You are our portion, O Lord. We promise to obey Your words. We seek Your face with our whole heart, and so we ask that You would be gracious to us according to Your promise. The earth is filled with Your love, O Lord. Teach us Your decrees. We pray for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
I think it is fairly well-known by this point that it’s safe to say I am something of a picky eater. It’s true. I always have been. Before I was diagnosed with celiac disease, to make a bad habit even more difficult, diagnosed with that back in 2016, I have always been a picky eater. It’s not my mom’s fault. It’s not my wife’s fault. I’ve always been like this. I’m like that line from St. Augustin, “Give me vegetables but not quite yet.”
I had somebody send me an article a few years ago that there was a new, legitimate diagnosis, SED – Selective Eating Disorder. So I have some eccentric eating habits. I don’t know if it qualifies me for any grants or anything, but it has led to many interesting moments over the years. I apologize if they have ever been with you or will be in the future. It’s all my fault. It’s not yours.
One such incident when I was in seminary, I was a part of a singing group and there were eight of us guys, and being seminary students, seven of us were single and one of the guys in the group was recently married. We had had a practice or rehearsal one Saturday afternoon and so this man in the group and his newlywed, wonderful, sweet wife and couple invited us over to their apartment and she wanted to make a meal for all of us, show off her new wifely skills.
So we sat down to eat and very large bowls of soup were brought out to us. I’m sorry, I have a hard time with soup. I could maybe do chicken noodle soup, heavy on the chicken, a few noodles, just sort of out of Campbell’s can or something, but this was basically a bowl of vegetables and some water. It was very intense.
My friends, knowing how terrible I am as an eater, all thought this was quite hilarious, as they poured on some very thick soup. They were looking at the ground, trying not to laugh, so I ladled up myself, trying not to be rude, just enough of a helping not to seem rude and tried to steel myself to make my way over the next hour, or however long we had, to eat little by little this soup.
But sure enough the kind wife spotted my meager portion, “Oh, Kevin, that’s not enough. Here, give my your bowl,” and proceeded to pour, and then my friends, of course, were egging her on, “Oh, he’s very hungry,” and more and more and more. It was barely half-full, a heaping pile of vegetables. I was very nervous, very nervous, not knowing how I could possibly eat all of… I mean, this was really more vegetables than I had eaten ever maybe, put together, at least in years.
Now out of the corner of my eye I had a glimmer of hope. There was a large plate of cornbread. I thought, “Ah, cornbread.” My mom made cornbread all the time, that Jiffy box that you get out of the and you make, it’s just like yellow cake. We would sometimes have it with chili, I remember, or soup, and it would help me, bite of this delicious cornbread and then a little bite of the soup. So I took one, two, three big heaping piles of cornbread just making my plan. Have some bread, have a little soup, wash it down with bread, a little bit of soup, I’ll do this, we can make do with this arrangement.
Now to my great surprise and dismay, I discovered that this cornbread, I know this is going to sound surprising, had real corn in it. This was never the cornbread I grew up with. If you know, some of you have used that Jiffy box, it’s just cake really. But this was like heapings of corn with some bread around it. I had just made my problem worse. Now I’ve added just corn on top of this and my friends at this point were laughing completely out loud and I’m sorry to say I gave up. I explained to my newlywed friends, I know, I just explained like it was a relationship or something, “It’s not you, it’s me, and it’s all my fault. I’m a terrible person. I could not manage to eat the soup or the bread full of corn,” and they graciously accepted my defeat.
I have had similar experiences on a number of occasions. That cornbread was not at all what I was expecting. It looked to me like one thing – very life-giving and delicious. It looked like one thing on the outside and it proved to be something entirely different on the inside.
Now this silly story speaks to a common reality we have all experienced it. We’ve all been fooled by the way something looks on the outside, a person, a meal, a building, a book, an article of clothing, something, the way it looks and then the way it really is. It was too good to be true.
What I discovered, and perhaps you’ve discovered, biting into a piece of food or drinking a drink. You ever have that? Where you think you’re drinking one thing… If you grab a glass and you think it’s a cold glass of water and it turns out to be a warm glass of milk, that is a real shock to the system. Looks like one thing, turns out to be another.
Well, what can be true in all the ordinary circumstances of life can also be true when it comes to the Church and when it comes to God’s people. It is possible for churches to look like one thing, very much alive, and actually to be something very different. And what can be true of us corporately as the Church can also be true of us individually as Christians. We can look like one thing and inside we are something else.
That’s the story of the letter to the church in Sardis. Revelation chapter 3. Follow along as I read verses 1 through 6. There are churches on Sardis Road, we know, in our town, so we trust it’s not about any of those churches, just down whatever way yonder.
““And to the angel of the church in Sardis write: ‘The words of Him who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. “‘I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God. Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it, and repent. If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you. Yet you have still a few names in Sardis, people who have not soiled their garments, and they will walk with me in white, for they are worthy. The one who conquers will be clothed thus in white garments, and I will never blot his name out of the book of life. 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.’””
Now up to this point, we are on the fifth of the seven letters, up to this point all of the letters have started with something good. Three of the four have gone on to something bad, in Ephesus, Pergamum, Thyatira. The church at Smyrna only had what was good. But so far, we were four for four, at least, that every church had something commendable. The letter to Sardis starts with something bad and it never quite makes it to anything good except a few of them aren’t all the way dead, that’s as good as it gets.
In fact, there are two churches, here Sardis, and then the seventh church Laodicea, that look the most impressive. Surely, it is not a coincidence that the two churches of the seven that outwardly appear to be the most impressive, Laodicea we’ll see is affluent and at ease and rich and prosperous, and this has a great reputation. The two churches which look to be most alive are, in fact, most dead.
Jesus begins the letter to Sardis as He begins several of the other letters. Look at verse 2, or actually the end of verse 1 – “I know your works,” or “I know your deeds,” some translations put it. Jesus has begun several of the letters and He will begin several of the letters like this, “I know your works.” And with those other letters that we’ve seen already, with Ephesus or Pergamum or Thyatira, He says “I know your works and good good good but I have this against you bad bad bad.”
Sardis, I know your works, and you have none. You don’t have any. Here’s what you have. This is the “work,” this is the deed that they can boast about – they have a reputation. The word there, you see in verse 1, “you have the reputation of being alive” is actually the Greek word “name.” You have a famous name. You have vibrancy, vigor, and vitality but in name only. You have a reputation for being one thing but on the inside you’re dead.
Now what does it mean when Jesus says, “but you are dead.” It means there are none of the works that are mentioned in the other churches. Remember Ephesus, Thyatira, we’ll get to Philadelphia, the ones that have works. Now that language “works,” don’t think good works let along meritorious works, but think in a more broad sense, what do you have going for you as a church? That’s what Jesus says. I know some good things about you.
What have we seen with the other churches? Well, some of them have a vibrant, faithful witness. Some of them have love, have service, have theological acumen. “I know your works” is a way of saying “I know what you’re about, church. I know what you’re up to. I know what you’re like.” And so far, for four churches, there’s at least something good about each one of them. But when it comes to Sardis, the only thing they have going for them is a reputation for being something.
You notice when Jesus comes back around to “your works,” verse 2, He says, “I have not found your works complete. I know your works, but you’re not really connecting the dots. I can’t really list anything like faithful service, like love, like discernment, like not tolerating the false teachers. I can’t list any of those things. Your works are incomplete.” No hard work, no perseverance, no endurance like Ephesus, no love or faith or service like Thyatira, no faithfulness or patience or victory like we’ll see in Philadelphia, no great witness, no great doctrine, no great love, no spiritual pulse.
And yet, here’s the frightening thing, if you would have walked around town, people would not have necessarily known that about that church. It was an outwardly impressive church. It had a great reputation. People said, “Wow, you go to First Presbyterian Church of Sardis?” Pastor, how do you know it was Presbyterian? Okay, First Baptist Church of Sardis? Community Church, Fusion Agape Explosion Church, whatever they called it. “You are at a great church. Wow. I’ve heard all about it. I’ve seen your signs. I’ve seen your branding. I know you got tons of people who go there. You’ve got great facilities. You’ve got great music. Tons of energy.”
Sardis was a happening place. It looked like success. Accolades. And they had plenty of people to say, “Good job.” Except the only person who really matters, and that’s Jesus. If everyone around town thinks that’s a great church and Jesus thinks, “No, that’s a dead church,” then what Jesus thinks is what really counts.
This is the One who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars, this is Jesus, remember, each designation about Jesus is telling us something unique toward this church. So the One, look at verse 1, who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars, this speaks to Jesus’ knowledge, His discernment, His sovereignty, His control. So this Jesus who knows everything, has the sevenfold wisdom of the Spirit, this Jesus, He knows what you’re really like, Sardis. You look to be a success story and you’re not.
How does this happen? How do churches get a reputation for being alive when inside they’re dead? What does it look like when Jesus says a whitewashed tomb? Very shiny on the outside, inside full of dead men’s bones. Well, we don’t know what the specifics were at Sardis. But we do know how this can happen in our day.
Let me give you a few “isms.” I’ll make them as “isms” so you know that they’re bad. What are some ways that churches in our day look more impressive than they are?
One way might be by formalism. Now people would say we’re a fairly formal church compared to the way most churches are. I like old buildings, I like old liturgies, I like a formal service more or less… All of those things can be wonderful. But isn’t it the case, every single one of us, at some point we’ve walked through some downtown and seen some beautiful stone cathedral or old church building, it might even say “Presbyterian” on it. And you know that inside this wonderful church with hundreds of years of history is nothing going on of spiritual value. It may be an aesthetic experience, you may walk in and feel some sense of the transcendent, but there’s no Gospel there. There’s no Christ there. A kind of old formalism masks over spiritual decay.
Or what about a traditionalism. Again, I love tradition. Proudly a part of a Reformed tradition, and our services build upon and borrow from that tradition. But remember, tradition is a wonderful servant and a terrible master.
There are places in this country, for sure, where everyone comes and churches still have lots of people. They still meet their budget. And people get dressed up in their Sunday best and have generations there, and the building is well-maintained and they have staff and they send out workers around the world, and there’s a wonderful tradition, and yet there’s no faith, there’s no Gospel. Or at least not in every pew. For some it’s just what they do. It’s just what they’ve always done. This is what we do. We’re Baptists, we’re Wesleyan, we’re Methodist, we’re Presbyterians, we go to church. There’s no real transformation.
It’s long since passed that people were really worshiping Christ above all else. No, Christ is fine to fit in the margins of life. What they really worship is their house, their vacations, their retirement, their sports, their children, their athletic leagues, and they’re happy to have Jesus just be a part of the warm background noise of their life. It’s just a dead tradition.
Sometimes dead churches get a reputation for being very alive because they have, I’ll call it, a spiritualism, meaning these churches use lots of “God” language, they talk about divine inspiration, soul, mystery, beauty, and yet it’s not defined, it’s not the God-man Christ Jesus. It’s a vague spirituality. It’s not robust biblical Christianity. And you might walk in and there might be candles or incense, or maybe they have a prayer labyrinth or meditation and it all feels so very spiritual. But there’s no Bible, there’s no Gospel.
I remember reading, years ago, from one of my favorite professors, mentors as it were, at seminary, David Wells, who wrote in his book about the different way the word “journey” is used. So journey is not a bad word. We’re Christians, we’re on a journey. But he talked about the difference between the way Christians used to talk about journey and, not the band, and the way now they talk about journey. He’s what he writes. He’s comparing the contemporary notion with Pilgrim’s Progress.
“This is really the difference between Bunyan’s notion of spiritual pilgrimage and the post-modern idea of spiritual journey. The point of spirituality today is the experience of the journeying, not in the purpose of reaching the destination. For Bunyan, the pilgrimage is about the certain knowledge that Christians have of a better country to which they travel and of the way in which they must conduct themselves on the journey in preparation for the One to whom they are traveling.”
Did you get that? “Okay, journey, yes, oh, I’m on the spiritual journey.” Well, the old model was, yeah, you’re on a journey to a destination. The point is to arrive, the point is not to be in this great cloud of unknowing and just have the experience. There is a certain kind of spirituality today where it’s perfectly acceptable to always be searching as long as you’re never finding. Always looking, always wandering, always wondering, never finding, never concluding, never moving toward an actual destination.
Some churches look impressive because of entertainment-ism. Now I’m not against emotions, what Jonathan Edwards called “religious affections,” which are actually not identical to what we mean by emotions. Yes, we want worship to have vitality and energy and to have something of an experience. But that’s different than this kind of entertainment-ism, which says if we can just bypass the intellect and we can just go right to the lighting and the smoke and the right musical progression, and if we just get people amped up enough they’re going to leave and they’re going to feel like they felt something. There’s a lot of churches, people leave and they felt something.
I hope you leave and you feel something, too, and you say, “Yeah, I feel like I’m tired.” No, I hope you feel something better than that, but the experience is to come mediated through the word of truth. There’s a shortcut to that. You don’t have to go through the word of truth, you don’t have to go through the patient discipleship according to the Word and every sermon and every song and every prayer and every part of the liturgy, you just go to the right chord progression, the right sort of swelling music, and people all over this country leave on Sunday morning, “Wasn’t that great?” Because we all like to feel alive.
But it’s entertainment. And sometimes the churches that have the reputation for the best worship… You ever been to those churches? You often look around, nobody’s singing. They can’t see each other, and it’s the best band you could ever have that’s putting on a great concert as a lot of people sit out there and listen. That’s why you’ve heard me say many, many times, you’ve heard Nathan say, “The sound that is most important as we sing together, the sound that’s most important on Sunday morning, is the sound of the congregation singing.” That’s what we’re aiming for, not the best organ solo, not the best orchestra, not the best praise band. All of that is to accompany you, because we’re not entertaining. We’re leading so that you can worship, that you can sing.
There’s an entertainment-ism which has gripped many of our churches. With that sometimes people assume that bigger is better. Now I don’t believe that bigger is badder. The early church was growing by leaps and bounds, thousands were added to their number, so there is a certain strand of Christian that says, “Wow, that church is growing. Must be sell-outs there.” So that’s not the case.
But let’s not kid ourselves to think that just because something grows, just because something gets bigger, that therefore it must be the Lord’s blessing. We know from Sardis that looks can be deceiving.
Surely it’s not insignificant that the church of Sardis, flashy on the outside, dead on the inside, is the first church that we’ve encountered that includes no mention of opposition. There’s no mention of opposition. The threat of persecution, of bearing up against a strain, faithful endurance in the midst of suffering, no synagogue of Satan, no Jezebel, no Nicolaitans, no Balaam, no throne of Satan, no persecution.
Now we don’t know which came first – the chicken or the egg. Is that why they became so dead, because nothing was pressing on against them, or was it the other way? There was nothing pressing on against them because they were the perfect model of cultural inoffensive Christianity? There is a way that no one will care about your church – be just like everything and everyone else. Nonbelievers don’t get upset with dead churches. No vibrancy – no one’s bothered.
The problem at Sardis was spiritual deadness. Look at the prescription. That’s the problem, look at the prescription. Verse 2 – Strengthen what remains. Strengthen what remains and is about to die. And then verse 3 – remember what you have received and heard, keep it and repent.
I love how simple this advice is. Jesus doesn’t give them some enigmatic riddle, He doesn’t give them a 12-step plan. He simply reminds them of what they already know. If you want to wake up, remember.
So this is a church that apparently once was alive. They received, this is the technical language, you received the Gospel, you were taught, you were discipled, you were built up in the faith, you at one time received it, now remember it. Live in it again.
You know many people in your lives, and you probably pray for them often, kids, grandkids, loved ones, neighbors, friends, family. They have all of the information they need. They’ve received it at some point, and they’ve forgotten it. And maybe not mentally forgotten it so much as spiritually have forgotten it. They’ve fallen asleep, and Jesus says, “You need to wake up. You need to keep it. You know it. You received it. You know what’s right. You know what the truth is. But you’ve gotten lazy. You’ve gotten apathetic. You’ve become indifferent to it all. You’ve turned your back. Maybe you’re still showing up on church, maybe you still know the songs, maybe you still have a Bible somewhere on the mantel, but you’re dead. You’re going through the motions. You’re not alive.” Jesus says, “But there’s kindling, that’s the hope. There’s truth, there’s still truths in your brain, and if there’s still Gospel truth somewhere in your brain, there’s still kindling. And where there’s kindling, there’s a chance for a fire.”
Jesus has given simple commands to each of these churches. You could summarize it like this: Ephesus – love. Smyrna – be faithful. Pergamum – discern. Thyatira – think. And now to Sardis – wake up.
You see what Jesus says in verse 3: “I will come like a thief. You will not know at what hour I will come against you.”
Let me just add a parentheses here about this phrase, “The Lord comes like a thief in the night.” It speaks to the surprise. If you knew when a thief was coming, you’d be able to lock your doors, call the police, shoo them away, fire a shot in the air, get rid of the thief. But they come at night and they surprise you.
So this is familiar language for the coming of Christ. You don’t know when He will come, so you better be ready. Matthew 24:43, Luke 12:39, 1 Thessalonians 5:2, 1 Thessalonians 5:4, 2 Peter 3:10, here Revelation 3:3, later Revelation 16:15. Those are all occurrences of this expression about coming like a thief.
The gist is always the same. Stay awake because you don’t know when Christ will come. The language of staying awake means be faithful, get your house in order, don’t fall asleep spiritually. In all of these occasions where it speaks about Christ coming like a thief, He is coming what? You can see it right here in verse 3. He’s coming for judgment. That’s why you need to be awake because He’s coming for judgment.
So let me connect the dots and for some of you this may be different than the teaching you’ve grown up with. This is one of the reasons why I do not believe the Bible teaches a secret rapture of the Church. There’s one passage, it occurs in two gospels, but parallel passage, in Matthew 24 Jesus says two men will be in the field, one taken, one left. Two women will be grinding at the mill, one taken, one left. From that verse, those two verses, there’s a whole elaborate theology that that’s a secret rapture before the tribulation where Christians are raptured, they’re the ones taken, and then if you’re left behind you have to face the tribulation before the millennium.
There’s a lot of reasons why that doesn’t work, but let me just connect the dots with this expression, a thief in the night. Because Jesus uses that expression in Mathew 24. He says, “I am coming like a thief in the night” and in connection with that is where He uses that example, two men in the field, one taken, one left; two women at the mill, one taken, one left. Remember what I said – every time the expression “coming like a thief in the night” is used, it’s used Christ coming for judgment.
So it’d be very strange if in that one occasion there Christ coming like a thief is actually to take away people in some sort of secret rapture. In fact, we know that’s not what Jesus means in Matthew 24 because the analog in the verse before that, remember it? Jesus says it will be like the flood in the days of Noah, where those were taken, swept away, in judgment. The people who were taken were the ones taken for judgment. So two men in the field, the two women, you do not want to be the one taken, you want to be the one left behind in Jesus’ telling of the story, because He’s not talking about some secret rapture, He’s using a very homely, simple analogy to say what the Bible says in many other places, that the coming of Jesus will be like a thief and many people will be surprised, they won’t be expecting it, and they will be swept up in judgment.
That’s what Jesus is saying here in Revelation chapter 3. Stay awake, this may be your last warning.
Sardis, perhaps, is like a sleepy church in the Bible belt somewhere, filled with cultural Christians, or nominal members. Or maybe Sardis is like a successful mega church, lots of people coming in where they can hide out in anonymity and spiritual immaturity.
Even in good churches there are Sardis-like people. By God’s grace, I don’t believe we are a Sardis, but there can be Sardis-like people even in good churches. I don’t think that’s even many of you, but there’s a lot of us here and it’s likely some of you, you come to church once in a while, not every week, don’t want to get crazy, when it works. Used to be two, three times a month, now it’s once a month, everything has to sort of align, the weather, schedule, travel, the kids, feel tip-top, everything… But you’re not plugged in. You want to get in and out as fast as possible.
It’s true, sometimes churches are to blame. And if there’s something we’ve done, we want to say sorry. Something we could have done better, we want to do better.
I often say that in any size church, people will fall through the cracks, but our aim is to have a good structure and faithful, caring pastors and elders so that if you fall through the cracks, you at least have to go looking hard for those cracks. We want the cracks to be as narrow as possible.
But people always can find cracks. There’s no human system, there’s no eldership so good that people can’t find cracks and dive into them if they want to go there. Is that you? Always on the periphery? Never moving toward the center? Content with having the name of Christian without the reality?
Slumbering church-goers are in big trouble. Now I don’t mean you get sleepy sometimes. I’ve gotten sleepy, too. If I weren’t standing up, I might get sleepy with some of my own sermons. I understand. No, I’m talking about spiritual slumbering. Talking about the person who has lots of church clothes, they know what it is to look like a Christian, but their life is bearing zero fruit, they have zero passion for Christ, being a Christian costs them zero. They have zero interest in spiritual things, zero involvement in the Body of Christ. You may think Coke Zero is healthy, Christian Zero is not.
If all the gauges on your car are pinned at zero, you have to wonder if it’s really got an engine, if it’s really got a battery, if it’s really going anywhere.
One of the most dangerous things in the whole world is to be spiritually dead in the Church. If you’re spiritually dead outside the Church, perhaps you at least have enough self-awareness to know that you’re not interested in this thing and you’re not a Christian. But, oh, it’s dangerous when you have deceived yourself and you have the illusion to come and have just enough church in you to assuage your conscience, have enough spiritual inoculation against catching the real thing. To those people, if any are here this morning or listening to this, Jesus says remember what you received and heard, keep it and repent. It’s time to wake up.
Now there was a remnant at Sardis. Notice there were some who had not soiled their clothes. There were some walking in obedience. It was not all apathy, and for them Jesus gives a promise and here’s the promise for those who are awake and who will be awakened. Jesus promises he who overcomes will be dressed in white, Revelation 19:8. Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of the saints. So to be dressed in white is to be displayed as the beautiful spotless bride for the groom. It is those who have walked with God in white in this life who will appear with Him in these sparkling garments in the next life.
Now don’t be confused that Revelation 19 says that those white garments are the deeds of the saints, and then you think, “Oh, so I get a nice garment based on how good I am.” No, this is not about earning salvation. What it’s simply saying is, because there’s other places where the white garment is received simply as a gift and it’s the clothing of Christ Himself. You put those two things together and the Bible is simply telling us that those who have received the grace of Christ will show in themselves something of the grace of Christ.
Inanimate, unrighteous, Christians in name only who sleepwalk through their spiritual life, are not really Christians. That’s the point. But animated, living, breathing, awake Christians, walking with God in faith and repentance, will be given appropriate garments for the wedding supper of the Lamb. We know that this bit about the garments is not about you need to have enough good things to balance the bad things in order to get the garment, because Jesus tells them repent, repent. It’s not for those who have more good deeds to weigh against their bad deeds, it’s those who have turned their back on their old way of life and have turned their face to Christ. It’s those who are no longer asleep but are awake. Jesus says, “Here’s the promise. I’ll give you the garment for the wedding feast.”
Second promise, “To him who overcomes he will not have his name blotted out of the Book of Life.” So you see verse 5? First promise, the white garments. Second promise, his name will not be blotted out of the Book of Life.
Again, we can misunderstand this. This does not mean authentic Christians can lose their salvation. What does it mean? Blot out. That sounds like your name’s written and then oops, well, you were saved, cross it out, never mind, that person’s not going to heaven anymore. Well, there’s one of two ways to interpret it. We always need to interpret Scripture with Scripture. Jesus Himself says that once you receive Me, you have eternal life and none can snatch you from My hand. So Jesus said your possession of eternal life is not something that can be lost.
So what does this mean? Well, it may simply mean that overcomers will not lose their salvation. That is, strictly speaking, all the text says. It doesn’t say that authentic Christians will have their name erased from the book. It says no, overcomers, that is authentic Christians, will never have their name written out of the book. So it may just be that there’s no set of people who are Christians and have their name written out of the book.
Likewise, it may also mean that there are some who appear to be Christians, appear to us that they have their name written in that heavenly book, and yet prove themselves to be false, and that’s certainly of the something of the aim here, because Sardis has a reputation for being alive, but they’re dead. This image of the Book of Life is to communicate just because you think you’re alive and you’re friends think you’re alive, doesn’t mean that you can’t still be dead. But if you overcome and you stay awake, your name will never be removed from this book.
Then finally there’s a third promise. You see in verse 6, end of verse 5: “And I will confess his name before My Father and before His angels.”
Name is actually the central idea woven throughout this letter. Did you notice that? It appears four times. Now I mentioned you don’t see the first one because it’s translated in verse 1 as “reputation.” But it’s literally the word “name.” Verse 1 – you have a name for being alive but you’re dead. Verse 4 – you have a few names in Sardis who have not defiled their garments. Verse 5 – I will not remove his name from the Book of Life. And end of verse 5 – I will confess his name before the Father. Four times we have the word “name.” “Name” is the central idea in this letter.
Because here is the central question for Sardis and for each of us. It’s an uncomfortable question but it’s an urgent question. This letter would have us ask, “Are you a Christian in name only?” Only in name. Now maybe you’re just visiting, you’re not a Christian at all, and we’re glad that you’re here and listening and learning what Christianity is about. Most of the people in this room come before, will come again. Whether you’re a communicant member here or you’re an 8-year-old who happily tells the world that you’re a Christian like your mommy and daddy, or you’re 85 years old – most of us would say, yes, sign me up, I’m a Christian. From time to time we have to ask ourselves this uncomfortable question, “Am I a Christian in name only?”
Because Jesus says if you have the name and even if everybody thinks you have the name and you look impressive with the name, but you don’t have the reality, your name’s not in that book. You want your name in that book. Just because you have the name here, if you don’t have the name in the book that matters for eternity, then you’re kidding yourself. That’s the warning.
Here’s the promise. But if, brothers and sisters, and I look out here and thankfully I do think most of you are Christians, not only in name but in reality, if you have the name of Christ and you actually have union with Christ, then don’t miss this promise – I will confess your name before My Father and before His angels.
Think what Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, that warning, didn’t we prophesy in Your name, didn’t we cast out demons in Your name, and Jesus will say to some of those, “Depart from Me, I never knew you.”
This is the opposite of that. This is the promise. This is the good news of that. It’s an amazing scene. Standing before God, this God in chapter 4 and 5, this God of great glory and holiness and sparkling rays of light and rainbow and seven spirits and four living creatures and 24 elders and a cacophony of thunder and brilliant bolts of lightning, this holy, awe-inspiring God, and the Lamb approaches the One who sits on the throne and some final scene of judgment, reading out from the Lamb’s Book of Life, and Jesus comes to your name and my name and He smiles. He says, “Oh, I know him. I know her. She’s one of mine.” Jesus gets to your name on the list and He says, “Father, listen up. Angels, I want you all to hear this. This name, she’s with me. That name, he’s one of mine.” And Jesus is not ashamed to call you His brother, His sister, His friend, servant.
Such is the promise and the reward that when we stand before Christ it will all come down to the reading of your name. Will Jesus say on that day, shaking His head, “They had the name and not the reality and I never knew them,” or will He say, with a bright beaming smile, “Yes, I confess them before My Father and before the holy angels. That one belongs to Me.”
Let’s pray. Father in heaven, we pray that You would so send Your Spirit by Your Son that You might breathe into any dry bones in this place new life. Join bone to bone and sinew to sinew and cover us with flesh and breathe life into us, where there is nothing but lifelessness. Give to us not just a name, but the reality. We pray in Jesus, that precious name. Amen.