SPIRITUAL LETHARGY CALLS FOR REVIVAL — FOR THE BELIEVING REMNANT TO WAKE UP AND STRENGTHEN WHAT REMAINS
Grant Osborne: One would hope that there are few churches like Sardis today, but there are many. Lack of spiritual vigilance in a secular world is as prevalent today (perhaps more so) as it was in John’s day. It is easy to get so caught up in the things of this life that we lose sight of the fact that only Christ controls the “stars”/churches. That is the heart of watchfulness, to acknowledge the supremacy of Christ in everything. Many churches, even entire denominations, have so compromised their beliefs and practices by accommodating to the fads of intelligentsia or the ways of the world that they have virtually ceased to be Christian. Every passage on the return of Christ in the NT (e.g., Rom. 13:11; James 5:8; 1 Pet. 4:7; 1 John 2:18) makes the point of living life from the perspective of future accountability to God. In such churches the righteous few, as here, must stand up and be counted. They must consider themselves missionaries to their own church and wake up those who are about to die while there is still time. In fact, they are responsible before God to do so.
Robert Thomas: In a sense this message is not too different from the one to Ephesus. To both churches He introduces Himself as one who holds (or holds fast) the seven stars, both churches are said to have fallen from a former position (though the decline at Ephesus was of a much smaller degree) (cf. 2:5; 3:3), both are invited to remember and repent (2:5; 3:3), and the overcomers in both receive promises of “life” (2:7; 3:5) (Hemer). A better, though not altogether satisfying, explanation is to see in Christ’s self-description of this fifth message a reference to the adequacy of the life-giving Spirit to resolve the problem of the deadness of the Sardian church.16 Christ, the life-giver (cf. Rev. 1:18), imparts life through the Spirit (cf. Rom. 8:2). In accord with the Holy Spirit’s procession from the Son (cf. John 15:26), it is Christ’s part to bestow or withhold the powers of the life-giving Spirit on which the life of the church depends (cf. Acts 2:33; Eph. 4:7-8) (Swete). His power is sufficient to meet every need, even to the point of restoring life to those about to die (Hemer). This view cannot account for why no specific reference to life is found in the introduction, but its concept of the implication of such is supported by the position of contemporary Judaism that the two chief works of the Spirit were the inspiration of prophecy and the quickening of the dead (Beasley-Murray).
Buist Fanning: Jesus rebukes most of the church in Sardis for their spiritual lethargy and commands them to wake up or face his judgment, but the faithful few among them will experience holiness with him forever. . .
The message to the church in Sardis is almost entirely negative, and this seems to cause departure from the general structure. The church’s deplorable spiritual condition is presented in vv. 1c–2 with fierce irony, prompting several imperatives prior to the actual exhortation section. The exhortation itself begins with “so” (οὖν) as is common and includes several further demands for action, yet also includes a reassuring promise about future blessing (vv. 3–4) that is normally included later in other messages. In the conclusion (vv. 5–6) the promise to the overcomer continues with the theme of blessing as well as further assurance for the minority in Sardis who prove faithful.
Gordon Fee: Indeed, perhaps the most striking thing about this letter, especially for those who are reading the letters in sequence, is this reversal of the order of things. Up to now there has been commendation or praise, followed by judgment; here that is reversed: judgment followed by commendation.
Robert Mounce: The church at Sardis comes under the most severe denunciation of the seven. Apparently untroubled by heresy and free from outside opposition, it had so completely come to terms with its pagan environment that although it retained the outward appearance of life, it was spiritually dead. Like the fig tree of Mark 11:20 it had leaves but no fruit.
Daniel Akin: Spiritual lethargy and compromise will bring destruction to a church, but Christ is faithful to graciously call those who will hear back to faithfulness and life.
G.K. Beale: Christ condemns the church in Sardis for its lack of witness and its compromise and exhorts it to overcome this in order to inherit the blessings of salvation. . . The likelihood is that the Christians in Sardis had for the most part fallen into a stupor of compromise and fear of the consequences of a bold witness for Christ.
James Hamilton: Jesus, the one who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars that seem to symbolize God’s watchful and empowering presence, calls the church in Sardis to wake up and strengthen what remains.
(:1a) PROLOGUE – THE SOVEREIGN LORD CAN EMPOWER REVIVAL
A. Command to Write to Church at Sardis
“And to the angel of the church in Sardis write:”
David Thompson: Each church has a specific angel assigned to that church. Walter Scott said that he believed that this angel was responsible for the oversight of the entire ministry and history of the church (Revelation, p. 92). What that would mean is that this specific angelic being would work in harmony with Jesus Christ in regard to what the specific church becomes and what it accomplishes.
William Barclay: The archaeologist Sir William Ramsay said of Sardis that nowhere was there a greater example of the melancholy contrast between past splendour and present decay. Sardis was a city of degeneration. . .
When John wrote his letter to Sardis, it was wealthy but degenerate. Even the once great citadel was now only an ancient monument on the hilltop. There was no life or spirit there. The once great Sardians were soft, and twice they had lost their city because they were too lazy to keep watch. In that atmosphere so lacking in energy or concern, the Christian church too had lost its vitality and was a corpse instead of a living church.
John MacArthur: Though the details are not recorded in Scripture, the church at Sardis was probably founded as an outreach of Paul’s ministry at Ephesus (Acts 19:10). The most prominent person from the church at Sardis known to history is Melito. He was an apologist (one who wrote in defense of Christianity) who served as bishop of Sardis in the late second century. He also wrote the earliest known commentary on passages from Revelation. The letter does not speak of persecution (why would Satan bother to persecute a dead church?), false doctrine, false teachers, or corrupt living. Yet some combination of those things was obviously present at Sardis, since the church had died. . .
Sardis was located about thirty miles south of Thyatira in the fertile valley of the Hermus River. A series of spurs or hills jutted out from the ridge of Mount Tmolus, south of the Hermus River. On one of those hills, some fifteen hundred feet above the valley floor, stood Sardis. Its location made the city all but impregnable. The hill on which Sardis was built had smooth, nearly perpendicular rock walls on three sides. Only from the south could the city be approached, via a steep, difficult path. The one drawback to an otherwise ideal site was that there was limited room for the city to expand. Eventually, as Sardis grew, a new city sprang up at the foot of the hill. The old site remained a refuge to retreat into when danger threatened.
Its seemingly impregnable location caused the inhabitants of Sardis to become overconfident. That complacency eventually led to the city’s downfall. Through carelessness, the unimaginable happened: Sardis was conquered. The news of its downfall sent shock waves through the Greek world. Even in John’s day, several centuries later, a proverbial saying equated “to capture the acropolis of Sardis” with “to do the impossible” (Colin J. Hemer, The Letters to the Seven Churches of Asia in Their Local Setting [Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1986], 133). Dr. Robert L. Thomas relates the account of Sardis’s fall:
Despite an alleged warning against self-satisfaction by the Greek god whom he consulted, Croesus the king of Lydia initiated an attack against Cyrus king of Persia, but was soundly defeated. Returning to Sardis to recoup and rebuild his army for another attack, he was pursued quickly by Cyrus who laid siege against Sardis. Croesus felt utterly secure in his impregnable situation atop the acropolis and foresaw an easy victory over the Persians who were cornered among the perpendicular rocks in the lower city, an easy prey for the assembling Lydian army to crush. After retiring one evening while the drama was unfolding, he awakened to discover that the Persians had gained control of the acropolis by scaling one-by-one the steep walls (549 B. C.). So secure did the Sardians feel that they left this means of access completely unguarded, permitting the climbers to ascend unobserved. It is said that even a child could have defended the city from this kind of attack, but not so much as one observer had been appointed to watch the side that was believed to be inaccessible.
History repeated itself more than three and a half centuries later when Antiochus the Great conquered Sardis by utilizing the services of a sure-footed mountain climber from Crete (195 B. C.). His army entered the city by another route while the defenders in careless confidence were content to guard the one known approach, the isthmus of land connected to Mount Tmolus on the south. (Revelation 1–7: An Exegetical Commentary [Chicago: Moody, 1992], 241)
J. Hampton Keathley, III: Sardis was a city exceedingly fabled for its past wealth and splendor, but it had deteriorated greatly. Its greatness lay in the past. Sardis had, at one time, been considered to be impregnable because of its ideal physical arrangement and topography for defense. It sat on a hill or mountain surrounded by steep cliffs almost impossible to scale with only one narrow way of approach. Yet Sardis had been attacked and conquered twice because of its arrogance manifested in its lack of watchfulness (3:2-3). The city was also famous for its woolen, textile, and jewelry industry.
Sardis was devoted to the worship of the mother-goddess Cybele and no temple worshipper was allowed to approach the temple of the gods with soiled or unclean garments. A white and clean robe was required to approach its so-called gods. Yet note the following account of the actual moral conditions of this idolatry. Andrew Tate writes,
Her worship was of the most debasing character and orgies like those of Dionysos were practiced at the festivals held in her honour. Sins of the foulest and darkest impurity were committed on those occasions; and when we think of a small community of Christians rescued from such abominable idolatry, living in the midst of scenes of the grossest depravity, with early associations, and companionships, and connections, all exerting a force in the direction of heathenism, it may be wondered that the few members of the church in Sardis were not drawn away altogether, and swallowed up in the great vortex.
B. Characterization of Christ Who Alone Can Empower Revival
“He who has the seven Spirits of God, and the seven stars,”
J. Hampton Keathley, III: “The seven Spirits of God” is a reference to the Holy Spirit who proceeds from the Father and the Son to the believer (John 7:37-39; 15:16, 26). He is the Son’s gift to enable believers to experience genuine spirituality through the multiple ministries and work of the Spirit symbolized here in the number seven which is a clear allusion to the seven-fold ministries of the Spirit mentioned in Isaiah 11:2-5. But believers have a responsibility to walk by the Spirit who indwells them. The responsibility is to walk by faith in His enabling power and to deal with the sin in their lives through honest confession or they will hinder (grieve and quench) the work of the Spirit. So part of the problem was the believers in the church at Sardis were grieving and quenching the ministry of the Holy Spirit (Eph. 4:30; 1 Thess. 5:19).
Buist Fanning: The description of Christ who speaks (v. 1b) comes from the vision of 1:16, 20 (“who has . . . the seven stars”; cf. also 2:1) but also from 1:4 (“the seven spirits of God”). The Trinitarian motif in 1:4–5 shows that “seven spirits” is a figurative way to describe the Holy Spirit in his fullness (in an allusion to Isa 11:2 and Zech 4:6, 10). To say that Christ “has” or possesses the Spirit is the common idiom for the Spirit’s empowering presence and activity in someone’s life (Rom 8:9; 1 Cor 6:19; 7:40; 2 Cor 4:13; Jude 19). To add “and the seven stars” shows that his authority over the angels of the churches (see 1:20; 2:1) is infused with the Spirit’s full power as he oversees and exhorts the churches through these angelic mediators. This is quite relevant in the call for revival of true spiritual vitality and holiness in the message that follows (vv. 1b–2, 4).
William Barclay: He is the one who has the seven stars. The stars stand for the churches and their angels. The Church is the possession of Jesus Christ. People often act as if the Church belonged to them; but it belongs to Jesus Christ, and all its members are his servants. In any decision regarding the Church, the decisive factor must be not what any individual wants the Church to do but what Jesus Christ desires to be done.
C. Communication from the Sovereign Head of the Church
Authoritative word from the Head of the Church
I. (:1b-2) CRITICISM FOR SELF-DECEIVED DEADNESS
A. Rebuke for Spiritual Lethargy and False Security
“I know your deeds, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead.”
David Thompson: From Christ’s assessment, this church had a very serious deception problem. It had a Divine name or title that it was a church that was alive, but they did not have real spiritual life or power. They had a reputation without reality. They were superficial. There was a huge contrast between what the people continually said and projected and what Jesus Christ knew and saw.
Buist Fanning: The lofty opinion they had of themselves—and assumed that others shared—is summarily contradicted by Christ. They were purportedly spiritually healthy and vigorous (“alive”), but in reality they had no life from God, as genuine Christians have (John 3:36; 5:24; 6:53; 20:21); they were “dead” (cf. Eph 2:1–2). As Christ assessed their conduct, he saw mainly empty claims to Christian commitment without the fruit of transformed lives to confirm its inward reality (Rev 3:2b; cf. John 14:21, 23; Eph 2:10; Jas 2:14, 20; 1 John 2:3–6, 29; 3:9–10). They were Christian in name only. This is the start of a wordplay using “name” as a theme in this letter (ὄνομα is used 4x in Rev 3:1–6). The occurrence in v. 1b (“reputation”) departs from the almost uniform biblical usage that “name” reflects the reality of the person, but later uses return to that pattern.
Daniel Akin: Looks can be deceiving. A body that from all outward appearances seems strong and healthy can, on closer inspection, be found to be racked with cancer or some other terminal disease. Our Lord performs a battery of spiritual tests on the church at Sardis. He subjects her to a divine CAT-scan, MRI, and X-ray. The diagnosis is far worse than any external, superficial examination could have ever revealed: she is dead! They were a zombie church!
John MacArthur: Because the Sardis church was dead, Christ skipped the usual commendation for the moment and went directly to His concerns for it. Though its outward appearance may have fooled men (it had a name, or reputation of being alive), the Sardis church could not fool the omniscient Lord Jesus Christ, who knew its deeds. With His infallible knowledge, He pronounced the Sardis church to be dead. Like so many churches today it was defiled by the world, characterized by inward decay, and populated by unredeemed people playing church. . .
What are the danger signs that a church is dying? A church is in danger when it is content to rest on its past laurels, when it is more concerned with liturgical forms than spiritual reality, when it focuses on curing social ills rather than changing people’s hearts through preaching the life-giving gospel of Jesus Christ, when it is more concerned with material than spiritual things, when it is more concerned with what men think than what God said, when it is more enamored with doctrinal creeds and systems of theology than with the Word of God, or when it loses its conviction that every word of the Bible is the word of God Himself. No matter what its attendance, no matter how impressive its buildings, no matter what its status in the community, such a church, having denied the only source of spiritual life, is dead.
J. Hampton Keathley, III: This is a warning. A church is in danger of death:
- when it begins to worship its own past or history, its reputation or name, or the names in the church,
- when it is more concerned with forms than with function and life,
- when it is more concerned with numbers and noses, than with the spiritual quality of life it is producing in its people,
- when it is more involved with management than with ministry or with the physical over the spiritual.
This illustrates the problem of institutionalism in the church, but today, we also have a new scenario that can be a part of this picture, the megachurch which has become a part of American jargon with megabucks, megatrends, and the megamall. Our megamalls have been styled as “cathedrals of consumption” because they are designed to feed the consumer appetites of our lifestyle today. But if we are not careful, churches can become “cathedrals of consumption” as well.
B. Remedy of Revival
- Wake Up
Grant Osborne: vv. 2-3 – Five imperatives occur in these verses, all of them focusing on the need for spiritual vigilance. The church is like the city. Twice before, the city had fallen because the watchmen were not on the walls and assailants had climbed the cliffs to let in invaders. The church is being rebuked for the same lack of vigilance.
Warren Wiersbe: Our Lord’s counsel to the church began with, “Be watchful! Wake up!” (see Rom. 13:11ff.) The “sentries” were asleep! The first step toward renewal in a dying church is honest awareness that something is wrong. When an organism is alive, there is growth, repair, reproduction, and power; if these elements are lacking in a church, then that church is either dying or already dead.
Ladd: This admonition suggests that the church was not yet entirely beyond hope. It was not too late to awaken from spiritual lethargy; there still remained a residuum of life which could be revived. But unless such a revival occurs, this small remainder will also fall subject to spiritual death.
Van Parunak: γίνου γρηγορῶν, become watchful. Wake up from your lethargy. Recognize the spiritual foes that you face, the temptations to compromise with the fornication and idolatry promoted by emperor worship and the trade guilds. Remember that your city fell twice because the defenders were careless. If the Sardians had been watchful, neither Cyrus not Antiochus could have conquered them, so strong was their natural position. Spiritually, in the Lord Jesus, we have a strong fortress:
Psa. 18:2 The LORD is my rock, and my fortress, and my deliverer; my God, my strength, in whom I will trust; my buckler, and the horn of my salvation, and my high tower.
But the history of Sardis should remind them that even the strong citadel of a sovereign God cannot defend those who are careless and do not watch against Satan’s attacks. We usually think of exhortations to watchfulness in reference to the unknown time of the Lord’s return:
Matt. 24:42 Watch therefore: for ye know not what hour your Lord doth come.
But the history of Sardis, whose lack of watchfulness led twice to enemy victory, suggests that the exhortation here is to being on guard against the devil:
1Pet. 5:8 Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour.
- Work Urgently
“and strengthen the things that remain, which were about to die;”
Daniel Akin: They had grown content with a mediocre, halfway, comfortable, and convenient Christianity. Their faith was not radical; it was almost invisible. The lost among whom they lived, worked, and prayed saw nothing different or unique about them. The culture did not oppose them; it simply ignored them as of no real consequence or significance. They were so weak in their confession of Christ that they bothered no one. Like the unfinished temple of Cybele in their city, they too were incomplete in what Christ saved them and called them to be.
J. Hampton Keathley, III: Strengthen is an aorist imperative of the verb sthrizw which means “to strengthen, make stable, firm.” The aspect of the verb (an aorist imperative in the Greek) carries the idea of urgency like, do it now, before it is too late. This is basically a command to get with God’s plan for spiritual stabilization and strength. And what is that? A life in the Word. If you have any doubt about that, spend some time reading and meditating on Psalm 119.
Note the following verses where sthrizw is used:
(1) Romans 1:11, compare this with Luke 22:32 (Christ’s warning and command to Peter) and John 21:15-17. Here is the principle of pastors and teachers strengthening believers by feeding the lambs and the sheep with the Word.
(2) Romans 16:25-26. Here we have the principle of believers receiving the Word in the assembly as well as from personal study.
Warren Wiersbe: The warning here is that we not grow comfortable in our churches, lest we find ourselves slowly dying. The encouragement is that no church is beyond hope as long as there is a remnant in it, willing to strengthen the things that remain.
C. Reality Contradicting Their Lack of Awareness
“for I have not found your deeds completed in the sight of My God.”
Buist Fanning: The reason (“for,” γάρ) they must wake up and strengthen any remaining traces of life is that according to Christ’s assessment their present spiritual condition falls far short in God’s view, however satisfactory it may be in their self-estimation (v. 1d). God’s evaluation is that their “works” (i.e., conduct in general; cf. 2:2; 3:1c) are not adequate, that is, “fulfilled” (πεπληρωμένα) or accomplished to a degree reflective of genuine Christian life.16 The rest of the New Testament warns of the absence of conduct that confirms a claim of genuine life from God
(e.g., Matt 7:21–23; Jas 2:14; 1 John 3:17–19; 4:20). Faith is what overcomes, but genuine faith is seen in behavior that shows forth the new life that is within.
Richard Phillips: Jesus complains, “I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God” (Rev. 3:2). The word for complete (Greek, pleroo) is elsewhere used by John to mean “full” (see John 3:29; 16:24). While their works may have been spiritually impressive to men, in God’s sight they were empty of substance. This may involve a reference to a gigantic temple to Artemis begun in Sardis but never finished. In the Old Testament, God rejected blemished lambs offered for sacrifice (Lev. 1:3; Deut. 15:21). Likewise, Christ saw that the religion in Sardis was empty of real devotion or thanks to God.
II. (:3) WARNING TO WAKE UP AND REPENT OR FACE JUDGMENT
“Remember therefore what you have received and heard;”
William Barclay: It is a fact of life that certain things sharpen memory which has grown dull. When, for instance, we return to a graveside, the sorrow from which the years have taken the edge grows piercingly poignant again. Time and time again, Christians must stand before the cross and remember again what God has done for them.
Richard Phillips: The people were, of course, to remember the gospel truths that had brought them salvation. They were also to remember Jesus himself, the grace of his salvation, and the power for new life he gives through the ministry of the Holy Spirit. This is probably the significance of the opening words of this letter: “The words of him who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars” (3:1). Jesus holds in his hand the manifold gifts and graces of the Holy Spirit—this is the meaning of “the seven spirits of God”—just as he holds “the seven stars” of the churches in his hand. The point is that Jesus is able to grant reviving power through the Holy Spirit. Discouraged Christians are to remember this so as to go forth ministering with the Word and calling on God in prayer. The same Jesus who called his friend Lazarus out from the grave possesses power to raise spiritually dead churches back to life (John 11:43–44).
Robert Thomas: The Greek perfect and aorist tenses are used in the two verbs eilēphas (“you have received”) and ēkousas (“you heard”), indicating that the hearing of the gospel was a momentary act and that results from the reception still abide. The deposit of doctrine that the church received was permanent (Alford; Swete; Charles; Mounce).
Gordon Fee: At the heart of their having lost touch with reality is an apparent complacency with regard to the coming of the Lord. Thus they are exhorted first to remember . . . what you have received and heard. And “remember” does not mean simply to recall the past, but to act on it. They are further urged to hold it fast, and repent. Here is yet another of those moments in this book where the reader is slightly jarred by the order of things. That is, the logical sequence here would be to “repent” and thus return to “holding fast” the gospel that they had embraced a generation ago; but Christ’s order here represents the basic concern, which is not their repentance per se, but their returning to a steadfastness toward the gospel in their complacent city.
“and keep it,”
Daniel Akin: With the command to “keep it,” Jesus encourages the church to hold on, to guard what they received and heard. The truth of the gospel and the truths that flow from it are easily lost. It is a precious treasure that should never be taken for granted. We must never let it slip away.
The fact is, we never drift toward anything worthwhile. Never. We never slide into truth, but we can slide into error. You slide and slip into theological liberalism. You slide and slip into moral compromise. No, we never drift anywhere worth going. Furthermore, you do not want to drift and add to the gospel. And you don’t want to slip and subtract from the gospel. Stay where you are. Keep it. Hold on. Guard it. Never let it go. Stay with what you received and heard when you put your faith in Jesus.
“If therefore you will not wake up,
I will come like a thief,
and you will not know at what hour I will come upon you.”
Buist Fanning: The point of the simile is certainly that the coming is unexpected—this is reinforced in v. 3e: they cannot know when he will come. But the second point is that a thief ’s coming is a hostile, unwelcome thing (v. 3e: “against you”), one that a person should prepare for and prevent if possible. The Christians in Sardis must take heed and prepare themselves spiritually so that Christ’s coming will not have that hostile character for them.
Grant Osborne: As many have noted (Caird, Beasley-Murray, Mounce, Giesen, Aune, Beale), this is not the second coming here but a historical visitation in judgment. The second coming is taught in 2:25; 3:11; and 16:15, but this is a warning that Christ will visit the church in judgment now if they do not repent.
Robert Thomas: One mark of the degeneracy of the Gentile world is certainly the worsening moral condition of the professing Christian church as it comes under the influence of its surrounding culture. In the sovereign purpose of God, these three human indicators, the repentance of Israel, the fullness of the Body of Christ, and the bottoming out of Gentile morality, will occur simultaneously, and Christ will return. A threat of an eschatological coming of Christ to punish sleeping Sardis fits well into this broader picture.
James Hamilton: There will be no anticipating and preparing for the coming of Jesus; so immediate and constant vigilance is required. They must act now! Because if they do not, Jesus says, “I will come against you” (3:3). There is nothing in the world more frightening than the thought of the King of kings and Lord of lords, the conqueror of sin, death, and Hell, the everlasting Son of God, the one who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars, the one who has a sharp two-edged sword coming out of his mouth, coming against you.
III. (:4) REASSURANCE FOR A FAITHFUL FEW
A. Precarious Remnant
“But you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their garments;”
Van Parunak: We are reminded of the twin sins of idolatry and fornication that we have seen in other churches, resulting from the temptation to blend into the culture and go along with the celebrations of the imperial cult and the guilds. The general practice of the church is to go along with the culture, in disobedience to the Lord. Only a few have refused to compromise.
B. Promise of Victory
“and they will walk with Me in white; for they are worthy.”
Grant Osborne: the meaning of λευκός (leukos, white) in apocalyptic. It occurs fourteen times in this book (of twenty-three in the NT) and signifies not just victory but purity, holiness, glory, and celebration. Several (e.g., Mounce, Morris, Roloff, Beale) connect it strongly to the idea of justification in the book. In the transfiguration of Jesus (Mark 9:3 par.), it depicts the “radiance” of heavenly glory. While victory is the emphasis in Rev. 14:14 and 19:11 and part of the picture here, the primary thrust (especially due to the “soiled garment” earlier in the verse) is purity and holiness. They are victorious by remaining pure in a church that has increasingly gone apostate. The reason they can “walk in white” is ὅτι ἄξιοί εἰσιν (hoti axioi eisin, because they are worthy). Their “worthiness” is due to the fact that they have remained pure and their works are complete. Elsewhere in this book ἄξιος is predicated of God (4:11) or Christ (5:2, 4, 9, 12), though in 16:6 it is used of the earth-dwellers (who are “worthy” of judgment) and here of the saints (“worthy” of reward; cf. Luke 20:35; Eph. 4:1; Phil. 1:27; 1 Thess. 2:12). The faithful few in Sardis are called to emulate God and Christ, not the pagans. . .
Those who remain true to Christ have a new identity, a new citizenship, and a new future—eternal life in heaven.
John MacArthur: Specifically, Christ says of them that they will walk with Me in white, for they are worthy. In ancient times, such garments were worn for celebrations and festivals. Because they refused to defile their garments, Christ would replace those humanly preserved clean garments with divinely pure ones (cf. 7:14). The white robes of purity Christ promises here and in verse 5 (cf. 6:11; 7:9, 13; 19:8, 14) are elsewhere worn by Christ Himself (Matt. 17:2; Mark 9:3) and the holy angels (Matt. 28:3; Mark 16:5; Acts 1:10). Those who have a measure of holiness and purity now will be given perfect holiness and purity in the future.
Gordon Fee: Given the history of this city and its loyalty to Rome, this metaphor is very likely an allusion to the Roman triumphal procession, where to honor their returning, conquering heroes the citizens lined the streets in white and thus joined in the parade. In like manner some in Sardis will be considered worthy to join in the Lord’s triumph when he returns as conqueror.
(:5-6) EPILOGUE – BLESSING FOR THOSE WHO OVERCOME
A. (:5) Persevere to Receive the Blessing
- Condition of Overcoming
“He who overcomes”
“shall thus be clothed in white garments;”
“and I will not erase his name from the book of life,
and I will confess his name before My Father, and before His angels.”
Buist Fanning: The image of a heavenly ledger of names, a “book” or “book of life,” is widely attested in the Old Testament, ancient Judaism, and early Christianity. John utilizes this symbolism frequently in Revelation, but adapts it in significant ways to express his Christian theology. One distinctive of his usage is that while he briefly mentions in one place “books” from which people are judged at the end time (20:12), he gives repeated attention to a single “book of life” (as here; also 13:8; 17:8; 20:12, 15; 21:27). References in Daniel (7:10, “books”; 12:1, “book”) preserve this distinction as well and seem to be the primary influence on Revelation. Another clearly Christian difference is that “the book of life” belongs to the Lamb (it is “the Lamb’s book of life,” 13:8; 21:27), by virtue of his sacrificial death (13:8 “who was slain”; cf. 5:9), and it is this sacrifice that opens the way to life with God for those whose names appear in it. The third unique feature of “the book of life” in Revelation is that names are enrolled in it “from the foundation of the world” (17:8; cf. 13:8), symbolizing God’s initiative to select individuals for eternal life based on his mercy and love apart from their own merit or demerit. This focus on God’s gracious election coheres with other texts in the New Testament (e.g., John 6:35–44, 65; 10:26; 17:2, 6–9, 12, 24; Acts 13:48; Rom 8:28–30; 9:11–12; 11:5–6; 1 Cor 1:26–31; Eph 1:4–5, 11). It also suggests that the enrollment symbolizes “life” beyond the bounds of earthly time and place.
David Thompson: The idea of erasing a name from a book is something clearly understood by those living in the days of John. In Roman cities, there was a census book that contained the names of all citizens. If a citizen did something again Rome, their name was removed and they were no longer subject to the benefits of citizenship.
Craig Keener: The promise that Jesus will confess the faithful remnant before his Father echoes what he told his disciples (Matt. 10:32; Luke 12:8). . .
The promise that those who persevere will not be blotted from the book of life also offers a serious warning to many nominal Christians in our culture who depend purely on a past profession of faith to ensure their salvation.
B. (:6) Pay Attention
“He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”
Robert Thomas: In Revelation this is Jesus’ repeated method of issuing an individualized call for the hearer to respond (cf. 2:7, 11, 17, 29; 3:13, 22; cf. also 1:3). In the gospels He uses the phrase seven times, the only variation being the pluralization of the “ears” (cf. Matt. 11:15; 13:9, 43; Mark 4:9, 23; Luke 8:8; 14:35). Jesus is the only one in Scripture to use this invitation, and He reserves it for occasions when He is speaking of the need for significant changes to be made (Bullinger).