So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness- Colossians 2:6-7 NIV
There really was no place in the ancient world where it was truly safe to be a Christian. The threat of persecution was a constant issue for believers in Jesus into the fourth century. Even a relatively safe situation for Christians could become categorically unsafe overnight with a sudden change of political power. That being said, there were a few places where it was safer and easier to be a Christian.
Sardis was one of those places.
Sardis was a sizable, affluent city located in a lovely valley that nestled up against a mountain range. Due to its remarkably safe setting and its excess of natural resources, life in Sardis was prosperous and stress-free by ancient standards. The residents of Sardis were best known for their tolerant, laissez-faire attitude towards just about everything under the sun.
Sardis was infamous for being a party town occupied by overindulged, underachieving, slackers.
There is little evidence Christians suffered much, if any, serious persecution in Sardis. Emperor worship was not really an issue and there are (to my knowledge) no records of Christians being martyred in Sardis. The folks in Sardis were too busy having fun to persecute anyone for anything.
Sardis was filled with messy, lost people who needed the life-changing good news of the gospel. There was little stopping Christians from openly sharing. The Christians there were under no real threat. There was little chance they would be arrested or sent to an arena for talking about Jesus in a city as accommodating and tolerant as Sardis.
The Christians in Sardis did not use their idyllic situation to reach the lost and do good in their city.
Jesus’ letters all follow a familiar pattern. Jesus begins each of the seven letters with a greeting to the “angel” (commonly believed to be the pastor or bishop) of the church. Jesus follows His greeting with a declarative statement about Himself. Each statement reveals something critical about His power, character and/or the authority He has over the world (Revelation 2:1, Revelation 2:8, Revelation 2:18, Revelation 3:1, Revelation 3:7, Revelation 3:14) In all but two of the letters Jesus follows with some kind and affirming words concerning the church in question. Jesus praises the church’s faith, good deeds, perseverance, and/or their love for one another, etc. Only after praising and affirming the good in their lives does He offer any criticism.
In His letter to Sardis Jesus deviates dramatically from His usual pattern.
After the greeting and declarative statement, Jesus jumps directly to criticism and it’s objectively, quite harsh. He begins by telling them that although they have a reputation for being spiritually alive and life-giving, He knows the people in the church are dead in all the ways that matter.
There was a lot of spiritual fakery going down at the First Church of Sardis. However, the church looked awesome from the outside. The sermons in Sardis were probably consistently on-point. The congregants as well as the leaders were very diligent with their spiritual practices. They prayed, they fasted, they had amazing discipleship programs and the people gave money to help the poor and support the church.
Ultimately, the people in the church were more concerned with looking holy, good, wise and honest than they were with actually being any of those things.
Their hearts were far from God and as a result, they cared little for the souls of people in their city. They had chosen the route of looking good rather than being good and their fakeness had them on the verge of spiritual death. Sadly, they didn’t even have the spiritual awareness to recognize the danger they were in (Revelation 3:2). Their only hope was repentance and repentance is nearly impossible when a person has concluded they are just fine the way they are.
Unfortunately, anyone can lack self-awareness.
For this reason alone, Sardis is (in my opinion) the scariest of the seven letters. Jesus’ words underscore the sad reality that a Christian (or group of Christians) can be a hot spiritual mess and not even be vaguely aware of any of their own problems. It is possible for respected Christians and even esteemed Christian leaders be so self-deceived they can be half-way to hell all the while believing they are leading the way to heaven (Matthew 7:13-23, Jeremiah 17:9).
The letter to Sardis is a much-needed reminder that we can fool a lot of humans with our surface-y goodness but we can’t fool Jesus. He sees everything there is to see. Including the state of our hearts (Hebrews 4:13). This is why self-reflection is so critically needed for believers (Psalm 26:2, 2nd Corinthians 13:5). Without a willingness to really look at our lives and examine our hearts on a regular basis we can easily deceive ourselves into believing we are way better than we really are and when we do that we risk losing our saltiness and becoming spiritually worthless (Matthew 5:13)
There were a few people in the First Church of Sardis who were the real deal (Revelation 3:4). These people had remained true to Jesus and genuinely Christian even while being surrounded by spiritual counterfeits. Jesus makes one of His most beautiful promises in all of the letters to those people. He assures them they will be given the honor of walking with Him (experiencing intimate relationship) wearing white (eternally pure and noble) for all of eternity.
That’s worth staying real for.