The Cure for Complacent Souls
Dr. Jim Denison
The church we’ll visit today was located in the most ideal city for Christianity in all of Revelation. If any church should have been alive and exciting, it was this one. And that was indeed their reputation, with everyone but Jesus.
Sardis was located thirty miles southeast of Thyatira and fifty miles east of Ephesus. She had been an important and wealthy city for centuries. Her foundations date to 1500 B.C., when she was the capital of the Lydian Empire.
This was the center of transportation for the entire continent. Major trade routes led from Sardis in five different directions, bringing her citizens commerce and wealth beyond any city in the region.
In addition, the Pactolus River carried gold dust literally into the city’s market place. Croesus, her king in 560 B.C., minted the first modern coins, so that Sardis became the place where money was born.
Dyeing and woolen industries thrived here. Merchants lined her streets with their shops, some of which have been excavated and reconstructed today. Her baths and its columns, swimming pool, and gymnasium have been restored, and are among the most impressive in all of Turkey. Her people were so wealthy that when an earthquake devastated Sardis in A.D. 17 she rebuilt herself without aid from the Empire, in just nine years.
Sardis was the political capital for her region, and a thriving religious center as well. She possessed a temple of Artemis which, while never completed, rivaled in size the famous temple in Ephesus. Her Jewish synagogue was famous for its size and opulence. It has also been reconstructed, and is strikingly beautiful.
The authorities in Sardis were very tolerant of all religions, including Christianity. The church here faced none of the persecution believers endured in Smyrna or Pergamum. These Christians were uncompromised in their doctrine or moral convictions. None of the problems plaguing the other churches of Revelation are to be found here.
In every way this would seem to be an ideal church in an ideal city. And in fact Jesus says they “have a reputation of being alive” (v. 1). If we could visit this church, we’d be very impressed. A beautiful meeting place for worship, a wealthy congregation in attendance, an eloquent sermon, by every appearance the strongest church we’ve visited so far.
And so we expect to hear a strong word of support and commendation from Jesus. Then comes the shock: “You are dead.” You look alive, but you are not. You look healthy and wealthy, but you are not. You are asleep, and dying. And if you don’t wake up, now, “I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you” (v. 3). I’ll come and you’ll be gone.
These Christians are asleep spiritually, and near death. Though they live in the most ideal city in Revelation, they have lost touch with their souls. Now Jesus must do whatever is necessary to wake them up. The deeper the sleep the harsher the alarm must be, before the coma leads to death.
How a soul falls asleep
Trust appearances. Jesus says, “I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead… I have not found your deeds complete in the sight of my God” (v. 1, 2). If you want your spiritual life to grow useless and lifeless, trust how it looks.
Of all the churches and cities in Revelation, these should have known better. Sardis stood at the top of a mountain, 1500 feet above the valley. The mountain sides were smooth, so that there was no good way for an army to ascend and attack. The city stood like a giant watchtower over the Hermus valley below, and appeared impregnable.
When Cyrus of Persia attacked Sardis, her people were convinced that their walls would protect them. But a Persian soldier saw a Sardian soldier accidentally drop his helmet down the cliff and climb down to retrieve it. He knew then that there must be a crack in the side of that cliff by which a man could climb. That night he led a raiding party of Persian soldiers up the side of the mountain, through that crack. They found the Sardian watchmen sleeping and took the entire city. Sardis appeared safe, but they fell asleep and perished.
Two centuries later history repeated itself, as the Greek leader Antiochus and his troops climbed the same crack and found the watch asleep. Again the sleeping city fell. And now history was being repeated a third time in the church of Sardis. These believers were asleep and dying. Trusting appearances. Believing that because they looked healthy and vital, they must be.
This can happen so easily to us. We can think that because our church’s statistics are good and our meetings well-attended, we must be healthy. Because we come to church on Sunday morning and act religious, we must be. Because we keep up our activities, we must be growing spiritually.
But remember the Scripture: “Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16.7). If you want your soul to grow cold and lifeless, trust appearances.
Live in the past. Sardis’ greatest days were behind her. By this time she had become famous for decadence and immorality. She constantly remembered her great kings and achievements of the past, and lived in them. Her Christians gloried in their reputation and took pride in their great history. And soon their church would be history as well.
Christians can still make their mistake today. You may remember with joy the day you came to Christ, but that was to be just the beginning of your Christian life. You may recall a great revival your church experienced, or an exciting mission trip, or your days teaching the Bible or leading a ministry. But if you live in those days now, you will miss the power of God.