As we steadily approach the finish line of our present sermon series through the seven letters of Revelation, the third to the last message has hit me full force. Jesus gives to the Apostle John a letter for the church of Sardis, and His words for it are terrifying. We’ve already heard Jesus rebuke the Ephesian church for having solid doctrine but no love and the Thyatiran church for having love but poor doctrine. We’ve already read Jesus threaten to war against the church of Pergamum if they did not repent of their conformity to society rather than the Scriptures.
But His message to Sardis takes everything to a new level.
To Sardis, Jesus claims that they have a reputation for being alive, but they are, in fact, dead. This means that by human standards Sardis appeared to be in decent shape. They were probably growing numerically as a church. The Scriptures were likely taught with a great degree of orthodoxy. They may have even been known for their love of the community around them. We simply don’t know what things they were doing well, but we do know that Jesus calls their bluff. Where men might have considered the church of Sardis to be growing and faithful, Jesus knew that they were flat lining.
The notion of a church appearing to be alive while, in reality, being dead ought to send shivers down our spine. This is the sort of church and the kind of members that we never want to be. So let’s take a moment to consider ways that a church might be dead with the appearance of life.
I don’t believe it’s possible to overemphasize the value and necessity of prayer. Because of Jesus’ atoning death and resurrection, we are able to approach God’s “throne of grace” with confidence, knowing “that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” from our Father (Heb. 4:16). What a privilege that we are able to speak to the Almighty God as His children with Him as our Father!
Yet it is not only a privilege but also a joy, an expression of having finally found a treasure that it worth losing everything else to possess (Matt. 13:44). Our hearts ought to be constantly (1 Thess. 5:17) in prayerful communion with God because all else is rubbish (Phil. 3:7) by comparison to His value.
In short, we pray because our hearts will be with our treasure (Matt. 6:21).
A prayerless Christian is no Christian, and a prayerless church is no church.
The lack of prayer indicates that God is not treasured. If God is not treasured, then He is not truly worshiped as God.
In fact, God opposes the prayerless. Both Peter and James tell us that “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble (1 Peter 5:5; James 4:6).” There is no greater expression of pride than prayerlessness. The act of prayer is humbling. It approaches God in His sovereignty, understanding our desperate need for His intervention, guidance, and love. A lack of prayer speaks that we do need God’s grace or aid. Prayer asserts our dependence, while prayerlessness proclaims our independence.
A church that is independent of God is a dead church. Jesus explicitly states that He will build His church (Matt. 16:18). Christ’s church is entirely reliant upon Him as the builder. With an utter independence from Jesus, the church is dead, even while it seems to live.
Jesus urges Sardis to wake up, to be watchful. This idea of wakefulness, watchfulness, and sobriety is at times used in relation to prayer.
“Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” – Mark 14:38
“Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving.” – Colossians 4:2
Isaiah 62:6-7 also describes those in prayer as watchmen on a city’s walls. We ought to pray with all the wakefulness and sobriety of watchmen who were able to glimpse an enemy in the distance and prepare the city accordingly. We must keep alert, “praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication (Eph. 6:18).”
A church can do any number of things and have any measure of growth, but without prayer, it is dead with only the semblance of life.
2. Lack of Discipleship
The primary mission that Jesus gave to His disciples was to make more disciples (Matt. 28:19). A church is composed of Christians (disciples of Jesus), and if those Christians do not seek to fulfill Jesus’ great objective, they are outside of His will.
Each of us are called to disciple others and be disciple by others. The church is a perpetual factory of passing on knowledge, skills, and ministries. The goal of every believer ought to be toward making the road a little easier for the next workers to expand the kingdom of God.
A lack of discipleship is evident in a number of ways.
First, the youth are neglected by the older men and women. The primary fashion that Paul seems to envision discipleship within a regular church congregation is older men and women training younger men and women. He tells Timothy to take what he learned from Paul and entrust it “to faithful men who will be able to teach others also (2 Tim. 2:2).” And he urges Titus to have older women train “young women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind, and submissive to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be reviled (Titus 2:4-5).” Negligence to raise up the next generation is a failure to disciple.
Second, resisting to train others in ministry is a failure to disciple. Each ministry of the church must be for the benefit of the church and the service of Jesus; therefore, a resistance toward training others in a particular ministry is a sign of selfishness. It is selfish because it places our desire to be needed above the betterment of the body of Christ. Our identity becomes entangled in our ministry rather than to Christ, so we refuse to let others into our work. The impact is only felt fully by the congregation whenever the person either leaves or dies without warning. The church is left trying to pick up the fragmented pieces because no one else was ever discipled on how to accomplish the work.
A lack of discipleship often results from an unhealthy fixation on the past. When in a perpetual state of remembrance of the good ol’ days, the congregation is not able to sufficiently invest in the future.
A mental resolution that the better days are behind us will ensure that they are.
Jesus made disciples so that they would expand the work of the kingdom of God beyond His ascension into heaven. The disciples made disciples so that the work would continue beyond their lives. Discipleship is about living for something bigger than ourselves. It is about living for Someone bigger than ourselves. It is about aiming to ensure that the message of the gospel goes on long after we have passed from this world. If we fail to do so, our church will die with us.
3. Lack of Evangelism
When Jesus looked upon the crowds of people that came to hear Him teach and be healed, “He had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd (Matt. 9:36).” Jesus did not gaze at the world going to hell in a handbasket with distain; He saw them with tender love and compassion. Being God, Jesus does not wish “that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance (2 Peter 3:9).”
The Great Commission’s call to make disciples is Jesus’ answer to this love of the lost. Christ commands us to go into all nations, making disciples by baptizing them and teaching them everything that He commanded us. In many ways, evangelism is the first stage of discipleship. Both are two sides of the same coin. Evangelism is bringing the gospel to non-Christians, and discipleship is applying the gospel to Christians. Discipleship begins with evangelism, and evangelism goes into discipleship.
A church without a love for evangelism is a church without a love for people and the gospel.
If we truly love people, we will desire to bring them the true of the gospel, regardless of the awkwardness of it. A doctor who refuses to inform his patient of cancer because it’s uncomfortable is a failed doctor. Likewise, we cannot claim to love others while letting them go uninformed and without Christ to hell. Or else, we cannot claim to truly believe the gospel as truth, while failing to proclaim it to others.
In this way, without evangelism, the church is either unloving or heretical. It either lacks love along with the church of Ephesus or lacks the understanding of truth like the church of Thyatira. Without a love to share the gospel with others, a church finds itself in clear danger of having its lampstand removed (Rev. 2:5) or being made into an example of Christ’s judgment for all churches to see (Rev. 2:22-23).
4. Toleration of Sin
In many ways, a toleration of sin is the only way to kill a church. Prayerlessness and lack of discipleship and evangelism are sinful behaviors. They are sins of omission rather than commission. James 4:17 puts it plainly:
“So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.”
Repeatedly the Bible associates sin with death—after all, sin brought death into creation to begin with.
“But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness.” – Romans 8:10
“But God being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved.” – Ephesians 2:4-5
“And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses.” – Colossians 2:13
Sin kills. And tolerated sin kills fully. We, naturally, do not enjoy being rebuked for sin. It is never pleasant to be told that we are in the wrong; however, it is necessary. A kind admonishment is one of the most loving acts of kindness. Look at the Bible’s alternative to tolerating sin:
“Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted.” – Galatians 6:1
“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” – Colossians 3:16
“My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.” – James 5:19-20
“This testimony is true. Therefore rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith.” – Titus 1:13
“Declare these things; exhort and rebuke with all authority. Let no one disregard you.” – Titus 2:15
Pointing out sin is never easy. In the Old Testament, the prophets were primarily used of God to rebuke the sins of Israel, and their lives were marked by suffering because of their message. When the sin that we love is attacked, the typical response is to retaliate against the messenger.
Yet we must understand that rebuking sin is the most loving action we can take toward our brothers and sisters in Christ.
Regardless of what sin (omission or commission) that Sardis found itself in, it died as a church because it did not “put to death” sin (Rom. 8:13).
And like Sardis, there are only two options for every church and its members: either let sin kill us by tolerating it, or put to death sin through repentance.