3:1 “To the messenger at the assembly in Sardis write…
Sardis was located about 17 kms south of the city of Thyatira. The city was positioned at the crossroads of some of the most important roads in Asia. It was located at the foothills of Mount Tmolus in the Hermus River valley, a natural corridor that connects the Aegean and Anatolia. The city’s wealth and prosperity can be attributed to its location, ideal for trade and commerce, and to its abundant source of water and mineral resources – most notably the legendary gold-bearing sands. Because of its location, Sardis was a center, not only for the traffic of goods between Mesopotamia and the Greek Ionian settlements, but also for the exchange of ideas. According to Herodotus, coins as we know them today were first minted in this great city. Sometime during the 3rd century BCE a considerable number of Jews moved to Sardis because of King Antiochus’ III (223-187 BCE) encouragement and support. Josephus Flavius wrote of a decree from Lucius Antonius, a Roman politician (50-49 BCE):
“Lucius Antonius…to [the Sardian people], sends greetings. Those Jews, who are fellow citizens of Rome, came to me, and showed that they had an assembly of their own, according to their ancestral laws. [They had this assembly] from the beginning, as also a place of their own, wherein they determined their suits and controversies with one another. Therefore, upon their petition to me, so that these might be lawful for them, I ordered that their privileges be preserved, and they be permitted to do accordingly.” (Josephus, Ant., 16.10, 17).
Josephus Flavius also noted that Caius Norbanus Flaccus, a Roman proconsul at the end of the 1st century BCE, upheld the rights of Sardis Jews to practice Judaism, including the right to donate to the Temple in Jerusalem – an extra-ordinary privilege indeed. (Josephus, Ant. 16.6, 6). During this time, Sardis remained an important city and was the principal center of a judicial district that included almost 30 Lydian and Phrygian settlements.
Roman historian Tacitus reports that an earthquake nearly destroyed the city in 17 CE: “That same year twelve famous cities of Asia fell by an earthquake in the night, so that the destruction was all the more unforeseen and fearful… The calamity fell most fatally on the inhabitants of Sardis, and it attracted to them the largest share of sympathy.” (Tacitus, 2.47) The city protected its wealth in a citadel on an acropolis atop a fortified hill that rose approximately 500 meters above the ground. Steep cliffs surrounded the city on three sides, and there was only one access point, a narrow neck of land to the south. Because of its natural defensibility, the city was called, “Sardis, the Impregnable.”
Cyrus of Persia was the first to successfully overcome the stronghold in 547 B.C. While falling asleep at a soldier’s post in Sardis, the soldier accidently dropped his helmet. Thinking he was unobserved, he went down through a secret path to pick up the helmet. When the Persians who were watching the city from all sides saw the man and the path he revealed, they were easily able to follow that same path. This later led to the sacking of the city. Three hundred years later, in 214 BC, Sardis was again captured in exactly same way by the army of Antiochus the Great of Syria. His men scaled the wall at the steepest point and found it unguarded at the top. It is ironic that while the people of Sardis slept in imagined safety, conquering soldiers came suddenly, took control, and plundered the city of Sardis.
It is likely that, since the same seems to be the case with Revelation’s other letters to congregations, the words of Jesus have something to do with the history or character of the city itself. Today we look at the cities in which we reside as unconnected geographic localities. In the minds of the ancients, this was not the case. The congregations were intricately connected to their cities, and their histories were often similar to the cities’ histories and chief characteristics. Perhaps this is so because the cities of the ancients were not like cities of today; they really were religious institutions that needed to be thoroughly redeemed by redirecting their worship to the God of Israel in Jesus, instead of to the pagan Roman deities. What familiarity with the histories of each city mentioned here tells us about the authorship of the book of Revelation is another question that, in the future, could be explored elsewhere.
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. 2 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. 3 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.
Jesus levels one of his harshest criticisms yet against the congregation of his followers in this great city of Sardis. He states that he is well aware of their deeds (most-likely their financial generosity towards others was in view here), but announces that their good reputation (presumably among other congregations) was nothing more than a smoke screen that simply did not impress the God of Israel. Their spiritually strong, impregnable reputation did not at all correspond to the inner reality that Christ the Heavenly Priest was able to see in the general clutter of their so-called accomplishments.
We can clearly see the author of the book of Revelation continued to see and portray Jesus as the High Priest who examines people’s offerings to see if they are perfect and therefore acceptable for worship. If not, the offerings needed to be discarded. He rejects the particular offering of the lives of the believers in Sardis as unacceptable.
We do not know exactly what particular deeds are being referred to in this passage, but no doubt, given their incredible wealth, they took part in generous relief to the poor. They may have been behind much of the funding that the first century followers of Jesus distributed to those in need. Yet other issues, most-likely the main issue that Jesus had with all of the congregations that honored Roman gods, had effectively polluted the offering they were seeking to present to the God of Israel in Jewish Christ.
The call to wake up, remember, hear and obey that which was received was issued by the High Priest of the Heavenly Temple – Jesus. This seems to be reminiscent of a sudden earthquake or of the surprise conquests of the city of Sardis. Jesus warned them of impending judgment on the one hand, and on the other, the hope of a turnaround.
It is here that the centrality of the exclusive Oneness of God in worship is paramount. The “Shema Israel” (Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One (Deut. 6:4) was not a peripheral concept for the Jews/Israelites. Indeed, it was also central for the Jewish Christ-follower who authored the book of Revelation; and by implication also to the audience to whom he was told to send this letter. If we take our earlier observation that the biggest issue for all the other congregations had to do with the worship of the Roman gods, it would be logical to see the things Jesus tells the believers in Sardis also have to do with similar challenges that deal with purity of worship. Israel’s God alone must be worshiped. For his worshipers, there can be no other gods.