“Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God.” Revelation 3:2
The interpretation of the book of Revelation has been somewhat controversial in modern church history. This is due primarily to a shift from a historic interpretation, majority held until roughly the late 18th early 19th century, towards a more futuristic interpretation. By that I mean that the majority report for interpreting Revelation today is to usher the events and prophecies recorded by John to sometime in the future. Predominantly this has occurred for chapters 4-22, but has also been the case for the letters to the 7 churches, found in chapters 2 & 3. What this futuristic view sometimes overlooks is that these were 7 actual churches addressed by Christ, through John’s letter, and that the message to these churches has had a practical, real application for the Church throughout history, even down to this day.
Our Lord instructs John to write to seven churches: Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. Of the seven, only two, Smyrna and Philadelphia pass by the watchful, flaming eye of Christ without rebuke. Ephesus, Pergamum, and Thyatira, though each receiving rebuke, were commending for varying levels of faithfulness; from strong doctrinal defense, to faithfulness and acts of love. Yet when Christ directs His gaze to the Church at Sardis, He offers no commendation. He finds no evidence in the Church’s works worthy of positive comment; neither strong doctrine, nor endurance, nor strong spirituality. The church receives rebuke for a reputation of being alive, though Christ sees them as dead. In other words, because they put on a nice show, perhaps even having large attendance, and having gained a reputation in the community for being alive, through the examining eye of Christ, the opposite is actually true. He finds their works to be dead. This is the danger of the pragmatic church founded on doctrinal quicksand, focused mainly on attendance and success, and unconcerned with centrality and sufficiency of the Word of God.
One thing has often puzzled me about these churches and Sardis in particular. While, not commended for any outward evidences of faithfulness, Christ does notice something positive; the presence of a faithful remnant. He charges the church to “Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die.” Later we read of Him saying, “Yet you have still a few names in Sardis, people who have not soiled their garments, and they will walk with me in white for they are worthy.” (Revelation 3:4) Two quick observations are in order: 1. That these faithful members were in the minority is explicitly stated (a few names) 2. That they were not in leadership is implied. While the identity of the “angel” to whom each letter is addressed is somewhat debatable, it would seem the context of the statement “you have still a few names” seems to lend itself to mean a small group that are not responsible for leading the church in the path of dead works. So, in the midst of this church façade dwelt a remnant of faithful believers who had not been tainted by the dead works of the majority. The puzzling aspect of this fact is perhaps obvious. Why didn’t this faithful remnant pack up and move on to another church? Here they were in the middle of a dead church, though still faithful in their stewardship and worship. Why? I’ll offer a couple thoughts below.
First, in 21st century America we live in a country with a landscape littered with churches. From my window at work, I can literally see 7 or 8 large churches within 2 blocks of each other. It doesn’t mean they are all good and faithful, but options abound. If someone is offended by the First Baptist Church of Your Town, USA they can move on to the Second Baptist Church of Your Town, USA. In first century Asia (and really in large rural areas throughout the world today) however, this luxury was not present. Sardis was about 40 miles from Philadelphia and about 60 miles from Smyrna. Nobody was going to pack up the kids on donkeys every Sunday morning for a trip to a faithful church that far away (and you thought you had trouble getting the family to church on time!).
Which begs a second question; Why not plant another church in Sardis? This is the puzzling part and where we’ll land in this discussion. Though much of the territory where in now is speculation, I think it’s still possible and beneficial to think through this question. It’s of course possible that this small, faithful remnant had not been called by God to plant another church nearby. Christ does not instruct them to leave, but calls the church to “Wake up” and “Strengthen what remains”. Who’s to wake up? Perhaps the faithful, though more likely not. Who’s to do the strengthening? Most likely the faithful. They were called to stay and work reform in the church. How do we know this? I think it’s because on the heels of commending the faithful, who had not stained their garments and were given the promise to walk with Christ in white, He states, “The one who conquers will be clothed in white garments” and they will not have their names blotted “out of the book of life” and will have their names confessed by the Son before the Father. Certainly these promises extend to the faithful, as previously seen in verse 4, though in verse 5 the introduction of the condition, “the one who conquers” would seem to extend these promises beyond the small faithful remnant to the rest of the church who overcome their deadness and lack of zeal for Christ. Regardless, these faithful few were called to stay and do the work of reformation with the hope that the Holy Spirit might do the work of revival among the church.
This brings me to three exhortations on the benefit of remaining in an unfaithful, dead church for the purpose of working reformation.
- For the Glory of God. This is the chief motivating factor for all that a believer does (1 Cor. 10:31). The Westminster Shorter Catechism affirms that the chief end of man is to “glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” God is glorified through the work of His faithful saints who labor in difficult places, be they churches or hostile countries, for the sake of spreading the Gospel, seeing the salvation of sinners and the sanctification of saints.
- For the Fame of Christ’s Name. Any church that flies the Christian banner represents the name of Christ. It doesn’t matter whether the church is liberal or fundamental, neo-orthodox or orthodox. If they pretend to be a church at all, then they are representing Christ. His name is either smeared in the mud or it is exalted on high, but either way His name is involved. The same is true for professing Christians. It is therefore imperative that we “let our light so shine before men that they see our good works and glorify our Father in heaven.” (Matt. 5:16) The church that continues in dead works, pretending to be a faithful witness for Christ ultimately brings reproach to the name of Christ. Therefore, when laborious work for reform is achieved in a dead church it brings fame to the name of Christ rather than reproach.
- For the Repentance of Sinners and the Restoration of “Backsliders”. Would it be right for a faithful few to wash their hands of a dead or dying church situation and move on? Maybe, in some situations. Though it seems to lean heavily towards self-preservation. As believers we are called to the Great Commission, i.e. spreading the Gospel to the lost. That mission field might be as far away as New Zealand, or as close as your own backyard. And it might even be your local church. A dead or dying church most always has sin in her midst (Rev. 3:2, 4), it therefore needs Christ proclaimed boldly and relentlessly by the faithful for the purpose of bringing sinners to Christ and to awaken those who are asleep.
I’m sure planting a church brings with it a level of excitement and adventure for the cause of Christ and it certainly must have its challenges and discouragements. But re-planting is restoration and reform and that is the heart of Christianity. To take a person who was once dead and bring them to life by the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit is the purpose and plan of God for the salvation of sinners. To take a church that was once dead and bring it to life by the reforming power of the Word of God and His Holy Spirit is the work of His saints. Strengthen what remains.