As we continue the messages to the seven churches of Revelation and look into the message to Sardis Church, I would encourage you to review the first video of this series, Revelation of Jesus 6 Seven Churches Ephesus.
In that video I explain why I interpret these messages as a prophetic view of the history of the Christian Church from the time of John to the time of the end.
I would also encourage you to watch Revelation of Jesus 4 Chiastic Structure which shows that the overall theme of the book of Revelation is the cosmic controversy between God and Satan, with the first half of Revelation revealing Satan’s attacks against the church of God.
In the previous message to Thyatira, we saw that Satan managed to split the Christian church during the middle ages. The Roman Catholic Papacy, characterized in the prophecy as Jezebel, had become corrupt and idolatrous, cooperating with the state to oppress all who refused to submit to her authority.
The positive affirmations in the message to Thyatira (“I know your works love, service, faith, and your patience”, Revelation 2:19) are directed to the underground church which rejected the false doctrines and oppressive coercion that characterized Jezebel. By the end of the Thyatira era the protestant reformers were aggressively protesting against the abuses of the state church, spreading the true gospel throughout Europe.
With this in mind, the next message, to the church in Sardis, is surprising. “I know your works, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead. Be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die, for I have not found your works perfect before God” (Revelation 3:1,2).
The Sardis period represents the continuation of the Protestant Reformation from the mid-16th through the mid-18th centuries. We might expect positive congratulations for this period, but Sardis instead gets the most urgent, negative message of all the churches: “You have a name that you are alive, but you are dead!”
So what’s going on? By looking at the history of the era, we find that Satan worked quickly and effectively to counteract the positive influence of the reformers.
The reformers themselves were faithful and courageous but had been deeply damaged by the general worldview and conditions of their time. For example, Martin Luther discovered that “Salvation is a new relationship with God, based not on any work of merit on man’s part, but on absolute trust in the divine promises” (Walker, History of the Christian Church, p. 338). He fearlessly stood up to the Catholic authority and established the principle that the Bible is the sole infallible rule of faith and practice.
But especially in his later life he promoted the coercive oppression that had marked the medieval papacy. In his vicious work “On the Jews and Their Lies” Luther “Denounced Judaism and called for harsh persecution of its followers”. He proposed to “Set fire to their synagogues and schools… that their houses should be destroyed…that their sacred writings be taken from them…that their rabbis be forbidden to preach… that safe-conduct on the highways be abolished completely for the Jews…that all cash and treasure of silver and gold be taken from them…eject them forever from the country!” (Wikipedia, Martin Luther and Antisemitism).
Luther also sided with the nobility against the peasants who were rising up against the oppression and exploitation they had suffered for centuries. In his savage pamphlet Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants, he asserted, “Let everyone who can smite, slay, and stab, secretly or openly … nothing can be more poisonous, hurtful, or devilish than a rebel. It is just as one must kill a mad dog; if you do not strike him he will strike you” (Wikipedia, German Peasant’s War).
Luther’s theological followers became obsessed with arguments over the wording of creeds, the role of good works, and the physical presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper. These disputes alienated the common people who could not understand the philosophical arguments that absorbed the attention of the theologians.
The Lutheran princes turned the cause of the gospel into a political tool to further their own ambitions. Germany became a battlefield, with the Catholics attempting to consolidate the areas under their control, and the Protestants doing the same in their areas. The Lutheran cause degenerated into military battles for territory, political battles for influence, and theological battles over creeds.
Over in Switzerland Huldreich Zwingli was a prominent leader of the Protestant Reformation. Like Luther, he relied on the Bible rather than church tradition and insisted that salvation was by grace through faith, not by works.
Zwingli rejected the worship of the saints, images and relics. He asserted that unbaptized infants were not automatically consigned to hell. He rejected the requirement of celibacy by the clergy and insisted that the mass was symbolic, not an actual repetition of the sacrifice of Christ.
All of this was good and necessary to help the Church of God recover from the damage caused by Jezebel. But unfortunately, Zwingli also succumbed to intolerance and coercion against his enemies.
Zwingli and Luther disagreed in their understanding of the nature of the Lord’s Supper. Luther held on to the Catholic belief that Christ is really present in the communion meal, while Zwingli believed that the bread and wine are symbols of Christ.
While this may seem like a fairly minor point, Luther and Zwingli were so vehement in their disagreement that they broke off fellowship, creating their own organizations. This began what has been a blight on the protestant movement; the separation into a myriad of competing denominations that differ on minor points of doctrine but are intolerant of one another.
Even worse was the intolerance and coercion that developed over the issue of baptism.
Zwingli continued the Catholic practice of infant baptism. But other reformers, called Anabaptists, came to believe that baptism is a symbol of an inner change that occurs when a person repents and accepts Jesus as his Savior, something that infants obviously cannot do.
The Anabaptists were re-baptizing adults who had been baptized as infants, and Zwingli and the Zurich city council were so outraged that they made the practice illegal under penalty of death. “The Zurich government ordered Anabaptists drowned, in a hideous parody of their belief in the need for a second baptism” (Walker, History of the Christian Church, p. 376). This is just one of many examples of how the Protestant movement, which had suffered so much under Catholic church-state persecution, turned themselves to the oppressive power of the state to enforce what they believed to be orthodox religious doctrine.
Meanwhile in Geneva John Calvin was becoming one of the most influential reformers. With his brilliant, logical writings he sought to prove that righteousness and salvation are by faith alone, not dependent on the initiative, efforts or good works of the sinner or of the priest. But in his efforts to establish righteousness by faith, Calvin developed a doctrinal system that misrepresented the character of God and contributed to the dead condition of the Sardis church.
In his famous Institutes Calvin developed five cardinal doctrines. The underlying assumption was the sovereignty of God; since God knows everything and is all-powerful, He will accomplish everything that He intends. This seems true, but a wrong understanding of God’s sovereignty leads to the erroneous conclusions that Calvin developed in his five cardinal doctrines.
Calvin insisted first of all that because of the fall into sin, humans are totally depraved, and thus completely unable to respond to God unless they are called by Him.
But since God is omnipotent and sovereign, His call will always be effective, and the person God calls will of necessity come to Christ.
But it is obvious from scripture and observation that not everyone comes to Christ. This means that not everyone is called to salvation; only those elected or predestined through God’s eternal purpose.
God’s sovereign acts, and especially Christ’s death on the cross for our salvation, accomplish their purpose. But since not all people are saved, that means that the atonement provided by Christ on the cross was not intended for all people, only for the elect.
And finally, since God wants those He has called to be saved and to have eternal life, they will of necessity continue in faith and cannot later lose their salvation.
When laid out without all the proof texts and elaborate explanations, it seems incredible that anyone would believe such a misrepresentation of God. In the book “A Revelation of Jesus” I have presented the texts and arguments that refute the predestination theory. But in short, the miracle of grace is that it enables totally depraved humans to make a choice for or against God, even as Adam and Eve did in the Garden of Eden.
One of the most precious gifts God has given is the freedom to choose or reject salvation and eternal life. But the Calvinist doctrine denies that choice and makes a man a puppet in the hands of an arbitrary God, and excuses His apparently unjust behavior by insisting that He is so great that we cannot understand Him.
Worst of all, the Calvinists did not reject the Catholic doctrine of the immortality of the soul and the eternal torment of the wicked. According to Calvinist belief, God continues to bring humans into existence who are unable to choose Christ and thus avoid eternal damnation, and He does nothing Himself to save those who He has not predestined for salvation!
Despite its misrepresentation of the love and justice of God, Calvin’s doctrinal system was highly effective against its opponents because of its logic, organization, and clever use of proof texts, and so it became widely accepted in many Protestant denominations. Although Calvin’s vast influence provided a tremendous boost for the Protestant cause, his doctrine of predestination produced a fatal misconception of God’s character.
In England, the so-called “Protestant Reformation” was established on the foundation of lust and political ambition. Henry VIII desired a new wife who could bear him a son to sit on his throne after him, but he was not able to win the approval of the Catholic establishment for a divorce. So he set about through political maneuverings to make himself the head of the Church of England. “In 1534 Parliament passed the famous Supremacy Act, by which Henry and his successors were declared ‘the only supreme head in earth of the Church of England’…it practically put the [corrupt] king in the place of the Pope” (Walker, History of the Christian Church, p. 404)
The leaders of England used religion as a political tool, vacillating between Catholic and Protestant policies. Whatever the prevailing sentiment, all who were in opposition were persecuted and there were many martyrs.
And it’s not like the Roman Catholic papacy went away. The Council of Trent confirmed all the Catholic doctrines and reinvigorated opposition to the Protestant movement. The Jesuit order was created and the Inquisition was re-established in Catholic countries, stamping out the fledgling Protestant movement in Italy and stopping its progress elsewhere.
Spain became the military arm of the church, and thousands of Protestants were exterminated in the Netherlands, France, and Germany. And in an era when whole new continents were opening up, the Jesuits and monastic orders were in the vanguard to establish the Catholic system in the Americas, Africa and Asia.
This video has only focused on the religious aspects of this period. Politically and militarily, the Sardis era was also a disaster. Jesus had given a warning that we would do well to heed today: “Remember therefore how you have received and heard, and hold fast and repent. If therefore you do not watch, I will come upon you as a thief, and you will not know what hour I will come upon you” (Revelation 3:3)
The glimmer of hope in Sardis is in those who remain true to God. “You have a few names even in Sardis which have not defiled their garments; and they shall walk with Me in white, for they are worthy” (Revelation 3:4). The faithful few were able to hold on to Jesus even though they were living in an overwhelming environment of sin and corruption.
And this is the lesson for us today. We are immersed in influences from the media, politics, advertising, the internet and social media, that compete with Jesus for our time, affections, and loyalty. Jesus implores us to “remember how [we] have received and heard…to hold fast, and repent”.
He is the vine, and we are the branches. Only by remaining connected to Him can we hope to navigate the perilous times that we live in.
For a lot more detail on this and other themes from the book of Revelation, order a copy of “A Revelation of Jesus” by David Lackey. Subscribe to my you-tube channel to see previous and future videos in the Revelation of Jesus series.
Order the book “A Revelation of Jesus”