CHAPTER 3 - THE LETTER TO SARDIS (5)
"So be very careful about the sort of lives you lead, like intelligent and not like senseless people. Make the best of the present time for it is a wicked age. This is why you must not be thoughtless but must recognize what is the will of the Lord."
|Preamble:||3:1a||"...Here is the message of the one who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars."|
|Historical Prologue:||3:1b||"I know about your behavior...."|
|Ethical Stipulations:||3:2||"Wake up; put some resolve into what little vigor you have left.."|
|Sanctions:||3:3||"Repent! If you do not wake up I shall come to you..."|
|Succession Arrangements:||3:4-5||"There are a few...Anyone who proves victorious..."|
You may want to consult the Summary of the 7 Churches in the Charts and Handouts section.
The city of Sardis was founded circa 1200BC and became the capital of the Lydian kingdom. Situated at the junction of five roads, and commanding the Hermus valley, Sardis was a wealthy commercial city. The city was built on a hill so steep that its defenses seemed impregnable and yet in the past this sense of false security had led to the conquest and destruction of the city by both the Persian king Cyrus (549BC) and by the Selucid king Antiochus III(218BC). On both occasions enemy troops had scaled the hill at night and had found that the over-confident Sardians had not even bothered to set a guard. In 17AD city had been severely damaged by a great earthquake but, the city was soon rebuilt through the generous aid of the Roman Emperor Tiberius to whom the people of Sardis were immensely grateful. This gratitude was reflected in the city's loyalty to the Roman Empire.
The most important religion at Sardis was the worship of the goddess Cybele but there was also a temple dedicated to the goddess Artemis. Both goddesses were commemorated on the city's coins. By the second century AD, Sardis began to seriously decline as a trading center. Today Sardis is a small village called Sart.
Read Chapter 3: 1-6.
3:1a The Preamble: Write to the angel of the church in Sardis and say, "Here is the message of the one who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars:" Again we have a repeated pattern of chapter 1 verses 4 and 16. In our discussion of this phrase in chapter 1 we commented that the number 7 is one of the "perfect" numbers and symbolizes spiritual perfection. This passage also refers to the prophetic mission of the Holy Spirit. The prophets speak for God under the power of the Holy Spirit. In the Rev. 1:4 passage, John is addressed in "grace and peace" from 1) "He who is, was, and is to come (recalling God the Father's holy covenant name "Yahweh"), 2) from "the Seven Spirits who are before His throne, 3) "and from Jesus Christ." The first and third are clearly God the Father and God the Son and therefore the most likely interpretation is that John's greeting is from the Triune God and the 7 Spirits symbolize God the Holy Spirit in all His spiritual perfection (reference Chapter 1 notes for more information on this passage). The seven stars, Christ tells us in 1:16 & 20, are the messengers (angelos) of the seven churches to whom the letters will be sent. They are held in Christ's right hand; under His power and authority they will speak to the churches on His behalf. The messengers of the churches belong to Him and they are accountable to Him for their actions as well as their inaction. The elders of the church in Sardis desperately need to be reminded of this because they had allowed the church to fall into spiritual decay.
Verse 1b: "I know about your behavior: how you are reputed to be alive and yet are dead." After the vivid reminder of the dignity and authority of the risen Christ there is a severe condemnation of the community at Sardis. Question: What does it mean to be "alive for Christ?" Question: What does Jesus mean when He tells them they were "reputed" to be "alive" but that they are "dead?" Answer: The church at Sardis had a good reputation for being an active faith community "alive" for Christ. It seems likely that this church was well known in the Roman province of Asia as the people of the Christian faith in such a prosperous and famous city. They had once been spiritually alive for Christ but now they had only their past reputation. They were no longer yielding "fruit." Their tree of faith was weakened to the point of death.
Question: Was this church suffering under any external persecution like the churches at Ephesus, Smyran and Pergamum? It is interesting that of these 4 churches the Christians at Smyrna were suffering the most on account of the faith yet they were yielding the "sweetest fruit" for Christ. How do you account for the differences between Smyrna and Sardis?
Answer: There seems to be no evidence, in an era of growing Roman persecution, that the church at Sardis experienced either theological controversy or persecution. The body of the letter to Sardis seems to indicate that the church had almost completely compromised with the pagan culture of the city. The result of this "ecumenical" approach of the church at Sardis to the pagan religions was that the once busy, fruitful church was compromising itself almost to death. The death of Sardis did not necessarily come from a lack of youth activities, or 'spiritual awakening' programs'which is the reason why most churches today tend to be called "dead." Rather, it seems the church at Sardis lacked the depth of conviction, which is necessary to even begin a fight against heresy. Sardis was drowning in mediocrity while she pursued non-controversial "works." The church at Sardis had, in fact, become "secularized." Its fundamental worldview had become the same as that of the surrounding pagan culture. It had become what Paul wrote in Ephesians 2:1-2 "And you were dead, through the crimes and the sins which used to make up your way of life when you were living by the principles of this world, obeying the ruler who dominates the air, and the spirit who is at work in those who rebel. We too were all among them once, living only by our natural inclinations, obeying the demands of human self-indulgence and our own whim; our nature made us no less liable to God's retribution than the rest of the world." Satan must have been pretty happy with Sardis' progress not to bother to add persecution and suffering.
Question: Are there those in the Catholic Church today who urge a more secularized world view? What is the agenda they propose to bring the Catholic Church into the 21st century?
Verses 2"Wake up; put some resolve into what little vigor you have left: it is dying fast. So far I have failed to notice anything in your behavior that my God could possibly call perfect; remember how you first heard the message. Hold on to that. Repent!"
Question: Christ gives Sardis two admonitions. What are they?
Answer: (1) He tells them to "wake up!" and (2) He commands them to "remember.".
Considering Sardis' past history when the city was captured and destroyed twice because of the city's smug complacency this is fitting advice. There is a parallel with the city's history and the church's lack of vigilance and the urgent call to "wake up" before it falls under God's judgment. It is also interesting that if Sardis can wake up there is hope. This infers that the church is not completely dead but even though the community is in the last stages of life Christ has not given up on this church yet. The danger is real and the judgment is coming but there is time.
Question: What are the elders required to do while time remains?
Answer: See verse 2; "strengthen the things that remain."
Question: What is it that was remaining?
Answer: The problem is that Sardis was involved in the "works" of God but they were not completed; their "works" were unfulfilled in God's sight.
Answer (2) The New American translation reads: "Call to mind how you accepted what you heard.." another possible translation is "Remember what you have received and heard." (unless otherwise stated all Scripture passages quoted in this study are from the New Jerusalem translation)
Question: What have they heard and what have they received?
Answer: They have heard the Gospel of Jesus the Messiah and they have received from Him the sacraments of the New Covenant Israel. They have also received—in the case of the bishop and elders to whom the letter is addressed, the privileges and responsibilities of the ministerial priesthood. Under the Covenanted Oath they were to keep watch over and to guard the Bride of Christ—the same admonition given to Adam in the Garden of Eden. And, by the way, the enemy was the same for both.
Question: Who is the enemy?
Answer: Satan the great serpent.
Now at the end of verse 2 Christ gives a command.
Question: What is it that the Lord requires?
Verse 3: "If you do not wake up, I shall come to you like a thief, and you will have no idea at what hour I shall come upon you." Question: And what will happen if they fail to repent? Answer: The church will face the judgment of Christ. This is the same threat as 1:7; 2:5; and 2:16. The threat of His coming against a local church or even against a nation is not the same as the 2nd Coming of Christ at the end of history. The words used in this passage "to you" indicate a local coming not a futuristic, end of the world coming.
Verse 4 "There are a few in Sardis, it is true, who have kept their robes unstained, and they are fit to come with me, dressed in white." There was a remnant of the church who had remained faithful to what they had received and heard. They had not "soiled their garments" ; they hadn't become secularized and had not conformed to the dominant pagan culture. Question: What are the 2 promises Christ makes to this faith remnant? Answer: verse5
Verse 5 "Anyone who proves victorious will be dressed, like these, in white robes; I shall not blot that name out of the book of life, but acknowledge it in the presence of my Father and His angels." (1) Seven times in the Book of Revelation the saints are referred to as being "clothed in white garments": Rev. 3:4 & 18; 4:4; 6:11; 7:9 &13; 19:14. The white robes are a symbol in Scripture for righteousness and purity with origins in the sun-white brilliance of the Glory-cloud of God. In their resurrection in Christ the saints are re-created in the image of God and are clothed with the grace of Christ. This verse is a description of an aspect of salvation in which all who preserver to the end have an inheritance. Gal. 3:27 "...since every one of you that has been baptised has been clothed in Christ." Being clothed in the white robes of righteousness, takes place at our baptism and continues progressively as we work out our salvation daily in obedience to God as we participate in His sacraments and daily cloth ourselves in grace and virtue. Read Col. 3:5-17 (v. 10) "You have stripped off your old behavior with your old self, and you have put on a new self which will progress towards true knowledge the more it is renewed in the image of its Creator.." And finally at the end of the journey "But when Christ is revealed'and He is your life'you too, will be revealed with Him in glory." (Col 3:4).
(2) "I shall not blot that name out of the book of life.." This statement has been a source of controversy for centuries. Can you loose your salvation? CCC #162 "Faith is an entirely free gift that God makes to man. We can lose this priceless gift, as St. Paul indicated to St. Timothy: (1Tim 1:18-19)"Wage the good warfare, holding faith and a good conscience. By rejecting conscience, certain persons have made shipwreck of their faith." To live, grow, and persevere in the faith until the end we must nourish it with the word of God; we must beg the Lord to increase our faith; it must be "working through charity": abounding in hope, and rooted in the faith of the Church.
The Bible is full of examples of those who profess Christ and by all accounts appear to be "saved", who finally apostatize from the faith and inherit damnation rather than salvation. Judas is the obvious example but he is not the only one. The Old Testament provides many examples of members of the Covenant who departed from the faith, and the New Testament warns us over and over again of the judgment of God against those who break His covenant (see Matt. 7:15-23; 13:20-21; 24:10-12; 2 Thess. 2:3, 11-12; 1Tim. 4:1-3; 2Tim. 3:1-9; 4:3-4; Heb. 2:1-3; 3:12-14; 6:4-6; 10:26031, 35-39; 2Pet. 2:1-3, 20-22; 3:17). The threat stated by Christ is very real. Those whose names are written in the Book of Life'the baptised who profess Christ'are counted as and treated as true believers but they must persevere in their faith. If they apostatize and fall into the sins of immorality, heresy, and secularization that characterized the church at Sardis, they will be erased from the Book of Life. But the promise remains to the Christian who overcomes and by faithfulness demonstrates that Christ has truly purchased him for His own; he is in no danger'his or her name will never be erased. For more about the "Book of Life" see Rev. 13:8; 17:8; 20:12,15; 21:27; Phil 4:3; Dan 12:1; Mt. 10:32.
This final promise is reinforced by Christ's statement: "..but acknowledge it in the presence of my Father and His angels." This statement is supported by Jesus' statements in the Gospels. Read Mat 10:32-33: "So if anyone declares himself for me in the presence of human beings, I will declare myself for him in the presence of my Father in heaven. But the one who disowns me in the presence of human beings, I will disown in the presence of my Father in heaven." Also see Mark 8:38 and Luke 12:8-9. Christians at Sardis were denying Christ as they worked for the praise and acceptance of men rather than God. At the Last Judgment they would surely hear the words from the Son of God in Matt. 7:23 "Then I shall tell them to their faces: I have never known you; away from me, all evil doers!"
Question: Is this message as important today as it was 2000 years ago? Do we ".. listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches"?(verse 6)
Salvation History references: The imagery in this letter comes from the prophetic period (the references to the Spirit and the "seven stars" speak of prophetic witness) and the end of the period of the monarchy in the Northern Kingdom of Israel when a disobedient and spiritually dead covenant people were defeated and taken into captivity. In 722BC the Assyrians conquered the Northern kingdom of Israel and took the 10 tribes eastward into exile. Years later only a remnant held on to what they had been taught, remained faithful, and returned to settle in the district of the Galilee. It was from this faithful remnant that Jesus chose His 12 Apostles.
See the Mass Chart: This chart compares the celebration of the Mass with John's vision. The Apocalypse of John is liturgical. As Dr. Scott Hahn writes: "..the golden thread of liturgy is what holds together the apocalyptic pearls of John's Revelation." See CCC # 1090; 1137-1139; 2642. Recommended reading: The Lamb's Supper, Scott Hahn
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