We now turn our attention to the next church that receives one of the letters in Revelation — the church in Sardis. We’ll be using the same hermeneutic for Johannine apocalyptic literature that we studied with the letter to Thyatira. This hermeneutic is built on the idea of John’s simultaneous and two-sided approach to what we’ll call “Text to context.” John takes the Text of the Hebrew scriptures and applies it to the context of the Greco-Roman world of Asia.
Let’s start by pulling apart some of the context. Sardis was an ancient city (founded by the Hittites or earlier) that eventually touted a population of over 100,000 people. Its main economic staples were agriculture, purple dye made from a regional oak tree, and gold mined from the mountains. The city was built around two mountains, which was unique to Sardis, as these ancient cities were almost always built around one mountain known as the acropolis. On the top of the acropolis you would often find the most important buildings and city centers you would want to protect. It was much easier to protect a mountain, forcing your enemy to fight uphill both literally and metaphorically.
|The acropolis of Sardis|
But Sardis also had what was known as the necropolis, which you might guess by the etymology means “city of the dead.” While other cities would have had a necropolis located just inside or outside the city gates, Sardis had a second mountain — the twin of the acropolis — used for their elevated city of the dead. Whether this led to a fascination with death and the dead, or whether it was a fitting aspect of their surroundings, Sardis was known for its fascination with death and burial. Even as one looks at the horizon around Sardis today, there are hundreds of pyramid mounds that dot the landscape in addition to the necropolis. Each of these mounds represents a tomb of someone very wealthy or noble.
|The necropolis, sitting roughly 60 degrees to the right of the acropolis picture|
A major theme we have noted before about first-century Rome was the many earthquakes scattered throughout history. There were major earthquakes recorded in AD 17, 19, 21, 24, 29, and 60. The earthquake of 60 rocked Sardis so hard that the acropolis broke into thirds. One third of the mountain fell away to the backside of the city, another third fell forward and buried more than 300 acres of the residential portion of Sardis, and the final third remains standing today.
We should pause here to realize that such a disaster would play a large part in the writings of Revelation. Consider chapter 6:
I watched as he opened the sixth seal. There was a great earthquake. The sun turned black like sackcloth made of goat hair, the whole moon turned blood red, and the stars in the sky fell to earth, as figs drop from a fig tree when shaken by a strong wind. The heavens receded like a scroll being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place.
Then the kings of the earth, the princes, the generals, the rich, the mighty, and everyone else, both slave and free, hid in caves and among the rocks of the mountains. They called to the mountains and the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can withstand it?”
Or Revelation 16:
The seventh angel poured out his bowl into the air, and out of the temple came a loud voice from the throne, saying, “It is done!” Then there came flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder and a severe earthquake. No earthquake like it has ever occurred since mankind has been on earth, so tremendous was the quake. The great city split into three parts, and the cities of the nations collapsed. God remembered Babylon the Great and gave her the cup filled with the wine of the fury of his wrath.
My point is that these passages are not primarily some cryptic reference to the “end times,” but are a direct play on the immediate context of the readers of Revelation. But as we’ve seen, if we’ve been paying attention, we should also have learned to ask, “Where is this in the Text?” John is getting his material from the Tanakh and applying Text to context.
Look no further than Hosea 10 (and some could even point to others):
Samaria’s king will be destroyed, swept away like a twig on the surface of the waters.The high places of wickedness will be destroyed— it is the sin of Israel.Thorns and thistles will grow up and cover their altars.Then they will say to the mountains, “Cover us!” and to the hills, “Fall on us!”
But there continues to be much more. The city was known as Sard, Sepharad, and Sardis at different points in its history. Once Sardis became the land of the Phrygians and Lydians, many legends arose. The first Lydian king was named Gugu and the Hebrews always referred to him as “Gog”; he was followed by the next king, Magog. Creosus is probably the most famous of kings in Sardis, and there was legend of Creosus’s gold. With all of the gold mined from the hills of Sardis, Creosus must have acquired quite a treasure store; since this treasure was never found, legend has it that Creosus hid his gold somewhere in the mountains, or even in his tomb.
When Cyrus and the Persians arrived, they went to lay siege to the city. Sardis was famous for having what was considered to be an impenetrable acropolis; it would never be defeated by enemy invaders. Cyrus solicited the help of the surrounding peoples to no avail, yet decided to lay siege to the city anyway. Perplexed as to how to defeat the city, Cyrus had stationed his troops at the bottom of the mighty acropolis. One day, as a Persian soldier watched, he saw one of the Lydian soldiers on the wall fall asleep; as his head bobbed, his helmet fell off and down the mountainside. As the astute Persian watched, he saw the soldier appear out of nowhere midway down the mountain, retrieve his helmet, proceed back up the mountain, and disappear. The Persian realized there must be a secret passageway. He was brought to Cyrus, who decided to mount an invasion under the cover of nightfall based on the observation. The secret passageway was found and, according to history, the Persians entered the city to find the Lydians fast asleep. The mighty, invincible Sardis fell.
That story would be impressive enough if it didn’t repeat itself. Later in history when the Seleucids arrived, they were also attempting to take the city when a solider noticed the enemy soldiers throw a dead donkey over the city wall. The vultures gathered and began to pick at the carcass, then fly up to the city wall and perch while they ate. The soldier surmised that section of wall must not be guarded, as the vultures would not perch there in the presence of soldiers. Again under the cover of nightfall, the Seleucids went over that wall and, to the shock of history students, found the residents fast asleep for a second time.
Consider the first half of the letter to Sardis.
“To the angel of the church in Sardis write:
These are the words of him who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have found your deeds unfinished in the sight of my God. Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; hold it fast, and repent. But if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you.”
Again we find the context to be perfectly fitting. “A reputation of being alive, but you are dead” — spoken to the city with twin mountains, a juxtaposition of their life and a fascination of death. But even more striking is the call to strengthen their defenses and “wake up” because the thief is upon them.
But of course: Where is John getting his material?
Consider that John’s reference to “come like a thief” (which he uses again later in Revelation) will be lifted straight out of Obadiah.
Wait, what? Obadiah? Why go to Obadiah for material?
Because Obadiah happens to be the only letter in the Bible (outside of Revelation) that mentions Sardis/Sepharad. Look:
People from the Negev will occupy the mountains of Esau,and people from the foothills will possess the land of the Philistines.They will occupy the fields of Ephraim and Samaria, and Benjamin will possess Gilead.This company of Israelite exiles who are in Canaan will possess the land as far as Zarephath;the exiles from Jerusalem who are in Sepharad will possess the towns of the Negev.Deliverers will go up on Mount Zion to govern the mountains of Esau. And the kingdom will be the Lord’s.
And here is the reference from Obadiah that John is utilizing. Tell me this reference doesn’t perfectly fit the people of Sardis (for more help here, you may want to go back and refresh your memory on the teaching of Obadiah and the context of Petra):
“See, I will make you small among the nations; you will be utterly despised.The pride of your heart has deceived you, you who live in the clefts of the rocks and make your home on the heights,you who say to yourself, ‘Who can bring me down to the ground?’Though you soar like the eagle and make your nest among the stars, from there I will bring you down,”declares the Lord.“If thieves came to you, if robbers in the night—oh, what a disaster awaits you!— would they not steal only as much as they wanted?If grape pickers came to you, would they not leave a few grapes?But how Esau will be ransacked, his hidden treasures pillaged!All your allies will force you to the border; your friends will deceive and overpower you;those who eat your bread will set a trap for you, but you will not detect it.”
And we might even turn to Isaiah for some Text to context:
“This is what the Lord says to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I take hold ofto subdue nations before him and to strip kings of their armor,to open doors before him so that gates will not be shut:I will go before you and will level the mountains;I will break down gates of bronze and cut through bars of iron.I will give you hidden treasures, riches stored in secret places,so that you may know that I am the Lord, the God of Israel, who summons you by name.”
One of the points I’m trying to stress is that Revelation is not primarily a look into the future — it’s a look in the opposite direction. We find ourselves ill-equipped to understand Revelation because we don’t know our Old Testament. Having decided it’s all secondary information, we have rendered our New Testament understanding and theology void of accuracy and power in our ability to interpret and receive John’s message.
But alas, I’m only halfway through the letter to Sardis!