3:1 “To the messenger of the church in Sardis, write: The one who has God’s seven spirits and the seven stars says: I know what you have done. You are known for being alive, but you are dead.
The fifth message was addressed to the church in Sardis, whose name means “red ones.” The church would know that the message was given to them directly from the Lord Jesus Christ, the one described as “The one who has God’s seven spirits and the seven stars.” “In his right hand he held seven stars, and out of his mouth came a sharp, two-edged sword. His face was like the sun when it shines in all its brightness” (Revelation 1:16).
Sardis lay inland approximately thirty miles south of Thyatira and fifty miles northeast of Ephesus. Early in its history the city was one of the most influential in the ancient world and served as the capital city of Lydia, a province of Asia Minor. It was most noted for the Acropolis, a temple built to Artemis, the Greek name for the goddess Diana. The vertical rock walls of the Acropolis rose nearly fifteen hundred feet above the lower valley, thereby providing the city with an excellent natural defense. Despite numerous attacks on the city throughout history, its fortress was only captured twice, once in the sixth century b.c. and again in the fourth century b.c. In a.d. 17, a catastrophic earthquake destroyed the city. Though Sardis was eventually rebuilt, it never regained the prominence and affluence it once enjoyed, and by the time this letter was written, the city was a pitiful hub of moral debauchery.
The Lord told the believers in Sardis that He knew their works, and despite their reputation for being a church that was alive, He knew that their works were no longer prompted by faithfulness and loyalty to Him. Within their community, and perhaps throughout surrounding regions, they had gained a good reputation for their Christian works and vitality. Nevertheless, the Lord knew their hearts and recognized that their works were void of any true commitment to Christ. As such, Jesus considered them not as merely sick but as utterly lifeless. “27bYou are like whitewashed graves that look beautiful on the outside but inside are full of dead people’s bones and every kind of impurity. 28So on the outside you look as though you have God’s approval, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness” (Matthew 23:27b–28).
3:2 Be alert, and strengthen the things that are left which are about to die. I have found that what you are doing has not been completed in the sight of my God.
The church of Sardis was far from righteous in God’s eyes. If they did not fortify and rebuild those few remaining qualities still deemed virtuous, even those things would be taken away. Most of their works were motivated by selfish ambition and not with any intention of glorifying God. Jesus’ message seems to indicate that there was something worth holding on to, though what exactly is not identified. It may seem somewhat insignificant in light of the Lord’s overall chastisement of these believers, yet they were warned that if they did not cling to that last shred of true life worthy of mention, even that would be removed from them. “Stay awake, and pray that you won’t be tempted” (Matthew 26:41a).
3:3 So remember what you received and heard. Obey, and change the way you think and act. If you’re not alert, I’ll come like a thief. You don’t know when I will come.
Jesus spoke to the believers and told them to hold fast to what they had been taught. If they did not repent of their spiritual indifference and did not cling to the few admirable qualities that they still possessed, the Lord would “come like a thief” and remove those things. Some commentators insist upon an eschatological rendering of “come like a thief” simply because this description resembles those found in “end-times” references, such as 1 Thessalonians 5:2 and 2 Peter 3:10. However, the phrase as used in this passage seems to express the sudden and unexpected manner with which the Lord will act. Failure to repent would result in swift judgment, not in the hastening of the Lord’s second coming before its appointed time.
3:4 But you have a few people in Sardis who have kept their clothes clean. They will walk with me in white clothes because they deserve it.
This verse clearly reveals that the Lord deals with the body of Christ, the Church, as individuals. Jesus knows every person’s heart and motivations and deals with them accordingly. Though He condemned most in Sardis, a few people in this church had not defiled themselves but had remained strong in their faith and lived obediently. The description “kept their clothes clean” does not mean that they were sinless but that they did not compromise their beliefs by succumbing to the lures of worldliness. These few had been found worthy in the eyes of the Lord, and He promised them that they would walk with Him “in white clothes,” which is explained in the next verse.
3:5 Everyone who wins the victory this way will wear white clothes. I will never erase their names from the Book of Life. I will acknowledge them in the presence of my Father and his angels.
As with the other churches, the true and faithful believers of this church were assured eternal life. In heaven, these overcomers would be dressed in white garments, displaying the righteousness received only through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. “She has been given the privilege of wearing dazzling, pure linen. This fine linen represents the things that God’s holy people do that have his approval” (Revelation 19:8).
Those whose names are found written within the Book of Life are those who have been redeemed unto Almighty God, and those whose names are not found within the book are those who have been condemned unto eternal damnation because of their unrepentant hearts. “Those whose names were not found in the Book of Life were thrown into the fiery lake” (Revelation 20:15). “Nothing unclean, no one who does anything detestable, and no liars will ever enter it. Only those whose names are written in the lamb’s Book of Life will enter it” (Revelation 21:27). In addition, according to this verse, the Lord Jesus will vouch for each and every believer before God the Father and His angels. “So I will acknowledge in front of my Father in heaven that person who acknowledges me in front of others” (Matthew 10:32).
3:6 Let the person who has ears listen to what the Spirit says to the churches.
For a fifth time, we are told to listen, learn, and apply the Holy Spirit’s message to the churches. Implied in this command is a call for obedience. We must listen to what Jesus said to these churches, apply these evaluations to our own lives, and obey them by making the necessary improvements as the Holy Spirit prompts.
Christ admonished the church of Sardis to repent of spiritual lifelessness. Why was this church dead? Was it their lack of passion for ministry, their worldliness, their attitudes, or their craving for self-glory? Any of these reasons would be detrimental to the growth of believers, but we are not told what specific area was amiss among this body. The passage simply states that the members of this church externally appeared to be spiritual, yet they were internally empty and used up like abandoned shells upon the seashore.
Even today, churches throughout the world have enjoyed commendable starts only to eventually lose their zeal, grow stale, and become ineffective in evangelizing new converts. The Lord instructs those believers that have lost fervor and vision for their calling to tear down the façade and to reexamine their position in Christ.
Is it time for a spiritual tune-up in our lives? God’s holy Word instructs us not to be indifferent people who dutifully complete the work of the church. He wants us to seek His empowerment so that our every endeavor reflects genuine joy and enthusiasm when serving Him because only then will our service impact others.
10Create a clean heart in me, O God,
and renew a faithful spirit within me.
11Do not force me away from your presence,
and do not take your Holy Spirit from me.
12Restore the joy of your salvation to me,
and provide me with a spirit of willing obedience.
13Then I will teach your ways to those who are rebellious,
and sinners will return to you. (Psalm 51:10–13)
3:7 “To the messenger of the church in Philadelphia, write: The one who is holy, who is true, who has the key of David, who opens a door that no one can shut, and who shuts a door that no one can open, says:
This is the message of the sixth angel to the church at Philadelphia, which means “brotherly love.” The Lord identified Himself to this church as “The one who is holy, who is true.” He further confirmed His identity by distinguishing Himself as the fulfillment of messianic prophecy. “I will place the key of the house of David around his neck. What he opens no one will shut. What he shuts no one will open” (Isaiah 22:22). Such phrases exemplify the absolute sovereignty of Almighty God.
Philadelphia was located about twenty-five miles southeast of Sardis. It was situated along a major thoroughfare, and as a result, it became a prominent city for both commercial and military purposes. The same great earthquake that leveled Sardis in a.d. 17 also destroyed Philadelphia, which was prone to suffering the aftermath of earthquakes.
3:8 I know what you have done. See, I have opened a door in front of you that no one can shut. You only have a little strength, but you have paid attention to my word and have not denied my name.
The Lord prefaced the message to this church in the same manner as He had addressed all of the churches. Whatever varied admonitions followed, it was for this one common reason, “I know what you have done,” that the Lord resolved to exhort these churches.
Although Philadelphia was among the smallest of the seven churches addressed in Revelation, it was only the second one (Smyrna being the first) that did not provoke any measure of condemnation from the Lord. These believers were not perfect, but they were true to the Word of God, and they did not deny Christ.
The meaning of the open door seems most likely to refer to Christ as the doorkeeper of the kingdom. Despite the Jews insistence that they alone would inherit the kingdom of David, the Lord assured these believers that their participation lay in His hands. Those to whom the Lord opens the door are guaranteed entrance, and such was the case with these Philadelphians who had kept His word and boldly proclaimed His name. In context, such an interpretation seems preferable to those which identify this open door as an opportunity to service, as is familiar imagery used in other biblical references (1 Corinthians 16:9; Colossians 4:3).
3:9 I will make those who are in Satan’s synagogue come and bow at your feet and realize that I have loved you. They claim that they are Jewish, but they are lying.
As with the church in Smyrna, the Christians in Philadelphia faced persecution from devout Jews that rejected Jesus as the Messiah. Christ again referred to these Jews as the synagogue of Satan. In the Lord’s eyes, there was a vast difference between the one who was a Jew by birthright yet rejected Jesus and the one who accepted Christ regardless of his ethnic heritage. “6bClearly, not everyone descended from Israel is part of Israel 7or a descendant of Abraham. However, as Scripture says, ‘Through Isaac your descendants will carry on your name.’ 8This means that children born by natural descent from Abraham are not necessarily God’s children. Instead, children born by the promise are considered Abraham’s descendants” (Romans 9:6b–8). The Lord promised the faithful of this city that the liars who were of Satan’s synagogue would one day bow at the feet of the faithful believers as evidence of how much the Lord had loved them. The tables would be turned on those Jews who had persecuted God’s faithful for challenging the believers’ rightful inheritance into the kingdom.
3:10 Because you have obeyed my command to endure, I will keep you safe during the time of testing which is coming to the whole world to test those living on earth.
The interpretation of this verse is primarily dependent upon one’s perception of “the time of testing.” Some scholars uphold this verse in defense of a pre-tribulation rapture while others dismiss a literal interpretation of “the whole world,” thereby nullifying the message’s universal impact. Whereas valid arguments can be made asserting that the message of this letter applies to more than just those in the church of Philadelphia at that time, it should never be presumed that the message was not initially intended for that church. Surely, it is easier to defend the certainty of the latter than it is to explain the ambiguity of the former. Though alternative and universal applications may be employed, it is safest to refrain from defining “time of testing” as any singular event. Doing so negates this message’s relevance to the first-century church in Philadelphia to whom this letter was addressed. Furthermore, the phrase “I will keep you safe,” as rendered from the Greek, seems less to imply a physical removal from the world than to suggest that God will always uphold His faithful in the midst of their struggles. “I’m not asking you to take them out of the world but to protect them from the evil one” (John 17:15). As such, it is perhaps best to adhere to the conclusion of Matthew Henry, a renowned eighteenth-century biblical scholar, who stated: “Those who keep the gospel in a time of peace shall be kept by Christ in an hour of temptation. By keeping the gospel they are prepared for the trial; and the same divine grace that has made them fruitful in times of peace will make them faithful in times of persecution.”
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