The letter John penned to the Church at Sardis, in Revelation 3:1-6, addressed the Body of Believers who lived in Sardis at that time. But the message was far from exclusive. Christ’s warnings to the seven churches were meant to impart a universal exhortation to the Church at large—through every age.

What Is the Church at Sardis?

“The Book of Revelation addresses seven letters to seven churches in Asia Minor. Each letter, as proclaimed by Jesus and recorded by John the Apostle, declares the triumphs and failings of the recipient churches and warns each congregation to repent,” explains Delores Smyth in What Do the 7 Churches in Revelation Represent?

The Church at Sardis, along with the churches in Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Philadelphia, and Laodicea, may have been selected to receive John’s letters because of their geographical location. Each of the seven churches was situated along an established trade route that connected the most populated regions of the province. The letters would have spread like wildfire to every church in the province along that route until all Believers gained access.

Sardis’s history was a fitting backdrop for the specific warning Christ issued in their letter. About 1200 years before Jesus came, Sardis took its place as the prominent capital of the Lydian kingdom. The citizens of Sardis enjoyed safety and prosperity beyond measure. Located at the foot of Mount Tmolus, the city was well fortified, and the bounty of the Practolus River provided them with fresh water and gold.

Sardis’s natural resources gained them a high level of respect from all the provinces in the area. With the mountains as their shield and their wealth protected atop a fortified hill, surrounded by steep cliffs, the city was called, “Sardis, the Impregnable.”

But Sardis’s pride and overconfidence in their resources would soon take its toll. Believing their city to be “impregnable” the guards became careless in their duties. Even after a surprise attack by the Persians in 549 BC nearly destroyed the city, Sardis’s military didn’t perceive the need for vigilance or reinforcement. Years later they were attacked by the Greeks, who used the very same tactics employed during the Persian invasion.

After an earthquake devastated Sardis in 17 A.D. the city was only partially rebuilt. At the time John’s letter was penned, around 53 A.D., Sardis’s resources and reputation were rapidly declining. But Sardis’s leaders refused to accept the signs of death all around them. Instead, they clung to the city’s historical triumphs and insisted that Sardis would once again rise to its former glory. In blissful ignorance, they refused to acknowledge the degrading effects of their own indulgence and neglect and continued to prop up their decaying city with tales from past victories.

The Church at Sardis would have known their city’s history. Therefore, Christ’s letter had deep personal relevance to them, as well as spiritual importance. Sardis means “those escaping” or “that which remains.” After reading John’s letter, the Believers at Sardis were left with a choice. They could follow the way of their city’s history, tradition, and culture—or the church could follow the way of the Lord.

What Was Jesus’s Message to the Church at Sardis?

The message Jesus gives to the church in Sardis (Revelation 3:1-6) is a sobering one. He knows their works intimately, but He is also aware of the façade they display to the world. The two realities are diametrically opposite.

The Sardinian Believers had effectively built a winning brand for themselves in their community. By all appearances, the church in Sardis was a vibrant, effective powerhouse. But inside they were lifeless.

Jesus issues a strong warning to the dying church. “Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have found your deeds unfinished in the sight of my God. Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; hold it fast, 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” (Revelation 3:2-3).

But not all the Believers in Sardis were spiritual zombies. After His pronouncement to the wayward church, Jesus addresses a handful of people in the congregation who had chosen not to follow the example of their deceived brothers and sister in the Lord. He commends the faithful few for not having “soiled their clothes,” in the filth of hypocrisy. Jesus bestows upon these devoted individuals the honor to walk with Him, “dressed in white.”

Finally, Jesus offers a glimmer of hope to the church in Sardis, and it’s packaged in a promise. To any who were willing to awaken to His truth, stop living the lie, and repent—Jesus promises victory. Their soiled garments will be made white, and their names will be written in the book of life to be acknowledged before God and the angels.

Why Is Spiritual Deadness Such a Horrid Condition in the Church?

When Christ, in the form of the Holy Spirit, comes to live inside the heart of each Believer, a supernatural metamorphosis occurs. Through Adam’s sin, all humanity inherited spiritual death, but Jesus is our way, truth, and life. Our life is in Him, and His life shines through us. The same resurrection power that brought Jesus back to life is the power that fuels the Christian life. His Church is a collective reflection of the divine light and life of Jesus.

When a church attempts to operate from any other power source than Christ, that church can officially be identified as dead. The problem with a deceased church is that it rarely recognizes the condition. A dead church will often continue to function in its own power, programs, and pomp and attribute the momentum to Christ—celebrating every temporal victory as if it had eternal merit.

Like the story of Samson in the Old Testament, a dead church may not have the discernment to recognize when the “Lord has departed.” This makes the dead church not only ineffective but dangerous. When the world sees a dead church parading about as if it were alive in Christ, Satan gains an upper hand in his schemes to malign the image of God and keep the lost world in bondage.

5 Signs from Sardis That Your Church May Be Dying

Is your church more concerned with boosting its own image than God’s?  I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead” (Revelation 3:1). When a church becomes hyper concerned with brand, growth, numbers, and programs, that’s a sign of spiritual illness. Scripture is clear that the Church’s PR role belongs to Jesus, alone. He is the one in charge of “building the church,” and only He can legitimately add to its numbers “those who are being saved” (Matthew 16:18, Acts 2:47). A glowing reputation and a full house are worthless if they are only the toe-tags of a dead church.

Does your church leave Christ’s agenda “unfinished” to pursue their own? “I have found your deeds unfinished in the sight of my God” (Revelation 3:2). God’s appointed mission for the church is a continuation of Christ’s earthly ministry. Scripture is clear that the church’s God-given and Holy-Spirit fueled purpose is to equip, encourage, strengthen, and train the Saints to take the Gospel of Christ to the world (Eph. 4:11-12Matt. 28:19-20, Matt. 5:13-14). Many churches can become so distracted by financial concerns, outreach schemes, and cultural relevance that their human efforts undermine the purity of Christ’s mission. Christ has already provided all the Church needs to fulfill our mission. Our labor is only effective for the Kingdom of God when we are working Christ’s plan, in the flow of His Spirit, for God’s glory.

Are the messages from the pulpit human-centered or truth-centered? “Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; hold it fast” (Revelation 3:3). Scripture tells us there will come a time when people are no longer able to tolerate the teaching of sound doctrine. (2 Timothy 4:3) In an effort to reach the masses with the Gospel, many modern churches have compromised sound doctrine for humanistic teachings that won’t offend. Instead of preaching the Word of God that has the power to transform lives, these pastors have settled for a watered-down version of the message that promotes tolerance and trivializes hard truths. If a church is not willing to “hold fast” to God’s Word, guard it, and faithfully preach it, in season and out of season—that church is dying or dead.

Does your church encourage repentance?  “… and repent …Yet you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes” (Revelation 3:3b, 4). Repentance has been a foundational doctrine preached since the early days of the Church. But lately, Satan has been hard at work to veil the truth about the deadly nature of sin, and he is busy warping the truth about the essential doctrine of repentance. Before His ascension, Jesus told His disciples, This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem” (Luke 24:47). If the truth about sin and repentance is never discussed within your church Body, that is a sure sign that the Holy Spirit is not actively at work among the congregants. For more information about repentance check out this article by Kristi Woods.

Are your church gatherings marked by an atmosphere of spiritual lethargy?  “Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die” (Revelation 3:2). If you and most of the members of your church feel like you’re just going through the motions on Sunday morning, you probably are. Not every church gathering will be filled with excitement, but when the Body of Christ has the opportunity to come together for corporate prayer and worship—the presence of Christ should be sensed and experienced as a source of life and light.

Scripture repeatedly uses the analogy of spiritual sleepiness to expose the pitfalls of complacency and alert us to the fact that our time on earth is drawing to an end. Now, more than ever, we need to be alert and actively cooperating with Jesus so that He can strengthen our faith (Hebrews 12:2). If your church acts more as a sleep aid than a light source—that’s a sign the church needs to be revived. “And do this, understanding the present time: The hour has already come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed” (Romans 13:11).


Photo credit: ©GettyImages/Darwin Brandis

Annette Marie Griffin is an award-winning author and speaker who has managed and directed children’s and youth programs for more than 20 years. Her debut children’s book, What Is A Family? released through Familius Publishing in 2020. Annette has also written curriculum for character growth and development of elementary-age children and has developed parent training seminars to benefit the community. Her passion is to help wanderers find home. She and her husband have five children—three who have already flown the coop and two adopted teens still roosting at home—plus two adorable grands who add immeasurable joy and laughter to the whole flock.