Among the “letters to the seven churches of Asia” which Jesus had John to write, there was one to Sardis: “And to the angel of the church in Sardis write: These things saith he that hath the seven Spirits of God, and the seven stars: I know thy works, that thou hast a name that thou livest, and thous are dead. Be thou watchful, and establish the things that remain, which were ready to die: for I have found no works of thine perfected before my God. Remember therefore how thou hats received and didst hear; and keep (it), and repent. If therefore thou shalt not know what hour I will come upon thee. But thou hast a few names in Sardis that did not defile their garments: and they shall walk with me in white; for they are worthy. He that overcometh shall thus be arrayed in white garments; and I will in no wise blot this name out of the book of life, and I will confess his name before my Father, and before his angles” (Rev 3:1-5).
We are not told all of the details about the church in Sardis: their average attendance, their budget, etc. They had a good reputation, “Thou hast a name that thou livest.” But the Lord Jesus revealed their true condition, “Thou art dead.” This church had died without even being aware that they were in danger. They evidently thought they were doing fine, until Jesus told them otherwise. Could it be that there are churches of Christ in the world today like Sardis? Look around.
Here is a church with a big, fine church building, great attendance, big programs of work, big budget and lots of activities going on all week. And we say, “That church is on the march.” But is it possible that the church which we say is “really alive” would be pronounced “dead” by the Lord Jesus? That was the case with the church in Sardis! Christ looks at the spiritual strength. And outward appearances do not always accurately depict true spirituality. A church my appear to be strong, as usually “measure” such things, but (like Sardis) be dead.
What causes a church to die? Why does the spiritual strength of a congregation diminish to the point of vanishing? And why does that spiritual strenght dissipate unto the death of a congregation, like Sardis?
LACK OF LOYALTY TO GOD’S WORD
Jesus said, “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32). The Lord never promised to bless those who follow error, no matter how sincere they may he. God said in the long ago, “I know that the way of man is not in himself: it is not in man that walketh to direct his steps” (Jer 10:23). And concerning those who are determined to follow their own will instead of God’s, He said in Prov 14:12, “There is a way which seemeth right unto a man; but the ends therof are ways of death.” And, just as with all of us as individuals, any church that fails to “abide in the teaching of Christ” (2 John 9) has forsaken Him, and dies.
A church can never be better than it is taught. The holy Scriptures are profitable for “teaching, for reproof, for correction, for instruction which is in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:16). But that is true only if that word is learned and obeyed. The Lord tells us clearly. “Receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save yours souls. But be ye doers of word, and not hearers only, deluding your own selves” (James 1:21-22). Only when we hear, learn and obey do we have life in Jesus.
Throughout His gospel, the Lord puts great emphasis on learning, and teaching, His word. He started. “No man can come to me, except the Father that sent me draw me him: and I will raise him up in the last day. It is written in the prophets, And they shall all be taught of God. Every one that hath heard from the Father, and hath learned, cometh unto me” (John 6:44-45). If we come to Christ, it is because we were taught. If we grow in Christ, it is because we are taught. If we remain “Faithful unto death” (Rev 2:10), It is because we are taught. According to the eternal purpose of God, the church is to make known “the mainfold wisdom of God” to all men (Eph 3:10-11). For lack of knowledge of, and loyalty to, the word of the Lord churches die.
THROUGH LACK OF REAL CONCERN
How sad are the words which describe the attitude of those who crucified Jesus: “They sat and watched him there” (Matt 27:36) There was, seemingly, no compassion, no feeling, no concern for His suffering. The lament in Lam. 1:12 depicts the same unconcern for the awful plight of the Holy city of Jerusalem, “Is it nothing to you, all ye that pass by? In the story Jesus told in Luke 10, a man fell among robbers and thieves, who robbed him, beat him and left him half dead by the side of the road. A priest came by and saw and him, “And passed by on the other side.” Then a Levite did the same (Luke 10:31-32). Neither of these were charged with the robbery and injuries to the man, but they certainly did not display the love and concerned of Jesus, who said, Love your neighbor as yourself.” If we would live, we must be concerned.
The vital mission of the church, though is much more than ministering to the physical needs of those around us. “What is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? Or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul” (Matt 16:26). Jesus defined His purpose on earth very concisely, “The Son of man came to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10). So must His people be about the same work. Feeding bodies while souls are starving shows a warped sense of values. The church is spiritual, and must be ministering to the spiritual needs of mankind. We read, “God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son” (John 3:16). But churches die for failure to go across the street, or across the tracks, to tell the lost about the Savior.
BY CONFORMING TO THE WORLD
The word, “church,” means “called out.” And that should characterize the church of the Lord in every community. Jesus told the apostles, “If ye were of the world, the world would love its own; but because ye are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you” (John 15:19). Satan, as “the god of this world” (2 Cor 4:4), puts all manner of temptations and pressure on us to “conform.” And to try to mimic the (supposedly) successful religious bodies about us is exactly what the devil wants us to do. For when we are programmed to think like, plan like and teach like the denominations, we become one. Then, we die Which is what Satan is working for.
Some reliogous leader decry the “isolation stance” of the churches of Christ. They resent it that we will not “fellowship other churches.” But we dare not ignore the warning of the Lord Jesus in 2 Cor 6:14-18. God shows that we are not to have fellowship with unrighteousness nor those in darkness, nor unbelievers, nor idols. Notice that all of the examples in this passage depict religions, as well as outright unbelief. Then the Lord gives the admonition, “Come ye out from among them, and be ye separate, saith eh Lord.” The Lord calls his church to be separate, distinctive. When we have fellowship with any who teach and practice something other than that which is taught of God, we become guilty. Even bidding “God speed” to such makes us partaker of his works (2 John 9-11). We dare not conform to the religious world, to fellowship error.
Churches of Christ must not conform to the secular world, either. The church and the world have different goals, different values. The world seeks pleasure, fame, money, and power. For the spiritual man, these have no eternal value. The church that allows the world to set the standard in moral behavior, modest dress and what is ethical in society will soon die. The warning in Rom 12:2 is as vital today as it was 2000 years ago: “Be not conformed to this world.” Any church will die that offers socials instead of salvation, entertainment instead of evangelism or sensationalism instead of salvation in Christ. We cannot make friends of the wold without becoming the enemy of God. “Know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God? Whosoever therefore would be a friend of the world maketh himself an enemy of God.” (James 4:4)
DEATH BY NEGLECT
What will make the church die? Just doing nothing! Leave it alone, do nothing, and it will die of neglect. There are many members of the body of Christ who want the church to grow, to be vibrant and alive. They want good teaching and they want souls to be saved. But they don’t want to be involved in doing those things that will make the church vibrant and alive. They want the work done, but they don’t want to do it. They just leave it to someone else to do. The question of Heb. 2:3 should haunt all of us: “How shall we escape, if we neglect so great a salvation? It is not that we intend to be lost, nor for the church to die. We just neglect to do those things that bring salvation – to us and to others. And so with churches that die. They just neglect those things that are necessary to the life of the church.
As time passes, some members of the church will die. Numbers decrease, but those should be replaced with new people being brought into the body of Christ. But that won’t “just happen. “Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved” (Mark 16:15). And when people are saved, they must then tell others of Christ: “But having the same spirit of faith, according to that which is written, I believed, and therefore did I speak; we also believe, and therefore also we speak” (2 Cor 4:13). If we really believe, we just have to tell others about our Savior! Nothing that reading again: “We believe, and therefore” we tell others about Christ and what He has done for us And churches die members do not tell the story of Christ and His salvation to those that are lost in sin.
To have life, spiritual life in Christ, His church must learn His word, obey it and teach it to others. That church must have concern for the needs of those about them and share with them the salvation which Christ offers to every sinner. Seeking first the approval of God, that church will separate from the world and seek to be “transformed into the image of Christ” (Rom 12:1-2: 2 Cor 3:18). And that church will heed the warning in 2 Pet, 1:10, “Give diligence to make your calling and election sure.” Ant the church that doesn’t do those things may in that final day hear Jesus say what He said to the church in Sardis “I know thy works, that thou hast a name that thou livest, and thou art dead” (Rev 3:1).