Who is Alive but Dead?

Revelation 3:1

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?

Who’s 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


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14 Comments on Who is Alive but Dead?

  1. You leave out this last part; “for I have not found thy works perfect before God” when mentioning Revelation 3:2 and on the contrary, “Jesus was… speaking to lethargic Christians who need to perk up for the Lord”!
    As Paul said I follow Christ, so follow me, and is saying the same thing as Christ when claiming; “ Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye stedfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labor is not in vain in the Lord.” Is this not the work that is perfect , “perfect before God”, and “not in vain”?
    No, your saying “you do not need to work harder”, does not sound the same as Paul; “whatsoever ye do, do it heartily (work hard. Always do your best, The Voice Bible), as to the Lord, and not unto men; Knowing that of the Lord ye shall receive the reward of the inheritance: for ye serve the Lord Christ.”Colossians 3:23,24. A servant works for his Master.
    We Christians are “alive but dead”, as we are dead and our life is hid with Christ in God, Colossians 3:3.

    • And you leave out the part “we are saved by grace and not works” (Eph 2:8).

      I have written about the Sardians’ incomplete deeds elsewhere.

      • Had to, you don’t give enough room, ha!
        Except these are saved, and works here aren’t the means of salvation; they are its presence. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.”
        As only these works of the “not in vain” variety are encouraged in Eph.2:10, meaning they have purpose, and should be done, “walked in”.

      • By definition, someone who is lost is not saved. Someone who is dead is not alive. Someone who is slumbering in the stupor of sin is not awake. We are not made alive by our works; Jesus is the Life.

  2. If I’m working hard to be righteous for Jesus, that’s my righteousness. His righteousness can only be received as a gift. It’s interesting that when they asked Jesus, “What shall we do, that we may work the works of God?”, His answer was very different from many Christians of today. Believe Jesus. No todo list, just believe Jesus. He is a very capable Savior.

    Happy New Year!

  3. Gabrielle Kohlmann // January 6, 2021 at 10:20 pm // Reply

    Thomas Howard’s commentary is interesting because it once again shows that many Christians correlate hard work and their standing before God in a causal way. Working hard is not wrong if it serves a good purpose. As long as that purpose is not trying to earn right standing before God, I don’t see a problem. It takes a correct understanding of Jesus’ work on the cross to avoid falling into this trap of working for your own rightheousness. It also saves you from seeing churches as alive and thriving just because there’s a lot of activity going on there.
    Greetings and happy New Year, Paul (love your books and articles :-))

  4. I work NOT to BE accepted by Jesus but FROM a place of acceptance – because He has made me acceptable forever. He who began His good work in me will see it through to completion.

    I would describe these Sardians as unbelieving believers. Many may have accepted Christ and therefore have eternal life [Eternal Life IS Jesus – 1 Jn 1:2], but they were walking after the flesh and in that sense they were spiritually dead – having left their first love.

    • Good point – we don’t work to earn anything (like a servant); we work because the love of Christ compels us to share what we have been freely given.

      The Ephesians had lost their first love, but there is no evidence that these Sardians are anything but what Jesus calls them – corpses. In contrast with the few Sardians who had been clothed in the white garments of righteousness, these Sardians have soiled their clothes with self-righteousness (Rev 3:4) and their deeds are “incomplete”. Hence Christ’s call to wake up (repent, turn to God) before it’s too late.

      • Methusala Joy // January 8, 2021 at 4:11 pm //

        Repenting is not just turning towards God. it’s also repenting from sin.

        2 corinthians 12:21 And lest, when I come again, my God will humble me among you, and that I shall bewail many which have sinned already, and have not repented of the uncleanness and fornication and lasciviousness which they have committed.

      • The former implies the latter. Any time you turn to God, you’ll turn from sin, but the reverse is not always true, as the Pharisees often showed. “Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord” (Acts 3:19).

  5. My point was if they lost their first love, then they did have that first love – security in Christ. This is why I think Jesus says in verse 2: “Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die”. It seems they were not quite DEAD. Comes back to why I refer to them as “unbelieving believers”.They were the walking spiritual dead. They were living in hell then and there.

    • I did understand your point. I just think it’s an oxymoron to say a believer is spiritually dead. “You are dead” says Jesus to the Sardians (v.1). He calls them corpses in soiled clothes. Like the Laodiceans, he says nothing positive about them.

  6. michele levo // January 8, 2021 at 12:53 am // Reply

    Thank you.

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