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The Message to Sardis: Remain Spiritually Alert

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The Message to Sardis

Remain Spiritually Alert

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Jesus Christ's fifth message to the churches of Revelation 2 and 3 was poignantly illustrated by first-century Sardis. This city had been one of the foremost cities of Asia Minor a few centuries earlier, but now it was in obvious decline. While the previously mentioned cities of the area were bustling with growth and activity (Pergamum as the capital city of Asia Minor, Ephesus as the largest city, Thyatira with its famous manufacturing center and Smyrna with its magnificent natural harbor and trade), Sardis was a relatively quiet city only able to reminisce upon past glory.

"Sardis was situated on the east bank of the Pactolus River about 80 kilometers (50 miles) east of Smyrna; it occupied a rocky spur of Mount Tmolus and a valley at the foot of this mountain. In ancient times Sardis was well fortified and easily defended. It became the capital of the ancient Lydian empire, then passed successively to the Persians, the Greeks, and the Romans during their respective dominance of the ancient world...

"The most impressive building of ancient Sardis must have been its magnificent Temple of Artemis, built in the fourth century B.C. The temple was 100 meters (327 feet) long and 50 meters (163 feet) wide and had 78 Ionic columns, each 17.7 meters (58 feet) high. Some of these columns remain standing until this day" (Nelson's Illustrated Bible Dictionary, 1986, article "Sardis").

Another source adds, "This important city was...located on important commercial routes running E and W through the rich kingdom of Lydia, of which it was the capital. It was also made wealthy by textile manufacturing and jewelry making. Here are said to have been minted the first coins under the opulent Croesus" (New Unger's Bible Dictionary, 1988, article "Sardis").

"It was moreover one of the oldest and most important cities of Asia Minor, and until 549 B.C., the capital of the kingdom of Lydia. It stood on the northern slope of Mt. Tmolus; its acropolis occupied one of the spurs of the mountain. At the base flowed the river Pactolus which served as a moat, rendering the city practically impregnable. Through the failure to watch, however, the acropolis had been successfully scaled in 549 B.C. by a Median soldier, and in 218 by a Cretan (compare Rev. 3:2-3)...

"The ancient city was noted for its fruits and wool, and for its temple of the goddess Cybele, whose worship resembled that of Diana of Ephesus. Its wealth was also partly due to the gold which was found in the sand of the river Pactolus, and it was here that gold and silver coins were first struck. During the Roman period its coins formed a beautiful series, and are found in abundance by the peasants who till the surrounding fields.

"The ruins of the buildings which stood at the base of the hill have now been nearly buried by the dirt washed down from above. The hill upon which the acropolis stood measures 950 ft. high: the triple walls still surround it. The more imposing of the ruins are on the lower slope of the hill, and among them the temple of Cybele is the most interesting, yet only two of its many stone columns are still standing" (International Standard Bible Encylopaedia, Electronic Database, 1996, article "Sardis").

"Only twice in the history of Sardis was its fortress ever captured, though attacks on it were frequent. When Cyrus attacked it in the sixth century B.C., a shrewd Persian soldier observed a Sardian descending the southern winding path to retrieve his fallen helmet. Unknown to the soldier, the Persians followed his path back up to the summit and captured the whole city, taking them quite by surprise. There was a similar occurrence when Antiochus attacked Sardis about two hundred years later...Sardis retained its wealth into the first two centuries of the Christian Era. But its political brilliance as the capital city of Asia for Persia lay in the past" (Expositor's Bible Commentary of the New Testament).

There is an ominous lesson to the history of Sardis: Even though it once had great prosperity, it now lies desolate. It did not endure. Its citizens lacked the foresight to look ahead and preserve their future. At the end of the first century, this city was a sad contrast between past splendor and present decay.

Christ's Warning

The history of Sardis was a perfect illustration of the timeless message Jesus delivered to His people: "Don't go to sleep. Remain spiritually alert!" Even though the Sardians had enjoyed great success, their failure to remain alert had twice led to military defeat—they were overtaken by surprise attacks. Noting the similarities between this city's history and the congregation's spiritual condition, Jesus said, "You are alive, but you are dead" (Revelation 3:1).

Jesus then warned them and us today to "hold fast and repent" (verse 3) of spiritual drowsiness. And how did Jesus say this should be done? He twice referred to watching—"be watchful" (verse 2) and "if you will not watch, I will come upon you as a thief" (verse 3).

The Meaning of "Watch"

The Greek word gregoreo, translated "watchful" and "watch" in these two verses, "is used (a) of 'keeping awake,'… (b) of 'spiritual alertness'" (Vine's Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words, 1985, article "Watch (noun and verb), Watchers, Watchful, Watchings"). This word thus combines the sense of being physically awake with spiritual discernment. It is a spiritual condition of readiness and being alert. Those who do not maintain this approach will be surprised by Christ's return. Just as a thief is able to steal from unsuspecting victims, Christ's second coming will surprise those who are not spiritually alert (verse 3).

Earlier in His earthly ministry, Jesus addressed this concept via several parables. After listing some of the signs of His return (Matthew 24:3-31), He likened these to the signs of a fig tree identifying the season of the year. When leaves began to appear, everyone knew summer was near. His point in relation to His return was: "So you also, when you see all these things, know that it is near—at the doors!" (verse 33).

Jesus then explained that His return would surprise many people just as the Flood had done in Noah's day (verses 36-41). His advice? "Watch therefore, for you do not know what hour your Lord is coming. But know this, that if the master of the house had known what hour the thief would come, he would have watched and not allowed his house to be broken into. Therefore you also be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect" (verses 42-44).

The parable about 10 virgins also illustrates this important principle (Matthew 25:1-13). Five were wise and five were foolish. All went out to meet Christ, the bridegroom, but only five had the foresight to take sufficient oil for their lamps. Because Jesus was delayed, "they all slumbered and slept" (verse 5). When the announcement came of His coming, the foolish had to go buy oil for their lamps and only the wise who had made ample preparations were admitted to the wedding supper.

Jesus' moral to the story? "Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour in which the Son of Man is coming" (verse 13).

Like the parable of the 10 virgins, the message to Sardis shows the importance of spiritual preparedness. If we go to sleep spiritually, become lackadaisical or lose our zeal for God's way of life, we must repent and become spiritually alert once again.

Christ's instructions to Sardis emphasize this lesson. Some of the members in Sardis had become lethargic—lacking a spiritual focus—and Jesus warned them to "be watchful" so they would be prepared for His return (verse 2).

The Reward for Watching

After giving the instruction to be spiritually alert, Jesus said, "You have a few names even in Sardis who have not defiled their garments; and they shall walk with Me in white, for they are worthy. He who overcomes shall be clothed in white garments, and I will not blot out his name from the Book of Life; but I will confess his name before My Father and before His angels" (Revelation 3:4-5).

This passage also appears to reflect Christ's intimate knowledge of this first century congregation. Expositor's explains, "While the majority had departed from faithful obedience to Christ, a few at Sardis remained true. Here an allusion to the wool industry at Sardis intensifies the image of soiled and defiled garments. Those with soiled garments were removed from the public lists of citizens in Sardis. In the pagan religions it was forbidden to approach the gods in garments that were soiled or stained (Barclay, Seven Churches, p. 77). Soiling seems to be a symbol for mingling with pagan life and thus defiling the purity of one's relation to Christ."

Just as clean garments were required for those in Sardis to be included in their local census, clean garments (representing righteous actions, Revelation 19:8) are required of all who will be included in "the Book of Life."

Paul also likened Christianity to clothing that must be put on when we commit ourselves to God's way of life. We must set our minds "on things above" and "put on the new man" with its accompanying actions (Colossians 3:2, 10). Continuing, he wrote, "Therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, put on tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering" (verse 12).

Jesus Christ's instructions to Sardis are universal instructions for God's people throughout the ages. As the message concludes, "'He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches'" (Revelation 3:6).

On the eve of Armageddon, "the battle of that great day of God Almighty," Jesus again cautions all, "Behold, I am coming as a thief. Blessed is he who watches, and keeps his garments..." (Revelation 16:14-16). UN