4 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.
The book of Revelation and its author seem to be positively preoccupied with the central ideas of Israelite purity. We will repeatedly see this commitment to purity throughout. If the book of Revelation can be called Jewish, or more accurately an Israelite first century document, then it is hardly surprising that it has a high concern for ritual purity since this was central to Israelite society as a whole. The imagery of white robes, whether connected with the Israelite Essene movement or not, show the importance of this purity requirement and commitment. King Solomon in summarizing his wisdom, encourages young man of Israel to make life count and to do the following:
“Go then, eat your bread in happiness and drink your wine with a cheerful heart; for God has already approved your works. Let your clothes be white all the time, and let not oil be lacking on your head.” (Ecc. 9:7–8)
This particular reference although way early for the time of the writings of the Letter of Revelation nevertheless shows clearly that the estimate of white-cloths wearing was there even in the Ancient Israel. In much later Jewish apocalyptic work 4 Ezra we read:
“Those who have departed from the shadow of this age have received glorious garments from the Lord. Take again your full number, O Zion, and conclude the list of your people who are clothed in white, who have fulfilled the Torah of the Lord. (4 Ezra 2:39-41)
It is probably that the traditions such as exemplified in the above quotations found its special expression in the nationwide Essene movement with their distinctive dress code. They, unlike others, wore white at all times (Josephus, Jewish Wars 2.119-161) in the same way as did the Greek Pythagorean philosophical group. (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 15.371). In both Israelite and the Greco-Roman psyche there was an association between white color and purity. White clothes make it very easy to see stains and hard to keep clean. This then determines whether one has somehow been stained or polluted.
The believers in Sardis, as far as Jesus saw it, were dressed in white and yet most had stained white clothes that rendered them unfit for the service of Jesus’ God. They therefore could not walk where Jesus did. (Rev. 3:2b) Remember that that Jesus walked in the midst of the heavenly Menorah – the seven-branched candle stick located in the heavenly Tabernacle. To walk before God where Jesus walks, to serve Him in rightful purity, required unstained white clothes. Of all the many followers of Christ, few managed to live and work in Sardis in a way that Christ the heavenly High Priest judged as right and true, and therefore a sacrifice acceptable before the Father.
5 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. 6 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’
Once again the reward (white garments) is promised for overcoming (avoiding the worship of pagan gods in favor of Israel’s god alone). It was extremely difficult to remain undefiled, given the socio-religious pressures in Roman Empire for Christ-followers. It was especially difficult if these were Gentiles, who were part of the Jewish coalition that have not joined the Jews through proselyte conversion. Because of this, Jesus declares that the names of those who do overcome will remain in perpetuity on the list of the Book of Life.
While this is not the perfect place to have an in-depth discussion on a fascinating section from the Babylonian Talmud that deals with 4 rabbinic figures ascended to Paradise (Pardes); it should nevertheless be mentioned. They all see there Angel Metatron. He is pictured there, sitting down to record the merits of Israel in a special remembrance scroll. (bHaggigah 14b-15a) In Daniel 7, while the prophet was contemplating an incredible vision of four heavenly beings, suddenly saw something else. He wrote about it as follows in Dan. 7:9-10:
“While I was watching, thrones were set up, and the Ancient of Days took his seat. His attire was white like snow; the hair of his head was like lamb’s wool. His throne was ablaze with fire and its wheels were all aflame. A river of fire was streaming forth and proceeding from his presence. Many thousands were ministering to him; many tens of thousands stood ready to serve him. The court convened and the books were opened.”
This idea that somewhere in heaven there exists a permanent registration of people’s names and their deeds is well attested throughout both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. Here are a few pertinent examples:
“‘But now, if you will forgive their sin…, but if not, wipe me out from your book that you have written.’ 33 The Lord said to Moses, ‘Whoever has sinned against me—that person I will wipe out of my book.’” (Ex. 32:32-33) “May they be blotted out of the book of life and may they not be recorded with the righteous.” (Ps. 69:28) Saul Paul refers to his co-workers, “Yes, and I ask you, my true companion, help these women since they have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life.” (Phil. 4:3) Jesus, in instructing his disciples about their priorities, said: “…do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names stand written in heaven.” (Luke 10:20)
The address to the assembly in Sardis, as in the case with all the other congregations, ends with the fitting exhortation that the one who hears this message must obey it (3:6).