Reputation Vs. RealitySeptember 10, 2023
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. 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. Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it, and repent. If you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you.’ Revelation 3: 1-6
Reputations are dangerous things.
It can be very easy, when many people think we’re something, to convince ourselves that we actually are that something. Even when we’re not. Perhaps we surround ourselves with faithful people whereas in our own lives we do everything we can to avoid responsibility. Perhaps we surround ourselves with courageous people whereas in our own lives we do everything in our power to avoid conflict. Perhaps our conversations are filled with big talk whereas we utterly fail when it comes to action. Perhaps we pray and sing on Sundays whereas the rest of our weeks are bereft of worship.
Hypocrisy is a serious danger not only to individual Christians, but to churches as well. We see in V.1 that Sardis had the “reputation of being alive.” What does that mean? It means that whenever people talked about the church of Sardis they would say things like, “That church is full of godly people. That church really believes the Scriptures. That church is really committed. The people in that church really love each other. That church really takes a stand for truth.”
But the reality was quite the opposite, if we’re basing reality on the only criteria that matters: sincere fruit. Jesus, “knew their works,” and the fact was that their works “weren’t complete in the sight of God.” That’s a strange phrase. What does it mean for works to be incomplete? It means, simply, that when Jesus examined the actual lives of the members of the church of Sardis, they weren’t what all the bravado seemed to indicate. It was like paying six dollars for a bag of chips and then finding the bag only a quarter full. The reality failed to live up to the reputation.
What we see in Sardis is what happens when Christian’s don’t take seriously Jesus’ warning about the leaven of hypocrisy. Those who’ve ever made sourdough bread know that a little bit of sour starter will, overnight, spread to many times its own weight in dough. So it is with hypocrisy.
The reason there were no sincere believers within the Pharisee class — even though they had the reputation of being “teachers of Israel” — is because living a double life had become common and accepted. It was fine to pray in the market on Saturday and eviscerate their neighbor or Wendesdays. It was fine to bless someone on Sunday and gossip about them on Monday. But it wasn’t really fine — not to God. Hypocrisy had only become “fine” because it existed in a culture where everyone else did the same thing. It’s like coming home to Thanksgiving dinner. At first all you can smell is roasting turkey; but after being immersed in the room for a while, eventually you don’t smell it any more. That is how a culture of hypocrisy grows in a church.
And it isn’t true only of pharisees. In Revelation 3, Jesus refers to a body of professing believers, with the key word being professing.
Now, we read in V.4 that there was a sincere element in Sardis. There was a core of believers who were careful about their life and doctrine. But these were the minority. Whatever was sincere in their midst was now outnumbered and the body itself was ready to collapse — like an old bridge whose supports can no longer hold up under the weight.
As Christians, it’s the easiest thing in the world to assume the best of ourselves. In fact, we so prefer assuming the best of ourselves, that many of us are reluctant to examine ourselves to see whether those assumptions are actually true.
Verse 1 should come as a warning to us, “I know your works.” Whatever we think about ourselves — whatever other people think of us — Jesus knows our works. Do we converse on Sunday only to reinforce what we hope people think about us? Do we avoid certain people that we know can see through our sham? Do we avoid certain conversations that will reveal our superficiality? Do we try to appear committed while secretly harboring all kinds of resent and bitterness in our heart? Jesus knows.
When this kind of superficiality characterizes a church, they should not expect Jesus’ blessing. Jesus doesn’t bless hypocrisy. He condemns it. He sets himself against it. The reality for churches full of hypocrisy is that they don’t last. Eventually the substance emerges from behind the veneer and all is revealed. There are many who profess to know Jesus who will discover, someday, that he never knew them.
We read the solution in V.3. We need to wake up and repent.
To live in a state of contradiction between our reputation and our works is to live in a kind of drunken stupor. People who live like this don’t want the light of truth to expose the actual state of their hearts. They prefer to stay in the shadows — away from fellowship — unknown, or at least undisturbed. They resent impositions on their time and priorities.
The only church that is safe from the dulling poison of hypocrisy is a church that is careful about repentance. Not just the leaders. Not just some especially “holy” members. We all, individually and corporately, knowing how easily deceived we are, must repent.
When we do, this hope is held out to us, “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 church is not an easy stream to swim in. In the church, we are not just battling the world, but ourselves; our own inclinations and self-deceptions.
Those that will conquer are not the especially strong or spiritual but those who know and feel their need for Christ and the fellowship of the Saints.
"O my fellow-professors, let us always look upon our actions in the light of the great out-reading of them on the day of judgment. Pause over everything you do, and say, ‘Can I bear to have this sounded with a trumpet in the ear of all men?’ Nay, take a higher motive, and say, ‘Can I endure to do this and yet to repeat the words, ‘You God see me!’ You may deceive men, and deceive yourselves, but God you cannot, God you shall not. You may die with the name of Christ upon your lips, and men may bury you in sure and certain hope of a glorious resurrection—but God shall not be deceived neither by your profession nor by men's opinion. He shall put you on the scales, and if you are found wanting, he shall cry, ‘Away with him!’"
- C.H. Spurgeon