The Seven Churches of Asia - Sardis (Part 1)

Robert E. Surgenor

Our 33-mile journey from Thyatira now brings before us an impressive sight - the impregnable-looking city of Sardis. This city of renown was perhaps one of the oldest cities of Asia Minor and was in existence when the Lydian empire was founded about 1200 B.C. Seven hundred years prior to our tour, the king of Lydia ruled from here in Oriential splendor. Sardis not only became the capital of the great Lydian empire, but because of its tremendous volume of trade, in the sixth Century B.C., it created the first coinage system in the world as a substitute for bartering. Truly, Sardis was one of the greatest cities of the world. Sardis represented Asia!

As we stand in the broad valley of the Hermus, Mount Timolus towers 5,906 feet above us. A perpendicular wall 1,500 feet high rises from one of the mountain's northern spurs and at the top of this spur on a flat plateau rests the City of Sardis The only approach to Sardis was a narrow neck of land on the south side which was a long, steep, winding road. Sardians boasted of the impregnability of their city. However, its sheer forbidding cliff was merely clay and suffered continual erosion.

In B.C. 549, Croesus, King of Lydia tried to defeat the Persians on the other side of the River Halys. However, Croesus was driven back to Sardis. Considering no need to guard the north, east and west ends of the city where the cliff prevailed, he placed guards only at the southern spur, the only entrance to the city. Cyrus offered a reward to any soldier who could find a way to scale the impregnable-looking cliffs. One day a Persian soldier saw a Lydian soldier accidently drop his helmet, then make his way cautiously down the steep cliff to retrieve it. That night, the Persians found the route, climbed the cliff and scrambled over the unguarded battlements and took the city. The treasures of the city were taken and the power and glory of the Lydian empire ceased and Sardis became part of the Persian empire. In B.C. 334, Alexander took the city and granted its independence. In John's day, Sardis had a past glory, a name to live, but was dead. If you were to visit Sardis in 1998 you would find an insignificant town named Sart with a few huts occupied by Yuruk nomads and the ruins of its former glory buried in rubbish.

Making our way up the southern narrow slope we finally reach the top of the plateau and rest. Noticing a small river running through the city we observe men with pans along its sandy banks. Inquiring we discover the name of the river - Pactolus, and are told that the men are panning gold. Commercially, Sardis had a slavetrade and also a textile, dye, jewelry, and gold refining industry. In fact the city claimed to be the first to dye wool. Many were wealthy, living off a past fame. Religiously, Sardis mainly worshipped Cybele whose temple measured 327 by 163 feet with 78 Ionic columns 65-foot high. They believed that Cybele died and lived and had the power to restore the dead to life. The worship was most debasing and all unmarried girls prostituted themselves in the temple for two years. All parents, whether rich or poor, considered this normal procedure. Ruins of this temple have been found west of the acropolis only to reveal that most of the columns remained unfluted and some rested on rough pedestals, never carved. Visiting the assembly, we will notice the same characteristics in the assembly as that of the city.

Having a name to live the assembly was not hard to find. There were no women to the forefront as Jezebel in Thyatira, but there was a smell about the place like that of a mausoleum. The singing resembled mumbling. There was no heart in it. Years ago at the opening of a gospel meeting, upon singing one verse, the late brother David L. Roy rose up and announced, "Brethren, this not a funeral service, we have good news tonight, let us sing accordingly!" Consequently the volume and tempo increased on the following verses. Have you ever been in a gathering, where the song is dragged as if they were breathing their last? It seems that many of us have lost the art of deeply inhaling and then exhaling with full force and enthusiasm the words of praise in song. Well may all of us employ the attitude of David. "I will praise the Lord with my whole heart, in the assembly of the upright, and in the congregation' (Psa. 111:1).

Have you ever been at the breaking of bread where brother after brother rises with their little stock phrases, trying to impress us, but there is no life in their worship and their prayers leave you wilted? Alas, Sardisism has befallen many. There are no divisions in this assembly -just death! There is no heresy -just hopelessness! There are prayers - but no passion! There is preaching - but no power! There is so-called worship - but no weeping! They have gold - but no growth! They have forms - but no force! They believe themselves great - but they are a graveyard! There is no dying for Christ - just dry-rot! They are a galvanized corpse! They are dead! They are like wax flowers, they appear real, but there is no fragrance, no life. There was everything there to satisfy the outside observer, but nothing there to satisfy the heart of Christ. Like the city itself, they had a past to be proud of and a present to be pitied. The form had been retained, but the heart was gone. They were physically active, but spiritually dead. They were living a lie! What could be done? A letter has just arrived from the Lord Himself and with the Sardians we listen as it is read.

The Presentation of Christ

"And to the angel of the church in Sardis write; These things saith He that hath the seven Spirits of God, and the seven stars; I know thy works, that thou hast a name that thou livest, and art dead."

They had deceived other churches, but in reality, Christ was tied to a corpse! Christ holds the solution to their problem. They had failed to seek the fulness of the Spirit's help. Christ says, "I have the seven Spirits of God." The number seven reminds us of the completeness and perfection of the Spirit's activity and ministry. The fact that the risen Lord was also holding the oversight reveals that He was placing at their disposal the Spirit's divine energy, life, power and ministry. They had not sought the fullness of the Spirit's help. Christ now reveals their only solution to their problem. In the gathering, as the Lord's unvarnished words are read, smiles disappear, displaced with expressions of shock as the words "art dead" are emphasized. What would the reaction be if such words were read in your own assembly, my brother, my sister?

The Exhortation of Christ

"Be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die: for I have not found thy works perfect before God."

Having assessed them, Christ now makes His appeal. "Wake up!" In other words, "Take heed lest through remission and indolence some destructive calamity suddenly overtake you." They were asleep as to their dangerous condition. He exhorts them to take strong and immediate measures regarding the forms that they still had which were ready to die. Some assemblies have let their gospel meetings die. Others have eliminated their weekly prayer meeting and their Bible-study meeting. In other words, like Sardis, they have failed to strengthen the things that remain.

The Lord rebukes them further. Their works were not perfect, meaning, none of their works had been fulfilled, they had come short in motive and manifestation. Just as their own city had failed in completing the work that they had begun on the Temple of Cybele, so the church had failed to accomplish the work that they had started. The late Oliver Smith of Iowa used to say, "The brightest light bulbs burn out the quickest." He was referring to those, who upon professing, seemed to be "seven-day-wonders." They seemed ultra bright, but alas, like a defective light bulb, they soon fizzled. Far better to see a new convert growing slowly but surely. A steadfast man is a valuable man. One is reminded of Paul's exhortation to the Corinthian assembly after reminding them of the resurrection. 'Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye steadfast, unmovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labour is not in vain in the Lord" (I Cor. 15:58). An exhortation we all should take to heart today!

Brethren let us be honest and ask ourselves the searching question - How do we compare with the assembly at Sardis? Is there the unmistakable manifestation of the Holy Spirit working in our midst, or are we simply seeking to maintain a name, to portray a veneer image to the assemblies surrounding us? Even though the place we are touring is dead, let us linger here for further instruction from the letter of the Lord when next month (D.V), we shall observe Him appealing to their mind. In waiting, don't expect too many invitations for dinner from the saints here, for they are dead.