Sardis was a city of legends.
It was the capital of the sixth-century empire of the Lydians, whose kings were thought to be the descendants of Hercules. Midas, the mythical ruler whose touch turned everything to gold, was thought to have bathed in the Pactolus River, near the metropolis, and filled its waters with gold. Nearby Mt. Tmolus was considered the birthplace of the Greek god of wine and revelry, Bacchus.
At its height, Sardis was a land of riches and military might. There were high concentrations of gold dust in the river, which translated into sumptuous wealth. Historians consider Lydians the first to mint gold and silver coins, as well as the first to build permanent retail shops. The city’s fortress, perched atop an imposing hill, was seemingly impregnable.
During the end of the first century AD, Sardis remained a booming cultural center. Due to its prime location on a trade route, its wool and carpet industry, and thriving economy, the city “lived the high life.” The area hosted the grand temple of Artemis, one of the seven largest Greek temples, and was the center of worship for the nature goddess Cybele.
A type of religious freedom flourished in Sardis. Despite the city’s worship of patron gods, non-believers did not live under fear of persecution. Archaeological digs have uncovered shops owned by Jews and Christians built side by side. This religious tolerance is perhaps best seen in the Jewish synagogue in Sardis, which was constructed as part of the city’s gymnasium-bath complex.
Although the city appeared magnificent, Sardis had been under the rule of other powers since Persia’s King Cyrus the Great took the city’s “impregnable” acropolis in about 547 BC. After this, control went to the Greeks, and then the Romans. Its once-great power was soon relegated to legend and myth.
Outsiders cast Sardis in a poor light, and for good reason. In the book Letters to the Seven Churches, University of Glasgow professor William Barclay stated that “even on the pagan lips, Sardis was a name of contempt.”
Barclay continued, “Its people were notoriously loose-living, notoriously pleasure- and luxury-loving. Sardis was a city of decadence. In the old days it had been a frontier town on the borders of Phrygia, but now it was a by-word for slack and effeminate living. Every day Sardis grew wealthier, but the more wealthy it grew, the more it lost all claim to greatness.”
Amid this “pleasure- and luxury-loving,” “loose-living” city of tolerance was a group of Christians. But the congregation had begun taking on the temperature of society around them.
The facts of history regarding the downfall of this city offer a cautionary tale for Christians today.
Culture of Tolerance
Perhaps more than any other Church on the seven-city mail route outlined in Revelation chapters 2-3, the Sardis congregation was apparently spared harsh persecution. Evidently, they could more openly practice Christianity.
Yet the environment of materialism and religious tolerance led to a state that caused Christ to harshly chastise this Church: “…I know your works, that you have a name that you live, and are dead” (Rev. 3:1).
“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, and hold fast, and repent. If therefore you shall not watch, I will come on you as a thief, and you shall not know what hour I will come upon you.
“You have a few names even in Sardis which have not defiled their garments; and they shall walk with Me in white: for they are worthy. He that overcomes, the same shall be clothed in white raiment; and I will not blot out his name out of the book of life, but I will confess his name before My Father, and before His angels” (vs. 2-5).
Notice the words “you live, and are dead.” Sardis Christians must have looked like Christians, and somewhat acted like them, but Christ bluntly declared them “DEAD.”
Think. Could Christians in the city really have been holding fast to the truth? Cities that flaunt decadence and sin almost always pride themselves on “tolerance” and “love.” This same attitude had certainly crept into the congregation there.
The Sardis Church tolerated the debauched lives of those around them. Clearly, these Christians were not living with the kind of deep conviction that often brings persecution. Author and biblical historian George Bedford Caird called them “too innocuous to be worth persecuting.”
Barclay sums up the downfall of the city and its Christians: “The strange fate of Sardis was that life had been too easy for it. It had grown flabby and had sunk into an easy and voluptuous decadence. And the fate of the Church at Sardis was the same…Sardis was not threatened by any of the dangers or perils which menaced the other Churches. There was no threat from Caesar worship and from persecution; there was no threat from the malignant slanders of the Jews…The Church of Sardis was completely untroubled from without and from within. The Church of Sardis was at peace—but it was the peace of the dead.”
The original Sardis congregation mirrors the fifth Church era that began in England in AD 1585. At that time, small congregations held fast despite the threat of imprisonment. Some even died in jail. Church leaders wrote books on Sabbath-keeping (which was illegal), Creation and the laws of God.
Sardis then moved to America with the shining hope of religious freedom. There, the Church of God ebbed and flowed for decades.
Yet the overall peace, abundance and tolerance of the United States took its toll. The Sardis era fellowshipped with people who had differing ideas, often associating with Seventh Day Baptists and Seventh-day Adventists. By the 1930s, when Herbert W. Armstrong (the founder and former pastor general of the Worldwide Church of God) located the Church of God Seventh Day, the organization was in shambles. Instead of preaching the kingdom of God, leaders taught the “third angel’s message”—a doctrine adopted from Ellen G. White and the Adventists!
This is the same pattern as in first-century Sardis, where, in a land of abundance and religious tolerance, Christians had a tendency to let down their guard and adopt false doctrines.
“He that has an ear...”
Throughout Revelation 2-3, one phrase continually appears: “He that has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says unto the churches...” This is stated at the end of the description of all seven Church eras, including Sardis.
Consider. Those in God’s Church are able to understand the meaning of Church eras. They can read the Bible and understand the “mysteries of the kingdom” (Luke 8:10). They have “an ear” to hear!
The condition of these churches takes on greater importance because they are not merely New Testament congregations or a historical record of the Church. Understand what this means: the warnings for the Sardis church did not stop in the 1930s when Mr. Armstrong broke ties with the Church of God Seventh Day. This attitude can still sneak into a Christian’s life.
The Church today is not suffering harsh persecution yet, and most brethren live in nations with relative religious freedom. Life is fairly easy for much of the Church, especially those in Western nations. Liberal society is pushing further tolerance of all lifestyles, religions and creeds—except those they deem “intolerant.” Therefore, we are in danger of falling into the snare of Sardis.
The decay of the Sardis society can be traced to a seminal event centuries before the New Testament Church began. Think back to the thought-to-be impregnable fortress built in Sardis. Today, the hill jutting from the ruins of the city is only about 1,000 feet high. In the sixth century BC, however, historians believe this hill was at least 2,000 feet high, and some think it was 3,000 feet! (Earthquakes have slowly eroded its height over the years.)
When Persian King Cyrus besieged Sardis, the Lydian king retreated to this towering fortress. The Greek historian Herodotus explains a popular version of how the acropolis was taken. Cyrus offered his army a reward for any man who could discover a weak point in the enemy’s defenses. A solution did not arise until a Lydian guard accidentally dropped his helmet off the side of the cliff and climbed down using a secret path. A Persian soldier memorized the path and later led others up the hill. Cyrus found the complex virtually unguarded at the top and easily captured it.
The king of Lydia looked and felt safe in his towering fortress. Yet due to this, he lost his throne! Because Sardis was not watchful, those of the city allowed their defenses to grow weaker and weaker.
Everyone “that has an ear” must heed the warning and examine their lives for the characteristic attitude of letting down one’s guard and no longer watching. Christ’s admonition to this dead era in Revelation 3 shows what to do when these weaknesses are found: “Be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die: for I have not found your works perfect before God” (vs. 2).
This is the two-fold formula to root out any hint of a Sardis attitude. A person must (1) be “watchful” and (2) find potential weak points in his life and “strengthen the things which remain.”
Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible defines the Greek word for “watchful” as “to keep awake, that is, watch.” The concordance defines “strengthen” as “to set fast,” “turn resolutely in a certain direction,” “confirm.”
In the same way, Christians must look at their actions and find places they may not truly be keeping God’s Law to the fullest in letter and spirit. They then are required to “turn resolutely” from that thinking and “confirm” they are still in the faith (II Cor. 13:5).
Christ defines the stakes for vigilantly guarding against watering down doctrines in Revelation 3: “Remember therefore how you have received and heard, and hold fast, and repent. If therefore you shall not watch, I will come on you as a thief, and you shall not know what hour I will come upon you” (vs. 3).
In Greek, “hold fast” means “to guard…from loss or injury, properly by keeping the eye upon” (Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible).
Note the near-perfect parallel to the fall of the fortress at Sardis! If we fail to guard what we have been given—the truth—from “loss or injury,” Christ’s Return will come “as a thief.”
The Church is entering a period of constant exciting announcements. Soon, The Restored Church of God will be a household name.
While these good times should be enjoyed, we must remember what is coming. God’s Work will first be viewed as a “lovely song” (Ezek. 33:32), but will end up being “hated of all nations” (Matt. 24:9).
During this lull before the storm, do not allow the “tolerant” society around you to wear you down so much so that when persecution comes you are unprepared. Wisely use this period to learn, grow and build your defenses.
Consider these points when learning to be “watchful” and on “guard”:
Do not become discouraged. Realize you will find areas—perhaps major ones—that are virtually “unguarded.” When you find them, do not feel defeated. Rather, be thankful you found them now when you can redeem the time (Col. 4:5), and eliminate them.
Use the tools of Christian growth. Be sure you are effectively praying, studying, meditating, fasting, and exercising God’s Spirit. This will ensure you have strong defenses against attacks. Evaluate your progress—but be brutally honest. It may be beneficial to review the Church’s reprint articles on these topics.
Examine your actions. Christians must be careful how their actions are perceived both by those in the Church and those outside of it. Remember that we must always abstain from all appearance of evil (I Thes. 5:22).
Make the truth a part of you. Study, learn and constantly review God’s doctrines. Those in Sardis were not interested in holding fast to what they “received and heard.” In II Timothy 4, this same attitude is foretold to be prevalent today, when many “will not endure sound doctrine” (vs. 3). You need not be one of them! Instead, “be ready always to give an answer to every man that asks you a reason of the hope that is in you” (I Pet. 3:15).
See past the glitter of this world. Keep your mind on the ultimate goal—ruling in God’s kingdom—not on things of this world. I John 2 sums up this point: “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world...For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world. And the world passes away, and the lust thereof: but he that does the will of God abides forever” (vs. 15-17).
Beware of assumptions. The prosperity and lack of persecution enjoyed by Sardis gave its inhabitants a false sense of security. Due to the relative comfort enjoyed by God’s people now, some may be tempted to think they will be saved because they are a member of the corporation of The Restored Church of God. This is false! God says to each person: “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12).
The king of Lydia thought he was safe because he had a towering fortress. The Christians in first-century and 20th-century Sardis thought they were safe because they were in the “Church of God.” Never forget that a false feeling of security can slip into a Christian’s thinking if he is not continuously watchful and guarding his spiritual life.
Learn from the Past
Tough times are coming upon God’s people—and we must be ready, with strong spiritual defenses. We must not tacitly approve or tolerate wrong conduct. We must not let the feeling of success or engagement in Church functions replace quality, personal time spent with God. We must consistently and constantly pray, fast, study, meditate and live the Book.
It is essential to prepare now so that when prophesied persecution comes, we will not falter and will remain steadfastly in God’s Way!