Jewish Purity In The City Of Sardis (rev. 3:4-5)

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).

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  1. yetilived

    Not erasing a name from the book of life would mean they would no longer be hungry or thirsty. Confessing their name before God implies they were transformed into Christ’s image

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      I think that depends on the exact context.

  2. David Roberts

    Jesus is the only way to the father for Jew or gentile and we can only come to Father through Jesus. Having said that I think very often the western idea of grace has become one of a free pass, a bit like having a certificate of exemption to any penalty for continued unrepentant disobedience. When Grace is viewed from a Biblical perspective we see within Gods grace a means of escape from the world, a corrupt mind, a sinful heart by the power of His holy spirit working in us. This is through Gods power ( His works in us ) but we have to put on the parachute of grace He has provided or jumping without it is not going to bring about the result we would like. Too many people view Jesus as ” A door ” not ” The door”. The door is also the way, the truth and the life that we must walk in, Him in us and us in Him, all a fulfillment of his grace but not a misconceived idea that we merely recognize who he is and stand at a wrongly perceived door elbow resting occasionally on the frame and seek to hold on to our old life.

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      David, you are right, it these theological issues can get complicated. But I ask do we first understand the text before we go make theology out of it?

  3. jNe

    If you say then, that NOT to relate later theologies or to “try to find them in ancient Jewish texts like the Gospels”, how did they occur? Why? Which one? What is the accurcy or value? Suddenly it all sounds like the moon is made of green cheese. And I am serious.

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Theology is a human attempt to reason out and understand God’s order, will and purposes. Theological ideas can be dated, some very precisely. Placing recent theological ideas into much earlier texts is like saying that the gospel writers published books. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John would be surprised. No, there were no books, just scrolls and no printing presses or publishing houses, just parchment and ink… We can’t do that with later theology and Bible either, because that would be twisting the texts to fit our world and our modern views. We are entitled to them, but they are not 1st century 🙂

  4. Giobanny

    How could the Christian have confidence and security persist in committing all sins then how can God give them salvation.?

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Deep question… not sure it is answerable in a few words… but if salvation depends solely on performance then we are all doomed. If there are words of repentance but no reform then there was no real repentance. People are good in deceiving themselves, but God is truly merciful. If one does not have faith in his mercy then there is no hope for salvation…

  5. yetilived

    I connect the word “death” with Christ’s atonement and “life” with the giving of the Holy Spirit. Why would the “the names of those who do overcome (I am assuming they accepted Christ’s death) “ remain in the Book of Life? Purity does not appear to be defined here as forgiveness, right?