There is a little latin phrase on the back of each Forge shirt: “Esse Quam Videri.” It means: “To be, not to seem.” In the Forge, we talk alot about this concept, but this phrase took a deeper meaning at Sardis.
“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.
“You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead” Jesus says to the church. This hit a deeper note for the people of Sardis because of their history. Sardis was known for being an impregnable fortress, but twice in their history military generals found secret passageways into the city that ultimately led to its defeat (verse 3 alludes to the thief in the night as well). In 17 A.D., Sardis was decimated by an earthquake, but then rebuilt and became a massive Roman city (60-100,000 people). In 640 A.D., Sardis was destroyed by fire and never rebuilt. So much for being invincible…
The city of Sardis didn’t have an accurate, honest perspective of itself, and neither did the church there. The church at Sardis was not what it appeared.
“You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead.”
“having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power” (2 Tim 3:5).
The church SEEMED a certain way, but it just wasn’t. Proverbs 16:18 says, “Pride goes before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall.” Sardis presents a visual picture of pride. In Hebrew, the word for pride literally means “to be high, tall or majestic.”
And even 3 year olds building little fortresses discover that the higher something gets without widening the base, it will fracture and fall. The greater the gap is between your perception and the actual reality, the taller you are growing in pride. In other words, the more you are seeming than being, the more prideful you become.
The struggle is real! And this was the struggle of the Church in Sardis. It’s not that they weren’t doing enough. Jesus even says: “I know your works.” The problem was their works were incomplete. Among the early Christians, especially in the book of Galatians, we can see the struggle that Jewish Christians had. They believed in this order of salvation:
1. Believe in Jesus.
2. Obey the Law/Do good works.
3. Then you are saved.
But Paul (and Jesus) argue for a different order of salvation:
1. Believe in Jesus.
2. Then you are saved.
3. Obey the Law/Do good works.
The difference is subtle, but it changes everything. The believers in Sardis thought they were doing well because of their works–but Jesus shows them quickly a different measure of success.
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.’
Worthiness comes from believing in Jesus’ as our righteousness and not our good works. Even in verse 3, Jesus urges the church: “Remember, then, what you received and heard.” Received. We tend to know and can spout off that salvation is BY grace THROUGH faith. But is not the means of salvation also the means of sanctification? Are we saved by grace but then perfected by our own efforts and works? No!
So often, I’m motivated to do good things to sleep better at night or feel like I have a purpose, or feel less guilty for my failures in other areas. But isn’t that just seeming more than being? Are we seeming more than being because it’s too depressing to face the reality of our own brokenness?
The message to Sardis reminds us that the Gospel allows us to be honest with ourselves and with God. To actually be rather than seem. The message of the gospel is: you are dead in your sins, but God has made you alive in Christ. NOT “You have the reputation of being alive but are dead.” Pride increases the gap between the image we build of ourselves and reality. Let’s be real: we can’t handle the honest reality of being totally dead and helpless to overcome sin. But the Gospel allows us to face that reality with hope. We were dead and totally screwed up, but God saves us.
And interestingly enough, this is not an argument against good works at all. But the order is important. With a Sardis perspective, good works are designed to maintain an appearance and self-justify. They actually accomplish something for your spiritual life–whether it’s to absolve guilt or achieve holiness. They help you “Seem” more like who you hope to be. But with the Gospel perspective, good works are a reflection of the good works of Jesus. It’s a statement of living within the design and course that God has for us. In that light, good works are coming from a place of “being” not “seeming”.
Questions to Consider: What about us? How are you doing on your pride? Is your Christianity you managing an appearance or is it clinging to Jesus?