The church at Sardis is the fifth of the seven churches of Asia. Christ’s message to this church is a sobering examination of a church that exists, that carries on its work, that meets as usual and appears to be Christian, but is absent of Christ. This is a strange paradox for a Christian church since the church is called the body of Christ.It is possible to have a church without the Christ of the church. This, of course, is according to the common perception of the church.
Most people only know the church by the building where the people meet. If the sign says “Christian,” they must be. This is not the Bible’s definition of the church. The church is a select assembly of people called by God to be unified and cooperating in the doctrines of the faith and commissioned with the gospel of Christ. The doctrines and the commission are the preaching of Christ Himself. It is therefore impossible to have a church without Christ.
This definition of church clarifies the warnings given to Sardis. As the presence of Christ in the church diminishes by allowing factions of heresy and outright admission of unbelievers into membership, the church ceases to be Christ’s body. If enough body parts are cut off, eventually the body dies. The light of the gospel goes out, and the assembly of people are no longer the true church of Christ.
Sardis was a church called to repentance. They were nearing the point of realizing Christ’s threat—I will come on you as thief. In scripture, this expression always equals destruction. As Jesus told the wicked Jews, a thief comes to destroy. In this analogy, Jesus likens His actions to the sudden stealth of a thief. His judgment is leveled at the most unexpected moment.
Some argue this cannot happen because if so, Christ destroys His own body, thus Himself. We must be careful to understand the metaphors of scripture. The church is the body of Christ, but it is not Christ. As one author wrote, “[The church] is founded by Christ, formed by Christ, commissioned by Christ, and endowed by Christ. But it is not Christ. The church can preach salvation and nurture the saved, but it cannot save. The church can preach, exhort, rebuke, and admonish against sin, it can proclaim the forgiveness of sin, and it can give theological definition to sin, but the church cannot atone for sin.”
This observation is correct. Great confusion has been fostered on Christianity by those who teach that Christ and the church are essentially synonymous. This leads to the opposite of nearly every statement in the preceding quotation. The church saves, the church sanctifies, the church forgives sin, and the church atones for sin. If the church is Christ, it can do all these things. If this defines the church, it cannot be adequately rebuked, and thus can become utterly corrupt while still claiming it has authority. Christ will not destroy it because it would be to destroy Himself.
The 2nd and 3rd chapters of Revelation strongly refute the concept of church/Christ equality. The church stands in judgment of its faithfulness to Christ. We are required to faithfully proclaim the word by holding up the glory of Christ and renouncing all forms of unrighteousness. This is how the light of Christ is kept burning brightly. This is the church that wards off destruction because its judgment has found it to be worthy. It is a church that keeps the name of Christ. To remain His body, we must heed the warnings and hear the Spirit lest we become a church like Sardis.
Pastor V. Mark Smith