The fifth letter in Revelation 2-3 is addressed to the church in Sardis:
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.’ (Revelation 3:1-6 ESV)
This letter is a very discouraging letter. But, perhaps we can learn even more because of its tone.
What does Jesus say about the church in Sardis? 1) He knows their works. 2) He knows that their works are dead, although they appear to be alive.
This is very important in our understanding of these passages. When Jesus tells the church in Sardis that he knows their works, this is not a good statement. He is not commending them for their works. Therefore, we need to recognize that when Jesus says he knows the works of the church in Ephesus, this also may not be a positive statement. We have to look at the context to see what Jesus says about their works. In the case of Sardis, their works are dead.
What does Jesus have against the church in Sardis? Jesus does not specifically say, “I have this against you” as he does to the other churches. However, we can assume that he has their dead works against them.
What is Jesus’ remedy? 1) They are to remember what they received and heard – probably the gospel. 2) They are to obey what they received and heard. 3) They are to repent.
Apparently, like the church in Galatia, some within the church in Sardis have turned away from the gospel. Their works are dead because they are depending upon their works to make themselves worthy of a relationship with God. However, these are not the kind of works that Jesus desires. He desires works that are alive. Works that are alive are works that are done in response to a relationship with God.
There are some within the church in Sardis who have not turned aside – they are not doing dead works. Jesus does not add any requirements to them. These continue to walk with Jesus in white garments – righteousness. This appears to be a contrast to those who do dead works. Living works are performed by those who walk with Jesus in the righteousness that they receive from him. Dead works are performed by those who attempt to earn their righteousness on their own.
In this letter in particular we can learn that works are not an indication of righteousness. We should work, yes. But, we must also ask ourselves why we work. If we are working so that God will like us more, or so that God will accept us, or so that we will be more holy, then we are doing dead works. If we are working in response to the work that God has done and is doing in us, then we are doing living works.