Revelation 3:1-6 The Message to Sardis
1 “And to the angel of the church in Sardis write: These are the words of him who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars: “I know your works; you have a name of being alive, but you are dead.
2 Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is on the point of death, for I have not found your works perfect in the sight of my God. 3 Remember then what you received and heard; obey it, and repent. 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. 4 Yet you have still a few persons in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes; they will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy. 5 If you conquer, you will be clothed like them in white robes, and I will not blot your name out of the book of life; I will confess your name before my Father and before his angels. 6 Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.
Sardis at the time of Revelation was a city that had directly benefited from the assistance Roman empire after a devastating quake in 17 CE. With the assistance from Rome the city had been completely rebuilt and Emperor Tiberius was looked upon as the new founder of the city. It had trade associations for goldsmiths, textile, builders and was a regional center for the slave trade. There was also a large Jewish community at Sardis which was allowed to manage its own affairs and made a supply of ritually clean food possible for the Jewish community in Sardis. (Koester, 2014, pp. 310-312) The early Christians at Sardis, unlike the other churches mentioned in Revelation, do not seem to be experiencing any conflict either internally or external persecution. The message implies that the community at Sardis has acclimated to the surrounding culture too comfortably.
The community has a good name either among the churches or in the community but John views that good name as based upon a lie. The initial diagnosis of being dead should be jarring for the community, especially in a book that will also be shared with other churches. Yet, the message is one that is designed to promote repentance and perhaps even resurrection. The message implies that there is still time to change, that the patient may be at death’s door but there is a possible cure. There are people among the community who are living as the saints are supposed to live and who have not compromised with the forces in the community. The image of soiled clothes probably indicates practices which defile the individual or the community.
The image of Christ coming like a thief occurs a couple other places in the New Testament. In the gospels (Matthew 24: 43-44; Luke 12: 39-40) the image occurs within two sets of sayings designed to promote watchfulness among the hearers. Using the image of a watchmen caring for their master’s household they are urged to stay awake for just as a thief breaks in at an unexpected time, so the Son of Man comes at an unexpected hour. In 1 Thessalonians, Paul uses this image in a similar way, probably referencing back to an oral tradition of this same teaching the gospels reference (1 Thessalonians 5: 2-4). Revelation is probably pulling on this same tradition which may have been familiar to the hearers. In this exhortation to wake up, repent and be healed John uses several images to encourage the church in Sardis to change its practices and be among the white robed ones listed in the book of life.
Like the previous churches, one of the primary issues becomes the relationship between the church and the culture. Sardis, and later Laodicea, represent churches that have become to enmeshed with the surrounding culture and perhaps may be externally prosperous but, in John’s view, have betrayed something essential to being a part of the congregation of the Lord. The church in every era has to navigate this interplay between the church and the society it is a part of and finding when and how it can cooperate with the culture and when it needs to distance itself or be critical of that culture.
Revelation 3: 7-13 The Message to Philadelphia
7 “And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write: These are the words of the holy one, the true one, who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one opens:
8 “I know your works. Look, I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut. I know that you have but little power, and yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name. 9 I will make those of the synagogue of Satan who say that they are Jews and are not, but are lying — I will make them come and bow down before your feet, and they will learn that I have loved you. 10 Because you have kept my word of patient endurance, I will keep you from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world to test the inhabitants of the earth. 11 I am coming soon; hold fast to what you have, so that no one may seize your crown. 12 If you conquer, I will make you a pillar in the temple of my God; you will never go out of it. I will write on you the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem that comes down from my God out of heaven, and my own new name. 13 Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.
Philadelphia, like Sardis, had also benefited from Roman assistance and tax relief while rebuilding from the same earthquake in 17 CE. They also viewed the Roman empire positively and Christians in the community would have encountered many of the same temptations and dangers as the other seven communities faced. The primary issue for the church in Philadelphia seems to be conflict with the Jewish community in the city. It is possible that the Christian community in Philadelphia originated primarily with Jewish people and later found itself being excluded from their former community.
Here the initial image for Jesus is the one who has the key of David, who opens and whom no one will shut and who shuts and no one will open. For a community whose identity as a part of the people of God was probably being challenged these images of Christ as holding the key of David probably was a powerful recollection of that part of their identity. As I mentioned a couple times when discussion Revelation 1, John uses powerfully symbolic language to show that these new churches constitute the people of God and by extension Israel. Their former community in the synagogue may be denying their participation in the community of God and this probably leads to John’s reversal of this to the synagogue of Satan.
The language ‘synagogue of Satan’ unfortunately became one of several places within the New Testament used to justify later anti-Semitism in the church. Revelation, and the rest of the New Testament, is written in a time where the early church had very little political power and was viewed as a sect, and probably to most Jews as a heretical sect. When the church later became a non-persecuted and eventually the official religion of the empire they sometimes moved from an oppressed community to an oppressor of other religions within the realm of Christendom. It is only in the aftermath of the Holocaust that the church has begun to take a hard look at the way our treatment of Jewish communities and people was a betrayal of our own faith.
In language that anticipates later imagery they are commended to holding fast so that no one will seize their crown. Like the elders who will cast their crowns before the LORD in the next chapter they, who seem to be weak will be the kings of the kingdom. Those who have been excluded from the synagogue will now be the pillars of the temple of God. They will indeed be the pillars of the community who were once cast out. They will have God’s name and the name of the new Jerusalem, mentioned again in Revelation 21 inscribed on them. Their identity will be secure even though now their identity is challenged. The one who has named them is the one who bears the inheritance of David’s kingdom.
Revelation 3: 14-22 The Message to Laodicea
14 “And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write: The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the origin of God’s creation:
15 “I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot. 16 So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth. 17 For you say, ‘I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.’ You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. 18 Therefore I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire so that you may be rich; and white robes to clothe you and to keep the shame of your nakedness from being seen; and salve to anoint your eyes so that you may see. 19 I reprove and discipline those whom I love. Be earnest, therefore, and repent. 20 Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me. 21 To the one who conquers I will give a place with me on my throne, just as I myself conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne. 22 Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.”
The church in Laodicea finds itself in a community that has twice rebuilt after an earthquake in previous decades. In 20 CE the community received Roman assistance with rebuilding but in 60 CE the city was rebuilt without Roman assistance by local benefactors. This does not mean that the community did not have good relationships with the empire, but instead that the community itself had the wealth and means to be self-sufficient in their recovery from the second earthquake. The Christians in Laodicea seem to be sharing in this wealth believing they are rich, prosperous and need nothing. Throughout the New Testament, and at several places in the Hebrew Scriptures, wealth is viewed as a danger that can take a person away from trusting in God for what they need.
Christ addresses the community as the faithful and true witness as well as the ‘origin’ or ‘ruler’, depending on how one translates the Greek word arche, of God’s creation. Christ is the one who is both the source of everything the Laodiceans have as well as the rightful ruler of the creation. Like the message to Sardis, the intent of this message is to bring about a change. Sardis was unable to realize that they were at the point of death and the Laodiceans were unable to realize their tepidness. Yet, this message indicates that there is still time to turn, to invite Christ to come in and dine, to extend hospitality, service and love and to become distinctive from the surrounding community.
Both hot and cold are positive options here, much like serving wine in the ancient world where it was desirable to be mulled and hot or strained through snow and therefore cold. It is common to see references to Laodicea’s water supply being warm because of hot springs but this doesn’t seem to be true since all the cities mentioned in Revelation used water from aqueducts and were considered good quality water and additionally Laodicea’s aqueduct runs from the south while the hot springs are northwest of the city.
These early Christians may have been indistinguishable in their larger community and may have benefited from associations and practices that John considered unfaithful. Their prosperity is linked to their struggle with living under the Lordship of Christ. In John’s view they are probably too heavily invested in the world and its trappings to endure when hardship comes. Like the rocky soil in the parable of the sower (Mark 4: 1-20 and parallels) they have become ensnared by cares of the world and the lure of wealth. They are called to store up for themselves treasures in heaven (Matthew 6: 19-21) by exchanging their gold for gold refined by fire and white robes to clothe their nakedness and salve so that they might be cured of their blindness. If the church is to take upon it Israel’s role of being a light to the nations they cannot share the blindness of those same nations. The church is called to repent so that they might be a faithful witness in contrast to the witness of Babylon that will also come under the same judgment.
The statement “Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking” was captured in the famous image by William Holman Hunt. The image in Revelation calls on the community to open the door and invite Christ in as would be expected for hospitality in the ancient world. The community is once again invited that there is still an opportunity to open the door and share with Christ, the ruler of all the creation. In William Hunt’s image the door famously has no handled and can only be opened from the inside and is overgrown from lack of use. This passage in Laodicea has often been spiritualized towards a message of individual repentance and inviting Christ into one’s heart and that is one way the church has used this portion of Revelation. But here this is an invitation for the community to repent and to be invited to share the table and later to share in authority with Christ.