We’ve all heard expressions such as “the clothes make the man” or “dress for success” or “dress for the job you want not the job you have.” The clothes we wear says something about who we are or who we want to be. The expensive suit of an executive, the coveralls of a mechanic, and the uniform of a soldier tell us something about the wearer. However, along the lines of “you can’t judge a book by its cover,” neither can we assume that how someone dresses really represents who they are or what station they have in life. How many stories exist of the raggedy looking rich man or the perfectly dressed executive that is so deep in debt they don’t have two pennies to rub together? That disparity between the outside reputation and the inward reality is Jesus’ primary concern in His fifth letter to the churches.
To the church in Sardis Jesus says, “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.’” (Revelation 3:1–6, NASB95) Sardis lies about thirty miles south of Thyatira. It was an impressive city of kings that was only conquered twice in its long history. The landscape of Sardis was dominated by two features. An Acropolis dedicated to Artemis and the necropolis; the burial mounds of kings called the Thousand Hills. In many ways, the church at Sardis seems to mirror the city of Sardis.
In most of the letters, Jesus’ condemnation comes after He has recognized those things that are praiseworthy. In this letter, however, Jesus begins with the warning that He knows their deeds and that they are yet unfulfilled or incomplete. The believers at Sardis evidently thought that they were okay, that they had it together, and even had a reputation for being alive. It’s kind of like the city itself, they had a reputation of importance but they were only just another backwater burg in the vastness of the Roman Empire. In a sense, they, both the city and the church, were dreaming of the glories of the past. Jesus implores them to wake up. To grab and hold fast again to the teachings they had received. Jesus warning to the believers at Sardis reminds me of the Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25:14-30. Sardis is like the third slave who buried the treasure entrusted to them. To that slave the king said to “‘Therefore take away the talent from him, and give it to the one who has the ten talents.’ “For to everyone who has, more shall be given, and he will have an abundance; but from the one who does not have, even what he does have shall be taken away.” (Matthew 25:28–29, NASB95) Jesus’ warning to the believers at Sardis is to wake up, to repent, to return to real and authentic life in Christ. But, if you don’t wake up Jesus says He will come like a thief and even what you think you have will be taken from you.
There were a few in Sardis who were awake. To these, Jesus said, “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. “ You may have noticed that clothes are brought up several times in Jesus’ letter. That some walk about in soiled garments while others will be clothed in white. Many of the believers at Sardis walked about in the excellent reputation thinking everything was fine when in reality they were dead. But some, perhaps not looking all that great on the outside, were walking about with a heart that was abiding in Christ. As I write this, I have this picture of some believers walking about in their grave clothes. I don’t know the Sardinian burial norms from two thousand years ago but think about today. Our culture dresses folks up in their Sunday go to meeting finest to lay them in the casket. So picture Sardis this way. You have one group that looked great on the outside but were actually dead on the inside. While there was another, smaller group, that was, in essence, wearing dirty, grungy, working clothes that were alive on the inside.
To the overcomers, Jesus says, ‘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. The promise to the overcomers is three-fold. The first is that they too will be clothed in white which symbolizes a pure heart and the righteousness of Christ granted to believers. The second promise is that their name would not be erased from the book of life. It was the practice of cities in that day to record the name of citizens in a book. Their name would remain on the roles until death or banishment from the community, at which point it was erased or blotted out. Jesus promises the overcomers that their name will never be erased. Or to put it another way, that they will never be separated from God. The third promise is that Jesus will testify about the overcomers in the presence of God and the angels. That last promise unlocks the mystery of this letter.
The Sardinian believers had become obsessed with their reputation and what folks thought of them. Perhaps, this caused them to compromise for the sake of peace. Perhaps they crafted a mask of having it all together. Reputations are tricky things that take years to build, but seconds to destroy. Now, we all want a good reputation and I’m not saying that we shouldn’t seek a good reputation in the circles of our world. But, when our focus is primarily on what others think about us it is no longer on Jesus. Those that fall into this trap tend to become defensive and cautious, always protecting themselves instead of risking it all for Christ. They tend to live in past glories instead of leaning into what Jesus has for them today.
Another symptom of seeking reputation is our church life. Our church life can be pretty sanitized. A church community may have a reputation for being alive but scratch the surface and you might find a broken, festering mess of unforgiveness, selfishness, and petty jealousy. What if everyone that walked through the church doors took off the mask of “I’m OK” and was just real? Wouldn’t that be joyfully messy? After all, we’re not fooling Jesus so why go through the stress of trying to fool anyone else? Of course, that would mean walking with each other in forgiveness, love, humbleness, and grace which is a lot harder than the alternative. Gathering together in Jesus name should be more like a barn filled with livestock than a masquerade ball.
We are not the first era in Christian history to experience the conflict between cultural, reputation-based, Christianity and authentically following Jesus. The Church at Sardis faced it. The post-reformation church experienced it. And we, especially in America, face it today. William Wilberforce, best known for his battle against the English slave-trade in the 1700s, also lived during a time when many called themselves Christian but few lived it. Wilberforce was an enthusiastic Christ-follower. In a book that has been republished under the name of Real Christianity (look it up on Amazon), Wilberforce writes, “It makes no sense to take the name of Christian and not cling to Christ. Jesus is not some magic charm to wear like a piece of jewelry we think will give us good luck. He is the Lord. His name is to be written on our hearts in such a powerful way that it creates within us a profound experience of His peace and a heart that is filled with His praise.” That is the lesson we must retain from Christ’s letter to Sardis, be real and authentic. Refuse to make faith into a good-luck charm simply so our day, our lives, go better. Plant this truth deep in your heart – If we cling to Jesus He will speak our name before the Father and that will be reputation enough to fill eternity.