a reversed reputation
It’s uncomfortable to realize that some of the stars we see at night may already be dead.
While this isn’t the happiest thought in the world, it is possible. Light travels at a speed of 186,282 miles per second—which is just faster than some people drive here in Memphis. But even when traveling that fast, stars are so far away that it can take a few thousand years for their light to reach Earth. So, technically speaking, a star we still see could already be dead; we just don’t know because that light (or lack of light) hasn’t reached us yet.
The situation for the church in Sardis wasn’t much different. This was a church whose name was well-known and respected in John’s time. They had a good reputation. But Jesus cannot be fooled. He is the one with flaming eyes who knows all things, and He knew that while this church appeared to be alive, it was already dead. They were like a star that had burned out but was living off the light of its past.
The Fall of Sardis
In Revelation 3:1–6, Jesus confronts the church in Sardis for being spiritually dead through one of the harshest letters Jesus gives through John.
“To the angel of the church in Sardis write:
He who has the seven Spirits of God and the seven stars, says this: ‘I know your deeds, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead. Wake up, and strengthen the things that remain, which were about to die; for I have not found your deeds completed in the sight of My God. So remember what you have received and heard; and keep it, and repent. Therefore if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come to you. But you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their garments; and they will walk with Me in white, for they are worthy. He who overcomes will thus be clothed in white garments; and I will not erase his name from the book of life, and I will confess his name before My Father and before His angels. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’”
This is a passage filled with rebuke. But things weren’t always this way; at one point, the church in Sardis had everything going for it. They were a thriving church in a thriving city that appeared to be well-positioned to make a great impact for the Kingdom of God.
Years later, when Jesus addressed the church in Sardis, they still appeared to be hard at work for the Lord. Yet, that’s all it was—an appearance of being hard at work. Hidden by their busyness was the reality that they were spiritually dead. So, though they were admired for how much they did, since they were doing it apart from the Spirit of God, they were accomplishing nothing. They had a reversed reputation.
A Warning for Today
It’s impossible to see the church of Sardis and not think about how easily a church could fall into similar temptations today.
Imagine a church that starts off well with the best of intentions. They truly want to love and share Jesus. From the beginning, they find ways to serve the community and encourage their members toward personal evangelism. Eventually, they grow out of their rented high school gym and move to a bigger building and then to an even bigger building.
Over time, the priorities of the church begin to subtly shift. They begin watching their follower count on Instagram more closely than they watch how the Lord is leading. Their time becomes so filled with doing things for God that they have no time to spend with God. They become so focused on being a lively, exciting church that they drift away from the only One who can give life. Before they know it—and before anyone may even recognize it—they have become like the church in Sardis. People around the world may still know their name, their pastor may still write best-selling books, and attendance may still be growing in numbers. But underneath it all, there is no spiritual life. They have become a spiritually dead church.
No church is invincible against this potential. Without caution and without a commitment to intimacy with Jesus, even Bellevue Baptist Church could fall into this trap. We’re a church that’s well-known. We’re a church with a long history. We’re a church that has events nearly every night of the week. And none of these things are bad; if approached correctly, they can be very good things. But if we ever rely more on the reputation of Bellevue than we rely on the name of Christ, then we’ve become like the church in Sardis—we may look alive, but we’ll be spiritually dead.
That doesn’t have to be our story though. We can be like the few Christians in Sardis who didn’t “soil their garments” and whose names are permanently written in the “book of life.” Our story is still being written, so let’s not be like Sardis. Let’s be found truly alive in Christ.