Sardis was a city with a long history, dating back at least to the eighth century BC, and serving as the capital of the Lydian empire till it fell to Cyrus in 546BC. Later, after passing into Roman hands, it became the capital of the Lydian region.
Situated in the Hermus River Valley, Sardis at one time drew and refined large amounts of gold from the nearby stream beds, growing very wealthy as a result. Sardis, as all Roman cities, honored Caesar; however, the imperial cult does not seem to have been as influential in this Asian city as in others. The largest and most important temple was the temple of Artemis, though there is attestation to other existing temples as well.
Regarding the letter to Sardis, Keener observes, “That no mention of persecution against Christians is mentioned in such a city is significant; it probably reflects the secure position that the Jewish community, which rejected pagan worship, had attained, and suggests that the Christians shared this benefit of toleration.” Evidence points to a large and influential Jewish community at Sardis. More than eighty Jewish inscriptions have been unearthed in Sardis and Josephus mentions two documents detailing the privileges the Jews were given in the city. Supporting this is the discovery in Sardis of largest synagogue to ever be uncovered.
Jesus identifies himself in words similar to those used in the letter to the Ephesian church (Rev. 2:1). Jesus is the one “who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars.” If the seven stars are identified with the church’s representative angel, as 1:20 indicates, then Beale’s suggestion makes sense: the seven stars correspond to angels and represent the provision of heavenly aid that is at the churches disposal. The seven spirits are a representation of the Spirit of God (see Zech. 4:2,10) which burns on the lampstands (churches) empowering them in their light bearing, witnessing mission.
As with all the church, Jesus knows this church and her works. Sardis had a good reputation and may have even been respected, but was not well. She was spiritually dead. Beale contends that the issue in the Sardis was a lack of fervent witness in the midst of their pagan culture, just as it was in Ephesus. Several details support this conclusion. First, as noted above, the “works” that Jesus regards as incomplete are more than good works, but denote the overall manner of the church’s life. Unarguably, the life of the church – its care for its members, its purity of conduct and doctrine, its worship, etc. – is inextricably linked to her witness in the world. As this life has been found lacking by her Lord, her witness has certainly suffered.
In addition, the implied accusation that most of the church had “soiled their garments” (only a few had not) points to the church’s compromise with the unbelieving culture through participation in idol worship, eating meat sacrificed to idols, and/or immorality. Osborne, citing Moffat, notes similar references in ancient inscriptions detailing how “soiled clothes disqualified the worshipper and dishonored the god.”
The church at Sardis, through compromise and sinful accommodation had dishonored Christ and tainted her witness. Only those who continue to continue in faithfulness will be found worthy of walking with Christ, clothed in white.
It is almost certain that faithfulness would prove costly to the remnant that refused to dull their witness and blend in to the surrounding culture, and there may be indications in this letter that some of the faithful would be martyred. In Revelation 7 the ones who are dressed in white are those “coming out of the great tribulation,” certainly suffering on account of their faith. Moreover, in Revelation 5 the Lamb is deemed worthy (ά̔ξιος, the same word used in 3:4) to open the scroll “for you were slain”. If the “walking in white” is meant to speak of a victory march or triumphal procession, it is again an ironic victory – being conquered by the world and put to death is the path to victory!
“Wake up” then is a call to take their missional calling to heart and recommit to the witnessing task of the church. This waking up would include a recommitment to holiness over against immorality and fidelity over against idolatrous compromise. This call to be alert would undoubtedly have hit home in Sardis, a city sacked twice because watchmen failed to watch diligently, allowing assailants to scale the “unclimbable” cliffs and gain easy access to a city caught unaware.
Those who conquer, likewise, receive white garments. That both those “who have not soiled their garments” and “the one who conquers” are clothed in white garments shows that the conquerors are those who remain unstained. In addition to their white garments, symbolic of holiness, they are enrolled eternally and irrevocably in the kingdoms roster of citizens. Jesus promises, “I will never blot his name out of the book of life.”
Lastly, Jesus promises “I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels.” This confirms that the issue in the church was a lack of faithful, fervent witness. Those who compromised with the culture showed they were ashamed of Christ, and hence Christ would be ashamed of them in the coming judgment (see Mark 8:38, Luke 9:26).
Positively, those who remained unspoiled/uncompromised had acknowledged Christ before the world, even at great cost; consequently, Christ would acknowledge them before his Father and the angels in heaven (see Matt. 10:32, Luke 12:8).