Nickname: The dead church.
Reward: White garments, written in the book of life.
The name Sardis comes from the Greek word ‘sardeis’, the plural form of ‘sard’, and this singular and plural form has historical significance that we'll cover in a moment. But of greater significance is the meaning of this name, which is "those who come out", because coming out works on several different levels with this city and this church;
1) The name Sardis 'came out' of the word Sard
2) The Sardis of Apostolic times 'came out' of the former Sard due to population growth
3) Jesus counseled those in Sardis to 'come out' of their pagan Babylonian ways
4) By extension, Jesus counsels believers today to 'come out' of their pagan Babylonian ways
5) Sardis represents the Reformation church period when it 'came out' of Catholicism
Historically, most commentators believe that the church at Sardis was representative of the overall church from 1517 A.D. to approximately 1750 A.D., the time of the Reformation. This period began when Martin Luther nailed his “Ninety-
The oldest known name for modern day ‘Sart’ was ‘Hyde’, the name given to it in the Iliad, which was written in the 8th century B.C. Hyde then became ‘Sard’ during the days of the Lydian Empire, and the name remained during a number of subsequent conquests. The first was to the Cimmerians in the 7th Century BC, but it was later captured by the Persians in 549 B.C., at which time it was more fully developed. The Persians were empire builders in that day, and it was in their own interest to have their vassal states thriving, so under Persian dominance it became the termination point for the ’Royal Road’ that led all the way to Persepolis. It was under Persian control until it was forced to surrender to Alexander the Great in 334 B.C., and it later fell to the Seleucids at the hands of Antiochus the Great in 218 B.C. And at the time of the writing of this letter, just before the turn of the millennium, Sardis was in the firm grip of the Roman Empire.
Sardis was one of the oldest and most important cities on earth at the time this letter was written. With it’s location between several major cities, this central hub had roads leading in all directions. Built on a plateau high above the Hermus Valley, the city was a natural fortress with unsalable cliffs on three sides. The only point of entry was up a steep access road on the south side, and since this was the only way into the city, it was generally the only point where troops were stationed for defense.
But the plateau was limited in size, so as the city outgrew the available land, they had no choice but to expand with a second city located in a plain just below the plateau, and therefore the singular 'Sard' became the plural 'Sardeis', because now there were two cities that were tethered. The plain of the lower city was located alongside the Pactolus River, which apparently carried gold dust from Mount Tmolus. Because of this natural resource, it became the center for the production of Electrum, a gold and silver alloy used in the plating of pagan statues and idols. It was also the center for a thriving carpet and wool industry, and the first coins in Asia Minor were minted here.
In that day, Sardis was known for its vast wealth, and in the days just before the Persian conquest, King Croesus had apparently become the wealthiest man in the world through his dealings in Electrum. His successful business dealings spawned the legend of ’King Midas’, who’s touch turned everything to gold. However, all things come to an end, and Croesus was captured by Cyrus in the siege of 549 B.C., and all of his wealth was appropriated for the Persian Empire.
The upper and lower cities of Sardis were destroyed by a massive earthquake in 17 A.D. While the lower city was rebuilt, the upper city was not, and it lays in ruins even to this day. Plenty of archaeology has taken place in the upper city, and several attempts have even been made to rebuild some of its ruins. These ruins include a Temple of Cybele (Diana/Artemis) and a Temple of Apollo, who in mythology were thought to be brother and sister. Pagan temples such as these were commonplace throughout Asia Minor, and the corrupt Babylonian religious system that plagued other cities in the region also plagued Sardis.
“These are the words of him who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars.”
By referencing the seven spirits that Jesus held in his hand and used to influence the seven churches, Jesus appears to be indicating that those in Sardis were not obeying their spirit, which in essence was the Holy Spirit himself. This becomes abundantly clear when we review the rebuke and the lack of any commendation to those in this church.
“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 not found your deeds complete in the sight of my God.”
This is another one of those statements that functions on multiple levels, first in a local sense, then in a physical sense, but also in a chronological sense regarding the phases of the overall church. It also spoke to something that happened to the Patriarch of this church, Moses;
1) The faith of those in Sardis was about to die, which only the Holy Spirit could strengthen.
2) The walls of Sardis were eroding (about to die), and had to be strengthened.
2) Catholicism was about to die, and the church was ultimately strengthened by the Reformation.
3) During the Exodus, Israel was about to die until Moses intervened, which strengthened them.
Additionally, the lack of faith of those in Sardis was evidenced by their lack of deeds, because as James said,
James 2:26 “As the body without the Spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.”
“Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; obey it, and repent.”
The call to repentance is the natural call to any of us who have been back-
“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.”
This statement truly meant something to those in Sardis that knew its history, because Sardis was twice taken like “a thief in the night” by enemy forces. The first occurred in 549 B.C. when the Medes found fissures in the cliffs and were able to scale the walls and enter the city during the night. This scenario repeated itself three centuries later when the Seleucids invaded the city using the same tactic.
In both of these attacks, the guards on the three cliffs had fallen asleep during the night, thinking the city walls were impregnable. But these cliffs were made partly of clay, and fissures would often develop that provided access to the plateau above. Sardis quite often had to strengthen and fill in these wall fissures in order to prevent similar future invasions.
"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."
Biblical history is quite clear that righteous people existed in every pagan culture throughout time, even in the worst of circumstances. From Noah to Abram to Lot, or to Joseph, Moses, or Daniel, God always identified someone who would walk with him, dressed in white, because of an imputed righteousness that was based on their belief. Whether it’s the 24 Elders in heaven (Revelation 4:4) or the martyrs under God’s altar (Revelation 7:13-
“He who overcomes will, like them, be dressed in white. I will never blot out his name from the book of life..”
This promise pertains directly to Moses, the patriarch of this church and the 5th signatory of God’s ’ketubah’ with man. After the golden calf rebellion, God’s anger burned against Israel, and he told Moses that He was going to completely destroy them and in their place raise up a great nation from Moses himself (Exodus 32:10). But Moses pleaded with the Lord to forgive them;
Exodus 32:32 “But now, please forgive their sin—but if not, then blot me out of the book you have written.”
Moses was so concerned for Israel that he was willing to share in their fate. So God relented and did not destroy them. However, he did promise to ‘blot’ out the names of those who had rebelled. And that fate leads to destruction in the ‘second death’ that awaits all of the wicked whose names are not written in this book;
Revelation 20:15 “The lake of fire is the second death. If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.”
“..but will acknowledge his name before my Father and his angels.”
The book of Daniel tells us that at the end of this age the heavenly court will sit, and God will rule against those that have rebelled against him, or in other words, those whose names are not written in the book of life. But since Jesus died in our place to pay our penalty, as allowed by ancient Jewish custom, He is allowed to redeem us as his bride on that day. When the court sits, Jesus will identify all those who have placed their faith in him, and He will acknowledge each us before God as we are saved;
1) Israel's faith was about to die at Sinai, just as Sardis’ faith was about to die.
2) Moses instructed Israel to obey and repent, just as Christ instructed Sardis to obey and repent.
3) Moses pleaded with God that Israel not be blotted from the book of life, just as Sardis is promised that their overcomers would not be blotted from the book of life.
4) Israel would “come out” of Egypt during the Exodus, just as Sardis’ name meant “those who come out”.
5) Israel lived wantonly when removed from slavery, just as those in Sardis lived wantonly.
6) Israel made an idol out of gold at Sinai, just as those in Sardis made idols out of gold 'electrum'.
Moses brought the remains out of Egypt (not all joined him)’ in verse 2 Sardis is warned to keep an eye on the remains.
The trade of Sardis was producing electrum which was used for divination, plus gold status for pagan temples. (idols of gold). Compare verse 5 to exo 32:32
The overcomer in the church of Sardis was promised that God would “never blot out his name from the book of life.” That very same promise was made to Moses after God threatened to blot out all Israel from the book of life. Moses interceded on their behalf, and God relented.