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

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

In Iraq, we had a guy, LT Mantz, the scout platoon leader, who got shot in the femoral artery. Out on a mission he and a SSG Harper, the senior scout, were next to their vehicle, and a sniper took a shot at the sergeant. The bullet went through his upper arm, through his torso, and exited out his chest, destroying his body armor where the bullet exited. So, he dropped, the LT hurriedly grabbing him and dragging him out of the line of fire, then beginning first aid.

The medic, a 19-year-old PFC, responded immediately, running forward to them, where he quickly ripped the sergeants armor open and began emergency actions. But a moment later the LT slumped over, and the medic saw the LT had been shot in the leg and was bleeding out. The shot had gone through the sergeant, fusing with part of his body armor before penetrating the LTs leg. Having assessed the sergeant, the medic knew he would not be able to save him. So, he immediately began working on the LT, putting a tourniquet on his leg and so forth.

But the LT was down and fighting for his life. They evacuated him quickly in a Bradley, but he still died. So, it looked like LT Mantz and SSG Harper were going to cross the river of death together.

But it doesn’t end there. The docs didn’t stop. They continued to work on him. And somehow, somehow, they resuscitated him. But it took a bit of time—15 minutes. Because of that, there was a concern he would have brain damage from lack of oxygen while he was dead. Though, as it turned out, the LT ended up not only surviving, but was also physically and mentally fine. Even so, he had the option of staying home. But he would have none of that and insisted on being sent right back downrange to the unit. He couldn’t abandon his guys. He loved them too much. So, a few months later, there he was.[1]

Sometimes dead is not completely dead. This can be true for churches. There are churches on the cusp of death, spiritual death, that if immediate life saving measures are not taken, their light will go from an ember, to a wisp of smoke, to the cold of the grave. But there is a window of time, when spiritual death is still but a spiritual slumber, where there is a chance of resuscitation. That was where the church in Sardis found themselves, when the Lord sent this message to them, with the command for them to “Wake up!” The Great Physician was taking life-saving actions.

They had been lulled into a sense of comfort, the church’s spiritual vitality ebbing, with its vigilance towards life put aside for the accommodation of death. No longer watchful, they were asleep at their posts, and the enemy was sneaking up on them to destroy them. Rather than a frontal attack, though, their throats were going to be cut in their sleep. And while, from an outward appearance, they looked active and thriving, perhaps with regular worship, gatherings, and what we might call programs, they were as good as dead.

Yet the Lord was not slumbering. When we read this letter, it can, at first glance, seem like it is a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” letter. “You are about to die, so save yourself.” If that were the case, it is easy to see how the church of Sardis could have despaired, “How can we save ourselves?!” But that is not the case and is completely contrary to the gospel. No-one can save themselves, spiritually (Rom. 5:6-16; 8:1-4). And the very nature of the letter confirms this truth. The Lord is not slumbering. He is sounding the alarm and providing the means of their revival, seen in his self-description, in v. 1, “The words of him who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars.” Thus the Lord is the means of their revival, through his Word, the Holy Spirit, and his sovereign care (Eph. 5:29-30).

How so? Well, the letter itself is his Word, and he tells them to “Remember, then, what you received and heard,” in v. 3. So, he sends them this message, his Word, and he tells them to remember his Word, the gospel.

Too, that Jesus holds the seven spirits hearkens back to the seven spirits mentioned in Rev. 1:4. You may remember when we looked at that passage, “the seven spirits” was a way to reference the Holy Spirit. The title was arranged with the Father and the Son, as the tripartite persons, the one divine. And by this designation, “the seven spirits,” OT teachings and prophecies are brought to mind with prophetic, symbolic language.

The number “seven” has an important emphasis in Revelation, indicating a sense of fullness or completeness.[2] Thus, the unusual designation, “the seven spirits,” then emphasizes the fullness, or perfection, of the Spirit of God. Also, from a prophetic point of view, Isaiah 11:2-3 in the Septuagint (the version of the OT often quoted in Revelation) seems to be in view, as it actually names what might be called “seven modes of operation,”[3] benefits, or gifts of the Holy Spirit, who will rest on the Messiah. Consider what it says:

and the Spirit of God shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom (1) and understanding (2), the spirit of counsel (3) and strength (4), the spirit of knowledge (5) and godliness (6) shall fill him; the spirit of the fear of God (7).[4]

Accordingly, the “seven spirits of God,” refers to the Holy Spirit and his perfect work and giftings,[5] which are applied to all the churches, through Christ (John 14:15-17, 26). And that is the particular emphasis here, for the church of Sardis, in Rev. 3:1.

Jesus combines this imagery of the Spirit with his holding the seven stars, who are the seven angels of the seven churches (the pastors, elders, overseers who proclaim God’s Word and administer his church). In this way, Jesus indicates his sovereign rule (as the head of his body) through the leadership of the church. He is the shepherd of his sheep, and his under-shepherds, whom he has placed in authority, are a means through which he pastors his church (1 Pet. 5:1-4).

Thus, the Holy Spirit is perfectly at work in the church, bringing all his gifts and power to bear for God’s people. Through his power and through the means of the church authority he has put in place, the Lord sovereignly works among his people. Jesus has not left the church alone to pull itself up by its bootstraps—a truth for all the Lord’s churches (v. 6). Jesus spiritually gifts us (each and every Christian) … he spiritually gifts us abundantly with what we need to do his will, working patiently, tirelessly, and perfectly in our individual and corporate lives through the means he has put in place (1 Cor. 12; Phil. 2:13).

And the Lord does not leave things half done. He finishes his work. Phil. 1:6: “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you (and that’s a plural you – it’s a “ya’ll”) … he who began a good work in ya’ll will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.”

And so, it is as Michael Wilcock has said:

The seven spirits are the eyes of God,… also the life-giving power of God; and in Sardis, as in all the seven cities, Christ has in his hands both the needy church and the life-giving Spirit. He can bring the two together, not only to diagnose but also to revive the dead.[6]

So, while the church in Sardis is declared dead, the one who raises the dead is at work to save.

For context, here’s just a little bit on the city of Sardis. It was an ancient city, dating back to about 1200 BC. It had a history of wealth (from gold) and military power (with a supposedly impregnable citadel built upon a mountain 1500 feet above the lower valley almost completely surrounded by steep cliffs), and it had once been the capital of Lydia. During the time of John’s writing, it was wealthy from trade, was pagan in its worship (particularly of Artemis Cybele, who was known for her power to restore the dead to life), and Sardis had a very large Jewish presence. A terrible earthquake had destroyed much of the city in AD 17. But, due to an influx of money from Emperor Tiberius, they were able to rebuild quickly, even competing for the honor to build a temple for emperor worship in AD 26. Of particular interest, there were two notorious defeats in its history. One was by Cyrus, in 546 BC, the other by Antiochus, in 218 BC. In both cases, the supposed impregnable fortress was captured due to the enemy climbing up the cliffs at night, taking advantage of the lack of watchful guards (an arrogant miscalculation by the Sardians), then attacking from within the citadel and defeating them.

Many have suggested a parallel of the history of the city of Sardis twice being taken in the night, due to their lack of vigilant watchfulness, with the Lord’s promise to come like a thief (v. 3), unless the church woke up and renewed its vigilance.

As it was, the Church in Sardis is described as dead, spiritually, even though it had a reputation for being alive. It was all name and no substance—Christian in name only—nominally Christian.

As for their spiritual death, it was a “mostly dead,” like Westley, in The Princess Bride. You may remember Miracle Max, played by Billy Crystal, describing the situation to Inigo Montoya:

“It just so happens that your friend here is only MOSTLY dead. There’s a big difference between mostly dead and all dead. Mostly dead is slightly alive. With all dead, well, with all dead there’s usually only one thing you can do.”[7]

So, yeah. That’s the Sardian church: “mostly dead” but with hope for life.

So, “mostly dead” how? What was this state for them in the window of time when spiritual death was still but a spiritual slumber, with a chance of resuscitation? While the church in Sardis would have known exactly what Jesus was speaking to, the Scriptures don’t really spell it out for us. So, there are various speculations about the “mostly dead” state, based on historical and textual context.

Notice Jesus doesn’t offer any acknowledgements or commendations first, like he does in the other letters to the seven churches. He just jumps straight into the rebuke. But the rebuke is not for tolerating or succumbing to false teaching, or engaging in the idolatrous and immoral ways of such false teaching (like the churches influenced by the Nicolaitans, Balaam, and Jezubel). There is also no hint that they were dealing with persecution. They were just dead.

Simon Kistemaker suggests:

While both the letters to the churches of Smyrna and Philadelphia mention the “synagogue of Satan” and people “who say they are Jews but are not” (2:9; 3:9), Sardis endured no opposition from the Jews. The gospel that the local Christians proclaimed and applied was too weak to be offensive to the Jews. Also, pagan temples dedicated to Cybele, Zeus Lydios, Heracles, and Dionysus were influential in the religion of the people. Again, the kind of gospel that the inhabitants of Sardis heard from the Christians posed no threat to their pagan religions.[8]

There seems to have been an accommodation to the world. They were, perhaps, busy with worship, fellowship, and perhaps even mercy ministry to those around them. But they did all this in such a way that their witness for Christ was no challenge to the culture, perhaps in a spirit of tolerance. They were comfortable with their programs, and didn’t want to mess with that comfort by being overt in their confession of the name of Christ (who is the only way, the only truth, and the only life). They didn’t want to stir up trouble for themselves by overtly confessing Christ the Savior and King in gospel witness and living lives that were counter to the culture around them, in accordance to his Word. So, when the Sardians thought of the church in their midst, their eyes just slid over them, as they were nondescript and fit in just fine with the culture. Perhaps, even, some of the pagan or Jewish Sardians had been invited to fellowship meals, and, having attended, came away with a good impression: “Great people! Unoffensive, friendly, generous, hospitable, loyal Romans.” But they never heard the gospel; they never heard a confession of Jesus’ name. As such, Satan didn’t even consider them a threat at all, hence no persecution, infiltrations with false teachings, and so forth. They weren’t worth the bother.

So there was an accommodation to the world combined with a failure to confess Christ. And the latter seems particularly in view, considering Jesus’ promise to the one who conquers, in v. 6: “I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels.” This promise hearkens directly back to Matt. 10:32-33, where Jesus spoke about having no fear: “everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven.” He didn’t say “have no fear” because following him means operating under the radar in a semblance of the culture, pandering to the culture, in order to not rile-up those who hate him—some sort of chameleon Christianity. Rather, Jesus says have no fear when you proclaim the name of Jesus and his teachings from the housetops during the light of day! The chameleon Christians were the ones who needed to fear, because they were in danger of being denied by Jesus before the Father. “I never knew you” (Matt. 7:23).

But again, the church was only “mostly dead.” There was still some life in the church. While many had soiled their garments, there was still a remnant—those who wore the white (Rev. 3:4). There are various ways we might label these two groups, the tares and the wheat, the unrighteous and the righteous, and the dead and the alive.

And this concept of soiled garments versus white garments is particularly helpful, considering the “mostly dead” status of the church. Remember, the living and true God, the Lord can truly raise the dead, in contrast to the false goddess Artemis Cybele. And, in many ways, regeneration, being born again, is a resurrection—from dead in one’s sins to alive in Jesus’ Christ—justified by the blood of Christ and sanctified by the work of the Holy Spirit (Col. 2:11-14; Eph. 2:5; Rom. 5:9; 1 Pet. 1:2).

Those who have soiled their garments are not truly saved, having never been born again, and so are not justified or sanctified. Garments washed in the blood of Christ (Rev. 22:14) cannot be soiled—the filth of our sin lands on Christ on the cross, his blood a source of constant purification, keeping the true believer pure in the eyes of God. Christ’s infinite righteousness has been imputed into the accounts of believers, and we have become the righteousness of God, infinitely righteous (Rom. 4:24; 2 Cor. 5:21). And infinite righteousness cannot be soiled.

This means that the bulk of the church in Sardis were actually unbelievers, evidenced by their works: accommodation to the world, not wanting to offend, downplaying the name of Jesus, and converting the missional church of God (God’s Army) into a country club church of innocuous golfers. The bulk of the church was still dead in their sins.

But not the whole church. The Lord kept for himself a remnant. These were the worthy, not by their own merit, but pure in Christ, clothed by God in white. These were the true believers, saved by grace through faith. They were the justified, whose works flowed out of their justification and love for Christ. They were the ones whose righteous deeds were once like filthy (unclean) rags just like the soiled garments they once wore (Isa. 64:6), but whose works now were sanctified by the Holy Spirit, as they follow Jesus in the obedience of faith (Phil 2:13; Mark 8:34; Rom. 16:26). They wore the white, which can never be stained, so they walked with Christ in discipleship, and continue to walk with Christ in eternity. They were the ones who openly confessed Christ. They were the ones who lived in a counter-cultural way, the offensive ones of the church who challenged the culture with the teachings of Jesus and faithful obedience. And, perhaps, their confession and works were even an embarrassment to some of the dead in the church: “Why rock the boat? We’ve got a good thing going. Go with the flow. Your zeal is uncalled for, ridiculous. Take a nap. There’s no danger, we’re good.” Yet, despite the pressure, they stayed vigilant, doing the works of Christ, awaiting and hoping for his return (Matt. 24:42-47).

But even for the spiritually dead, in the church, there was hope for life. The passage in Rev. 3:4-5 hearkens back to Zechariah 3:2-4, a scene from heaven, where Joshua the High Priest was before the Lord being accused by Satan. But the Lord rebuked Satan, and said:

‘Is not this a brand plucked from the fire?’ Now Joshua was standing before the angel, clothed with filthy garments. And the angel said to those who were standing before him, ‘Remove the filthy garments from him.’ And to him he said, ‘Behold, I have taken your iniquity away from you, and I will clothe you with pure vestments.’

This is a picture of justification—the chosen brand plucked from the fire and clothed in purity—a sinner whose iniquity has been removed.

And the good news is that until judgment there is time for the dead to be raised. The dead are like the dry bones to whom Ezekiel prophesied, at the command of the Lord. Ezekiel 37:10:

10 So I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived and stood on their feet, an exceedingly great army.

But when will that promised judgment come? For the church in Sardis, it was imminent. The Lord told them, in Rev. 3:3, “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.” Like Sardis had been taken by surprise twice in their history, due to a lack of vigilance in its guard, the Lord would come like a thief in the night and bring his judgment down upon them. The window of spiritual sleep was closing upon the final death. And unless they heeded his warning, their lampstand was to be removed. This is true for any church of Christ today. The Lord’s return is imminent, whether his final return or a specific return for a specific church. He is coming like a thief in the night (Matt. 24:42-44).

Now, pondering these truths, consider the question: Is our church dead, “mostly dead,” or alive in Christ? This is a question every church needs to ask themselves, even as a means of regular evaluation. And this is something that the elders of the church (the session) does in various ways. My thought is that we, at MPC, are “mostly alive,” full of disciples of Christ, faithful to the Lord, who confess Christ, striving to live according to his Word. Yet, complacency is a sneaky thing. We must stay vigilant. Our church is very comfortable, something which was described to me before I ever arrived here. We need to resist the allure of comfort that might seduce us to slumber, which is so tempting in the Bible belt. It’s an easy slippery slope. And if our church becomes more like a country club and less like a counter-cultural force for the name of Jesus, our alarm bells should be ringing. Have you ever heard those bells? And we need to consider whether there are people in our church who are draped in soiled clothes. The Lord teaches that the wheat and the tares will exist together until the Lord returns, after all, and he makes no exceptional provision for MPC (Matt. 13:24-30). But the Lord can raise the dead. So, are your clothes pure? Or are they soiled? Are you a true believer? Or are you just a Christian in name only?

My friends, whatever the case, we don’t have to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. Salvation is in the Lord. Trust in him, following him as Lord. We don’t do this in our own strength. The Spirit of God empowers us to follow Jesus in truth, both as individual Christians (saved by grace through faith) and as a church, walking together with him in white—a shining light of witness to the name of Christ in our community and the world.

And Lord willing, next week, we’ll look at Jesus’ call and plan of action to resuscitate the church in Sardis, along with his promised outcomes.

As we move forward following Jesus, let us continually resolve (in the power of the Spirit of God) to resist accommodation to the culture at the sacrifice of our integrity in Christ. And let us confess Christ in all that we do in both word and deed, doing his works, walking with him in faith. Let us stay awake, ready for his return. Because Jesus is actively leading his people, we must follow him with vigilance.


[1] CPT Josh Mantz (the LT), tells his story: Thom Shanker, “Life and Death and Life in Iraq,” The New York Times, pub. 10 May 2010, https://atwar.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/05/10/life-and-death-and-life-in-iraq/. See also his interview on CNN: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JztZDpmghZY; his interview on Fox News: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=46bPmJc-sdU.

[2] G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1999), 186.

[3] Leon Morris, Revelation: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 20, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1987), 54.

[4] Lancelot Charles Lee Brenton, The Septuagint Version of the Old Testament: English Translation (London: Samuel Bagster and Sons, 1870), Is 11:2–3.

[5] Cf. Henry Barclay Swete, ed., The Apocalypse of St. John, 2d. ed., Classic Commentaries on the Greek New Testament (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1906), 5-6.

[6] Michael Wilcock, The Message of Revelation: I Saw Heaven Opened, The Bible Speaks Today (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1986), 53.

[7] The Princess Bride, directed by Rob Reiner, (Act III Communications, 1987), featuring Cary Elwes, Mandy Patinkin, Robin Wright, with a special appearance by Billy Crystal, https://www.amazon.com/dp/B000TJBNHG?ref_=imdbref_tt_wo_amazon_1&tag=imdbtag_tt_wo_amazon-20. See the clip on Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xbE8E1ez97M.

[8] Simon J. Kistemaker, Exposition of the Book of Revelation, vol. 20, New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 2001), 149.