This fifth letter, to the believers in Sardis, follows the format used in all seven letters (as discussed in the earlier note). Here we will examine the features and details which are unique to this particular letter.
Each introduction to the risen Jesus draws upon the wording and imagery in the vision of 1:11-16ff. Here the reference is to the image in v. 16a, i.e. holding the seven stars in his right hand. They are connected closely with “the seven Spirits of God” (from 1:4), which merely confirms that these “Spirits” are to be understood as heavenly beings (i.e., Angels, cf. 1:20).
The main message, or body of the letter, differs from the others in the way that it blends together the two aspects of praise and blame/rebuke. This is clear from the way that the opening formula has been adapted:
“I have seen your works—that you hold a name (indicating) that you live, and (yet) you are dead.”
This is doubtless meant, in part, as an ironic echo of Jesus words in 1:18:
“I am the living (one)—I came to be dead, and see! I am living into the Ages of Ages…”
The expression “holding a name that you live” presumably means that the Christians in Sardis identify themselves (by name and confession) as believers in Christ (“the living one”). It is hard to know just what is meant by the statement “and (yet) you are dead“. It is probably best here simply to understand the adjective “dead” as the opposite of “alive”—the absence of life, in the sense of a lack of true faith and/or love, as manifest in the words and actions (“works”) of the congregations. Specific or blatant sin does not seem to have been the issue; the situation is perhaps similar to that stated in the letter to the Christians of Ephesus (2:4f).
The rebuke of verse 1 turns into an exhortation, whereby the believers in Sardis are urged to remain awake (i.e. watchful, vb. grhgoreu/w) and to strengthen (lit. fasten, firm [up], sthri/zw) “the (thing)s remaining which are about to die off”. The neuter plural ta\ loipa/ makes it clear that this refers to their “works” (ta\ e&rga), i.e. to their words and acts of love, faith, etc, which are still manifest in the congregations, but are in danger of dying out. Again, we must be cautious about reading into this the idea that the Christians of Sardis were particularly “worldly” or immoral. The book of Revelation tends to express an extremely rigorous view of Christian faithfulness and devotion, in relation to the negative influence of Greco-Roman (pagan) culture and false religious practice. The standard, or ideal, is stated clearly here in verse 2:
“For I have not found your works (as) having been made full [i.e. complete] in the sight of my God.”
The exhortation shifts again back to a warning:
“Remember, then, how you have received and heard (before), and (so) you must keep watch and change your mind(set) [i.e. repent]. (But) if, then, you would not remain awake [i.e. watchful, alert], (know that) I will come as a thief, (so that) you should not even know what hour I will come upon you!”
Here, Jesus’ coming (“I will come”) is unquestionably eschatological, referring to his end-time return (whereas in 2:16 this was not so clear). The suddenness and unexpectedness of his appearance is characterized as that of a thief who breaks into a house, an image used in an eschatological context for the coming of the end (and the return of Jesus) several times in the New Testament, including by Jesus himself in the Gospels (Matt 24:43 / Lk 12:39; cf. also 1 Thess 5:2, 4; 2 Pet 3:10). Similarly, the verb grhgore/w (“be/remain awake”, i.e. be watchful, alert) is often used in relation to eschatological expectation in the New Testament (Mark 13:34-37 par; Matt 25:13; 1 Thess 5:6; Rev 16:15; cf. also Mark 14:34ff par; 1 Cor 16:13). In such instances, there is a strong emphasis on ethical behavior, with the idea of the approaching time of Judgment serving as a warning and exhortation to repentance, etc.
As indicated above, the sections on praise and blame/rebuke in this letter have been reversed, beginning with blame and concluding with praise. The second section typically begins, “But I hold (this) against you…”; but here it has been modified:
“But you hold [i.e. have] a few names in Sardis which did not dirty their garments, and they will walk about with me in white (garment)s, (in) that [i.e. because] they are brought [i.e. weighed] (in the) balance.”
There is a bit of wordplay here with o&noma (“name”). In verse 1a (cf. above) it referred to the reputation and character of the congregation(s) in Sardis (i.e. Christians as a whole); here, it refers to individual believers (and their names). While the congregations are characterized generally as “dead”, there are still present a small percentage of (“a few”, o)li/go$) true and faithful believers. They are described as those who “did not dirty [e)mo/lunan] their garments”. The verb molu/nw (“darken, dirty, soil, stain”) is rare in the New Testament (elsewhere only in 1 Cor 8:7; Rev 14:4). However, the motif of dirtying/washing one’s clothing is a relatively common religious motif, and can be used in the context of both ritual and moral purity (cf. Exod 19:10-14; Lev 11:25ff; Num 8:7; 19:7ff; Lam 4:14; Zech 3:3-5, etc). The image of a garment might suggest the physical body (as opposed to the soul/spirit), leading to the idea that sensual/carnal sin is involved. More likely, however, is the association with the believer’s baptism—where the ritual symbolism entails the removal of one’s old nature (taking off the garment) and putting on the new. Presumably from very early times the baptism rite included use of a clean white robe. Paul’s language in Gal 3:27 (cf. also Rom 13:12-14; Col 3:9-10 [Eph 4:22-24]) draws upon well-established baptism imagery. The idea of putting on (new/glorious) clothing can also be used in the context of eschatological expectation (of the resurrection, etc), cf. 1 Cor 15:53-54; 2 Cor 5:2-3; 1 Thess 5:8 [cp. Eph 6:11ff].
White clothing brings together the twin attributes of brightness and purity. Heavenly beings are typically described wearing a white (linen) garment or robe—Ezek 9:2ff; 10:2ff; Dan 10:5; 12:6-7; Mark 9:3 par; 16:5; Matt 28:3; John 20:12; Acts 1:10; 10:30, and frequently in the book of Revelation. The promise here in verses 4-5 relates to heavenly reward and honor. This is expressed by the promise-formula in verse 5:
“The (one) being [i.e. who is] victorious, this (one) will be cast about [i.e. clothed] in white garments…”
The white garments (of heavenly purity/holiness) allow the believer to “walk about” with Jesus (i.e. in Heaven). This is the first of three rewards given in v. 5, all of which refer primarily to the Eternal Life the believer will receive, having passed through the Judgment. The context of the end-time/heavenly Judgment is clear enough, but there is an important allusion to it in the earlier use of the adjective a&cio$ (end of v. 4). Often translated “worthy”, it fundamentally refers to being “brought (down)”, i.e. weighed, in the balances. These are the scales of justice/judgment; the person who is weighed in the proper balance is deemed worthy of entering into Life. The second reward in verse 5 is:
“…and I will not rub his name out of the paper-roll [i.e. scroll] of Life…”
The word bi/blo$ is usually translated “book”, but literally refers to a paper (papyrus) roll, or scroll. The specific image is that of a roll on which the names of citizens are recorded—in this instance, those who are (to be) citizens of heaven, who belong to the Kingdom of God and the realm of Eternal Life. The expression “scroll/book of Life” (o( bi/blo$ th=$ zwh=$) goes back to Old Testament tradition and ancient Near Eastern concepts of the divine Judgment (cf. Exod 32:32; Psalm 69:28; Isa 4:3; Dan 12:1; also 4Q381; 4Q504; Jubilees 30:22; 36:10; 1 Enoch 108:3; Koester, p. 315). The specific expression is used by Paul in Phil 4:3, and repeatedly again in the book of Revelation; Jesus refers to the basic idea in Luke 10:20.
The third, and final, reward is:
“…and I will give account as one of [i.e. confess/acknowledge] his name in the sight of my Father and in the sight of His Messengers.”
This statement gives a snapshot of the scene of Judgment in which Jesus testifies on behalf of believers. It is better viewed in terms of Jesus as one who is overseeing the court of Judgment and authorizes the believers to pass through into Life. There is a precise parallel in the Gospel tradition (the so-called “Q” material); the saying by Jesus in Matt 10:32b and Luke 12:8b is very close in wording—combining the two versions gives a saying not too far removed from that here in Rev 3:5c:
“Every one who gives account as one in (regard to) me in front of men, I will give account as one in (regard to) him in front of my Father in the heavens.” (Matt 10:32)
“Every one who would give account as one in (regard to) me in front of men, the Son of Man also will give account as one in (regard to) him in front of the Messengers of God” (Luke 12:8); [v. 9] “…in the sight of the Messengers of God”
The verb o(mologe/w literally means “give account as one”, i.e. “give common account”, “say the same thing”, often rendered as consent, acknowledge, confess. It implies agreement regarding a statement or principle, etc. In other words, the believer agrees to the Gospel message regarding Jesus (his teaching, example, etc), and Jesus, in turn, confirms the believer’s trust/faith and (religious) identity—an identity which is also confirmed by what the believer has said and done during his/her lifetime.