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"We have met the enemy," Walt Kelly announced a generation ago in his comic strip Pogo, "and he is us!" The message to Sardis lists no specific enemies, internal or external. There is no name calling—no liars, no Balaam or Jezebel, no deep secrets of Satan, no synagogue of Satan, no throne of Satan. Consequently, of all the congregations in Asia, we know least about Sardis and its problems. Yet no other message is more damaging or more urgent than this one. Walt Kelly was right. Too often, when we encounter no spiritual adversaries, it is because we are the enemy. The only enemy named at Sardis is the angel to whom the message is addressed.
Sardis was situated almost directly south of Thyatira, in the direction of Smyrna and the sea. Its greatest days were behind it, but this once proud capital of the ancient kingdom of Lydia (later the western capital of the Persian Empire) was still, under Roman rule, an important center of the woolen industry. Abundant archaeological remains include a temple to Artemis, a huge gymnasium and the largest synagogue yet found in the ancient world, suggesting a Jewish community numbering in the thousands (Finegan 1981:177-78). A sermon of Melito, a Christian bishop at Sardis, entitled On the Passover (see Hawthorne 1975:147-75), testifies to a spirited, sometimes bitter, debate with this Jewish community in the second century. Yet as far as we are told, the problem of the congregation in John's time was not with the Jews, nor with the Roman Empire, nor with false prophecy, but solely with itself.
The Speaker's grim indictment of the angel at Sardis swings between overstatement (3:1) and understatement (v. 2). You are dead (v. 1) is a dramatic way of saying "you are spiritually asleep" (compare Eph 5:14), for the angel is then told, Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die (v. 2). The call to awake, and to remember, obey and repent (v. 3) assumes the real possibility of change. Yet the milder-sounding words that follow, I have not found your deeds complete in the sight of my God (v. 2), are deliberately understated, implying that the angel's works are unacceptable to God, and therefore a failure (Beckwith 1922: 474; compare Dan 5:27, "You have been weighed on the scales and found wanting").
This message makes it clear that the angel, like any human leader, is deeply involved in the life of the congregation. The message recalls Jesus' words to the faltering Simon Peter in Luke 22:32, "I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers." This angel, dead or not, has the responsibility to strengthen what remains and is about to die (v. 2). He functions much like a human pastor, except that what is said to him is actually said to the congregation as a whole.
Sardis faces a threat: 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 (v. 3). Many (for example, Ramsay 1904:377-78; Mounce 1977:110-11) have tried to link this pronouncement to certain incidents in the history of Sardis, when the city was taken unawares by hostile armies. This is unlikely because (1) these incidents were centuries earlier; (2) the message is to the Christian congregation, not the city of Sardis; (3) the image of the thief in connection with a command to "watch" or "stay awake" was common in early Christianity, based on well-known sayings of Jesus (see Mt 24:43-44 par. Lk 12:39-40; 1 Thess 5:1). The warning could as easily have been directed to Ephesus or Laodicea, or to the unfaithful in any congregation.
The message to Sardis reveals nothing definite about the church's predicament beyond the fact that it is about to die. Only the metaphorical reference to those few people in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes (v. 4) offers a possible clue. They are promised that they will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy (v. 4), a promise immediately reinforced by a word to those who "overcome," who will, like them, be dressed in white, whose names will not be blotted from the book of life, but rather acknowledged before my Father and his angels (v. 5; compare Mt 10:32-33 par. Lk 12:8-9). At Sardis, clearly, the few who had not soiled their garments were the "overcomers."
Clean, white clothing in the book of Revelation is consistently a symbol of religious and moral purity, especially in the face of persecution (see 3:18; 4:4; 6:11; 7:9, 13), while soiled or disheveled clothing, or no clothing at all, is a symbol of religious and moral impurity and shame (see 3:17-18; 16:15). It is likely that the problem at Sardis was a strong tendency to compromise Christian faith for the sake of conformity to social and cultural standards set by Asian society and the Roman Empire. This spirit of compromise was linked not to one particular faction in the Christian community (as at Pergamum and Thyatira) but to the majority. The ones who had not soiled their clothes had become marginalized. They were the small faction. This explains the severe tone of the message, but it is impossible to be more specific as to the exact nature of the compromises made at Sardis.