Of all conditions a church may find itself in, there is probably none worse than that of the church of Sardis. There were no heresies that needed correcting for they were seemingly not engaged enough to press beyond a most simplistic Gospel. Immorality was not mentioned most likely because such behavior would be greatly overshadowed by their gross condition. There is no mention of threats or persecutions because there was not enough spiritual life found in them to be obnoxious. The world has no bother with a lifeless church.
Jesus admonishes them saying, “I know your works, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead.” Rev. 3.1 The name “Sardis” itself has various possible meanings including “prince of joy,” “that which remains,” and “escaping,” none of which is significant to “being alive.” He can only mean they call themselves “Christians.” The suffix “-ians” means they “relate to” or “belong to” Christ, who is “The Life.” Jn. 14.6 But to be Christian in name only, and not in life itself, falls far short of God’s call upon this church and all that call upon the name Christian.
The following account is not a treatise of the letter to the Church of Sardis. Rather, we continue to ask the question, “Is there a message for me, for my church, within this letter?” In reading over this letter, three applications instantly arise in need of attention:
- The church as a whole is in death throes, the final stage before the end. (Rev. 3.1)
- Christ will come again on them, meaning He will come again in judgement. (Rev. 3.3)
- The one that repents and overcomes will walk with Christ in white. (Rev. 3.4)
But You Are Dead
“I know your works, that you have a name that you live, and are dead.”Rev. 3.1
When God created the first man, Adam, He “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.” This is life that sustains man in the natural. More accurately, Adam became a living soul. In a new creation, Jesus said that He came that we “may have life and have it abundantly.” Forgoing an etymological discussion of word meanings, let it only be said that the first word for life, the life all mankind inherited in the seed of Adam in the first creation, is distinctively different in meaning from the life gained from receiving the seed of Christ. All mankind enjoys the former all the days of his natural life upon this earth. Fewer are those experiencing the latter, for this “life” (zoe) speaks of an intangible life in the heart of the inward man, in the spirit of man. This life lifts one into communion with God and is eternal. For sake of discussion we’ll call the former “Adam-life,” which speaks of life in the natural, and the latter “Christ-life,” which refers to life in the spirit.
Adam-Life. The Adam-life manifests itself in the natural. All mankind is born into this world with this soul life. This life expresses itself in the realm of bodily functions and mental faculties. We grow, mature, reproduce, work, recreate, and sleep. Here, also, we feel with our emotions of fear, anger, sadness, joy, and so on. This life enables man to learn, retain knowledge, and think rationally and logically. Religion, e.g., the religion of the Old Testament of “The Law,” relies upon and takes full advantage of this Adam-life. One may learn all the precepts of “The Law,” come into obedience of its ordinances, practices, the sacrifices, and observe its holy days, and to some degree constrain one’s desires with a degree of self-control. Thus, Adam-life may well mimic for a religion. In this Adam-life, man becomes consistent in tradition, in ritualistic practices of worship and sacrifices, and conformity to governing laws. A “holy book” or “holy writings” guide the religious way of life.
Christ-Life. When one is born again he conceives the life of Christ, being born of His seed. (1 Pet. 1.23) Through the Adam-life, the soul of man interacts very well with the natural realm by way of his body. Through the Christ-life, the soul of man interrelates with the spiritual realm. Because this life manifests itself in the realm of the spirit, it is above or outside the domain of the natural. Christ-life functions in the dimension of the invisible or intangible, such as in the Kingdom of God. It can function outside the natural limitations of time, space, and matter.
Faith is the single most absolute necessity to function in this life. Unless one truly believes that he was “raised up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus” Eph. 2.6 he could hardly begin to, “seek those things which are above, where Christ sits on the right hand of God. Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth. For you are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God.” Col. 3.1-3 The Adam-life has no understanding of this, and would prefer to sit in the environs of a church, with its stain-glass windows, smell the incense, hear the choir, and listen to the pastor’s sermon. The Christ-life in the spiritual man looks beyond the immediate situation locked up in time, space, and matter, and seeks a timely relationship with God the Father and the Son in the Holy Spirit.
The spirit life is not independent of body and soul, but functions as an integral part with them making up the totality of man. What is sensed, perceived, or otherwise revealed to-or-in the spirit is gained by the understanding of man’s mind (soul). Jesus told Nicodemus that unless one is born again (of this spiritual seed of Christ) he cannot see the kingdom of God, nor can he enter the Kingdom. The realm of the spirit is outside the realm of the Adam-life and natural man. “You must be born again.” Jn. 3.7
Works. “I know your works.”Just as true spiritual worship (see Jn. 4.23-24) is outside the realm of the natural talents and efforts of man, the works of the believer that are being evaluated by Christ, are also outside the realm of the natural. These works are beyond the strength, ingenuity, and do-good drive of the natural man. Coming to the aid of fellow believers and caring for their natural well-being is certainly not without merit and is encouraged in scripture. However, the Christ-life may be manifested in the invisible and intangible as well. These “spiritual works” that are exhibited are the works of service (ministry) in the building up and functioning of His Church, the Body of Christ, and in character. Character is the Christ-like mental and moral qualities that become distinctive to individual believers, and to their corporate expression in a local church.
Apart from setting aside a portion of the apostle’s small treasury for a donation to the poor, the works of Jesus were overwhelmingly spiritual. His primary focus was on issues relating to behavior, character, morality, and above all, relationships between man and God the Father, the Son, and relationship between one another. All these are intangible in the natural but are realities in the spiritual realm. When Jesus said, “I will build My church…” He obviously had no thought of temples and cathedrals, priestly offices, and religious ceremonies. His vision was, and still is, of a corporate body ministering the Christ-life to unbelievers, and nurturing those qualities of the Christ-life in believers until… “we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect (mature) man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” Eph. 4.13
Did not Jesus say to Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world.” Jn. 18.36 By “this world,” He meant all that functions in and out of the natural realm of the old Adam-life. It is as He told the woman at the well, “the hour is coming and now is, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him.” Jn. 4.23 Would you not agree that the Kingdom of which He spoke to Pilate and of worship of which He spoke to the woman, are both beyond the limits of the natural realm of this earth, of tangible kingdoms, churches, and religious practices? Rather, it involves the intangible and invisible qualities of a spiritual or heavenly dimension. These are the qualities the Father seeks for His children and the Son seeks for His Church. For “God is Spirit and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.” Jn. 4.24
Spiritual Life. John put it quite simply, “He who has the Son has ‘the life,’ he who does not have the Son of God does not have ‘the life.’” 1 Jn. 5.12 The life, is the uncreated life, the Christ-life, born out of the seed of Jesus Christ. To “walk in the Spirit” (see Gal. 5.16, 25) is to conduct one’s life according to the principle of the indwelling life of the Spirit of Christ. It is becoming a spiritual man, not governed by the life of the flesh, after the Adam-life. In simplicity of statement, the presence of the embryonic spiritual seed of Christ in the individual is the basis by which the believer may become a partaker
s, or have a share in, the divine nature. (Described in detail in 2 Pet. 1.3-11) Think on it. Having a share in the divine nature is the progressive manifestation of the Christ-life, overshadowing and displacing the dominance and control of the Adam-life.
In the 1970s, the Charismatic Movement—with its emphasis on the baptism of the Holy Spirit, the gifts of the Spirit, and holy callings and ministries—was central to our thinking. A fair amount of this life focused on spiritual ministries, such as apostles, prophets, teachers, evangelists, and on spiritual gifts of healing, working of miracles, prophecy, discerning of spirits, tongues, and the interpretation of tongues. (1 Cor. 12.7-10) All of these added to an “exciting” walk. It was soon realized, though some of the manifestations of the Spirit were genuine, much was also coerced, fraudulent, and simply mimicked out of the Adam-life. With fraudulent tactics added to the message of the Gospel, ministries such as these wooed the naive and grew in popularity. And so it is today. Of all the gifts of the Spirit, that of discernment seems too often lacking.
It soon became evident that the manifestation of the ministries and gifts of the Spirit were not marks of spiritual maturity in themselves. One may prophesy, or teach, or pastor under a seemingly anointing ministry, but remain spiritually immature in character and regrettably be morally bankrupted. Rather than being signs of maturity, the ministries and gifts of the Holy Spirit are really spiritual “toolboxes” used to help build character and to build up the Church of Jesus Christ. They are not an end in themselves. They are a means towards an end, the maturity of the Christ-life.
Spiritual Maturity. If one pursues the “higher calling,” as Paul did (see Phil. 3.14), he or she will undoubtedly be caught up with messages of “deeper life” teachings. These do not come with the flare and zeal of the above-mentioned spiritual manifestations. They do not appeal to all. Once at a church conference, a middle of the night talk between another and myself, led to a discussion of a particular minister whose life was dedicated to the teaching of deeper life truths—spiritual maturity. The brother said that this minister had to “lighten up,” that his messages were too “heavy,” and they were not popular among the people. An interesting note about this minister is that he never did have large followings, but he was repeatedly invited back to speak. “Something” in his messages, perhaps a measure of Godly truth, pricked at the hearts of people. Though they may not have embraced his messages, they were by and large reluctant to discard them. They just tucked them away and added these “heavy messages” to their compendium of doctrines.
I found that these truths began to lay hold of my heart, enticing me to draw nearer. One finds himself returning time and time again to this school of thought. There is a somber ring of truth to it, a spiritual attraction, leading to an undeniable experience of the Christ-life. In each of the following scripture quotes there is a spiritual truth that, if one truly believes and receives it and acts accordingly, it will change their lives. It is when the invisible and intangible realm of the Kingdom becomes real and experiential.
The reality of Christ in you: “To whom God would make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles; which is Christ in you, the hope of glory:” Col. 1.27
The reality of identification with the cross and the life of Christ: “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ lives in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.” Gal. 2.20
The reality of being raised (spiritually) with Christ: “If you then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ sits on the right hand of God. Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth. For you are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God.”Col. 3.1-3
The reality of actually sitting with Christ in the heavenlies: “Even when we were dead in sins, has quickened us together with Christ, (by grace you are saved;) And has raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus:”Eph. 2.5-6
The reality that the Spirit of God inhabits the church gathering: “In whom all the building fitly framed together grows to an holy temple in the Lord: In whom you also are built together for an habitation of God through the Spirit.” Eph. 2.21-22
The reality that Christ is actually in the midst of a few gathered in His name, regardless the reason: “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the middle of them.” Mt. 18.20
The reality of standing before the throne of God, and the Lamb in worship: “But you are come to mount Sion, and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to an innumerable company of angels, To the general assembly and church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven, and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, And to Jesus the mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling, that speaks better things that that of Abel.” Heb. 12.22-24
The reality that the invisible is real and factual: “Jesus answered, My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now is my kingdom not from hence.”Jn. 18.36
The reality that we are 100% dependent on the life emanating from Christ within: “I am the vine, you are the branches: He that abides in me, and I in him, the same brings forth much fruit: for without me you can do nothing.” Jn. 15.5
Beloved, this is life in the Spirit. By faith all things of the Spirit are activated and we become partakers of the Christ-life, and thereby the divine nature. This life manifests itself in Godly character and spiritual service—from the conception of His seed within our heats to the maturing of that seed as sons and daughters of the Father and as servant vessels of the Lord Jesus Christ. These are the works deemed right and proper by Christ. Though the church of Sardis, or any church for that matter, gives 90% of its treasury to the poor, holds fund raising or clothing drives for the needy, holds church services several times a week, and has not the Christ-life, it is indeed nearly dead, and will come under judgment.
A Time of Judgement
“Remember therefore how you have received and heard, and hold fast, and repent. If therefore you shall not watch, I will come on you as a thief, and you shall not know what hour I will come on you.”Rev. 3.3
Though salvation be purely of grace, independent of works (Eph. 2.8), the saved may have a greater or lesser reward, according as he lives to, and serves Christ, more or less.
“12Now if any man build on this foundation gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble; 13Every man’s work shall be made manifest: for the day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire; and the fire shall try every man’s work of what sort it is. 14If any man’s work abide which he has built thereupon, he shall receive a reward. 15If any man’s work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved; yet so as by fire.” 1 Cor. 3.12-15
Ultimately, a fruit, such as an apple or grape, is not judged by its outward appearance of size, shape, or color. It is judged by its internal qualities—its taste, juiciness, and texture. So too are the church and its members to be judged—not according to numbers, programs, and structures, but according to thoughts, words spoken, actions done, and most importantly the intent of the heart—during their time on this earth, in this body, and among the Church.
The Judgement Seat of Christ. “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.” 2 Cor. 5.10
For we must all appear in judgement before Christ. Thus is the working of the universal law of retribution. Standing before the Lord, there is no formula of justification by faith (Rm. 5.18), or imputed righteousness (Phil. 3.9), or pardon sealed by the blood of Christ (Lk. 22.20), or “priestly absolution” permitted. On that great day, the secrets of men’s hearts will be revealed and each man will be awarded accordingly, or in proportion, to his works.
“Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait until the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of the heart. At that time each will receive their praise from God.” 1 Cor. 4.5
Grace is grace and works are works. Grace is divine favor; it enables, provides the opportunity for, and cleanses the heart of its sordid past. But man is a moral being capable of deciding for himself how he will build upon that foundation. Works, by faith in the principle of the Christ-life, builds upon that foundation to bring to maturity the sons and daughters of God and the building up of Christ’s church. All of this is towards God’s ultimate end-time purpose.
Clothed in White Raiment
“You have a few names even in Sardis which have not defiled their garments; and they shall walk with me in white: for they are worthy. He that overcomes, the same shall be clothed in white raiment…”Rev. 3.4-5
Those “alive” owe their life and growth to Him. Those “dying” spiritually may respond with repentance and be restored to life by Him. Moral choices of righteousness, of goodness or evil, are always before man. One cannot say, “I didn’t know,” or “I was without ability,” or “it’s not my fault, it’s my pastor’s fault, my teacher’s fault, or it was my elder’s fault.” Each individual stands before the judgement seat of Christ on his or her own merit. But there is also a warning of special judgement upon those failing ministries,
“Woe unto you shepherds who are destroying and scattering the sheep of My pasture…” and “…This is what the Sovereign Lord says: I am against the shepherds and will hold them accountable for my flock…” (Read entire passages: Jer. 23.1-3 and Eze. 34.1-10)
These are sober warnings for those who are placed in position to care for and oversee the flock(s) of Christ. However, our attention now turns upon the end-times, when Christ returns for His church, and sits on the “bema” or judgement seat. All will then pass before Him to receive commendations and rewards, or admonitions and loss of rewards for their passing here on the earth.
Clothed in Black or White. (An Analogy)
During the time of the second temple in Jerusalem a Sanhedrim of primarily rabbis was formed as “administrators of the Law.” There was a chamber in the court of the temple in which the Sanhedrim examined all priests prior to their being received into the staff of those officiating in the sanctuary. One such judgment was in judging priests for suitability for specific service in the temple. They were to decide the most minute details of each priest as to genealogy and to determine other bodily infirmities. These authorities registered no less than 142 defects which may disqualify the priest of serving at the altar.
At the conclusion of this examination, all the priests were divided into two classes. Those who were pronounced physically disqualified put on black garments, wrapped themselves up in black cloaks, and went away in silence. These priests, who were declared physically unfit, were employed in the chamber for wood at the north-east of the court of the women, to select the proper wood for the altar, since any piece which was worm-eaten could not be burnt on it.
Those priests who were declared qualified put on white garments and white cloaks, and joined their brethren to assist in the sacred office. They celebrated the day by giving a feast to all their friends, which they opened with the following benediction: “Blessed be the Lord! Blessed be He because no blemish hath been found in the seed of Aaron, the priest; and blessed be He because He hath chosen Aaron and his sons to stand and to serve before the Lord in His most holy sanctuary.” (Ellicott’s Commentary)
This account, under the Old Covenant, is but a pattern or a shadow of what is to come in Christ. Like all accounts under the Old Covenant, the focus is on the natural, not the spiritual. Though all remained as priests to serve in the temple, not all served in the same capacity and function. Some were rewarded for perfection in their “physical attributes” while others were assigned to lesser responsibilities for their “physical defects.” This is religion, founded upon and limited to the Adam-life. It pertained to the then present age, and of the natural: of genealogies, physical perfections or defects, earthly promises, rituals, and feast days, temple service, and so on.
However, a new covenant has arisen in Christ, to those born of His life. No longer is the focus on the physical but now on the spiritual: “In that He says, ‘A new covenant,’ He has made the first obsolete. Now what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.” Heb. 8.13 Judgement will still come but the only genealogy that matters is, “are you of Christ’s seed?” The physical condition of one’s body is of no consequence. What does matter is the voice of the Lord when He says, “I know your works,” and our hearts are unveiled before Him.
To He Who Overcomes. “…they shall walk with me in white: for they are worthy. He that overcomes, the same shall be clothed in white raiment…” Rev. 3.4-5 Unlike the white garments and white cloaks adorning the priests of the Old Covenant who were declared “qualified,” these raiments are spiritual and adorn the overcomers in Christ. They represent purity and brightness or glory.
Eternal life is promised to all possessing the Christ-life. In the age to come, all will remain as sons and daughters of the Father and have place in His Kingdom. However, like these priests of the Old Covenant, not all will serve to the same purpose or have the same responsibilities, oversight, and function in this Kingdom. In these letters to the seven churches of Asia, Christ makes frequent promises “to he who overcomes,” of special rewards to those who do overcome. And to those who do not “wake up,” who do not “strengthen those things that remain,” and who do not “repent,” there is a loss—a falling short of the promises.
She was given clothing of fine linen, linen bright and pure. We must close here with a gaze into an eternal purpose of God—that He might have for His Son a bride, a helpmate, who will be by His side, sit with Him upon His throne, and with Him oversee the Kingdom of God.
“7Let us be glad and rejoice, and give honor to him: for the marriage of the Lamb is come, and his wife has made herself ready. 8And to her was granted that she should be arrayed in fine linen, clean and white: for the fine linen is the righteousness of saints. 9And he said to me, Write, Blessed are they which are called to the marriage supper of the Lamb.Rev. 19.7-9
Depending on the particular translation, the phrase may be “fine linen, clean and white” or “fine linen, pure and bright.” The latter is the better translation. However translated, the wedding garment represents purity and glory. This is the raiment of the overcomers, and their exalted position as the Bride of Christ. The Church is seen no more. Its purpose, with Christ as its head, to prepare a people for His eternal purpose, is now complete. The work of preparation is over. His wife has made herself ready. Blessed are they which are called to the marriage supper of the Lamb.