The ancient city ofSardiswas famous for its wealth and power. It was the capital of thekingdomofLydiaand was a rival of cities such asEphesusandSmyrna. The wealth ofSardiscame from the gold that was found in the river Pactolus. Sardisis also famous for being the first place in history where currency was used.
During the reign of Croesus the original city ofSardiswas an almost impregnable fortress-citadel, towering above the broad valley of the Hermus, and nearly surrounded by precipitous cliffs of treacherously loose rock. The Persian King Cyrus besieged the city in 546 B.C., apparently scaling the cliffs and entering by a weakly defended point under cover of darkness. The same tactics led to the fall of the city again in 214 B.C. when it was captured by Antiochus the Great.
The Harvard-Cornell archeological expedition excavatedSardisfrom 1958 to 1975. One of the more significant discoveries was theSardissynagogue (called Beth Alpha), the largest known ancient synagogue, built in several phases from the third through the seventh century. The main hall of the structure was astonishingly large: twenty meters wide and fifty-four meters long, large enough to hold a thousand people. Many members of the synagogue were wealthy citizens and officeholders. About eighty inscriptions can still be seen today – these are mostly regarding donations from these wealthy citizens ofSardis.
The templeof Artemis, which is the 4th largest Ionic temple known to have been constructed in the ancient world, was built during the reign of Antiochus III. Sardis was ruled by the kings ofPergamum from 190 to 133 B.C. until it came under rule of the Roman hegemony.
The letter to ‘the angel of the church in Sardis’ in Revelation 3:1-6 suggests that the early Christian community there was imbued with the same spirit as the city, resting on its past reputation and without present achievement, and failing, as the city had twice failed, to learn from its past and be vigilant. The symbol of white garments was rich in meaning in a city noted for its luxury clothing trade: the faithful few who are vigilant shall be arrayed to share in the triumphal coming of their Lord.
The letter addressed to the angel ofSardisis primarily a censure against the church there. Only a minority of Christians “have not soiled their garments” (v. 4). While many Christians may appear to others to be faithful, Christ knows their true spiritual state as they are at the point of spiritual death. They are encouraged to wake up and change their ways before it is too late.
This letter reminds us of Jesus’ words in Mark 13:33-37 “Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come. It’s like a man going away: He leaves his house and puts his servants in charge, each with his assigned task, and tells the one at the door to keep watch.
“Therefore keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back—whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or at dawn. If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping. What I say to you, I say to everyone: ‘Watch!’”
Watchfulness is an indispensible characteristic of the people of God throughout scripture. As we hear in Proverbs 4: 23 “Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.” So our visit to the church inSardisreminds us of how we can become overconfident because of the things of our faith that we build up. Just like the Christians in Revelation, we too can become lazy in our faith and stop keeping watch or guarding our hearts. InSardis, this meant that the city fell to the enemy. We face a very real spiritual enemy who is looking to attack us at our weak points.
The reward for the vigilant Christians in the book of Revelation was that their names would not be blotted out of the book of life. This book is, of course, a metaphor for eternal life. Jesus says that he will be faithful to confess the names of the faithful before his Father and his angels. So, we can hope in the everlasting truth that Jesus is the one who saves us. He is the reason to keep a vigilant watch. Jesus is the one in whom we can place our hope. The church of Sardis reminds us not to get discouraged when it seems like there are only a few faithful Christians around us, but to trust in the promises of Christ and his second coming. ~Andy Kumpel