Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Living Apocalypse - Part 8

For the next few weeks I'll be posting on Revelation 2:1-3:22 - the Seven Letters to the Churches - out of my new book Living Apocalypse: A Revelation Reader and A Guide for the Perplexed.

The Letter to Sardis (3:1-6)


This ancient city was built on a steep hill and was known for its past wealth and commerce. In Sardis there were temples dedicated to Artemis and to Cybele, a goddess thought to have the power to bring the dead to life.

A secluded city, Sardis tended to lack vigilance as it was twice captured by enemies for failing to post guards at the city walls, an interesting parallel to the problem in the church. Seclusion often produces complacency, just as embracing the world produces compromise.

Many churches today are similar to this city. Attempts to seclude and separate proliferate, while there is a wholesale failure to post guards at hearts, minds and imaginations, which are deeply entrenched in worldly ways.


(1-3) These words are spoken by the One who has the ‘seven spirits of God.’ This phrase, as understood back in 1:4, symbolizes the Holy Spirit (see also Zech. 4:1-10; Rev. 5:6). The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches (see 1:20).

The risen Christ knows the deeds of the church in Sardis. Their reputation is one of being alive, but in reality the community is dead. There may have been some evidence of life, but in verses 2-3 they are told with five imperatives that it is not sufficient. They were commanded to “Be watchful,” “strengthen what remains,” “remember what was received and heard,” “keep it,” and “repent.” Their lives were characterized by a lack of completion, constantly falling short of full commitment and vigilance. They needed to turn from their complacency and re-orient their lives.

If the church at Sardis is not watchful they are warned that Christ will come to them in judgement. This probably should be thought of as present judgement, even though ‘the thief coming’ is a reference to final judgement in several contexts. Often in the Apocalypse this kind of language can refer to a visitation of judgement in the present, typologically prefiguring the final judgement. In any case, the second coming will come whether the church is watchful or not, and this seems to confirm the previous interpretation of a present judgment in this context.

(4) The word used here is ‘yet’ or ‘nevertheless.’ This time it is not an introduction to what Christ has against the church, but rather an affirmation that there are some in the church who have not accommodated to the general laxness regarding pagan attitudes, lifestyles, and the church’s half-hearted commitment to Christ. Those who have not adopted this way of life, but have held on to Christ wholeheartedly will walk with him dressed in white, a reference to those justified. Following the crucified and risen One is a task and joy that demands loyalty and faithfulness. “For they are worthy” refers to their justification through the work of Christ and to the fact that they have not done anything to jeopardize that position.

(5-6) There are three promises to those who overcome. First, they are promised to be dressed in white, or ‘justified’ before God (7:9, 10, 13-17). Second, the ones who overcome are never to be blotted out of the book of life; in other words, he/she has everlasting life. Third, is the promise that Christ will acknowledge their names before his Father and the angels. “Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit says to the churches.”


The fourth and fifth letters to the churches in 2:18-3:6 have been analysed. Both letters, as in all the previous ones, affirm the speaker as Christ. In the letter to Thyatira he is described as the Son of God “whose eyes are like blazing fire and whose feet are like burnished bronze.” He commends the church for her works, love, faith, and perseverance. However, there were some who were compromising with false teachings to the extent that Christ announces his imminent judgement if they do not repent. He instructs those who haven’t compromised to hold on to what they have until he comes. The one who overcomes and does the works of Christ will be given a share of his authority over the nations.

The second letter is to Sardis. In this letter Christ is described as the holder of the seven spirits of God and the seven stars, both of which are referred to in chapter 1. Again, the presence of the risen Christ is emphasized in his words, “I know your deeds.” Apparently the church at Sardis had a fine external reputation for being alive, but Christ says that in reality it is dead. They are admonished to, “Be watchful, strengthen what remains, remember what was received and heard, keep it and repent.” They too are warned that if they are not watchful Christ will come to them in judgement. However, there are some in Sardis who have not fallen into complacency and away from commitment. They will walk with the risen Christ. Anyone who overcomes is promised everlasting life and acknowledgement by Christ before his Father.