Church of the Living Dead
“Did I dream this up?”
The woman who wrote those words said she was looking for an article by me called “Signs of a Dying Church.” After searching our website and finding nothing, she wrote asking for my help. After searching myself, I couldn’t find anything by that particular title.
And that set me to thinking.
What exactly are the signs of a dying church? Or to put it another way, what exactly is a dying church? Is it a church with declining attendance? That’s probably the simplest answer to the question. A church can become so tiny that it literally goes out of existence. In certain parts of America, especially in regions with declining population, you will sometimes see a shuttered church building that once housed a thriving, dynamic congregation.
What exactly is a dying church?
I have seen those buildings with boarded-up windows in small villages and in rural areas. You see them occasionally in big cities also, especially when a church serving one particular group closes its doors because the congregation can’t successfully adapt to a changing community.
But I think the deeper question goes to issues of spiritual vitality. Is a church that has been torn by controversy for years on end truly a living church? Or what about a church that is so comfortable in its current situation that there is no place for new people? What about a church that has completely lost its vision to reach people for Christ? If a church has no zeal for the lost, can it truly be called a “living” church of Jesus Christ?
What about a church that once was great but now has fallen on hard times? What about a church whose best days happened a generation ago and still lives off the reputation of its past glories?
Ray Stedman’s Question
When Ron Ritchie preached on this text, he remarked on the many trips he took with Ray Stedman, the well-known pastor and Bible teacher from Palo Alto, California. Whenever they passed a church building, Ray Stedman would remark to anyone who happened to listen, “I wonder if this church is alive or dead?”
It seems to me that the question is easier to ask than to answer. After all, if the church is open for business, something must be happening there. They probably have a worship service (or two or three), they may have Sunday School, small groups, a choir or a worship team, a youth ministry, and they probably have a program for children. They may even have a “Senior Saints” fellowship.
“I wonder if this church is alive or dead?”
Is that church living or dead?
Again, it is easier to ask than to answer. After pondering the matter, I have concluded that only the Lord himself knows whether a church is truly dead or alive. A church may seem dead but may have signs of life within it, or far more ominously, a church may seem to be full of life but actually be at the point of spiritual death.
A Damning Indictment
Such was the problem of the church at Sardis (Revelation 3:1-6). When Jesus comes to this church, he makes a quick and disquieting diagnosis:
“You have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead" (v. 1).
This may be the most damning indictment our Lord could give to any local church. And it is a comment that only he could make.
The church seemed alive and well.
It had a good reputation in the community.
It was evidently not on the brink of closing its doors.
Christians in other towns spoke well of the church at Sardis.
Who knows? Maybe they hosted “How to be a Missional Church” conferences. Maybe the pastor wrote books and traveled to speak at churches throughout Asia Minor. Perhaps they had the largest congregation of any of the seven churches.
It is certainly notable what Jesus does not mention:
The church does not seem to be suffering persecution.
It does not seem to be seriously infected with false doctrine.
We find no mention of the mysterious Nicolaitans.
There is no hint of sexual immorality in the church.
Nor is the church warned about losing its first love.
In some respects Sardis is the most difficult church to dissect because we don’t really know what was wrong there. When Jesus speaks to the other churches, he spells out the problem so there can be no confusion. But here we are told simply that at Sardis things looked good on the outside but were dying on the inside.
Strange as it may seem, there is something that can be much worse than false doctrine or sexual immorality or trouble in the church:
A good reputation that is undeserved.
“We’re in the top 4% of all churches in our denomination.” What does that really mean?
It’s like saying, “We’re in the top 4% of all churches in our denomination.” What does that really mean? What if it means nothing at all?
That’s a scary proposition.
If you are dying, it would help to know about it.
It’s better to know about cancer even though the treatment may be difficult than to live in blissful ignorance until it is too late to do anything about it.
A Shocking Evaluation
Perhaps the history of Sardis gives us a clue. Many years before the writing of Revelation, Sardis had been one of the most important cities of Asia Minor. When Persia controlled the region, Sardis had actually been the capital city but under the Romans it had faded into insignificance. Here we have a city whose best days have come and gone, a city living off a reputation of past greatness. Sardis had been eclipsed by cities like Ephesus and Pergamum. It was a town living in the past and on the past. It seems that the church of Sardis had taken on the character of the city itself.
The church at Sardis was the perfect model of inoffensive Christianity.
One writer called the church at Sardis “the perfect model of inoffensive Christianity." Evidently the Jews and the Romans didn’t bother the church because the church didn’t bother them. It was left alone because it lacked the conviction to stir the waters and make any waves.
Although apparently active on the outside, on the inside it had become a “spiritual graveyard.” John Stott uses colorful language to describe the church at Sardis:
Its works were beautiful grave clothes which were but a thin disguise for this ecclesiastical corpse. The eyes of Christ saw beyond the clothes to the skeleton. It was dead as mutton. It even stank.
Jesus can make this diagnosis because he can read the hearts and minds of those who worship there. Perhaps that is why he is called the one who “holds the seven spirits of God" (v. 1), a reference to the Holy Spirit who sees all things and who searches every heart. Nothing is hidden from him.
All of this ought to be very solemn to us because this church evidently looked very good from the outside. How does a situation develop where a church with a good reputation turns out to be spiritually dead? We can list a few indicators:
When the past becomes more important than the present.
When keeping a good reputation matters more than a bold witness for Christ.
When religious ritual becomes an end in itself.
When talking about Christ matters more than knowing Christ.
When convenience trumps sacrifice.
When appearance matters more than reality.
When tradition stifles every attempt at innovation.
When personal comfort outweighs risky faith.
When church activity substitutes for a growing walk with God.
A church that is dead will often seem quite alive.
What strikes me is that these things are matters of the heart and are thus very hard to spot. A church that is dead will often seem quite alive. No church would advertise itself by saying, “Come worship with us. We ask nothing, demand nothing, dare nothing, and dream nothing.” How had this happened at Sardis?
The church had come to the place where it lived before men rather than before God, more anxious in all probability about their reputation in Sardis than their reputation in heaven (G. Campbell Morgan).
A Hopeful Reminder
What can be done about a dead or dying church? We get some good news in our text from the Lord himself:
“Yet you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes" (v. 4).
God has his people in the most unlikely places. Even in a church like Sardis, there were those who loved and served the Lord from a pure heart. It reminds me of the time when Elijah in his despair felt like he was the only faithful servant of God in the whole land of Israel. God called him to action by telling him that there were yet 7000 who had not bowed the knee to Baal (1 Kings 19:14-18). God is not limited by your small vision. This ought to give us hope for even the most forlorn church situations. Here is a truth for every frustrated pastor to remember. You are not in a position to estimate your own effectiveness. When you think have won, don’t be so sure. When you think you have failed, let God render the final verdict. You and I are as likely as Elijah to wrongly estimate both our victories and our defeats. Better to do our best and leave the results with God. He knows better than we do the lives that have been changed by our service for Christ.
God has his people in the most unlikely places.
A Divine Ultimatum
What, then, is the hope for a spiritually dead congregation? First, the church must wake up. "Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your deeds complete in the sight of my God" (v. 2). Because it was located on a plateau, Sardis seemed secure from invasion. But twice in its history invading armies had scaled the heights during the night and captured the city. So Christ’s admonition to “Wake up!” had special meaning to the church in Sardis. No doubt the congregation had become spiritually lazy. If all is going well, why bother to post a guard on the ramparts? Woe to the church that ceases to keep watch for the enemy who prowls about as a roaring lion seeking someone to devour (1 Peter 5:8). As Peter himself found out, Satan often attacks us not at the point of our weakness but at the point of our self-perceived strength. So it is for every flock of God’s sheep. If the devil cannot make a frontal attack, he will send in wolves in sheep’s clothing. Or he will cause the sheep to begin biting each other. Or he will simply lull the flock to sleep and then he will pounce with deadly force.
The Sardis spirit overtakes us whenever we begin to take God’s gifts for granted.
Second, the church must return to Christ before it is too late. “Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; obey it, and repent. But 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" (v. 3). To repent means literally to change the mind. In this case it involves turning back to the Lord with a whole heart. I daresay that nothing is more difficult than for a comfortable church to repent. Most of us don’t change unless real pain is involved. We don’t pray until we are desperate, we don’t seek God’s face until we are in trouble, and we don’t repent unless we think there is no other hope. When Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany, he intended only to spark a lively theological debate. Little did he know that he would ignite a theological revolution called the Protestant Reformation. The very first thesis rings as true today as it did in 1517:
When our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, said “Repent”, He called for the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.
The entire life of believers is to be one of repentance.
Nothing is more difficult than for a comfortable church to repent.
We don’t hear that preached much nowadays, but it needs to be spoken to our generation every bit as much as to Luther’s own generation. Sometimes we wrongly think that repentance is something we do when we first come to Christ, and then we never have to think about it again. But that wrongheaded view of the Christian life comes from a false understanding of human nature. We are so messed up by sin that we need to repent every single day. And we even need to repent of our repentance because we are worse off than we think we are. That is, we need to say, “Lord, I’m guilty and I’m even more guilty than I think I am. So, Lord, I come to you pleading for your mercy, which I need even more than I know.”
The entire life of believers is to be one of repentance.
On a Guilt Scale of 1-10, we probably think we’re a 5 or 6, definitely sinful but not as bad as lots of other people. Or maybe on a bad day, we’re a 7 or an 8. But we hardly ever think of ourselves as a 9 or 10 on the scale of badness. But the sobering fact is that even our good deeds, the things we brag about, our claim to being good and upright and moral and virtuous, even the good things we do are in themselves nothing but “filthy rags” in the sight of the Lord (Isaiah 64:6).
We will never get better unless we repent.
Our churches will never get better unless we repent.
We can’t repent for anyone else.
It’s the man in the mirror who gets us in trouble.
A Solemn Warning
There is an implied threat if we do not take these words seriously. Jesus will come like a “thief in the night.” A month ago those words did not mean to me what they mean today. It was early in the evening in China when I called my wife who was in Dallas where it was early in the morning. “There’s been a break-in at our home in Tupelo,” she said. During the night someone came in through the window in our bedroom, rifled through our property, stole some jewelry, and then searched through our personal files. I cannot remember any time in my life when I have felt such a combination of anger and helplessness. Being 6000 miles away from home, I could not do anything about it. I didn’t sleep much that night. A few days later when we finally returned home, we saw the muddy tracks left by the intruder. I can tell you that we didn’t sleep well that night either. A month has passed since then, but the shock of it remains fresh in my mind.
Like a thief who comes when you least expect him, Jesus warns the congregation to wake up or he will come and the results will not be happy for the church.
Jesus is coming! Are you ready?
Jesus is coming! Are you ready?
The church at Sardis, though evidently prosperous and popular, was not ready for the coming of the Lord. The church was like the city itself, comfortable and lazy and spiritually indifferent. It was in its own way a true reflection of its community. It seemed alive but it was truly dead.
A Bracing Promise
Note the three-fold promise to the overcomers at Sardis:
First, they will be dressed in the white robes of victory. “They will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy. He who overcomes will, like them, be dressed in white” (vv. 4-5).
Second, they will have their names reserved in heaven. "I will never blot out his name from the book of life" (v. 5). This is a statement of absolute assurance of salvation. The Greek form here is a double negative. “I will never, ever, under any circumstances blot their names from the book of life.” Those whom God saves he saves forever.
“I will never, ever, under any circumstances blot their names from the book of life.”
Third, they will be personally recognized by our Lord. "I will . . . acknowledge his name before my Father and his angels” (v. 5). It’s a wonderful thing to be remembered by your friends. A few weeks ago when we visited China, I saw the young man we worked with last year when we visited Dalian. Because he leads the Christian students on his university campus, the pressure on him from the authorities has at times been intense. But he has not backed down from his Christian testimony. When we walked into the room and I saw him, his face lit up. Though we speak different languages, we greeted each other with smiles and hugs of recognition. He knew me and I knew him, and we were glad to see each other again.
So it will be when we stand before the Lord. No one will say, “That’s Ray Pritchard. I wonder why he’s here.” No, it’s not like that at all. Jesus himself will say, “Ray Pritchard! He’s my friend.” There is no greater reward for the believer than to be personally known and recognized by our Lord.
A Personal Challenge
As we come to the end of this message, we should ask once again, Where did the church at Sardis go wrong? It was a church of the living dead. The church was a bastion of dead orthodoxy and a beehive of religious mediocrity, its spiritual condition made worse by the fact that it seemed on the surface to be spiritually alive. In that sense it was in much greater peril than the persecuted church of Smyrna or the morally compromised churches of Pergamum and Thyatira. It was even in worse condition than the loveless church at Ephesus.
It’s a wonderful thing to be remembered by your friends.
Far worse than persecution from without is dry rot within.
The church was lethargic because the people were lethargic. That can happen to any of us at any time. And it can happen while we are attending an evangelical church. As we think of churches in general, don’t forget the children’s finger rhyme that goes this way:
Here’s the church, and here’s the steeple.
Open the door, and see all the people.
We are the church, all of us together, and each of us individually. Perhaps the Lord is speaking to you and to me, saying,
We are the church, all of us together, and each of us individually.
“Remember what I have done for you!”
The Sardis spirit overtakes us whenever we begin to take God’s gifts for granted. How quickly we can become the Church of the Living Dead and not even know it.
Some of us should ask ourselves, “Do I really know the Lord at all?" It would be better to be an out-and-out pagan than to go through life as a “cultural Christian” not really knowing the Lord. At least the pagan knows he is a pagan, but the cultural Christian thinks he is alive when in reality he is dead.
God still loves the church at Sardis. If Jesus didn’t care, he wouldn’t have written this letter. So wherever we are spiritually, we can say, “Lord, start with me. Do your work in me. Wake me up! Stir me up to love you and to serve you so that the world will know that I belong to you.” May God wake us up and deliver us from the Church of the Living Dead so that we become once again the Church of the Living Christ. Amen.
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