About thirty-five miles south of Thyatira, lay the city of Sardis. We can read Jesus’ letter to this church in Revelation 3:1-6. Unlike His opening to the other churches, Jesus does not begin with any praise for Sardis. Instead, He jumps directly to the point: “I know all the things you do, and that you have a reputation for being alive-but you are dead. Wake up!” (vs. 1-2, NLT) The city of Sardis had a rather interesting past. Located on a high mountain precipice, the city considered itself impregnable. Yet, Sardis was actually conquered twice during the 550 B.C. to 220 B.C. span. Both times, an enemy scout scaled the mountainous walls and opened the city gates from the inside – while the population, feeling perfectly safe, was sound asleep. Jesus’ warning to the church would certainly remind the readers of their unfortunate history: “If you don’t wake up, I will come to you suddenly, as unexpected as a thief.”
It’s interesting that Christ has no rebuke against the church’s teachings. Unlike the previous two churches, Sardis has remained doctrinally pure. But, at the same time, the church has become encumbered by cold, stagnant legalism – a type of “works” based on doctrinal dogma. “I know your works,” Jesus declares almost cynically. Yet the congregation is completely missing another, infinitely more vital, kind of “works.” Smugly self-satisfied in its doctrinal purity and dogmatic legalism, this church has ceased the works of mission and service! This is a church that no longer follows Christ’s great commission of going, serving, and sharing. Sardis has fallen utterly short of its calling: “I have not found your works perfect before God.” (vs. 2, NKJV). Of course, we all understand that works most certainly do not save us! We do not earn God’s favor with our actions or behaviors, but we can think of “works” like we think of a tree’s fruit. A tree doesn’t stay alive by producing fruit, does it? It stays alive by gathering nutrients through its underground root system. (We can think of daily prayer, Bible study, and reflection in Jesus’ presence as our underground root system.) The fruit, therefore, is merely a natural consequence of the tree’s root system being healthy and alive. Just so, works of service act as the church’s vital signs – they’re the pulse of the spiritual health of the body of Christ. And, in Sardis’ condition, the pulse has nearly flat-lined!
But, thank God, Jesus has a solution: “Go back to what you heard and believed at first; hold to it firmly” (vs. 3, NLT). Get back to the basics! Apparently, this church has become so encumbered with rigid legalism that they have lost sight of the most basic teachings of the Gospel. Jesus pleads with them to return to the starting point. For God so loved the world… (John 3:16). Salvation by grace through faith alone… (Eph. 2:8). Nothing but Jesus Christ and Him crucified… (1 Cor. 2:2). These tenants are the pillars of our faith! Everything else is just supporting material. Once the church’s message is recentered on the Good News about Jesus–once the root system is in place!–then, and only then, will the church will be re-energized to launch an effective ministry of service and outreach! As the old saying goes, “You can’t put the cart before the horse.”
I also want to be re-energized in my works of ministry and service! Don’t you? I plan to take some time this week to reflect on the health of my “root system” and renew my commitment to daily walk in Jesus’ presence. I hope you will join me.