After essentially calling the members of the church in Sardis the "church of the mostly dead," Jesus Christ instructs them to "be watchful." He complements this with, "strengthen the things which remain," which qualifies the meaning of "watch." There is still a glimmer of life within this church, but the letter gives the impression that they have relaxed in their spiritual responsibilities so much that they are nearly comatose. They have not been vigilant in their core responsibilities or on guard against deception, apathy, or neglect. They have not had sleepless nights over their standing with God.
Interestingly, in the Bible's first mention of the Day of the Lord (Isaiah 2:12), it says that it "shall come upon everything proud and lofty, upon everything lifted up—and it shall be brought low." The primary target is the proud—the self-assured. The ironic thing is that this state of spiritual near-death could easily come about even while they are avidly watching world events. They could be quite adept at following the news reports and may know better than anyone what is really going on in the world and how it fits with prophecy.
But that does not fulfill Christ's and the apostle's commands to watch! It is not that it is wrong to keep tabs on world news, but watching world news is chiefly about observing. True watching emphasizes diligence; it is being alert to spiritual dangers more than physical ones. It is about faithfully carrying out our God-given responsibilities, like a servant in the Master's house. None of that results from simply being a news- or prophecy-addict.
In verse 3, He tells them to call to mind the previous lessons and instructions they have heard. He tells them to repent and to guard and maintain their position so they backslide no further. As before, His description gives little indication of spiritual vibrancy or zeal. There probably is a great deal of activity, since He says that they have a name—or reputation—for being alive. Yet, in the areas that truly matter—like growth, faith, seeking God, and overcoming—not much is happening.
He also warns them that, if they will not watch themselves and their covenant responsibilities to their Master, He will come upon them like a thief. He implies that they will not be counted worthy to escape. They may not be appointed to wrath as the world is, but they certainly are not immune to it. In fact, they stand a good chance of experiencing some of it, having not been vigilant and alert in watching over the things that God has given them.
Plainly, Christ will return when we do not expect Him. We may be able to observe some general indicators when key prophecies are fulfilled, but the overall timing will be a mystery. His coming will be like a thief in the night, purposefully hidden from all. Rather than trying to discern the timing, we are instructed to "watch"—not world events, but to watch over all that God has given to us, so that when that Day arrives, we are ready. He knows that if we are faithful in little—in the mundane, the monotonous, the unexciting—we will also be faithful in the truly great things that lie ahead.
David C. Grabbe
'As a Thief in the Night'
Note that each of these congregations—those in Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamos, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea—was located in a Gentile city, and in all probability, each congregation's membership was primarily Gentile. It is quite likely that in each congregation the Jews were a minority.
Recall that the Romans ravaged Jerusalem in AD 70, and its Christians had to flee to Pella to save their lives. It is highly probable that none of these congregations had any communication with any survivor of the first congregation in Jerusalem. All of the apostles except John were dead, and he had been banished to Patmos. This circumstance was far different from the one in which the church was founded.
Were these Gentile congregations still part of the true church? Were they free of flaws and perfect in their character, attitudes, and doctrines? Would such a negative judgment eliminate them from being a true assembly?
Consider these further factors: Revelation 2:4 commends the congregation in Ephesus for doctrinal vigilance but castigates it for leaving its first love. Revelation 2:9-11 shows Christ commending Smyrna for being spiritually rich, but He also admonishes them to overcome. Despite His commendation, they are not a finished product.
Revelation 2:13-15 praises those in Pergamos for not denying their faith, but its members are doctrinally divided, and they permit heresy to continue. Revelation 2:19-20 presents Thyatira as growing in good works, but its members tolerate heresy and are guilty of sexual immorality.
Revelation 3:1, 4 exposes Sardis as spiritually dead, though it contains a few who remain undefiled, indicating that its members have virtually lost their faith and are capable only of dead works. Revelation 3:8, 11-12 reports that those in Philadelphia are faithfully enduring, but Christ admonishes them to hold fast and overcome. Finally, Revelation 3:15, 19 judges Laodicea as spiritually bankrupt and gives it no commendation at all. The congregation is strongly advised to be zealous and repent.
What does a composite picture of these congregations reveal?
1. All seven of them are admonished to repent, hold fast, or remain faithful.
2. Only two of them, Smyrna and Philadelphia, receive strong commendations and no listing of their sins and other shortcomings.
3. Two of them, Pergamos and Thyatira, receive a lesser commendation and fairly strong rebukes for sexual immorality and allowing deceivers into the congregation.
4. Two of them, Sardis and Laodicea, receive strong rebukes and no commendations.
In terms of a true church in a single corporate body, what do we see? Only sixty years or so following Christ's resurrection, we have a mixed bag as regards overall stability and righteousness.
Even so, is any one of them not a true congregation, an assembly of truly called-out ones? Does Christ in any way say that even one of them was no longer part of His church, His body of people? Not in the least. There are, however, warnings that, if they did not repent, some within their fellowship might not be within the Body of Christ in the future. Two things are sure:
1. Some of these congregations are clearly spiritually better than the others.
2. Some of them are decidedly awful, even though, using carnal judgment, they may outwardly appear good.
Since Revelation is an end-time book, the overview given in Revelation 2 and 3 is especially significant at this time. It is forecasting what things will be like just before Christ returns, and He uses these first-century congregations to illustrate His forecast for our time.
Remember that God is judging us individually within each group. An attitude that we should not allow to grow in us is to think that we are the only ones who retain a true-church identity. The other side of that same concept is that, even if we agree that others are still part of the true church, we are still better than they are—indeed, everybody else is Laodicean by comparison.
This unmistakably holier-than-you attitude is extremely destructive to true brotherhood and proper fellowship and unity. Luke 18:9-14 records this teaching of Christ concerning self-righteousness and its effects on these matters. Those who elevate themselves in their judgment of themselves as compared to their fellow members bring on themselves this condemnation. God does not justify them when they make this kind of judgment.
John W. Ritenbaugh
Is There a True Church?
Consider that this is Christ's message to His church just before the end, and this is what is most important for His people as we approach the end. Doctrine is mentioned seven times. Is that interesting in light of the times in which we live? We are seeing a major part of the church going haywire on doctrine! Is there something in the letter to Thyatira that mentions things that are happening in that group?
The letters contain at least eleven warnings to these seven churches but also at least twelve promises. Christ mentions faith, patience, conduct, and doctrine. But the two greatest, related concerns for His church at the end are works (Revelation 2:2,9,13,19; 3:1,8, 15) and overcoming (Revelation 2:7,11,17,26; 3:5,12,21).
Today, an awful lot of people are interested in church government at this time. It is not even mentioned by Christ! There are people who are interested in rituals, sacraments, and ceremonies, of which would be things like baptism or the Passover. But nothing in the seven letters alludes to these things. Nor is there anything in them about preaching the gospel around the world. These things have their place, but what we see is Christ's concern with doctrine, conduct, warnings to repent, and promises of reward.
Now these things that are not mentioned are less important than faith, repentance, and holiness, all of which directly impact on doctrine, conduct, and receiving the promises. All of these are bracketed between His statements about works and overcoming.
John W. Ritenbaugh
Revelation 2-3 and Works
To each church in the letters in Revelation 2 and 3, Christ says, "I know your works." People with an incomplete knowledge of Christianity will argue almost endlessly and quite vociferously that no works are needed for salvation. These people are simply, if energetically and zealously, confused.
Salvation is indeed a free gift; it cannot be earned by anyone's works. But that does not mean Christianity has no works. Why would Christ say, "I know your works," if He did not expect people to have them as part of their way of life, as part of Christianity, and if He was not, in most cases, disappointed at the way that the people were working? Christianity does have works as a major part of its makeup.
Herbert Armstrong used to explain salvation and grace and works in an understandable and accurate way. He said, "If I freely offered to give to you one million dollars, but you have to meet the condition of walking across the room to get it, you haven't earned the money by simply walking across the room. You worked during the walk, you met a condition, but the money was still a gift. If the gift had not been offered in the first place, no amount of walking across the room would have earned it. You could have walked from here to Tokyo if you wanted to, and it still would not have earned you that gift. The gift had to be freely offered first."
Think of this in terms of eternal life. No amount of work, no degree of quality of work, can earn that gift for us. We do not have immortality inherent in us, for immortality is something that must be given as a gift. This is what God offers us. He offers us the opportunity to be born again into the Kingdom of God, thus receiving the gift of eternal life. It must be given and received as a gift. However, it is given on the conditions of faith, repentance, and remaining loyal to Him and to His way.
It is in the area of loyalty that works play a major role. We show our loyalty by the way we talk, what we talk about, who we fellowship with, and what we do with our time, our knowledge, and energy. In short, we show our loyalty by our works—that is, by our conduct—and what we produce with what we have been given.
John W. Ritenbaugh
Love and Works
Other Forerunner Commentary entries containing Revelation 3:1:
2 Kings 4:31