Dr. William Barclay has said, "A church is in danger of death when it begins to worship its own past, when it is more concerned with forms than with life; when it is more concerned with material than it is with spiritual things." I've seen many such churches; perhaps you have, too. Churches which exist only as shrines to past glories. Churches where "worship" consists of mechanically sung hymns and anemic rituals. Churches which celebrate appearances and reputation and distinctives rather than a jubilant, buoyant, living relationship with the God of the universe.

Notice the differences between Sardis and all the other churches addressed in Revelation 2 and 3. Ephesus lacked love, Sardis lacks life. In every other church, there is something happening, there is tension, there is even struggle and conflict. Tension and struggle may be unpleasant, but at least they are signs of life. The church in Sardis was so devoid of life that it actually had no struggles going on within it.

In this church we find no orthodox Jewish opponents of the church, even though there was a large Jewish population in Sardis. The Jews ignored the Christians because the Christians of Sardis were neutralized, impotent, dead.

There were no false apostles harrying the church at Sardis either. There were no Nicolaitans springing up like choking weeds, nor was there a seductive false prophetess as in the church at Thyatira. There was no struggle, no contending for truth in Sardis. There was only death.

What does a dead church need? Can a dead church like Sardis be resurrected? Yes but there is no time to waste.

It's encouraging to notice that the Lord Jesus is the Lord of all the churches even of the First Zombie Church of Sardis. He doesn't say, "I wash my hands of you." He says, "You are dead but I am still your Lord, and I will show the way to recovery."

So let's examine the signs of death and the steps to recovery and resurrection that Jesus sets forth in His letter to the church at Sardis.


Part of the lore that circulates in many theological seminaries is a tale concerning a seminarian with a bent for practical jokes. This seminarian, the story goes, was sitting in a class taught by an exceedingly boring professor. Noticing that the student in the next seat had fallen asleep, he thought to himself, "Aha! Now I'll liven things up a little!"

So, in the midst of the lecture, as the professor turned to jot a note on the chalkboard, the student leaned over to his sleeping friend and nudged him sharply. "Wake up, Tom!" he whispered, "class is over! The professor called on you to close in prayer!"

Shaken awake, the victim of the prank jumped to his feet and startled the professor and the class with the announcement, "Fellow students, let us pray!"

The Lord has a message for the church at Sardis and for you and me. The message is, "Wake up!" and unlike the seminarian's message to his hapless seatmate, this message is no joke. It is an urgent alarm for a dead church to rouse itself back to life.

3:2-3 "Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your deeds complete in the sight of my God. Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; obey it, 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."

The first need of a church that is dead or near death is to wake up to its desperate condition.

The words of Jesus' message to Sardis are sharp, staccato commands in the original Greek. They are like a slap in the face, a splash of cold water, a sniff of spirits of ammonia, a shout, an urgent cry of alarm: "Wake up!"

In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul says, "Wake up, O sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you." This was the desperate need of the church in Sardis: Wake up! Honestly face your failure and spiritual dullness! Admit the futility of your self-serving religious activity! Catch a whiff of the reeking corruption of your way of life!

As Christians we must not shrink from the convicting words of the letter to Sardis. Rather, we must bravely face them and ask ourselves, "What has gone wrong with my spiritual life? Why does my worship and Christian service seem so dreary? Why does my church seem so lifeless and unattractive? Why don't people want to come?" As individual Christians and as collective bodies of believers, these are the questions that confront us in the letter to the church at Sardis.

"Wake up!" our Lord cries to us in our worldly lethargy and stupor. "Wake up now or you may never wake up!"


If the first need of the church at Sardis was to rouse itself and wake up to its dying condition, the second is to strengthen what remains. Why does Jesus tell the Christians at Sardis to "strengthen what remains"? Certainly, the Lord found nothing to commend about this church. What, we wonder, was there left at Sardis worth strengthening?

But remember in verse 1, Jesus said, "I know your deeds." Clearly the church at Sardis was doing some good deeds, or else it wouldn't have had a reputation (however misplaced) for being "alive." The Christians at Sardis were doing good works, but these works were incomplete, unfinished. Their actions were right, but their motives were wrong. By doing the right things for the wrong reasons they robbed their good deeds of power. That is why the Lord says in verse 2, "Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your deeds complete in the sight of my God."

The Christians at Sardis were like so many Christians today busy doing good things, but doing them primarily to impress people. They were trying to enhance their reputation for being alive. But as Jesus warned them, even these good works, as incomplete and falsely intentioned as they were, were about to die. Soon the church at Sardis would end up bereft of even its flimsy reputation and phony good deeds.

"Strengthen what remains," says Jesus to the Sardis Christians. How? By setting their motives aright.

All through the Scriptures we see that God judges not merely our actions but the intentions of our hearts. Often, the same activity that is done out of love and gratitude toward God can also be done for reasons of our own pride and our desire to impress others. God is watching not only our behavior but our hearts, monitoring whether we are living to please ourselves or to please Him.

Mother Teresa, the Albanian nun who has given her life in service to the untouchables of India, once told an interviewer for Time magazine, "We try to pray through our work by doing it with Jesus, for Jesus, to Jesus. That helps us put our whole heart and soul into doing it. The dying, the crippled, the mentally ill, the unwanted, the unloved they are Jesus in disguise." What a powerful motivation for Christian ministry! This is the vision the church of Sardis needed to recapture.


So the church at Sardis needed to remember what they had heard. Then they needed to obey, and, third, to repent.

At this point, I have to disagree with that fine Bible translation, the New International Version, and point out that verse 3 should not read, "Remember, therefore, what you have received. . ." but rather, "Remember, therefore, how you have received and heard; obey it, and repent."

What they had heard, of course, was the Christian gospel. They had heard the story of the life of Jesus, His death upon the cross on behalf of sinners, His resurrection, and the new life He offers to all who believe in Him. But what Jesus is talking about here is how they received it.

What Jesus is referring to is the ministry of the Holy Spirit. Remember that Jesus had said He is the one who holds the seven spirits. When these people first heard the gospel, they had heard it by the Spirit. The Word came to them in the power of the Spirit.

Many years ago I visited a large, well-known Methodist church in the Midwest. As I was waiting for the service to start I turned to the doctrinal statement in the back of the hymnal, a statement that originated with John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement. This statement came out of the Great Awakening when John Wesley, his brother Charles, and their colleague George Whitefield preached to thousands in the fields and streets of England.

As I examined that statement of faith, I pondered the fact that the gospel preached by the Wesleys and Whitefield was the same gospel the church has had for 2,000 years. Yet in the days of the Great Awakening the gospel went forth with extraordinary power the power of the Holy Spirit.

As I sat in that sanctuary the service began, hymns were sung, creeds were recited, Scripture was read, a sermon was preached. But the spirit of that service was cold, formal, and lifeless. I remember looking at the doctrinal statement and feeling grateful that the Methodist denomination continued to hold to the creed John Wesley had formulated during the world-shaking days of the Great Awakening. Yet I was also saddened as I left the
sanctuary. For in this particular Methodist congregation, the fire was flickering, if it had not gone out altogether.

That was many years ago, and perhaps that church has recovered. I hope so. For that church once had a national reputation for being alive. Yet the church I visited that morning was spiritually dead.

How do you lay hold of the Spirit and revive a church or an individual who has become spiritually dead? Many Christians have the gospel, but do