Exposition of Revelation: Revelation 3:1–3

Revelation 3:1–3
“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. 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. 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.’”
 (NET Bible)

The Church at Sardis

Jesus has said a great deal to each of us, but we must admit that it got by us. Had we understood him better, then we would be more mature people and together a more vibrant Church. But Jesus is not lacking in recourse; he knows our strengths and weaknesses and may deal with them decisively at any moment! Are you ready?

From the beginning of its existence, Sardis had a military reputation that kept being dashed. Its fortress was situated on an impregnable hilltop. But this natural advantage apparently made its guardians lazy, and attacking armies repeatedly managed to sneak someone into the fortress to open the gates. Similarly, Jesus says they have a reputation for being spiritually alive, but in fact they are dead (3:1).

Perhaps Jesus uses the warning offered by Sardis’s history when he says, “Be on the alert!” (3:2a, my translation). Greg Beale explains, “The imperative to ‘become one who is watchful’ shows that the readers have become lethargic about the radical demands of their faith in the midst of a pagan culture.”[1] They must immediately strengthen what remains because their mortal danger is extreme (3:2b).

Jesus explains the basic things the so-called Christians in Sardis must do: “remember what you received and heard, and obey it, and repent” (3:3). It could not be plainer that Jesus was thinking of a body of revealed knowledge to which Christians must respond with repentance and obedience.

The failure to become alert will have a severe answer from Jesus: “I will come against you” (3:3). Making matters worse, Jesus adds, “You will absolutely not know the hour when I will come” (my translation).

In spite of the spiritual problems, Jesus declares a remnant of the Christians in Sardis to be worthy (3:4). This confirms once again that there is a way of life that is pleasing to God, and believers can live that life by the Spirit!

The book of life (3:5) is a subject deserving of longer treatment than can be given here. The Bible clearly states that records are kept in heaven concerning deeds (Rev. 20:12; 20:15) and also identifying who will live with God in eternity. Since God’s memory and knowledge need no assistance, these books may exist for our benefit so that God’s judgments may be seen to be based on fact not whim.

By contrast, Islamists deny the fact that Allah saves and condemns by whim. But one Muslim who understood the whimsical approach was the Persian mathematician and poet Omar Khayyam (1048–1131 AD), who set his chilling views down in stanzas 68–70 of his famous poem Rubaiyat.

I cannot help expressing my admiration for the NET Bible’s translation of Rev. 3:6: “The one who has an ear had better hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’” Did you hear what the Spirit said?

How are your ears?

It is a serious question whether the contemporary church could follow the remedy Jesus commands in Sardis (“remember what you received and heard, and obey it, and repent” 3:3). How could we remember what we scarcely knew in the first place? How can we repent if we do not know in detail what God requires of us?

There is still time for us to listen to Jesus! It takes time to learn and implement what Jesus tells us, but that is all the more reason to start today.

Copyright © 2011 by Barry Applewhite. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from material created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.


Craig S. Keener, Revelation, The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000)

[1] G.K. Beale, The Book of Revelation, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999) 273.

Do you have an opinion or a different interpretation? Let me know!