Churches today are caught up in marketing. We want to advertise what we have to offer – whether to “seekers” or newcomers to our town, or even to distinguish us from the church down the road. Buzz words and catchy slogans abound. Is there anything wrong with that? After all, it works for automobiles and aspirin tablets, so why shouldn’t it work for us?
One problem is that many people are calloused toward advertising claims. If we watch television, about one-third of the things we see and hear are sales pitches. It’s just as bad or even worse with our printed media. Magazines and newspapers. So we grow not only calloused but cynical. We even assume we’re being lied to.
So when churches claim to be “exciting,” “loving,” “caring,” etc., we not only yawn, but our opinion of the church may be lowered in our estimation.
Apparently, this is nothing new. The New Testament church of Sardis seems to be more concerned about reputation than reality. Sardis was the fifth church to which the risen glorified Christ dictated a letter in the book of Revelation (3:1-6):
1. And to the messenger of the church at Sardis write: These things says the One who has the seven Spirits of God and the seven stars. I know your works, that you have a name that you are alive – and you’re dead!
2. Wake up and establish the things that remain, which were about to die, for I haven’t found your works complete before my God.
3. So then, remember how you have received and heard, and keep it and repent. If then you don’t wake up, I’ll come to you like a thief and you won’t know in what hour I’ll come on you.
4. 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.
5. The overcomer will thus be clothed in white garments and I will not ever erase his name from the Book of Life, and I will confess his name in the presence of My Father and in the presence of His holy angels.
6. The one who has an ear – listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.
All this church had was a name, a reputation and a few incomplete works. I can’t help but wonder how they acquired their good name.
Perhaps they had a great beginning. Perhaps they had been alive and the community around them had recognized this, but now, as many churches (and church people), they had simply “backslid” and were living on their past reputation, glorying in the good old days. Jesus’ advice to them to “remember” in verse 3 may indicate this.
Or perhaps they were devoting all their energy into promoting a reputation, with little concern about the reality behind it. If we may being them into the 21st century, we might imagine their members’ bumper stickers “SARDIS – THE LIVING CHURCH.” Billboards with the pastor’s picture heralding “THE CHURCH ALIVE – SARDIS CHURCH.” I could go on.
Perhaps it’s a bit of both.
But Jesus is more concerned about reality than reputation, completeness rather than claims. He gives them counsel.
There’s a little bit of reality remaining – the church is not quite dead. But the reality has never been carried through to completion. His advice is to wake from their near dead stupor and get back to their beginnings. He tells them to “remember how" (not “what”) they had received and heard. He is not calling them back to the facts of the gospel, but to their receiving of it.
I believe He is calling them back to their initial faith. Their church and personal life is to be built on their faith. Just as they had relied totally on Christ for their initial salvation, so they are to do in their continued daily lives. They were relying on their reputation. He wants them to rely on Him! (Compare Paul’s advice to another church: Galatians 3:1-3.)
In verse 4, He speaks of those few who “haven’t defiled their garments.” Apparently most of the church folks had. But the letter makes no mention of any gross immorality or false teaching as in most of the preceding letters. It’s possible to “defile” our garments – ourselves with an over-concern about our external reputation.
Jesus ends this letter, as the others, with a promise to the overcomer – He gives us pure garments and He guarantees us our security in Him. We don’t need to worry about making or upholding a name for ourselves. We have a name. Our name is written in permanent ink in His book.