I didn’t have a chance to write yesterday, but I did spend time fasting and praying about strongholds. In particular, I prayed through Jesus’ letter to the church at Sardis in Revelation 3:1-6. In the late first century AD, Sardis was a bustling, prominent city on the site of present-day Sart (formerly Sartmahmut), Turkey. It had been the capital of the Lydia empire which spanned the western half of Asia Minor and was known elsewhere in the Bible for fine purple cloth, an important city in the Persian empire, and served as the seat of a Roman proconsul (i.e., provincial governor). As the capital of Lydia, Sardis had been known for its advanced industries and military strength, but the city was captured by the Cimmerians in the 7th century BC, the Persians in the 6th century BC, the Athenians in the 5th century BC, the Seleucids in the late 3rd century BC, and then by the Romans in the early 2nd century BC. Perhaps it should come as no surprise, then, that Jesus warned the church at Sardis that it had a reputation for being alive, but its lacking and faulty works all showed it to be anything but. In other words, Jesus warned the Sardis church against hypocrisy. And I think there is a good deal we need to hear about it, too.
Of course, no one wants to be told that they’re a hypocrite. In fact, in a culture obsessed with authenticity, “hypocrite” may be the single worst thing to call someone. After all, we all know that hypocrisy is saying one thing and doing another (i.e., the exact opposite of authenticity), and a hypocrite is someone who practices hypocrisy. But what if hypocrisy wasn’t even that profound?
Follow the logic train for a moment here. So often, we assume that hypocrisy is an active thing. In other words, we say one thing – an action – and then do something else – another action. This assumes that a hypocrite is consciously, deliberately doing something. But recently, I have been challenged by some of the questions John Wesley used with fellow believers in his class meetings during the 18th century Methodist revival in England, one of which was this: “Am I consciously or unconsciously creating the impression that I am better than I am? In other words, am I a hypocrite?” (emphasis mine) Wesley realized that sometimes, hypocrisy just happens. Like when we’re having a conversation with someone about some subject that we know nothing about, but we keep nodding in the right places so they assume we do know something. If you’re anything like me, you do this without even thinking about it.
In Revelation 3:1, Jesus called the church in Sardis directly: “I know your works; you have a reputation for being alive, but you are dead.” Dead is not something you have or do. It’s what you don’t have, what you don’t do: you don’t live. And when Jesus continued in vs 2, “Be alert and strengthen what remains… for I have not found your works complete before My God,” we get the idea that the church there was doing just enough to foster this reputation of life and no more. What alarms me today is that, given Wesley’s understanding of hypocrisy, I am compelled to recognize that they probably didn’t even realize that they were doing it. After all, if they did, wouldn’t they have corrected the problem on their own? Why did Jesus have to point it out to them and challenge them to change?
Like complacency, compromise, and tolerance before, hypocrisy is an insidious stronghold. It probably started in Sardis innocently enough. They had this well-earned reputation for being a living, vibrant church. People were talking about what God was doing in the church at Sardis. Believers were flocking to check out what was going on there. And leaders were hanging on everything they had to say in the hopes that they could reproduce it. But then there was a corner that could be cut. And no one noticed. But if you’ve ever drawn a line across one corner of a square, you realize that, as soon as you do, there are two more corners that just beg to be cut, too. And before they even knew what they were doing, the Sardis church had a reputation for being square, but in reality, it was a circle. Everyone thought it was alive, but really, it was anything but.
Maybe that doesn’t make sense to anyone but me. I don’t know. But it’s challenging me.
You see, I know that there are many times in my life when I, consciously or not, do just enough so that people will think well of me. And I suspect that there are more than a few people sitting in our church – and our churches – which do exactly the same. It wasn’t that they meant it to be that way. At least, not at first. But somehow, some way, it has become that way.
Jesus prescribed five things to counter hypocrisy in the church at Sardis:
- “Be alert” (vs 2). Wake up! Realize what you’re doing (or, perhaps more likely, not doing)! Pay attention!
- “Strengthen what remains, which is about to die” (vs 3). Two things flow from this. The first is that we need to make sure to keep doing that which we are doing. Hypocrites usually aren’t complete frauds. Otherwise, they’d be found out immediately. So realize the stuff you’re doing right and work to develop it. And the second is that, if you don’t, hypocrisy is a very real, very significant problem: it will kill your faith and you.
- “Remember… what you have received and heard” (vs 3). What you have received is the grace of God. Profound. Authentic. Real. And what you have heard is all the teachings of the apostles and such that go along with that grace. Namely, you have been saved from sin (i.e., less than perfection) – not just its consequences – so why persist in it? There was no “faking it” when Jesus went to the cross. That was entirely, 100% authentic love and grace.
- “Keep it” (vs 3). Don’t just remember. Start doing. If God gave 100% for you, give 100% for Him!
- “Repent” (vs 3). Stop doing the other stuff you were doing. I.e., don’t cut corners any more. And more than that, be sorrowful that you did it in the first place!
Hypocrisy is a very real problem in our church and in the Church. But it’s usually not nearly as blatant as we like to think it should be. In fact, as I have contemplated these things over the last week and change, I’ve very much realized that there are moments when I need to work on not being a hypocrite. So I’m working through these five steps, too.