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The Church at Sardis

The Tragedy of the Reformation
(AD 1500~Tribulation)

And unto the angel of the church in Sardis write; These things saith he that hath the seven Spirits of God, and the seven stars; I know thy works, that thou hast a name that thou livest, and art dead. Be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die: for I have not found thy works perfect before God. Remember therefore how thou hast received and heard, and hold fast, and repent. If therefore thou shalt not watch, I will come on thee as a thief, and thou shalt not know what hour I will come upon thee. (Revelation 3:1-3)

The Lord has followed a distinct pattern in each of the previous letters; each begins with an introduction of the Lord Himself, followed by a commendation, which in turn is followed by an admonishment or rebuke. To the suffering church at Smyrna, the Lord offered only commendation and praise, with no hint of rebuke. The letter to the church at Sardis stands out then, as it opens with a rebuke, followed by another rebuke, and no word of praise or commendation at all.

Could it be that in the Lord’s eyes this period of church history is less to be praised than the period of paganization, or the period led by “Jezebel?”

Evidently, that is the case. And what sad period of church history would this be?

The name “Sardis” comes from the same root as the “sardine stone” (Rev. 4:3), which was a rich, blood-red gem. The picture here is one of bloodied men. Truly, the Reformers carried out their rebellion against the Roman Catholic church at great peril to their own lives, and many of them eventually lost their lives after cruel torture. Surely the Lord has something good to say about the brave defenders of the Truth that dared leave the Catholic church and begin their own spiritual communities.

And yet we search in vain for any such praise in the letter before us. What does the Lord say about the Reformation? Simply this: you have a reputation (or name, see Proverbs 10:7; 22:1; Ecclesiastes 6:4; 7:1, etc.) for being a living thing, but you are a dead thing.

Reputation wise, the Reformation is credited with restoring the vitality of the Christian faith after long centuries of Catholic demoralization. Martin Luther’s assertions that scripture alone, sola scriptura, is the only authority for the church, and that the just shall live by faith (that is, that salvation requires only faith in the Lord Jesus, not the Roman Catholic sacraments) all sound very good, very true, very orthodox.

The Lord appears to acknowledge that while it is orthodox, it is “dead orthodoxy.” The fact of the matter is, the Reformation produced much intellectual consent to the truths of scripture, but no life flowed from it. This is true because the Reformation was in reality only a baby step towards true Christianity. While some of the grosser excesses and errors of the Catholic church were shed, the order and organization of Jezebel’s religion were imported wholesale into the new churches that sprang from the Reformation.

First of all, the Nicolaitan separation of clergy and laity was retained. The church continued to teach “sacraments” and insisted that these sacraments be performed only by specially ordained, professional “holy” men on behalf of the unwashed laity. The nature of “transubstantiation” in the eucharist was debated, for example, but instead of standing tall for the truth, Martin Luther and other reformers settled for a compromise; the wine and bread do not become the Blood and Body of Christ, but the latter are somehow mystically present in the elements.

Of all the compromises made to appease Jezebel, (and to not rattle the sensibilities of the masses who had been raised under that system in Germany, Scotland, Geneva and other centers of the Reformation,) perhaps the two most “deadening” aspects of the Reformation were the retention of infant baptism—which supposedly ushers noncomprehending souls into the kingdom of God through a rite or a ritual, rather than through faith in the gospel; and amillennial theology—which denies the future return of the Lord Jesus to rule a literal, physical kingdom on this earth.

In effect, the Reformation replaced one militant, amillennial state church with another militant, amillennial state church. All it managed to remove from the mix was the pope. But the leaders of the new churches were not always that much better. John Calvin has often been referred to as the “protestant pope” due to his severe control over the church in Geneva.

The liturgy and the “church calendar” with its long list of psuedo–scriptural “holy days” and feasts was brought virtually intact into the new Reformed communions.

Another “deadening” factor was the introduction of full-blown predeterminism, which eventually became popularized by the term “Five-point Calvinism,” even though there wasn’t much difference between Calvin and Luther in their approach to this issue. This intellectual conceit, when taken consistently with its tenets, invariably quenches the fire of evangelism and brings a palpable deadness of the spirit to every congregation that adopts it, or succumbs to a pastor who converts to it.

This church (the church at Sardis) is told to “strengthen the things that remain.” The truth of the gospel is there, and needs to be “beefed-up” for this church to please the Lord.

Then, underscoring the error of amillennialism, the Lord points out that this church is not looking for the Lord’s return. Contrast the Lord’s statement to the church at Sardis, “I shall come upon thee as a thief, and thou shalt not know what hour I come upon thee” with this statement by the Apostle Paul to a “premillennial” church:

For yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so cometh as a thief in the night… But ye, brethren are not in darkness, that that day should overtake you as a thief. (I Thessalonians 2:2, 4)

Is the Lord coming as a thief in the night? Yes. Should Christians (brethren) expect to be overtaken by this day? No! The reference to the “day of the Lord” points to the Great Tribulation and the coming of the Lord to the earth in the final victory over a God-rejecting world. Note that Paul says the reason this day should not overtake us is because “God has not appointed us to wrath, but to obtain salvation by our Lord Jesus Christ. (I Thessalonians 2:9).”

So here we have the second church in this series of seven that has been given the dubious honor of a promise by the Lord Himself that they will miss the Rapture and continue into the Great Tribulation. This promise is to mainline, dead orthodox denominations that hold to “Reformed theology,” that sprinkle infants into the kingdom with no scriptural authority for doing so, and maintain their amillennial theology to this day. In recent years it has been resurrected under the name “Dominion Theology,” “Kingdom Now” theology and the like. Regardless of what it is called, it is the same old error that began with Augustine’s City of God.  It is to be shunned and avoided at all costs.

Thou hast a few names even in Sardis which have not defiled their garments; and they shall walk with me in white: for they are worthy. He that overcometh, the same shall be clothed in white raiment; and I will not blot out his name out of the book of life, but I will confess his name before my Father, and before his angels. He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches.  (Revelation 3:4-6)

It must be said again and again, and ever kept in mind, that the Lord is judging a system here, a church system and system of theology. He is quick to acknowledge that within this system there are true believers—those who are trusting in the Lord for their salvation and anticipating His return in spite of the teachings of the church system with which they are affiliated. These believers will be taken to be with the Lord at the Rapture, even though the church they belong to officially denies that any such event is to take place. We are not suggest that “all Lutherans and Presbyterians are going in the Tribulation.”  We are suggesting that the mainline denominations will continue to operate even after the redeemed among them have been removed.

This is as true of the church at Thyratira as it is of the church at Sardis. We do not judge a person or make a determination as to whether they are “truly saved” based on the denomination they belong to. Believers find themselves associated with denominational churches for any number of reasons. What counts is what the individual believes about the Lord. If they are trusting in Him alone, and not their church or denominational affiliation, they are true members of the Body of Christ, and will obtain the rewards the Lord has promised to those who overcome the system to find the Lord.

This is perhaps the best explanation of why, from the fourth letter on, the Lord addresses his message to the overcomers first to individuals, and then asserts that this is the message the Holy Spirit has for the churches.

It will be obvious that this is not the interpretation one will find in most commentaries written by “dead orthodox” scholars who belong to mainline denominational churches, not a few of whom are themselves clergymen, and nearly all of whom are amillennial by training and conviction. This is why you must read these letters carefully, prayerfully, sincerely asking the Lord to reveal the truth of these matters. Those who truly love the Lord, and who genuinely want to know the truth have more than a thousand years of amillennial, dead, orthodox Christian scholarship to overcome if they are to avoid being one of those on whom Christ promises to come upon as a thief in the night.

But let us move on to probably the greatest period of church history since the days of the suffering church at Smyrna. Let us see what the Lord has to say to the church of “brotherly love,” the church at Philadelphia.

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