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The Christadelphian | June 2012

In the magazine this month:

  • Editorial Sitting
  • Letters to the Editor
  • Sunday morning “Set my affection to the house of my God” | John Parry
  • The character of God 4 – Omnipotent | Mark Buckler
  • David’s wives | Paul Cresswell
  • “How often should I forgive …?” | Andrew E. Walker
  • “Sing forth the honour of His Name” Ten years of worship from the 2002 hymn book | John Botten
  • Questions Jesus asks “How is it ye do not understand?” | Paul Aston
  • Why Saul became Paul Part 2 | Michael Edgecombe
  • The message to the seven churches 6 – To Sardis | James Andrews
  • Signs of the times Moving towards political union?
  • Israel and their land Talks with Tehran
  • The brotherhood near and far

A sample article from this edition:

The message to the seven churches

6 – To Sardis

SARDIS, capital of the ancient Kingdom of Lydia, was a city of great wealth. In fact, gold flowed almost literally through its streets via the stream Pactolus, which carried gold dust from the nearby Mount Tmolus. Legend associated these mineral deposits with the “golden touch” of King Midas; and the wealth of the last king of Lydia, Croesus, was scarcely less great than that of his legendary counterpart. Croesus’ reign came to an abrupt end in c.547 BC, when the Persian ruler Cyrus the Great laid siege to the city of Sardis. He captured it after fourteen days, and annexed Lydia to his empire. In Isaiah 45:3, God had said to Cyrus: “I will give you the treasures of darkness and the hoards in secret places …” This verse probably refers in the first instance to the treasuries of Babylon, but the words apply equally well to Sardis – whose treasure hoards greatly enriched the Persian Empire.

A city of gold

The wealth of Sardis was also enhanced by its proximity to the Hermus River, which connected the city to the Aegean Sea and whose wide alluvial plain provided rich and fertile farmland. Because of its important strategic location and its history as the capital of the surrounding region, in the fifth century BC the Persian Emperor Darius the Great made Sardis the western terminus of his newly rebuilt Royal Road. Extending eastwards around 2,500 kilometres to the Persian capital at Susa, this ancient superhighway could be traversed by relays of mounted couriers in little over a week.

Persian dominance over Anatolia came to an end after its conquest by Alexander the Great, and Sardis was ruled first by Alexander’s successors (including the Attalids of Pergamum) and later by the Romans. However, it remained an economically – if no longer strategically – important city, with its road connections to the East and to other trading centres of Asia. It became a renowned textile centre, producing wool to make the himation – the most common outer garment for both men and women in the Greco-Roman world, less voluminous than a toga and generally worn by people from lower social and economic backgrounds. Although in AD 26 it lost out to Smyrna in a bid to become home to the second imperial cult temple in Asia, by the first century Sardis was the seventh largest city of the Roman Empire, with a population of between 60,000 and 100,000.

Obadiah 20 refers to “the exiles of Jerusalem who are in Sepharad”, a place name which some commentators believe to be the Hebrew word for “Sardis”. If so it would support other evidence which suggests that the city had a Jewish diaspora population from as early as the sixth century BC. The Jews of Sardis would certainly have been among those scattered throughout the Persian provinces who were saved by the actions of Queen Esther (Esther 8:1-9:5). It is in Sardis that the largest synagogue of the Jewish diaspora has been discovered; originally a civic basilica which formed part of a bath and gymnasium complex, the building was converted into a synagogue in the late second or early third century AD. Although dating from after the time of Revelation, its location and large size – it had capacity for nearly a thousand people – show the wealth and importance of the city’s established Jewish community.

Spiritually dead

Although it is difficult to understand fully the situation of the church in Sardis, there is no doubt that it was in serious need of reform. The message to Sardis begins abruptly with condemnation, and it contains the most sustained criticism of any of the seven messages apart from the message to Laodicea. Several images of sleep and death are used to describe the members of the Christian community: they are “dead” (Revelation 3:1), sleeping (as is implied by the exhortation to “wake up”, verses 2,3), and “about to die” (verse 2); and the majority of them have “soiled their garments” (verse 4).

A clear contrast is drawn between the reality of the church’s spiritual condition and its reputation. It had “the reputation of being alive” (verse 1): to the outside world, and perhaps even to other Christian communities, it seemed to be in a flourishing and healthy spiritual state. But the gravity of its real position is highlighted by a paradoxical contrast similar to that which the Lord uses of Laodicea – a church which said it was rich but was actually “wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked” (verse 17).

The condition of the church in Sardis is contrasted not only with its present reputation, but also with its past strength. The emphasis on current decay suggests that it once really was “alive”; and this is implied by the exhortations to “strengthen what remains” and to “remember … what you received and heard” (verses 2,3). Whilst it is impossible to be precise, this seems to be a community of some longstanding; perhaps even a whole generation has passed since the church was formed, which would support the view that Revelation was written towards the latter end of the first century AD.

It may be that, like the church in Ephesus, the community at Sardis had lost its first love and enthusiasm for the things of God (cf. Revelation 2:4) – although the situation would seem to be much more serious here than at Ephesus. Perhaps their “reputation of being alive” had lulled them into a sense of complacency. Or perhaps they had gone too far down the road of compromise with the surrounding pagan culture – something which the Lord warns other churches against in the strongest terms. Whatever the details of the situation, the ecclesia at Sardis was spiritually dead – just as a self-indulgent woman was said by Paul to be “dead even while she lives” (1 Timothy 5:6).

So the Lord says: “I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God” (Revelation 3:2). Besides the obvious irony of this condemnation, it invokes the image of a law court. The word translated “found” was used to declare a judicial verdict, as it is for example in Acts 23:9; it is also used to refer to the judgement of God at the return of Christ, as in 1 Peter 1:7. This judgement carries the full authority of the Lord Jesus Christ, and two echoes of the statement elsewhere in the scriptures remind us that these are indeed his words. Firstly, the word translated “complete” carries the meaning of ‘perfection’, and although a different Greek word is used by the Lord in Matthew 5:48, [1] the same idea is conveyed when he tells his disciples, “You … must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (cf. Matthew 19:21). Secondly, the phrase “my God” is distinctive to the Lord Jesus and other than in the message to Philadelphia (Revelation 3:12) occurs elsewhere only in John 20:17 and Mark 15:34 (cf. Matthew 27:46).

“I will come like a thief”

The original settlement of Sardis was built on a steep spur projecting from Mount Tmolus, and this rocky acropolis remained for centuries the site of the city’s virtually impregnable citadel. When Cyrus set out to besiege this citadel, he offered a reward for the first of his men who could find a way to scale the wall. The Greek historian Herodotus records what happened: “When everyone else had given up, a Mardian called Hyroeades went up to have a go at a particular part of the acropolis where no guard had been posted, because the steepness and unassailability of the acropolis at that spot had led people to believe that there was no danger of its ever being taken there … Hyroeades had the day before seen a Lydian climb down this part of the acropolis after his helmet (which had rolled down the slope) and retrieve it. He noted this and thought about it, then he led a band of Persians in the ascent …” (Herodotus, The Histories, 1.84). This, Herodotus says, “is how Sardis fell”. Ironically, the city was to fall again under similar circumstances at a later date in its history, when it was besieged by the Seleucid king Antiochus III in 215-213 BC.

The metaphor of the Lord coming “like a thief” is obviously one which has Biblical precedent. Jesus tells his disciples the parable of a thief breaking into a house at night, as a warning that “the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect” (Matthew 24:43,44; cf. Luke 12:39,40). Paul likens the coming of “the day of the Lord” to that of “a thief in the night” (1 Thessalonians 5:2; cf. 2 Peter 3:10) – words which allude strongly also to Zechariah 14:1, which foretells that “a day is coming for the Lord, when the spoil taken from you will be divided in your midst”. But Revelation 3:3 is the first time when the Lord is himself spoken of directly as the “thief”. And the metaphor would have had especial resonance for the Christians at Sardis, whose city had twice been conquered as a result of men entering unawares under cover of darkness.

The coming of Christ is spoken of several times in the messages to the seven churches. Sometimes he comes to bring blessing, as in the message to Thyatira: “hold fast… until I come” (Revelation 2:25; cf. 3:11). At other times his coming is in judgement, as in the message to Sardis where the Lord will “come against you” (3:3; cf. 2:5,16). The way in which the double implications of the Lord’s coming are here spelt out is characteristic of the messages of Revelation, which promise blessing for those who are faithful and who are persecuted, but warn of judgement to come for those who turn their backs on their Lord.

And yet the message to Sardis is not an entirely negative one. There is something which “remains” (3:2). Some commentators have suggested a better translation for this phrase is “strengthen those who remain”, an interpretation borne out by the statement in verse 4 that “you have still a few names in Sardis …” Not only are there some individuals who appear to remain faithful. The fact that this message is given at all, that the Lord urges repentance – echoing the imperatives to “remember”, “repent” and “do” in the message to Ephesus (2:5) – means that there is still an opportunity for reform. The Lord’s warning, “if you will not wake up” implies there is still time to do so; and whilst the phrase, “I have not found your works complete” uses the language of judgement, this pronouncement of judgement is not yet the final one.

“They will walk with me in white”

In the book of Zechariah, “filthy garments” are a sign of human sin and the inability of human beings to stand before God on their own terms (Zechariah 3:1-5). In contrast, clean, pure and white clothing are associated with holiness. It seems that the Jewish high priest wore white on the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:4). In Daniel 7 the “Ancient of Days” appears in Daniel’s vision with clothing as “white as snow” (Daniel 7:9); and angels appear in white (see, for example, Matthew 28:3).

The image of white garments may have been particularly used in the message to Sardis because of the city’s association with the wool industry and the manufacture of clothes. Something similar will be seen when we consider the message to the church at Laodicea in a later article. But the primary purpose of this image is to provide a strong moral message to the Christians at Sardis. Those who have not soiled their garments now will be given white garments in the kingdom to come. In the same way, those who walk now in Christ (Colossians 2:6,7) will walk with Christ in his kingdom (Revelation 3:4; cf. 14:4). And those who confess Christ now, will be confessed by him in his kingdom (3:5; cf. Matthew 10:32).

The fact that angels are invariably spoken of as wearing white may be a reason for the choice of the attribute of Christ in the opening verse of this message: “him who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars” (Revelation 3:1). We are told in Revelation 1:20 that the seven stars represent “the angels of the seven churches”, something which was discussed in the article on the message to Smyrna; angels are also referred to again in verse 5 of the message to Sardis. It is more difficult to understand what is referred to by “the seven spirits of God”. Revelation 1:4 speaks of the “seven spirits” before God’s throne, which has led some to identify them with “the seven angels who stand before God” in Revelation 8:2. In this case, they may perhaps be equated with the angels of the seven churches. Alternatively, “the seven spirits of God” are identified in Revelation 5:6 with the “seven eyes” of the Lamb; and they are “sent out into all the earth”. In this case they may symbolise the watchful presence of God, from whom “no creature is hidden” (Hebrews 4:13) – an appropriate reminder for a wayward community like that at Sardis.

As we have seen, there appear to be several allusions to the book of Zechariah in the message to Sardis. The reference to the coming of a thief in the night reminds us of “the day of the Lord”, spoken of in Zechariah 14. The removal of filthy garments and the putting on of clean ones is the subject of Zechariah 3. And the reference to “the seven spirits of God”, which in Revelation 5 are said to be “sent out into all the earth”, may be a reminder of the horsemen of Zechariah 1, “whom the Lord has sent to patrol the earth” (Zechariah 1:10). These allusions may not be coincidental: the book of Zechariah was written at the time of the dominance of Persia, and specifically counteracts many aspects of Persian power. Zechariah’s vision of God’s horsemen, for example, is a deliberate challenge to the Persian horses whose speedy passage across the empire established its centralised control. Sardis was a city whose history had been bound up with the history of the Persian Empire; and the church in Sardis was in particular need of a reminder that it is God, not the Persian or Roman powers, who ultimately rules in the kingdoms of men.

God’s Book of Life is referred to as early as the book of Exodus, where God tells Moses, “Whoever has sinned against me, I will blot out of my book” (Exodus 32:33). The Book recurs throughout the Bible – for example in Psalm 69:27,28 and Philippians 4:3 – and is spoken of as the record in which God preserves forever the names of the righteous. In the classical world, blotting out the name of a criminal from a list of citizens was the first step before his or her execution. The Greek writer Dio Chrysostom explained, using the same Greek word translated “blot … out” in Revelation 3:4: “One reason is that [the criminal] may no longer be considered a citizen when he undergoes such a punishment [of death] … Then too … it is looked upon as not the least part of the punishment itself, that even the appellation should no longer be seen of the man who had gone so far in wickedness, but should be utterly blotted out …” (Chrysostom, Orations, 31.84).

But in the message to Sardis the Lord speaks to those whose names will never be blotted out (Revelation 3:5). Ultimately, this is not a message of fear but of hope. For as Revelation later reminds us, having white garments and walking in Christ does not depend on our own efforts: the ones clothed in white robes are those who “have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (7:14). We hope to be recorded in “the book of life of the Lamb that was slain” (13:8); and it is by his merits and through his grace that we seek to walk in him, until his appearing.

James Andrews

[1] ‘Perfection’ in Matthew 5:48 seems to mean emulating God in unconditional love for one’s enemies. In Matthew 19:21 ‘perfection’ seems to be similarly associated with the practical demonstration of love through generosity to the poor. It may be that the condemnation of the church at Sardis for being less than ‘complete’ or ‘perfect’ carries a similar meaning to the condemnation of the community at Ephesus for having abandoned “the love you had at first” (Revelation 2:4).

 

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