Can a Church Die?
| "I know thy works, that thou hast a name that thou livest, and art dead."
The gates of hell cannot and shall not prevail against the church of our Lord Jesus Christ! Yet, individual churches, though once indeed strong, may find their end in utter destruction. Of the seven churches of Revelation Chapters 2 and 3; all but one are today thoroughly extinct. An individual church can die outwardly, sometimes wiped away by severe outward persecution. Other times, churches can die inwardly, as the members collectively drift away from a vibrant loving relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ.
Sardis (Revelation 3:1-6) is an example of a church that experienced inward death. This writing considers the teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ as lovingly directed to the church of Sardis.
Now the call to review and consider the letter to the church of Sardis is not for purposes of pointing at any particular church to label it as dead. We have no intent to call out any group, gathering or false teaching. No, the seven letters were written not to condemn, but to challenge those with ears to hear to personally consider their spiritual health. The call is to individuals, to personally examine whether they are walking in newness of live, or if instead they wear a mere form of vain religion.
The question: what is the testimony of your life? Does your character clearly testify that you live? Or is it a double testimony, one of confusion? We all need to be so fully yielded to the Holy Spirit that our testimony is clear and bright, that it is manifest that we zealously love our Lord Jesus Christ, serving Him with an undivided heart, a single focus and a fixed determination. We who are clothed in garments of white should look, in all aspects of life, far different that those of this world. Take courage! Fully commit yourself, entirely -- actions, thoughts, members, desires and efforts -- to serving our Lord Jesus Christ. Those who do so will shine as bright lights in a darkening world, glistening as precious jewels in the midst of much wood and stubble.
Let us begin by considering what it was that resulted in our Lord Jesus proclaiming that those in Sardis were dead, rather than living? What was going on when Jesus sent this powerful warning to them? Let’s read the passage.1 And unto the angel of the church in Sardis write; These things saith he that hath the seven Spirits of God, and the seven stars; I know thy works, that thou hast a name that thou livest, and art dead. 2 Be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die: for I have not found thy works perfect before God. 3 Remember therefore how thou hast received and heard, and hold fast, and repent. If therefore thou shalt not watch, I will come on thee as a thief, and thou shalt not know what hour I will come upon thee. 4 Thou hast a few names even in Sardis which have not defiled their garments; and they shall walk with me in white: for they are worthy. 5 He that overcometh, the same shall be clothed in white raiment; and I will not blot out his name out of the book of life, but I will confess his name before my Father, and before his angels. 6 He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches.
So what was the problem our Lord revealed to those in Sardis? Their works were imperfect and their garments were defiled.
What Does it Mean to Defile Our Garments?
Does it mean they are spotted with the world?
Does it mean that we walk in our flesh?
Do our garments get spotted with certain sins?
First, I ask you to pause, if you are inclined to quickly conclude that the Lord’s evaluation of Sardis could not possibly apply to the church you presently attend, and therefor has little application to you. I would only ask, do you think that the church you love and serve so clearly excels in comparison to the church at Laodicea, the congregation of the lukewarm, or Ephesus, the congregation of those who lost the first love, or to the church of Sardis we are now considering, the church of the living dead? What about your gathering is so superior to these churches? Especially consider the church of Ephesus, planted in the Book of Acts, personally taught by the Apostle Paul for 3 years, the recipient of a personal letter recorded as a New Testament Book, and the subject of a a personal letter from the Lord Jesus Christ in the Book of Revelation?
Let us carefully consider what our Lord Jesus said to Sardis.
Where is the gross sin? Where is the glaring doctrinal error? Look again. These are not the problems of Sardis. Indeed, the opposite appears to be the case. They had heard words that were of good doctrine. “Remember therefore how thou hast received and heard, and hold fast, and repent” (verse 3). This is why Jesus calls them to remember what they had heard. He does not point out doctrinal error or learn something new; rather, He counsels them to remember what they had been taught, that which they had received and heard. Their problem was not bad doctrine; rather they had failed to hold fast to the solid doctrine that was delivered to them. If was not their lack of understanding, it was their lives and their works which did not match the transforming power of the gospel message which they had first heard and received.
Look at the warning of our Lord Jesus if they do not watch. “Be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die” (verse 2). We do not watch when we begin with a conclusion that this sad situation cannot describe us. We watch by doing the opposite, by considering carefully if these things might be so, if we invite God to search our heart to reveal to us whether these things might be an accurate description of our present situtation. When we begin with the conclusion that this could not possibly be me, do we not commit the very error that the Lord Jesus expressly warns of: "if therefor thou shalt not watch . . . " (verse 3)? Rather, we are to look and see. This is what it means to watch. To simply assume that our good teaching makes us better than these other churches is to sleep, not to watch.
So, what do we see when we awaken, look and consider?
Spurgeon examined this text and wrote in 1856
“How is it that professors can live like other men? How is it that there is so little distinction between the church and the world? Or, that if there is any difference, you are frequently safer in dealing with an ungodly man than with one who is professedly righteous? How is it that men who make high professions can live in worldly conformity, indulge in the same pleasures, live in the same style, act from the same motives, deal in the same manner as other do? Are not these days when the sons of God have made affinity with the sons of men? . . . Take our churches at large—there is no lack of names, but there is a lack of life. Else, how is it that our prayer-meetings are so badly attended? Where is the zeal or the energy shown by the apostles? Where is the Spirit of the living God? They have a name to live, but are dead. . . Where is practical godliness? Where is firm, decisive, puritanical piety? Thank God, there are a few names even in Sardis which have not defiled their garments; but charity itself will not allow us to say that the church generally possesses the Spirit of God.”
Some continue on, just as they have been, thinking that their garments are clean enough. Perhaps they believe if they keep free of gross scandalous sin, adultery, lying, swearing, stealing and the like, then their garments are sufficiently clean; but the proud Pharisee walked that road and proclaimed "God, I thank thee, I am not as other men; I am no extortioner, adulterer, or injurious person." We ought not trust in such accomplishments as sufficient. And, looking at the text, I think we would expect that if the church at Sardis was engaging in gross sins of this sort, there would have been some mention in the letter from our Lord Jesus penned to them which we read.
Some think their garment is clean, if they are moral in their walk, if they are just in their dealings between man and man. I wish, indeed, there was more morality among those that profess the name of Christ. As Spurgeon wrote, there is often more danger in dealing with so-called Christians than there is in the world. But even if we do better than those, mere morality, in the highest degree now attainable, comes infinitely short of the nature of true holiness.
Some consider their diligence in religious activities as adequate: they read the scriptures, they listen to sermons, they pray and do service in church and other outward performances, and thereupon conclude, that they are holy persons. But who is more diligent in the externals of religion than the Pharisees, who "fasted twice a week, and gave tithes of all that they possessed?" and yet Jesus tells us, that "except our righteousness exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, we cannot enter into the kingdom of heaven." Religious activities may be very good but if they are not the result of Christ’s life within us, they do not profit; rather they confuse. Our good religious activities may be mere form, tradition and human endeavors to please God or make a good name. Rather, our diligence needs to be an outward expression of our inner love and zeal for the Lord.
Some trust in the works they do in the name of Jesus. They prophesy or do good deeds in the name of God. But Jesus warns that this is no substitute for doing the will of God and departing from iniquity. He elaborates on this error very clearly in Matthew Chapter 7, especially verses 21 through 23.
What Does Our Text Tell Us?
We must be worthy.
We must be overcomers.
From where do we find the source to be worthy and to overcome? We must by the work of the Spirit live in a zealous love for our Lord Jesus Christ. We must be excited about our Lord Jesus. I could see many in the midst of the World Cup, World Series or Superbowl and see exuberance, commitment, fervor and zealous speech. We all wear excitement on our faces. There are none who are excited on the inside while looking on the outside as though they just drank several glasses of pickle juice. So, I ask, where is our excitement when it comes to our Lord Jesus?
We defile our garments when we have a divided heart. We defile our garments when we make compromises with the world. We defile garments when we love ourselves first. We defile our garments when we live for self even if we proclaim right words of sound doctrine. When the things of the world get our attention, when anything keeps us from being conformed to the sacrificial life of a disciple of Christ Jesus, when we have anything less than a vibrant love for our Lord Jesus Christ, we miss the marks of those dressed in white. Those clother in white raiment love Jesus and the whole world knows it. They are a good tree bearing good fruit; they walk in love; they walk in joy; they walk in peace. They trust God. There are no substitutes for the fruit of the Spirit. There are no saints who are trees that bear worldly fruit, rather than the Holy fruit of the Spirit of the living God.
Spurgeon continues in his analysis of the Church of Sardis, considering the words of the Lord Jesus to "Be watchful."
"He looked on the church and saw the bishops slumbering, the elders slumbering, and the people slumbering; they were not, as once they were, watchful for the faith, striving together and earnestly contending for it, not wrestling against the enemy of souls, laboring to spread their Master's kingdom, but the apostle saw sleepiness, coldness, lethargy; therefore he said, "Be watchful.” Ah! we have abundance of cold, calculating Christians, multitudes of professors; but where are the zealous ones?” Where are those who have an impassioned love for souls? How many of our pulpits are filled by earnest, enthusiastic preachers? But what shall be done with such persons as live in the church, but are not of it having a name to live, but are dead? What shall be done with mere professors who are not possessors? What shall become of those who are only outwardly religious but inwardly are in the gall of bitterness? We answer, as good Calvin did once: "They shall walk in black, for they are unworthy." They shall walk in black—the blackness of God's destruction. They shall walk in black—the blackness of hopeless despair. They shall walk in black—the blackness of incomparable anguish. They shall walk in black—the blackness of damnation. They shall walk in black for ever, because they were found unworthy. O professors, search yourselves. O ministers, search yourselves. O ye, who make a profession of religion now, put your hands within your hearts, and search your souls. You live in the sight of a rein-trying God. Oh! try your own reins, and search your own hearts. It is not a matter of half-importance for which I plead, but a matter of double importance. I beseech you, examine and cross-examine your own souls, and see whether ye be in the path, for it will go ill with you if ye shall find at last that ye were in the church, but not of it, that ye make a profession of religion, but it was only a cloak for your hypocrisy—if ye should have entered into his courts below, and be shut out of the courts above. Professor, what wilt thou think of thyself when thy robes are taken from thee. Oh! I think I hear them saying in hell, "Here's a parson, come here; here's a deacon; here's a church member; here's a man who has had the sacramental wine within his lips; here's a man that has had the baptismal water on his garments." Ah! take care. There are but a few names in Sardis who shall walk in white. Be ye of that few. May God give you grace that ye be not reprobates, but may be accepted of the Lord in that day! May he give you mercy, that when he severs the chaff from the wheat, you may abide as the good corn, and may not be swept away into unquenchable fire! The Lord in mercy bless this warning, and hear our supplication, for Christ's sake."
What Should We Do If Our Garments are Defiled?
External changes cannot cleanse defiled garments. Only God can do so and clothe us in white raiment. That is the subject and purpose of this text. The church of Sardis had a good reputation; but inside were souls who had defiled garments, who needed to consider their state . . . and remember. Remember what? "Remember therefore, how thou has received and heard, and hold fast, and repent." Today, this moment, remember, hold fast to the good truth, and repent. Begin with a new seriousness about your relationship with Jesus Christ. Yield your entire being to the Holy Spirit. A flourishing local assembly begins with you. Give more of yourself to Christian living. No, not more. Give all! Heaven is for the bride of Christ, those who have a vibrant zealous love for the bridegroom, who are dressed in white, who overcome by the power of the Holy Spirit.