“Mostly Dead (Part 2)” – Revelation 3:1-6

by Roger McCay
30 May 2021
Sermon Passage: Revelation 3:1-6
Link to Audio Version

Dogwood trees have always been a favorite of mine. So, I incorporated them into my initial design for the yard, which we’ve been slowly developing since moving here to Monroeville. We planted two dogwood trees in a front bed, hoping the two large pines would provide enough shade for them as they developed. But we lost both, and not through neglect. It is telling, at least for me, that they both came from a particular nursery, while other dogwoods around the property, which came from the extension office, are doing quite well. Anyway, as it was, one of the dogwoods in the front bed died pretty quickly. Dry and brittle, I pulled it up by its trunk and the whole root system pulled out, having not expanded into the surrounding ground at all. The other one lasted almost two years, but coming into spring this year it had died. I had hopes for it, as it had leaves going into winter last year, looking alive. But it was, apparently, already dying. As we started rolling up on spring, I noticed a bunch of the branches had died and were brittle. But I continued to hope, as a few of the branches had some bend in them showing life. As it turned out, though, by that point, the tree had moved into a mostly dead state. Come spring, it never budded with leaves. I gave it some time, but a few weeks later, when we checked, all the branches were brittle. So we broke it off at the trunk and dug out its roots, replacing it with a tea olive tree.

Now, it’s a no brainer that a mostly dead state is a terrible state for a church to be in, especially when it has a façade of life, fooling itself and everyone else. But the Lord is never fooled by such things. He sees to the heart of the issue, and takes action. This was the situation of the church in Sardis. As we saw last week, the Sardian church was in a mostly dead state. It was in a spiritual slumber that had a window of time before moving into a wholly dead state. Thus, the Lord sent his warning to them here in Rev. 3:1-6. If there were no buds, then their tree (their church) was at risk of being pulled up and tossed upon the compost pile.

Last week, we looked at v. 1, the second part of v. 3 and v. 4 (also touching on v. 6). We took a look at how this message is not a message for the church in Sardis to save themselves. The Lord sounds the warning that he was coming like a thief against them, in v. 3, if they didn’t get straight. But, as we saw in v. 1, Jesus laid out the means in which he, the Great Physician, might resuscitate the church, bringing it from mostly dead to alive—through his Word, the Holy Spirit, and the authorities he has established in his church.

We also examined justification and its critical implications to our understanding of what is going on in this passage. It is an essential biblical doctrine, brought to mind by the soiled garments vs. white garments comparison that the Lord gives in v. 4, helping to explain the dynamics of the church. Unbelievers are those with soiled garments and true believers have white garments—garments which cannot be soiled. Justified by the blood of Jesus, true believers are made infinitely righteous upon being born again. Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us, and we are made the righteousness of God. Justification is a gift of grace we receive through faith, faith itself being a gift of God received at our new birth. Such righteousness cannot be soiled, as any sin that a true believer, one of the elect, might commit is paid for already on the cross of Jesus Christ.

As it was, the church in Sardis was mostly made up of nominal Christians (Christians in name only)—unbelievers. So, though it had the semblance of life, it was mostly dead—mostly made up of dead people with dead works—the walking dead. From such a state, it had accommodated to the culture and was failing to confess Christ before both pagan and Jew. Despite this zombie apocalypse, there was a small remnant of true believers. But due to the pressures of the dead church members on top of the pressures of the culture, they seem to have been stunted in their works (v. 2). So, they needed the Lord’s help and his immediate lifesaving measures, otherwise Jesus imminently was coming against the whole church, in judgment.

With that background, today we’re going to round out the rest of the passage, covering v. 2, the first part of v. 3, and v. 5: Christ’s warning call, the steps he gives for them to strengthen what life they have left, and the promised outcomes one way or the other. And, as we consider these elements of the passage, biblical doctrines that will come into play are sanctification and perseverance of the saints.

Now, there are different types of alive and dead in a church who will respond to the Lord’s warning in different ways—like Sardis. For the dead, the unbelievers, some would hear the Lord’s warning call to “Wake up!” but not respond. Others wouldn’t even hear it. But others would hear the call and snap awake, hearing and believing, brought to life through the power of God’s Spirit, born again as true believers. Then for the alive, the true believers, the worthy (as Jesus calls them in v. 4), some (who were already born again) would hear the call and also wake up (having been in a state of mimicking the dead, for whatever reason). Others, who were already awake, would spread the alarm, initiating the life saving measures the Lord provided, to be joined by the newly born-again and those freshly snapped out of their stupor. For these conquerors in Christ, invigorated by his Word and Spirit, the Lord promises eternal blessing (v. 5). But for the unworthy, nada: no white garments, no walking with Christ, no name written in the book of life, no confession of their name by Jesus before the Father and his angels.

So, let’s look at the warning call. Verse 2:

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.

Jesus calls: “Wake up!” This is the call of the exalted and glorified one, who during his earthly ministry said, “Lazarus, come forth!” And Lazarus, who was quite dead and decomposing (“he stinketh” – John 11:39 KJV) … Lazarus dutifully woke up, got up, and came out of his tomb. When Jesus says “wake up,” it has the power to wake the dead. And that was the point. Such is the power of the Word of the Lord.

The Lord then gives instructions for lifesaving measures. He calls the church to “strengthen,” then lays out some particular imperatives towards that end, in v. 3. But strengthen what? He says strengthen “what remains and is about to die.” Here he’s talking about what is left of the remnant, as they were being overrun by the dead and being crushed into oblivion. They believed, but the substance of their works was fading from life to death, being swallowed up by the works of the dead—thus they were incomplete works.

So, how were they incomplete? The first part of v. 3 fills us in, “Remember, then, what you received and heard.” They had forgotten what they first learned from the gospel, which is the power of God for salvation to all who believe—grounded in Christ’s work, not ours. The initial teachings they had heard that brought them to life in Christ and set them on the path of righteousness had been overwhelmed by the cacophony of the dead. The Lord’s Word they had received was growing dusty on the shelf, and it had ceased to be a guide for them, transforming them by the renewing of their minds (Romans 12:1-2). They had begun to strive in their own strength, perhaps with well-meaning works. But well-meaning works void of Christ are incomplete, as they are not infused with the righteousness that can only come from the Spirit of God through his sanctifying power. This is a basic truth of Christian living.

1 Cor. 12:4-6:

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone.

Phil. 2:12-13:

12 Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

Sanctification, as taught by the Scriptures, is a work of God—through his Spirit. There is an immediate sanctification upon our regeneration, our new birth, when we are made holy (1 Cor. 6:11; Heb. 10:10, 14). But there is also a progressive sanctification as we live our life, following Jesus. The Westminster Shorter Catechism defines it thus:

Sanctification is the work of God’ s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness.[1]

In dying unto sin, we live, and we can only do this in the power of God’s Spirit. For the Sardians, this includes the commands the Lord gives necessary to strengthen what was about to die. They could not obey these commands unless the Spirit of God enabled them. He says, “Remember, then, what you received and heard [the Lord’s Word, the gospel]. Keep it, and repent.”

Not only does the Lord himself work in his people to keep God’s Word, the Lord himself also gives us the ability to truly repent. Acts 11:18: “And they glorified God, saying, “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.” 2 Tim. 2:25-26: “God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will.” So follow this chain: God grants repentance to the sinner (whomever he chooses – Rom. 9:18; 2 Thess. 2:13); who then repents through the power of God’s Spirit; who is forgiven by God because of the blood of Christ shed on the cross; who then follows Christ, doing righteous works, in the power of the Spirit of God—hence doing works that are complete in the eyes of God.

But this is not to say that Christians are to sit around doing nothing, waiting for the Word and Spirit to make our deeds holy to God’s glory. That’s a pretty pointless strategy. If you don’t actually do something, you have no works at all. This is why Paul says to “work out your faith.” While the Spirit enables us and infuses our work with righteousness, he doesn’t do our work for us. Thus the Lord says to “keep” his Word, which is simply another form of saying, “live in obedience of faith.” Living for Christ, in denial of self, taking up your cross every day and following Jesus is not living in a vegetative state. It is a movement of vibrant activity in both word and deed, doing everything in his name. Col. 3:17: “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”

My friends, righteous works are necessarily done in the name of Jesus through the power of the Spirit of God. Such is a complete work in the eyes of God. Such is the path upon which Jesus leads us, by the light of his Word. In repentance and obedience of faith, let us vigilantly follow him.

So, if the church in Sardis did not wake up, etc. What then? Jesus speaks plainly in v. 3: “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.” Jesus would come against the dead church. Its members, both the dead unbelievers and the living remnant of believers, would be swept up in the fallout. Such sweeping judgment hearkens back to Ezek. 21:3: “And say to the land of Israel, ‘Thus says the Lord: Behold, I am against you and will draw my sword from its sheath and will cut off from you both righteous and wicked.’” When the Lord brings his sword down in judgment on a church, the whole thing goes down.

But it is as a mentor of mine once told me, during a particularly trying situation with a certain church, “Sometimes a church needs to die so that a new one can rise in its place.” Like the very healthy tea olive tree that replaced the dead dogwood tree.

But did the Lord come against the church in Sardis? Did the Sardian church heed the Lord’s warning? History shows (through their continued existence) that they did, lasting well into the 14th century, shortly before the city itself came to an end. But the first-century church in Sardis, having received this letter, evidently heeded the Lord’s wakeup call. Jesus’ words raised the dead. The Lord willed they make it. Thus, life overcame death, and the overcomers were victorious. I mean, can you imagine what it was like for them to get this letter? And not only that, their situation was broadcast in an open letter for all the churches hear! I imagine there was a lot of corporate and individual prayers that were lifted over this, grieving their predicament and praying for mercy and strength to overcome. Hand-in-hand with their prayer, they surely got busy delving into the Lord’s Word (preaching, teaching, evangelizing, and discipling), while rising up as a counter-cultural force for Christ. Too, the elders doubtlessly exercised church discipline, seeking to bring the dead to repentance of faith and life through the gospel. But it was also necessary for the dead branches to be pruned—the dead purged from the rolls of church membership. Perhaps, too, some of their sister churches, in other cities, sent help. After all, the seven churches seem to have made up a presbytery, of sorts. They were not all alone out there. Anyway, as a result of all this, as the church in Sardis proclaimed the name of Christ from the housetops in the light of day more and more, they probably brought down the wrath of the enemy due to their faithfulness. If so, good for them!

But whether the church made it or not, Jesus made three promises to the victors, the elect, who fought against the spiritual death of the church, in v. 5:

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.

We touched on the white garments last week—imagery of the justified believer walking with Christ both now in discipleship and into eternity. And it’s important we understand that what is symbolized by the white garments is the pure, unstained and unstainable, righteousness of Christ that has been imputed to the believer, who received it through faith. So justified, God’s people have become the righteousness God, infinitely righteous. Thus, the Lord’s people will persevere until the end, being “more than conquerors” in Christ Jesus, our Lord (Rom. 8:1). Understanding these truths then helps us to understand the promise that Jesus “will never blot his [the one who conquers] name out of the book of life.”

There are some who say this means a person’s name can be blotted out of the book of life—in other words the saved can lose their salvation. But there are a lot of problems with this line of thought. As G.K. Beale puts it, such “is not a logically necessary inference, and it is unlikely that it is in mind.”[2] The promise, “Will never blot his name out of the book of life,” does not mean “will blot some names out of the book of life.” And then, there is the context of the statement. In a dead church, where there are many unbelievers, as part of church discipline those who refuse to repent and believe must be purged from the roles of the church. The ones who overcome, the true believers, were under no threat of that fate. With that in mind, Christ’s promise was likewise not a threat. Like faithful believers remained on the rolls of the church, so the justified remain in the book of life. But church rolls (representations of the book of life) are limited by our finite understanding (as the need for purging shows). The book of life, however, encompasses the complete reality (from the perspective of the Lord’s perfect will, work, knowledge, wisdom, and nature). In the end, books will be opened (Rev. 20:12). The unbelievers’ works are recorded in a book, but not the book of life, and they will be judged accordingly. Their names were never written in the book of life.[3] Yet, the true believers’ names have been in the book of life from before the foundation of the world, as the elect (Eph. 1:4; Rev. 13:8; 17:8). The book of life is the book of the Lamb, and his work on the cross was done for each and every single name recorded in his book.

As believers we understand this. Jesus knows our names. He has a relationship with each of us, as his people. He knows us better than we know ourselves. He loves us with a perfect love, and he promises to confess our names before the Father and his angels. In Jesus’ promise here in Rev. 3:5, he is assuring those who are facing the struggle of resuscitation for a mostly dead church that their eternal destiny is secure, no matter what might come of the church in Sardis. Jesus knows their name and has inscribed their name permanently in the book of life, inscribing their name as one of the elect before the very foundation of the world (Rev. 13:8; 21:27). This is the truth for all believers who find themselves in a situation like theirs.

Furthermore, to think that this promise contains a veiled threat (that a believer might be at risk of having their name erased from the book of life) is unfounded in Scripture. It goes counter to everything the Bible teaches about having been born again and being alive in Christ, united with him in his life in the heavenly realms, and having an inheritance in heaven that is made secure by God himself. After all, Christians are no longer under the power of darkness and death: “He has delivered us from the power of darkness and conveyed us into the kingdom of the Son of His love, in whom we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins” (Col 1:13-14). There is no going back. No one can snatch a true believer out of his hand, for the true believer will surely conquer in Christ (John 10:28; Rom. 8:31-39).

And think about that. How awesome will it be when Jesus singles you out, calls you by name, confessing your name before the Father and his angels! Brothers and sisters, Jesus knows you. He’s not ashamed of you, no matter your sin. You are pure because he has given you his own purity. And he rejoices that you are his, even now (Zephaniah 3:17): “The Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing.”

My friends, perhaps the message for you today is that you need to wake up! Or, perhaps, it is that you need to stay alert!”

In an alert state, some warning signs might become evident, indicating we’re becoming a bit too comfortable in the world. Does a self-check reveal that the church has the same values/same lifestyles as the culture? … or that you do? Is there a noticeable difference between us here at MPC and the unchurched? Do you or we justify cultural sins in our own life? And if the answers are “yes,” “no,” “yes,” are you part of the problem or part of the solution? And if you are part of the problem, do you think no-one notices?

Let us maintain vigilance in following Jesus, that our works may be complete in Christ and the power of his Spirit. Let us be steady in our communion with the Spirit of God and the Lord’s Word. Let us be spiritually alert, pro-active in our works in Christ. And, let us confess Christ in both word and deed, as a shining light for Christ.

You know, somehow, we went from dogwood trees, to the walking dead, to the book of life, in this sermon. What a journey is the Christian life! Praise the Lord that he is alert, caring for us, warning us, working in us (sometimes with lifesaving measures), and encouraging us with his promises. Let us rejoice in him, expressed by our very lives, every day of our life. Because Jesus is actively leading his people, we must follow him with vigilance.


[1] The Westminster Shorter Catechism: With Scripture Proofs, 3rd edition. (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1996), question 35.

[2] G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI; Carlisle, Cumbria: W.B. Eerdmans; Paternoster Press, 1999), 279.

[3] Beale, 280, explains: “Another reason this should not be understood as referring to a possible loss of authentic salvation is that in John’s scheme throughout the names of those who ultimately prove themselves unbelievers are never at any point associated positively with the “book of life,” but only the “books” of judgment (though their names are, of course, mentioned as “not having been written in the book of life” [13:8; 17:8]). Therefore, in the writer’s thinking it would be impossible to conceive of them being erased from the “book of life,” since their names were never written there in the first place (as 13:8 and 17:8 clearly show).”