Over the centuries many interpretations have been offered for the letters to the churches in Revelation 2 and 3. Outside of the basic understanding that these letters represent the state of these local churches in the first century, others have viewed them as representing ages of the church down through history. It is easy to see how this is an attractive view since one can connect the rebukes, commands, and commendations to all sorts of historical fulfillments.
Consider the opening words to the church at Sardis, now but a small village between Turgutlu and Salihli in Turkey, to the northeast of the ancient city of Ephesus. When the risen and reigning Lord, “He who has the seven Spirits of God and the seven stars,” addresses the church at Sardis, He says, bluntly, “I know your works, that you have a name that you are living, but you are dead.” Oh what a judgment from the living Lord! You “have a name that you are alive.” An empty image. It does not represent reality. They looked good, but they were not. In the next words the Lord shows that He tests the character of the works of His churches. “I have not found your works complete before My God.” There is an emptiness, an externalism, and no amount of effort can hide this reality from the eyes of the One who has the Seven Spirits of God (which I take simply as the fulness, completeness, of the Spirit’s presence, and in this case, the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise that He would dwell with His people through the Spirit).
Is this descriptive of a particular age in church history? Or is it not clear that every age has contained those churches, those segments of professing Christianity, that had a reputation for being alive, but were in fact dead? Seems to me to be a general reality that repeats itself over and over again.
One thing is for certain: we do not want to be like Sardis. Yes, “you have a few names in Sardis who have not defiled their garments” (v. 4). God is always at work glorifying Himself. But oh, may we not have just a name for being alive, while dead! Wake Your people Lord!