“Write to the angel of the church in Sardis: Thus says the one who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars: ‘I know your works; you have a reputation for being alive, but you are dead. Be alert and strengthen what remains, which is about to die, for I have not found your works complete before my God. Remember, then, what you have received and heard; keep it, and repent. If you are not alert, I will come like a thief, and you have no idea at what hour I will come upon you.’” — Revelation 3:1-13
Sixty miles east of modern-day Izmir, Sardis had constant inhabitants from the seventh century B.C.E. until the fifteenth century A.D. when Mongol Turk Timur (Tamerlane) obliterated the city. As capital of the ancient and powerful kingdom of Lydia, Sardis was known for its wealth. It was home to King Croesus (560-546 B.C.), considered to be the richest person in the world at that time. Sardis also was the first city where gold and silver coins were minted, generating the ancient myth of Midas, the king with the golden touch who bathed himself in the nearby Pactolus River. Attracted by the wealth of Sardis, Aesop, writer of fables, spent time there during King Croesus’ reign. In 547 B.C, Cyrus the Great sacked Sardis, and it was used as a staging area by Darius I and Xerxes I during the Greek-Persian wars. Sardis remained under Persian control until Alexander the Great captured it in 334 B.C.
The Romans gave Sardis to the King of Pergamum, Eumenes II, after he helped them conquer the area, but it remained in his family’s control only a short time before coming fully under Roman rule. In 17 A.D. a devastating earthquake destroyed the city, but the Roman emperor rebuilt it. Sardis continued as an important administrative center, but never returned to its former glory that inspired the story of King Midas.
Throughout the centuries myriad faiths, creeds, ethnicities, and empires ruled and permeated Sardis, including Lydians, Persians, Macedonians, Seleucids, Romans, Mongols, pagans, Jews, and Christians. Over the years, the people of Sardis worshipped Cybele, but Artemis eventually became their primary goddess. The temple dedicated to her in Sardis was one of the seven largest Greek temples (more than double the size of the Parthenon). Originally built in the fifth century B.C.E., the temple was rebuilt and renovated over a 500-year period from the third century B.C.E. through the second century A.D.
Sardis in Christian History
The sizable and prosperous Jewish community in Sardis built the largest ancient synagogue outside of Palestine. Christianity arrived in the first century A.D., and Sardis was one of the churches addressed in the book of Revelation. Probably Jews from the Babylonian exile settled in the city. In the Bible Obadiah 20 mentions the exiles of Jerusalem who were in “Sepharad”—another name for Sardis. The historian Josephus claimed that the Seleucid King Antiochus III relocated 2,000 Jewish families from Mesopotamia to Lydia at the end of the third century B.C. Josephus also referred to two decrees during the time of Julius Caesar and Augustus that granted Jews in Sardis the right to congregate and to send temple taxes to Jerusalem. Since the Christian mission often started in local synagogues, we can assume that the church grew from this ancient Jewish community.
“‘But you have a few people in Sardis who have not defiled their clothes, and they will walk with me in white, because they are worthy. In the same way, the one who conquers will be dressed in white clothes, and I will never erase his name from the book of life but will acknowledge his name before my Father and before his angels. Let anyone who has ears to hear listen to what the Spirit says to the churches.’” Revelation 3:4-
Like his letters to the other churches, John’s letter to Sardis in Revelation was strongly corrective, calling the church “dead” and accusing it of unfinished works. Interestingly, however, the tone of his writing is not as harsh as in letters to the other churches. But he reminds believers to “be alert” and “keep” what they “have received and heard.” He commends those whose garments remain “undefiled” and “white,” and through John, Jesus promises to “never erase” their names, acknowledging them “before my Father and before his angels.” (Revelation 3:5)
“Now, the sin of which I speak is this: when a man abandons that which really exists, and serves that which does not really exist. There ‘is’ that which really exists, and it is called God. He, I say, really exists, and by His power doth everything subsist. This being is in no sense made, nor did He ever come into being; but He has existed from eternity, and will continue to exist for ever and ever. He changeth not, while everything else changes. No eye can see Him, nor thought apprehend Him, nor language describe Him; and those who love Him speak of Him thus: ‘Father, and God of Truth.’” — Melito
Christianity continued in Sardis, and ancient writers Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Eusebius all mentioned Melito, the bishop of Sardis in the second century A.D. He presented an Apology for Christianity to Marcus Aurelius during the years A.D. 169-170, according to Eusebius. Declaring that Christ is at once God and a perfect man, Melito beautifully defended the unity of Jesus Christ and God the Father. Melito also wrote extensively about the Passover Controversy in Laodicea. Indeed, John’s rebuke seems to have woken up the church in Sardis to produce such a theologian and writer as Melito.