, by the time of John’s writing, she was a shadow of her former self. The kingdom once ruled by Croesus appeared healthy and thriving with all of her buildings and gardens and architectural beauty, but in reality they were merely leftovers from the past.
Christ describes Himself as the One who possesses the seven Spirits of God. This is a puzzling title. What are the seven Spirits of God? To figure it out we have to go back to the OT and look in the book of Zechariah…
Then the angel who was speaking with me returned and roused me, as a man who is awakened from his sleep. He said to me, “What do you see?” And I said, “I see, and behold, a lampstand all of gold with its bowl on the top of it, and its seven lamps on it with seven spouts belonging to each of the lamps which are on the top of it; also two olive trees by it, one on the right side of the bowl and the other on its left side.” Then I said to the angel who was speaking with me saying, “What are these, my lord?” So the angel who was speaking with me answered and said to me, “Do you not know what these are?” And I said, “No, my lord.” Then he said to me, “This is the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel saying, ‘Not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit,’ says the Lord of hosts. Zechariah 4:1-6 (NASB95)
The similarities to the symbols and imagery used in the first three chapters of Revelation are evident. Zechariah sees a golden lampstand with a bowl at the top which feeds oil to seven lamps (seven represents perfection and completion). Next to it are olive trees, the source of oil. The angel reveals that these things represent the source of Israel’s power and strength as the Spirit of God, the oil that fuels their lamps. Remember this too.
Christ also describes Himself as the One who possesses the seven stars – the “angels” of the seven churches (see 1:20), most likely being the pastors.
As with all the letters, Christ moves to the commendation section… Wait a minute there isn’t one! Sardis is one of two churches that doesn’t receive a commendation. Christ had nothing to commend them for but He did have a word of condemnation…
II. Christ’s Condemnation
“…‘I know your deeds, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead.’ Revelation 3:1b (NASB95)
Ouch! Talk about getting right to the point. At some point in the past, Sardis Baptist Church must have been a thriving fellowship excelling in good works – so much so that they made a name for themselves. However, things had changed over time. Christ declared them dead.
What did He mean? The clues are in the history and the text.
- Sardis the church, like Sardis the city, looked impressive on the surface but in truth it was all leftovers from the past. They must have done some pretty big things for God to make a name for themselves. All the churches in Asia heard about what was going on at Sardis. Yet there was no substance, no depth to this fellowship of believers. Somewhere along the way they had died but didn’t know it. They were the church of the living dead.
**I heard about a church that was so dead when a member actually died in a service the paramedics carried out 5 people before they got the right one.
The past was all they had and that’s where they lived because the only thing that lingers after death is memories. One pastor wisely observed: “You do not move ahead by constantly looking in a rearview mirror. The past is a rudder to guide you, not an anchor to drag you. We must learn from the past but not live in the past.” Another said, "A church is in danger of death when it begins to worship its own past, when it is more concerned with forms than with life; when it is more concerned with material than it is with spiritual things (Dr. William Barclay)."
How many of those kinds of churches do you suppose there are today? Ray Stedman tells of the time he visited a dead church:
“I was scheduled to preach in a church in a major city in Australia. I had never been to this church before, and I had no idea what to expect before I arrived.
The building was old and beautiful, fashioned out of stone and stained glass, topped with a sky-scraping spire, furnished with rich-looking carved pews, altar, and railings. An organ with enormous brass pipes filled the sanctuary with rolling swells of music.
The spacious, ornately decorated sanctuary could seat 800 worshipers, but only 35 mostly elderly worshipers were present. The choir consisted of seven elderly ladies, led by a woman who tried enthusiastically (if unsuccessfully) to coax a joyful noise from the ensemble. The organist mechanically played a few hymns, then picked up his sheet music and left.
As I awaited my time to preach I was aware that just outside this dying church a bustling city went about its business. People streamed by along the thoroughfare, totally unaware of-and untouched by-this church. Those within the church might as well have been worshiping inside a tomb. Today, whenever I read the letter to the church at Sardis I am reminded of that tragic, dying congregation in Australia.”
In what way were they dead?
- They had quenched the Spirit of God. Remember the lampstand and lamp imagery used here and in Zechariah? Just as the Spirit was the source of Israel’s strength and effectiveness, so is He the source of life and strength and effectiveness of the church. Their lamp was on its lampstand but there wasn’t any oil in it. The Sardis church had no Spirit!
This is why there is no evidence of heresy or persecution or tribulation at there. They were dead and Spiritless and thus no threat to satan and the dark forces in this world! Someone has compared live churches to dead…
· Live churches always have parking problems; dead churches don't.
· Live churches are always changing their methods; dead ones don't have to.
· Live churches have lots of noisy kids; dead churches are quiet.
· Live churches' expenses always exceed their income; dead churches take in more than they ever dream of spending.
· Live churches are constantly improving and planning for the future; dead churches worship in the past.
· Live churches grow so fast they forget people's names; in dead churches, you've known everybody's name for years.
· Live churches move out on faith; dead churches operate totally by sight.
· Live churches support missions heavily; dead churches keep it all home.
· Live churches are filled with tithers; dead churches are filled with tippers.
· Live churches dream great dreams for God; dead churches hold the line.
· Live churches have the fresh wind of love blowing; dead churches are stale with bickering.
· Live churches do not have "Can't" in their vocabulary; dead churches have nothing but.
· Live churches evangelize! Dead churches fossilize.[i]
The church at Sardis had fossilized like so many SBC churches (I pick on Southern Baptists because I are one).
Next Christ gave His correction and judgment…
III. Christ’s correction & judgment
‘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. ‘So remember what you have received and heard; and keep it, and repent. Therefore if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come to you. Revelation 3:2-3
The first thing they must do is …
- Wake up-
become aware of their condition and be watchful. Have you ever just wanted to yell at someone, “Wake up and smell the coffee!” “Stop being blind to yourself.” Dead churches and dead Christians don’t know they are dead. That’s a great fear of mine. The next is…
- Strengthen what is left-
Because it was about to die
Because their deeds were incomplete
- Remember the Gospel
- Keep the Gospel
- Repent – turn around
Christ warns the church that if they do not wake up from their slumber of death He will come to judge them, catching them completely unaware – like a thief in the night. That is, by the way, how He will return at the second coming!
Finally this morning we have Christ’s comfort…
IV. Christ’s comfort
‘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. ‘He who overcomes will 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. ‘He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’ Revelation 3:4-6 (NASB95)
Christ’s Invitation to overcomers…
1. They will be clothed in white garments
The white garments represent the righteousness of Christ.
2. They will have their names permanently engraved in the Book of Life
There is no reason to take this as evidence for the loss of salvation. Christ is expressing an evident truth.
It would be like me telling my wife, “Honey, I will never leave you.” She knows that I mean it something I had not nor would ever consider. It’s a comfort. Imagine if she began crying, “What?! You mean you thought about leaving me?”
3. They will have their name confessed by Christ before the Father
Conclusion: An oxymoron is two words that seem to be contradictory, but are joined together. They are terms that shouldn’t fit together, but they do – words like Jumbo shrimp, ill health, freezer burn, old news, and pretty ugly.  Could there be any greater oxymoron than “dead church”?
Of all the churches, we are in the most danger of becoming this one. As Christian we are all in danger of quenching the Spirit in our lives.
Do we smell formaldehyde?
Church, Christian, friend, heed the words of Christ…
He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
 Lianne George, "A High-Tech Ghost Story," MacLean's (9-20-04); submitted by Daren Wride, Lake Country, British Columbia, Canada
 God's Final Word: Understanding Revelation, 1991 by Ray C. Stedman
[i] Sharon Adams, “Live Churches,” Offering Christ Today Online (http://www.gbod.org/evangelism/programs/offeringchrist/live_churches.html)