Sardis & Philadelphia & Laodicea

Revelation 3:1-6: Sardis – “The city of Sardis was located in West Asia Minor, about 50 miles east of Smyrna and 30 miles southeast of Thyatira (these cities, you’ll remember, were most probably on a regularly travelled first-century mail route – TAR). Sardis was situated at the foot of Mount Timolus, on the river Pactolus, celebrated for its golden Sands, and some two miles from the river Hermes, a site of great beauty. It was an important and wealthy city located on the commercial trade route running east and west through Lydia. Founded about 1200 B.C., Sardis had been one of the greatest cities in the ancient world, the capital of the fabulously wealthy Lydian kingdom. (The name of that kingdom’s most famous king, Croesus, lives on the saying ‘As rich as Croesus.”) Much of its wealth came from its textile (cloth or fabric) manufacturing and dye industry and its jewel trade, especially from gold (archaeologists have found hundreds of crucibles, used for refining gold, in the ruins of Sardis). The city’s magnificent Temple of Artemis, dating from the fourth century B.C., was one of its points of interest and still exists as an important ruin. The remains of a Christian church building, discovered immediately adjacent to the temple, testify of postapostolic Christian witness to this wicked and pagan city noted for its loose living. Though the details are not recorded in Scripture, the church at Sardis was probably founded as an outreach of Paul’s ministry at Ephesus (Acts 19:10). The church to which the letter was addressed continued its existence until the 14th century, but it was never prominent.  Today, only a small village in modern Turkey known as Sart exists amid the ancient ruins” {Walvoord/MacArthur/Zodhiates}.

The Name “Sardis” – The Greek word for “Sardis” is Σάρδεις (sar-deis). The etymology of the word is uncertain. Seiss suggests it may mean “remnant” or “escaped few.”

“The Dead Church” – Sardis was the church that was pronounced by Christ in v. 1 to be “dead.” “The letter does not speak of persecution (why would Satan bother to persecute a dead church?), false doctrine, false teachers, or corrupt living. Yet some combination of those things was obviously present at Sardis, since the church had died” {MacArthur}.

The Downward Spiral of the Seven Churches – “The downward spiral depicted by these churches in chapters 2-3, beginning with the Ephesian church’s loss of its first love for Jesus Christ and continuing with Pergamum’s worldliness and Thyatira’s tolerance of sin, reached a new low at Sardis. The church at Sardis could well be nicknamed ‘The First Church of the Tares.’ It was a church dominated by sin, unbelief, and false doctrine. Like the fig tree in Jesus’ parable, it bore leaves but no fruit (Matt 21:19)” {MacArthur}.

Jesus’ Harsh Words to Sardis – “There is a marked change in our Lord’s method of address to the church at Sardis. Hitherto He has not commenced with words of commendation. Here, He commenced with words of condemnation. In the other churches, evil had not been the habit, but rather the exception, and therefore it was possible first to commend. Here the case is reversed, and no word of commendation is addressed to the church as a church” {G. Campbell Morgan}. It is noteworthy that “Sardis and Laodicea, the most wealthy of the seven churches, receive little beside censure” {Fausset}. “There was a semblance of life (v. 1d) but it lacked reality. Sardis apparently was reputed as being a ‘live church’ – there was much activity, but He who does not look on the outward appearance but on the heart declares, ‘Thou art dead.’ Prophetically, this was the condition of Christendom just preceding the reformation” {Smith}.

A Series of Exhortations – “The message to Sardis in vv. 2-3 is therefore a series of exhortations not only to the church of the first century but to those who need the same exhortations in every century. To such the commands are given to be watchful (i.e., to look into their real condition), to strengthen the things which remain (perhaps referring to lawful principles, activities, institutions, as well as individuals; included among the latter are undoubtedly the ‘few names mentioned above) which are ready to die (the word ‘ready’ is not in the Greek text, and since the verb is in the imperfect tense [denoting continuous action in the past], it is better, ‘that were about to die’], to remember the truth and experience of the PAST, to hold fast that which remains, and to repent in mind and heart” {Walvoord/Smith}.

Jesus’ Warning – There is also a warning in v. 3: Christ threatens the dead church of Sardis that He will come “as a thief.” “Historically Cyrus did come upon Sardis ‘as a thief in the night’ and conquered the city before the city had time ‘to put on their boots’ simply because there was no watching at the right time and place” {Smith}.

Jesus’ Invitation and Promise – In vv. 4-6 we see “an invitation and a promise to the godly remnant. To those individuals in the Sardis church who overcome, the promise is given that they shall be clothed in white garments. Garments have a symbolic meaning in Scripture, often denoting righteousness (Psalm 132:9, 16; Isaiah 59:17; 61:10; Job 29:14; Eph 6:14; Rev 19:11, 14). Righteousness of the self-righteous is spoken of as filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6). ‘They shall walk with Me in white; for they are worthy (v. 4). ‘White’ denotes spotless purity (cf. (Matt 17:2; 28:3; Acts 1:10; Dan 12:10). Of all things, only the glorified church is spoken of as wearing white raiment” {Smith}.

“He Who Overcomes” – Some people have wrongly concluded that Christ’s statement in v. 5 concerning the Book of Life proves that it is possible for a believer to lose his or her salvation. It is actually the opposite: a promise rather than a threat, a confirmation (there is an emphatic double negative in the Greek) of eternal security rather than a warning of loss of salvation. “He who overcomes” refers to saved; all believers are “overcomers.”

Jesus’ Confession before the Angels – Questions have been raised also over Christ’s confession before the angels in v. 5. Some have wondered why not the Holy Spirit instead, “so as to make the Trinity complete? The answer is that this pertains to the Church Age, at which time the Holy Spirit is not in heaven but the earth (cf. Luke 9:26)” {Smith}.

Revelation 3:7-13: Philadelphia – “The message to the church at Philadelphia is in some respects one of the most interesting of all the messages to the seven churches. Here is a church which was faithful to Christ and to the Word of God. The city of Philadelphia itself, known in modern times as Alasehir, is located in Lydia some 28 miles southeast of Sardis and was named after a king of Pergamos, Attalus Philadelphus, who built the city. The name of the city Philadelphia  (proper noun) comes from the Greek word φιλαδελφία (phee-la-del-phee-a), the primary meaning of which is brotherly love, the caring love one Christian should have for another (cf. Rom 12:10; 1 Peter 1:22). The city of Philadelphia had a long history and several times was almost completely destroyed by earthquakes. The most recent being in A.D. 17. The land area around Philadelphia was rich in agriculture value, but had noticeable tokens of previous volcanic action. Grapes were one of the principle crops, and in keeping with this, Dionysus was one of the chief objects of pagan worship there” {Walvoord}.

Jesus’ Message – “The message addressed to the church at Philadelphia has the unusual characteristic of being almost entirely a word of praise, similar to that received by the church at Smyrna, but in sharp contrast to the messages to Sardis and Laodicea” {Walvoord}. “Churches 1 and 7 are in grave danger; churches 2 and 6 are in excellent shape, churches 3, 4, and 5 are middling, neither very good nor very bad” {Morris (from Constable)}.

“The Holy and True” – “The letter to the angel of the church of Philadelphia is introduced in v. 7 by the description of Christ as preeminently the Holy One and the One who is always true. As the One who is true, Christ is the author of truth in contrast to all error or false doctrine. In the midst of so much that is false and perverted, Jesus Christ stands alone as the One who is completely true” (both then and now – TAR) {Walvoord}.

“The Key of David” – “The ‘Key of David’ seems to refer to Isaiah 22:20-23 where Hezekiah’s servant, Eliakim, received authority over David’s house, including access to all the king’s treasures. Jesus claimed to have God’s full administrative authority over salvation and judgment and to distribute or not distribute all God’s resources according to His will” {Constable}.

Jesus’ Commendation – “Finding nothing in their deeds that caused Him concern, the Lord Jesus Christ moved on to commend the church at Philadelphia. The Philadelphia Christians had received an ‘open door to opportunity for spiritual blessing, perhaps opportunity for evangelism (cf. 1 Cor. 16:9; 2 Cor. 2:12; Col. 4:3). This opportunity would continue because they had a ‘little power’ (scholars generally see this statement as not a negative comment but a commendation). They had faithfully obeyed God’s Word, and they had maintained a faithful testimony for the Lord in the past, presumably by word and by deed. They also enjoyed the prospect of an open door into the messianic kingdom because they had been faithful. This may be the primary reference in view. The Philadelphia church was small in numbers (cf. Luke 12:32, but had a powerful impact on its city. Despite its small size, spiritual power flowed in the Philadelphia church. People were being redeemed, lives were being transformed, and the gospel of Jesus Christ was being proclaimed” {MacArthur/Constable}.

Servants of God – “As a result of their faithfulness in witness Christ promises that their adversaries, described in v. 9 as ‘synagogue of Satan,’ will be forced to acknowledge that the Philadelphia church were true servants of God {Walvoord}. With scalding reference to unbelieving Jews who were opposing the witness of the gospel in Philadelphia and making it difficult for the Christians to be a good testimony before the pagan world, Christ warns, ‘I will make them to come and bow down at your feet, and to know that I have loved you.’ Bowing at someone’s feet depicts abject, total defeat and submission. This imagery derives from the Old Testament, which describes the yet future day when unbelieving Gentiles will bow down to the remnant of Israel (cf. Isaiah 45:14; 49:23; 60:14). The Philadelphia church’s faithfulness would be rewarded by the salvation of some of the very Jews who were persecuting it. Those in the church today who are experiencing such affliction and persecution may be assured that however violent the opposition and however direct the efforts to thwart and hinder the work of God, in the end there will be victory for the cause of Christ” {Walvoord/MacArthur/TAR}.

Strong Support for the Pretribulational Rapture – Verse 10 is a strong support for the Pretribulational Rapture of the church. Note “the hour that is about to come” is future. “The ‘hour of testing (πειρασμός [pie-ras-mos]) is Daniel’s seventieth week (Dan 9:25-27), the time of Jacob’s trouble (Jer 30:7), the seven-year Tribulation period” {MacArthur}. “What is said emphasizes deliverance from rather than deliverance through. As far as the Philadelphia church was concerned, the Rapture of the church was presented to them as an imminent (impending, about to happen) hope” {Walvoord/TAR}. “Since the tribulation will immediately precede the coming of the Lord in great power and glory (Matt 24:29, 30), and since the group of believers to whom John was writing have long since passed away, it is evident that Philadelphia, as well as the other churches, is representative (at least suggestive – TAR) of the church universal” {Smith}.

Additional Promises – In verse 11, additional promises were given. Christ promised He was coming soon. The thought is not simply that of coming soon in time but coming suddenly or quickly (cf. 1:1; 2:16). They were exhorted in the light of His coming to continue to ‘hold fast to what they have’” {Walvoord, B.K.C.}.

Christ’s “New Name” – Verse 12 contains both an invitation and a promised reward. “As in the earlier letters, salvation and blessing and eternity to come will be the portion of the Philadelphia believers. ‘pillar denotes strength. The entire heavenly city is considered a ‘temple.’ ‘New Jerusalem is a reference to the future eternal city described in chapters 21-22.  Christ’s ‘new name’ is a mystery (cf. 2:17; 14:1; 19:12). Verse 13 again stresses the universality of the messages” (Walvoord/TAR).

Revelation 3:14-22: Laodicea – “The seventh and concluding message to the seven churches of Asia is addressed to the angel (Pastor Matt, you’ll remember, favors the view that the angels of the church were human messengers, i.e., pastors/bishops – TAR) of the church in Laodicea. This city, founded by Antiochus II in the middle of the third century before Christ and named after his wife Laodice, was situated about 40 miles southeast of Philadelphia on the road to Colossae. Under Roman rule Laodicea had become wealthy and had a profitable business arising from the production of wool cloth. Laodicea also benefitted from banking and health care. (“In Roman times Laodicea became the wealthiest city in Phrygia” {Mounce}). When destroyed by an earthquake about A.D. 60, it was able to rebuild without any outside help. Its economic sufficiency tended to lull the church to sleep spiritually; and though there is mention of the church as late as the 14th century, the city as well as the church now is in complete ruins” {Walvoord}.

“Laodicea” – “The deeper meaning of ‘Laodicea’ comes from the Greek root words from which it is derived: λαός (la-os), meaning ‘people’ and δίκη (dee-kay), meaning ‘principle,’ decision, justice. In other words, as Christ showed in verse 20, Laodiceans trust in their ability to rule themselves, judging and deciding matters to the exclusion of Christ’s rule within His Church” {Internet}.

Comparison to the Church at Smyrna – “In Laodicea conditions are just the reverse of those at Smyrna. The Smyrnean church was poor in the material and rich in the spiritual.  Laodicea is rich in the material and poor in the spiritual” {Smith}.

The “Amen” – “In v. 14 Jesus Christ called Himself the ‘Amen’ (lit. “so be it”). We should probably understand this title as a testimony to His ability to produce what He predicts (cf. Isaiah 65:16). As a ‘Witness,’ His testimony to the situation in Laodicea was trustworthy. The Laodiceans had a reputation for saying and doing whatever was necessary to preserve their own wellbeing (a kind of relative truth). In contrast, Jesus spoke the truth. The ‘beginning’ [origin] of God’s creation sets forth His authority to pass judgment. The Laodiceans were creative, but Jesus alone was the Creator (cf. John 1:3; Col 1:16)” {Constable}.]

Christ as Creator – “While Arians (in modern times, Jehovah Witnesses follow an Arian teaching – TAR) took the statement about Christ being the Beginning of creation to mean that He was the first created Being, the whole context of Revelation indicates that Christ is God the Creator rather than a created being. As Alford sates, ‘in Him the whole creation of God is begun and conditioned: He is the source and primary fountain-head.’ No doubt the Laodiceans were familiar with the letter to the Colossian church, which must have been in their possession for at least a generation (cf. Col 1:15-18). In a similar way to Colossians 1, Christ declares in Revelation 21:6, ‘I am the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end.’ As the Laodiceans had reveled in material riches, Christ reminds them that all of these things come from Him who is the Creator” {Walvoord}.

“Lukewarm” – In vv. 15-16 Christ issues a chilling indictment (denunciation, condemnation) upon the church at Laodicea: “I know (οἶδα [oi-da]) your works: that you are neither hot nor cold.” Walvoord terms Christ’s word “The most scathing (severely critical) rebuke to be found in any of the seven letters.” “The church at Laodicea posed a special problem. Their self-confidence had blinded them to the fact that in reality they were ‘poor, blind, and naked’ (v. 17). Assurance that they had it all together had resulted in a lukewarmness that made Christ want to SPIT them out of His mouth” {Mounce}. “’Neither cold not hot’ expresses gross indifferentism. As Ramsey fittingly declares, ‘The Laodicean church is neither one thing nor another; it is given to compromise. It cannot thoroughly reject the temptations and allurements of the world. And therefore it shall be rejected absolutely and inexorably by Him whose faithfulness and truth reject all half-heartedness and compromise” {Smith}. Not all scholars, however, accept this interpretation of lukewarmness. “Some scholars have suggested instead that this metaphor has been drawn from the water supply of the city, which was lukewarm, in contrast to the hot springs at nearby Hierapolis and the pure water of Colossae (cf. Barclay). The archaeology shows Laodicea had an aqueduct that probably carried water from hot mineral springs some five miles south, which would have become tepid before entering the city. Strabo states that the water was hard, though drinkable. The imagery of the Laodicean aqueduct suggests not that ‘hot’ is good and ‘cold’ is bad, but that both hot and cold water are useful, whereas lukewarm water is useless” {Wikipedia}. “It is apparent that there is something about the intermediate state of being lukewarm that is utterly obnoxious to God. There is no one farther from the truth in Christ than the one who makes an idle profession without real faith. The church at Laodicea constitutes a sad picture of much of the professing church in the world throughout the history of the Christian era and serves as an illustration of those who participate in outer religious worship without the inner reality” {Walvoord}.

Spiritual Blindness – “The lack of spiritual perception, devotion, and faith in God manifested in the lukewarm state is revealed in the exaltation of material wealth in contrast to spiritual riches in vv. 18-19” {Walvoord}. The command to “anoint your eyes with eye salve, that you may see” is sarcastic. “The Laodiceans were spiritually blind, but not incurably so. They needed medical treatment, but the physicians of its famous medical school can do nothing for it” {Smith}.

“Repent” – In v. 19 Christ warns the Laodiceans to repent (a change of mind about God resulting in obedient behavior).

Verse 20 Is a Debatable Verse – “Though this verse has been used in countless tracts and evangelistic messages to depict Christ knocking on the door of the sinner’s heart, it is broader than that. The door on which Christ is knocking is not the door to a single human heart, but to the Laodicean church. Christ was outside this apostate church and wanted to come in – something that could only happen if the people repented. ‘Anyone,’ however, is singular. If one person opened the door, Christ would enter that church through the individual” [MacArthur}.

Verse 21 Is a Promise to those who respond in repentance.

“Listen and Obey” – Verse 22 is “a call to ‘listen and ‘obey,’ not just to Laodicea but it is intended as a warning to all ‘churches.’ No less than eternity is at stake” {Osborne}.

– Professor Thomas A. Rohm