Revelation 3:1-6 Sardis

Sun, 09/10/2016 - 10:30 -- James Oakley

I greatly respect our doctors. They work hard. And a good doctor knows how to measure a person’s vital signs. Not every death can be prevented. But if they spot that body temperature, blood pressure, heart rate, breathing are getting weak, quick intervention could save them.

That’s people. What about churches? They die too. How would you know if your church was on its last legs? What could be done to nurse a church back to health?

The book of Revelation is the last book of the Bible. It is a letter written to seven churches in what is now Turkey. Here’s what Jesus says to one of those churches, the church in Sardis. Verse 2: “Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die.”

They’re on their deathbed. If it could happen to Sardis, it could happen to Kemsing. We need to know how to recognise a dying church. And we need to know our first aid.

Missing the Signs: A Church that Looks Healthy

Before we learn how to read a church’s vital signs, we need to notice how easy they are to miss.

The church in Sardis had completely missed the fact that they were about to take their final breath. They thought everything was fine and dandy. To push the medical analogy slightly too far, the church had fallen asleep at the medical monitoring machine, and hadn’t even noticed the graphs beginning to flat line. Verse 2 tells them they need to “Wake up!”

Or to use a military picture, a city under siege is about to fall, but the watchmen are not at their posts. They’ve stopped watching, stopped guarding, and nobody’s noticed the invading army streaming in through the back gate.

That’s a scary thought. It means you could be in a dying church and think everything was fine. How could a church on its deathbed be mistaken for one that is alive and well?

By being distracted by two things.

Firstly, reputation. Reputation.

Verse 1: “I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead.”

This church had a fantastic reputation. It was known as a thriving church. It was a flagship church. Anyone moving to the area would already have heard about it, read the pastor’s books and heard him speak at a conference. So this would hurt: “You have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead.”

Our reputation here is that we are alive and lively, growing. I’ve known other local church leaders recommend us to young families because of our children’s work. If you’re in or near Kemsing, then this would be a good church to get stuck in with.

That’s a good reputation. But it’s dangerous reputation. Sardis warns us that it’s possible to coast on your reputation. The reputation is like stage lights. You’re so dazzled by everyone looking at you that you cannot see properly. So you miss the fact that the church is actually gasping for breath.


Second, activity. Activity.

Verse 1: Jesus knows their deeds. But verse 2, Jesus calls their deeds unfinished. We’ll come back to what that means, but the point for now is that this was a very active church. They were doing lots of things. But lots of activity is not the same as good health.

Now, I’m not at all saying that we are in a poor state of health. We may not be in the same position as Sardis. But one warning we need to learn from Sardis is that activity can distract us from reading our church’s health correctly.

We are a busy, active church. We run programmes for the very young, the very elderly, and every age in between. People work hard to keep them going. Each year our annual report has an update from each activity, so it is a long report.

The warning from Sardis is that you cannot measure the health of a church by the length of their annual report. It’s possible to be very busy, very active, doing a lot of good things – and yet for the church to be on the critical list spiritually.

The church has fallen asleep at the monitor. They have an excellent reputation, and loads of activity. So how could the church’s spiritual health be anything other than A star?

Well, now we know how easy it is to miss the signs, let’s look at what’s gone wrong..

Vital Signs: Loving relationships and transformed lives

I’m going to point us to two vital signs we should be monitoring. They don’t come from the message to Sardis, but from the message to some of the other churches Revelation was sent to. Sardis was expected to have read those, and to work out where things are going wrong.

Number one: A healthy church should be loving. We learnt this from the church in Ephesus at the start of chapter 2. There was so much right about that church, but they’d lost their first love. Their love for the Lord Jesus, and their love for one another.

Christianity is all about God’s love for us. We are selfish. We live for ourselves, and we don’t treat God as he deserves. God could have wiped us out. But he loves us too much for that. Instead, he came to this world in the person of Jesus. He took on himself all our selfishness and pride, and died on the cross in our place. That’s how much he loved us!

All we have to do is trust him, receive the offer. Then he gives us, for free, total forgiveness and his help to change and become more like him. God wants us to know that most amazing love.

And when we do, we’re never the same again. We start to love the God who loved us We start to love our fellow Christians, who are now our family. And we start to change, to become more the people Jesus wants us to be.

A healthy church will be on fire with love. Love for God. Love for each other. That’s one vital sign for a healthy church, so it must have been missing in Sardis.

A healthy church should be loving. Second, Christlike.

If you’ve known God’s love to reach out and save you, he then starts to change you and make you into the person he wants you to be.

The churches in Pergamum and Thyatira had lost this vital ingredient. They were not being shaped by Jesus in their thinking. Instead, they were listening to other teachers, who claimed to represent Jesus, but who taught something quite different.

And they were not being shaped by Jesus in their behaviour. Instead of listening to how he says we should live, they were taking their cue from the culture around them. They had teachers saying that particular sins were actually fine, and Jesus was not impressed.

A healthy church will be like Jesus in the way it thinks and lives. It will be seeking to bring its belief and behaviour more and more into line with what Jesus has to say. But Sardis was not.

So turn on the medical monitor for your church. There are two main charts to keep an eye on. Love. And Christlikeness.

Is that what marks out our church? If not, we’re not a healthy church, however active we may be, whatever our reputation may be.

And how about for you, personally? Have you known God’s saving love, first-hand? Are you gripped by a love for the Lord Jesus, and a love for his people? Do you know his transforming power, tackling those areas of thinking and behaviour that need to change?

First Aid

Those are the vital signs, the things to watch to check the health of a church.

But what if the signs aren’t good? What if we might be dying? What is the first aid to apply?

You need to act quickly. Verse 2: “Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die”.

Have you ever sat by a log fire or a coal fire that’s going out. In one little area of the fire, there’s a small red glow. Get some oxygen into there quickly, and that small red glow will become brighter until the flames come back. But leave it, and very quickly the glow will fade and then go out.

There’s a tiny bit of spiritual life still in Sardis. If they’re quick, it could be fanned into flame.

Three things they have to do. Remember. Retain. Repent.

Here’s verse 3: “Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; hold it fast, and repent.”

“Remember” says they need to go back to basics. Back to the Christian walk they had at the beginning. “Retain,” or “hold fast” says they need to keep doing that, not just for a season, but as their new way of life. And “repent” says that this will be a deliberate change of direction.

If you’re out walking, and take a wrong turning, sometimes the paths join back up again. I remember walking as a youngster – the way home was easy to find: follow the path along the top of the ridge. But enclosed by trees, none of us noticed that the ridge had forked, and we’d ended up on the wrong path. There was a deep and steep sided valley between us and the ridge we should be on. The only way on was to go back to the point where we’d gone wrong, where the paths had forked, and to take the right path.

We need to come back to Jesus. Back to his love for us, and then to ours for him. If our beliefs have been shaped by the world around us, and not by Jesus, we need to let go of our wrong beliefs, and let Jesus teach us. If our lifestyle has been shaped by the world around us, and not by Jesus, we need to stop living in ways he is not pleased with, and live for him.

Remember. Retain. Repent.

Then the church will start to regain its strength, and eventually come off the critical list. If it acts fast, it will come back to life before Jesus turns off the life support.

The Future: Life Outside Hospital

What incentive is there to worry about any of this? Maybe you’re here this morning thinking that it doesn’t matter whether a church is healthy or not. It doesn’t matter whether you’re spiritually healthy or not. Surely, we can just ignore spiritual health altogether.

Jesus holds out two wonderful promises to every Christian in Sardis who takes this warning on board. Whether or not the church is nursed back to health, each of us has to make our own response before God.

Here’s where life is heading for the spiritually healthy.

First, dressed in white. Verse 5: “The one who is victorious will, like them, be dressed in white.”

White clothes in Revelation stand for righteous lives. Living the way that God made us to be. I said that Jesus came to rescue people like us, people who sin and who fail. One day, we’ll be dressed in white. We’ll be perfectly righteous. Utterly flawless. That’s a promise. And it’s a gift. We’ll never hurt anyone again by our selfishness.

Dressed in white. Then, second, the book of life.

That’s the second half of verse 5: “I will never blot out the name of that person from the book of life, but will acknowledge that name before my Father and his angels.”

Before the beginning of time, God got a book and he wrote in it the names of everyone who would one day share with him a perfect sinless life, on a perfect suffering-free world. That book is the book of life.

There are all kinds of registers in life. There’s the list of children in your class at school. The membership list for the village gardener’s association. The list of employees at your workplace, who are free to enter the building without going through the visitors’ entrance and having to sign in. The list of people who will be admitted to a royal garden party, or a nightclub.

Then there’s God’s book of life. The list of people who will one day enjoy a perfect life in a perfect world, as perfect people. And if you walk with Jesus in this life, then your name is in that book and nobody can ever rub out your name.


The church in Sardis is dead. Or dying and very nearly dead. What is the health of our own church?

Sardis is a warning to us all. Don’t be dazzled by a busy programme and a good reputation.

What really matters is our walk with Jesus. Receiving his love. Loving him back. Loving his people. Allowing him to shape and to change us.

Will we be that kind of church? Will we, individually, walk with him in this kind of way?

Those who do have a wonderful future – dressed in white, names indelibly in the book of life.

Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.

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