Strong Church/Weak Church 16
|The Greek gymnasium at Sardis|
Sardis, founded about eight centuries before Christ as part of the Lydian empire, was located sixty miles east of the coastal city of Smyrna at the nexus of an important road network. Conquered or seized by all the usual suspects of the succeeding centuries – Greece, Rome, Byzantium – it was also preyed on by a few too many earthquakes. By AD 1200 it had largely vanished as an operating entity. Currently, a little village named Sart is situated nearby, and operates mostly as a tourist trap for the nearby ruins of Sardis.
Turning our attention to the church specifically, we find that Sardis was a stronger church than many of the others we have looked at. Its strength is singularly impressive and its weakness is relatively minor, in my view, though perhaps not in John’s view. At any rate, we will examine her strength today and her weakness next time.
What is that strength? The church at Sardis was strong on personal righteousness, on holiness.
God often likens sin to dirty garments and salvation to its beautiful white replacement. That begins in the Tabernacle, where we see the courtyard was enclosed in fine twined linen. But explicit mention is made of this all through the Word of God.
6 But we are all as an unclean thing, And all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags; And we all do fade as a leaf; And our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away.
10 I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, My soul shall be joyful in my God; For he hath clothed me with the garments of salvation, He hath covered me with the robe of righteousness, As a bridegroom decketh himself with ornaments, And as a bride adorneth herself with her jewels.
3 Now Joshua was clothed with filthy garments, and stood before the angel.
4 And he answered and spake unto those that stood before him, saying, Take away the filthy garments from him. And unto him he said, Behold, I have caused thine iniquity to pass from thee, and I will clothe thee with change of raiment.
5 And I said, Let them set a fair mitre upon his head. So they set a fair mitre upon his head, and clothed him with garments. And the angel of the LORD stood by.
14 And I said unto him, Sir, thou knowest. And he said to me, These are they which came out of great tribulation, and have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
8 And to her was granted that she should be arrayed in fine linen, clean and white: for the fine linen is the righteousness of saints.
We see from John’s last statement above that in his understanding of this illustration these white garments represented our righteousness. There are two kinds of righteousness. There is positional righteousness, our standing as entirely holy before God on the basis of Christ’s finished work. This cannot change. There is also personal righteousness, our actual state at the moment, how close we are to the Lord from day to day. This does change. Speaking in the personal (not the positional) sense, our garments prior to salvation were uniformly filthy; afterward they are varying shades of white and dark. The church at Sardis excelled in this area. Some of their people had not defiled or made their robes of personal righteousness filthy. In other words, they had lived an exceptionally holy life post-salvation. Thou hast a few names even in Sardis which have not defiled their garments; and they shall walk with me in white: for they are worthy (Revelation 3.4). Needless to say, we do not obtain entrance into eternity by living holy but we certainly do get complimented by God this way.
This stands in direct contrast with another church we will look at in just a few weeks. I counsel thee to buy of me gold tried in the fire, that thou mayest be rich; and white raiment, that thou mayest be clothed (Revelation 3.18). You do not get positional righteousness (justification/salvation) by buying it, but you do get personal righteousness that way. Holiness, sanctification in this life will always cost you something.
At Sardis, they had not defiled their garments. How does defilement come? One of the answers involves touching something external that is dirty. If I am wearing a clean coat and I brush up against a salt-encrusted car my coat is going to get defiled. We see this illustrated in the life of Daniel. He purposed in his heart that he would not defile himself with the portion of the king’s meat, nor with the wine which he drank (Daniel 1.8). So he requested and was granted permission to avoid those things so that he might remain pure and clean. In this we see the personal separation from the world that is necessary for a Christian to live a sanctified life.
More often, however, defilement arises from the sinful condition of our own heart. Jesus placed a huge emphasis on this point throughout His ministry, as we see in these two sample passages:
10 And he called the multitude, and said unto them, Hear, and understand:
11 Not that which goeth into the mouth defileth a man; but that which cometh out of the mouth, this defileth a man.
18 But those things which proceed out of the mouth come forth from the heart; and they defile the man.
19 For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies:
20 These are the things which defile a man: but to eat with unwashen hands defileth not a man.
Christianity without separation from the world will inevitably result in close contact with filth, and thus with our own defilement. By the same token, a Christianity with separation from the world but absent a constant emphasis on and watch over the condition of our heart will result in the same defilement. The only difference is the latter will visibly appear to be cleaner while being putrid on the inside.
This was precisely the problem of the Pharisees, you will recall. Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outwrd, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness (Matthew 23.27).
Apparently, to God’s everlasting glory, there were some in Sardis that were holy. They had a strong personal righteousness, and were thus given the incredible compliment of being called worthy. Worthy of what? Worthy of being called His own.
Should not this be the aim of every true child of God? That ye might walk worthy of the Lord unto all pleasing, being fruitful in every good work, and increasing in the knowledge of God (Colossians 1.10).
Beloved, let us on this day walk worthy of Him. Visibly, externally, yes. But even more so invisibly, internally.
Let us be holy.