Revelation 2 begins a series of brief letters to seven churches in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey) that existed during the apostle John’s time. Each of these messages includes specific information for each church, and there are lessons in each letter for believers today. The fifth letter is to the church in Sardis (Revelation 3:1-6). Sardis was one of the oldest and best defended cities in the region and the wealthy capital of the ancient kingdom of Lydia.
The message to Sardis is from the Lord Jesus Christ through an angel or messenger (possibly a reference to the pastor): “To the angel of the church in Sardis write . . .” (Revelation 3:1). This was not John’s message to the church at Sardis; it was a message from the Lord. The description at the end of verse 1 further verifies the author: “These are the words of him who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars.” Only Jesus has the seven spirits (or “seven-fold Spirit,” meaning the complete or perfect Spirit of God), and only Jesus holds the seven stars, i.e., the seven angels (or pastors) of the seven churches (Revelation 1:20).
Jesus quickly and clearly condemns the lifeless state of the Sardian church: “I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead” (Revelation 3:2). This church may have had a good reputation, but they were spiritually lifeless. In other words, the church was filled with unsaved people going through the motions of religion. There were many tares among the wheat (Matthew 13:24-30).
Jesus then calls them to repent of their sin: “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 received and heard; obey it, and repent” (Revelation 3:2-3a). To “wake up” means to start paying attention to their need of salvation, to stop being careless about their heart’s condition before God.
Jesus notes the judgment that would take place if they did not repent: “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” (Revelation 3:3b). A dead church, and one unrepentant in its deadness, will be disciplined by Jesus Himself.
After the warning, Jesus encourages those in Sardis who had remained faithful: “Yet you have still a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes. They will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy” (Revelation 3:4). The faithful remnant had not soiled their garments (participated in sin). They are “worthy.” The idea of walking worthily is also found in Paul’s teaching in Ephesians 4:1; Colossians 1:10; and 1 Thessalonians 2:12. To be “worthy” is to “match up” with something—the profession of faith in the mouth matches the reality of faith in the heart. The faithful ones are promised to walk with Jesus in white (see Matthew 22:11-12; Revelation 19:8).
Jesus makes a final promise to the believers in Sardis: “He who overcomes will, like them, be dressed in white. I will never blot out his name from the book of life, but will acknowledge his name before my Father and his angels” (Revelation 3:5). The one who “overcomes” is anyone who is born again (1 John 5:4). The overcomer will receive a white garment (a token of righteousness), he will never have his name removed from the book of life (a promise of eternal security), and he will be confessed by Jesus in heaven (cf. Luke 12:8).