Jesus Counsels the Sardis (and Mankato) Congregation
Lord, open my heart to hear Your Word. Open my heart to hear the rebuke of Your Law and lead me to repentance. Open my heart to hear the soothing message of the Gospel and forgive my sins. Open my heart to hear Your instruction for my life and service to You. Open my mouth and heart to give praise to Your holy name, and hear me when I pray. Amen.
The Assyrian king, Sennacherib, was going to attack Jerusalem. Judah’s king, Hezekiah, made preparations for war. But he also reminded the people that their enemies came with an arm of flesh, but the Lord was with them. Sennacherib arrogantly scoffed at the Lord and tried to intimidate the people, but in the end God gave His people an amazing victory.
In Jesus’ day, the host of a wedding feast often provided a new garment for all of his guests. In Jesus’ parable, the man without a wedding garment had no excuse. He had refused the garment and when that was discovered he was cast out. The wedding feast represents the fullness of salvation. The wedding garment is Jesus’ righteousness which God freely offers to all sinners, and without it no sinner can have eternal life.
Text: Revelation 3:1-6
And to the angel of the church in Sardis write, “These things says He who has the seven Spirits of God and the seven stars: ‘I know your works, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead. 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. 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. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’”
In Christ Jesus, the Lord of the Church and the one to whom we turn for good and true counsel, dear fellow-redeemed:
Advice—do you like it or hate it? Do you seek it or avoid it? This probably depends on the rest of the circumstances. Usually, we tend toward liking advice if we are looking for it, but if it comes uninvited, we may not always be so excited to receive it. Invited or not, counsel that tells us what we don’t want to hear may be received very negatively, even though it is needed.
Our view of advice also depends on its source. If the advisor is someone we respect, then, yes, we would welcome the advice. This may be a parent, or a co-worker, or a spouse. But the same advice could be rather tough to take if it comes from a rival, a sibling, or someone for whom we have little respect. For counsel to truly be good, it needs to come from someone who is knowledgeable, trustworthy, and not motivated by selfish interests.
Now, imagine if Jesus were still visibly on the earth and He had office hours this week. How far outside the back door would people line up to meet Him face-to-face and hear His counsel? Imagine how disappointed people would be if they came but couldn’t see Him before the time was over. But, Jesus isn’t here, He isn’t holding office hours, He isn’t giving counsel…or is He? Every time we read God’s Word and every time we hear God’s Word preached or taught, it is Jesus counseling us.
God has given us an unique set of congregation counseling notes in the book of Revelation. Today’s text is just one of those counseling letters from Jesus to a congregation. Jesus spoke to seven congregations of that day—the congregations in Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamos, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodecia. These letters preach God’s Word. Jesus was preaching through the apostle John, but Jesus leaves no doubt that the congregations were to receive these words as being from Him, not John.
Jesus’ words to these congregations apply God’s Word to the congregation’s circumstances—both positively and negatively. These words of Jesus to the seven churches in Asia are part of what God has recorded in His Word for us—right now, today. They are words we need to hear. Not every part of every letter will apply directly to every congregation, but when these letters are compiled, they create a counseling handbook for congregations. They show where certain paths will lead, the danger of common weaknesses, and how congregations can be strengthened and receive the blessing of the Lord.
This morning we listen as Jesus counsels the Sardis congregation, but we also realize that these words are also His counsel to us. We will I. Listen and learn the truth from Jesus, learn that if we II. Ignore the counsel we will face judgment, but III. If we remember the counsel we will remain in the Book of Life.
The city of Sardis was at the geographical center of the seven cities to whom Jesus wrote. It was located inland so it didn’t have the advantage of a seaport. Nevertheless, Sardis did become one of the most rich and powerful inland cities of the ancient world. It had been the capital of the ancient kingdom of Lydia, was captured by Cyrus, then it was captured by Alexander the Great, and then by the Romans who again made it the capital, this time of their province. Sardis was known for fruits and agriculture and even some industry. A 6th century B.C. king of Sardis, Croesus, is thought to be the first king to mint coins which has led to the description of someone who is “as rich as Croesus.”
In this city, there was a Christian congregation. To the congregation Jesus addressed these words through John: “And to the angel (messenger—the pastor) of the church in Sardis write, ‘These things says He who has the seven Spirits of God and the seven stars…’ The seven Spirits and seven stars refer to an earlier portion of the vision. The seven Spirits refer to the Holy Spirit whom Jesus sends and who was active in the seven congregations. The seven stars represent the seven pastors in the seven congregations. Jesus is the One who has the seven Spirits and the seven stars. His message was: “I know your works, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead.” [v.1]
Through all seven letters, Jesus evaluates the vital signs of the congregation. In His first of the seven letters, Jesus warned the congregation in Ephesus that its vital signs were faltering. The Ephesian congregation was still doing what they were supposed to do, but they had lost their purpose. They had lost their first love, they were just going through the motions, no longer remembering why. Jesus warned them, “…I have this against you, that you have left your first love…remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent and do the first works…” (Revelation 2:4,5).
Jesus warned the Ephesian congregation that their vital signs were faltering and unless they returned to their first love they would die. Where Ephesus was heading, Sardis had already arrived. Jesus took the vital signs in Sardis and declared that the congregation was dead—a very strong and serious evaluation on the part of the Savior.
As we listen and learn the truth from Jesus, sometimes that truth isn’t easy to take. Sometimes the truth points out failure. Sometimes the truth points out grave weaknesses. But if we are truly going to approach Jesus and genuinely seek His counsel, we must set aside our evaluations. It involves setting aside what we want to hear and humbly listening to what Jesus says. Jesus told the Sardis congregation, “Outwardly you appear to be doing fine. You have the name of a Christian congregation, you have a reputation, everything looks grand, but you are dead.” By their works, the Sardis congregation showed that they were fallen from faith and dead. Later, Jesus does mention that there were a few names even in Sardis who had not defiled their garments, and who continued to walk with their Savior, but not many. The congregation as a whole was dead.
This rebuke is what that congregation needed to hear. This rebuke was a warning lest they stay dead and perish eternally. This rebuke of Jesus was a gracious warning to call out to them. It was a call to repentance so that they could be brought back to life just as they had been made alive when they were first called to faith. For Jesus’ counsel to be of value to the congregation, they needed to hear and learn the truth.
I wouldn’t suggest that Immanuel is a congregation that is dead like Saris—not at all. But we will be in the same position if we ever rely upon what the Sardis congregation relied upon, namely, that we are who we are and that we have a name that says we’re alive. Woe to us if we would ever conclude that because we are Immanuel, because we have been here for well over 100 years, because we are a member of the Church of the Lutheran Confession, or because of anything else, that we are perfected and need never be watchful again because we are so secure. That kind of proud security is what leads to death.
Jesus’ remedy for the Sardis congregation was to be watchful and to strengthen the things that remained. If we want to listen to and learn the truth from Jesus’ counsel, we need to look at our own selves because we are individually what make up the congregation. A congregation is an assembly of believers, so if we want to take the vital signs of our congregation it involves taking the vital signs of our own individual faith and faith-life. There are, without doubt, things in our lives that are weak and that pursue sin and death. Jesus’ counsel to the Sardis congregation stands as a warning lest we follow that same path and also end up dead. It is equally important for us to listen and learn the truth from Jesus.
Again, imagine how many people would line up if Jesus were holding office hours. Or how well we would listen if Jesus was present at a voters’ meeting and spoke. But we do have Jesus in our worship services, in our counseling, in our classrooms, and in our voters meetings because we have His Word. When Jesus counsels us, we listen and learn the truth by going to His Word and hearing all things. We follow Jesus’ counsel by using His Word to expose what is weak—where we have pursued (or are pursuing) what is false and sinful, where we have put things above Him, whatever the things might be. We follow Jesus’ counsel when we turn only to Him for forgives of sins and direction for this life. Jesus’ counsel reveals truth only when we go to His Word and listen to what He says.
After giving His evaluation to the Sardis congregation, Jesus continues: “Be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die, for I have not found your works perfect before God.” [v.2] Then Jesus described what would happen if they ignored His counsel: “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.” [v.3]
Ignoring Jesus’ counsel leaves an individual or a congregation standing alone. People can choose to do that. They ignore Jesus’ counsel and effectively cut themselves off from Him, but then they are left alone to face God and His Judgment. Then they have distanced themselves from the one Savior who can forgive sin.
If the Sardis congregation chose to ignore Jesus’ counsel and words of warning, if they continued to do what they were doing and continued to slide further into death, if they were not be watchful, they would face Jesus’ judgment on the Last Day. Then He would say to them, “Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire” (Matthew 25:41). Were the Sardis congregation to remain unwatchful its members would be like the man in Jesus’ parable who came to the wedding unprepared without a wedding garment (cf. New Testament reading). The man in the parable wasn’t responsible for purchasing the garment—it was provided to him free of charge! But without the garment he was not able to be part of the feast and was cast out.
Those who choose to stand on their own and do not listen to Jesus’ counsel cut themselves off from Christ and His righteousness. They will stand in judgment with all of their sin, and standing before God with all of our sin in a hopeless and fearful position in which to be.
King Sennacherib relied on himself and his strength (cf. Old Testament reading). He mockedthe God of Israel. He had the audacity to compare the God of Israel to all the other gods of the land saying, “those gods couldn’t help their people. Israel, your god can’t help you. I am the greatest.” In the end, Sennacherib never even had the chance to attempt what he boasted he would do. God struck down his army and after he returned home he too was struck down, by his own children. Sennacherib relied on his own strength, rejected God, and mocked Him. As a result, he faced judgment. All who ignore Jesus’ counsel and believe they can stand on their own will likewise face the judgment of the holy and righteous God.
The other option is to hear the counsel of Jesus and “remember therefore how you have received and heard; hold fast and repent…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.”[vv.3-4]
All of the Christians in Sardis had been written in the Book of Life. But were they to cut themselves off from Jesus, their names would be blotted out of the Book of Life. Jesus promises that he who overcomes shall be clothed in white garments and will not be blotted out from the Book of Life. Remember the counsel of Jesus, hold fast to what He says, repent of weakness, and you are clothed in the righteousness of Christ. The beautiful hymn we sang before the sermon references another part of the vision recorded in Revelation. John saw all of the saints in heaven, clothed in white robes with palm branches (symbolizing victory) in their hands. One of the elders in the vision asked John, “Who are these people?” John answered and said, “You are the one who knows who they are…tell me.” The elder answered, “These are the ones who have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb—Jesus” (Revelation 7:13-14). When our sins are washed away in the blood of the Lamb we have that perfect wedding garment. We will be forever with our Lord at His eternal feast.
As we listen to the counsel of Jesus and remember what He says, we remember the truth of what He has done. We remember the whole sum and substance of the Gospel that Jesus was made sin for us so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:21). Hold fast to that truth! At the same time we listen to Jesus’ counsel and see our sins so we repent of our sins in true sorrow while still holding fast to the that truth of our salvation. When we remember the true counsel we have heard from Jesus, then He keeps us, guards us, protects us from our spiritual enemies, and we remain in the Book of Life.
Jesus concludes this letter in the same way as He concludes all seven of His letters to the churches of Asia: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” [v.6]
We have eaves-dropped to Jesus’ counsel to the Sardis congregation, but we also have ears. Jesus’ counsel is not written simply for Sardis or for a mere historical reference. It is written for us. Listen and learn the truth from Jesus’ counsel in His Word. Stand watchful, look for weakness, look for failures, look for needs and places where God’s Word needs to be addressed to you, to your fellow Christian, and to us as a congregation. Watch, be ready, andremember Jesus’ counsel. Listen to Your Savior. He clothes you in His righteousness and will preserve you in the same, now and forever, Amen.
—Pastor Wayne C. Eichstadt