Sardis was already living on past glory by the time the church there was founded. Even though in decline, it was still a wealthy city. Sardis was well known for its manufacturing skills, the making of jewelry, and a dye system. Sardis was located, geographically, in such a position that any of the major cities in Asia could be easily reached. Sardis was located 46 miles east of Smyrna, 28 miles west of Philadelphia, and 31 miles south of Thyatira, and there was a good road system connecting the cities. But the people of Sardis had become lazy, morally corrupt, and hedonistic. Perhaps the things that the Lord chastised the church for were the same features that caused the city as a whole to decline.
Sardis was divided into two sections: Part of it was located on top Mount Tmolus. The wealthy and royal members lived there. This location was also very advantageous from a military point of view. From the top of this mount, an invading army could be seen on the plains of Hermus as it approached Sardis. The other part of the city was at the base of Mount Tmolus, where most manufacturing and economic activity occurred, and most of the citizens lived.
Another fact that made Sardis wealthy was the Pactolus River that ran through the lower part of Sardis. This river actually contained gold particles, probably brought downstream from the gold deposits in the mountain, and the collecting of this gold also contributed to the wealth of Sardis. Here is a little piece of legend: The phrase, "The Midas Touch," probably got its start here at this river because it is stated that King Midas bathed in this river in hopes of getting rid of the curse of everything he touched turning to gold, thereby leaving the gold particles.
Because the people of Sardis were under the false impression that they were safe from attack, they became overconfident, thinking no enemy could storm the city because of its steep terrain. But it was conquered. An enemy soldier noticed that one of the soldiers of Sardis dropped his helmet and it rolled to the bottom of the mount. This soldier from Sardis came down the mount to retrieve his helmet by way of a secret path that went up the top of the mount. The enemy soldier reported this to his leaders, and now, knowing how to get into the city unnoticed, Sardis was conquered. The city was captured by the Cimmerians in the 7th century B.C., by the Persians in the 6th, by the Athenians in the 5th, and by Antiochus III at the end of the 3rd century B.C.
A different type of enemy destroyed Sardis in 17 A.D. by means of an earthquake. Nevertheless, the city was always rebuilt and restored after each conquest or disaster, this time with financial help from the Roman Emperor Tiberius. To show their appreciation for the help given by Tiberius, Emperor worship began in Sardis.
As part of the larger Greco-Roman culture, many false gods found followers in Sardis. Though history records the city as less religious than most, it did have two prominent cults: Those of the goddess Artemis, also known as Diana, and the goddess Cybele (or Sybil). The worship of Diana has been noted in our article on Ephesus. Cybele had various titles, and the one most used by the Romans was a "mother goddess" or goddess of nature. This basic idea lives on in indigenous religions (such as the Pachamama of the Andean peoples) or neopagan religions like Wicca.
There was one more influential non-Christian faith in Sardis: the Jews. Unlike most pagan temples, which were built on the outer edges of a town, the Synagogue was in town, which indicates the importance of the Jewish influence in the city. No evidence of persecutions of these new Christians is noted, and this may have also been because of the influence of the Jewish population and their position of power in Sardis.
Now, to the text: "To the angel of the church in Sardis write: He who has the seven Spirits of God and the seven stars, says this: "I know your deeds, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead. Wake up, and strengthen the things that remain, which were about to die; for I have not found your deeds completed in the sight of My God. So remember what you have received and heard; and keep it, and repent. Therefore if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come to you. But you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their garments; and they will walk with Me in white, for they are worthy. He who overcomes will thus be clothed in white garments; and I will not erase his name from the book of life, and I will confess his name before My Father and before His angels." He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches'" (Rev. 3:1-6).
So what happened that caused Christ to not be satisfied with this church? This is the only church to which John was instructed to write that does not get some sort of commendation from Christ. The only thing He had to say on a positive note was that there were still "a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their garments; and they will walk with Me in white, for they are worthy."
Christ condemns the church at Sardis because they thought they were alive, but were dead. They had an inflated opinion of themselves, and "had a name" in the community. Perhaps the church was active in social works, and those outside of the church thought they were doing a great job. In spite of the church's good deeds and being highly regarded in Sardis, spiritually they were dead.
Christ's correction of this church was pointed right at their particular sin: wake up, obey what you have heard, and repent.
If they ignored His correction, Christ promised to come "like a theif" upon them. The Christians of Sardis could relate to this because of the aforementioned captures of the city. Sardis was captured because they were asleep, Sardis did not even have any guards posted to sound the alarm when the enemy entered the city. The Lord could also be referring to Jewish customs that were part of the marriage ceremony, in which the bride was always to be watching and waiting for the groom's arrival unannounced (See the author's "Marriage Supper of the Lamb", Disciple Magazine, May 2013).
Did Sardis heed the Lord's words? The record of the church there continues until the era of the Eastern Roman Empire, but its importance continued to fade. The city declined and was neglected by the Byzantine Rulers and was destroyed by Mongols in 1402. Today, it is only an uninhabited ruin. One cannot serve the Lord and seek the praise of men at the same time.
Ray P. Burriss is a marriage and family counselor and has served as a missionary in Puerto Rico.