Revelation – Sardis, The Reformation Period
“And unto the angel of the church in Sardis write; These things saith He that hath the seven Spirits of God, and the seven stars; I know thy works, that thou hast a name that thou livest, and art dead. 2) Be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die: for I have not found thy works perfect before God. 3) Remember therefore how thou hast received and heard, and hold fast, and repent. If therefore thou shalt not watch, I will come on thee as a thief, and thou shalt not know what hour I will come upon thee. 4) Thou hast a few names even in Sardis which have not defiled their garments; and they shall walk with Me in white: for they are worthy. 5) He that overcometh, the same shall be clothed in white raiment; and I will not blot out his name out of the Book of Life, but I will confess his name before My Father, and before His angels. 6) He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches.” Revelation 3:1-6.
The City of Sardis
Sardis was founded in the twelfth century before Christ, and was one of the oldest and most important cities of Asia. It was located about thirty-five miles southeast of Thyatira. Until captured by Cyrus the Great in 549 B.C., Sardis was the capital of the kingdom of Lydia (Persian Empire), and became so again after the fall of the Roman power in Asia in A.D. 395. Lydia was one of the kingdoms of the world. The Lydians are reputed to have been the inventors of coined money. Speaking of their wealth, the historian Ridpath says: “A great cause of the property and wealth of the Lydian kingdom was the natural fertility of the country. No other of all Asia Minor had so rich a soil.” – History of the World, vol. 1, p. 231. Solon, the great Athenian legislator and one of the seven wise men of Greece, spent some years in Sardis during the reign of Croesus who was renowned for his great wealth.
The ancient city of Sardis was built on a plateau of crumbling rock rising 1,500 feet above the plain. The plateau was a part of Mount Tomolus, whose height was 6,700 feet. The walls of the elevation on which the city was built were almost perpendic-ular, and the city was inaccessible except by one narrow passage which was steep and easily fortified and guarded. Sardis was considered an impregnable fortress. It was at Sardis that King Xerxes, son of Darius I, gathered his mighty army (the second Persian Invasion of Greece) before the expedition into Greece which ended in defeat at Marathon in 490 B.C. The second invasion was a direct, if delayed, response to the defeat of the first invasion. The second defeat ended Darius I’s attempts to subjugate Greece. A burial mound erected to the 192 Athenian fallen at the Battle of Marathon is now marked by a marble memorial stele [pillar] and surrounded by a small park.
Also, from Sardis, Cyrus, known as Cyrus the Younger, son of Darius II, marched against his elder brother Artaxerxes II. Having instigated multiple failed attempts to seize the Persian throne from Artaxerses II, Cyrus the Younger was ultimately and decisively defeated in 401 B.C. at the battle of Cunaxa in which Cyrus was killed. In A.D. 1402, Tamerlane destroyed the city. (See Addendum.) It was never rebuilt. A little village nearby still goes by the name of Sart.
The natural defenses of Sardis made the guards and citizens proud and overconfident. The walls were carelessly guarded, with sometimes fatal results. Because of the failure of the guards to watch, Cyrus the Great captured the city by stratagem in 549 B.C. Solon had warned the reigning king Croesus not to be too confident of safety from attack, but even after the army of Cyrus appeared on the plain below, he saw no reason for concern.
But the unexpected happened
One dark night a Persian soldier resolved “to approach the citadel” and attempt to climb the precipice “at a place where no guards were ever set.” There the rock was so “precipitous and impracticable” that it would seem impossible to scale it. Herodotus says that the soldier “climbed the rock himself and other Persians followed in his track, until a large number had mounted to the top. Thus, Sardis was taken, and given up entirely to pillage.” But the lesson was soon forgotten, for 330 years later the city was again captured through stratagem by Antiochus the Great. Solon had warned the over-confident Croesus that “no human being is self-sufficient in every respect; something is always lacking. In every matter it becomes us to mark well the end, for oftentimes the divinity gives men a gleam of happiness, and then submerges them in ruin.”
In the light of the historic background of the city of Sardis, the epistle of Christ to the Sardian church was very appropriate and its language very impressive. He told them to “be watchful,” and “if therefore thou shalt not watch, I will come on thee as a thief, and thou shalt not know what hour I will come upon thee.” The city had fallen and was finally destroyed because the ruler and citizens had been overconfi-dent, and its sentinels had failed to maintain a diligent watch. The enemy took them off guard. Jesus warned the church that if they too failed to watch because of over confidence, He would overtake them “as a thief” in the most unexpected moment. In the early days of World War II, Prime Minister Winston Churchill gave the following solemn warning to the citizens of the British Empire: “But I must drop one word of caution, for next to cowardice and treachery, overconfidence leading to neglect and slothfulness, is the worst of martial crimes.” This has also been one of the greatest dangers of the church militant in all ages, but never more so than in its remnant phase.
“Sardis” means “those escaping” or “that which remains.” The name, the message, and the subsequent history of the city and church indicate a good start but a bad finish, a change for the worse. Sir William Ramsay calls Sardis “the city of death.” Its history is just the opposite of that of Smyrna, which “was dead and is alive” or is “the city of life.” Sardis had “a name that thou livest, and art dead.” Like Ephesus, the city and church of Sardis began with a glorious history and ended in a heap of ruins. What happened to the city was also the fate of the local church. It began as a flourishing community and ended in nothing except the memory of a glory that was past.
“The feet of the avenging gods are shod with wool,” is an old Greek proverb that was known to the citizens of Sardis. But they failed to heed its warning. “Through the failure to watch, however, the acropolis had been successfully scaled in 549 B.C. by the Median soldier, and in 218 by the Cretan.” -International Standard Bible Encyclopedia vol. 4, p. 2692, art. Sardis.
The mountains around Sardis have always been a favorite haunt for thieves, who swoop down unexpectedly upon unsuspecting travelers and villagers. No govern-ment has been able to fully subdue them, even to the present day. The country is also subject to frequent earthquakes. Sardis was destroyed by the severe quake of A.D. 17, which laid twelve cities of Asia in ruins. Tiberius gave a large sum of money to help the city rebuild and remitted the taxes for five years. “Thou shalt not know what hour I will come upon thee” was an appropriate warning. Divine judgments, like the thief, approach silently and stealthily, and accomplish their tragic mission suddenly and without warning.
Sardis never fully recovered from the earthquake of A.D. 17, and was only partially rebuilt. When this epistle was written, the city was rapidly waning in prestige and glory, but its inhabitants were still boastful of the reputation and history of the past. Decay and death were inevitable, but the Sardians refused to recognize the fate of the city and continued to live on its ancient glory; talking boastingly of the past and vainly hoping that the future will restore what has departed forever.
The Sardis Period
The Sardian period covers the sixteenth, seventeenth, and most of the eighteenth centuries in a special sense, but doubtless embraces the entire history of Protes-tantism to the end of the gospel dispensation. The letter to Sardis pictures the inauguration, development, corruption, and judgment of Protestantism. It repre-sents the glory of a past splendor in contrast with a present unabated spiritual decline, another “falling away,” or apostasy.
To Sardis, Christ introduces Himself as the Possessor of “the seven Spirits of God, and the seven stars.” To the church that was spiritually dead and whose lamp of faith was flickering and almost extinguished, Christ represents Himself as having the fullness of spiritual power and the completeness of spiritual gifts. The Spirit is sometimes called the “Giver of Life.” With this gift there is hope even for a dead church.
“The seven stars” represent the human guides and teachers of the church, including “the angel of the church in Sardis.” Here is shown the relation between Christ as the Giver of the Holy Spirit and as the Head of a ministry of human agents. The success of Christ’s ministers depends upon the gift of the Holy Spirit. Here is posi-tive proof that the seven Spirits and the seven angels are not the same, as some contend. It is the seven Spirits who make the seven stars shine. When ministers lose the gift of the Spirit they cease to shine in God’s firmament, and become “wandering stars.” Jude 13
The Sardians had a name and reputation of life, but in reality they were dead. Every professed Christian says by his very profession that he is alive and in possession of eternal life. By calling himself a Christian, he is living on the name of Christ. If he is dead spiritually, he is making a false claim and is under a terrible deception, liken-ed to a corpse making a pretense of life. Like Samson of old the modern church is spiritually dead and “wist not that the Lord was departed.”
The church may have much organization and the most up-to-date machinery, so that it hums with activity making every pretense of life and vitality. There is “a form of godliness” with a denial of “the power thereof.” There is nothing wrong with a form of doctrine and service provided it is vitalized by the presence and power of Christ. Otherwise it is lifeless and therefore worthless.
Protestantism was founded on a protest against the doctrines and corrupt practices of Romanism. The name continues large with life and reputation, but it has largely lost its significance. The average Protestant is ignorant of the great truth of Justifi-cation by Faith and other doctrines on which Protestantism was founded. Lack of a knowledge of the Scriptures has produced spiritual weakness and worldly conform-ty in many churches, and thus robbed most Protestants of their protest.
The modern church has built up an enviable reputation for activity. Its services are orthodox in form and are fairly well attended. It has many rallies, campaigns, and anniversaries. Many prominent people are numbered among its membership, and yet with all this machinery and pretense to life, the modern church is declared to be dead. This is evident first of all by the almost total absence of spiritual life. Very few souls are being saved, and even the saints are slipping in their religious experience. In the second place, the lives of many church members are tarnished by sin so that only a few “have not defiled their garments.”
James Anthony Froude thus describes modern Protestantism: “Protestantism has made no converts to speak of in Europe since the sixteenth century. It shot up in two generations to its full stature, and became an established creed with defined boundaries; and the many millions who in Catholic countries proclaim their indif-ference to their religion, either by neglect or contempt, do not swell the congrega-tions of the Protestant church or conventicle. Their objections to the Church of Rome are objections equally to all forms of dogmatic and doctrinal Christianity. And so it has come about that the old enemies are becoming friends in the presence of a common foe. Catholics speak tenderly of Protestants as keeping alive belief in the creeds, and look forward to their return to the sheepfold; while the old Anti-christ, the Scarlet woman on the seven hills drunk with the blood of the saints, is now treated by Protestantism as an old sister and a valiant ally in the great war against infidelity. The points of difference are for-gotten; the points of union are passionately dwelt upon, and the remnants of idolatry which the more ardent Protestants once abhorred and denounced are now regarded as having been provi-dentially preserved as a means of making up the quarrel and bringing back the churches into communion. The dread of popery is gone. The ceremonial system, once execrated as a service of Satan, is regarded as a thing at worst indifferent, perhaps in itself desirable; and even those who are conscious of no tendency to what they still call corruption are practically forsaking the faith of their fathers, and reestablishing, so far as they can or dare, those very things which their fathers revolted against.” [James Anthony Froude (1818-1894) a British historian, son of a minister Robert Hurrell Froude and Margaret Spedding.]
Sardis not only represents “those escaping” or “that which remains” after the great apostasy and terrible persecutions of the Middle Ages, but that there would be “a few names” or “a few souls,” in Sardis who had “not defiled their garments.”
The promise is that during the decadence of Protestantism a few would maintain their loyalty and spiritual experience, even in a church that had more profession than vital godliness. In the beginning Protestantism was very much alive and acquired a name that has long outlived its spirituality. In Daniel 11:32-34 is described the days when men of God did “exploits” in breaking the papal power and ushering in the dawn of a new day for Christendom. This prophecy also indicates a later popularity of the movement that brought the Reformation to a standstill. Success brought feelings of pride and overconfidence, so that the church ceased to “be watchful.” The various church factions hid behind man-made creeds and re-fused further light. They began to live on the names and reputations of their founding fathers and failed to watch, with fatal results.
A Partial Reformation
“I have not found thy works perfect before God,” is the divine indictment. Perfect as used here means “fulfilled,” or “up to the mark or standard.” I have no works of thine “fully performed” is the rendering in the Emphatic Diaglott. This indicates that the Reformation was started but not completed. It came to a standstill.
The new spiritual life engendered by the message of the Reformers soon languish-ed, and eventually ended in stagnation and death. The great enemy had gained a victory on a new battlefield. He had entered the church in disguise and as a fifth columnist accomplished from within what he had never been able to do from without. Seiss declares that with this change, Protestantism “was one step further in its process of ripening for ultimate rejection.” (Seiss, J.A. The Apocalypse, Volume 1, p. 184, 1901.)
The statement “ready to die,” indicates some signs of life. The elements of spiritual life, love, faith, missionary energy, and watchfulness were “ready to die” and would soon disappear if not revived and strengthened. The command is to awake and watch. Christ does not say, “Arise from the dead.” The situation is not hopeless, because Christ is able to give life even to the dead forms of religion.
The message to Sardis bears witness to a spiritual decline from a far better state. As in the Ephesian message, the Sardian letter applies chiefly to the close rather than the beginning of the period. It applies to the time when rationalism denied the faith of the early Reformers, and the church became deadened by cold formalism. Prot-estantism today is filled with members who are dead spiritually. There are still many works; in fact, they have largely supplanted faith and have become to the majority the all-important thing in religion. But dead faith can only produce dead works. Such works may reach the standard of man’s perfection, but they are not “perfect before God.” The call to modern Protestantism is to wake up and become watchful before being overtaken by sudden and unexpected disaster.
Further Reformation Demanded
Remembering the great truths of the Reformation of the sixteenth century and what they accomplished in liberating the world from the slavery of papal domina-tion, the church today is asked to “hold fast” to the truths then revealed and then “repent” or “reform.” (Emphatic Diaglott.) The call is for a new or further reforma-tion, for the finishing of the one that had been arrested by a second “falling away,” or apostasy. There must be an awakening from spiritual death.
A sleeping sentinel is considered a traitor. The same must be true of a sleeping minister or watchman of the church. No person can reach such a high pinnacle of Christian attainment that he is safe from the danger of falling and can with safety be off guard for a single moment. The call of the Sardian message is to return to the spiritual experience and high standards of the reformers and founders of the church and then complete the work they had so well begun. The appeal is summed up in the statement, “Awake thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light.” Ephesians 5:14
The similarity between the Ephesian and Sardis periods is striking. Both had a glorious beginning, with a corresponding spiritual decline to a condition of luke-warmness in affection and deadness in spiritual life. The Christians of both periods are therefore urged to remember the past and to repent and return to the love and faith and practice of their fathers (Luther and his fellow Reformers, the Wesleys, Whitefield, Knox, Finney, Spurgeon, and Moody). Because of the wonderful opportunities for advancement in knowledge and spiritual experience, the modern Sardians have no excuse for their backslidden state, and for them Christ has no praise or commendation.
But there is to be a faithful remnant. Jesus declared that there are “a few names even in Sardis which have not defiled their garments.” The promise is “And they shall walk with Me in white: for they are worthy.” Names here has the meaning of: “persons” – “a few souls.” (Moffatt) They are the persons whose names are in the Book of Life.
There will be a remnant in decadent Protestantism who will repent and carry the Reformation to completion. They will be watching and waiting when Jesus returns. While Christendom as a whole will be unready for the crisis, a remnant will be pre-pared and saved. (Joel 2:32; Revelation 12:17.) This remnant will walk with Christ in white in Paradise restored, “for they are worthy.” They are worthy on the basis of grace and God’s acceptance rather than actual perfection as measured according to strict justice. The worthiness is relative rather than absolute.
The Promised Reward
The promise to the faithful remnant in Sardis is threefold. They are to be clothed in the symbolic white robes of victory, their names will not be blotted out of the Book of Life, and Christ will confess their names before His Father and the angels. The Hebrews regarded holiness as a beautiful white robe that could be soiled by sin. When a white-robed priest committed a sin that dis-qualified him for the duties of his sacred office, his white garment was taken from him and he was given a black robe in its place. His name was also stricken from the sacerdotal register. In the Scriptures white is used as the symbol of both purity and triumph. (Revelation 7:13,14; 19:7,8,11-14.)
It was the custom of the early Christians who were candidates for baptism to put on white robes and march in a procession to the place where the sacrament was minis-tered. This was the evidence to all that they had become Christians. This custom still prevails to some extent in the South among the colored Baptists. The white robe of our text is the robe of righteousness and glory worn by the redeemed and furnished by the Divine Host. We are told that the Lord is “clothed with honour and majesty,” and covers Himself “with light as with a garment” (Psalm 104:1,2). Of the transfiguration of Jesus we read: “His raiment became shining, exceeding white as snow; so as no fuller on Earth can white them” (Mark 9:3). The glorified saints are promised such a covering as they march in triumph through the gates of pearl into the celestial city and kingdom of glory.
In ancient Rome the white toga was symbolic of joy and victory, and black gar-ments were symbolic of mourning and defeat. Black was worn by captives and slaves. Successful candidates for office were clothed in white robes. On days of a Roman triumph all citizens were dressed in white and Rome was called “The White City.”
In Greek and Roman cities, the names of the citizens were registered as in modern times. It was a special privilege to be registered and a terrible disgrace to have the name expunged, or blotted out. To have their name blotted out, it was the prelimin-ary step to the execution of the sentence of death or banishment for life. The names of the spiritually dead members of the Sardis church could not be retained in the Book of Life, which is for the names of the victors in the warfare against evil. (Rev. 20:12,15; 21:27.) Matthew 10:32,33 indicates that it is possible to fall from grace. A Roman triumph given a victorious general and his army is a type of the final trium-phal procession of Christ and the redeemed into the celestial city.
As they approach the city, the command goes forth to the angel gatekeepers, “Open ye the gates,that the righteous nation which keepeth the truth may enter in.” Isaiah 26:2
In 1383 Timur (Tamerlane in English) began his conquests in Persia with the capture of Her?t. The Persian political and economic situation was extremely precarious. The signs of recovery visible under the later Mongol rulers known as the Il-Khanid dynasty had been followed by a setback after the death of the last Il-Khanid, Abu Said (1335). The vacuum of power was filled by rival dynasties, torn by internal dissensions and unable to put up joint or effective resistance. After his final defeat on the Kur River, Tokhtamysh gave up the struggle; Timur occupied Moscow for a year. The revolts that broke out all over Persia while Timur was away on these campaigns were repressed with ruthless vigour; whole cities were destroyed, their populations massacred, and towers built of their skulls.