“Don’t try it, Anakin. I have the high ground,” said Obi-Wan Kenobi on the lava-heated planet of Mustafar in Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. It is a quote that will go down in history both as a witty quip and an easily meme-able phrase.
The simple fact of the matter is that in war—and even in peace—the high ground carries a strategic advantage.
I recently finished a novel by Bernard Cornwell, titled The Fort, in which he describes a little known battle of the Revolutionary War: the Battle of Majabigwaduce. To sum up the main strategy and plot, the British army found a parcel of raised ground by an inlet of water and decided to build a fort on it: Fort George. To sum up a 400+ page book in a sentence, the Americans lost the battle because they could not (or were not willing to) capture the high ground.
(Bernard Cornwell, The Fort [New York, NY: Harper Collins, 2010].)
Anakin Skywalker completed his transformation into the villain known as Darth Vader by trying to attack the high ground and failing. The American Patriots failed to capture Fort George during the Battle of Majabigwaduce because the men in charge of their forces were fearful of attacking the high ground (among other things).
The church at Sardis in the opening verses of Revelation 3 is in a similar situation.
We are still within the first main section of Revelation. The letters to the churches. While all seven letters are addressed to literal, first-century churches, we must not miss that there are seven of them. It was said above that Jesus walks amongst the seven churches. Jesus did not only walk among these seven churches. Instead, He walks amongst THE church. These seven churches represent the seven primary places in which the church as a whole, or any given local church, might find itself during its history.
With that, we turn to Revelation 3:1-6.
Write to the angel of the church in Sardis: “The One who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars says: I know your works; you have a reputation for being alive, but you are dead. Be alert and strengthen what remains, which is about to die, for I have not found your works complete before My God. Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; keep it, and repent. But if you are not alert, I will come like a thief, and you have no idea at what hour I will come against you. But you have a few people in Sardis who have not defiled their clothes, and they will walk with Me in white, because they are worthy. In the same way, the victor will be dressed in white clothes, and I will never erase his name from the book of life but will acknowledge his name before My Father and before His angels. Anyone who has an ear should listen to what the Spirit says to the churches.”
The Author and the Addressee
Write to the angel of the church in Sardis: The One who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars says:
Sardis was historically a lazy city. Due to being built on the top of a hill, the inhabitants of the city felt safe and failed to set a guard. Twice in the course of their history, they were invaded by enemies who climbed the hill at night and found the city unguarded. Cyrus was the victor in 549 B.C., and Antiochus was the conqueror in 218 B.C. This slackness will play a significant role in Jesus’ message to the church in Sardis.
(Leon Morris, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries – Revelation, [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Academic, 2009], WORDsearch CROSS e-book, 78.)
Jesus here identifies Himself by reminding the church not only that He is the giver of the Holy Spirit (“the seven spirits of God”), but the master of the church as well. The seven stars are the angels of the churches (cf. 1:20), the ones bringing the message. Each of the seven letters is addressed to “the angel [messenger] of the church at _____.” By Jesus reminding the church at Sardis that He is the one who holds the messengers of the churches, He is telling the church that the message they are about to hear is not the invention of the messengers, but rather Jesus’ own words. As a result, it behooves them to pay attention.
I know your works; you have a reputation for being alive, but you are dead. Be alert and strengthen what remains, which is about to die, for I have not found your works complete before My God. Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; keep it, and repent. But if you are not alert, I will come like a thief, and you have no idea at what hour I will come against you. But you have a few people in Sardis who have not defiled their clothes, and they will walk with Me in white, because they are worthy.
Jesus comes out swinging in this letter. This church, while potentially safe from false teaching and immorality—though the absence of mention of those items doesn’t necessitate that they are actually absent from this church—has a much bigger problem. It claims, and people think, that it is alive and flourishing in ministry. But Jesus shatters their imaginations in a moment. “You are dead.”
There is no worse report to hear from Jesus about your church. But i wonder how many churches in our day—especially in America—would receive this report from Jesus if He was to write them a letter today. Just because you have the best show in a fifty-mile radius doesn’t mean your church is alive. Just because your theology is Reformed according to either the 1689 London Baptist Confession or the 1646 Westminster Confession doesn’t mean your church is alive. Just because your church preaches the unadulterated gospel Sunday-in and Sunday-out does not mean that your church is alive.
In this context, Jesus attributes living to being ready for Him. Just like the city of Sardis was lazy in their lookouts for enemy armies, so also the church at Sardis had become lazy in its looking forward to Jesus’ return. When we forget that Jesus is coming back—at any moment—we fall asleep, and in the end, we fail to live like Christians in this world.
Jesus calls out to the church at Sardis with the following advice:
Be alert and strengthen what remains, which is about to die, for I have not found your works complete before My God. Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; keep it, and repent. But if you are not alert, I will come like a thief, and you have no idea at what hour I will come against you.
He issues the church a warning. He tells them that if they fail to wake up, they will eventually die. True believers will do all the works that God prepared beforehand for them (cf. Ephesians 2:10). So if a “Christian” just falls asleep spiritually, and he/she never wakes up and walks in the works God prepared for him/her, then it will prove 1) that the person was never actually a Christian, and 2) God had not actually prepared any works for that person. God doesn’t prepare good works for nonbelievers to do.
The grace of Jesus shines brightly throughout this letter though. Jesus begs the church to wake up, and then in verse 3, He calls their past commitment to Him back to mind. He begs them to remember the gospel that they heard and received, and He implores them to repent after remembering the gospel. (Again, only a person who actually, savingly believed the gospel can be addressed by saying, “what you received and heard.” A nonbeliever cannot remember what they never believed.)
The sad truth, though, is that Jesus’ grace is not eternal to an unbeliever. Hebrews 9:27 explains that after a person dies, they are judged. Therefore, grace expires. “Today is the day of salvation,” Paul explained in 2 Corinthians 6:2, essentially implying, “Tomorrow is the day of judgment.” When Jesus returns, Judgment Day arrives. Believers are supposed to be eagerly awaiting the return of Jesus. We are supposed to be living worthy of our calling. We are supposed to be anxious for His return. If we are apathetic about the return of Christ, He says in 3:3, “you have no idea at what hour I will come against you.” We must be alert for Christ’s return, or we will prove not to be His.
Are you alert?
Jesus encourages the true believers in Sardis though. And interestingly, He does not tell them to find a different church. Jesus simply encourages them in their faithful living, promising them that if they persevere, they will walk with Him in white.
This should be the hope of every believer! The righteousness of Jesus for eternity. The day when we no longer struggle with sin. The day when we possess Christ with no other distractions. I know of no better hope!
In the same way, the victor will be dressed in white clothes, and I will never erase his name from the book of life but will acknowledge his name before My Father and before His angels. Anyone who has an ear should listen to what the Spirit says to the churches.
Jesus essentially says that every believer who looks forward to His return and perseveres in faithfulness to Him will be dressed in white clothes.
But wait, there’s more!
Jesus also says, “I will never erase his name from the book of life but will acknowledge his name before My Father and before His angels.” This is huge! Looking forward to the return of Christ—and living in a way that proves you are looking forward to the return of Christ is equivalent to “confessing Jesus before men.” Jesus said the following in Matthew 10:32, “Therefore, everyone who will acknowledge Me before men, I will also acknowledge him before My Father in heaven.” If we own Jesus—staying alert—in this life, He will own us in the next life. This is eternal security. If we don’t own Him in this life, He will confess, “I never knew you,” in the next life (cf. Matthew 7:23).
The good news of the gospel is found in the white clothes. You see, we can’t do anything to make our clothes white. Sure, we have bleach and stuff, but white clothes in Revelation refers to righteousness. On our own, we have no righteousness. Even after salvation, we cannot produce righteousness on our own. We need Christ.
He lived a perfect life on this earth 2,000 years ago, and He died a death in our place as if He was a sinner. Because of this, if we place our faith in Him, we exchange our sinful rags for His robes of righteousness. When we persevere to the end, it proves that we belong to Christ, it shows that His righteousness is ours, and it means that we will be dressed in His righteousness for eternity.
Do you believe? If not, i beg you to today. Life will be tough, you’ll be tempted to quit, but the promise of eternal life is enough to keep you going. Look to Christ today if you have not before.
And if you have believed, but you’ve stopped looking forward to Christ—perhaps looking forward to riches or pleasure or even marriage/family or ministry instead of Christ—i plead with you to wake up! Look to Christ. He is your only hope. Repent and return!
And if you’re looking forward to Christ even now, keep your eyes fixed on Him! Let nothing move you!
Don’t be foolish with your elevated position in Christ. The British army in Fort George was expecting an attack that never came. We must watch for the return of Christ, and if He waits until after our deaths, at least we will be ready for Him when our time comes.
In this with you.
Soli Deo Gloria
Thanks for reading.
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