By Chuck Griffin
As bad as it was to hear the warnings for Pergamum and Thyatira, I find Christ’s pronouncement regarding the Christians at Sardis more chilling. “You are dead” has a tone of finality to it.
The city of Sardis was commercially and militarily important, and was famous for its elaborate nearby necropolis, a “city of the dead” cemetery built on hills within view of Sardis proper. No doubt the image of the necropolis floated in the church members’ minds as they heard their letter read aloud.
As I was meditating on this letter, I thought of Jesus’ pronouncement against the Jewish leaders of his day:
What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs—beautiful on the outside but filled on the inside with dead people’s bones and all sorts of impurity. Outwardly you look like righteous people, but inwardly your hearts are filled with hypocrisy and lawlessness.Matthew 23:27-28
What a terrible thing for a church or an individual: to have the appearance of religion—perhaps even a great history of ministry—but for it all to collapse into spiritual death. As a modern analogy, I think of beautiful buildings I have seen, stained glass and spires intact, but no Spirit-driven Christians left inside to do the work of the kingdom.
Of course, Jesus remains at the heart of these events. With Jesus, death does not have to be an end, and he indicated as much as he spoke to the church at Sardis. There was a tiny remnant clinging to the faith, and they had the potential to trigger new life in the church.
Now my mind goes to Mark 5:41. To the lifeless little girl, Jesus said, “Talitha koum.” Little girl, get up!
Church, wake up! Church, rise up!
And as we arise, as we awaken, being like the church at Philadelphia becomes our goal. Nothing could rattle their faith. Literally. The place was so earthquake prone that people after A.D. 17 preferred to live in the rural spaces around the city, away from where walls might collapse.
The Philadelphia Christians had little in the way of worldly strength, but they remained faithful, so much so that Christ promised their door to eternal life would always be open. Like the church at Smyrna, the difficult circumstances of their world translated into a rich life with Christ, a relationship destined for eternity.
Lord, renew our lives as children of God; renew our churches as places filled with your Holy Spirit. Amen.