To the angel[a] of the church in Sardis write:
These are the words of him who holds the seven spirits[b] of God and the seven stars. I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have found your deeds unfinished in the sight of my God. Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; hold it fast, and repent. But if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you. Yet you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes. They will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy. The one who is victorious will, like them, be dressed in white. I will never blot out the name of that person from the book of life but will acknowledge that name before my Father and his angels. Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
Physical sleep is good and important, but there is a kind of sleep that is bad. In fact, it can be deadly. It is a sleepiness of the soul. You grow more and more numb to what is happening in your life spiritually. You grow more and more disconnected from reality and more distant from God himself. Unlike physical sleep, this kind of sleep can last for years decades and eventually leads to death. Jesus is willing to do whatever it takes to wake us up, but here is the sobering thing that you need to hear: not all of us will. Some of us will hear what Jesus has to say and, metaphorically speaking, hit snooze and turn away. Sardis was a church that was known for being alive. If this church existed today, they would have an awesome website, great online service, incredible kids programming, lots of events on the calendar, lots of people attended. When they heard they got a letter from Jesus, they were excited. Jesus is sending us a letter! Can you imagine how devastated they were when they read it?
This tells us a really important point: spiritual reputation does not equal spiritual reality. A person’s or a church’s reputation spiritually does not necessarily equate to their reality before God. In fact, it rarely does because as God says in 1 Samuel 16:7, “But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” If you were to ask someone to give an assessment of the church at Sardis, they would have said A+. Nobody can see beneath the surface to the reality of the heart that Christ can. This principle also applies to our assessment of other people. Some of us get very certain that we know where somebody stands with God. Be very careful when you take that posture. You do not know.
What does Jesus mean when he says you are dead? There are two different interpretations scholars take. One possible meaning is that these are unbelievers in the church, and that when Jesus says you are dead, he is talking about people who have not put their faith in Jesus. They are not forgiven of their sins; there is no new life in them. That is possible. We know being in church does not make you right with God any more than being in a hospital makes you a doctor. Others think that when Jesus says you are dead, he is referring to true believers who are living in sin. They are out of fellowship with God. You could say it this way this is a church filled with nominal Christians. Christians in name but their life does not demonstrate that.
This is not a gentle whisper; this is wake up! The reason, according to Jesus, is something is about to die. There is urgency here. Why are they in danger? This church was not doing anything. They were known for being alive, so what does Jesus mean he found their deeds unfinished? It could mean that this church was doing good things but for the wrong reasons such as to enhance the reputation. It could mean that they started doing good things in obedience to Jesus, but they stopped.
Sardis was extremely wealthy and famous for their splendor. They were a part of the ancient Kingdom of Lydia. This was a fortress city built high on rocks 1500 feet above sea level with massive walls and steep cliffs surrounding it. It was considered impenetrable, so the world considered Sardis invincible, but they were not. In the 6th century, Cyrus the Great of Persia and his whole army surrounded Sardis, but they could not scale the walls. One of the Persian scouts sees a guard from Sardis at the top of the cliffs, and the guard leans over and drops his helmet. The helmet rolls down the cliffs to the bottom well he keeps watching and after a few minutes the guard appears at the bottom to get his helmet. Then he goes back into the cliffs and a few minutes later appears at the top. The scout knew now that there was a passageway to get from the bottom to the top without climbing the cliffs. Later that night, Persian soldiers found the passage, went to the top, and found it completely unguarded. They took the city without a fight. A similar situation occurred again three centuries later with Antiochus and his army.
This is what Jesus has in mind when he says this. Jesus is holding them accountable, and he is saying he is going to come in the manner of a thief, which is surprise. The same way that Sardis was surprised twice in their history. A thief will come to someone who presumes they are safe. They have a false sense of security, they are numb to the danger around them, or worse they are asleep. This spiritual condition mimics their history. They presume they are not in danger and that everything is fine.
So what does it mean to wake up? We remember. Christianity is received as is. We do not get to define Christianity and what fits, what suits our fancy, what is not offensive, etc. We believe the Christian faith it is received. While he says remember what you received and hold fast, this can also be translated as hold firm. We are to hold firm what we received, which is the gospel. We have a bad habit of holding fast to lots of doctrinal positions and opinions. It is good to have those, but the truth is that Christians ought to be much less dogmatic about things, theologically, that are secondary. He also says to repent. The Christian understanding of repentance is not just turning from sin; it is turning to Jesus. That is the only way it will work. If we are only trying to turn from sin, we are just going to find another sin. Christ not only cleanses us of our sin; he gives us the grace and strength through his spirit to live in a way that is pleasing to him. You cannot live the Christian life apart from the empowering presence of Jesus.