seven letters  sardis part I

Our look at the second and third chapters of Revelation has taken us through four of the seven letters that Jesus sent to different churches that existed near the end of the first century. Now it's time to look at the fifth letter in this series and one that is very different from the others we've already looked at.

Jesus' fifth letter was sent to the church in the city of Sardis, a town that was located about 30 miles (48 km) south of Thyatira. Back in the days before the first century, Sardis had been one of the stronger and more important cities in the ancient world. It was located on high ridge that was surrounded by mountainous cliffs that made it tough for an enemy to invade. Of course, "tough to invade" is not the same thing as "impossible to invade" but we'll get into that part a little bit later. Anyway, Sardis was a city of great wealth and lots of commercial activity with a big reputation as a place where rich people could live and party.

Unfortunately, this all changed during a single night in the year 17 AD when a huge earthquake destroyed large portions of the city. This earthquake was so bad that one ancient writer* later reported that it caused vast mountains to collapse and people to be swallowed up by the earth. Although the Roman government funded a large rebuilding project to repair the damage, it appears that Sardis never totally recovered from the devastation caused by this terrible earthquake. 

So what did all this mean for the Christian community in Sardis? Well, it meant that the Christians who were living in Sardis at the time when Jesus gave them this message were living in a place that had once been great but was now just a shadow of what it used to be. Knowing this history makes the beginning of Jesus' message to this church all the more important and meaningful...

"To the angel of the church in Sardis write: These are the words of him who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead" (Revelation 3:1).

As you read through the Bible, you'll find that numbers often carry special meanings and this is especially true in the Book of Revelation. Now this idea of "numbers and meanings" should be pretty easy to understand because people often use numbers to represent things in a similar way today. For instance, if someone says to another person, "You're number one" the person speaking certainly doesn't mean that the second person is an actual number, right? In this case, the number one means that someone else is the first or best. Well, if you read through the book of Revelation (and other Biblical books as well), you'll find that numbers are also used in this way too.

One example of this would be the number seven which is repeated over fifty times in the book of Revelation. In the Bible, the number seven is often used to represent things like completion, fulfillment or perfection. So when Jesus speaks of the "seven spirits" in the verse quoted above, some scholar-types believe that He is talking about the Holy Spirit in His total perfection. Then there's that part about the "seven stars" that are also mentioned in the verse above. You might remember that these stars were identified back in Revelation chapter one, verse twenty (1:20). That verse tells us that the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches and is probably just another way of referring to the leadership in each church. So if Jesus holds these seven stars, we can understand this reference to mean that Jesus is the ultimate leader of all His churches.

Now the thing that makes this message to the Christians at Sardis different from the others that we've looked at is not so much what Jesus says, but what He doesn't say. You see, each of the previous four churches that Jesus wrote to were doing something that He could compliment. For example, Jesus praised the Ephesian church for it's hard work, the church at Smyrna for staying strong in difficult times, the church at Pergamum for it's faithfulness and the church at Thyatira for it's love, faith and good deeds. But unlike those churches, Jesus had no approval for the Christians in Sardis. This is sadly highlighted by the way that Jesus started His message to them: "I know your reputation as a live and active church, but you are dead." 

Now those last few words are more important than they may seem at first glance. You see, a church like Sardis would likely be known as a very busy and dynamic church if it were around today- the kind of church with "a reputation of being alive" to use Jesus' words. This means that it would probably be the kind of church with lots of people, plenty of activities, a big youth group, great worship music and a popular Youth Minister. Since these are good things in themselves, it might be easy to look at such a church and automatically think that God would be pleased, right? Well the problem is that may not always be so. You see, Jesus' letter to the Christians in Sardis shows us that it's possible for a church to look like it's doing lots of good things for God but still be far away from where He wants it to be. 

One way to avoid this is to look for a church where the leadership is serious about carrying out an important job that the Scriptures talk about in Ephesians 4:12...

"Their responsibility is to equip God's people to do his work and build up the church, the body of Christ" (NLT).

A really good church is one that helps prepare people to be stronger Christians so they can do the things that God wants them to do. OTOH, a church that has a great reputation but isn't helping people to understand what God's Word says and means won't be able to help them apply Jesus' teachings in their life or communicate them to others. While this is bad enough, the example of the church at Sardis also reminds us that Jesus saw these Christians for what they really were, not just how they seemed to be- and the same holds true for people today.


The Doctor is not a real doctor but he plays one on the Internet. E-Mail prescriptions are also available on an individual basis.

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Except as indicated, all Scriptural references taken from The Living Bible, 1971, Tyndale House Publishers

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