{4}         Letter to the 7 Churches (II) (Rev 3:1-22)


Part 2. Letters to the 7 churches (2:1—3:22)

2.5.      Sardis (3:1-6)

2.6.      Philadelphia (3:7-13)

2.7.      Laodicea (3:14-22)


        PICTURE: John is encircled by mystic light from a source that he cannot see. In front of him are 7 giant lampstands in a circle. The glorified Jesus Christ stands among the lampstands. He commands John to write the letters to the 7 churches, as dictated by Christ.



3:1       SARDIS was one of the most powerful cities of the ancient world. It was a natural citadel located above a cliff of almost 500 metres. It was a wealthy city with a theatre and a stadium and an exceptionally large temple dedicated to Artemis (though unfinished). This patron god was believed to possess the special power of restoring the dead to life.

The church at Sardis comes under the most severe denunciation of the seven churches. Apparently untroubled by heresy and free from outside opposition, it had so completely compromised with its pagan environment that although it retained the outward appearance of life, it was spiritually dead. It is a perfect model of inoffensive Christianity. Like the fig tree of Mk 11:20, it had leaves but no fruit. The church is exhorted to take steps to restore their former vitality.

[1] Author: The 7 stars are identified as the angels of the 7 churches. The identity of the 7 spirits is unknown (see comments for 1:4).

[2] Achievements: Christ knows their deeds and there is little to commend. VV.4-5 indicate that with the exception of a few, the whole church had fallen into a state of complete spiritual death by compromising with the pagan environment that the church was Christian in name only (nominal Christians).

3:2       [3] Teachings: There are 5 imperatives in vv.2-3. The first one should be translated “be watchful” not “wake up”. The watchfulness would carry special weight in Sardis because twice in its history, the acropolis had fallen to the enemy due to a lack of watchfulness of the defenders. Lack of watchfulness is to consider oneself secure and fail to remain alert and will result in disaster.

Although Sardis could be pronounced dead, it still had the possibility of restoration to life. The church is commanded to “strengthen that which still remains though it is at the point of death.” Like the unfinished temple of Artemis, the works of the church constantly fell short of completion.

3:3       The church is commanded to bear in mind what they had received (perfect tense) and heard (aorist tense).  They were commanded to obey and to repent.

If the church does not wake up to its perilous position, Christ will “come like a thief” (unexpectedly) and visit them in judgment. In other NT passages, the second coming of Christ is described “as a thief in the night” (Mt 24:42-44; 1Th 5:2; 2Pe 3:10). However, the eschatological coming is not dependent on repentance in Sardis. Therefore, this verse likely points to some historical visitation which will be swift and unexpected (at an unknown time).

3:4       There were a few people who had “not soiled their clothes.” Since the manufacture and dyeing of woolen goods was a principal trade in Sardis, an allusion to soiled clothes would be immediately recognized. It refers to the danger of contaminating the Christian witness by accommodation to the pagan society.

These people will walk with Christ and dressed in white. The white dress is also for the overcomers in v.5. It is for those who are justified before God. Other possible references include purity, festivity, resurrection bodies, or the Roman custom of wearing white on the day of triumph. Some think that it refers to the wedding garment that allows admission to the feast.

While these people have done nothing to merit their exalted position, they are worthy by withstanding the pressure to apostatize.

3:5       [4] Promise: The overcomers are promised with: [a] dressed in white, [b] their names will not be blotted out of the book of life, [c] Christ will acknowledge them before God and His angels: as a result of their acknowledgment of Christ before men (Mt 10:32).

White garments are mentioned 7 times in Revelation, but with different meanings (3:5,18; 4:4; 6:11; 7:9,13; 19:14). They were present in different situations but generally represent an attire appropriate to the heavenly state.

For those who hold the theological position of predestination, the possibility that someone in the church can have his name blotted out (meaning the loss of salvation) is unacceptable. Their argument then is that nowhere is there any explicit statement that anyone will have his name blotted out. Even so, the possibility itself is a stern warning.

3:6       same exhortation to end the letter as before.

3:7       PHILADELPHIA was located on high ground on the south side of a valley. It was a city of commercial importance and was called “gateway to the East”. Because of the fertile valley, its economy was based on agriculture. Because it was located in a vine-growing district, the worship of Dionysus (Greek god of wine) was its chief pagan cult. It also possessed industry and enjoyed considerable prosperity.

The name of the city (“lover of his brother”) commemorates the loyalty and devotion of King Attalus II (reigning 159-138 BC) to his brother.

The letter to Philadelphia contains no note of disapproval or reproach. Church members might have been excommunicated from the local synagogue. Because of their patient endurance, God will keep them from the coming time of trial.

[1] Author: Christ is described as “the Holy One, the True One”. The Holy One was a familiar title in Jewish culture for God. The True (or genuine) One (speaking the truth) was used to refute those Jews of Philadelphia who would claim that Christ was a false Messiah. Christ holds the key of David, meaning He has complete control over the royal household. Similar to Isa 22:22, this verse points to the absolute power to control entrance to the heavenly kingdom. It may be an intentional contrast with the excommunication of Christian Jews by the synagogue.

3:8       [2] Achievements: Christ recognizes that although they have little strength (probably referring to a fairly small congregation with no major impact on the city), they have faithfully kept His word and not denied His name. The two aorist verbs (kept and not denied) point to a particular period of trial in the past.

[3] Teachings: The “open door” may refer to: [a] great opportunity for missionary activity; as the gateway to the eastern plateau, the city had a unique opportunity to carry the gospel to that region; [b] an open door into the eternal kingdom; even if the door to the synagogue has been closed, the door into the messianic kingdom remains open.

3:9       The reward for faithfulness includes: [a] vindication before their foes (v.9), [b] deliverance in the final period of testing (v.10), [c] security in the coming age (v.11).

There must be a serious conflict between the church and the synagogue in Philadelphia. By their slander and persecution of Christians, the Jews have shown themselves to be the “synagogue of Satan.” It was the Gentile church that could now be called “the Israel of God” (Gal 6:16), for the Jewish nation had forfeited that privilege by disbelief.

“Come and fall down at your feet” may mean that the Jews would become converts to the Christian faith or that they would come to understand and acknowledge that the church is the ones that God loved as the true Israel of God.

3:10     God will keep them from the hour of trial. This verse is one that causes great argument.

“The hour of trial” is commonly understood to be the period of testing and tribulation that precedes the establishment of the eternal kingdom (Dan 12:2; Mk 13:19; 2Th 2:1-12). It is the 3.5 years of rule by Antichrist in Rev 13:5-10. Pretribulationism teaches that this verse is a proof that Christians will be taken out (through rapture) of this world and will not experience tribulation. The argument is based on the Greek word “from” (ek), explained as “away from” the world.

However, the same Greek phrase (tereo ek) in Rev 3:10 is used only used one other time in the Bible in Jn 17:15. Here, the “kept from” means kept from harm, not from the world because the first part of the verse says “not take them out of the world”. The saints can live in tribulation and can still be kept from God’s wrath (Rev 9:4) and Christ can ward off all demonic assaults of Satan.

Ladd explains, “Although the church will be on earth in these final terrible days and will suffer fierce persecution and martyrdom at the hands of the beast, she will be kept from the hour of trial which is coming upon the pagan world. God’s wrath, poured out on the kingdom of Antichrist, will not afflict His people.”

3:11     This verse presupposes the continuance of the church until the second coming. While the “coming” of Christ to Ephesus (2:5), Pergamum (2:16), and Sardis (3:3) posed a threat to each church and may mean some historical coming. Here (3:11), the coming is eschatological. The coming will end their time of trial.

“Coming soon” does not mean “within a short time” but mean “without delay”.

They are encouraged to hold on to what they have (faith in Christ and obedience to His word in v.8) so that no one will take their crown. The crown was the wreath awarded to the winner of an athletic contest (1Co 9:25; 2Ti 4:8). The example is appropriate for Philadelphia which was known for its games and festivals.

3:12     [4] Promise: The overcomers will be made pillars in the temple of God in New Jerusalem. (James, Peter, and John were reputed to be pillars in Gal 2:9.) It conveys the idea of stability and permanence (“never again will he leave it”). To a city that had experienced devastating earthquakes, the promise of permanence would have a deeper meaning.

The writing of names on pillars resembles the two pillars in Solomon’s temple that bore personal names of Jakin and Boaz (1Ki 7:21). Here, the names written are God’s name, the name of God’s city (new Jerusalem), and Christ’s new name. They show that the faithful belong to God, hold citizenship in God’s city, and are related to Christ.

3:13     same exhortation to end the letter as before.

3:14     LAODICEA was located at the juncture of two important imperial trade routes. It was built on a square plateau. To the south were mountains rising to 2500 metres. King Antiochus named the city after his wife Laodice. Laodicea was the wealthiest city in the region of Phrygia. It possessed agricultural and commercial prosperity with a banking industry. The city was also known for its medical school which taught that compound diseases require compound medicines. Two of the most famous medical mixtures were an ear ointment made from spice nard, and an eye-salve (doughy paste) made from “Phrygian powder” mixed with oil.

Laodicea’s major weakness was its lack of an adequate and convenient source for water. Thus water had to be brought in from springs near a place 10 km from the south through a system of stone pipes of 1 metre in diameter.

The problem of the Ladicean church is one of excessive self-confidence. In reality, they were “poor, blind and naked.”

[1] Author: Christ is the “God of Amen”; the word is an acknowledgment of that which is valid and binding. It is further qualified as “the faithful and true witness”. It presents the trutworthiness of Christ in sharp contrast to the unfaithfulness of the Laodicean church. “The head (Gr. arche) of God’s creation” is linked to Christ’s designation as “the beginning” (same Gr. arche) and the firstborn over all creation (Col 1:15,18).

3:15     [2] Achievements: Similar to the church in Sardis, there is nothing positive in this church.

[3] Teachings: There are two possible interpretations of the lukewarmness of this church.

[a] North of Laodicea was the city of Hierapolis which was famous for its hot springs. The water flowed across the plateau for 10 km and spilled over a broad escarpment directly opposite Laodicea. The cliff was 100 metres high and over 1 km wide. Covered with a white encrustation of calcium carbonate, it formed a spectacular natural phenomenon. As the hot, mineral-laden water travelled across the plateau, it gradually became lukewarm before cascading over the edge. An unsuspecting visitor drinking such water would spit it upon the ground because of the taste of minerals. [Another suggestion is that the taste of lukewarm water is worse than hot or cold water because the temperature hid the bad taste.] The traditional interpretation is that those figurative words describe person who are neither in earnest for God (hot) nor utterly indifferent to Him (cold). If it is the latter, those persons will realize their insufficiency of a lack of faith. So lukewarm Christians are the worst.

[b] Another explanation is that the adjectives are not to be taken as describing the spiritual fervour (or lack of it) of people. The contrast is between the hot medicinal waters of Hierapolis and the cold, pure waters of Colossae. Thus the church in Laodicea was providing neither refreshment for the spiritually weary, nor healing for the spiritually sick. It was totally ineffective and thus distasteful to the Lord. So the church is not being called to change its spiritual temperature but to be effective in its works.

3:16     Their deeds show them to be neither cold nor hot, but lukewarm. Consequently, Christ is about to spit them out of His mouth.

3:17     The Laodicean church possessed material wealth. Secure in their affluence, they believed that they had need of nothing. But the inevitable result of spiritual complacency and self-satisfaction is the loss of all true self-knowledge. They were unaware that in reality they were wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked. They were mocked in a tone of sustained irony in vv.17-18.

The 5 “wretched” and “pitiful” aspects are governed by one article, meaning that they are 5 manifestations of the same condition.

3:18     The Laodiceans prided itself on 3 things: [a] financial wealth from the banking establishments, [b] textile industry, and [c] a popular eye salve made in medical school and exported around the world. The advice given refers directly to these institutions. The church is adviced to make purchases in those specific areas in which they are confident that no need exists.

They need to buy from Christ (“from me” is emphatic): [a] “gold refined in the fire” so that they have genuine prosperity, not poverty; [b] white clothes so that they they can cover the shame of their nakedness; [c] eye salve so that their sight can be restored from blindness.

[a] The gold is spiritual wealth that has passed through the refiner’s fire and has been found to be totally trustworthy. [b] The white clothes are a symbol of righteousness. This is in contrast to their spiritual nakedness of not understanding their humiliation. [c] The eye salve is used to heal their spiritual blindness of lacking vision into spiritual matters.

3:19     “All those I love (without exception), I also correct and discipline.” The principle of reproof and discipline as an expression of love is found in Pr 3:11-12. The rebuke of God is not so much punishment as illumination. It is educative discipline and means to show someone his sin and to summon him to repentance.

The advice is that they should repent (in one decisive act: aorist imperative) and make it their practice to continue to live zealously for the Lord (present imperative).

3:20     This verse has been frequently quoted as an invitation to non-believers to accept Jesus. However, the object of this verse is self-deluded members of the church. In their blind self-sufficiency they had excommunicated the Lord. Now, in an act of unbelievable condescension, He requests permission to enter and reestablish fellowship.

In Oriental lands, the sharing of a common meal indicated a strong bond of affection and companionship. So this is a request of fellowship. In addition, this naturally leads to an anticipation of the future messianic kingdom as Jesus told His disciples that they are to eat and drink at His table in the kingdom (Lk 22:30; Mt 26:29).

3:21     [4] Promise: Overcomers will sit with Christ on His throne to reign (2Ti 2:12) and to judge (Mt 19:28). This is wholly eschatological. It follows the pattern of the victory of Christ who also overcame and sat down with His Father on the heavenly throne.

3:22     same exhortation to end the letter as before.

The 7 letters represent a comprehensive warning about the dangers in the church: losing our first love (Ephesus), fear of suffering (Smyrna), doctrinal compromise (Pergamum), moral compromise (Thyatira), spiritual deadness (Sardis), failure to hold on (Philadelphia), and lukewarmness (Laodicea).

The challenge to overcome goes out to all churches for all are about to enter that period of intensified conflict which immediately precedes the return of Christ.


        The Sardis church and the Philadelphia church are at the two extremes. The Sardis church had an easy time in the world and was not persecuted, yet they only received rebukes, with nothing to be commended. The Philadelphis church was severely persecuted by the Jews, yet they received only commendations, no rebukes. For churches in the free world, this is a good lesson on the urgent need of watchfulness.

        The Laodicean church is the best analogy of the North American church today. We are rich in material and in spiritual gifts, yet actually spiritually poor. We are lukewarm. We are self-confident. Similar to the Ladodicean church, we are in danger of being spit out by Christ.