In his commentary on Revelation, Craig S. Keener recalls the story of Micky Cohen, a Los Angeles gangster of the 1940s. While Cohen did make a public declaration of faith at one point, he was confronted my his Christian friends who noted that he hadn’t changed his lifestyle. Cohen said, “You never told me I had to give up my career. You never told me that I had to give up my friends. There are Christian movie stars, Christian athletes, Christian businessmen. So what’s the matter with being a Christian gangster? If I have to give up all that–if that’s Christianity–count me out.”
Cohen at first proclaimed Christianity, but he didn’t commit to it. He seemed to be alive inside because of Jesus, but he eventually walked away from his faith. He wasn’t alive inside. He was dead inside.
Similarly, this was thd case of the church of Sardis. They looked good. They professed Christianity. But in their hearts, they were dark and dead.
Write this letter to the angel of the church of Sardis. This is the message from the one who has the sevenfold Spirit of God and the seven stars:
I know all the things that you do, and that you have a reputation for being alive–but you are dead. Wake up! Strengthen what little remains, for even what is left is almost dead. I find that your actions do not meet the requirements of my God. Go back to what you heard and believed at first; hold to it firmly. Repent and turn to me again. If you don’t wake up, I will come to you suddenly, as unexpected as a theif.
Yet there are some in the church who have not soiled their clothes with evil. They will walk with me in white, for they are worthy. All who are victorious will be clothed in white. I will never erase their names from the Book of Life, but I will announce them before my Father and his angels that they are mine.
Anyone with ears to hear must listen to the Spirit and understand what he is saying to the churches.
Jesus addressed this dying church first by saying “I know all the things you do.” While not given much detail, we can speculate what their lives looked like. They had a “reputation for being alive.” Perhaps they did things and said things that looked good. They went to church every week. They smiled at people and were kind. They maybe even did some really good deeds that others noticed and said, “praise the Lord” here and there. I’m sure they looked like how good Christians are supposed to look.
But as 1 Samuel 16:7 states, “The Lord does not look at things people look at. People look at outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” Jesus didn’t just see what everyone else did. He saw beyond that. He saw the heart. While their actions may have looked good to others, Jesus saw that they fell flat of God’s standard. Likely they went through the motions of Christianity without engaging their heart into the matter. They didn’t want a God they had to serve but a religion that would serve them.
Yet, it is our hearts God wants. Hosea 6:6 states God wants our love more than sacrifices, and 1 Samuel 15:22 declares that He wants our obedience more than burnt offerings. As these are passages from the Old Testament, they were still under the Law so sacrifices were required as Jesus had not yet come as the ultimate sacrifice. What God was saying then and still wants now is for our hearts to be engaged in work and worship of Him instead of us merely going through the motions. This is what God desires of the church of Sardis and you and me as well. He wants our whole heart engaged in what we do, not just lip service to make ourselves look good.
We can take comfort in the call to repentance. Jesus still sees a little flicker in the dying hearts of man that is worth saving. The church of Sardis needed to remember the true, historical gospel just as much as we, 2000 years separated from them and Jesus’s life on earth, need to remember it today. Should we cling to what is true with our whole hearts, we too can have white robes and our names written in the Book of Life. More than the comforts of this world or a good reputation, we should long for repentance that leads to Jesus proudly declaring our name and claiming us as His own.
Cold hearts, dirty souls, and death inside is something all of us need to be on our guard against. This issue is not unique to the people of Sardis or even unbelievers. It can seep into our lives and churchs like poison. Reflecting back to the story of Micky Cohen in the intro, Keener quotes Chuck Colson in saying:
“Cohen echoes the millions of professing Christians who, though unwilling to admit it, through their very lives pose the same question. Not about being Christian gangsters, but about being Christianized versions of whatever they already are—and are determined to remain.”
Let’s not be Christian something else where we remain the same but merely paste a Christian lable on it. Let’s be disciples first and foremost then submit everything else we do and are to Christ. Let’s be truly alive inside.