If the book of Revelation teaches us anything, it is that looks can be deceiving, that there is more than meets the eye, and that things are not always as they seem. When John is told by one of the twenty-four elders to “behold the Lion of the tribe of Judah,” for example, he turns around only to see “a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain” (5:5–6). In 2:9 we read of those “who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan” (see also 3:9). The account of the “beast rising out of the sea” that is “allowed to make war on the saints and to conquer them” is later described from the vantage point of heaven, only now we hear of “those who had conquered the beast and its image” singing not the lament of vanquished martyrs but the chorus of victory and the song of triumph (13:7; 15:2–4).
The disconnect between how things appear and how they really are is no less true in the case of Jesus’ letter to the church in Sardis. Sardis has been described as “a city with a golden past and misplaced security.” It had a fortress surrounded on three sides with sheer cliffs, and it was thought to be so impenetrable that the phrase “to capture the acropolis of Sardis” became a metaphor for accomplishing the impossible. The city, however, eventually fell into Persian hands due to its citizens’ overconfidence, carelessness, and lack of vigilance in guarding against potential calamity.
The heart of Jesus’ rebuke for this church is found in Revelation 3:1, where He says, “You have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead.” While a church’s reputation in the surrounding community is important, it pales in comparison to the estimation of the one “who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars” (3:1). According to our Lord who searches the hearts and tries the minds of men, the church in Sardis was much more healthy on the outside than it was within. Jesus’ rebuke of the Pharisees comes to mind: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness” (Matt. 23:27–28).
Unlike His remarks to the other churches, Jesus does not single out some specific fault on the part of the believers in Sardis. No mention is made of Nicolaitans, Balaamites, women named Jezebel, or synagogues of Satan. Instead, the church is told that “what remains” is “about to die” and that Christ had “not found [their] works complete in the sight of my God” (Rev. 3:2).
Ironic and counterintuitive as it may seem on the surface, the church is often strongest when it is facing some specific challenge (whether doctrinal or moral), and the flip side is also true, that the church is in gravest danger when the waters are calmest and when the sailing seems the most smooth. If the Christians in Sardis were facing a specific doctrinal threat like the Ephesians were, then most likely they would have “tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false” (2:2). Or, if they were facing a concrete moral dilemma, they, like the Philadelphians, probably would have exercised what “little power” they had in order to “not deny [Jesus’] name” (3:8). But when the life of the church carries on like business as usual, especially in a supposedly impenetrable city like Sardis, it is very easy to stop watching, stop guarding, and stop being vigilant to protect the church and her people. In a word, when wolves wear sheep’s clothing and Satan looks like an angel of light, it is suddenly very tempting to be content with bigger barns, more programs, and a reputation for being a “vibrant” witness in the community. In the midst of plenty and in the context of abundance, the smug cry of “soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry” can be heard in many a church foyer.
Can anyone deny that this same temptation plagues the churches of this nation? We are the big man on the global campus, our “fortress” is as impregnable as the citadel of Sardis, and our mega-churches are multiplying almost as fast as our Wal-Marts. But is strength our greatest weakness? Does danger lurk behind our supposed safety? Is our reputation for “life” but a thin veneer behind which death hides its face?
Perhaps the American church’s greatest challenge is not outright wickedness or rank perversion, but a comatose state that renders us numb and lifeless. Perhaps amid our ambivalence and self-satisfaction we have forgotten the one who “will come like a thief” at an hour we think not (3:3). Perhaps we need to stop patting ourselves on the back, saying “Peace! Peace!” when there is no peace, and start seeking to be like those “few names in Sardis, people who have not soiled their garments,” who will walk with Jesus in white, “for they are worthy” (3:4).