Degenerate Sardis City
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18. Degenerate Sardis City
Revelation 3.1-6

Sardis Ancient Lydia"To the angel of the church in Sardis write: These are the words of him who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have found your deeds unfinished in the sight of my God. Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; hold it fast, and repent. But if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you. Yet you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes. They will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy. The one who is victorious will, like them, be dressed in white. I will never blot out the name of that person from the book of life but will acknowledge that name before my Father and his angels. Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches." (Revelation 3.1-6)✞

Lydia Ruled Over

Sardis Temple"To the angel of the church in Sardis" also means "To the messenger of the church in Sardis." This alternative also applies in verses 7 and 14. The one who holds the seven spirits representing the Holy Spirit or "the sevenfold Spirit of God" communicates to the church's angel in Sardis, the capital city of the ancient Lydian Empire and prominent in the Roman world. A spiritual leader in Sardis city would receive the letter and would no doubt have relayed John of Patmos' words to the congregation. Sardis is also called Sardes and is at the site of the modern Sart in Turkey. Sardis was a city of great wealth and fame. Sir William Mitchell Ramsay (1851-1939), the Scottish archaeologist and New Testament scholar, writes concerning degenerate Sardis city that "there was no greater example of the contrast between past splendor and present decay as in Sardis city." Seven hundred years before John wrote Revelation, Sardis was one of the greatest cities in the world. There, the King of Lydia ruled over his empire in Asian Turkey in oriental splendor. The citizens abandoned Sardis around 1402 AD.

Splendor to Decay

Sardis From BelowSardis stood as an impregnable fortress in the middle of the plain of the River Hermus valley. To the north rose the long ridge of Mount Tmolus. From that ridge, a series of hills went out like spurs, each forming a narrow plateau. On one of these spurs, fifteen hundred feet up, stood the original Sardis city. Jesus Christ gave the nominal, sleepy, and degenerate Sardis city and its church a wake-up call despite its unassailable position. The sides of the ridge of Sardis City are smoothly steep, and only where the spur meets Mount Tmolus is there any possible approach into the city, and even that is hard and steep. Sardis City stands like some massive watchtower guarding the Hermus valley. The Greek name for "Sardis" is "Sardeis" and is a plural noun, for there were two Sardis cities, one on the high plateau and one in the valley. The narrow space on the plateau top was too small for the expanding town, and houses then grew around the spur on which it stood.

King Croesus Wealth

Coin showing King CroesusIn his day, King Croesus' wealth (pronounced KREE-SES) (BC 595-546) was similar to that of Bill Gates or Warren Buffett. John of Patmos addresses this letter in Revelation to King Croesus, whose wealth was legendary. King Croesus reigned over Lydia for fourteen years from BC 560 until his defeat by King Cyrus of Persia in BC 546. The River Pactolus flows through the lower town of Lydia and is reputed to have had gold-bearing waters. However, the "gold" was, in fact, "electrum," which is a naturally occurring amalgam of silver and gold found on the river bed. Much of the King's wealth comes from the deposits of this river. The river "gold" is also the source of the Greek legend about the "Midas touch" or "the golden touch." Anything that Midas touched turned to gold! However, the real identity of Midas and the legend surrounding the "Midas touch" are unclear. A fascinating side story of this myth is that when Midas touches his daughter, she supposedly turns into a statue of gold!

Greatest Sardian King

King Croesus PortraitKing Croesus is considered the greatest of the Sardian kings, and his name is commemorated in the saying, "as rich as Croesus." Croesus was the first to issue gold coins with standardized purity and weight for general circulation. But Croesus has one critical flaw. With the King's great wealth, Sardis city reaches its zenith, and it is with Croesus that it plunges to disaster, as is suggested by this Revelation passage. The angel says, "I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you."

Solon's Warning

Solon, the Greek Law GiverSolon (BC 638-558), the so-called "wisest of the Greeks," came on a visit to Midas and warned King Croesus where Sardis was heading. With incredible arrogance, Croesus shows him the whole of the magnificence and wealth of Sardis city. Solon sees King Croesus's blind confidence that nothing could end his splendor, and also the seeds of softness and degeneration. Degenerate Sardis city is doomed!

King Cyrus' Victory

Persian SoldierKing Cyrus' victory over Sardis brings about King Croesus's ultimate defeat at the Battle of Pteria when he crosses the River Halys. In Greek and Persian cultures, King Croesus (BC 595-546) becomes synonymous with Sardis's wealth. Croesus embarks upon a foolish war with King Cyrus 11 of Persia, otherwise known as Cyrus the Great (BC 576-530.) Croesus and his capital's greatness, Sardis, are ended when he fails to heed the warning. To attack the armies of King Cyrus, Croesus has to cross the river Halys. Before he advances, he seeks the counsel of the famous oracle at Delphi and is told, "If you cross the river Halys, you will destroy a great empire."The river Halys is known today as the Kizilirmak River, which is the longest river in Turkey.

Croesus Ultimate Defeat

Croesus assumes the campaign on which he is embarking would be the climax of his power and the destruction of King Cyrus the Great's empire. He crosses the River Halys, engages in battle, and Cyrus routes his army. He is, however, not worried, for he thinks that all he has to do is to retreat to the impregnable citadel of Sardis, recuperate and fight again. King Cyrus' victory initiates the siege of Sardis. Cyrus waits for fourteen days, then offers a reward to anyone who can find a weakness in the city's defenses. Sardis' "Achilles Heel" turns out to be its crumbling rock. Lydia's downfall occurs when a Sardian soldier accidentally drops his helmet over the side. Though imposing as a fortress, the crumbling rock was more like close-packed dried mud. The properties of the Sardis rock meant that it naturally developed cracks.

To a Fault

In BC 546, a Persian Mardian soldier called Hyeroeades, who came from Iran (also from where Cyrus the Great originated,) sees a Sardian soldier accidentally drop his helmet over the battlements. He then makes his way down the precipice to retrieve it. Hyeroeades figures that there must be cracks in that rock and a pathway by which a troop of agile men could climb up and attack the city. That night, Hyeroeades leads a party of Persian Mardian troops up along the fault in the rock. When they reach the top, they find to their surprise that the Sardis' battlements are entirely unguarded. The Sardians thought themselves too impregnable to even post a guard, and so Sardis fell. A city with a history like that knows what the Risen Christ meant when he said, "If you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you."

Dead Church Sardis

Sardis columnsThe degenerate Sardis city in Revelation, though lacking spiritual life, hears the seven spirit's wake up call to come alive. John of Patmos writes this letter of Revelation under the instruction of an angel to Sardis. It is in John's day a wealthy but unfortunately a dead church. Though once a magnificent citadel, Sardis is today only an ancient pile of rubble on a hilltop. There is no life or spirit there. The once-great Sardians became soft, and twice they lost their city because they were too lazy to keep watch. The church's vitality is gone, and it is a corpse instead of a living community. It is a warning to Christians of the death trap of lethargy in our churches.

Nominal Christians

Seven SpiritsThe "seven stars" are leaders of the seven churches in Asia to which John of Patmos, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, is writing his seven letters. The Sardis church is a picture of nominal Christianity, busily being religious but lacking spiritual life. The theologian Douglas Wilson disagrees with the notion of a "nominal Christian" in "Reformed is Not Enough." He argues that all the baptized enter into a covenant with God and are obliged to serve him. Therefore, there is "no such thing as a nominal Christian any more than we can find a man who is a nominal husband!" The Sardis church is ordered by God to "wake up." With this call comes the possibility of recovery and new life. The degenerate Sardis city and church should be able to get back her power but fails.

Walk With Jesus

Cloth MakingA few people in the Sardis Church who walk with Jesus receive a holy white garment because they are worthy. "Be watchful," says Jesus or, "I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you." He may come unexpectedly when they least expect it. Twice in its history, Sardis had fallen to enemies even despite its imposing vertical walls and fortifications because it had not kept watch. "Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; hold it fast," says the Lord. The instruction is to "repent, turn from their sin, and come back to God." Failure means that Christ will come to them when they least expect it "like a thief in the night." "Yet you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes." Rather than soiled clothing in this cloth-making city, a faithful few will wear holy white garments.✞

"Degenerate Sardis City"
by Ron Meacock © 2021

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