A man walking home at 2 a.m. in Dulwich, England, happened to notice a girl asleep at the top of an inactive crane. It turns out she was a sleepwalker and had climbed 130 feet up and 40 feet across to get there. Sleepwalking is more common than one might think. According to one recent study, 8.4 million Americans—nearly 4 percent of all adults—sleepwalk each year.
The problem Jesus highlights in the church at Sardis could be characterized as spiritual sleepwalking. Sardis had once rivaled Smyrna and Ephesus, but its best days were now in the past. And the church in that city had a reputation for being alive, but was in fact dead (v. 1). It had the motions of a living church but lacked the vitality of the Spirit. This church had started well but had failed to follow through. As a result, Jesus found its deeds “unfinished” (v. 2).
Jesus commanded the church in Sardis to wake up and remember what they had “received and heard” (v. 3). This is the language of biblical tradition (see 1 Cor. 11:2, 23; 15:2–3). The way to break out of spiritual lethargy is to recall the truth of Scripture, hold fast to it, and repent.
Jesus promised to come to this church like a thief and catch those who were spiritually asleep (see Luke 12:39–40; 1 Thess. 5:2, 4; 2 Peter 3:10; Rev. 16:15). Despite some similarity in language, this warning likely does not refer to the Second Coming. It is a promise to discipline this church in a way that will be both certain and unexpected.
And those in Sardis who were spiritually alive need not be afraid. Jesus promised that they would be dressed in white, and their names would never be erased from the book of life (v. 5).
This is a sober warning for the church. Do we rely more on systems and structures than we do on God’s Spirit? Do you appreciate your church because it has exciting programs or because people are growing in the fruit of the Spirit (see Gal. 5:22–23)? It is possible to appear to be a “successful” church when we are really in spiritual decline.