Having completed His message to the church in Thyatira, Jesus now addresses the Church in Sardis, another city in modern-day Turkey. Here's how He begins:
“And to the angel of the church in Sardis write: ‘The words of him who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. “‘I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead. (Revelation 3:1)
Jesus tells John to write to the angel of the church in Sardis. As we've said before, "angel" can be translated as "messenger", and this is probably the man who was going to read Revelation to the church in Sardis, likely one of the elders.
And He tells John to write, "The words of him who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars." Just by way of review, "the seven spirits" is likely talking about the Holy Spirit, with "seven" being used symbolically to speak of the fullness of the Spirit and/or His work in all of the churches. The seven stars are the seven angels, which implies that the message these messengers are bringing to the church comes with the authority of the One who holds them.
With authority, Christ says to them, "I know your works." Jesus knows what they have done. And what they've done looks good. He tells them that they have "the reputation of being alive." People see the church in Sardis from the outside and think, "Wow, that's a vibrant church!" But Christ sees the inside. He says that they are dead.
How could that be? Well, this wouldn't be the first group of people who could seem very religious and yet be dead inside; that was ultimately the Pharisees' problem. They had the reputation of being very godly, but inside, they were dead.
Now, if they were dead, then in what way were they a "church" (v. 1)? Two possibilities come to mind. The first is that Jesus is speaking in hyperbole. They weren't completely dead. After all, verse 4 says there were a faithful few in Sardis. The second is that Jesus is addressing the visible church in Sardis, not the invisible one. In any given church, there is a combination of regenerate and unregenerate people. This is the visible church. The regenerate people are the invisible church. In this understanding, Jesus is addressing the visible church when he tells it that it is dead.
Either way, this verse stands as a warning for us: Don't get comfortable just because it seems like your church is alive from the outside. One of the most common ways this happens today is by numbers. "We had 300 baptisms this Sunday!" or "We had to start a whole new service!" Don't get us wrong--if God saved 300 people at once, that's to the praise of His glory. And if He caused a true church to grow at such a rate that the building can't keep up, awesome. But many times, numbers don't equate to true life. Numbers can be deceiving. Many of the largest churches hardly ever preach the word of God. Such churches, though apparently vibrant, are actually dead. That could happen to your church also.
Don't focus on the externals in your church. Focus on the basics of the heart: loving God and loving neighbor. Focus on the gospel: God's amazing love for sinners through Jesus Christ.