The Church About To Die - Rev. Herman Hoeksema
1 And unto the angel of the church in Sardis write; These things saith he that bath the seven Spirits of God, and the seven stars; I know thy works, that thou hast a name that thou livest, and art dead.
2 Be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die; for I have not found thy works perfect before God.
3 Remember therefore how thou hast received and heard, and hold fast, and repent. If therefore thou shalt not watch, I will come on thee as a thief, and thou shalt not know what hour I will come upon thee.
4 Thou hast a few names even in Sardis which have not defiled their garments; and they shall walk with me in white: for they are worthy.
5 He that overcometh, the same shall be clothed in white raiment; and I will not blot out his name out of the book of life, but I will confess his name before my Father, and before his angels.
6 He that bath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches.
An Increasingly Dark Picture
On the whole, the picture of the church of Christ in the world which we have been studying thus far in connection with the seven letters addressed by the Lord to the seven churches in Asia Minor is not a very bright one. There is, indeed, some light; there is a bright side to the picture. But there is also a good deal of darkness; in fact, we receive the impression that there is more darkness than light.
Ephesus was, indeed, a beautiful church from every outward aspect. She was strong in the knowledge of the truth, faithful in discipline, abounding in works. Yet there was at the same time a very fundamental defect in the congregation. It was a defect which was bound to bring her to destruction as a church of Jesus Christ: she lost her first love. Smyrna, the second church addressed by the Lord, presented us with a picture of the church as perfect as we may ever expect to meet her in this world: she receives no rebuke from the Lord. She was spiritually rich. Her dark side consisted in this, that she was the church in tribulation: she was poor and held in disrepute by the world about her. Pergamos, evidently, had been a very faithful church in the past; but now she was weakening and had become lax in discipline, as was evident from the fact that she allowed the evil Nicolaitanes to exist in her midst. Thyatira, so we found, was a beautiful little church, warm in spiritual life, ardent in respect to the works of faith. But her weakness was that she was strongly characterized by a tendency to false mysticism, so that she even permitted wicked Jezebel to teach in the church and to seduce its members from the truth as it is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
We may say indeed, therefore, that there is a good deal of light in the picture of the church as we have studied her thus far, but also much darkness. And one who expects the church to be perfect in the world may well learn a lesson from the sevenfold picture of the church which we find in the Book of Revelation.
We must still call attention to three more of the churches in Asia Minor to whom the Lord addressed letters. Nor does the picture of the church in the world become brighter in these three last letters. If we would expect, perhaps, that the Lord so arranged the order of these letters to the seven churches that the picture gradually becomes brighter, we will certainly meet with disappointment. The two most miserable representations of the church in the world are still to be considered. First comes the church in Sardis, a most wretched representation and manifestation of the church in the world. For a moment we may find some comfort and joy in the letter of the Lord to the church in Philadelphia, a church small and of little strength from the viewpoint of the world, but true and faithful and abounding in spiritual strength. But then the series closes with the most miserable picture of the church in Laodicea, a church which was rich in her own estimation, but devoid of every manifestation of spiritual riches.
Also in this order and arrangement of the seven letters, which is, of course, intentional, we see the purpose of the Lord to warn His church in the world not to expect great things in this world as the end of this present age approaches. It is true, as we have remarked before, that in these seven letters to the seven churches of Asia Minor we do not and may not discern seven successive periods in the history of the church in the world, as some would have it. Nevertheless, there is reason for this arrangement in which the series closes with the most miserable picture of the church in the world. Nor can this reason be found only in the geographical situation of the seven churches. On the contrary, although it is true that the order of the seven letters follows the geographical location of the seven churches, yet the order of these letters is intentionally such that, with two exceptions, the trend of development of the church in the world is downward. It steadily points to the false church as represented by the church in Laodicea.
A Dead Minister And A Dead Church
Sardis was a city located in a rich plain, mostly south of Thyatira and east from Ephesus. The city was noted for its wealth. This may have had something to do with the condition of the church there. The general description of the church is contained in these words: "Thou hast a name that thou livest, and art dead." And we receive the impression that these words, as well as the entire letter, are addressed, indeed, to the entire church in Sardis, though they refer, first of all, to its angel, or minister.
To the pastor of this flock, therefore, must be applied that he had a name that he lived, and was dead.
Commentators have surmised that this angel of the church in Sardis had a proper name which signified "life" or "living." But there is no need of such an ingenious invention. Rather do we understand the Savior's words as meaning that he had a reputation that he was living, but that he did not live up to this reputation. Nor do we have to read these words as if they suggested that this particular minister was especially famous as a preacher and as an active pastor: for the facts would seem to contradict this. It is quite sufficient to remember that this man not only had the name that he was a Christian, but also that of a minister of the Word of God. As such, he naturally had a name that he was living, full of the new life in Christ, manifested in ardent zeal and devotion to the Lord, diligent in his calling, abounding in good works. If anyone is expected to be living and to reveal his life in diligent service, in constantly seeking the kingdom of God, in walking in holiness, and in thus being an example unto the flock, it is the minister. And there is nothing more disgusting than the sight of a dead minister! 0, indeed, we may well remind ourselves that also the pastor is but a sinful man and that it cannot be expected of him any more than of the members of his church that his walk and conversation are perfect and without sin. Fact is, nevertheless, that he is a minister of the Word of God, that as such he has an holy calling, the most exalted there is in this world, and that therefore he has a name that he lives. A living minister is zealous in his work, devotes himself wholeheartedly and with all his power to the study of the Scriptures, the preaching of the Word, the instruction of young and old in the truth, to his pastoral work, to meditation and prayer. And he is doubly careful to be an example to the flock and to adorn his work of the ministry by a walk in all good works.
But in all these respects the minister of the church in Sardis was dead.
The meaning is not that he was personally devoid of the life of the new birth, but that his life and walk as a minister of the Word of God was characterized by lack of consecration. He was a dead preacher. He did not give himself to the study of the Scriptures and to prayer. His word was not a living testimony. He was unfaithful as a pastor. He failed to watch over the flock, to bring consolation to them that mourned, to admonish the wayward, to comfort the sick and afflicted, to instruct the young in the fear of the Lord. Where there should have been fervor, there was apathy. Instead of zeal in the work of the Lord, there was a manifestation of cold indifferentism. Instead of diligence, there was indolence. His work was a burden to him. And you may depend on it: he loved the things of the flesh,-leisure, worldly comfort and pleasure, the luxuries for which the city of Sardis was noted.
But enough of this dead preacher. The church was just like him. For although the angel of the church is addressed in the first place, the church is rebuked at the same time.
Also the church has a name that she lives. Is she not the body of Christ? Does not Christ her head live in her? And her life becomes manifest in her confession and walk as a life of faith and hope, of confidence and love, of holiness and righteousness. She fights the battle of faith and keeps her garments clean in the midst of an ungodly world. She lets her light shine, that men may see her good works and glorify her Father which is in heaven. But the church in Sardis was dead. It is true that there were a few who had not defiled their garments; but of the majority this could not be said. The flesh dominated in the church of Sardis. The Lord accuses her that her works were not perfect before God. This does not mean that her works were defiled with sin: for this is always the case, even with the very best of our works. But the church as such, and believers individually, failed to walk in those works which were required of them. There was no interest in Sardis in the things of the kingdom of God, no searching of the Scriptures, no daily prayer, no confession of the name of Christ, no testimony for the truth, no zeal in proclaiming the gospel, no instruction of the youth, no battle of faith, no patience and suffering for Christ's sake, no manifestation of sorrow after God, of true repentance, of the love of God and of the brethren. Instead, there was a seeking of the things of this world, friendship with the world, a striving after the treasures and pleasures of Sardis. The church, exactly because she was church, had a name that she lived; but she was dead!
The church of Sardis presents, indeed, a most miserable picture!
A dead minister, and a dead church!
Let us inquire a little more into this situation. The Lord says that the minister, and the church too, have a name that they live, but in reality are dead.
We understand that this is not to be interpreted in the strict and absolute sense of the word, either of the minister or of the congregation. In respect to the minister, it undoubtedly refers to him only as the angel of the church, in his capacity as officebearer. It does not mean that there was no life in him as a personal saint: for then the Lord, it seems to us, would not have admonished him as He does in this letter. He still comes to him, in the first place, with the admonition to wake up out of his indolent slumbers and to repent. In the second place, he admonishes him to strengthen and to establish that which is about to die. Hence, the statement that he is dead can hardly refer to him personally. He may very well have had the principle of the new life in his heart. But although he may have been a regenerated child of God, as we rather suppose he was, nevertheless that life appeared to be dead, did not come to manifestation in his life, especially in his life and labors as a minister and shepherd of the flock of Jesus Christ. Just as you sometimes meet with persons in the natural sense of the word of whom you say that they are dead because they seem to have no ambition and reveal no interest in anything, so it was in the spiritual sense with the angel of the church in Sardis. In his entire manifestation as minister of the Word he acted as if there were no life in him. No spark of life flashed from him to the congregation.
In all he did as minister and pastor of the church in Sardis he appeared to be dead. Dead was his preaching; dead was his catechetical instruction; dead was he in his pastoral work. During the week he had no ambition to study the Word of God from which he must feed the flock on the Sabbath.
He would sit with his wife or with his friends and idle away his time. The result was that when he came to his pulpit on Sunday, he really had no message for the flock which was congregated. There was no content to his brief sermon, and even what he said was without the fire of the conviction of faith. When he finished his sermon and said "Amen," it was with a sigh of relief: he was glad that it was over again. In catechism it was the same story. He would quickly have his pupils recite their lessons and dismiss them as soon as possible. In Sardis they had finally only one service on Sunday, and the sermon lasted just long enough for the congregation to fall fast asleep. In his pastoral work the angel of the church in Sardis was most negligent of all. He hated to go out and visit the flock. Family visitation was never done by him. Sick visiting he did very rarely; and when he did visit the sick, he knew not what to say to them: the word of life and comfort he could not find. In a word, in the entire manifestation of his life and work the angel of the church in Sardis was dead. He shamefully neglected his calling.
Such was the angel of the church in Sardis: he had a name that he was living, but was dead.
Such was their spiritual leader, who had to feed them with the bread of life, who was supposed to be their example, admonish them to be awake, strengthen them in their faith, be their captain in the battle of faith, and lead them on to victory!
Do you wonder that the whole congregation was virtually dead? This was evidently the case. The Lord comes to them with the admonition, "Be watchful!" It is true that these words are first of all addressed, undoubtedly, to the minister of the flock; but they are also intended for the whole congregation. The church in Sardis was fallen into a deep spiritual slumber. There was but little activity in the church, little manifestation of spiritual life. They were not concerned about doctrine and the truth of the Word of God. They were too far gone to be interested in maintaining the truth. In the church as a whole there was very little expression of spiritual life. The service on Sunday was poorly attended, and those who did attend revealed in their whole attitude that they were not interested. The whole congregation was about to die. Their general condition is expressed in the words, "Thou art dead." If you would peruse the congregational record, you would discover that there were a number on the membership list whom no one knew any more. No one, either in the congregation or in the consistory, would be able to give you any information about them. Another number you would find who never attended the church service. There were also some who still showed some signs of life, but who were already fast falling asleep. True, there were also the faithful in Sardis; but of them we must speak presently. On the whole, the congregation was about to die. Hence, the Lord comes to them with the admonition: "Be watchful, wake up! And strengthen that which is about to die!"
And how about their works?
Was it, perhaps, thus in the church of Sardis, that they were not doctrinally but practically inclined?
Also this was not the case, as we have already remarked. Nor was this to be expected of a church which was about to die. The very contrary is true. For the Lord adds in His admonition that He had not found their works perfect, or full, before God. No, this does not mean that the church in Sardis had not as yet attained to the state of perfection in regard to their works. In this respect all the churches would have to confess that their works were not full before God. Believers in this present time have but a small beginning of the new obedience, and their works are never perfect. No, but, in the first place, this implies that some works which the church in the world is always called to perform were entirely neglected. The church did not let her testimony go forth in the midst of the world: it was no shining light in the midst of the darkness of this present world at all. The world hardly knew that there was a church of Jesus Christ in Sardis. Her influence was not felt. Besides, even in her own midst her works were not full. Works like that of taking care of the poor and indigent, the work of mercy, the work of instructing the children in and according to the Word of God, -these were almost, or even entirely, neglected. And what the church in Sardis still did was done so halfheartedly that there was no manifestation of life in it.
But there was still more. If we consider that the Lord praises the few faithful in the congregation of Sardis because they had not defiled their garments, we may certainly draw the conclusion that the other members had defiled them and that they lived in open sin in the midst of the world. How could it be different? A church which was about to die, most of whose members were already dead, a church which cared no longer for the truth of the gospel and which did not perform the works a church is called to perform, was but naturally inclined to seek the things of the world and to live in sin. They enjoyed the pleasures of the world. In their actual walk they could not be distinguished from the world. And those of the flock who did walk after the precepts of the gospel they despised and considered narrow-minded. Hence, it certainly was not true that with a view to their practical life and walk they appeared to be alive. On the contrary, they were dead in the entire manifestation of their life.
Admonition And Threat Of Judgment
A most miserable church indeed is that of Sardis! A church about to die! A dead minister and a dead congregation: a minister and a church which have a name that they live, but they are dead! Most of the members had already fallen sound asleep; the rest were about to die. Conformed, they were, in their life and walk, to the world in the midst of which they lived. For this the responsibility rested, in the first place, on the angel of the church, but not in such a way that the congregation was without guilt. And therefore it is also to the church as a whole that the admonition is addressed: "Remember therefore how thou hast received and heard, and hold fast, and repent. If therefore thou shalt not watch, I will come on thee as a thief, and thou shalt not know what hour I will come upon thee."
We may see, therefore, that although the condition of the church in Sardis is as miserable as we have described her, nevertheless it is not yet hopeless. The congregation as such may still be changed and repent. For, in the first place, there are in the midst of the congregation a few faithful who have not defiled their garments; and, secondly, there are also those who are not devoid of spiritual life, though it is far from bright and flourishing and though they are fast asleep. And therefore the Lord comes to them with this admonition to repent.
We may notice there is a similarity between this admonition and the one which is addressed to the church of Ephesus. The latter the Lord admonished in the words, "Remember therefore whence thou art fallen." To the church in Sardis the Lord writes, "Remember therefore how thou hast received and heard." In principle there was, no doubt, a good deal of similarity between the two churches. The one had lost her first love; the other had a name that she lived, but was dead. The latter might be considered a further development of the former: for the church which has lost its first love is about to die. This is the reason also for the striking similarity in the admonitions to the two churches. Both must remember something which they had possessed in the past and had now lost. The memory of their former estate may appeal to them in as far as they are still alive, and may be an inducement to repent.
Sardis must recall how they had received and heard in the beginning, The reference is, of course, to the gospel and all that is contained in the gospel of Jesus Christ. The congregation must recall how, that is, in what manner, they had received and heard that gospel when it first had been proclaimed unto them. What a profound joy it had wrought in their hearts! What ardent and true spiritual enthusiasm it had caused in their inmost soul! How they had received it with joy and had witnessed to all about them of the grace of God and of the glorious salvation there is in Christ! How, through the power of that gospel, they had fought the good fight and had walked in a new and holy life! That former state they must now recall. They have fallen from it. They can experience it only in their memory. If there is still a spark of life in them, even though they are fallen into a deep slumber, the recollection of their former state will appeal to their inmost heart. Remembering that former state, they will see how deeply they have fallen; and, through the power of the Word of the Lord, they will wake up, repent, and return to their former state. Sardis must have a revival: not, indeed, a revival which must be repeated every few months, but a true spiritual revival, a revival of abiding value. They must remember how they have received and heard the gospel, and must repent in true sorrow of heart and mind.
But although there still seems to be hope for the church in Sardis, the future does not look very bright. Hence, the Lord immediately follows up this admonition to remember and to repent by a threat of His coming for judgment: "IT therefore thou shalt not watch, I will come on thee as a thief, and thou shalt not know what hour I will come upon thee."
These words have been explained as referring to the sudden coming of the Lord for judgment. All of a sudden, according to this interpretation, when it is too late, the Lord will come upon the congregation, and they shall realize that the Lord has visited them as Judge while they were still sleeping. With a view to the final coming of the Lord, this is, of course, true. If they do not heed the admonition of the Lord, but continue sleeping, death will come; and in their death the Lord will come upon them as their Judge. Nevertheless, there is, I think, another idea in this coming of the Lord as a thief upon the church in Sardis. A thief's aim is not to come upon you all of a sudden and inspire you with fear, but rather to sneak into your house without your being aware of it, do his work, remove your valuables, and disappear without your having noticed him. So the Lord will come upon this church which is sleeping and about to die. He will come as a thief. The church shall never be aware of His coming. He will do His work as Judge, remove the candlestick out of its place, and the church shall have died in her sleep, without waking up even for a moment. The condition here is just the reverse from that of Thyatira. That church is called to attention in regard to the judgments the Lord will execute in her midst. But to Sardis the Lord writes that He shall come as a thief. Entirely in harmony with their deadness and spiritual slumber, He will come upon them without their being aware of His coming. He shall execute His judgments before they know it.
That this is true is plainly indicated by the Lord in His Self-announcement. He says: "These things saith he that hath the seven Spirits of God, and the seven stars." We remember that also in the first chapter both these expressions occur. The first expression, referring to the seven Spirits, does not occur in the vision of the Savior in Chapter 1, but it is used in connection with the salutation of John and his benediction. The seven Spirits are not presented there as the Spirits which are held by Jesus, but simply as the Spirits that are before the throne of God. We remarked in that connection that these seven Spirits are not simply a reference to the Holy Spirit as the Third Person of the Trinity, but rather that they refer to the Spirit of Christ as He received Him from the Father. He now has that Spirit as the head of the church and the Mediator of the new covenant. And while that Spirit dwells in Him as the head of the body, He also poured Him out into the church. It is the Spirit Who establishes the unity between the head and the body, between the church and her King. It is as the One Who has the seven Spirits of God that the Lord announces Himself to the church of Sardis, first of all, in order to inspire them with hope in case they repent: for He has the seven Spirits, and through these He dwells in the church, so that they may expect from Him life and strength to keep what they have, that no one take their crown. But, secondly, with a view to their spiritual condition, the mention of the seven Spirits must serve as a reminder to them of what will surely happen if they do not repent. If He withholds the seven Spirits, the church will be dead even though they may still have a name that they live. The same is true of the seven stars. It was especially due to the angel of the church in Sardis that they were dead. Now the Lord holds the seven stars. It is He Who gives them to the church; it is also He Who withdraws them. If He does the latter, the light of the Word shall, at least through them, shine no more. Thus the Lord will come with His judgment upon the church. He shall come as a thief. Before they are aware of it, the Spirit shall have departed out of their midst, and they shall be without the light of the Word that shines through their star. The church shall cease to exist as the church of Jesus Christ.
The Lord's Promise To The Faithful
But there are still a few who are faithful in the church of Sardis. The Lord concludes this letter with beautiful promises to them and to those that overcome in general.
These faithful, first of all, are described. They are those who have not defiled their garments. The Lord knows them by name. The fact that the Lord describes them as those who had not defiled their garments implies, of course, that the rest of the congregation in Sardis had defiled them. The question is: what is meant by the garments of the members of the church in this connection? It is evident that they do not refer to the righteousness of Christ: for all the members had these garments, and some, or many of them, had defiled them. Rather, therefore, we must understand that these garments refer to their outward membership in the church. They were all baptized in the name of the Triune God. They were all members of the church in an external sense of the word, and they were known as such in Sardis. They all outwardly professed the name of Christ. They all wore the garments of the church. Even as the soldiers of the same army wear the garments, or uniform, of the army, so all the members of the church in Sardis wore the uniform of Christ. But all had not lived in harmony with the garments which they wore. They were dead. They had dishonored the name of their King. They did not distinguish themselves from the soldiers of Satan in the midst of the world. They had defiled their garments by a walk in sin. Hence, the expression that the few who were faithful in Sardis had not defiled their garments does not and cannot mean that they were without sin and that they had already reached perfection, but simply that they had been faithful to their profession both in their confession and walk. They had been faithful to the name of Jesus their Lord, and they had refused to walk in the sins of the world as did the others.
A difficult position they must have occupied in the church of Sardis. The others were dead and asleep. These were alive and awake, loving the truth and busy in the things of the kingdom of God. The others were enjoying a walk in the sins of the world and did not manifest themselves as scrupulous in regard to their life and walk in the midst of the world. These, however, refused to become conformed according to the life and standards of the world in the midst of which they lived. How it must have troubled them that their angel was dead and that he could not and did not bring them the Word of life! How it must have grieved them to see that the church was so dead and that she was becoming more and more apostate! And above all, how it must have pierced their soul like a sword that they had to bear the reproach and shame and mockery of their fellow-members in the church of Sardis! For that was naturally the result. The worldly-minded members of the church filled the faithful few with reproach and shame and called them narrow-minded. It is hard, indeed, to bear the reproach of the world. But this you cannot avoid. You expect this of the world. But a thousand times more grievous it is that you must bear the reproach of them that wear the garments of Jesus and that profess to belong to the church of Christ. Such was the position of the few names in Sardis. In the midst of all these difficulties they had not become unfaithful, but had refused to defile their garments with sin.
To them and to all who are victorious the Lord gives a most beautiful promise in a three-fold form. They shall all walk with Him in white garments; their names shall not be blotted out of the book of life; and Jesus shall confess their names before God, His Father.
In general, it is evident that the Lord here promises them eternal life and glory. The three-fold form of this promise is in harmony with the position of these faithful ones in the midst of the church in Sardis.
There is, in the first place, the promise that they shall walk with the Lord in white garments. In Scripture, white garments are a symbol of righteousness and holiness and purity, of perfect deliverance from sin and corruption. Hence, in this beautiful promise the Lord assures the faithful in Sardis that they once shall be delivered perfectly from sin and death and that in their entire life and walk they shall be as the Lord. With Him and as Him they shall live and walk, without any imperfection; and never they shall defile their garments any more. It needs no mention that this was exactly the deepest desire and longing of these faithful ones. While many in the congregation lived in sin, they fought the battle of faith and strove to keep their garments pure. How this promise that in the future they would be perfectly holy and pure must have appealed to their inmost heart and must have spurred them on to be faithful even unto death!
Secondly, the Lord gives them the assurance that their names shall no be blotted out of the book of life. Scripture speaks more often of books There are before God's countenance books of remembrance; they shall be opened in the day of judgment so that all the works of men which are done in time may be revealed. Then there is also the book of life. In that book written before the foundation of the world, the names are written of those who are chosen unto everlasting life and glory. The names that are written in that book will, of course, never be blotted out. Nor does the Lord say that this is possible. He merely assures the faithful in Sardis that their names shall not be erased from the roll of God's elect. Fact is that once upon a time also the unfaithful ones in Sardis had appeared as if they had been written in that book of life too: for their names had appeared on the roll of the church. Now, however, their apostasy and their walk in sin prove that their names had never been written in the book of fife. Hence, not to be blotted out from the book of life represents the assurance that they had from all eternity been written in it and that the believers in Sardis may be confident that they shall find their names are written therein in the day of judgment. A glorious promise this is, indeed! If we are faithful and do not defile our garments, we may have the assurance in our hearts that in the day when "the roll is called up yonder," the roll of those who inherit eternal life, also our names shall be called. In that day there shall be no fear or anxiety on the part of those who were faithful in the midst of the world and who by grace have overcome in the battle of faith. They shall stand in the assurance that their names are written in the book of life.
Finally, in close connection with the assurance that their names shall not be blotted out of the book of life stands the third form of the promise, that the Lord will confess the names of these faithful ones before His Father in heaven. As the names are being called from the book of life, Jesus shall say. "Yes, these are also of my sheep which Thou, Father, hast given me; they have been faithful and have not defiled their garments; they are worthy to enter with me into Thy everlasting glory!"
Hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches!
What does the Spirit say?
Many a church has fallen asleep in our day. Many are the churches and ministers which have a name that they live, but are dead. Shall we remain faithful? Many have defiled their garments. Shall we keep them clean? We shall, if, by the power of the grace of God, we fight the good fight even unto the end.
Watch, therefore, that no one take your crown!