If you want Christians to work harder, there are two scriptures you can trot out to boost productivity. The first is the one about being lukewarm; the second is this one from the letter to Sardis:
I know your deeds, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead. (Rev. 3:1)
This passage is usually interpreted as follows: “The Sardians were complacent, comfortable Christians who weren’t working hard enough and allowed their faith to die.”
Short version: work harder for Jesus!
(Sidebar: Isn’t it amazing how 27 books of the New Testament can be summarized in those four words: work harder for Jesus?)
Er, no. That’s not what Jesus is saying. The work harder message comes straight out of dead religion.
So what is Jesus saying? And who is alive but dead?
In contrast with the no-name church down the road in Philadelphia, the Sardian church was highly regarded. It had a reputation as a thriving fellowship. But in the Lord’s eyes, that reputation was misplaced.
The Sardians were all style and no substance. They impressed some with their religious activity. But Jesus wasn’t fooled. “You are dead.”
Some say the Sardians were apathetic believers whose faith was waning. “They were a dying church.” But the Sardians were dead, not dying. The word Jesus used to describe them literally means corpse. A corpse is not an apathetic or lazy person; a corpse is dead. Jesus is describing unbelievers who are disconnected from the One called Life.
There were believers in this church, and Jesus has a separate message for them later in the letter (it’s full of good stuff!). But many of the Sardians were spiritually dead. They had not received the Spirit that gives life. That’s the bad news. The good news is that Jesus raises the dead. This is what he says to the dead Sardians:
Wake up, and strengthen the things that remain, which were about to die… (Rev 3:2a)
To wake up is to repent. “Wake from your sleep and turn to God.” Jesus was not speaking to lethargic Christians who need to perk up for the Lord. He’s speaking to those who need to “awake and arise from the dead” (Eph. 5:14).
Like the prodigal son who “was dead and came to life again,” the Sardians need rouse themselves, come to their senses, and come home to the Father (Luke 15:24).
What does it mean to strengthen that which remains?
Repent before it’s too late.
The word for strengthen in this passage means to turn resolutely. It means, get up! Move! Turn about! It is a call to immediate and definite action. It’s as though the Sardians are sleeping on the train tracks and Jesus is shouting, “Wake up before it’s too late!”
Who is about to die?
The Sardians. The gospel isn’t going to die, for the word of God never passes away. But the Sardians will pass away if they don’t wake up. 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.
“Paul, are you saying this church have unbelievers in it?”
Most churches do, at least the ones making an impact in their communities.
The recording artist Keith Green once said that going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than going to McDonald’s makes you a hamburger. Yet some imagine the Revelation church communities were populated exclusively by Christians and that Christ’s words for the people in those communities should be embraced by all Christians.
This is a dangerous belief indeed, and it is a reason why much of the treasure in Jesus’ letters has been lost. Read something meant for someone else, and you’ll get the wrong message.
The letters to the seven churches contain words for all sorts of people, from salt-of-the-earth saints to wolves in sheep’s clothing. Fail to distinguish messages meant for others from messages meant for you, and you will end up confused. You’ll come away thinking that Jesus is double-minded:
One minute he’s full of praise; the next he’s dark with rebukes.
He says to hold fast; then he says to let go.
He exhorts us to stand firm but he wants us to turn back.
He wants us to freely receive, but he wants us to pay.
Jesus is not double-minded, but you might be if you fail to ask this question: To whom was Jesus speaking?
In his letters Jesus distinguishes different groups. In Sardis, there were those who had soiled their garments and those who hadn’t (see Rev. 3:4). In Pergamum there were some who held to the teaching of Balaam and some who didn’t. In Thyatira there were a few who followed Jezebel into adultery and others who wanted nothing to do with her.
Different needs, different medicine
We shouldn’t be surprised by this. Healthy, growing churches attract all sorts of people, just as Jesus did. Look at the crowds who followed him and you will find sinners and seekers, good people and bad. The Jesus of the Gospels drew the unrighteous and self-righteous, and he had different words for each. It’s the same in his letters to the churches of Revelation.
Many Christians read the letters to the churches and come away feeling condemned by the hard words of rebuke. These letters make them ill because they are consuming someone else’s medicine.
This suffering is borne of confusion. Are you a follower of Balaam? Is your name Jezebel? Are you numbered among the self-righteous who have heard the gospel and rejected it? No? Then hard words meant for them are not meant for you.
Christian, you are not “alive but dead” and you do not need to work harder to “strengthen that which remains”. You are one with the Risen Lord. Jesus died so that you might live. You know this.
Now rest from your labors, and let no one burden you again with a yoke of slavery.
Extracted and adapted from Letters from Jesus