“To the angel of the Church of Sardis write: ‘These things says the One Who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars: I know thy works, that thou hast a name that thou livest, and are dead” (Rev. 3:1).
In his monumental commentary on the book of Revelation, Archimandrite Athanasios makes clear that “angel” refers to the bishop, the shepherd of the church being addressed.
Typically, seven is a Biblical number for completeness, totality. Archimandrite Athanasios comments, “Saint Andrew of Caesarea says, ‘With the number seven what is meant is the totality of all the Churches.’ As the seven days of the week are a symbol of the creation of the world, or our life, the number seven of the seven churches shows the fullness of the Church.”
It is the Lord Jesus Christ Who gives the Holy Spirit. “He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water. But He spoke concerning the Spirit, whom those believing in Him would receive” (Jn. 7:38-39). And again the Lord clearly says, “The Helper (Spirit) … I will send Him to you.” (Jn. 16:7ff).
The Lord has no positive words for the bishop of Sardis. From the very start of the letter He declares him to be lacking in the ways of the Spirit and therefore spiritually dead. “He declares the bishop spiritually dead. In essence, He is saying to him, I am the One who gives of the Holy Spirit; why are you staying spiritually dead? Why aren’t you benefiting from the presence of the Holy Spirit so that you and your church can exercise the spiritual life?” ( Archimandrite Athanasios).
I have stressed it in the past and will again, the Lord does not say, I know your theology, but rather I know your works. It is quite possible that the bishop in Sardis spoke correct theology but his works, his actions, were not that of truth. Thus he is heavily rebuked by the Lord. Right faith, theology, is always expressed in right works or praxis, the two are an integral whole. The bishop had a reputation of “being alive” while in fact he was on spiritual life support, quickly losing all spiritual vitality. The Lord is the discerner of the heart and of the true intent of men. Spiritual death, apostasy, may be manifest in someone who is still physically “in” the Church.
“I know your works, you have a name that you live spiritually, but you are really dead. What a terrifying statement! This verse should terrify all of us. Each one of us must take a close look at ourselves” ( Archimandrite Athanasios).
This is written to the early Church, to Orthodox Christians. It is clear, we, as Christians, may hold to but a philosophy of Christianity and not have the living grace of the Spirit in our lives. The whole goal of the Christian life is the acquisition of the Holy Spirit. To be transformed into the likeness of God Himself. If we as Christians seek to uphold only an institutional external of Orthodoxy, then we are simply building white washed tombs. My we examine our hearts.
Elder Athanasios speaks these sobering words to us, “When a person does not live the true Gospel, but limits Christianity to some external forms by merely going through the motions, then he is a superficial Christian, In his actions he has denied the power of the Holy Spirit. When a man denies the power of the Holy Spirit, he is spiritually dead … (True) Theology, the knowledge of God, must reach into the last corner of my being, it must feed me, it must give me drink, it must satisfy my spiritual thirst. That is the purpose of theology: to quench my thirst, to satisfy my spiritual hunger, to make me god-like, a Christ-like being. These days we have limited the knowledge of God to retreats, class discussions, and dialogues. We have become, as St. Paul says, conversationalists of this age (1 Cor. 1:20). Theology has been reduced to conversations and discussions, not faith and life.”
Thus, is it surprising that even within the “realm” of Orthodoxy the clear boarders and marks set by the Holy Fathers are being challenged and questioned? And not only in words but in actions too.
In our weak times we should fear, in a Godly manner, all the more this insidious spiritual death. Most of all because as moderns we are taught from childhood to thrive in the external, the material plane of existence. We are taught to compartmentalize our lives, here is the “spiritual” and here is the “worldly,” the practical everyday reality. And sadly the “practical” becomes a primary driving force for many, and from such a mind set some are more than willing to sacrifice the spiritual for the material and its well-being and preservation.
What is the cure offered by Christ the Lord? “Keep on becoming watchful and make firm the things that remain which are about to die. For I have found no work of thine which have been made complete before God. Be mindful therefore how thou hast received and heard and be holding fast and repent” (Rev. 3:2-3a).
Arise O sleeper! Awake! The things that remain are the last few works, holding on like a few last grapes on a withering vine. “Thus, because the works had not been found complete before God, it was foretold that those which remained, even such as had been done, were about to die,” teaches St. Gregory the Theologian.
The call to watchfulness is constant in the Scripture and the writings of the Saints. Why? Because we can lose that which we have through neglect, slothfulness, and worldliness. We may remain physically in the Church while being spiritually outside of Her. This is, it seems, a worse state than even being a complete unbeliever. Woe to us if we compromise the Faith for the sake of praise and expedience from the world.
Yet, if we wake up and find that we are about dead, then we must repent. We must strengthen that which remains. That is we must hold fast to the clear teachings of the Eternal Faith.
Archimandrite Athanasios sees in this passage the fact that the bishop was totally failing in his true pastoral vocation. He was not properly guiding and guarding his flock against the spirit of the times.
The Elder then goes on to make an application that is of the utmost importance for our times, “When we attempt to make Christianity heal the social ills of poverty, racial discrimination, etc., and we are not at all concerned about the matter of sin we transfer the Kingdom of God to earth. Thus, by totally ignoring heaven we have secularized in its fullness, a Christianity of this age. The true purpose of Christianity is repentance for sin, and the return to God. The primary purpose of the Church is not to rectify social evils. That is its secondary purpose. The main purpose of the Church is to heal people from sin and to prepare them for the Kingdom of God because we do not have a permanent home here.”
The primary work of the Church is not the preservation of physical well-being (and that is not to say it is neglected, I’m speaking of what is primary). Whenever in the name of the Church physical and worldly well-being becomes the primary goal and focus, then the believer must understand, this reveals a spiritual death, one of which the Lord warns His Church in this passage.
The Elder continues, “The Kingdom of God is not a social system or a specific political party. The Kingdom of God is man’s rebirth, his renewal in Christ Jesus. This is the Kingdom of God … This is the essence of Christianity. Now, if the Christians who see injustice around them feel compelled to help their fellow human beings in every possible way … all these things are a consequence of the work of salvation. However, these elements are not the main purpose of Christianity. Christ did not come to institute justice on earth in the sense that the various social systems wish to have justice.”
In her unshakable essential reality the Church is never corrupted by this world. Yet, it is possible that the institutional side may become simply a member of this world system. By doing so it makes itself dead and devoid of the Spirit, as Christ warns.
As Christians we are constantly called to be mindful, to remember the Revelation of Faith, that which we have received. This means it is not “ours” in the ultimate sense, rather we are called to be the faithful custodians of Truth. But Truth is of God. To preserve ourselves from the danger of spiritual death we must guard well the living Faith that we have received. In so doing, we are given life. When the Truth of the Faith energizes in us and we hold it fast, then we are moving toward life, not death. If we are willing to compromise the Faith, sometimes even under what seem to be “legitimate” reasons, then we are compromising with death itself.
Repent. That is, turn the orientation of your life towards the Son of Righteousness. Govern all things in the Light of Eternity.
“If thou dost not watch, I will come upon thee as a thief, and in no wise shalt thou know what hour I will come upon thee” (Rev. 3:3b).
The very sober warning is this – a Christian, if he allows himself to grow spiritually dead, will be in danger of being cast out of the Kingdom of God.
Elder Athanasios does seem to indicate that this specific warning is in some way directed more to the shepherds of the Church of Christ. I’m a priest and thus must include myself, and to these words of his my heart must also harken first and foremost, “How many of the priests and bishops today would fall under the same category as the bishop of Sardis? The Lord would admonish such bishops and priests with the same words. How many would He call dead? This is a sign of the times, my friends. Hold fast as best you can, any way you can, hold on.”
The Elder echos these words of St. Dimity of Rostov, “We seek Christ amid the ministers of the sacred ranks. Where else would Christ be but in His ministers, amidst those who bear His image? But one hardly finds Christ in them. Practically all of them care only about themselves, they desire good for themselves and not the benefit of the people, they tend themselves and not Christ’s flock … Some priests even serve the sheep of Christ to their own detriment and destruction; they not only fail to build up the flock but even become stumbling blocks for the people. Some have removed the key of knowledge, and they neither enter themselves nor do they allow those following to enter in (cf. Matt. 23:13). While others have never even received the key of knowledge, they are unfit for their calling; not only are such ones unable to lead the sheep entrusted to them unto salvation, they do not even know the path themselves. They are the blind leading the blind, and both will fall into a pit (cf. Matt. 15:14).”
Both of these holy men indicate, as does this Scripture passage, that shepherds may fall into apostasy. No one is bound to follow shepherds into spiritual death.
For the spiritually dead Christ comes like a thief (see also Matt. 24:42ff; 1 Thess. 5:2-4; Rev. 16:15). “He appears as a thief for those who do not believe in Him, for those who do not expect Him,” instructs Archimandrite Athanasios. Any who make of the Church a kingdom of this world have ceased to live in expectation of the Heavenly King.
Yet, in Sardis, even though the clergy had fallen into spiritual death, there were those who had, by God’s grace, held fast to the Faith.
“But thou hast a few names in Sardis who did not defile their garments, and they shall walk with Me in white, for they are worthy” (Rev. 3:4).
The Lord considers the apostasy of the clergy to be defilement. Notice that it is only a few who did not participate in spiritual death, what might be called a remnant. Those few that did not follow their shepherds into spiritual death are given the promise of walking with the Lord Himself in white. White symbolizes the purity of their faith, the fact that they held fast to the Truth while apostasy surrounded them.
What is the recommendation of Elder Athanasios to those who may find themselves in a similar position? “Do not stand still if you see that we (shepherds) are not concerned with your spiritual needs or are not good shepherds. Take care to guide yourselves, educate yourselves as best you can. You will be accountable. The absence of good local shepherds cannot always exonerate you.”
Thus, every Christian is responsible before Christ Himself to uphold the Faith, to the best of his strength, in Its purity. And no one will be excused for compromising the Faith.
To those who hold fast, even if feebly, the Lord promises, “The one overcoming in this manner shall clothe himself in white garments, and in no wise will I blot his name out from the book of life; and I will confess his name before My Father and before His angels. To the one who hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith to the Churches” (Rev. 3:5-6).
THIS POST is part of an on going series on the Seven Churches of Revelation, click here to find the other articles in this series.