The Christians in Sardis had the reputation of being alive, but they were not (Revelation 3:1). Their reputation was a phantom of a former real greatness.
The seven Asian churches, which the Lord addressed through the apostle John in Revelation 2 and 3, clustered in a sort of geographical oval on the western edge of what is now Turkey. Sardis was in the middle on the eastern side of the oval.
In the collective historical memory of the peoples of Asia Minor, Sardis had a lingering reputation from a time when it had been great. Once it had been the dominant city of the region, the capital of the ancient Lydian kingdom. It had been very wealthy, powerful, and influential.
But in the centuries preceding John’s apocalyptic epistle, Sardis had been repeatedly conquered. Twice it had been invaded at night — the city was caught sleeping. Now it was a fading beauty, a withered version of what it had once been. Its past reputation exceeded its present reality.
So Jesus’s stinging words were chosen carefully:
“I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God.” (Revelation 3:1–2)
The historical parallel would not have been lost on the Christians in Sardis. The church, like its city, was a withered version of what it had once been; its reputation a lingering phantom of former greatness.
The Hypocrisy of an Undeserved Reputation
It is true that “a good name is to be chosen rather than great riches” (Proverbs 22:1). But that is only true to the extent that our good name, our reputation, accurately represents who we are. If we cultivate and promote a reputation for ourselves that is better than we actually are, God has a scathing term for us: hypocrite.
And hypocrisy includes maintaining and promoting a reputation that we once deserved but now do not. The Christians in Sardis had a reputation for being alive because once they had been. That’s why Jesus told them to “strengthen what remains and is about to die” (Revelation 3:2). They used to have life, but it was dying.
Why did they need this rebuke? Didn’t they notice their spiritual decline? Didn’t they discern their hypocrisy? Well, if they were anything like me, they probably did to some degree. But there is something powerfully deceptive about a reputation. We can easily be deceived into thinking that if others see us as “alive,” then perhaps it’s true.
Smoke and Mirrors
As a result of the fall, each one of us suffers from a sin-induced dissociative identity disorder. Our sin natures rebelliously dissociate our identities as dependent creatures, branches that are designed to joyfully, trustingly abide in our Creator-Vine (John 15:5), preferring to think of ourselves as creators-vines. But having unhinged our identities from our Creator, we lose our grip on reality — who we really are.
So to compensate, we try to stitch our identities together with chosen pieces of our own aspirations and the cumulative total of other people’s perceptions of us — our reputation. We use this reputation as a mirror to reflect to us who we are, and to project an image of ourselves that we want others to see.
But such an identity really is only smoke and mirrors. Our self-perception and other people’s perception of us do not reflect or project accurately who we are. They are misleading images because they are in large part imaginations.
We aren’t who we want to think we are or who other people think we are. All we truly are is who we are before God.
Jesus Provides the Escape from Hypocrisy
The hypocritical life, the smoke and mirrors life of inhabiting an undeserved reputation, is a trap. It can be a deluding trap that deadens our awareness that real spiritual vitality is ebbing away. It can also be a trap of pride. We may be aware that the social currency of our reputation is highly inflated, but the price of admission to that reality may appear more than we are willing to pay.
But into our blinding, impoverishing Sardisian pride comes Jesus, speaking words that at first sting badly, but in truth are full of grace: “I know your works” (Revelation 3:1). He knows. He knows who and what we really are. Before him we are fully exposed (Hebrews 4:13).
And that is very good news, because Jesus provides the escape from the guilt, power, and identity-confusion of hypocrisy that we so desperately need. He is our Creator-Vine, our source and the source of our real identity (1 Corinthians 1:30). And he is full of grace (John 1:14), having died for us while we were yet sinners (Romans 5:8), fully paying the debt of every sin (Colossians 2:14), and offering complete forgiveness if we repent (1 John 1:9). His rebukes, if heeded, always lead us out of sin’s captivity to abundant life (John 10:10).
And from his word to the Sardis church, here is the escape from hypocrisy Jesus offers us: “Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it, and repent.” (Revelation 3:3) Do not waste any more of your life playing with smoke and mirrors. Do not be content with a phantom reputation of past zeal and achievements. Remember what you received from Jesus; remember his word (John 15:7). Repent of hypocrisy; come clean to Jesus, and anyone else if necessary. Keep his word. Pursue the joyful, humble life of an abiding branch, and you will bear much fruit (John 15:5).
The reward is great for those who receive Jesus’s offer of escape: “The one who conquers will be clothed thus in white garments, and I will never blot his name out of the book of life. I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels.” (Revelation 3:5) Let us hear what the Spirit is saying.
The church in Sardis seems to have listened to the Spirit. In the 2nd Century the church was known as a bastion of doctrinal fidelity and bold defense of the faith and a church remained there until the 14th Century.