The chief thing that marked this church was a lifeless profession, a denial of what was professed. The church had a name to live, but it was actually dead. Its reputation belied its state. Its character was cold, bleak, dead, mere formal ortho-doxy. Reality can only be produced by the Spirit of God working in the church without hindrance. And this will be effected when the guides in a local church function according to the mind of God. No wonder, then, the Lord is here shown as “he that hath the seven Spirits of God, and the seven stars”, 3. 1. For the Spirit was sent by the Father and the Son, and scriptural guides are appointed by Him, Acts 20.28. But while the name of Christ is attached to Christendom, it is dead; there are many churches in all branches of Christendom, Protestant as well as Romanist, utterly devoid of life.
Protestantism was brought into existence in consequence of the abuses of popery, but in such a revolt there was not a full return to the simplicity of Holy Scripture. The Lord had not found these works perfect – they had not returned all the way, Rev. 3. 2. They should, therefore, remember how they had received and first heard; that word they should keep, and repent of their failure, 3.3. The Scriptures are the sole valid authority; to it the protesters of Luther’s day and later returned in part; they began reformation but did not complete it.
This was doubtless the state of the Sardian church at that time. There was reform but they had not gone back to the fountain of truth and made adjustments in accordance with it. They had made a beginning but did not finish. It has been so throughout the Christian era. It certainly was so at the time of the Reformation when there was a revolt against popery but things were retained and others were introduced which did not accord with Holy Scripture. John exhorted the believers to “hold fast that which they had heard from the beginning” of Christianity, i John 2. 24. Paul also enjoined Timothy to “hold fast the form of sound words” which he had heard from him, 2 Tim. 1. 13. The Lord has always had the few who have made Scripture their sole guide for faith and conduct. Most have done otherwise: they have retained whatever was pleasing to the senses; they have kept the name but in revolting against a corrupt form they have created a dead form of religious activities.
It is the responsibility of overseers to “strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die”. As an army commander would rally his men after a defeat and re-equip and encourage them, so elders should rally and hearten the saints. How can this be done? By returning to the Scriptures; plausibility, expediency, conformity are no safe guides. The overseers must be “watchful”; they must keep awake and do as Peter was enjoined, “strengthen thy brethren”, Luke 22. 32.
The Lord warns that should there be failure in watching He would come at an altogether unknown hour and “as a thief”. Now the Lord does not so come for the Church. There is not the slightest hint of a thief-like coming in John 14. 3; 1 Thess. 4. 13 ff.; 1 Cor. 15. 50 ff. But the words are used in the case of the day of the Lord when He will introduce His judgments on men; see 1 Thess. 5. 2; Matt. 24. 43. Christendom, it must be borne in mind, continues to the time when the beast casts off the woman, for the woman and Christendom are identical but the Church, the bride of Christ, is taken away some time before that occurs. The rapture will be the fulfilment of the promise to Philadelphia in Revelation 3. 10; this will also be the time of the spueing out of the Lord’s mouth of the professing thing spoken of in the Laodicean letter.
As in Thyatira, there are in Sardis a few who “have not defiled their garments” with the corruptions of lifeless Christendom. These are promised that they will “walk with” the Lord in white. What a privilege to walk with the Lord; could there be a greater honour? “In white” speaks of the character that these saints have wrought out on earth; this will then become manifest in open display with the Lord in glory; see 19. 8 r.v.
Someone has said that majorities should be tolerant, and minorities should be courageous. God is not on the side of the big battalions; he seems to delight in the “few”. How many were saved in Noah’s day? “A few, that is eight”. Are there few that shall be saved? Apparently, if Sardis is a guide.
To the overcomer there is a threefold promise: (i) he shall be arrayed in white garments. He will then be seen to be in the right however much he may have been maligned before, (ii) “I will not blot out his name out of the book of life”. Although they may have been regarded as criminals or heretics or worse by men and, in consequence, had their name expunged either from the citizens’ or church registers, they may rest assured that their names will not be expunged from the book of life. We cannot stress too strongly that every genuine believer is an overcomer, and of such none will ever perish, John 10. 28. But genuineness is proved by continuity. A Peter may deny his Lord in a moment of unguardedness, but this was not apostacy; he was restored, (iii) “I will confess his name before my Father, and before his angels”. Believers will be acknowledged by Him, whilst all other men will be disowned.
No doubt these overcomers are among the twenty-four elders who are clothed in white and crowned with victor’s crowns referred to in Revelation 4. 4. They will then be in the enjoyment of the fulfilment of this very emphatic promise, “I will never, never, blot out his name".
The prime lesson of this letter is to warn all against a carnal security. Read the Lord’s own words in Matthew 10. 32-33. If the Lord denies anyone in that day it is tantamount to blotting out his name from the book of life. A religious form, having been maintained but lacking vitality and reality, will avail nothing then.