And to the angel of the church in Sardis write: This is what He who has the seven Spirits of God and the seven stars, says: “I know your deeds, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead.
Wake up, and strengthen the things that remain, which were about to die, for I have not found your deeds complete 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 3:1-3)
The church, by definition, is to be alive. It is a place where God lives, where Christ lives, where the Holy Spirit lives — where believers are alive. A church is to be the fellowship of those who possess eternal life.
Not the church in Sardis. This church is dead.
You could say that the congregation in Sardis was the very reverse of the congregation in Smyrna. Smyrna was being put to death and yet lived. Sardis appeared to be alive, but it was dead. It was a dead church living a fake life.
The life and power of the Holy Spirit is not present. The illuminating of the Holy Spirit is not there. The enabling of the Holy Spirit is not there. There’s no godly leadership there. Without the Holy Spirit and without godly leadership, the church was dead. It was a church dominated by the flesh, dominated by sin, dominated by unbelief, mostly populated by the unregenerate. Though, there would be some believers there who were indifferent and some who were faithful.
There’s no mention of persecution against this church, although there might have been some; there must have been some. There’s no mention of bad theology. There’s no mention of any false teachers. There’s no mention of any compromise with the world. There’s no mention of any sin. But the church must have imbibed all of that because it was dead – no spiritual life.
So what does our Lord say to a dead church? A church that has succumbed to the pressure of the world; that has left its first love like Ephesus, courted the world like Pergamum, tolerated sin and even advocated it like Thyatira?
Usually when the letter starts, there’s some commendation — but not here. It starts with condemnation. Jesus says, “I know your deeds; you’re dead. Your deeds are not acceptable.”
When the verse says dead, it means spiritually dead. This is a church full of unconverted people.
We’re used to that today. There are churches attended by people and led by people who don’t believe the Bible, don’t believe in Christ, and don’t believe the gospel. They’re dead churches. But in the first century? So close to Christ? That is a warning in itself. Any church is in danger of dying when it gets caught up in the world, tolerates sins, and abandons its first love.
You can tell when a church is dead. It’s concerned with tradition. It’s concerned with form. It’s concerned with liturgy. It’s concerned with welfare. It’s concerned with social ills. It’s concerned with tolerance of sin. It’s preoccupied with systems. It’s concerned with material things, not spiritual things. It doesn’t proclaim the gospel. It doesn’t uphold Scripture. It doesn’t pursue holiness.
What kills a church? Sin kills a church. Error kills a church. Compromise kills a church.
Little by little, sin kills. It kills the will, because it becomes a habit. It kills the feelings, because we become hardened. It kills the character, because we become warped and twisted.
When the killing power of sin is brought into the church by welcoming in false Christians, by putting unbelievers in positions of leadership, the church will die. Accepting unbelievers in the church and in positions of leadership grips the church by the neck and kills it.
You could argue that churches die for many reasons, but I would argue they die for one reason: they tolerate sin.
A church can be socially distinguished and have all of its programming but be a spiritual graveyard. It reminds me of Samson, the hero of Israel in the dark days of their history. He had so many feats and exploits of heroic strength.
But something happened. Samson fell into sin and lost touch with the source of his strength. His hair only symbolized the spiritual fact that God was his strength; and when he disobeyed God, he lost that strength. When confronted with danger, he tried to react, and the Bible records this: “He didn’t know that the Lord had departed from him.”
What a sad statement. Same old Samson, but the Lord was not there. And this led to Samson’s defeat, imprisonment, blindness, and death.
This is an illustration of Sardis. The church was once alive, but it began to court the world and tolerate sin, and it became weak and blind and dead. And now the church at Sardis is bound in brass chains, grinding the grains of sin’s prison, because God has long gone.
There are so many churches like that. This nation and the world are covered with them — churches that are dressed up and organized, but the whole congregation is blind and dead.
This post is based on a sermon Dr. MacArthur preached in 2015, titled “The Lord’s Word to His Church: Sardis.” In addition to serving as the pastor of Grace Community Church and the voice of Grace to You, Dr. MacArthur is the chancellor of The Master’s University in Santa Clarita, California. You can learn more about TMU at masters.edu.
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