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THE CHURCH IN SARDIS
Scripture Reading: Rev. 3:1-6
We have seen that during the time of the apostles there was the behavior of the Nicolaitans. After the behavior of the Nicolaitans, we have seen how Pergamos sinned greatly by bringing the world into the church. After the Nicolaitans came Jezebel, and at the same time idols were brought into the church. But there is a good point here: In Thyatira we see the judgment of Jezebel, the casting of her into a bed that she may not move; we also see that her followers will one day be killed. These prophecies have not yet been fulfilled; they will be fulfilled at the time of Babylon's fall in Revelation 17. The history of Thyatira began from the time Jezebel improperly brought idols into the church and will continue until she receives judgment. Now we must see one thing: When the church, in her continuous fall from the Nicolaitans, comes to the stage of Jezebel, God can no longer tolerate it. Then Sardis emerges. "Sardis'' means "the remains.'' The church in Sardis is God's reaction to Thyatira. The history of revival in the churches throughout the entire world indicates divine reactions. Whenever the Lord begins a revival work, He is reacting. God's reaction is man's recovery. I would like you to keep this principle firmly in mind. Sardis appears because the Lord has seen the condition of Thyatira.
In Revelation several churches are in pairs. Sardis is connected with Ephesus. Philadelphia is connected with Smyrna, and Laodicea is connected with Pergamos. Only Thyatira stands alone. In Sardis the Lord says that His name is "He who has the seven Spirits of God and the seven stars: I know your works, that you have a name that you are living, and yet you are dead'' (Rev. 3:1). The epistle to Ephesus says that His right hand holds seven stars, while the epistle to Sardis says that He has the seven stars. Ephesus is the slackening after the apostles, that is, the changing from something good to bad; Sardis is the recovery from Thyatira, that is, the changing from something bad to good. Having works but no love is Ephesus; living in name but dead in reality is Sardis. So these two are a pair. The Lord manifests Himself as He who has the seven Spirits. The seven Spirits of God are sent of God to the world to work, and this refers to the work of life. The seven stars in Ephesus refer to the messengers; here they refer to the illumination. The work of recovery is half in the Spirit and half in the light.
Sardis is similar to Thyatira in that she includes a long period of time, from the reformed churches until the Lord comes back again. Although the time of Sardis is not as long as Thyatira, she refers not only to the church during the Reformation, but also to church history following the Reformation.
"I know your works, that you have a name that you are living, and yet you are dead.'' I believe no one will doubt that Martin Luther was a servant of the Lord and the Reformation was the work of God. The Reformation was a great work, and it was a divine reaction. Surely the Lord used Luther as a mouthpiece; he was a man especially chosen by God. When Luther first started, the Reformation was entirely Sardis. His purpose was solely for recovery. The Lord does not say that the work of Luther was not good; rather, He says it was not complete. It was good, but not good enough. In the eyes of the Lord, He has not found anything complete—everything was a beginning without an end. The Lord is a Lord of completion; therefore, He requires completion. For this reason, we must ask Him that we may see.
The problem of justification was solved following Luther. Justification is by faith, and having peace before the Lord is by faith. Luther not only gave us justification by faith; he also gave us an open Bible. In Thyatira the authority is in the hands of Jezebel—in other words, in the hands of the church. It is a matter of what the church says, not what the Lord says. It is all a matter of what the mother church says: All the people of the Roman Catholic Church listen to the mother church. So the Lord says He will kill her "children.'' You say the mother, but the Lord says the children. Luther showed us what the Lord says and what the Bible says. Men can read God's Word, and men can see for themselves what God actually says, not what Rome says. When the open Bible comes, the whole church is enlightened.
However, a problem arises: Protestantism did not give us a proper church. As a result, wherever the doctrine of justification by faith and the open Bible went, a state church was established. The Lutheran sect became the state church in many countries. Later, in England the Anglican Church came into being, which is also a state church. Beginning with Rome, the nature of the church was changed. By the time of justification by faith and the return of the open Bible, the Protestant churches had not yet seen what the church should be. Although there were justification by faith and the open Bible, the Protestant churches still followed the example of Rome and did not return to the church in the beginning. During the Reformation the problem of the church was not solved. Luther did not reform the church. Luther himself said that we should not think "justification by faith'' is enough; there are many more things to be changed. Yet the people in the Protestant churches stopped right there. Luther did not stop, but they stopped and said that it was good enough. Although they went back to the faith of the beginning, the church herself remained unchanged. Formerly, there was the international church of Rome; now it is the state church of England or the state church of Germany—that is all.
Brothers, do you see? The Reformation did not bring the church back to the condition of the beginning; it only caused the world church to become state churches. Thyatira is condemned for putting the church in the world; likewise, Sardis is condemned for putting the church in the states. "You have a name that you are living, and yet you are dead.'' The Reformation was living, but there were still many dead things.
Later, many "dissenters'' developed, such as the Presbyterian Church, etc. On one hand, there is the Roman Catholic Church; on the other hand, there are the Protestant churches. Among the Protestant churches, aside from those established according to states, there are also churches set up according to different opinions and doctrines. The dissenters do not take the state as the boundary but their doctrine as the boundary. Therefore, there are two kinds of churches among the Protestant churches: one is state and the other is private. Today we see the union of the state and the church in Germany, Great Britain, and so forth. Rome has the world church, while Great Britain and Germany, etc., have the state church. The kings and chiefs of the states do not want to listen to the pope, yet they want others to listen to them. In politics they want to be the kings; in religion they also want to be the kings. As a result, the state churches came into existence. People never raised the question as to what the church is like in the Bible. People did not go back to the Bible to see whether it is proper to have state churches. Later, the private churches came into being also. The establishment of the private churches was due to the exalting of a certain doctrine; thus, they separated themselves from those who did not have the same doctrine. The Baptist Church was established because someone saw baptism; the Presbyterian Church was established because someone saw the presbytery system in the church. The church was established not because someone knew what the church is; rather, the church was established according to a system. These two kinds of Protestant churches—the state and the private—the Lord says, have not gone back to the purpose in the beginning. This statement is most significant.
"Become watchful and establish the things which remain, which were about to die'' (v. 2). This refers to justification by faith and the open Bible and the life that is gained from them. In the whole history of Sardis, these were about to die; therefore, the Lord said, "Establish the things which remain, which were about to die.'' Today in the Protestant churches, the regulations of men are still in force, even though the Bible is already opened. Therefore, the Lord said, "I have found none of your works completed before My God'' (v. 2). Even what they already have is not complete. Some of their things are not complete; they were not complete from the very start. "Remember therefore how you have received and heard, and keep it and repent'' (v. 3).
Does the history of the Protestant churches end this way? No! The history of the Protestant churches is a history of revivals. When Luther first started, many were saved, revived, and greatly recovered. One characteristic of the Protestant churches is "recovery.'' We do not know to what extent the Holy Spirit will work. Luther reformed something; thus, the Lutheran Church came out. The truth of the presbytery was seen; thus, the Presbyterian Church was organized. Wesley appeared; therefore, the Methodist Church was established. Today in the world there are still many smaller churches. In 1914 there were already more than 1500 churches.
Thank the Lord, Sardis was often blessed by God. But once there was the blessing of the Lord, men organized something to contain the blessing. Although the Lord's blessing is still there, the sphere remains only that big. The Protestant churches are like a cup. At the beginning of revival, people will go wherever there is living water. Wherever the Spirit of God is moving, people will go in that direction. Men used a cup with the hope of preserving the living water without loss. The advantage of doing this is that it keeps the grace, and the disadvantage is that there is just one cup of blessing. In the first generation the cup was full. By the second generation the cup was only half filled, and the nebulousness began. By the third or fifth generation, the water was gone and only an empty cup was left. Then they began to argue with other denominations as to whose cup was better, though all the cups were worthless for drinking. What was the result? God reacted again, and in came another Sardis. This is the whole history of revival. When the grace of God comes, men immediately set up an organization to keep it. The organization remains, but the content is lost. However, the cup cannot be broken; there are always those who are zealous to maintain the cup continuously. Here is a matter of principle: The students of Wesley could never be equal to Wesley, nor could the students of Calvin match Calvin. The schools of the prophets seldom produced prophets—all the great prophets were chosen by God from the wilderness. The Spirit of God descends upon whomsoever He will. He is the Head of the church, not we. Men always think the living water is valuable and must be kept by organization, but it gradually declines through the generations until it completely dries up. After it dries up, the Lord gives us living water again in the wilderness.
On one hand, there is revival—praise the Lord! On the other hand, it must be rebuked before the Lord because it is never returned to the beginning. The Protestant churches have revivals continuously, but the Lord says they are not perfect, they have not gone back to the beginning. We must remember what was in the beginning. The problem is not how we receive and hear now; the problem is how we received and heard in the beginning. In Acts 2 many were saved, and the Lord said they continued steadfastly in the teaching and fellowship of the apostles, in the breaking of bread and the prayers. It does not say that they continued in the apostles' breaking of bread and the prayers, but in the teaching and fellowship of the apostles. The fellowship of Christ is the fellowship of the apostles; the teaching of Christ is the teaching of the apostles. God only counts the fellowship of the apostles as fellowship; He only counts the teaching of the apostles as teaching. We cannot invent a fellowship; neither can we invent a teaching. The mistake of Thyatira was that she manufactured her own teaching, since Jezebel was there. God does not want us to invent; He just wants us to receive. In the twentieth century anything can be invented, but not the teaching. In the Spirit we may talk about discovery, but in teaching there cannot be any invention. We must examine what we have received, what we have heard, and hold fast and repent.
"I will come as a thief, and you shall by no means know at what hour I will come upon you'' (v. 3). "Come'' is to come by descending. "Upon'' in Greek is epi, which means I will descend by your side, not come upon you, but apart from you. The coming of the thief is a coming of epi. We are here, and he prowls up by our side. The Lord's use of words is very ingenious. We can translate it as, "I will come and pass by you, yet you will not know it.''
The thief does not come to steal the cheap things; he always steals the best. The Lord will also steal the best from the earth. The best are in His hands, not outside of Him. We are in the house: one will be raptured, and one will be left. So the Lord says that if you will not watch, He will come. The Lord Jesus is coming back soon. The day is getting closer. May we be precious enough to be "stolen'' by the Lord.
"But you have a few names in Sardis who have not defiled their garments, and they will walk with Me in white because they are worthy'' (v. 4). Jacob brought seventy souls into Egypt (Exo. 1:5). Ordinarily the Scriptures say so many men, so many souls. But the Lord says here that there are a few names; the Lord pays special attention to our names. He says that there are a few names who have not defiled their garments. These garments are our righteous deeds. When we stand before God, we put on Christ, for Christ is our white garment. However, we are not standing before God here, but before Christ, before the judgment seat (Rom. 14:10). We do not put on Christ here; rather, we put on "fine linen, bright and clean; for the fine linen is the righteousnesses of the saints'' (Rev. 19:8). There are a few names which have not defiled their garments; that is to say, their behavior is clean. They will walk with the Lord, for they are worthy.
"He who overcomes will be clothed thus, in white garments, and I shall by no means erase his name out of the book of life, and I will confess his name before My Father and before His angels'' (3:5). The matter here does not involve whether the name is recorded, but whether the name will be confessed. Those whom the Lord confesses will participate in something; those whom the Lord does not confess will not participate. All the names are recorded in the book of life, but he who is not confessed by the Lord is like one who is marked out with a circle. He will not participate. Here the problem is not related to eternal life in eternity, but to whether or not you can reign with the Lord. It is an unfortunate thing to be recorded and yet not be able to participate. May the Lord be gracious to us so that we may wear the white garment before the Lord. We have the white garment to put on before God, but what about before the Lord?