How to Raise a Church from the Dead

A sermon on Revelation 3:1-6 by Coty Pinckney, Desiring God Community Church, Charlotte, NC, 3/20/2005

How do you tell if a church is alive or dead?

Have you ever walked out of a church service and thought, “That church is really dead!” If so, what did you mean by that?

Some of you might mean, “The sanctuary holds 10 times as many people as were present! The church is declining – it’s dead!”

Some might mean, “All the songs they sang were more than 100 years old!”

Personally, I might mean that there was no show of emotion; that is, there was:

Are those good criteria for deciding if a church is dead?

Alternately, we could ask the question positively: How do you tell if a church is really alive?

We might answer just by flipping the above criteria around.

Some might say: “Hey, the building is packed – it’s really alive!”

Others, “They sang great, contemporary songs!”

I might say, “The preaching was passionate, the singing was joyful, the prayer was fervent!”

Are those good indicators of whether a church is alive or dead?

One problem: Our culture conditions our perception of what is going on. We have a tendency to judge negatively those who express themselves in a different manner. For example, the first time a Cameroonian friend of mind visited an American church, they sang the song, “I love you, Lord, and I lift my voice to worship You – O my soul, rejoice!” My friend thought it sounded mournful. “What happened?,” he thought. “Did somebody die? Why is there no joy in this song?”

There was joy. But my friend couldn’t perceive it. For Cameroonians, joy means clapping, the beating of drums, big smiles, and lots of movement. That church had a very different way of expressing joy than Cameroonian churches.

But even apart from the cultural difficulties of perceiving joy and fervency, are these good indicators of whether a church is alive or dead?

In our text today, Jesus declares a church to be dead. But no one else sees that! Everyone else thinks the church is doing just fine!

So we need a biblical answer to the question. We need Jesus’ answer, since He, after all, is Lord of the Church.

Today’s text gives that to us.

Let’s read Revelation 3:1-6. We’ll then use this text to answer three questions:

"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.  2 Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God.  3 Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it, and repent. If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you.  4 Yet you have still a few names in Sardis, people who have not soiled their garments, and they will walk with me in white, for they are worthy.  5 The one who conquers will be clothed thus in white garments, and I will never blot his name out of the book of life. I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels. 6 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.' Revelation 3:1-6 

How to Tell if a Church is Dead

In verse 1, Jesus says, “I know your works. You have a reputation (or “name”) of being alive, but you are dead.”

People think this church is great! They were saying, “You want a church which is really alive? Go to the Church of Sardis! Man! That church has life!” And yet Jesus says, “You are dead.”

What does this tell us?

The obvious indicators of life we mentioned above can be misleading.

All these things can be true, and yet the church can be dead.

So why does Jesus say the church in Sardis is dead? What criteria does He use?

There are two criteria, implicit in the negative statements Jesus makes about this church. One clue is in the second half of verse 5. Here Jesus promises what He will do for the one who overcomes: “I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels.”

Can you think of another, similar verse? This is a clear echo of Matthew 10:32-33. There Jesus says:

32 "Therefore everyone who confesses Me before men, I will also confess him before My Father who is in heaven.  33 "But whoever denies Me before men, I will also deny him before My Father who is in heaven.

The church in Sardis did not faithfully confess the name of Jesus. A church is dead if it fails to confess the name of Jesus before men. A church is dead if it fails to assert the supremacy of God in all things – especially on those points which the culture would ridicule.

Thus, a church is dead if it fails to proclaim that Jesus is Lord, that Jesus is the only Savior. A church is dead if it fails to tell people that they are lost without Jesus, that they are heading to hell without Jesus, that their own efforts will never save them, that there is no name other than Jesus by which they will be saved.

So “confess the Name of Jesus” means, in part, “confess the centrality of Jesus in salvation.”

But a church must also witness to Jesus by taking a biblical stand on cultural issues of the day. The church must proclaim Jesus as lord of all life, including the life of our culture. In Sardis, this meant standing against emperor worship; it meant keeping church members out of the trade guilds, if the guilds required participating in idol worship; it meant reaching out to the large Jewish community in the city, telling them the good news of Jesus, and telling them that no matter how faithful they were in observing the Law, they were lost without Christ.

The church is Sardis was not doing this.How do we know? Because several of the other six churches were being persecuted for standing against their culture – persecuted by the Jews, by the state, by the guilds. But in Sardis there is no persecution. The church does not challenge the culture, so the culture does not persecute the church.

What about us? On what cultural issues are we tempted to silence?

Our culture often ridicules those who hold that abortion is wrong; that creation is the work of God; that God made men and women different and complementary to each other, for complementary roles. We must make clear that we hold to biblical truth on these and other issues – even if that leads to ridicule.

So the first question to ask to discern if a church is dead: Is it confessing the Name of Jesus – as the only way of salvation and as Lord of the culture?

Jesus gives us another criterion in verse 4: A church is dead if there is prevalent unconfessed sin in its midst. Once again, we can discern the criterion from Jesus’ positive statement about a few in Sardis:

But you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their garments

What’s the clear implication? Many in Sardis have soiled their garments.

But what do “soiled garments” signify? There are many places in Scripture where salvation is pictured as being dressed by God in clean garments, or where sin is pictured as wearing filthy garments. Here are a few examples:

Isaiah 61:10: My soul shall exult in my God, for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation; he has covered me with the robe of righteousness

In Zechariah 3, Joshua the High Priest stands before God dressed in filthy garments. Satan accuses him. Then the angel of the Lord says:

"Remove the filthy garments from him." And to him he said, "Behold, I have taken your iniquity away from you, and I will clothe you with pure vestments." Zechariah 3:4

The filthy garments are identified with his iniquity, his sin.

Revelation 7:14-15: “They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.  15 "Therefore they are before the throne of God.

Realize: All of us have soiled our garments. The question is not, “Have you soiled your garments?” We all must answer, “Yes!” But the question is, have you washed those garments in the blood of the Lamb? Are you clothed with the righteousness of Jesus?

There are many in Sardis who have soiled garments, many in Sardis with unconfessed sin. Now, think: If salvation is pictured as having a clean garment, and these have filthy garments, what can we say about their status before God? They are not genuine believers. They are not covered by the blood.

Sardis had many members who were living in sin – thus, it was not a true church! There was no church discipline. There was no reaching out to errant members. So sin is rampant.

You might ask: How then did this church still have the name of being alive? In part because people are judging by the wrong criteria: The way the feels and looks, rather than by their confession of the Name of Jesus, their keeping short accounts with God.

In addition, it is likely that the prevalent sins in Sardis were deadly but less obvious sins, such as pride, greed, and self-righteousness. A church can look to be very much alive, yet have these sins pervade the entire congregation.

To sum up this point: A church not dead because it fails to live up to expectations for numbers, for emotion in worship, for passionate preaching. Rather, a church is dead if it fails to confess the Name of Jesus clearly; a church is dead if there is undisciplined sin in its midst.

Jonathan Edwards put it this way:

Christ nowhere says, Ye shall know the tree by its leaves or flowers, or ye shall know men by their talk, or ye shall know them by the good story they tell of their experiences, or ye shall know them by the manner and air of their speaking, and emphasis and pathos of expression, or by their speaking feelingly, or by making a very great show by abundance of talk, or by many tears and affectionate expressions, or by the affections ye feel in your hearts towards them; but by their fruits shall ye know them; the tree is known by its fruit; every tree is known by its own fruit 

The fruit of the church in Sardis showed it to be dead.

How to Raise a Church from the Dead

Jesus could say to this church, “You’re dead. So I’ll bury you.”

But as Paul says in another context, God is the One “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist” (Romans 4:17).

So Jesus does not abandon the church in Sardis, but warns them, and tells them how to return to life. He gives them four steps to take to revive from dead:

1) Know that help is available

In verse 1, Jesus identifies Himself as the one 'who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars.” Recall from 1:20 that the stars are the angels of the churches, and from 1:4 that the phrase “the seven spirits of God” refers to the Holy Spirit. So Jesus introduces Himself as the One who has the means to help the church. Divine aid is available, via God’s angel sent to the church, and via the Spirit Himself. A dead church needs the Holy Spirit above all else. A dead church needs God in its midst.

In Galatians 5, Paul contrasts the works of the flesh and the fruit of the Spirit. Under the works of the flesh he identifies a long list of sins: But under the fruit of the Spirit he lists love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. These express the character of God, the life of God, within the church. This is what a dead church needs: the life-giving Spirit so that He might produce the fruit of Christlike character.

2) Pay attention to what is happening

Verse 2 begins, “Wake up!” or, as Greg Beale suggests, “Become one who is watchful!” Jesus says, “You’re dying and you don’t even know it! You are supposed to be spurring one another on to love and good works; instead, you’re closing your eyes to sin in your midst, instead, you’re patting each other on the back and saying, ‘Wow, our numbers are up!’ You are supposed to be witnesses of Jesus in the world; instead, you’re closing your mouths, being silent about His exclusive role in salvation. You’re supposed to be salt and light in your culture; instead, you’re shrinking back from speaking biblical truth on cultural issues.”

If they will only become watchful, they will perceive their danger. In that case, they will see that they actually are not quite dead. As Jesus says in the remainder of verse 2, “Strengthen what remains and is about to die.” There is just a little witness left. So they must build on it! Don’t let it die! Nourish it, multiply it!

3) Remember how you received and heard

Most modern translations render the first phrase in verse 3 as, “Remember what you received and heard.” The King James and New King James are more literal, translating this, “Remember how you received and heard.” Perhaps the translation committees have avoided that obvious translation because they don’t know what the expression means. But I believe it actually makes more sense than the alternative.

Consider: How did you receive the Gospel? If you claim to be a Christian – how did you become one? Not through activity. Not through programs. Not through building up your emotions.

Paul tells us how we became Christians in Ephesians 2:8-10:

By grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God,  9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast.  10 For we are his workmanship

We became Christians by grace through faith, as the Holy Spirit made us alive in Christ.

So when Jesus says, “Remember how you received and heard,” in effect He is saying, “Remember that you received the Gospel not as a result of your own efforts, but by My power working in you. That power is still there! So tap into it!”

So remember that! Life from the dead comes by the Holy Spirit.

4) Repent!

Jesus tells the church to repent in verse 3. When you know that help is available; when you pay attention, and see what is happening – the sin, the lack of witness – when you remember how you received the Gospel in the first place, there is only one thing to do: Repent! Turn from sin! Turn from your lack of witness! Seek the help of the Holy Spirit! Confess your self-centeredness, your pride, your greed, your self-righteousness!

And then, what David says of individuals will also hold for churches:

A broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise (Psalm 51:17)

A church which is watchful, a church that remembers, a church that is repentant: This church is alive.

How to be Alive in a Dead Church.

What happens if the church does not repent? Jesus tells us in the second half of verse 3:

If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you.

He will come – that is definite. He will come like a thief: unannounced, unexpected. Worst of all, He will come against you. You do not want the King of Kings to come against you. If He is for you – He is the Lamb Who was slain. He will nestle you in His arms. He will wipe every tear from your eyes. There will be no more sorrow, no more pain. There will be no more hunger, no more thirst. You will have inexpressible joy in His presence for all eternity.

But if he is against you: He is the conquering King. You will experience the full strength of His wrath. You will be thrown in the lake of fire. You will be tormented with fire and sulfur. And you will have to admit, “This is fair. This is just. I deserve this.”

But, praise God, that is not the fate of all who are in a dead church. Look at verses 4 and 5:

Yet you have still a few names in Sardis, people who have not soiled their garments, and they will walk with me in white, for they are worthy. 5 The one who conquers will be clothed thus in white garments, and I will never blot his name out of the book of life. I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels.

The promise here is not to the church as a whole but to individuals. The promise is, “You can be alive – even if your church is dead. So overcome!”

Jesus makes this promise to whom? To those who have not soiled their garments. That is, to those who have kept them washed in the blood of the Lamb. They have kept short accounts with God, confessing their sins, and repenting of them. Even though the church as a whole has not done this, they have repented as individuals, they have overcome.

So Jesus says in verse 4 that these are “worthy.” That sounds strange to us. Is any sinful human being worthy to stand in God’s presence?

We are not inherently worthy and we do not become worthy by our own efforts. But we become worthy by being united with Christ in His death and resurrection.

We can see this in Revelation 4:10-11. The 24 elders take their crowns – the rewards they receive from God – and cast them before the throne of God, saying

“Worthy are YOU, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power.”

Even they – whoever they may be! (stay tuned) – are not worthy on their own. They know that they have these crowns only because of the grace of God. So, yes, they have become worthy, but they give all the glory to God. For apart from Him, they would still be dressed in filthy garments.

When Jesus speaks of “conquering” or “overcoming” in verse 3:5, what is to be conquered? What their fellow church members give in to:       Pride in size, pride in status, self-righteousness, complacency; the temptation not to speak of Christ to the world. They must overcome all this. Thus, they must be effective witnesses for Christ in word and deed.

So Jesus gives them a promise in verse 5: “I will never blot his name out of the book of life.” Does this mean that Jesus will blot someone’s name out of the book of life? Does this mean that we might fall into sin and lose our salvation?

No. Those who soil their robes never had their names written in the book of life. They may have looked to humans like believers, but not to Jesus. Regardless of whatever religious ritual they might have experienced, regardless of the position they may have held in the church, regardless of their years of church membership, Jesus will say to them:

‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.' Matthew 7:23 (Emphasis added)

Finally Jesus says, “I will confess His name before my Father and before his angels.” You know what this means: Satan accuses us, saying, “You sinned! That sin must be paid for!” You are forced to reply, “Yes, I sinned. And I know that sin deserves punishment.” But Jesus says, “ “He is Mine” My blood covers Him! The penalty is paid!”


There are serious threats in this letter, serious warnings that all churches and all self-proclaimed Christians must take to heart. So “become one who is watchful”!

Every member of every church has a responsibility to help the church to stay on track, asking questions such as:

Is the church proclaiming Jesus faithfully – even when that is unpopular, even when that could lead to persecution?

Is the church watching, guarding against the insidious sins of pride and self-righteousness?

For us as individuals: Know with certainty that there is no hope for you when you stand on your own before God. You will not be able to say, “Oh, my garments are just a little dirty. That little bit of dirt doesn’t really matter – does it?”

Yesterday while going door to door, I asked a young man, “If you died today, and God asked you, ‘Why should I let you live in my presence for all eternity?’ what would you say?” This young man’s reply was, “I don’t know.” My friends, you need to know. You need to know that Jesus is your only hope. You need to know that Jesus is your only righteousness.

Heaven and Hell are at stake. We considered the nature of hell above. Augustine says this about heaven:

Who can measure the happiness of heaven, where no evil at all can touch us, no good will be out of reach; where . . . [God] will be the consummation of all our desiring – the object of our unending vision, of our unlessening love, of our unwearying praise.  

Jesus Himself invites you to share that happiness with Him for all eternity.

So repent! Turn! Love Him!

He will be your Advocate, your righteousness!

He will be the object of your affection and the source of your joy.

Turn, so that you might live, and become His delight!

This sermon was preached at Desiring God Community Church in Charlotte, NC on 3/20/05. Greg Beale’s The Book of Revelation (Eerdmans, 1999) was helpful as usual. The Augustine quote is from The City of God. The Jonathan Edwards quote is from Religious Affections.

Copyright © 2005, Thomas C. Pinckney. This data file is the sole property of Thomas C. Pinckney. Please feel free to copy it in written form, but only in its entirety for circulation freely without charge. All copies of this data file must contain the above copyright notice.

This data file may not be copied in part, edited, revised, posted on the internet, copied for resale or incorporated in any products offered for sale, without the written permission of Thomas C. Pinckney, (send email), c/o Desiring God Community Church, PO Box 620099, Charlotte, NC 28262.

(return to main sermon page)