Sardis was one of the oldest and most important cities of Asia Minor. The city was founded in the third century B.C. The Lydian kings revered the Greek gods, were benefactors of Hellenic sanctuaries and consulted the oracle at Delphi. In Roman times Sardis was the center of the imperial cult in the region. Current excavations have brought much to light, including a superb late synagogue. For centuries Sardis had been a principal center of the Jewish Diaspora, and was probably the "Sepharad" of Obadiah 20. Sardis was situated on the east bank of the Pactolus River about 50 miles east of Smyrna. The city stood on the northern slope of Mount Tmolus. Its acropolis occupied one of the spurs of the mountain measuring a height of 950 feet. At the base was a river that served as a moat.
The original city was an almost impregnable fortress, towering above the broad valley of the Hermus, and nearly surrounded by precipitous cliffs of treacherously loose rock. The ruins of the walls are still visible.
The most impressive building of ancient Sardis must have been its magnificent Temple of Artemis, built in the fourth century B.C. The temple was 327 feet long and 163 feet wide and had 78 Ionic columns, each 58 feet high. This massive temple still bears witness in its fragmentary remains to the wealth and architectural skill of the people that raised it.
The ancient city was the residence of the kings of Lydia, among them Croesus, proverbial for his immense wealth. Cyrus is said to have taken $600,000,000 worth of treasure from the city when he captured it in 548 B.C. Sardis was in very early times, both from the extremely fertile character of the neighboring region and from its convenient position, a commercial mart of importance.
Through the failure to watch, the acropolis had been successfully scaled in 549 B.C. by a Median soldier, and in 218 by a Cretan. The Ionians burned the city in 501 B.C., but it was quickly rebuilt and regained its importance. In 334 B.C. it surrendered to Alexander the Great who gave it a brief measure of independence, for 12 years later in 322 B.C. it was taken by Antigonus. In 301 B.C. it fell into the possession of the Seleucidan kings who made it the residence of their governor. It was freed again in 190 B.C. when it formed a part of the empire of Pergamos, and later of the Roman province of Asia. In 17 a.d., when it was destroyed by an earthquake, the Roman emperor Tiberius remitted the taxes of the people and rebuilt the city, and in his honor the citizens of that and of neighboring towns erected a large monument, but Sardis never recovered its former status.
The church of our Lord in Sardis was much like the city itself -- they had a reputation but they were in serious decline (Rev. 3:1-6).
Jesus said, "I know thy works... I have not found thy works perfect before God" (Rev. 3:1-2). There was activity in the church, but the activity was not coming to perfection. They were not getting the job done. Nothing they had done from their beginning had succeeded in establishing and grounding them in the faith.
There are churches like this today. Their greatest moment was the fleeting blaze of their momentous beginning. Since then they have not amounted to much. There were several converted at first, they readily put up a meetinghouse and called a preacher. However, soon after that things began to dwindle.
Some were like the stony ground and having no root returned to the world quickly (Matt. 13:20-21; Luke 8:13). Trial and temptation will discourage the weak hearted. They are unwilling to struggle against sin. To change the prior habits of life requires discipline and prayer. The ridicule of former friends is hard to withstand (1 Pet. 4:3-4).
Others are like the thorny ground (Matt. 13:22; Luke 8:14). There are other things that compete for our time and energy. While these things are not wrong in themselves, they must assume a priority lower than the ends and interests of the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 6:33). In a life "filled with thorns" there is never time for Bible study, prayer, evangelism or assembling with the saints. Yes, Sardis had a name, a reputation, but it was a thin veneer that hid the immaturity and stagnant condition of this church (cf. Heb. 5:12-14).
The remedy for the problems in this church was the few righteous and spiritual among them (Rev. 3:4). Notice that the Lord does not say give up on the rest, quit, go somewhere else and start another church. Neither does He conclude that the challenge before them is insurmountable and seeing that they "can't beat 'em," they had better "join 'em."
No, Jesus says, "hold fast and repent" (Rev. 3:3). Those that are righteous must do the holding while urging the worldly and apathetic to repent. It is always the faithful few who have the greater burdens to bear. Yet, they are able (1 Cor. 10:13). Now, which are you?