HomeBible StudyThe Church at Sardis: Working for Salvation

The Church at Sardis: Working for Salvation

Revelation 3:1-6

“And to the angel of the church in Sardis write: ‘The words of him who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. ‘I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God. Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it, and repent. If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you. Yet you have still a few names in Sardis, people who have not soiled their garments, and they will walk with me in white, for they are worthy. The one who conquers will be clothed thus in white garments, and I will never blot his name out of the book of life. I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’”


One of the seven churches of Revelation. All were located in Asia Minor, in what is now Turkey. All of Jesus’ words to the seven churches have something in common. Jesus used references to things they knew from their own communities to drive home his points to them. Ephesus is a good example. Jesus says he would remove their lampstand from its place. This is a reference to their standing in the empire. Ephesus was once a great and important city. But it eventually fell from favor. Jesus used that concept in his speaking when he referred to the lampstand. He does the same thing in his speech to Sardis when he refers to their white garments. No worshipper in the pagan temple of Artemis was permitted to enter in dirty garments. Spiritually, we must be clothed in white, a symbol of purity. That only comes through righteousness imputed to us through Christ’s blood. 


The seven spirits of God. A possible reference to the Holy Spirit. Earlier in Revelation 1:20 the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches (IE., pastors or leaders). No one really knows what the seven spirits are a reference to. Some believe it to be a reference to the Holy Spirit, but we are not sure. The point however, in how this phrasing is used, the seven church leaders are in Jesus’ hand (1:20). As we know from elsewhere, what God holds onto, none can take away from him: 

“I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand” (John 10:28-29). 

You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead. In the minds of the people at Sardis, their thoughts of being spiritually alive were tied to what Jesus referred to as their, “Works.” If they thought they were doing the right things, then they were in right relationship to God. But many people do right things while not being connected to Christ. The Atheist, the Buddhist, and the Muslim do many right things. But that doesn’t mean they know the Lord. So too, our works don’t earn us eternal life.

Think about the kind of language that Jesus uses here. He calls them dead. That’s pretty extreme. What can a dead person do? He can lay there, and that’s pretty much it. Hebrews 6 and 9 refer to, “Dead works” that don’t draw us closer to God for salvation. Jesus’ solution for Sardis is not more works, rather, it is faith in him. Notice what he says in the solution he offers them: “Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it and repent.” 

What is it that we hear? What have we received? We will address that in our application phase.

Soiled their garments. We are not directly told what these soiled garments are. We can see a parallel to this in Isaiah 64:6 when God tells Israel, “All our righteous acts are like filthy rags.” Notice the emphasis on works by using the word, “Acts.”

Jesus is offering a contrast between faith and works it probably has something to do with dead works, thinking we can earn salvation and God’s favor through our own efforts. Those who are genuinely saved actually do good works. It is a sign of their salvation. But the good works of those who do not have faith in Christ avail them nothing. 

The one who conquers will be clothed thus in white garments. What is meant by conquers? Let’s see how John uses this word to get an idea of what he means for Sardis to conquer. 

Normally, “conquers” refers to victory in military battle. We see this throughout the Old Testament. But the Apostles Paul and John expanded the use of this word to other more spiritual things. Look carefully. 

“Don’t let evil conquer you, but conquer evil by doing good” (Romans 12:21). 

Speaking about the church overcoming Satan, John reports the angel saying, “They have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony” (Revelation 22:11). There is no violent or political acts in this statement. It was by violence done to Jesus that we conquer. 

Jesus says the same thing to the church of Laodicea. “The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne” (Revelation 3:21). How did Jesus conquer?

“They will make war on the Lamb, and the Lamb will conquer them, for he is Lord of lords and King of kings” (Revelation 17:14). In these two passages we see two kinds of conquering. There is the spiritual conquering we already saw, and here there is kingdom or political conquering. 

Probably the clearest description of what is it means to conquer is found in John’s letter, I John 5:4-5, “For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?” The word used here is “Overcome,” but the meaning is the same. 

Clothed in white garments. In Roman culture, white was a symbol of victory. We’ve already seen what victory or conquering in the scripture refers to. But for the Roman, during a military processional, everyone would wear white to symbolize Roman victory. But in Revelation, its meaning is much deeper.

Wearing white, in this passage, is a symbol of purity in addition to victory. Our sins have been wiped away because of the blood of Jesus shed on the cross. That is our victory, wrought by Christ. These new clothes symbolize our acceptability to God through Christ. Another apocalyptic book, Daniel, portrays Jesus as clothed in white. “The Ancient of Days took his seat; his clothing was white as snow, and the hair of his head like pure wool” (Daniel 7:9). Thus, in becoming like Christ we will be dressed in the same symbolism that he uses because we will have become like him. 

Blot his name out of the book of life. What is the book of life? The book of life was first mentioned in scripture by Moses in Exodus 32:32, when Moses was interceding for Israel, that God would not destroy them. Moses asked God to punish him in their stead. This was a picture of what Jesus would do for us. Moses says, “If you will forgive their sin, but if not, please blot me out of your book that you have written.” 

There are two perspectives on the “Book of Life.” 

  1. God blots out those who lose their salvation. 
  2. Or once written, we can never be blotted out because we cannot lose our salvation. 

However, there may be a third option. Those who become part of the covenant community are written in the book. But not everyone who is part of the covenant community is truly saved. Theologians refer to two groups in the church: the visible church and the invisible church. The visible includes those who are part of the church even though they may not be saved. Here are two examples: Judas and Demas. Judas partook in the ministry of Jesus. But he was never truly saved. Demas accompanied Paul in his ministry, but eventually abandoned him. Paul said Demas left him because Demas, loved the world. The Apostle John talked about such people when he wrote: 

“They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us” (I John 2:19). 

The invisible church is everyone, past, present, and future, that has true faith in Christ. Their names will never be blotted out. The church includes the saved and unsaved who are part of the church. But those who are part of the church, but have not genuinely received Christ, will be blotted out. I’ll let you decide which view you want to take. 

Finally, this is not a threat from Jesus, but a positive promise for those who truly love him. Those who are truly saved are sealed and guaranteed salvation that will never be taken away. 


The Bible study book focuses on the complacency of the church of Sardis. However, I don’t think that’s what’s going on in this passage. If this passage is about complacency, then in that context this passage would be encouraging a salvation based on works instead of faith. Verse 2 says, “I have not found your works complete…” Exercising faith in Christ is actually defined in the Bible as a “work.” Look here: “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent” (John 6:29).

I see a contrast in Jesus’ letter from, “Works” to what they have “Received,” I think there is more going on than complacency. There is a fundamental misunderstanding as to what saves.

Here is what Jesus is saying through this passage:

Salvation is not in any way based on works, no matter how good or sacrificial those works may be. Notice what Jesus says in verse 5, “I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels.” This is part of the contrast of the passage, dead works and a living confession. Jesus did the work of salvation for us, and he confesses our names just as we must confess his name. Clearly, works have a role. Works are an evidence of our already existing salvation. Works come after salvation, not before. They are a signpost demonstrating that God has changed us. But works do not cause or contribute to salvation. 


Jesus plainly states our point of application. “Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it and repent.” 

What is it that we hear? We hear the Gospel. 

What have we received? We have received salvation freely by faith in Jesus. 

What do you do to “Keep” it? The Greek word here means to keep and observe. The sense of keep in this passage means to guard over, as in guarding a prisoner. it also means to “Observe.” I.E., to hold something precious and do what is required.

Sometimes we need to go back to the basics of our faith to remind us of what God has done for us and how he has changed us.

Tom Terry is head of Global Broadcast Strategy for JESUS Film Project and serves as Global English Station Manager for Trans World Radio. Tom is also the author of several books, including Bible studies, and "Like An Eagle," his biography about living in Mongolia for ten years.
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