A Letter from Jesus to some walking dead people. But why do they look alive?
Reminder to the reader: there are some foundational concepts in the first essay on the 7 Letters. In addition, the essay on the Kingdom of Heaven provides very important concepts.
Revelation 3:1-6 “To the angel of the church in Sardis write:
These are the words of him who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have found your deeds unfinished in the sight of my God. Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; hold it fast, and repent. But if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you.
Yet you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes. They will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy. The one who is victorious will, like them, be dressed in white. I will never blot out the name of that person from the book of life, but will acknowledge that name before my Father and his angels. Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
This Letter is the 5th in the Letters to the “Seven Churches”. A lot of background has been covered previously in the sections previous to this one. It is worthwhile to review those if they are not already held in your operating concepts.
As with the previous Letters, Jesus opens with focusing on a characteristic of his identity. These are things that John describes as seeing when his vision began. (Revelation 1). There is insight to be gained here, but we will summarize that later.
As with the others of the 7 Letters, and in fact with the majority of Jesus’ teachings, this Letter can be read different ways. There are at least 2 very different general themes that are commonly derived from Jesus’ teachings: “Live right or die” and “turn to me for life”.
It is common to read this Letter to Sardis with the “live right or die” mindset. And certainly there is validity to that perspective: God Most High requires behavior of a higher standard than is natural to humans. To establish credentials through good behavior is a lofty goal, and given the natural order of Good and Evil, Law, failure to maintain those credentials must result in punishment. This is the order of reality that is observable in all societies throughout history. And it is clearly taught in the Bible: to please God one must be perfect. Only a perfect offering is acceptable. Be perfect, just like your heavenly Father is perfect. Failure to uphold any part of the Law of Moses carries guaranteed curses, according to the Law of Moses, which God Most High states will never pass away.
With that mindset (set of concepts operating in our conscious decision making), this Letter says that the church at Sardis has failed to live an acceptable life, which our concepts would interpret as failing to live a life free from sin. Of course, it is of crucial importance then to define the concept of sin as failing to obey the rules as given by God. Which is usually where most people cease defining that concept, without following through with the clear next required step: precisely what rules? If eternal destiny is decided based on the rules, a precise set is of tremendous importance.
But for most, this 5th Letter is left at the undefined level: in some way the portion of the Church at Sardis is failing to live by the rules. Jesus says they need to go back to what he originally taught them. Which, using our operating concepts must be something like the Sermon on the Mount, where he said to pay attention to the whole Law of Moses, and to give people that steal from you more than they stole, and to Love God with ALL your heart, mind and strength, and to Love you neighbor as much as you love yourself, and to cut off your hands if they might cause you to sin, and to never experience sexual desire, and to exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees (who were very good at not breaking rules). And in another place he said to give all of your belongings to the poor if you want to seal you eternal destiny in a positive fashion.
So Sardis needs to get back to that. Then they can join the perfect ones that are among them, whose names will never be blotted out of the book of life (eternal destiny). In our operating concepts, we must assume here that he means “never blotted out unless you soil your clothes again”.
Well, that is a daunting task, but what choice do we have but to renew our efforts to live by the Mosaic Law and the Sermon on the Mount?
If you find yourself invigorated to renew your efforts, then you should do that. And do it sincerely with all effort. Please be sure to study the teachings of Jesus and the Law of Moses. Be sure to add each commandment to your list.
You may think I am being sarcastic – I am not. To please God through my works of obedience, I must be perfect. Sin is sin, nothing less.
This path is the only path to God until we achieve the goal for which God has put it in place. That we finally acknowledge that we are completely inadequate, incapable of pleasing God in this way. Then we can turn to him and, in complete honesty, say “have mercy on me, a sinner”.
Now let us overlay the concepts of pleasing God through our performance with the concepts of the Kingdom of Heaven. The Kingdom that Jesus taught about through many parables – He who has ears to hear, let him hear. If you are unsure about those concepts, you would be wise to study that before studying the Revelation Letters.
Now with the Kingdom of Heaven concepts supreme in our awareness, let’s look at this Letter to Sardis.
“I know your deeds.” In the last Letter, to Thyatira, Jesus said that all the churches will see that he, Jesus, searches the affections and hearts and rewards according to the Church at Thyatira’s deeds. Jesus lists the deeds of Thyatira and he gives very high praise for those deeds. They are Faith, Hope, and Love. In this Letter to Sardis, he says that their deeds are not complete.
Jesus says that Sardis has a reputation for being alive, but they are dead. How does one become alive in the Kingdom of Heaven? Belief in Jesus, as made clear in the Unforgivable Sin and restated by Paul in Romans: Confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead.
Thyatira was so loving that they were not being clear about the nature of Jesus and the importance of that in the Kingdom of Heaven. This lack of clarity, if I can summarize the situation in that way, was putting at risk the eternal destiny of people whom God loves (John 3:16).
But here in Sardis these people have a reputation of being alive. So I think it is safe to assume that they were not struggling with the other gods or demon worship of the Jezebelish group at Thyatira. While worshipping other gods, like Baal or Artemis/Diana, it would not be confused for being alive in the Jesus movement.
So how would they appear to be alive but actually be dead? Do we know of other groups of people that fit that model? Certainly the religious leaders opposing Jesus could be classified with that criteria. They were “white-washed mausoleums” as Jesus described them. They appeared beautiful but nothing was alive inside. People striving to live perfectly according to the rules God has provided always appear to be alive – living for God. Some a lot more than others. The ones who really dive into the rules, as we discussed above, clearly appear to be exemplary. They are people that even those who do not believe in Jesus refer to as good people. Most assume that if anyone is spiritually alive it is the people who live with few faults.
But even living with few faults does not make one alive. It is of extreme importance to recognize that the least fault is still a fault. It is of greater importance to recognize that the Good News that Jesus brought is that by humbly turning to God for Mercy, one is rewarded by coming to life, being Born again.
The person who turns to Jesus for Mercy will receive it. And will know the Love of God, as that Love is the reason that drove him to build a path into his Kingdom. A path that is complete and only requires the traveler to choose it.
A person who walks this path becomes aware that the creation of this path was not of their own power, but was the creation flowing out of the Love of Jesus for each person. Each person, each life filled with offense to God and each other person, is invited … no, taken by the hand and drawn to take this path. The bridegroom uses all his power of attraction to lure each person to become his bride: “come with me, my beloved. I will dress you in beauty and make you my bride”.
A person who has not fallen asleep while waiting, a person who walks in the awe of being loved so unconditionally, so recklessly, becomes full of Faith, Hope, and Love.
Jesus looks into the heart. The bridegroom gazes into the eyes of the bride looking to see the Love that he longs to see there.
But the CHURCH at Sardis has it eyes closed, while it dreams of itself. Concentrating on all the things it will add to make itself beautiful. A strict diet to eliminate that tiny bulge around the waist. Got to get that off because it is so ugly. No, it is a middle eastern bride so it wants a bit more of bulge as too lean is definitely not pleasing to the master. Maybe some surgery to change the shape of body parts. Definitely shave some areas. I really don’t like the way my eyes show my true feelings so I need to buy the latest in eye makeup and big earrings to distract the bridegroom from looking into my eyes. And some paint to put on the face. I’m not sure I really love him, but I certainly need to marry him to secure my future. I am doomed if I don’t marry him.
The bridegroom is waiting. He sees the beauty deep inside his bride. He does not care about the fact that her ears are different and her nostrils are uneven and her breath is bad and she is not really clean all the time. He loves her being, that being that is so deep inside. That being that is so discouraged by all the failures and hatred and wants so much to just be loved. Jesus loves.
So Jesus calls to the CHURCH at Sardis to wake up and embrace the things he taught them. He taught them all about the Kingdom of Heaven.
Given the assumed time when this Revelation was given to John, the books called the Gospels were known throughout the church at large. Those with Ears to Hear would have the opportunity to ponder and come to see the Good News of the Kingdom of Heaven. These Letters are addressed to the Leaders of the each of these seven churches, so this Letter is to the leaders of Sardis: Wake Up before your church dies. Return to the Good News of the Kingdom of Heaven. Receive the White Robes from the bridegroom and allow him to gaze with his eyes of Love into your being. Faith, Hope, and Love will grow.
“Wake Up!” Jesus says to Sardis. Like the 10 Virgins in that parable in Matthew, they have fallen asleep and removed their focus from the bridegroom. Some when awakening trust the nature of the bridegroom and some do not, but rush to correct their failures before he comes. As with these Letters in Revelation, the parables of Jesus hold deeper meaning for those who have ears to hear, so a quick surface reading of that parable will not yield the deeper meanings. But I will proceed assuming that you have found that deeper, parabolic, meaning of the teachings of Jesus in Matthew. Sardis needs to wake up! The leaders need to change their mind about how to approach God. Repent of following the broad path of the Pharisees. Take the narrow way. Have Faith in the love of Jesus, Hope in his promise of eternal life with him, Love like he loves.
If they don’t wake up, they won’t be ready when he comes. In Matthew 24, Jesus explained that while no one knows the exact time of his return, he gave a list of things so that one can anticipate his return. Here he says, like in the parable of the 10 Virgins, that if you are sleeping you are at risk of being surprised.
Jesus says that some in Sardis have not soiled their clothes. It is tempting to understand this to mean that some people in Sardis have not sinned. As we examined earlier, it is crucial to always understand sin in its complete description from the teachings of Jesus, including the whole Law of Moses. We cannot just use the parts that readily come to our recollection. As the previous exercise suggested, avoiding all sin is of extreme difficulty. Hence the instinctive move of many to understand this statement by Jesus to just mean that they have not sinned in certain ways. Which leads to rejecting the words of Jesus, intentionally or unintentionally. Either the “unsoiled” ones at Sardis had cut off their hands after salvation or they had soiled themselves (just as one example among dozens).
Or that is not what Jesus meant.
To me the simple reading is that Jesus is simply saying that some at Sardis have held to his teachings he already gave them – the teachings about the Kingdom of Heaven and his (Jesus’) identity. This makes the next sentences clear.
“they will walk with me in white, because they are worthy”. When Jesus evaluates you, how do you earn the assessment of “worthy”? When we turn to him for Mercy. Jesus spoke of the contrast between the 2 seekers of God in Luke 18:9-14. “have mercy on me a sinner… and that man went away justified”. The person that turns to God for salvation, humbly and honestly, is worthy. The other person in that teaching is someone who would have a reputation for righteousness, and has the same attitude as many, being very honestly grateful that they are not as bad as gangsters and prostitutes. That person is not justified, because the least sin is still sin. That person is not worthy, even though their lifestyle is highly honorable and they look alive, just like main group at Sardis.
But the other group, the humble and honest people at Sardis, are walking in white robes. Where did they get the white robes? Jesus alludes to that next.
“In the same way, the victor will be dressed in white and I will never erase his name from the book of life, but will acknowledge his name before my Father and his angels.”
The “unsoiled” ones are already walking in white robes. “In the same way” – just as the “unsoiled” ones are worthy by humbly and honestly keeping their focus on Jesus, the main group at Sardis can gain victory over their deadness by turning to the fountain of Life. They will then be clothed in white as well, and Jesus will never erase their names from the book of life.
Consider that in the identity of Jesus, as described at the beginning of this vision, Jesus is dressed in white robes. Must my perfection match his? Or will his perfection cover me?
Jesus ends the Letter in his common admonition about listening through the Spirit (who always leads us to Jesus).