The letters to the seven churches

v] Sardis


In the letter to the church at Sardis, Jesus announces that he is well aware of their reputation, of their being a spirit-filled church, but in actual fact they are a spiritually dead church with only a small core of faithful believers. So, it is time for the church to repent, otherwise it will face divine chastisement. Those who persevere will find their names in "the book of life" and they will be "acknowledged" before God.


i] Context: See 2:1-7.


ii] Background: See 1:1-8. Founded in 1200BC, Sardis stands some forty miles southeast of Thyatira on a high hill in the Hermus basin. The hill has a steep precipice on three sides leading up to Mount Tmolus. This made the city very defensible and enabled it to grow into an important trading center. It was one of the first city states to mint gold and silver coinage. Its power grew to a point where it felt able to challenge the empire of Persia, although Cyrus ended up taking the city by stealth. It later came under the control of Alexander, then Antiochus III in 214BC, and finally Rome. By this time the city was living on its past glory, but none-the-less, it sported magnificent ancient buildings. The temple to Artimis even rivaled the one situated in Ephesus. The city sported a sizable Jewish community with the synagogue renowned as one of the largest in the ancient world. The synagogue was connected to a gymnasium, indicating a convergence of Jewish and Hellenistic life. Hemer in Supplement 11, Shefield JSOT, 1986, argues that this evidences a Jewish accommodation with Hellenistic life which may well have extended to the Christian community. So again, we may be looking at the problem of syncretism.


iii] Structure: The letter to the church in Sardis:


to whom, v1a;

"to the angel of the church in Sardis."

from whom, v1b.

"He who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars"

Analysis of the church:

strengths, ???;

weaknesses, v1c-2.

"a reputation of being alive, but you are dead."


"what you have received and heard; hold it fast and repent", v3-4;


the one who endures is blessed, v5-6


iv] Interpretation:

In the seven letters to the churches, 2:1-3:2, John reveals the not yet reality of the kingdom of God, a kingdom inaugurated, yet to be realized. He lets us see the Christian fellowship warts and all. As it was for the church in the first century, so it is for us. We stand at the crossroads of history, of God's now / not yet reign, compromised in the face of a hostile environment. We have survived to this moment in time between the cross and Christ's return, and if we are to share in God's promised reward we must repent, we must turn around to Christ and renew our faith in him, and then we must press forward in faith, we must endure, persevere, conquer.


The words of Christ to the church is Sardis are the harshest of all the letters to the churches. This is a compromised church, living on the faded glory of a previous time; her only good is a good reputation. To the casual onlooker, this is a flourishing church, but not so as far as Christ is concerned. The church has failed to follow through on its mission for Christ; it has failed to complete. The church "set herself the task of avoiding hardship, by pursuing a policy based on convenience and circumspection, rather than whole-hearted zeal", Kiddle. Yet, the church is not completely dead; there remains a small group of believers who hold their first love, a faith in Christ alone. None-the-less, without repentance the church at Sardis will face divine chastisement by stealth, in the same way as the city itself fell to its enemies. Some commentators think John is referring to the last judgment, although Wilcock thinks that "some more immediate punishment" is in mind. John probably has both a local chastisement and the last judgment in mind. For those who are victorious, who persevere, there is a guaranteed inclusion in the book of life and an acknowledgment before God the Father. The promises are substantial, but the language is not as effusive as the promises made to the other churches.

Text - 3:1a, b

Sardis - a sleeping church, v1a, b: i] Introduction: The letter is introduced in similar form to the previous four, except that the description of the exalted Christ emphasizes his divine authority over the church. This is a church asleep on the watch, and by doing so, they show little regard for the one they serve.

tw/ aggelw/ thV en ... ekklhsiaV grafon. Tade legei "to the angel of the church in [Sardis] write: These are the words ..." See 2:1.

oJ exwn (ecw) "him who holds" - the one having. The participle serves as a substantive, nominative subject of the verb "to say."

tou qeou (oV) gen. "[the seven spirits] of God [and the seven stars]" - The genitive is adjectival, possessive, but Mathewson also suggests source, "from God." Again John uses the number seven to represent completeness / perfection, so this is probably a reference to the complete / perfect "spirit", ie., the Holy Spirit, as in 1:4, see also 5:6; "the Sevenfold Holy Spirit", Osborne. Yet, what of the "seven stars"? John has already mentioned the seven stars held in the right hand of God in 1:16. "And the seven stars" may be "even the seven stars", ie., kai is possibly ascensive, although Smalley argues that it is epexegetic, "namely"; "the seven spirits of God, ie., the seven stars." So, Smelly argues that the stars are nothing but a symbol of the "seven spirits.". Yet, it seems more likely that the seven stars represent the seven angels of the churches, the seven churches in their spiritual reality, their not yet perfection in Christ, although in eternal terms a perfection that is now in Christ. So, the imagery here emphasizes the eternal sovereignty of Christ with respect to the Christian church, both in the ministry of the Holy Sprit, and its eternal standing in Christ.


ii] Analysis of the church: Weaknesses, v1c-2. Here is a church that is lethargic, they have slipped into the lifestyle and belief system of the surrounding pagan culture. Like the guards that twice failed to keep watch over the city of Sardis, allowing an easy capture by their enemies, so the church is no longer watchful, no longer watching to their faith, allowing spiritual lethargy to take hold; they have lost the fire in their belly. Beale thinks that the "unfinished works" relate to evangelism, they are "not witnessing to their faith before the unbelieving culture"; they are compromised by the pressure of pagan society. Unlike Christ, who holds in his hands both the seven spirits and the seven stars, the lampstand of Sardis is but a flickering flame. Osborne takes a more general line when he argues that the incomplete works in the sight of God are more in the nature of "love, faith, service, endurance", etc. Smalley also gives weight to the plural ta erga, "works" arguing that the incomplete / half-hearted nature of the works relate to a lack of "love, faith, ministry and steadfastness", cf. 2:19.

sou gen. pro. "[I know] your [deeds]" - [i know] of you [the works, deeds]. The genitive is usually taken as verbal, subjective, "the works done by you"; "I know what you have done", Phillips. Note that the pronoun proceeds the noun rather than following it. This unusual placement makes the pronoun emphatic.

oJti "-" - that [you have a name]. Here epexegetic, specifying "the works"; "that you have a reputation", Phillips.

oJti "[you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead]" - that [you live and are dead]. Here epexegetic, specifying "a name", their reputation. Taking kai as adversative, their reputation is of a church that is alive, a Spirit filled church, but in reality, it is dead, "nothing more than a corpse", Cassirer. "Just as the city in general was living off a former but no longer existing fame, so the same attitude had infected the church", Beale. The church was spiritually dead and in imminent danger of eternal death.


grhgorwn (grhgorew) pres. part "wake up" - [become] watching. The participle, with the present imperative ginou, "becoming" = "be", forms a periphrastic present emphasizing the durative aspect of the imperative, not so much "be watchful", but "show yourself to be watchful", Mounce, etc. The church has fallen asleep and must wake up and stay awake - "begin living as disciples again." The present tense, being imperfective / durative, gives the sense "be constantly vigilant", Smalley.

sthrison (sthrizw) aor. imp. "strengthen" - strengthen, make firm, support / invigorate, renew [the things remaining]. The aorist is possible ingressive, "start strengthening." This second imperative drives home the point that the church must strengthen the little that has survived of their faith. The ta loipa, "the things remaining", is plural, so the life of the church as a whole???

apoqanein (apoqnhskw) aor. inf. "[about] to die" = [which are about] to die. The infinitive is complementary, completing the sense of the verb "about". Osborne draws out the durative sense of the imperfect mallon, "about", noting that "the process of dying had been going on for some time", but Smalley, also Mathewson, argues that process is not intended here, ie., it is an epistolary imperfect. This irregular classification is somewhat of a stretch so, although "at the point of death" sounds right, probably "strengthen what you still have that is dying", Koester, better reflects an imperfective aspect.

gar "for" - Here more reason than cause, explaining why Christ is calling on the church to "wake up!"

sou gen. pro. "your [deeds]" - [i have not found the works] of you. The genitive is usually treated as verbal, subjective, "I have found that nothing you have done is complete in the eyes of my God", Moffatt, but adjectival, possessive is also possible, they are "your deeds", your doing.

peplhrwmena (plhrow) perf. mid./pas. part. "unfinished" - having been fulfilled, completed. The participle serves as the substantive complement of the object "the works" standing in a double accusative construction; "I have found that you are not completely obeying God", CEV, is a bit nomist, better, "you may look busy, but nothing of God's work has been completed", Peterson.

enwpion + gen. "in the sight of" - before. Spacial, metaphorical; "in the eyes of God", Smalley.

mou gen. pro. "my [God]" - [the god] of me. The genitive is adjectival, relational, but possibly idiomatic / subordination, "over me."


iii] Instruction, v3-4: "what you have received and heard; hold it fast and repent." The instructions to the church come with a warning. This church has compromised the apostolic gospel with secular ideology and so they need to wake up, remind themselves of the foundational truths of the Christian faith, reaffirm them, and restore them to their proper place in the life of the congregation. If they fail to recommit themselves to the apostolic gospel they will be caught out, both in the immediate present, but also in the last day. And it's easy to be caught out because Christ comes in judgment when we least expect it. Thankfully, there is a core of believers, a remnant, who remain true to the gospel. From the perspective of heaven, they even now process in Christ's victory parade.

oun "[remember] therefore" - Inferential, drawing a logical conclusion; "therefore, bear in mind / take to heart (remember) ...."

pwV "what [you received]" - how [you have received and heard]. Here used to introduce an object clause / dependent statement of perception expressing what the readers need to remember, namely, "what you were taught"; "remember, therefore, the teaching you received", REB. Note that the verb "you have received" is perfect, so possibly "what you have received and still hold", Zerwick, although there is some evidence that in the late first century the perfect tense is sometimes used with a punctiliar / perfective aspect, as if an aorist. Note also the reverse order of the action; receive and (then) hear. The same reverse action is used for "keep" and "repent", ie., repentance comes before keeping. The word order is probably used to give emphasis to the receiving that should follow hearing, and the keeping that should follow repentance. This construction is known as a hysteron-proteron, the last first, see Mathewson.

kai "and" - Coordinative, linking the two imperatives, "remember" and "keep / hold" together. The second kai does the same thing, linking "keep / hold" with "repent".

threi (threw) pres. imp. "hold it fast" - keep, hold. "Put into practice", TH. The present tense, being durative, indicates ongoing action, a keep on keeping on. The object is unstated, so possibly "hold to these things", Phillips, ie., the things taught.

metanohson (metanoew) aor. imp. "repent" - [and] repent. The action of this third imperative is perfective, punctiliar. Repentance involves a turning back to God and holding onto him firmly. Thus the expansion "repent and believe." So, this is not a call to feel sorrow for past failures, but a call to action under God to address those failures - try to sort it and don't do it again.

oun "but" - therefore. Inferential, drawing a logical conclusion, the logical conclusion of failing to comply with the three imperatives "remember", "keep" and "repent"; "if, therefore, you do not watch, keep alert, wake up, ....", ie., do not take to heart and hold fast to the apostolic gospel, and do not repent of past failings, then ......

ean + subj. "if" - if as may be the case, [therefore, you do not keep watch, alert, then I will come as a thief ...]. Introducing a third class conditional clause where the stated condition has the possibility of coming true. "Keep alert" usually has the sense of holding firmly to Christ / the faith - firm in belief / faith in Christ, and to what is believed.

wJV "like [a thief]" - as [a thief]. Functioning adverbially as a comparative, "like a thief in the night", Peterson, or modal, "in the manner of," "just as a thief does", CEV. The actions of a thief are clandestine and unexpected; such is the coming of Christ, cf., Matt.24:43-44.

ou mh + subj. "[you will] not [know]" - [and] not not = never [would you know what kind of hour]. Subjunctive of emphatic negation.

poian wJran "what time" - what kind of hour. Adverbial construction, temporal. Virtually an idiomatic phrase meaning "when", with the limiting / qualifying function of the pronoun, poian, "what kind of [hour]" = "at what point of [time]", having lost its force.

epi + acc. "to [you]" - [i will come] upon [you]. Spacial, as NIV, "come upon you", Berkeley, but possibly expressing influence / opposition, "against you", ESV.


alla "yet" - but. Adversative / contrastive.

eceiV (ecw) pres. "you have" - Note the singular, "ye". The words are addressed to the angel of the church at Sardis, not a plural "you", the congregation at Sardis. As already noted, the angel of the church is probably an ideal representation of the church, so the words are ultimately addressed to the congregation as a whole; see Interpretation - a definition of terms, 1:9-20. In addressing the angel, Christ notes that "ye have names is Sardis", ie., the angel has names / believers, they belong to his team. If we follow the interpretation above then Christ's word's to the angel are the same as saying "there are a few in Sardis, ........, who have kept their robes unstained", NJB.

onomata (a atoV) "[a few] people" - [you have a few] names. Accusative direct object of the verb "to have." "Names" = names written in the book of life = "believers". The "name" represents the people, technically classified as a synecdoche where the whole is referred to by a part of the whole.

en + dat. "in [Sardis]" - Local, expressing space.

autwn gen. "their [cloths]" - [which / who do not soil the garments] of them. The genitive is possessive. "Who haven't ruined themselves wallowing in the muck of the world's ways", Peterson.

met (meta) "with [me]" - [they will walk] with [me]. Expressing accompaniment / association.

en + dat. "dressed in [white]" - Here adverbial, modal, expressing the manner of the walk; "dressed in white clothing", Cassirer. White clothing simply images purity, and thus their right to "walk with" Christ; they are worthy to do so. What makes them "worthy" is not stated, but in the end whatever worth we may have in God's sight is a gift of grace through faith in that one and only worthy man, Christ himself. So, spiritual purity rather than moral purity, although those pure in Christ tend to strive toward moral purity. Ramsay, in Letters to the Seven Churches, 1912, noted that those who follow in the Emperor's victory parade wore a white toga. John may be drawing on this image. So probably, the faithful remnant of believers processing before the victorious Son of God.

oJti "for [they are worthy]" - because [they are worthy]. Introducing a causal clause explaining why they are able to walk in white clothing; "because they deserve to do so", Barclay.


iv] Promise, v5-6. Depending on how one reads this verse, there are two, or three promises; two seems more likely. The victorious ones, those who are ou{twn, "like" the faithful remnant in Sardis who have not soiled their cloths and who are therefore included in Christ victory parade, the worthy ones, the ones clothed in white robes, will (promise 1) never be blotted out of the book of life and will (promise 2) be acknowledged by Christ before the Father.

oJ nikwn (nikaw) pres. part. "the one who is victorious" - the one conquering. The participle serves as a substantive.

ou{twV adv. "like [them]" - like / in similar manner / thus (ESV) [will be clothed in white garments]. This forward referencing demonstrative adverb serves as a comparative here, "like", but possibly a touch modal, "in like manner to."

ou mh + fut. "[I will] never [blot out]" - [i will] not not = never [wipe out, erase the name of him]. Here the future tense is used for a subjunctive of emphatic negation. The clause is technically classified as a litotes where a negated statement is used to express a positive. A person's "name" serves to represent their person, although here the imagery is of a believer's name inscribe in the book of the saved, never to be erased - written in indelible ink and so never disenfranchised. Note Caird's argument on "conditional predestination." The names have been in the book of life "since the foundation of the world", Rev.17:8, but it is only the "victorious" whose names are not erased. Although unacceptable to both sides of this debate, the truth lies in the tension between divine sovereignty and human freewill, ie., truth is lateral, not linear. Yes indeed, the Lord compiled the list before the creation of the world, and some years ago I asked the Lord to put my name on it, and he did! Work that out! And my name is guaranteed to stay on the list, unless of course, I want him to take it off, ie., if I decide to no longer persevere in faith - but to whom shall I go? "You have the words of eternal life", Jn.6:68.

ek + gen. "from" - Expressing separation.

thV ZwhV (h) gen. "[the book] of life" - The genitive is adjectival, attributive, limiting "the book." The image of a "book of life" is drawn from the OT were a register of the faithful is referred to, cf., Exodus, 32:32-33, Dan.12:1. The idea is also found in the NT, eg., Heb.12:23. The idea is a judicial one - the image of Peter at the gate of heaven checking whether a person's name is written in the book.

enwpion + gen. "before [my Father]" - [and i will confess the name of him] before [the father of me and] before [the angels of him]. Spacial, metaphorical. The acknowledgment of the "victorious" before the Father "in the presence of the angels", Smalley, is both eschatological and forensic in nature. On earth, believers may face trouble upon trouble, but in heaven, the status of a believer is acknowledged before the celestial court of the Ancient of Days.


oJ ecwn (ecw) pres. part. "whoever has [ears]" - the one having [ears let him hear what the spirit says to the churches]. See 2:7.


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