The Dead Church

Revelation 3:1-6

Alan Lewis
Elon, North Carolina
March 2012

We are studying the Book of Revelation. Chapters 2 & 3 of the book are the most practical chapters in the whole book. They contain personal letters of Jesus to seven churches in the first century.

Jesus wrote seven epistles and these letters are very relevant to the church two thousand years later. As we read the letters to the seven churches we have to ask ourselves this question. Do any of these letters describe our church?

Today, we come to the fifth letter that Jesus wrote to the churches of Asia. The first six verses of chapter three contain the letter to the Church of Sardis. The Church of Sardis was different from the other four churches.

This is one of the most sobering letters of Jesus to the church. It is perhaps the most negative of all of the seven letters that Jesus wrote. What Jesus said to the Church of Sardis is guaranteed to offend some. It is a little unpopular.

Let’s start by looking at any strengths in the church. Every book on Revelation that I have read says that this is the first church that Jesus does not commend. That is the standard view.

If you remember, Jesus said a lot of good things about the Church of Thyatira. He commended them for six things (e.g., faith, love, perseverance). The other churches received a commendation as well.

Many say that this church received none and that Jesus says nothing positive about the church as a whole. It is the exact opposite of the Church of Smyrna. I am not sure if I completely agree with that. If you look a little closer and read between the lines, that this church had two good points. It is something that most commentators have overlooked.

First Strength of the Church – A Reputation

First, the Church of Sardis had a great reputation (3:1). Many people thought well of this church. They thought that this was the place to be. It had a phenomenal reputation. It is important to have a good reputation (Proverbs 22:1; Ecclesiastes 7:1). That leads to this question: Does our church have a reputation? What is the reputation of our church? Churches today have a great reputation for several reasons.

1) Some churches have a reputation because of their PAST

One example is the Metropolitan Tabernacle in England. This reformed Baptist church was founded in 1650 and had some famous pastors in the church. It was pastured in the 1700s by John Gill. He learned Greek at the age of 11. He wrote a six volume commentary on the Bible which you can read online for free.

He pastured the church for 51 years. In the 1800s C.H. Spurgeon was the pastor if the church (from the 1850s to the 1890s). He began pasturing the church at the age of twenty. When he arrived in 1854, the congregation had 232 members. By the end of his pastorate, 38 years later, that number had increased to 5,311. You can still go to that church today.

2) Some churches have a reputation because of their PASTOR

Some churches have some spiritual rock stars in their church. How would you like to attend the church that is pastored by James MacDonald or Chuck Swindoll or John MacArthur? Those churches have a reputation because of their pastor who is known all over the world.

3) Some churches have a reputation for their PASSIONS

Some churches have a reputation for PRAYER. That is the way it should be. Jesus said, “My house shall be called a house of prayer.” Payer is not emphasized in most churches today. Many do not even have a prayer meeting or, if they do, only one or two people show up. Other churches have a reputation for prayer.

I think of Jim Cymbala’s church in New York (The Brooklyn Tabernacle). Their Tuesday night prayer meeting is the most important service of the week. The church in South Korea has a reputation for its early morning prayer meetings. You go to these churches and you will have a passion for prayer.

Other churches have a reputation for BIBLE STUDY. There are many churches in the country that do not do any in-depth Bible teaching. There are pastors in church after church that are far more concerned with being relevant than being biblical. As a result, they produce sermons that are shallow and superficial. There is no depth. Many do not spend much time preparing their sermon.

There is little thought to it and the people in the church do not know the Word very well. Other churches have a reputation for Bible study. They do in-depth, verse by verse expository preaching so that you get the whole counsel of God.

Second Strength of the Church – A Remnant

When we come to verse four, we learn something very important about this church. Jesus says, “Yet there are some in the church in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes with evil” (3:4). What does that tell us? Everyone in the church was not dead. There was a remnant in the church who were commended by Jesus.

Often in the worst of places, God has a remnant of faithful believers. There was a remnant in the Church of Thyatira (2:24-26). Paul talked about “a remnant chosen by grace” (Romans 11:5).

This is a recurring theme in Scripture. We see the doctrine of the remnant in the OT as well. The prophet Elijah thought he was the only believer left in the country. Everyone else worshiped Baal (I Kings 19:14). God said that is not true.

He said that he had reserved seven thousand people who had not bowed the knee to Baal (I Kings 19:18). There was a remnant in apostate Israel and there is a remnant in dead churches (apostate Christianity).

Common Misconceptions

On the one end of the spectrum, there are those who think that because a church is dead, everyone in it is unsaved. That is not necessarily true. There are some believers in completely apostate churches. There is a remnant.

On the other end of the spectrum are those who say that the church must be a good church because there are a few good people in it. That is not necessarily true. The Church at Sardis had a few believers in it and it was a dead church.

There is also an encouragement here worth noting. Sometimes God calls us to leave a church and sometimes He calls us to stay in it. In this case, it was probably the only church in town.

John Stott commented that “God has often worked through minorities…. An alive and awake minority can recall the majority from death…. Do you belong to what is sometimes called ‘a dead church,’ and are you tempted to leave it and go elsewhere? Why not heed this word of Christ? Let the revived Christians come together and pray and wait upon God. A dynamic minority of living and awakened Christians can by prayer and love preserve a dying church from utter extinction.”

The Problem of the Church

What was the problem of Sardis? The Church of Sardis was different from all of the other churches we have studied. This church did not have problems with persecution (from either the Jews or the Romans). It did not have problems with false teachers. There is no mention of the Balaam, Jezebel or the Nicolaitans in this church. Instead, it had a more serious problem. It was dead (νεκρος).

Jesus did not say that the church is sick. He does not say that the church is weak. He said that it was dead. It was the church of the living dead. They probably thought their church was alive. Other people may have thought the church was alive, since it had a great reputation. They may have thought it was a great church but Jesus said it was dead.

A dead church may have had some great music. It may have a great church building (a magnificent cathedral with a fancy organ) but, in a dead church, there are dead men in the pulpit and dead men in the pews.

There were dead men preaching delivering dead sermons. The worship leaders were dead and all the worshipers are dead, not physically dead but spiritually dead. Some churches are living corpses. They stink. You can write Ichabod on the doors. God is not working there.

It is not enough to have a good reputation. Reputation is not always the same thing as reality. Outward appearances can be deceiving. Jesus said that the Pharisees looked great on the outside but terrible on the inside (Matthew 23:27-29). A reputation is just what other people think of you.

The real question is not what others think of you or your church but what Jesus thinks of it. God’s thoughts are not man’s thoughts (Isaiah 55:8-9). I Samuel 17:7 says, “The LORD does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart”.

Characteristics of a Dead Church

That raises this very important question. Are there churches like this today? Yes. Not all churches today are growing. Many are dying or dead. The fact is that there are thousands of dead churches all across America. Have you ever been to a dead church?

What are some signs or characteristics of a dead church? What does a dead church look like? Different people have come up with different characteristics. I would say that there are three main characteristics of a dead church. There are three marks if a dead church today.

1. A Dead Church is an UNSAVED Church

We have churches full of unsaved people. There are some churches in which the majority of the membership is made up of the unsaved. They are made up of people who may be moral and very religious but simply do not know God. The leaders of the church are all unsaved and ministries in the church are run by unbelievers. That is a dead church. Some whole denominations have been taken over by unbelievers.

2. A Dead Church is a LIBERAL Church

Dead churches are not only unsaved. They are apostate. They reject the Bible. They would not say that they reject it just that they do not interpret it literally. They do not believe any of the miracles of Scripture actually took place. They would say that the Bible is full of myths.

There are mainline denominations that are completely liberal. They know the Bible teaches creation but they believe in evolution. They know that the Bible teaches that homosexuality is a sin but they ordain gay pastors in their church and support gay marriage.

3. A Dead Church is a FORMALISTIC Church

A dead church is more concerned with liturgy than life. It is a church that is big on rituals but short on power. They have a form of godliness but deny its power (II Timothy 3:5). They are religious but not godly. There are many people who are outwardly religious but live like the devil. They are outwardly religious but not righteous.

That was the same problem of many Jews in the OT. They lived immoral lives but were very religious and brought God all kinds of sacrifices (Isaiah 1:10-18). Many churches have outward forms of religion (great building, sermon, worship, prayers, baptism and communion) but lives are not changed.

Many in the Church of Sardis were religious but were living in sin. Jesus said, “Yet you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes” (3:4). What does that imply? It implies that many in Sardis had soiled their garments.

Important Clarification

The Church of Sardis was not completely dead. It was not a completely apostate church. If it was completely dead, it would not be a lampstand. Jesus said that the church “was about to die” (3:2) not dead yet and there were some people in the church who were doing great (cf. 3:4). We know the name of someone in the church who was not dead.

His name was Melito. He had a love for the Word of God. In fact, he wrote the very first commentary ever written on the book of Revelation. It was written in the second century by a member of the church of Sardis. That is a book I would love to get my hands on. Unfortunately, it has been lost.

What does Jesus say to this dead church? How do you raise a church from the dead? He gives five commands (3:2-3) to this church. What are those commands?

Commands to a Dead Church

1. Wake Up

The church in America in many ways is asleep. It is the Rip Van Winkle Church. The elders are asleep. The pastor is asleep. The deacons are all asleep at the wheel. There are many that need a wake-up call. They need a revival. The older translations read “Be watchful” (ASV, KJV), instead of “wake up” (NIV, ESV, NLT, NRSB, NASB). That is very significant if you know anything about the history of Sardis.

The city was virtually impregnable. It was located on a thousand foot cliff. A small child could guard against an army and drop a small stone on the head of anyone who tried to climb the mountain. As a result, the city became slack in its defenses.

Two times in its history, it was not guarded and invaders climbed the mountain in the dead of night and took over the city. The Persians conquered Sardis in 546 B.C. And Alexander the Great conquered it three hundred years later in 218 B.C.

2. Strength what Remains.

Jesus tells the church to wake up and get up and strengthen the weakest part of the church – the ministries which are dying, the people who are about to die spiritually. Their works were incomplete.

They must have been doing something right but it was incomplete. Every church should take a spiritual inventory. What is weak in the church and what is strong. What needs to be strengthened.

3. Remember what you have Received and Heard.

“Go back to what you heard and believed at first” (NLT). This is interesting. A dead church does not need to hear something new. It does not need to go to a church growth conference and hear the latest fad. It needs to go back to basics, like the sports coach that takes a team that is dying and teaches them the basics. He teaches the fundamentals.

That is what happened in the Middle Ages. The Roman Catholic Church was completely dead. It taught a false gospel. Martin Luther took peace back to the basics (justification by faith).

4. Hold Fast

Not only is the church to go back to what they heard at first, they are to hold to it firmly and not give it up.

5. Repent

The church needed to wake up, get up and own-up. They needed to repent and ask God for forgiveness. We don’t hear that preached much today. Many think repentance is for unbelievers but the Church of Ephesus was told to repent (2:5). The Church of Pergamum was told to repent (2:17). The Church of Thyatira was told to repent (2:21-22) and now the Church of Sardis was told to repent (3:3). Repentance is for Christians as well. It is not just for the unsaved.

What if they do not repent? Jesus says, “I will come to you suddenly, as unexpected as a thief” (3:3). If they do not repent, Jesus will come as the Greeks and Persians did in judgment. The city was taken like a thief in the night and the church will be taken like a thief in the night if it does not repent.

A thief comes when you least expect him. It sounds a little strange that Jesus compares himself to a thief. Most of us do not picture Jesus as a holy thief. That language is used several times in the NT. Every other time it is used of Jesus judging unbelievers (e.g., Matthew 24:43; Luke 12:39; I Thessalonians 5:2, 4; II Peter 3:10). Here it is used of Jesus judging a local church.

Promises to the Church at Sardis

Jesus gives three promises to the faithful believers in Sardis.

1) They will walk with Jesus in white.

They will be dressed in white (3:4-5). White was symbolic of many things (purity). The winner of racers often wore a white garment. Sardis was a city that manufactured wool garments.

2) Their name will not be erased from the Book of Life (3:5)

3)  Jesus will confess their name to the Father (3:5).

That is not just a promise to Christians in Sardis. It is a promise to all Christians. Jesus said, “Whoever acknowledges me before others, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven” (Matthew 10:32).

Can Christians be Blotted Out of the Book of Life?

The promise that has received the most controversy is the second one Jesus said, “I will never blot out the name of that person from the book of life” (3:5). This raises a very important question in the whole debate over eternal security.

Does this mean that we can lose our salvation? Does God have a big bottle of white-out in heaven? What does the Bible say about the Book of Life? It is a very important topic. There are many misconceptions about this book.

Let’s start with this question: Can Christians be blotted out of the Book of Life? The answer is Yes and No. It all depends on what you mean by the Book of Life. The OT concept of the Book of Life had to do with physical life. Everyone who was alive was in that book (including the wicked) but when people died they were taken out of that book, because they were no longer living.

People were blotted out of the OT Book of Life but it had absolutely no bearing on their eternal destiny. Moses said, “What a great sin these people have committed! They have made themselves gods of gold. But now, please forgive their sin—but if not, then blot me out of the book you have written” (Exodus 32:31-32).

Here Moses prayed that God would blot him out of the Book of Life and take his life instead of the life of the Israelites. King David actually prayed for God blot other people out of the Book of Life (Psalm 69:28), namely the wicked. Who was David talking about in the context? He was talking about his enemies (Psalm 69:14, 19) who hated him, persecuted him and wanted to destroy him (Psalm 69:4, 26).

Four Facts about the Book of Life in the NT

The NT has a slightly different concept of the Book of Life. The NT teaches four very important facts about the Book of Life.

1) This book contains a list of all of the saved of all eternity.

Everyone is not in this book. If everyone was in this book, everyone would be saved. The NT Book of Life, which is called “the Lamb’s Book of Life” in the Book of Revelation (21:27), only contains the names of the saved.

We know that from Revelation 20:11-15. Revelation 20:15 says that some people are in the book of life and some people are not in the book of life.

All who are not in the Book of Life are cast in the Lake of Fire. That verse tells you right off the bat that everyone is not in the Book of Life. Some people are not in that book.

It also tells you that the book contains the names of only saved people (because if your name is not in the book, you are cast in the Lake of Fire). The NT Book of Life is a little different from the OT Book of Life.

One of the myths about the Lamb’s Book of Life is that everyone is in the book from the beginning and if a person does not accept Christ, his or her name is removed from the book. I have heard that many times.

The only problem is that we know from Revelation 17:8 that from the beginning everyone is NOT in the Book of Life. There were some whose names were not written in the Book of Life from the foundation of the world.

Let’s put these two verses together. At about the same time (sometime around the creation of the world) God chose certain people to be in Christ (Ephesians 1:4) at about the same time that he wrote the names of a those people in a book called The Book of Life (Revelation 17:8).

2) Names were placed in this book before the world began.

People are not added to the book at the moment of salvation. Their names were placed in the book before they were even born. Revelation 17:8 tells us when the names were placed in the book. The verse reads, “The inhabitants of the earth whose names have not been written in the book of life from the creation of the world will be astonished when they see the beast.”

This verse says that those whose names are not written in the book of life from the foundation of the world will marvel at the Beast. The clear implication from this verse is that that those whose names are written in the book of life from the foundation of the world will not marvel at the Beast.

The time the names were put in this book was “from the foundation of the world.” It sounds strikingly similar to Ephesians 1:4 which teaches that God chose believers in Christ “before the foundation of the world.”

3) It is possible to know if your name is in the Lamb’s Book of Life

That is called assurance of salvation.  Jesus told the disciples to rejoice that their names were written in heaven (Luke 10:20). The Apostle Paul mentioned the names of people in his day who were written in the Book of Life (Philippians 4:2-3).

This refutes the idea that no one can know who is written in this book. The most important question for you to ask is this: Is your name in the book? Is your name written in heaven?

4) No names are ever said to be removed from the Lamb’s Book of Life.

Jesus promises NOT to remove any believer from the Book of Life. Revelation 3:5 is not a warning but a promise. It is actually one of the greatest verses for eternal security, not against it. Once your name is written in that book, it is never erased.

Nowhere does the NT mention any person being removed from the Book of Life. Nowhere does the NT even warn any believer about possibly being removed from the Book of Life but it does promise that we will NOT be removed from that book.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *