Sardis BathsTo the angel of the church in Sardis write:

These are the words of him who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your deeds complete in the sight of my God. Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; obey it, and repent. But if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you.

Yet you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes. They will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy. He who overcomes will, like them, be dressed in white. I will never blot out his name from the book of life, but will acknowledge his name before my Father and his angels.

He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.

Revelation 3:1-6

This is fifth of seven articles on the seven cities mentioned in Revelation 2 and 3.
Part I: Ephesus
Part II: Smyrna
Part III: Pergamum
Part IV: Thyatira

Sardis was a key Roman city in the Hermus valley.  This city sat at the mid-point in the mail route that comprised the Seven Churches in Revelation.  Mount Tmolus rises above the city, with the remains of a protective fortress high upon it.

Sardis became wealthy and powerful as a result of gold recovered from the Hermus River, which flowed through it. (One method of recovery included using fleece placed downward on the riverbed and recovered later, full of gold particles. This was possibly the origin of the legend of the Golden Fleece.) This gold, when combined with Sardis’ strategically safe position and location right on a major trade route, made it a powerful and wealthy city.

Like a Thief in the Night

King Croesus, potentially an archetype of the legendary King Midas, ruled Sardis in the sixth century B.C., but his kingdom came to an end when it was destroyed by Cyrus, the king of Persia.  The story of its fall was well-known, even centuries later. Mount TmolusFirst outwitted on the battlefield by Cyrus (who used his camels to spook Croesus’ horses), Croesus’ army holed up in the citadel on Tmolus, and would have been able to outlast a siege, except for one soldier name Hyroeades, who saw one of Cyrus’ guards climb down from the ‘impregnable walls’ to recover a dropped helmet. Using the same treacherous route, Hyroeades led Cyrus’ troops into the fortress in the middle of the night, and in doing so, overthrew the powerful kingdom of Sardis with little struggle.

Proving that lightning can strike twice, almost 200 years later the city was conquered again via the same strategy by Antiochus. Thus, the Sardinians’ faith in their own wealth and strategic safety was more than once the source of their own demise.

Could it be that Jesus, through John, was using this imagery in his message to Sardis?

Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your deeds complete in the sight of my God. Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; obey it, and repent. But if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you. (emphasis mine)

The gymnasium at SardisIn addition to its wealth and power, long before Christ’s birth, there is evidence that Sardis was one of the centers that Jewish people settled during the diaspora. The Jewish synagogue discovered in Sardis is the largest yet found in Asia Minor, decorated in elaborate mosaics and marble. There is evidence to suggest, as well, that because of its high concentration of Jewish citizens, Christianity was able to make a strong foothold in Sardis, as well. Why, then, Jesus’ message to ‘Wake up’?

One hint may be the placement of the houses of worship found thus far in the excavation of Sardis. In this city, the synagogue was located directly adjacent to the Roman gymnasium and its grounds – where students were taught Greco Roman culture (in the nude, of course), and where perfection of the body was seen as all-important. The church built into the Temple of Artemis The ruins of early Christian churches in Sardis have been found near (or directly adjacent) to the Temple of Artemis, and a fourth-century chapel was built into the back of the remains of this temple.

Could it be that the Christians and Jews in Sardis had become far too comfortable in their own wealth and safety?  Could it be that they were becoming indistinguishable from the followers of the false gods of their culture?

Strengthen What Remains

Another hint from history reflected in the text is that after it was leveled by the earthquake of 17 AD, Sardis was only partially rebuilt.  Like an actor/actresses whose glory days have long passed (but who still lives as if they were in their prime), those in Sardis were encouraged to

Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your deeds complete in the sight of my God.

It may also be of note that the textile industry in Sardis was a source of its wealth, and to say that few people in Sardis had not soiled their clothes would have been striking for such a proud people. And the source of this soiling? There is a good deal of speculation, all of which may be true – including those outlined above – the wealth, comfort, price and false security of the people in Sardis led them to be ‘fat and lazy’ spiritually.

But perhaps the final nail in the coffin was in their worship of the Emperor – etched in the doorways and arches of their architecture, declaring Caesar to be ‘King of King and Lord of Lords’ – a title demanded by the Caesar Domitian, to whom much of the imagery in Revelation seems to apply, even from his wife.

John makes it abundantly clear who the real King of Kings and Lord of Lords is in Chapters 17 and 19, but the Sardinian participation in worshiping Caesar as God was surely one of their sins – as it was also hinted for churches mentioned earlier in Revelation.

Dedication to CaesarPerversion in High Order

We, in the west today, are quite sheltered from exposure to evil on the order as was commonplace in Asia Minor in the first century.

Sardis was a center of worship for the Greek goddess Cybele and, eventually the goddess Artemis, as well.

According to legend, the god Agdistis was originally born from the earth where Zeus’ semen fell as a hermaphroditic demon. The other gods were afraid of Agdistis and severed its male sex organ, which fell to the earth and grew into an almond tree. After this, Agdistis became the female goddess Cybele. Later, Cybele fell in love with her son/grandson, Attis, and took him in as a lover. One day, in a fit of jealousy, she drove him mad and he castrated himself and died, but was resurrected as a pine tree.  [Is it just me, or are Greco-Roman myths the most bizarre bedtime stories you've ever heard?]

In response to these legends, the people of Sardis worshiped Cybele and held almond and pine trees in reverence, while also holding fertility festivals in celebration of Attis’ re-birth. In these celebrations, all the people of Sardis would wear white robes, and the worshipers and priests of Cybele (called ‘galli’) would parade down the main street of Sardis, cutting themselves in ecstasy until they reached the shrine of Cybele (later integrated into the temple of Artemis in the Third Century B.C.), where a few of the worshipers would castrate themselves and offer their severed parts to Cybele. Those along the parade route (or within the parade, itself) who had the blood of the worshipers sprayed upon their cloaks were said to be favored by the goddess. This practice continued well into the First and Second Centuries.

And so, when John writes:

Yet you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes. They will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy.

Were John to write to us today, would our clothes be soiled from participating in the worship of other gods of this world, or would we be ones who have overcome?

So what?

In applying the lessons of Sardis to our lives, perhaps we need to ask ourselves if we are so blessed with the abundance of the West, if we are so secure in our safety from invasion (despite occasional terrorist attacks), if we have placed our faith in our security and become fat and lazy, spiritually. Have we decided to worship the Caesars and gods of today – wealth and power – and, in doing so, soiled our robes beyond recognition? Would John be able to write of us:

Yet you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes. They will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy. He who overcomes will, like them, be dressed in white. I will never blot out his name from the book of life, but will acknowledge his name before my Father and his angels.

I pray it would be so, but I struggle with this, myself. Lord, provide for me what I need, but do not let me be so comfortable that I do not need You… THAT is a difficult prayer to pray, at least where I live and breathe – saying it and meaning it.

Grace & peace,

Chris

  • Share/Bookmark
This entry was posted on Tuesday, February 17th, 2009 at 8:45 pm and is filed under Devotional. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.
+/- Collapse/Expand All

One Comment(+Add)

1   Paul C    http://www.themidnightcry.com
February 18th, 2009 at 2:04 pm

I find this comment odd:

We, in the west today, are quite sheltered from exposure to evil on the order as was commonplace in Asia Minor in the first century.

I wonder why you say this when evil is all around us? It might be somewhat more subtle, but no less impactful.

To me, the most telling area of Christ’s admonition is this:

I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead.

I would say that this comment best represents the issue with the church today. As the Ancient Mariner poem goes, “Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink.”

There is a church on every corner, on the airwaves and radio waves, but in terms of the impact the gospel actually has on us, it seems to be very little. We have a name that we live (great exploits, thousands “swept” into the kingdom daily) but in the eyes of the Lord, we are largely dead.

Kind of like Jesus being described as a “root out of dry ground.” Religion was prospering in the absence of prophets that you would not think the ground “dry”. But the Lord saw it differently.