WAKE UP!! That’s the message of Revelation 3:1–6. Open your eyes and wake up!
This message, of course, is not unique to Revelation 3:1–6. When Christ was in the flesh, carrying out His earthly ministry, He spoke similar words. “Watch, therefore, for you do not know what hour your Lord is coming” (Matthew 24:42). “Therefore you also be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect” (Matthew 24:44).
Paul also spoke of such things. He writes in 1 Thessalonians 5:1-6, “But concerning the times and the seasons, brethren, you have no need that I should write to you. For you yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so comes as a thief in the night. For when they say, ‘Peace and safety!’ then sudden destruction comes upon them, as labor pains upon a pregnant woman. And they shall not escape. But you, brethren, are not in darkness, so that this Day should overtake you as a thief. You are all sons of light and sons of the day. We are not of the night nor of darkness. Therefore let us not sleep, as others do, but let us watch and be sober.”
Peter also spoke of such things. In 2 Peter 3:10, he writes, “But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night, in which the heavens will pass away with a great noise, and the elements will melt with fervent heat; both the earth and the works that are in it will be burned up.”
This message from the mouth of Christ, from the pen of the Apostle Paul, as well as that of the Apostle Peter, is now spoken in Revelation 3:1-6 from the mouth of the One who walks in the midst of the Lampstands. This message, then, is the great message to the Church in the world as she lives between Christ’s first coming and His return.
The City of Sardis
Such a message was fitting for the church in Sardis. The city was located on the precipice of a high hill at the foot of Mt. Tmolus, where the Hermus and Pactolus rivers intersect. Because of its prime location with its natural defenses, Sardis quickly gained the reputation of being a fortress, a citadel. In fact, large walls were erected all around the city, enabling the inhabitants of the city to fend off any would-be attackers with relative ease.
You can imagine the attitude that developed in such a place: an attitude of arrogance, pride, complacency, smugness, and sleepiness. What danger could possibly befall this fortress? What peril could possibly befall this citadel?
Sardis was a strong-hold. No danger could befall this fortress. No peril could befall this citadel. Sardis was safe. Or so the inhabitants thought! Sardis was a city that had become complacent and lethargic. It was a city that had deceived itself into a false comfort and had lulled itself to sleep. The Church in Sardis had followed suit. She too was infected by the complacency of the city.
The Danger in Sardis
While we read of the presence of false apostles in Ephesus, of the synagogue of Satan in Smyrna, of the throne of Satan in Pergamum, and of the false doctrines of Jezebel in Thyatira, we read of no such thing in the church of Sardis. There seems to be no immediate threat of persecution. There seems to be no immediate threat of false teachers.
The church in Sardis seemed to have it pretty good. In fact, Jesus Himself says of the church in Sardis, “I know your works, that you have a name that you are alive…” (3:1). In the eyes of the world, the church in Sardis appeared to be very much alive. It appeared to be a vibrant and healthy church. It seemed that there was no danger facing this church. In reality, however, there was great danger! Jesus says, “I know your works, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead.”
The church in Sardis, though it had the reputation of being alive, was dead. “Peace, peace!” the people cried out, when there was no peace. As William Hendriksen put it, the only peace that the church in Sardis knew was the peace of the cemetery! The church had fallen into a lethargic complacency. The church had fallen asleep, leaving her unprepared for the coming of Christ.
Lest this article lull you to sleep, let me remind you once again that this letter to the church in Sardis is every bit as relevant to us today as it was to them in the 1st century. Recall that the letters to the seven churches of Revelation 2–3 provide us with a composite picture of the church in the world from the first coming of Christ to the second coming of Christ. In these letters, we have a picture of the church in the world as she exists from the time of Christ’s first coming to the time of Christ’s second coming. These letters, then, tell the story of the time in which we presently live and describe the church in the world today. We dare not comfort ourselves by saying, “this letter was written to a different church – a church in the 1st century - therefore it has no bearing upon us, it has no bearing upon me.” This letter was written to us.
This is a most sobering letter. Is not the plague of lethargic complacency a constant threat to the church? Are we not always in danger of forgetting that we are called to be in the world but not of the world? Are we not always in danger of forgetting the great antithesis between the church and the world? Are we not always in danger of compromise in order to make ourselves comfortable in the world?
If an unbeliever were to walk into your church, what would he see? Would he see more of that which he can find in the world? Or would he see something so different, so utterly unique, that he realizes immediately there is something here that the world does not have! He ought to be confronted with the presence of God’s holiness. He ought to be confronted with the reality of his sin. He ought to be confronted with the Lord Jesus Christ. He ought to have set before him that which the world can never give and that which the church alone can give: the Gospel of Jesus Christ – that Gospel that alone will prepare him for the return of Christ.
The church is not a country club! She is not a social club! She is not the Lion’s Club! She is not the Rotary Club! She is not the Kiwanis Club! We cannot allow ourselves a lethargic complacency that degenerates into little more than a happy, go-lucky, feel-good group of people. We cannot allow ourselves a sleepiness that degenerates into little more than a warm fuzzy feeling when we come to church. We cannot allow ourselves to slumber so deeply that we would embrace the easy-believism that is all too prevalent in our society today – an easy-believism that sugar-coats the gospel and makes everybody and his brother a Christian – an easybelievism that conveniently forgets the exclusive claims of the Word of God - an easy-believism that says “you can be a Christian and be comfortable in the world” – an easybelievism that forgets the gospel! We cannot allow the church to fall into such a slumber.
The Warning to Sardis
Look again at the warning of our passage. It is found in verses 2–3,
Be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die, for I have not found your works perfect before God. Remember therefore how you have received and heard; hold fast and repent. Therefore if you will not watch, I will come upon you as a thief, and you will not know what hour I will come upon you.
“Like a thief in the night…” Jesus spoke these words before in Matthew 24. Paul spoke these words before in 1 Thessalonians 5. Peter spoke these words before in 2 Peter 3. Jesus speaks them now with greater urgency then ever before. Though the message is the same in each passage, did you note the subtle differences? When Jesus speaks of the second coming in Matthew 24 and 25, He is speaking in the flesh, and each time He refers to Himself in the third person. “You do not know what hour your Lord is coming.” “The Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.” “You know neither the day nor the hour in which the Son of Man is coming.” When Paul speaks of the second coming in 1Thessalonians 5, he speaks of it in rather impersonal terms, “the day of the Lord so comes as a thief in the night.” When Peter speaks of the second coming in 2 Peter 3, he too speaks of it in rather impersonal terms, “the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night.”
Each of these warnings is urgent, but how much more urgent is the warning of Revelation 3:1-6. Notice here Jesus speaks in the most personal of terms. He doesn’t say, “The Son of Man is coming.” He doesn’t say, “The day of the Lord is coming.” He says, “I will come upon you as a thief in the night!” Christ knows full well that the next great event in the history of redemption is His return to judge the living and the dead! Thus the urgency of the warning!
Perhaps you think the warning does not apply to you. After all, you believe and hold to the perseverance of the saints. You know on the basis of Romans 8 that nothing can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus. You are secure, and so the warning does not apply.
Let me assure you, the warning applies to each one of us! Consider verses 4–5.
You have a few names even in Sardis who have not defiled their garments; and they shall walk with Me in white, for they are worthy. He who overcomes shall be clothed in white garments, and I will not blot out his name from the Book of Life; but I will confess his name before My Father and before His angels.
To those who overcome Christ promises garments of white. He promises that He will not blot their names out of the Book of Life.
The fact that those who overcome shall not be blotted out of the Book of Life, serves not to call into question the salvation of the elect, but to warn. As one commentator has put it: “The warning causes genuine believers, especially those wavering, to examine their lives, amend them accordingly, and gain subsequent assurance through a changed life. False believers, however, remain untroubled.” True Christians will be separated from false Christians: those whose “faith” was a sham will be revealed. Those who have not a true and living faith, who are false Christians, will not heed the warning; and in the end they will show themselves for what they are. But those whose faith is true and living, will heed the warning. True faith proves its genuineness by holding firmly to Christ, in whose garments they are clothed.
Do you understand? This warning says something of the nature of true faith. True faith is not merely an instrument by which we believe so that some day we can get to heaven. It is much more than that. True faith is the instrument by which we lay hold of Christ, and laying hold of Christ, we lay hold of heaven already now. True faith does not allow one to fall asleep, thereby becoming comfortable in the world. True faith longs for heaven. True faith longs for Christ. The means by which we stay awake, not defiling our garments, is this: we have a faith that lays hold of Christ, and laying hold of Christ, we lay hold of heaven - the very heaven into which Christ Himself has gone before us - the very heaven in which He is now preparing a place for us.
True faith will prove itself to be so, by paying attention to the warning. True faith will prove itself to be so, by waking up and watching, prepared always for the return of Christ. Is such faith yours?!
He who has ears to hear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
Rev. Brian Vos is the pastor of the Trinity United Reformed Church in Caledonia, Michigan.