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!”