Notes (NET Translation)
1 “To the angel of the church in Sardis write the following: “This is the solemn pronouncement of the one who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars: ‘I know your deeds, that you have a reputation that you are alive, but in reality you are dead.
The self-identification given by Christ (cf. 1:4, 16, 20) is similar to that given to Ephesus (2:1). The difference is that this verse mentions the supernatural source available to the church. The Greek literally says that they “have a name that they live” which means this is either the church’s confession or reputation. In reality they are dead. Verse 2 indicates that this is hyperbolic language used to emphasize the church’s precarious position.
The “life/death” antithesis, as said above, was especially relevant to Sardis, where religious speculation centered on this question. Just outside their city was a famous necropolis, or cemetery, with the graves of long-dead kings. The assembly at Sardis represented that cemetery more than a living church. If they wanted to live, they had to turn from their false deeds to the life-giving Spirit. (Osborne 174)
2 Wake up then, and strengthen what remains that was about to die, because I have not found your deeds complete in the sight of my God.
The church at Sardis had begun a life of service to God but had somehow stopped progressing or fallen short. It is difficult to determine the exact situation the church was in but a few clues may point us in the general direction. The similar self-identification of Christ in this letter and the letter to Ephesus may suggest the two churches faced a similar problem. The problem in Ephesus was a lack of love and they were called to return to the things they did at first (2:4-5). Sardis is similarly called to repent and obey the message they received (3:3). Verse 4 suggests many in the church were guilty of idolatry in some form. The fact that no mention is made of specific threats may imply the church is complacent. This may be why the church appears alive (3:1).
3 Therefore, remember what you received and heard, and obey it, and repent. If you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will never know at what hour I will come against you.
The threat of Christ’s coming refers to a conditional coming of Christ before the final judgment. The image of a thief is found elsewhere in the NT (e.g., Mt 24:42-44; 1 Thess 5:2; 2 Pet 3:10) but it also has a connection to the history of Sardis. The city was considered nearly impregnable but on two occasions, by the Persians in 546 BC and by Antiochus III in 214 BC, it was overthrown when the enemy scaled the unwatched, “unscalable” cliffs near the acropolis. “As in history, so in life, to consider oneself secure and fail to remain alert is to court disaster” (Mounce 2071-2).
4 But you have a few individuals in Sardis who have not stained their clothes, and they will walk with me dressed in white, because they are worthy.
Not every Christian in Sardis had “stained their clothes”. This phrase refers to the kinds of idolatrous practices, mentioned in the commentary on the previous letters, that one would be tempted to engage in in the first-century Roman world. Their clothes were stained with the pollution of idolatry or syncretism. The faithful in Sardis are “worthy” because they have remained faithful to Christ.
5 The one who conquers will be dressed like them in white clothing, and I will never erase his name from the book of life, but will declare his name before my Father and before his angels.
White clothing represents the purity of the faithful in not compromising with paganism. It may also symbolize the ideas of festivity and triumph. Those whose names are written in the “book of life” will inherit eternal life (cf. 13:8; 17:8; 20:12, 15; 21:27). The phrase “I will never erase his name” is not so much a threat to those who do not repent but rather a way of stating that the conqueror’s salvation is guaranteed. Christ will declare the name of the conqueror before the Father and the angels in recognition of his salvation (cf. Mt 10:32; Lk 12:8). “This part of the promise uniquely corresponds to the problem of witness in Smyrna and to those who overcome it. Those who confess Christ’s name have their own name confessed by Christ before the Father” (Beale 280).
6 The one who has an ear had better hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’
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Metzger, Bruce M. Breaking the Code: Understanding the Book of Revelation. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993.
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Osborne, G. R. Revelation. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2002.