Seven Churches Series
Dr. David R. Denny
The Temple of Artemis outside Sart (ancient Sardis), Turkey https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Temple_of_Artemis_Sardis_Turkey4.jpg
Today we leave Thyatira heading inland further to the ancient city of Sardis, the former capital of Lydia. As we walk along the dusty Turkish roads in search of the new city, all of us on this journey should be feeling pretty good. For when we departed from Thyatira, that blue class working town, the Lord gave us all the Morningstar. Do you have your star in your pocket? It is a personal gift from the Lord given to all overcomers who sojourn through life resisting the evil of the world, holding fast to the teaching of the Lord.
As we depart Thyatira with the Morningstar in our pocket, which is God’s pledge of love and encouragement and faithfulness to us, we can still hear that echo of encouragement given to them and to us—“Your deeds of late are greater than at first.” Remember that? The faithful saints at Thyatira were getting better, gaining strength, growing in spiritual confidence. They were aging like old wine, their faith gaining subtle textures and nuances that only time can give.
It was so uplifting to visit a church where the fruits of the Spirit were so evident. Everyone was pulling together in spite of the tests and difficulties. Everyone was excelling in love and faith and service and perseverance. So let me just remind you if you ever find yourself a little down in your Christian journey, if the blues ever hit you and you feel a bit like giving up sometime—then go back and visit your Christian brothers and sisters in Thyatira.
As we head another 30-40 miles further inland, walking with the Lord toward Sardis, it is reassuring to know that He cares enough about the churches to make this journey. This circuit through the churches was a personal mission of the Lord. He cares about us and He just wants to make sure we’re all on track.
The Bible begins with a personal journey. The Lord each day would walk in the garden, enjoying the fragrances of the early morning or the cool winds of the evening. It was here that He supped with Adam and enjoyed his company. —And it was on the road to Emmaus that the Lord once again walked with some grieving disciples, men lost in depths of despair. And as the Lord walked he listened, he encouraged, his challenged the men just as He does to you when you walk with Him daily. —
**When I used to live on the Easter Shore, I pastored the Cheriton Baptist Church for 6 years. It was a beautiful church built in 1920. It had a second level balcony that wrapped around the sanctuary. It had hand-made stained glass windows with the names of the early members etched into the base. And on the top of the church there rested a massive dome that gave the building architectural stature. I loved that sanctuary.
Every morning I would rise at sunrise, take my elegant Irish Setter named Reverend and off we would go bounding across Route 13 toward the Chesapeake Bay. The fields were silent early in the morning, and often the bay mists would roll in over the soybeans fields. We would tromp across the wet fields trying to get to the Bay before the watermen left. Then we would sit on the wharf and watch the little oyster boats drift off to sea their motors slowly revving up as they approached the deeper water.
Well, for some reason walking down this Turkish road to Sardis made me think about those Eastern Shore jaunts. Sardis lies about 60 miles inland from Ephesus where our journey started. It was at one time one of the world’s great cities, being the capital of Lydia. But time has certainly ravaged this place. Sardis was the home of a famous church father named Melito who lived there in the middle of the second century, just a generation from the writing of this letter.
As you approach the ruins of the city you can see in the distance two huge pillars standing watch over the silent remains of the dead city. These two pillars are very ancient going back hundreds of years before Christ. They area the only two complete pillars of the temple of Cybele (Artemis) that dominated the city of Sardis. This temple was so massive it is twice the size of the Parthenon in Athens. I’ve been to the Parthenon which takes your breath away it is so magnificent. But this temple in Sardis is twice the size of the Parthenon. Its ruins are still there today spread out beneath the shadow of the two remaining solitary pillars.
Just below the temple, there is a 5-acre gymnasium built in the early 2nd century, just aa few years after our text. It is still there today almost fully intact. The gymnasium complex and the massive temple of Artemis give us hints at the lifestyle of the citizens of this old city. Cybelean worshippers were known for orgies and sexual mutilation and extreme fertility rituals. Priests were routinely castrated and then dressed up in women’s clothes to satisfy Cybele.
Sardis was a city given to pleasure and it made it difficult to be a serious and devoted Christian. And so as we sit and rest beneath the two remaining pillars of the temple it is easy to hear the scathing rebuke given to this church echoing among the broken stones and scattered pillars.
In every other church, the Lord always began with something good, something positive about the church. To the Ephesians, he began by complimenting them on not growing weary in their work for the Lord. To the Smyrnans He sympathized with their poverty and offered no condemnation at all. To the saints at Pergamum, he smiled with pride that they had not denied the faith. And to the Thyatiran church, he boasted about their progress and growing faith. But when the Lord strolls into the city of Sardis and gazes at the great temple where immorality reigned he merely shook his head and then with brutal honesty and disgust, he said three little words that still haunt the place to this very day. Three words that no church ever hear. Three words filled with the dark realities that can beset any church at any time in history. He looked around and said, YOU ARE DEAD. (Nekros ei).
There is no small talk here. There are no greetings here, no pleasantries, no hand shaking or back slapping. Things are beyond that. The Lord is looking at these saints and dialing 911. He’s put the stethoscope on their chests and nothing is registering. He hasn’t given up hope entirely because the next words out of his mouth are a command to wake up! I can see the Lord there slapping the face of the corpse, shouting at them, giving CPR. Doing all He can to bring them back. But it’s a sad picture. Let’s all make a vow right now that this will never happen to us here at DBC. Let’s don’t ever be the one church that he declares to be dead.
* I watched a strange old Irish movie last night about a little boy whose father was the town drunk. He idolized his father who in his earlier days was a brilliant trumpet player. He still carried his trumpet around and would play a few random notes in between drinking, but his life was over. One day the boy came home, and his father was sitting motionless in the chair in the middle of the living room. The boy acted as if nothing was terribly wrong. But the father wasn’t moving, and the flies were landing on his face. So the little boy was swinging the fly swatter wildly over the father and chattering aimlessly about this and that. Just chattering and swinging his fly swatter at the flies. Then the doorbell rings and the town doctor asks to see the father. “Oh sir, he’s off on a long journey to Dublin. “ When will he be back?” asked the doctor suspiciously. Oh not for days sir. Not for days.” The doctor leaves, and the boy keeps striking the air with the swatter.—A few days later, the town policeman and the doctor return and haul the corpse out of the house.
“You are dead, says the Lord to the church in Sardis. “For I have not found your deeds completed in the sight of My God.”
How does a church get to this point? How does a Christian drift so far from home? It’s nothing major usually. It’s like a marriage. First, it’s the clothes left lying around, then the long work hours late at night, then the suspicion, then the fights and nasty words shouted across the living room, then the stopping off at the bars after work and before long a couple just doesn’t love each other anymore. It might take years, it might come more swiftly. But love can spoil, and faithfulness can warp with time and fracture with neglect.
Churches have to renew their calling every Sunday to avoid this pitfall. Churches have to visit the early days often like we did last Sunday. Churches have to renew their vows often and rise early and stroll with the Lord through the wet fields to the Bay watching the sunrise and finding that mystical connection to the heart of heaven where it all begins.
Melito, the revered and famous church father who lived and died in Sardis, came along a generation after this scathing rebuke from the Lord. Tradition says he worked tirelessly to win the favor of the Lord again at his church. He made tireless journeys to Palestine to connect with the spirit of the Gospel. Melito took these words seriously. He labored to find the first love for Sardis.
What are you doing here to fan the flame of revival and evangelism and zealousness? Each of us has that responsibility. We don’t want the Lord to stroll in one Sunday, push me aside, take the mike and say the three words.