Though often called the “letters to the seven churches” (with somewhat good reasons), the address to each church functions as a prophetic oracle. John has called his work a “prophecy” (Revelation 1:3) and in these “letters” the prophet calls the churches to respond in faithfulness much like Israel’s prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures.
At one time Sardis was a wealthy and powerful city. Its citadel, located on an acropolis, was thought impregnable. However, the ancient historian Herodotus tells us that the fortress fell to the Persians in 546 BCE as the Sardians slept comfortably secure on their mighty hill (and again later by the Greeks). The citadel also fell as they slept in 214 BCE during a Lydian revolt. Vigilance, apparently, was not a Sardian virtue. By the Roman era, Sardis had lost its leadership in the region, particularly to Smyrna as it was awarded the imperial temple rather than Sardis. Though still a relatively wealthy city, its power was curtailed by that growing vitality of other Asian cities. One might say that the city had a reputation based on its history of wealth and power in the region but by the first century the city had lost its fangs. It had little bite left.
Addressor: “the words of him who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars.”
To hold (literally, “have”) the seven stars in his hand is not only a sign of relationship to the churches but also a declaration of imperial relation to these churches (see comments on Revelation 2:1). It is a statement of care but also of supervision; he holds the seven angelic representatives of the churches in his hand and he speaks prophetically and imperially to each.
What is different in this text, however, is that Jesus also holds the “seven spirits of God” in his hand. Some identify the “seven spirits” with the “seven stars” and thus the seven congregations. That is possible, but it seems more likely that the “seven spirits” are the seven-fold Spirit that speaks to the seven churches (just as every oracle ends with the admonition to listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches).
Acknowledgement: “I know your works.”
Actually, it is no acknowledgement; it is not an affirmation. Rather, it is ironic. “I know your works,” Jesus says, but those works are lifeless and incomplete. They are no (good) works at all.
The church is like the city. It has a reputation but it is dead. We might surmise that they live in the afterglow of a glorious beginning or they live in the nostalgia of the past. Jesus calls them back to their beginnings–what they had “received and heard” at one point. They are living off their rep rather than living in the present through their works.
Jesus, in rather quick succession, fires off five imperatives to the church at Sardis:
- Become Alert or Wake Up – like their city in the past, this church is asleep at the wheel; they need more vigilance.
- Strengthen — firm up or support what remains so that the church might again live
- Remember — this is not nostalgia but renewing what lies at the roots of this congregation’s beginnings.
- Keep — guard and maintain what gave the congregation its lively origins.
- Repent — turn away from the dead works and renew the good works that inaugurated the Christian community in Sardis.
These imperatives provide a gird for a congregational restart. It involves (1) remembrance, (2) repentance, and (3) renewal through appropriating past values and strengthening present life.
Warning: “I will come like a thief…”
Since this directed at Sardis, this does not refer to the eschatological coming of Jesus. Rather, eschatological language (“coming”) is used to describe a proleptic event in the life of the church of Sardis that anticipates the eschatological reality. Jesus will come suddenly and unexpectedly to remove their candlestick but it is not at the same time the “end of the age.” Rather, the future judgment will potentially break into the present life of the Sardis church if they do not repent. Jesus will come to Sardis in a proleptic way rather than in a cosmic sense.
Nevertheless, there is some life in the church at Sardis; there are a few who have not “soiled their garments.” Apparently, they have not accommodated the culture or denied the name of Jesus. They are “worthy” to walk with Jesus. Dead churches sometimes have people with living faith.
Promise: “The one who conquers will be clothed in white garments.”
The promise is threefold: (1) clothed in white garments; (2) permanent inscripturation in the book of life; and (3) the son’s affirmation before the Father. Those are powerful images, but they applied only to those who persevere, that is, those who overcome or conquer. They apply to faithful witnesses, faithful followers of the Lamb.
White garments represent not only clothes washed in the blood of the Lamb, but also they are holy garments which reflect the sanctity involved in walking before the throne of God. White garments are part of both Jewish and Greco-Roman cultic heritage, that is, one wears white in the presence of God. The garments, in effect, reflect the glory of God as well as the consecration of the one who wears it. They are, in effect, priestly garments.
Those who persevere–those who are faithful even to death–will never have their names blotted out of the book of life. This promise is conditioned on “overcoming” and assumes that blotting out is a possibility just as the removal of the candlestick from the presence of Christ is also possible. However, those who overcome are promised that their names are permanently inscribed in the book, never to be removed.
When people follow Jesus as a faithful witness, Jesus will affirm them by confessing their names before the Father in the presence of the heavenly host. This is a powerful image. We all love affirmation, and we love to be affirmed in the presence of greatness. Indeed, some sacrifice everything for the glory of national affirmation. But the Son’s affirmation is cosmic in nature; it is the grandest of all affirmations. Should we not sacrifice everything for it, even our very lives as faithful witnesses?
Admonition: “he who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”
Are we listening?