The Salt of the Earth

The City of Sardis

Located on Mount Tmolus in southern Turkey, the city of Sardis stood at the crossroads of Asia Minor, the most prosperous, powerful, fertile, and pagan province of the entire Roman Empire. First-century Sardis had a unique blend of residents: faithful Jews and Christians who worshiped God blended with influential pagans who worshiped the Roman emperor and gods such as Artemis and Cybele.

Sardis is of particular interest because it apparently had a very visible Christian church and because the apostle John issued a strong warning to them. "I know your deeds," he wrote, "you have a reputation of being alive but you are dead. Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your deeds complete in the sight of my God" (Revelation 3:1-2).

What led John to such say strong words to this community of faith in Sardis? Was it because they were slowly compromising what they believed with the pagans among them? Or where there other reasons that John's words became such a powerful teaching for those believers who chose to live at the crossroads of their world?

 

John's Warning

Sardis was probably occupied first by the Hittites, and then by the Lydians. About 550 BC, the most famous Lydian king, Croesus (known as the richest man in the world) was besieged by Cyrus the Persian. Croesus, who had become apathetic and lazy, fortified himself in the acropolis of Sardis, and Cyrus could not capture him.

One afternoon, a Persian soldier named Lagoras watched a Lydian soldier sneak down the back wall of Sardis in order to retrieve his helmet that had fallen. Deducing that a secret trail existed, Lagoras told Cyrus, whose army snuck up that little path at night, surprised the Lydian army, and conquered the city. Croesus hadn't been as careful about the city's defense as he should have been, and he and his people paid for that mistake with their lives.

This story relates closely to the strong metaphor the apostle John used when he warned the church of Sardis: "I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up!... 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." (Revelation 3:1-3).

Given the history of their city, the Christians in Sardis understood this imagery all too well. John, drawing on this common experience of Sardis, was probably implying that they needed to stay watchful and alert in order to maintain their Christian walk. Dr. George Barna, contemporary Christian market research analyst, produces evidence supporting his belief that the biggest problem in modern Christianity is spiritual complacency. Similarly, John was warning the people of Sardis to be careful to stay watchful, alert, and alive to what was going on in their lives, otherwise they might become apathetic or make a mistake that would cause their witness to a watching world to collapse.

The Shops

On each side of the wide paved road running through Sardis were rows of great Greek columns, spaced equally apart.  From those columns to the wall beyond was a roof-a shade or a place out of the rain or sun. Beyond the wall would be a number of doorways that led into small shops, almost like a modern shopping mall.

But what archaeologists have found on that street in Sardis is fascinating. In a number of the shops, Jewish or Christians symbols;crosses, menorahs, rings with crosses in them, and even the "fish- symbol" have been discovered. A number of defaced pagan articles have been found. In one instance, a pagan goddess had been removed from the back of a lion-shaped lamp, which had been patched and reused. In another place, large Christian crosses had been chiseled over pagan symbols on tombstones that had been used to make a dye vat.

It appears that God-fearing shop owners in that extremely pagan culture were making a clear statement that they stood for God and were attempting to reclaim anti-God, pagan articles. These ordinary shop owners taking a stand in their extremely pagan culture can provide a contemporary message for Christians today as well.

 

The Synagogue

One of the most impressive ruins in Sardis is that of the Greek gymnasium and Roman bathhouse. The gymnasium was the center of Greek culture, the means by which they passed on their Hellenistic worldview that the human being, not God, was the center of the universe. Within the gymnasium, students trained their bodies and minds. They read literature about the Greek gods and studied mathematics, philosophy, and medicine. They also enjoyed the pleasures and vices of the Roman baths.

Yet, in the corner of that immoral, self-glorifying gymnasium, archaeologists have uncovered the largest synagogue of that time period ever found! The presence of the synagogue in the gymnasium, as well as the presence of the defaced pagan symbols within the synagogue,a public fountain, a table with Roman eagles, and pairs of ions that typically represented the goddess Cybele,ask the question "why?" Did the Jews of Sardis place their synagogue in the gymnasium in order to influence the pagan culture around them, or had they so adapted to the pagan way of life that they saw no discrepancy between worshiping God and participating in the activities of the gymnasium?

The Church

The most ancient ruins in the area of Sardis are along the southern banks of the Pactolus River. In the middle of these ruins stood the large, open-aired shrine initially consecrated to Cybele. When the Greeks arrived in about 330 BC, they built a huge temple to Artemis, their goddess of fertility, and absorbed the grossly immoral worship of Cybele into their worship. The ruins of this temple, which was one of the seven largest Greek temples in the world, stands as a testimony to the popularity and power of the Artemis cult.

Yet, in one corner of this temple stands a tiny Christian church that was built during the fourth century! Why did Christians build a church inside a pagan temple? Were they seeking to reclaim the temple, which was probably nearly abandoned at that time, for God? Or had they become so comfortable in their pagan world that their worship of God blended in with the pagan worship that surrounded them?

 

Salt of the Earth

The most ancient ruins in the area of Sardis are along the southern banks of the Pactolus River. In the middle of these ruins stood the large, open-aired shrine initially consecrated to Cybele. When the Greeks arrived in about 330 BC, they built a huge temple to Artemis, their goddess of fertility, and absorbed the grossly immoral worship of Cybele into their worship. The ruins of this temple, which was one of the seven largest Greek temples in the world, stands as a testimony to the popularity and power of the Artemis cult.

Yet, in one corner of this temple stands a tiny Christian church that was built during the fourth century! Why did Christians build a church inside a pagan temple? Were they seeking to reclaim the temple, which was probably nearly abandoned at that time, for God? Or had they become so comfortable in their pagan world that their worship of God blended in with the pagan worship that surrounded them?

 

Journey Onward