The Dead Church Can Live Again
Sermon Text: Revelation 3:1-6
Sermon Theme: Jesus challenges the dead church in Sardis to become a congregation with true spiritual life.
The Lord Jesus is He that hath the Holy Spirit with all his powers, graces, and operations. Hypocrisy, and lamentable decay in religion, are sins charged upon Sardis, by One who knew that church well, and all her works. Outward things appeared well to men, but there was only the form of godliness, not the power; a name to live, not a principle of life. There was great deadness in their souls, and in their services; members were wholly hypocrites, others were in a disordered and lifeless state. Our Lord called upon them to be watchful against their enemies, and to be active and earnest in their duties; and to endeavor, in dependence on the grace of the Holy Spirit, to revive and strengthen the faith and spiritual affections of those yet alive to God, though in a declining state. Whenever we are off our watch, we lose ground. Thy works are hollow and empty; prayers are not filled up with holy desires, alms-deeds not filled up with true charity, sabbaths not filled up with suitable devotion of soul to God. There are not inward affections suitable to outward acts and expressions; when the spirit is wanting, the form cannot long remain. In seeking a revival in our own souls, or the souls of others, it is needful to compare what we profess with the manner in which we go on, that we may be humbled and quickened to hold fast that which remains. Christ enforces his counsel with a dreadful threatening if it should be despised. Yet our blessed Lord does not leave this sinful people without some encouragement. He makes honorable mention of the faithful remnant in Sardis, he makes a gracious promise to them. He that overcomes shall be clothed in white raiment; the purity of grace shall be rewarded with the perfect purity of glory. Christ has his book of life, a register of all who shall inherit eternal life; the book of remembrance of all who live to God, and keep up the life and power of godliness in evil times. Christ will bring forward this book of life, and show the names of the faithful, before God, and all the angels, at the great day.
(From Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary)
- What are the danger signs that a church is dying? A church is in danger when it is content to rest on its past laurels, when it is more concerned with liturgical forms than spiritual reality, when it focuses on curing social ills rather than changing people’s hearts through preaching the life-giving gospel of Jesus Christ, when it is more concerned with material than spiritual things, when it is more concerned with what men think than what God said, when it is more enamored with doctrinal creeds and systems of theology than with the Word of God, or when it loses its conviction that every word of the Bible is the word of God Himself. No matter what its attendance, no matter how impressive its buildings, no matter what its status in the community, such a church, having denied the only source of spiritual life, is dead.
- Christ criticizes the majority of the Sardian Christians for being spiritually asleep; so they must repent and return to their earlier spiritual liveliness. To consider oneself secure and fail to remain alert is to court disaster (1 Corinthians 10:12). What warning should we ourselves take from this? Are your works complete? There is a connection between your spiritual life and your works. Real faith will result in real works. Because most of the Sardians were not alive, they didn’t do the work God was calling them to do. A nominal believer (ie, a Christian in name only) may do something which looks good (for example some charity work), but he will not do the thing which is most important, sharing the true gospel.
- Is indifference a way of live for you? Indifference is generally the result of one of two causes — pride of intellect or mental sloth. And another characteristic of indifference is to stand aloof from the questions which have to do more immediately with the revelation of God, to have an acute interest in all except the truths, the worship, the progress, the influence of the Church of Christ, is to present the sure marks of an imperfect manhood, to evidence a one-sided development of the powers of the soul. And don’t become selfishness in an attempt to isolate yourself from the struggles of our contemporaries, to withdraw from the warfare of God, filling up the vacancy of the mind and the life with a thousand self-chosen imaginations and pursuits.
- Is self-satisfaction causing one’s spiritual death? Upon all who are satisfied with their standing before God the chill of spiritual death has begun to rest. They can no more draw spiritual life from themselves, than one can feed his body by sucking blood from its veins. Therefore, satisfied with their relation to God, they do not strive to gain life from Him who is the source of spiritual life, as He is of the life physical. Their self-satisfaction works the ruin of their souls. But more frequently than by self-satisfaction is the spiritual life killed by the indulgence of some sin. Many a man has felt he could surrender his entire property to God; but when the temptation arose of making a hundred dollars by a trick of the trade, he has chosen to be dishonest. But the sin may not be one of commission. It may consist in the omission of some duty. It may consist in the refusal of some means of grace. It may consist in the preference of doing nothing to advance God’s cause. Such sins of omission deaden the spiritual life.
- Why do many people think they are saved, but aren’t? How can we test ourselves and make sure that we are alive spiritually? Here are some things that do not show a person is saved and alive in Christ:
- Attending church
- Taking communion
- Singing worship songs
- Calling oneself a Christian
- Reading the Bible.
And here are some things that are evidence of genuine belief:
- Walking in the light (1 John 1:6-7)
- Confessing sin (1 John 1:8-10; 1 John 2:1)
- Keeping His commandments (1 John 2:3-4)
- Loving the brethren (1 John 2:9-11)
- Pursue holiness (1 John 3:3-4)
- Having the Holy Spirit (1 John 4:13; 1 John 5:10-11)
- Having good fruit (Matthew 7:17)
- Loving God (John 14:15; 1 John 5:3)
To be alive, we must objectively have real faith (John 5:24). And if that faith is real, it will be followed with action (James 2:14-26).
- Is your faith alive? True, spiritual life, as it is a quickening, so is it an impulsive principle. As it gives action to the spiritual eye, ear and tongue, so does it give growth to the whole inner man. Slow growth it may be; still grow the living soul must and will. It is a growth in knowledge; but that is not the sure test. It is a growth in holiness, and that is the test; the one clear, decisive test of the soul’s life (Matthew 7:20). True Christian holiness is not the honesty of the worldly; nor the honor of a person; nor the temperance of the philosopher; nor the kindness of the good-natured; nor yet is it the mechanical observance of the formalist, nor the bustling vehemence of the religionist. True Christian holiness is a hearty conformity to God’s whole will, acting in a loving obedience to all God’s commandments. It works in two great lines of feeling and operation — in a deep-rooted horror of sin, as God’s utter hate, and a perfect hungering and thirsting after righteousness, as God’s supreme delight, both springing from entire love to God as their one grand source and motive. Conclusion: What is the result of this inquiry for you? As mark after mark of spiritual life has been brought forward, have you been able to say, “This mark I have; if not in the highest degree, still, God be thanked, most assuredly I have it?” But are there any who can find no such marks in their soul? Then, whatever else you may have, you are destitute indeed. You may be very amiable in men’s eyes. Death has sometimes its momentary beauty. A shadowy loveliness is seen to linger on the lifeless features. Yet the work of decay and destruction is just as busy beneath. You may be gifted with great talents and great energy; you may gain high distinction and honor in the world; but if your soul be not “alive in Christ,” what is all this but a fading garland on the head of a corpse?
- How can you strengthen your spiritual life? What can you do to make an impact for Christ that will last into the next generation? The only way to get strength is from Jesus (John 15:5). We must come to Him for spiritual nourishment. Apart from Him we can do nothing. That is the root problem of many churches and individual believers. No amount of programs can replace our innate need for Christ. He is the bread of life. He is the living water. He is the resurrection and the life.
- Where have you established a name for yourself — in the eyes of the community or in God’s sight? The Sardis church is called upon to bear in mind what they had received and heard. Members of the church had received the faith as an abiding trust at the moment faith came by hearing. But, they were being fraudulent followers of Christ at the very worst, and at minimum that they have been working works in the flesh. Works that make them look great in the sight of the world, but in the eyes of the one whose eyes are a “flame of fire,” they are found to be worthless. They heard the gospel. They knew the truth. But somewhere along the way, they had forgotten it and been distracted. Image became more important than substance. The counsel was simple, remember and repent. They needed to remember the gospel. Salvation from sin is in Christ alone. We are saved by grace through faith and not of works (Ephesians 2:8-9). And in remembering that, they then needed to repent.
- The true question which we should ask ourselves and each other is not, “Are you prepared to die?” but, “Are you fit to live?” Have you lost the strength to resist the wrong and to do the right? Have you lost the appetite for holy service, wholesome doctrine? Have you lost the enjoyment—all complaint; no pleasure in anything?
- What are you “holding fast” to? You are exhorted to hold fast the truths of the gospel; to lay to heart those precepts, and commands, and promises, which God has given to you. 1) With the assent of your judgment and heart, holding fast that which is good, not suffering the deceptive reasoning and false arguments of others to blind and to confound you. 2) With faith—not a mere historical faith; not a mere speculative faith; but a faith apprehending the greatness of the Son of God. 3) With meekness, but with resolution. 4) With prayer and perseverance. 5) In our lives and conversations; walking in the truth of Jesus.
- Why are you holding fast to that which was delivered unto you? 1) Because of its excellency; the incomparable value of Divine truth. Truth reflects the Divine image; truth brings into harmony the glories of the great God, and exhibits His perfections. 2) Because of the violence and the wrong which were otherwise offered to God. 3) Because of its blessed tendency; for, by making us holier, even in this life, that which we hear makes us happier. 4) You must hold fast the words of sound doctrine, because they affect the great and the coming destinies of the imperishable soul.
- Are we going after those that are wounded and sick, and those that are weary? Yes, but how do we speak? We must not tell them to perform impossible duties but instead speak of strengthening the things that remain and are ready to die. The command is to salvage and cultivate what spiritual life still exists; rather than allow it to die, nurse it back to health and vitality. The Lord Jesus does not simply allow His church to wither away and die; in His great love and in His desire for spiritual fruitfulness, He issues His strong command: “Wake up! Strengthen the things that remain and are about to die.” Understood in this way, the congregation is charged with caring for other members, perhaps alluding to Ezekiel 34:4: “You have not strengthened the weak.”
- Are some of us questioning ourselves as to what it is that keeps the life of Jesus Christ out of our hearts? Life is sustained by food, by air, and by exercise. Do you feed the life of Christ in you? Do you read your Bible? You will never be vigorous Christians unless you can say, “I have desired the words of Thy mouth more than my necessary food. ” Life is sustained by air breathed. Do you take that Divine Spirit into yourselves, expanding that capacity by desire, and so oxygenating all your life and cleansing out the corruptions of sin? And life is sustained by exercise. Do you do anything for Jesus Christ? Absolute idleness is a sure way, and it is a very popular way amongst many Christian people to kill the life of Christ within us.
- Are you coming to the right source to get your white robe? Are you trying to clothe yourself? In the Word, we often see these two sides of the coin. God is sovereign. He saves. He secures your salvation. He enables you to persevere and to conquer. At the same time, you have a responsibility too. You must conquer. You must persevere—and the true believers will. But, do not take perseverance lightly. Never think to yourself, “I professed faith, so I am safe. I am in.” Real warnings in Scripture are meant to keep us vigilant. God secures us. But we must not be foolhardy or presumptuous. Trust in Him. And at the same time, press on. For the renewal of the Spirit does not occur in a vacuum; the intended revival occurs when the Word you have received and heard results in repentance. For we must meet God on His terms, not build religious edifices on our terms. We do not get to dictate how the church will look, for the church is Christ’s bride, and she will be fashioned as He wills – not how we will. For we are the clay. The clay does not successfully and independently build a church apart from the work of the Potter.
- Can one go aside from God to the world (worldliness and carnality) and lie down in the lions’ den and still come away without loss? There is danger of contaminating the Christian witness by accommodation to the prevailing standards of a pagan city. So is it that a man is like that which he mentally feeds upon; so that if he communes regularly and constantly with Christ, he will become Christ-like, and will live by the life of Christ.
- What do you know of God’s character—is He fair? He doesn’t judge the righteous along with the wicked. He doesn’t condemn the entire group if the entire group is not guilty. God judges people individually. We see this in Abraham’s interaction with God about the judgment on Sodom and Gomorrah. God spared the only righteous in the city (Lot and his family). In the same way, you will not be judged for your parents’ sins. And a parent will not be judged for his child’s sins (Deuteronomy 24:16). That truth is encouraging. You may be a member of a church or of a family that is not walking with the Lord. It may be discouraging to see that you are the only one or one of only a few who are serving the Lord. Perhaps the sins of those around you bother you, and they should. And you know that God is not happy and consequences are going to follow. Even in the midst, you can be reminded that God knows your works. If you are faithful in the midst of that situation, He knows. He will be pleased—He will reward you. You will not be condemned for the sins of others, even those closest to you.
Sardis Historical Background
Sardis was the capital of the ancient kingdom of Lydia, the most obstinate of the foreign powers encountered by the Greeks during their early colonization in Asia Minor. In 546 B.C. it fell to Cyrus and became the seat of the Persian governor. Later it became part of the Seleucid kingdom, then passed to Pergamum, and subsequently to Rome (133 B.C.). In A.D. 17 Sardis suffered a catastrophic earthquake, but it was rebuilt with considerable help from the emperor Tiberius (10,000,000 sesterces—about a million dollars—and five years of tax remission. Nine years later (in A.D. 26) it competed with ten other Asian cities for the privilege of building an imperial temple, but it lost out to Smyrna, which stressed its practical services to Rome. Situated at the western end of a famous highway from Susa through Asia Minor, Sardis was a city of wealth and fame. Under Croesus gold was taken from the Pactolus. Jewelry found in the local cemeteries indicates great prosperity. It was at Sardis that gold and silver coins were first struck. It claimed to be the first to discover the art of dyeing wool.
The church at Sardis comes under the most severe denunciation of the seven. Apparently untroubled by heresy and free from outside opposition, it had so completely come to terms with its pagan environment that although it retained the outward appearance of life, it was spiritually dead. Like the fig tree of Mark 11:20 it had leaves but no fruit.
(From New International Commentary – NT)
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