And to the angel of the church in Sardis write; These things said he that has the seven Spirits of God, and the seven stars…
Were any one visiting the actual sites where the several Churches spoken of in these letters once stood, he would, ere he came to Sardis, have gone a long way round the circle on the circumference of which they all were. Beginning with Ephesus at the southern end, and proceeding northwards along the seashore, he next would come to Smyrna, then to Pergamos, then to Thyatira, and then, coming down the inland side of the rude circle we have imagined, he would reach Sardis, and proceeding on would come first to Philadelphia and then to Laodicea, the last of the seven. But now we have come to Sardis - a notable city in the ancient world, because associated with the great names of Cyrus, Croesus, and Alexander. With this historic fame, however, we have nought to do, but with the religious condition of the Church there as shown in this letter. And, as in all the previous letters, so here, the title assumed by the Lord Jesus has special reference to the condition and need of the Church addressed. Ephesus needed encouragement and warning alike. The Lord, therefore, speaks of himself as "he who holdeth the seven stars in his right hand." Smyrna needed strong support under her heavy trial. The Lord therefore speaks to them as "The First and the Last, who," etc. Pergamos needed that the Word of God should be sharply and severely brought to bear upon her. The Lord therefore tells of himself as "he who hath the sharp sword with the two edges," etc. Thyatira needed to be reminded of the holy and awful wrath of the Lord against such as she was harbouring in her midst. The Lord therefore declares himself to be "he whose eyes are as a flame of fire," etc. And now this Church of Sardis needed to be won back again to true godliness, for though she had a name that she lived, she was dead. The Lord therefore speaks of himself to her as "he who hath the seven Spirits of God, and the seven stars." Now note how this name of the Lord bears -
I. ON THE SIN WITH WHICH THE CHURCH WAS CHARGEABLE. Observe concerning this sin:
1. It was not that of others. Nought is said of Nicolaitans and followers of Balaam, or of such as Jezebel was. Nothing of false doctrines or of vicious life. These things which are denounced so terribly in other letters are not charged against this Church, and we may therefore assume that they could, perhaps they did, thank God that they were not as those other Churches were.
2. Nor was it that they did nothing. On the contrary, their works are mentioned repeatedly. No doubt there were all wonted ministries, religious observances, charities, and missions. There must have been, for:
3. They were no scandal to others. On the contrary, they had a name, a reputation, an honourable character, as a living Church. Laodicea deceived herself, thinking she was rich; but it is not said she deceived others. This Church, Sardis, did deceive others; she was reckoned by them to be really living, though in fact she was dead; and very probably she had deceived herself also. But:
4. Their works were not perfect before God. Well enough before men, but before him quite otherwise. They were of such sort that he said of those who did them, that they were "dead." They were done, as were the prayers, alms, and lastings of the hypocrites, "to be seen of men." Assuredly not with single eye or with pure motive. They had their reward: people talked of them, and gave them credit as having life. But before God they were dead. Let us remember that it is as "before God everything is to be estimated. Let all who engage in any form of Christian service remember this. It is terribly apt to be forgotten. Remember how St. Paul said, It is a small thing to me to be judged of you or of any human judgment: he that judgeth me is the Lord; I labour to be accepted of him." The one question for us all is, how will our work appear before God? For:
5. Their condition was one most displeasing to him. The severe tone of the letter proves this. True, we have had such severity before, and shall have it again; for rebuke, and often stern rebuke, was what was needed then and still is by the majority of Churches, always and everywhere. Nevertheless, there is no one of these letters in which the tone is more severe, or the smiting of the Sword of the Spirit sharper, or the solemnity of the appeals addressed to them more arousing or impressive. The epistle to Laodicea is the only one which can be compared with it, and it is to be noticed that the wrong in that Church, whilst very great, is like this in Sardis, that it is free from the foul stains tither of vice or heresy. In the sight of the Lord of the Church there is, it is evident, something more hateful to him than even these. Love to the Lord may linger in hearts even where these are; but if love, the true life of every Church and every individual soul, be gone, then are they to be described as none others are, for they are "dead." Hence in this letter there is no softening, mitigating utterance at all, no mention of good works, but the keynote of the epistle is struck at once, and a startling one it is. But:
6. What was the cause of it all? Now the name our Lord takes to himself in this letter reveals this cause. He by that name declares that in him and from him is all-sufficient grace. Treasure store inexhaustible, riches unsearchable, both for pastor and people. For his were "the seven Spirits of God," and his "the seven stars." And yet, in spite of all this, they were as they were. Oh, was it not shameful, is it not shameful, utterly inexcusable, when the like exists now, that, though abundance of grace is in Christ for us all, we should yet be what he terms "dead"? It was plain, therefore, they had not sought that grace; the fulness of the Spirit's help neither pastor nor people had implored; and so, as we find, they had given in to the world's ways. It is evident from the honourable mention of the "few" who had "not defiled their garments," that the rest had. That is to say, they had given in to the world's ways. Hence St. James speaks of pure religion as being in part this, "Keeping your garments unspotted from the world." And in proof of this there seems to have been a good understanding between the Church and the world at Sardis. They seem to have got along together very well. In every other Church, save this and Laodicea, mention is made of some "burden" which the enmity of the surrounding world laid upon the Church. But not here. As it has been well said (Archbishop Trench), "The world could endure it because it, too, was a world." This Church had nothing of the spirit of the "two witnesses" (Revelation 11:10) who "tormented them that dwelt in the earth" by their faithful testimony; or of the Lord Jesus either, who "resisted unto blood, striving against sin," and because he would not yield was crucified (cf. also Wisd. 2:12, etc.). But there was nothing of all this at Sardis. It might have been said of them, as was cynically said the other day of a certain section of ministers of religion amongst us, that "you would find them very well bred, and you might be quite certain they would say nothing to you about your soul." It is an ill sign when the Church and the world are so happy together. There has been compromise somewhere, and it is rarely the world which makes it. It is bad to have no life at all in God's love; it is worse to have had it and to have lost it; but it is worst of all - and may God in his mercy deliver us therefrom - to have the name and reputation of possessing this life, and yet to be, in fact, as it was with Sardis, dead in regard thereto. For all around us conduces to deepen such fatal slumber of the soul, and there is an everlasting soothing of them by themselves, the Church and the world alike, saying continually, "Peace, peace," when there is no peace.
II. ON THE PUNISHMENT WITH WHICH THE CHURCH IS THREATENED. (Ver. 3.) This solemn warning of danger speaks of the Lord's advent to judgment. But:
1. What is that judgment? The name the Lord has assumed in this letter reveals it. Now, that name was meant partly to show that they were without excuse, but also to remind that, as the Spirit is his to give, so also is it his to withdraw and to withhold. As he can open the doors of grace, and then no man can shut; so also can he shut them, and then none can open. This, then, was what they were to fear, lest he should leave them alone, lest he should take his Holy Spirit from them. David dreaded this, and implored that the Lord would not deal so with him. Better any punishment, any suffering, any pain, any amount of distress, than that the soul should be thus left alone of the Lord.
2. And this judgment would come as a thief; they should not know when or how. There was an ancient proverb that the feet of the avenging gods are shod with wool. Dii laneos habent pedes. The meaning is simply what is here said, that the Divine judgment comes silently, stealthily, secretly, invisibly, unexpectedly, "as a thief." Who can mark the hour when God's Spirit leaves a man? Who sees the master of the house rise up and shut the door? It is not always true, as the much misleading verse tells-
"While the lamp holds out to burn,
The vilest sinner may return." Before that lamp is quenched, the Holy Spirit's blessed flame may have been quenched, and he, resisted, grieved, done despite to, may have for ever gone away. And it is equally untrue to affirm that the point of death bars all return. It is not death, but the determined character of the soul, that decides that matter. Death cannot shut the Spirit out nor life ensure that he remain, but the fixed bias and character into which we have settled down. And then:
3. There follows the blotting out of the name, etc. (Ver. 5.) Of him who overcomes Christ says, "I will by no means blot out his name." Hence it is implied that the rest he will blot out. Yes, the name may be in that book; through the blessed atonement and sacrifice of our Lord Jesus Christ our names are there; but the question is - Will they be allowed to stay there? The branch may be in the Vine; it is so; but "if it bear not fruit, then," etc. Christ has put us all in, but we can force him, all unwilling, to blot us out again. And to be as Sardis was will do this. Have mercy upon us, O Lord!
III. ON THEIR RESTORATION. Their sin had not altered the fact that he still had "the seven Spirits," etc. And should the Lord's earnest word have the effect designed, it would, and we may well believe it did, awake many that slept, and arouse them from the dead, that Christ might give them life. And how would they be encouraged by this revelation of the Lord's grace! "How sweet the name of Jesus" would sound in their ears! Did it not enable them to say to their adversary, "Rejoice not against me, O mine enemy: when I fall I shall arise; when I sit in darkness, the Lord shall be a light unto me." The effort they would have to make would be severe, but here in this name was abundance of grace for all their need. And to encourage them the Lord points them:
1. To the "few" who had overcome. There was, then, no irresistible might in the thraldom in which they were held. These had overcome, so might they. The grace that enabled these was waiting for them likewise. Not only would these "few" be greatly strengthened by the Lord's remembrance of and special promise to them, but the rest also would learn that victory was possible for them through him who had the "seven Spirits,': etc.
2. To means that, if faithfully used, would be effectual.
(1) Let them become wakeful - such is the meaning. This was a primary and imperative need. And when thus awake, let them
(2) remember how they had received and heard. With what earnestness and joy and devotedness of spirit they had begun their Christian career! Let them look back on that. And let them
(3) hold fast, i.e. keep, what remained, for all was not lost yet. The door of hope was not shut. And let them
(4) repent, i.e. have done with all habits, practices, and conduct, with all ways of thinking and speaking, which had lured them into and all but lost them in their deceitfulness. Let them confess it all before the Lord, and come away from it at once and for ever. And
(5) let them strengthen the things which remained. As the traveller crossing the Alps in snowstorm, all but benumbed, striking his foot against the body. of one who had just before passed that way and had sunk down in the snow, overcome by the deadly torpor of the cold - as he, roused by the blow and proceeding to use all efforts to awaken the fallen one, happily succeeds, he is made at the same time altogether wakeful and alive himself: so let any whose own spiritual condition is feeble try to make others strong, and they, too, in the endeavour will win strength. Let them thus act. And next he points them to:
3. The reward of these who overcome.
(1) The white robe, symbol of victory, purity, joy.
(2) The fellowship with Christ. "They shall walk with me in white." What enhancement of their blessedness this!
(3) The retention of their names in the book of life. "I will by no means blot out," etc. All the loving purposes which he cherished for them when he entered their names there, they shall realize and enjoy.
(4) The confession of their names before his Father and his angels. What a compensation for the contempt of the world! how insignificant and despicable is that contempt when placed over against this honour which Christ here promises! Ah! who would stay in the sad state of Sardis when a way like this is opened out of it for them? All grace is his, and his for us, if we will avail ourselves of it; for he "hath the seven," etc. - S.C.
Parallel VersesKJV: 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.
WEB: "And to the angel of the assembly in Sardis write: "He who has the seven Spirits of God, and the seven stars says these things: "I know your works, that you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead.