Incomplete Deeds: The Zombie Church of Sardis (Rev 3:1-6)

UPDATE: This is an old article. An updated and expanded commentary on this passage can be found in Paul’s book Letters from Jesus.

What a wonderful thing for a church to get a letter from Jesus! The seven churches of Revelations 1-3 were a real mixed bag with some getting rebukes and others encouragement, but all were blessed. Even the churches that were mucking around with the things of God were blessed because they were being warned. They were being given a chance to repent. These letters say as much about the mercy and goodness of God as they do the badness of certain people.

When we read these letters it is essential that we ask two questions: What is Jesus saying in light of the finished work of the cross? And who is he speaking to? If we fail to rightly divide the word we can end up getting the wrong message. For instance, consider what Jesus says to the church at Sardis: “I have not found your deeds complete” (Rev 3:2).

The issue of deeds comes up in several of these letters. At different times Jesus says, “I know your deeds,” or “your deeds are incomplete,” or “I will repay you according to your deeds.”

So what are these deeds that Jesus is talking about?

If we were living under the old covenant, we would no doubt define these deeds in terms of the 10 commandments plus the other 600 or so sundry Levitical laws. Today some might say they are the deeds that “prove repentance” or they are works of obedience, as in, “we should do what the Bible says.” Okay, but do we obey everything in the Bible including the law? If not, how do we know when our deeds are complete? At what point is repentance proved?

No, Jesus did not go to the cross so that we could get the chance to work for our salvation. Some people think Christianity is about rules and regulations, but that’s not grace. No, Jesus “worked” so that we would not have to. He died, so that we might enter his rest unencumbered by the heavy yoke of religion.

Someone once asked Jesus, what must we do to do the works of God? Jesus replied, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he sent” (Jn 6:29).

What is our divine occupation? It is believing in the finished work of Jesus and “working” that out in our lives to the point where the supernatural becomes natural and our broken world is restored. This was no one off claim either. From the very beginning of his ministry Jesus consistently preached, “repent and believe the good news” (Mk 1:15).

What does Jesus want you to do? He wants you to repent and believe the good news. And he wants you to tell other people the good news so they have a chance to repent and believe too.

If you think that is too simple, that we also obey Jesus’ commandments, consider what he commanded us to do: “And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ… ” (1 Jn 3:23)

Here in the church at Sardis was a group of people who heard the good news but had not repented and did not believe. They were busy doing churchy stuff but it was all dead works. They had a reputation of being alive but Jesus wasn’t fooled. “You are dead. Wake up!” I call them the church of the living-dead, but really they were just dead.

Are you surprised to learn that there are unbelievers in the church? You shouldn’t be. Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian. You can preach, prophesy, cast out demons and perform signs and wonders without ever knowing Christ (Mt 7:23). It’s not going to church or leading a church that counts, it’s whether you have repented and put your faith in Jesus.

In many of the letters to the New Testament churches there are sections either addressed to unbelievers or warning the saints about the influence of unbelievers among them. The letter to the church at Sardis is no exception. How do we know for sure there were some unbelievers in the church at Sardis? Because Jesus said they were dead and in danger of judgment.

What message did Jesus have for the sinners in Sardis?

To the unbelievers at Sardis Jesus said, “remember what you have heard; hold fast and repent” (Rev 3:3, KJV). What had they heard but the gospel? What work did he want them to do? He wanted them to grasp the good news, hold fast to it, and repent.

Jesus compares repenting to waking up. Twice he tells them to “wake up!” Paul used similar language when he told the Romans to put aside their “deeds of darkness” and wake up from their slumber (Rms 13:11-12). To repent is to wake up, to come to one’s senses and return to the Father (1 Cor 15:34, Lk 15:17).

Jesus warned the Sardisians, “if you don’t wake up, I will come like a thief.” This is a warning of impending judgment. The zombie sinners at Sardis had heard and rejected the good news. They were playing church and rejecting the grace of God. In his mercy, Jesus was giving them another chance to say “yes” to him before it was too late.

This is the same message Jesus has for religious people everywhere. Stop playing church. Wake up and obey what you heard before it’s too late. Repent and believe the good news.

But this church wasn’t a completely lost cause for among the sinners were a “few” saints. We know this because Jesus clearly distinguishes a second group within the church who had not “soiled their clothes” and who were considered “worthy.” How do we soil our clothes? By trying to make ourselves righteous (Is 64:6). What makes a person worthy in God’s eyes? Being clothed with Christ and his righteousness (Is 61:10).

What message did Jesus have for the saints in Sardis?

They will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy. He who overcomes will, like them, be dressed in white. I will never blot out his name from the book of life, but will acknowledge his name before my Father and his angels. (Rev 3:4-5)

Those who preach a works-based gospel – which is no gospel at all – have used this verse to burden Christians with unholy demands for religious works. They say things like, “you’ve got to perform for Jesus lest he find your deeds incomplete.” Or they say, “if you don’t overcome to the end, Jesus will blot out your name from the book of life.” Honestly, it’s as if the cross made no difference at all!

Why would Jesus – who nailed the law to the cross and died so that we might live free from its demands – suddenly turn around and start laying law on his church?

In this passage Jesus gives Christians the most wonderful assurance of their salvation. He says, “I will never blot out their names from the book of life.” To this the confused preacher replies, “Watch out Jesus might be tricking us, he might yet do what he just said he would never do.” It’s ludicrous!

Jesus not only died for us but he lives for us that we might be holy and blameless. The riches of his love for us are not bound up in threats and conditions. He performed so that we don’t have to. Just as Jesus “worked” on our behalf, so he has overcome on our behalf:

In the world you have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world. (Jn 16:33)

If you are in Christ, you have already overcome the world because he has overcome the world (1 Jn 4:4). Trials and tribulations may entangle and overcome sinners (2 Pet 2:20), but they cannot overcome you. You may not feel like an overcomer. The circumstances of your life may be trying to tell you that you are not an overcomer. But they are lying. They are speaking from a worldly point of view. We are from God and he says we are more than conquerors through Christ who loved us (Rms 8:37). The world may rise up against you, but Almighty God is for you! The entire world may try and condemn you but God himself justifies you (Rms 8:33).

The next time circumstances or people try to lay guilt on you saying you must do this and that to overcome, respond with this: “I believe that Jesus is God’s Son. In him I have already overcome the world!” (1 Jn 5:5).

The good news is not that you have to work hard to rescue yourself. The good news is that God himself has rescued you and qualified you and brought you into the kingdom of the Son he loves (Col 1:12). God looks at you clothed with Christ and says, “you are worthy and your deeds are perfectly complete!”

18 Comments on Incomplete Deeds: The Zombie Church of Sardis (Rev 3:1-6)

  1. Adam Howell // May 3, 2010 at 9:37 pm // Reply

    It is amazing to me how reading the bible with new covenant lenses opens up insights and revelations into even the most misunderstood book of the bible. Praise God for your bold move to re-frame the purpose of the letter to the Church in Sardis in light of this superior covenant with better promises!

  2. Fantastic Paul! That is awesome! I can’t wait to go read Revelations again! I see a seven-part series developing… haha


  3. Susana Vivas // May 20, 2010 at 6:51 am // Reply

    Amen!!!!Love it!

  4. stalin chelladurai // June 24, 2010 at 3:30 am // Reply

    i really rejoice to read your rare article on keeping our faith only on finished work of jesus and preach the same to the world, the will of father(god). Further i believe that jesus took up the sins of the world when he was baptised by john and fully paid the price of sin when he shed his blood on the cross.So unless we born of water &sprit ie unless we believe jesus who came by water &blood we cannot enter the kingdom of god.

  5. There are a few scriptures that have crossed my mind but I was hoping you would comment on one in particular and I figured this was a good place to ask since you commented on the text in Hebrews 6. Okay in Revelation Jesus is speaking and he tells some believers to repent or their names will be blotted out of the Book of Life.
    I actually wrote the above for a comment in another post then I remembered a link about this article and figured you might say something about it. So I think I kinda understand what you’re saying but I wanted to make sure. I mean you’re talking about unbelievers in this church at Sardis and I figured this was for believers, that is, that Jesus was talking to believers. Before I could never understand how we’re saved not by works but grace and then certain scriptures seem to imply the opposite or maybe hearing something from a pastor or teacher implying the opposite. The fact is I always had a problem trying to keep all the commandments and not realizing the work is done. I mean I believed I’d get into heaven not by my works but still there seemed to be works that I had to do which is anything that the Bible said to do but now I believe I just let Jesus live out His life in me and he does the work or I should say He has already done it. Hence there’s nothing I need to do. Here’s my point: Jesus says their names will not be blotted out implying their names are already in the book and all they have to do is “strengthen what remains”, to do the things their supposed to do. When you say they’re unbelievers it seems kinda like that parable about the wheat and the chaff. So it seems like these are people that need to grow up for lack of a better term and basically all that is is believing in Jesus and that’s he’s already paid the price so there’s nothing left to do. It’s just before my thinking was “I tithe, I go to church, I don’t do this, I don’t do that, etc. etc.” So if I’m not praying as much as I should then that’s something that needs to be strengthened. Otherwise my name could get blotted out. But of course that makes it seem as if I have to work my way into heaven which is not true. I’ve also heard the term “true believers.” I think my question is are these people that Jesus is speaking to people in church who think they’re Christians but they haven’t truly believed or perhaps under the law playing religious either ignorantly or knowingly and now it’s time for them to believe or else their names will be blotted out? It’s like the argument once saved always saved and I don’t really know which it is.

    Thanks for commenting.

    • Phew, that was a long question! Yes, this is a wheat and chaff (or sheep and goats) issue. Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian. God has good news for everyone, saints and sinners. Incidentally, have you read my post Does God Use Correction Fluid?

      If I have misunderstood your question, can you give it to me again in 50 words or less?

  6. In 50 words or less. Could we call these people Jesus spoke to unbelieving believers (on the same level that demons believe and tremble) because either they’re not allowing Jesus to live His life out through them knowingly or unknowingly. Also is this what Jesus meant by strengthing what remains as opposed to the fact that they should pray more, tithe, or forgive others, etc.


    • In verses 1-3 Jesus is speaking to sinners (perhaps believing unbelievers?). They are, in His words, dead (in sin) and asleep (in ignorance). Their deeds are incomplete. These sinners are clearly distinguished from those in v.4 who “are worthy.” Our deeds don’t make us worthy; Jesus makes us worthy. The first group were unworthy because they lacked Jesus. They may have had a reputation of being alive – they were playing church – but despite all they did, they weren’t doing the one thing we are all commanded to do – believe in Jesus. They had heard the gospel (v.3) but not obeyed it. They had not repented, not woken up.

      This is probably the most serious warning a sinner can get. It’s like they’re a patient in intensive care and they’re about to flat-line. They have been given an injection of the gospel, but they’ve rejected it. Only a little remains, but their hope of salvation is dying. Urgent action is needed before it’s too late. In a word: Repent! Change your mind and put your faith in Christ before it’s too late. The truth doesn’t set you free; it’s knowing the truth that sets you free. These guys ( in v.1-3) don’t know Jesus.

  7. By the way thanks for the other article. I see what you meant. Since when you know your eternity is secure then every place Jesus speaks of those who will walk with Him in white refers to you.


  8. Again, this needs to be shared

  9. I’ve read both articles now and still see no confirmation of ‘eternal security’. How did the members of the church of Sardis soil their clothes to begin with? Apparently the clothes at one time were not soiled. This is hardly a description of non believers as you say. This is a description of people that believe in Jesus, and go to church, but do not put away their sin. It happens all the time. It is happening in your church today. Just because someone sins, it doesn’t make them a non believer, it just makes them a sinner. Just like if a friend tells you a lie doesn’t mean they were never a friend. The church of Sardis is clearly about believers and some soiled their clothing and don’t get to walk with Jesus. Let us remember that “The Way” is “narrow”. Or would you have us believe Jesus was talking to the pre-resurrection church there too and now everyone that ever says “I believe in Jesus” automatically gets to heaven no matter what they do?

    It is tragic that so many Christians want to parse who is being spoken to in the new testament and who certain passages apply to, while at the same time they rampantly apply passages from Jeremiah, Isaiah, and other parts of the old testament as promises to all 21st century Christians! It’s astonishing how you rationalize this. And in your referenced article, Does God Use Correction Fluid?, you do this plenty. You’ve even suggested that the Lord’s Prayer is unnecessary because Christ doesn’t expect us to ask the Father for forgiveness anymore.

    Don’t be deceived, there is EFFORT involved on the part of the believer to “abide in Christ”. Otherwise, what is the point? … Was Timothy a believer? Why would Paul write this? “Do not share in the sins of others. Keep yourself pure.” 1 Timothy 5:22

    • Hi Chris, you tread on thin ice when you start preaching works of the flesh (which is what I call effort done in the pursuit of righteousness, holiness, acceptance, etc.). Why would Paul admonish Timothy to keep himself pure? There could be 101 good reasons not the least of which is sin is destructive. It is a bit of a self-righteous stretch to interpret this or any passage as “work your way into God’s favor.”

      Let scripture interpret scripture. The only other reference to soiled clothes I can think of is God’s disgust with our smelly rags of self-righteousness (Is 64:4). I prefer to be clothed with his garment of salvation and his robe of righteousness (Is 61:10). Where does this righteousness come from? The gospel declares it comes from him – it is a gift (Rom 1:17, 5:17). There is only one thing you can do with a gift – receive it.

      You preach effort like an old covenant prophet; I’ll preach REST in Jesus’ name. The difference is hell vs heaven, old life vs new, old covenant vs new. I hope one day you see it.

    • Colossians 2:14 says that everything that makes us guilty before the law was nailed to the cross and erased with Jesus blood. So if Jesus died only one time and everything really means everything where is there room left for Christian to have “dirty” clothes? All the dirt was erased. Hebrews 10:10 & 14 says we are made sanctified(holy) forever by Jesus one time sacrifice. So erased, perfected, sanctified, washed white and as far as the east from the west is just God being poetic when He really meant sort of, kinda, maybe, temporarily? Hebrews 9 also says that Jesus offered His blood in the heavenly temple ONE time for sin and that it could only be ONE time or He would had to have suffered many times over.

  10. Hey Paul,

    I’m tracking with ya on this. I’m still trying to completely understand the part in verse 2: “Strenghten the things that remain, that were about to die.” What is the “things that remain, that were about to die”?

    Especially in light of Ephesians 2:1- “And you were dead in your trespasses and sins”

    I was under the impression that before we came to Christ we were already dead because of sin (or our spirits were already dead). For the unbelievers in Sardis, what else is there that was going to die?

    • Who’s about to die? The self-righteous Sardians. They are already spiritually dead; soon they will be physically dead. They may not die this year or next year, but eventually their time will run out, hence the urgent call to wake up and repent before it’s too late.

  11. Why in vs. 5 does Jesus say He wont remove them from the Book – if in fact thats impossible as some teachers say?

    • Those who are clothed in white raiment have their garment washed in the blood of the Lamb which logically means God will not remove their name from the Book of Life nor deny their name before God. A lot of symbolism all re-enforcing the same principle – salvation assured.

  12. stanleykivuva64 // July 26, 2019 at 3:18 am // Reply

    Incredible post…..

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