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Message Notes: Dear Church-The Church in Sardis

Dear Church

Week 5: The Church in Sardis

Pastor Rick Henderson                October 21-22, 2023

DEAR CHURCH - Part Five:  The Church in Sardis

Pastor Rick Henderson                October 21-22, 2023

This is week 5 of our series, Dear Church. Revelation chapters 2-3 contains 7 personalized letters from Jesus to seven distinct churches. This was all written down by a man named John. If Jesus had a best friend in life, it might have been John. He was an eyewitness to all the major scenes of Jesus’ life. It shouldn’t surprise us that he is the one who Jesus chose to physically write and deliver these letters. This is the passage we are going to look at today.


Grab a bible or pull out a phone and locate this passage.

Obviously, these letters weren’t written to our church. These letters weren’t to us, but they are for us. The better we understand Jesus’ message to other churches, the better we’ll understand his message to our church. When taken as a whole, these letters show us Jesus’ mindset toward and his heart for churches. Anything encouraging that we read, it’s good for us to aspire to be that kind of church too. Anything hard that we read, it’s wise of us to acknowledge that we are just as vulnerable to the same mess ups and sins as they were. We should read and respond with a disposition of humility and courage. Humility says, “We could be wrong and we’re no better than anyone else.” Courage says, “We will follow the truth, whatever it is, wherever it leads.”

REVELATION 3:1-6 – “To the angel of the church in Sardis write: These are the words of him who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have found your deeds unfinished in the sight of my God. Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; hold it fast, and repent. But 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. Yet you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes. They will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy. The one who is victorious will, like them, be dressed in white. I will never blot out the name of that person from the book of life, but will acknowledge that name before my Father and his angels. Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”


  • 7 Spirits
  • 7 Stars
  • Alive
  • Dead
  • Wake Up!
  • Thief
  • Soiled Clothes
  • Dressed in White
  • Victorious
  • Book of Life/Blotting Out Name

If you’ve been here or watched online the past few weeks, this is probably predictable. Because of the writing style that is used, there is a lot of symbolism and coded references. We’ve got to unpack that symbolism and references to understand and truly connect with this message.

Before we begin to do that together, it might be helpful for me to acknowledge that this process of identifying what is symbolic and interpreting those symbols and references comes more quickly to some people than to others. Do you know why that is? It’s not because some are smarter than others. That’s not it. The more you read and know your Bible, the more you will pick this up.


The people who put this together were trying to illustrate the 63,779 times that one passage in Scripture cross references another. Last week I told you that the Bible is grand, unified, true story. This is a visual illustration of that. I want you to know it. Because it is the primary way that we get to know Jesus.


  • 7 Spirits = (sevenfold Spirit) the Holy Spirit

This will seem weird to us if we don’t understand that the number 7 was often used to represent perfection. This is better translated as the sevenfold spirit than 7 spirits. This is about the Holy Spirit. In this letter we see two members of the Trinity, working in unison, in the churches. That’s a beautiful thing.

  • 7 Stars = 7 angels (pastors) of the 7 churches

This one is easy and challenging at the same time. The stars are the angels. But what is meant by angel. Feel free to disagree with me on this. I’m convinced that it’s a reference to pastors of these churches. It is a privilege to be a pastor, but there are times that the weight is far beyond my capacity to carry. There are no words to describe how this anchors my soul with hope, that Jesus holds pastors in his hand.

  • Alive = saved, born again, regenerate, united with Jesus

Those who have trusted in Jesus by faith, who have said, “I believe died on the cross for my sins and rose from the dead. I give my allegiance and trust to you.” Those people are made spiritually alive. What’s the opposite of that?

  • Dead = not save, not born again, not regenerate, cut off from Jesus

This is the state of anyone who has not trusted in Jesus. Woven throughout the Bible from beginning to end, this is about being cut off. The devastating commentary on this church is that they had a fantastic reputation. And yet, they were cut off—spiritually dead.

  • Wake up = woke

If I say anything that is going to make anyone mad today, it’s probably this. If you feel your temperature rising because people you trust have convinced you that this is a bad word, I’m asking you to hang with me for 30 seconds. Do you know who used this terminology before any politician, social activist group, or podcaster? Do you know who said this long before any of them?


Someone shared with me recently that someone tried to talk him out of coming to our church because I’m a woke pastor. By God’s grace, may that be 100% true of me—but with the condition that I’m woke in the way that Jesus defined it. What does it mean to be woke, which is just a punchier way to say awake?

WOKE: aware of what’s wrong and aligned with what’s right

Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Isn’t this the whole point? Isn’t this the essence of repentance? I was wrong. Now I’m aware of it. I can no longer ignore the reality of sin. I want to be aligned with what’s right. Scot McKnight is a scholar and theologian. Listen to what he says.

The book of Revelation, when read well, forms us into dissident disciples who discern corruptions in the world and church. –Scot McKnight

We can’t be discerning people unless we are aware of what’s wrong and aligned with what’s right. Stay with me. I can totally understand if you associate this language with bad behavior, maybe even criminal behavior. But wouldn’t we be selling ourselves short if we let someone other than Jesus define this language for us, especially since he used it? If you’ll allow me, I want to press this even further.

If you want to be an ambassador of Jesus in a world that is broken, don’t fight the word woke. Embrace it and leverage it. If I’m talking to someone, and maybe they have a political and social outlook that is very different from mine, and they use this kind of language—I want to leverage that for the sake of the gospel. I’m going to say something like this.

I don’t know if you and I use that word the exact same way. But even if we don’t, I admire how much you value being aware of what’s wrong and aligning with what’s right. I’d love for you to tell me more.

And then I’m going to listen. And I’m going ask thoughtful questions. And hopefully they sense that I genuinely like them and care about them. If so, I hope they ask me questions. By the way, that’s how we know if people are interested in what we think. They ask us questions. I want to have a conversation about the source of what’s right and good and the reason there is wrong and injustice in the world. All this means I get to make a new friend and talk about Jesus. But I can’t do that, and you can’t do that if we shut down and allow words to trigger judgmentalism in us.

Judgementalism always and only builds walls. Gospel defined discernment is about building bridges with people. If there is an impulse in us to build a wall, that’s judgement. Discernment wants to build a bridge with every person.

From my heart, it is a tragic thing that Christians would let themselves be talked into using woke as an insult, especially knowing that Jesus himself used this language.

  • Thief = judgment without warning

This is very likely combining a biblical reference with a cultural and historical reference. There are numerous passages that describe Jesus coming as a thief. It simply means without warning. This would have captured their attention for a different reason. The city of Sardis was on top of a steep plateau. It had a reputation for being impossible to defeat. But twice during its history, a small handful of enemy soldiers were able to defeat it. Because watchmen were not paying attention, enemy soldiers secretly climbed the cliffs, and they were able to open the city gates.

This is Jesus saying, in the same way you’ve been surprised in the past, I’m going to show up and surprise you. And if you don’t repent, it will not be pleasant.

  • Soiled clothes = sin and cultural compromise

This is more of a cultural reference than a biblical one. The city of Sardis was widely known for their wool industry. In that city, you could not approach pagan places of worship if you wore dirty clothes. You had to be dressed in all white. This is a punch on the nose from Jesus. Your whole life and way of being is repugnant and unacceptable to me. Heavy stuff.

  • Dressed in white = holy and pure

This is pretty simple and straightforward. I hope you remember last week when talked about Gospel Fluency.


  • Know the CONTENT of the gospel.
  • Understand the IMPLICATIONS of the gospel.
  • Apply the MOTIVATIONS of the gospel.

When we know the content of the gospel, we know that we are saved by what Jesus did, not what we do. When we trust in Jesus by faith, we are given his status of righteous and innocent. Being seen as wearing white robes is not based on our moral performance. That status is gifted to us by giving our allegiance to him.

Understanding the implications of the gospel means that we see how following Jesus means turning away from any way of thinking or behavior that contradicts him. Because we are motivated by love and joy, we happily chase after a lifestyle of holiness. Esau McCaualley is another scholar who I deeply admire. He brings this into focus.

Love for God that doesn’t pursue holiness misunderstands the freedom from sin inherent in the gospel.  –Esau McCaulley

  • Victorious = endures in faith

This is not at all about accomplishing anything for Jesus. Victorious is simply about enduring faith.

  • Book of Life/Blotting out name = (Psalm 69:28) God’s accounting of who does and who does not have eternal life

This is another combination of biblical imagery and a cultural, historical reference. I don’t believe that there is an actual book in heaven with everyone’s name who is forgiven and who’ll receive eternal life. I’m sure Jesus has an app for that by now. Seriously, this is symbolism that is used all throughout the Bible to represent God’s knowledge of and accounting of who is with him and who is cut off from him.

The cultural, historical reference comes in because a city like Sardis did have an actual registry of its citizens. If a citizen was convicted of a serious enough crime, his name would literally be blotted out of that registry, meaning that he no longer had access to the rights and privileges of being a member of that city or commonwealth.

We should be asking 2 questions.

QUESTION: Whether it’s literal or symbolic, how do you get your name in the Book of Life?

If you believe that Jesus died on the cross for your sins, and that he was raised from the dead, if you give your allegiance to him and follow him as the ultimate authority of your life—your name is in it.

QUESTION:  Whether it’s literal or symbolic, can your name be erased from the Book of Life?

What do you think?  A pastor said one time, “If you could lose your salvation, you would.”  We are not secure in Jesus because of how tightly we hold to him, but how tightly he holds us. Be encouraged by that. And yet, be cautioned. Genuine, authentic faith is always a faith that endures.

Now we are ready to do what we’ve done in previous weeks. I’m going to put the passage back on the screen. I’ll take out all the symbolism and refences and replace them with what they were intended to communicate.

(Translation of) REVELATION 3:1-6 To the angel of the church in Sardis write: These are the words of him who is holds the Holy Spirit and the seven pastors of the seven churches. I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being united with me, but you are cut off from me. Open your eyes to all that has gone wrong and repent. Align with me! Strengthen what remains and is about to be cut off, for I have found your deeds unfinished in the sight of my God. Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; hold it fast, and repent. But if you do not open your eyes to all that has gone wrong and align with me, I will come in judgement, without warning, and you will not know at what time I will come to you. Yet you have a few people in Sardis who have not given in to sin and cultural compromise. They will walk with me, holy and pure, for they are worthy. The one who endures in faith will, like them, be holy and pure. I will never break my promise to give eternal life, but will acknowledge that name before my Father and his angels. Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.

While there is a small number of followers of Jesus in this church, and there is encouragement for them, Jesus doesn’t have anything positive to say to this church. Because they were convinced of their reputation, because everyone else was convinced of their reputation—out of all the messages to the 7 churches, this is maybe the most unexpected one.


  • It’s better to have no church than an unloving church.
  • It’s better to let a church suffer than to prevent it.
  • It’s possible for a church to stand up for Jesus while standing against Jesus.
  • It’s possible for a church to wrongly value staying together over staying faithful.
  • It’s possible for everyone but Jesus to be convinced that a church is alive and well.

We’ve got to talk about dead churches because this was a dead church. And because we don’t ever want to be a dead church, and because there is no guarantee that we won’t become a dead church, let’s lean in and devour what Jesus had to say to them. This isn’t about us, but it’s good for our church and it’s good for every church.

REVELATION 3:1b-2 I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have found your deeds unfinished in the sight of my God.

The fact that they had an excellent reputation + the mention of unfinished deeds strongly implies that there was a time in the past that life and good things were happening. It’s very possible that they had an awesome history and legacy. While that’s not a problem, it can become a problem. I want to highlight 3 possible signs of a dead church. These are things that our church and every church would be vulnerable to.

DYING CHURCH: They love their legacy more than their mission.

A pastor friend of mine recently said this to me, “I hope you don’t drive while looking in the rearview mirror the whole time.” Do you remember this movie, Bird Box?


For whatever reason, the only way to avoid danger was to always be blindfolded. Something called the Bird Box challenge quickly became popular with teenagers. They were trying to do everything blindfolded. One high schooler in our town decided to take the Bird Box challenge while driving, and she took out a light pole. Don’t do that!

Be awake. Look ahead. Don’t fall in love with the past. It is so obviously foolish to not look ahead, but it happens all the time. This happens to companies. It’s why Kodak doesn’t exist anymore. This happens to individuals. I bet you know someone who got stuck in life because they only looked backward. And every time after you interact with that person you feel a sense disappointment, maybe disdain because they don’t know what their purpose is. This can happen to churches too.

HEALTHY CHURCH: We HONOR the past; we don’t LIVE in it.

Our church is older than the state of Minnesota. We have a lot to honor in our past. We’d be crazy not to honor our past. Living in the past isn’t crazy for a church, it’s deadly. Here’s another sign to watch out for. This is intertwined with loving the wrong thing.

DYING CHURCH: They love their methods more than their mission.

I mentioned Kodak because they were a company loved their methods more than their mission. When digital photography started to emerge, they doubled down on film photography. Do you know why. They confused methods with their mission. And when that happened, they became deluded into thinking their mission was to capture images with film. Do you know what their real mission was?  Their real mission was capturing memories. And if they would have awakened to that, they could have leveraged all their resources to be the best in the world at capturing memories, whether it was digital or film.

HEALTHY CHURCH:  he mission NEVER changes. The methods ALWAYS change.

Pick anything that you love about a church experience you’ve had. Pick anything you love about our church. There was a time that that thing was a brand-new idea. And that brand new idea, that you love, probably messed with someone’s comfort when it was first tried. Because it’s easy to love the method more than the mission. Let me say it as clearly as I know how, this is the kind of church that we want to be.

  • We’ll do anything short of sin to lead people to be fully devoted followers of Jesus.
  • There is no thing at this church that we won’t cancel or change if it means being able to lead more people to be fully devoted followers of Jesus.
  • There is no thing that we will be too afraid to consider or try if it means being able to lead more people to be fully devoted followers of Jesus.

HEALTHY CHURCH: The mission NEVER changes. The methods ALWAYS change.

A church that has lost sight of this is a church that has lost their mission, their purpose. They have lost their way. They don’t remember why they exist and so know they are living for the wrong thing.

DYING CHURCH: They believe their church exists for Christians.

Something happened in that church in Sardis that resulted in them not experiencing any persecution whatsoever. If you were a genuine, spiritually alive follower of Jesus, you probably had a harder time dealing with church members than anyone in that city. Why do you think that was? There was nothing about their Christianity that caused anyone to notice them. They were utterly irrelevant. Warren Wiersbe was a brilliant Bible teacher. This is how he described that church.

The unsaved in Sardis saw the church as a respectable group of people who were neither dangerous nor desirable. They were decent people with a dying witness and decaying ministry. – Warren Wiersbe

Churches who end up like this always walk the same path. That path is buying into the bankrupt idea that churches exist for Christians. Four years ago, when I was first being interviewed as the possible next lead pastor of Autumn Ridge, the chairman of the elder board as me this question.

Is a church for Christians or nonchristians?  I told him that I get the question, but those aren’t the only possible answers. I then said, a church exists for Jesus and it should be good for everyone, both those who follow him and those who don’t. We’ll always be confused by that if we don’t understand what a church actually is. A church is not a building, location, or a service like we’re having now.

Church: baptized followers of Jesus, in a specific location, who are devoted to Jesus, his purposes, and each other

That’s what a church is. “Christian” just means Jesus-follower. So, let’s replace the words with the definitions and we’ll see just how ludicrous it is to think that a church exists for Christians.

Jesus followers exist for Jesus followers.

That’s not the gospel. That’s narcissism. I want you to think about how we close every service. We read these words. They are like our marching orders.

2 CORINTHIANS 5:14-15 For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.

The idea that church is for Christians isn’t just wrong—it’s DEAD wrong. Do we live for ourselves?  [Wait for answer.] Who do we live for?  [Wait for answer.]

HEALTHY CHURCH: We live for JESUS, not ourselves.

Every church gets to decide if they want to walk the path of a dying church or walk the path of a healthy church.

REVELATION 3:6 Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.

SERIES THESIS:  KNOWING the truth doesn’t change anything. SUBMITTING to the truth changes everything.

I want to remind us of how all these letters start. Before the first letter begins, we are reminded that Jesus rose from the dead. “These are the words of him was dead and came to life again.”  The same power that raised Jesus from the dead is the same power that can resurrect any person or church that is walking a dying path. Our responsibility is to wake up and turn to him. He is the one who provides the power and new life. May we be a church who has the ears to hear and the heart to respond. May we be a church that loves Jesus and the mission he gave us more than any other thing.