by W.M. Ramsay
Philologos Religious Online Books
The Letters to the Seven Churches of Asia
W. M. Ramsay
Chapter 26: The Letter to the Church in Sardis
These things saith he that hath the seven Spirits of God, and the seven stars:
I know thy works, that thou hast a name that thou livest, and thou art dead. Be thou watchful, and stablish the things that remain, which were ready to die: for I have found no works of thine fulfilled before my God. Remember therefore how thou hast received and didst hear; and keep it, and repent. If therefore thou shalt not watch, I will come as a thief, and thou shalt not know what hour I will come upon thee. But thou hast a few names in Sardis which did not defile their garments: and they shall walk with me in white; for they are worthy.
He that overcometh shall thus be arrayed in white garments; and I will in no wise blot his name out of the book of life, and I will confess his name before my Father, and before his angels.
He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith to the churches.
The analogy between the Ephesian and Sardian letters is close, and the two have to be studied together. History had moved on similar lines with the two Churches. Both had begun enthusiastically and cooled down. Degeneration was the fact in both; but in Ephesus the degeneration had not yet become so serious as in Sardis. Hence in the Ephesian letters the keynote is merely change, instability and uncertainty; in the Sardian letter the keynote is degradation, false pretension and death.
In those two letters the exordium takes a very similar form. To the Ephesian Church "these things saith he that holdeth the seven stars in his right hand, he that walketh between the seven golden lamps." To the Sardian Church the letter proceeds from him "that hath the seven spirits of God and the seven stars." The sender of both letters stands forth as the centre, the pivot and the director of the Universal Church, and in particular of the entire group of the Asian Churches. Effective power exercised over the whole Church is indicated emphatically in both cases, and especially in the Sardian address. "The Seven Spirits of God" must certainly be taken as a symbolic or allegorical way of expressing the full range of exercise of the Divine power in the Seven Churches, i.e., in the Universal Church as represented here by the Asian Churches. If one may try in inadequate and rough terms to express the meaning, the "Spirit of God" is to be understood as the power of God exerting itself practically in the Church; and, since the Church is always regarded in the Revelation as consisting of Seven parts or local Churches, the power of God is described in its relation to those Seven parts as "the Seven Spirits of God."
This indirect way of expression is liable to become misleading, if it be not carefully interpreted and sympathetically understood. It is forced on the writer by the plan of his work, which does not aim at philosophic exposition, but attempts to shadow forth through sensuous imagery "the deep things of God," in the style of the Jewish literary form which he chose to imitate.
Under the phraseology, "the Seven Spirits of God," the writer of the Revelation conceals a statement of the great problem: "how does the Divine power make itself effective in regard to the world and mankind, when it is entirely different in nature and character from the ordinary world of human experience? How can a thing act on another which is wholly different in nature, and lies on a different plane of existence?" The Divine power has to go forth, as it were, out of itself in order to reach mankind. The writer had evidently been occupying himself with this problem; and, as we see, the book of the Revelation is a vague and dim expression of the whole range of this and the associated problems regarding the relation of God to man. But the book is not to be taken as a solution of the problems. It is the work of a man who has not reached an answer, i.e., who has not yet succeeded in expressing the question in philosophic form, but who is struggling to body forth the problems before himself and his readers in such imagery as may make them more conceivable.
The most serious error in regard to the book of the Revelation consists in regarding it as a statement of the solution. No solution is reached in the book; but the writer's aim is to convey to his readers his own perfect confidence that the Divine nature is effective on human nature and on the world of sense, all-powerful, absolutely victorious in this apparent contest with evil or anti-Christ; that in fact there is not really any contest, for the victory is gained in the inception of the conflict, and the seeming struggle is only the means whereby the Divine power offers to man the opportunity of learning to understand its nature.
The Spirit of God, and still more "the Seven Spirits of God," are therefore not to be understood as a description of the method by which the Divine activity exerts itself in its relation to the Church; for, if looked at so, they are easily perverted and elaborated into a theory of intermediate powers intervening between God and the world, and thus there must arise the whole system of angels (which in human nature, as ideas and custom then tended, inevitably degenerated into a worship of angels, according to Colossians 2:18; just as a few centuries later the respect for the saints and martyrs of the Church degenerated into a worship of them as powers intervening between man and the remote ultimate Divine nature). The "Seven Spirits" form simply an expression suited to reach the comprehension of men at that time, and make them image to themselves the activity of God in relation to the Seven Churches, and to the whole Universal Church. That this is a successful attempt to present the problem to human apprehension cannot be maintained. The book is the first attempt of a writer struggling to express great ideas; but the ideas have not yet been thought out clearly in his mind and he has been led away to imitate a rather crude model fashionable in Jewish circles at the time. He has reached an infinitely higher level, alike in a literary and a religious view, than any other work of that class known to us; but an ineradicable fault clings to the whole class.
The Church of Sardis, then, is addressed by Him who controls and directs the Divine action in the Churches as they exist in the world, and who holds in His hand the Seven Churches, with their history and their destiny. This expression of His power is varied from that which occurs in the address of the Ephesian letter, of course in a way suited to the Sardian Church, though it is not easy for us to comprehend wherein lies the precise suitability. As everywhere throughout this study, we can hardly hope to do more than reach a statement of the difficulties and the problems, though often a clear statement of the question involves the suggestion of a reply (and in so far as it does this it involves personal opinion and hypothesis, and is liable to fall into subjectivity and error).
We observed the peculiar suitability of the Ephesian address to the situation of Ephesus as the centre and practical leader of the whole group of Asian Churches. Hence the final detail in that address--"He that walketh in the midst of the seven golden lamps"; for (as is shown in chapter 6) the lamps symbolise the Churches on earth, as the seven Stars symbolise the seven Churches, or their spiritual counterparts, in heaven. Instead of this the Sardian address introduces "the Seven Spirits of God." A more explicit and definite expression of the activity of the Divine nature in the Churches on earth evidently recommended itself as suitable in addressing the Sardian Church.
One cannot evade the question, what is the reason why this expression commended itself for the Sardian letter? wherein lies its suitability? To answer the question, it is obviously necessary to look at the prominent point of difference between Sardis and Ephesus (which we have already stated). Ephesus had changed and cooled, but the degeneration had not yet become serious; restoration of its old character and enthusiasm was still possible. As a Church Ephesus might possibly be in the future as great as it had been in the past. But the Church of Sardis was already dead, though it seemed to be living. Its history was past and done with. A revivification of its former self was impossible. There remained only a few in it for whom there was some hope. They might survive, as they had hitherto shown themselves worthy. And they shall survive, for the power which has hitherto sustained them will be with them and keep them to the end. In this scanty remnant saved from the wreck of the formerly great Church of Sardis, the Divine power will show itself all the more conspicuous. Just as in the comparatively humble city of Thyatira the faithful few shall be granted a strength and authority beyond that of the Empire and its armies, so in this small remnant at Sardis the Divine power will be most effective, because they stand most in need of it.
It is not to be imagined that this consideration exhausts the case. There remains much more that is at present beyond our ken. The more we can learn about Sardis, the better we shall understand the letter.
In none of the Seven Letters is the method of the writer, and the reason that guided him in selecting the topics, more clearly displayed than in the letter to the Church in Sardis. The advice which he gives to the Sardians is, in a way, universally suitable to human nature: "Be watchful; be more careful; carry out more completely and thoroughly what you have still to do, for hitherto you have always erred in leaving work half done and incomplete. Try to make that eager attention with which you at the beginning listened to the Gospel, and the enthusiasm with which at first you accepted it, a permanent feature in your conduct. If you are not watchful, you will not be ready at the moment of need: my arrival will find you unprepared, because 'in an hour that ye think not the Son of Man cometh'; any one can make ready for a fixed hour, but you must be always ready for an unexpected hour."
Advice like that is, in a sense, universal. All persons, every individual man and every body of men, constantly require the advice to be watchful, and to carry through to completion what they once enter upon, for all men tend more or less to slacken in their exertions and to leave half-finished ends of work. In all men there is observable a discrepancy between promise and performance; the first show is almost always superior to the final result.
But why are these precise topics selected for the Sardian letter, and not for any of the others? Why does the reference to the thief in the night suggest itself in this letter and not in any other? It is plain that Ephesus was suffering from the same tendency to growing slackness as Sardis, and that its first enthusiasm had cooled down almost as lamentably as was the case in the Sardian Church. Yet the advice to Ephesus, though like in many respects, is expressed in very different words.
But in almost every letter similar questions suggest themselves. There were faithful Christians in every one of the Churches; but the word "faithful" is used only of Smyrna. Every Church was brought into the same conflict with the Roman State; but only in the Pergamenian letter is the opposition between the Church and the Empire expressly mentioned, and only in the Thyatiran letter is the superiority in strength and might of the Church over the Empire emphasised.
In the Sardian letter the reason is unusually clear; and to this point our attention must now be especially directed.
No city in the whole Province of Asia had a more splendid history in past ages than Sardis. No city of Asia at that time showed such a melancholy contrast between past splendour and present decay as Sardis. Its history was the exact opposite of the record of Smyrna. Smyrna was dead and yet lived. Sardis lived and yet was dead.
Sardis was the great city of ancient times and of half-historical legend. At the beginning of the Greek memory of history in Lydia, Sardis stood out conspicuous and alone as the capital of the great Oriental Empire with which the Greek cities and colonies were brought in contact. Their relations with it formed the one great question of foreign politics for those early Greek settlers. Everything else was secondary, or was under their own control, but in regard to Sardis they had always to be thinking of foreign wishes, foreign rights, the caprice of a foreign monarch and the convenience of foreign traders, who were too powerful to be disregarded or treated with disrespect.
That ancient and deep impression the Asiatic Greeks, with their tenacious historical memory, never entirely lost. Sardis was always to them the capital where Croesus, richest of kings, had ruled--the city which Solon, wisest of men, had visited, and where he had rightly augured ruin because he had rightly mistrusted material wealth and luxury as necessarily hollow and treacherous--the fortress of many warlike kings, like Gyges, whose power was so great that legend credited him with the possession of the gold ring of supernatural power, or Alyattes, whose vast tomb rose like a mountain above the Hermus Valley beside the sacred lake of the Mother Goddess.
But to those Greeks of the coast colonies, Ephesus and Smyrna and the rest, Sardis was also the city of failure, the city whose history was marked by the ruin of great kings and the downfall of great military strength apparently in mid-career, when it seemed to be at its highest development. It was the city whose history conspicuously and pre-eminently blazoned forth the uncertainty of human fortunes, the weakness of human strength, and the shortness of the step that separates over-confident might from sudden and irreparable disaster. It was the city whose name was almost synonymous with pretensions unjustified, promise unfulfilled, appearance without reality, confidence that heralded ruin. Reputed an impregnable fortress, it had repeatedly fallen short of its reputation, and ruined those who trusted in it. Croesus had fancied he could sit safe in the great fortress, but his enemy advanced straight upon it and carried it by assault before the strength of the Lydian land was collected.
Carelessness and failure to keep proper watch, arising from over-confidence in the apparent strength of the fortress, had been the cause of this disaster, which ruined the dynasty and brought to an end the Lydian Empire and the dominance of Sardis. The walls and gates were all as strong as art and nature combined could make them. The hill on which the upper city stood was steep and lofty. The one approach to the upper city was too carefully fortified to offer any chance to an assailant. But there was one weak point: in one place it was possible for an active enemy to make his way up the perpendicular sides of the lofty hill, if the defenders stood idle and permitted him to climb unhindered.
The sudden ruin of that great Empire and the wealthiest king of all the world was an event of that character which most impressed the Greek mind, emphasising a moral lesson by a great national disaster. A little carelessness was shown; a watchman was wanting at the necessary point, or a sentinel slept at his post for an hour; and the greatest power on the earth was hurled to destruction. The great king trusted to Sardis, and Sardis failed him at the critical moment. Promise was unfulfilled; the appearance of strength proved the mask of weakness; the fortification was incomplete; work which had been begun with great energy was not pushed through to its conclusion with the same determination.
More than three centuries later another case of exactly the same kind occurred. Achaeus and Antiochus the Great were fighting for the command of Lydia and the whole Seleucid Empire. Antiochus besieged his rival in Sardis, and the city again was captured by a surprise of the same nature: a Cretan mercenary led the way, climbing up the hill and stealing unobserved within the fortifications. The lesson of old days had not been learned; experience had been forgotten; men were too slack and careless; and when the moment of need came, Sardis was unprepared.
A State cannot survive which is guarded with such carelessness; a people at once so slack and so confident cannot continue an imperial power. Sardis, as a great and ruling city, was dead. It had sunk to be a second-rate city in a Province. Yet it still retained the name and the historical memory of a capital city. It had great pretensions, which it had vainly tried to establish in AD 26 before the tribunal of the Roman Senate in the contention among the Asian cities recorded by Tacitus, Annals, iv., 55. When in that year the Asian States in the provincial Council (called the Commune of Asia) resolved to erect a temple to Tiberius and Livia his mother and the Senate, as a token of gratitude for the punishment of an oppressive and grasping administrator, eleven cities of the Province contended for the honour of being the seat of the Temple. Nine were quickly set aside, some as too unimportant, Pergamum as already the seat of a Temple to Augustus, Ephesus and Miletus as taken up with the ritual of Artemis and of Apollo; but there was much hesitation between the claims of Smyrna and of Sardis. Envoys of Sardis pleaded the cause of their city before the Senate. They rested their claim on the mythical or historical glory of the city as the capital of the Lydians, who were a sister-race to the Etruscans, and had sent colonists to the Peloponnesus, and as honoured by letters from Roman generals and by a special treaty which Rome had concluded with Sardis in 171-168 BC: in conclusion, they boasted of the rivers, the climate, and the rich territory around the city. The case, however, was decided in favour of Smyrna.
No one can doubt that this Sardian letter took its form in part through the memory of that ancient history. It was impossible for the Sardians to miss the allusion, and therefore the writer must have intended it and calculated on it. Phrase after phrase is chosen for the evident purpose of recalling that ancient memory, which was undoubtedly still strong and living among the Sardians, for the Hellenic cities had a retentive historical recollection, and we know that Sardis, in the great pleading in AD 26, rested its case on a careful selection of facts from its past history, though omitting the facts on which we have here laid stress, because they were not favourable to its argument. "I know thy works, that thou hast a name that thou livest, and thou art dead. Be thou watchful, and stablish the things that remain, which were ready to die: for I have found no works of thine fulfilled before my God...If therefore thou shalt not watch, I will come as a thief, and thou shalt not know what hour I will come upon thee."
It seems therefore undeniable that the writer has selected topics which rise out of and stand in close relation to the past history of Sardis as a city. In view of this evident plan and guiding purpose, are we to understand that he preferred the older historical reference, and left aside the actual fortunes of the Church as secondary, when he was sketching out the order of his letter? Such a supposition is impossible. The writer is in those words drawing a picture of the history and degeneration of the Sardian Church; but he draws it in such a way as to set before his readers the continuity of Sardian history. The story of the Church is a repetition of past experience; the character of the people remains unchanged; their faults are still the same; and their fate must be the same.
If this view be correct--and it seems forced on us unavoidably by the facts of the case--then another inference must inevitably follow: the writer, so far from separating the Church of Sardis from the city of Sardis, emphasises strongly the closeness of the connection between them. The Church of Sardis is not merely in the city of Sardis, it is in a sense the city; and the Christians are the people of the city. There is not in his mind the slightest idea that Christians are to keep out of the world--as might perhaps be suggested from a too exclusive contemplation of some parts of the Revelation; the Church here is addressed, apparently with the set purpose of suggesting that the fortunes of ancient Sardis had been its own fortunes, that it had endured those sieges, committed those faults of carelessness and blind confidence, and sunk into the same decay and death as the city.
That this is intentional and deliberate cannot be questioned for a moment. What this writer said he meant. There is no accident or unintended significance in those carefully chosen and well-weighed words. In regard to this letter the same reflections arise as were already suggested in the case of the other letters, and especially the Smyrnaean and Pergamenian. In his conflict with the Nicolaitans the writer was never betrayed into mere blind opposition to them; he never rejected their views from mere hatred of those who held them; he took the wider view which embraced everything that was right and true in the principles of the Nicolaitans--and there was a good deal that was rightly thought and well said by them--together with a whole world of thought which they had no eyes to see. In the Seven Letters he repeatedly gives marked emphasis to the principle, which the Nicolaitans rightly maintained, that the Christians should be a force in the world, moulding it gradually to a Christian model. Here and everywhere throughout the Letters the writer is found to be reiterating one thought, "See how much better the true eternal Church does everything than any of the false pretenders and opponents can do them."
In regard to one detail after another he points out how far superior is the Christian form to that in which it is tendered by the Imperial State, by the cities, or by false teachers. If Laodicea clothes its citizens with the glossy black woollen garments of its famous industry, he offers white garments to clothe the true Laodiceans. If the State has its mighty military strength and its imperial authority, he points out to the true remnant among the Thyatirans that a more crushing and irresistible might shall be placed in their hands, and offers to the Pergamenian victors a wider authority over worlds seen and unseen. If the Nicolaitans emphasise the intimate relation between the life of the Church and the organisation of the State and the society amid which the Church exists, he states with equal emphasis, but with the proper additions, that the Church is so closely connected with the State and the City that it can be regarded as sharing in a way their life, fortunes and powers.
It is not fanciful to trace here, as in other cases, a connection between the spirit of the advice tendered and the permanent features of nature amid which the city stood and by which it was insensibly moulded. Sardis stood, or rather the upper and the only fortified city stood, on a lofty hill, a spur projecting north from Mount Tmolus and dominating the Hermus Valley. The hill has still, in its dilapidated and diminished extent, an imposing appearance; but it undoubtedly offered a far more splendid show two or three thousand years ago, when the top must have been a high plateau of moderate extent, the sides of which were almost perpendicular walls of rock, except where a narrow isthmus connected the hill with the mountains behind it on the south. Towards the plain on the north, towards the glens on east and west, it presented the most imposing show, a city with walls and towers, temples, houses and palaces, filling the elevated plateau so completely that on all sides it looked as if one could drop a stone 1,500 feet straight into the plain from the outer buildings.
The rock, however, on which Sardis was built was only nominally a rock. In reality, as you go nearer it, you see that it is only mud slightly compacted, and easily dissolved by rain. It is, however, so constituted that it wears away with a very steep, almost perpendicular face; but rain and frost continually diminish it, so that little now remains of the upper plateau on which the city stood; and in one place the top has been worn to an extremely narrow neck with steep descents of the usual kind on both sides, so that the visitor needs a fairly cool head and steady nerve to walk across it. The isthmus connecting the plateau with the mountains of Tmolus on the south has been worn away in a lesser degree.
The crumbling, poor character of the rock must always have been a feature that impressed the thinking mind, and led it to associate the character of the inhabitants with this feature of the situation. Instability, untrustworthiness, inefficiency, deterioration--such is the impression that the rock gives, and such was the character of Sardian history and of the Sardian Church.
But Sardis was not entirely degenerate and unworthy. Even in it there were a few persons who maintained their Christian character and "did not defile their garments." This strong expression shows wherein lay the guilt of Sardis. It was different essentially from the fault of Thyatira, the city which comes next to Sardis in the severity of its condemnation. Thyatira was in many ways distinguished by excellence of conduct, and the corporate life of its Church was vigorous and improving, so that its "last works were more than the first"; but a false theory of life and a false conception of what was right action were leading it astray. Sardis was not Christian enough to entertain a heresy or be led astray by a false system; it had lost all vigour and life, and had sunk back to the ordinary pagan level of conduct, which from the Christian point of view was essentially vicious and immoral in principle.
The Sardian Church fell under the condemnation pronounced by St. Paul (1 Cor 5:10) against those who, having become Christians and learned the principles of morality, relapsed into the vices which were commonly practised in pagan society. These were to be treated far more severely than the pagans, though the pagans lived after the same fashion; for the pagans lived so on principle, knowingly and intentionally, because they held it to be right, whereas the Christians had learned that it was wrong, and yet from weakness of will and character slipped back into the evil. With them the true Christians were not to keep company, but were to put them out of their society and their meetings. With pagans who lived after the same fashion, however, it was allowable to associate (though it lies in the nature of the case, and needs no formal statement, that the association between Christians and pagans could never be so intimate as that of Christians with one another).
A peculiarly kind and loving tone is perceptible in this part of the letter. There is a certain reaction after the abhorrence and disgust with which the weak degeneracy of Sardis has been described; and in this reaction the deserts of the faithful few are painted with a loving touch. They have kept themselves pure and true, and "they shall walk with me in white, for they are worthy." Their reward shall be to continue to the end white and pure, as they have kept themselves in Sardis.
This warm and affectionate tone is marked by the form of the final promise, which begins by simply repeating what has been already said in the letter. In most of the other letters the final promise comes as an addition; but here the love that speaks in the letter has already uttered the promise, and there is nothing left in the conclusion except to say it again, and to add explicitly what is already implied in it, life. "He that overcometh shall thus be arrayed in white garments; and I will in no wise blot his name out of the Book of Life, and I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels." The reward of all victors shall be the reward just promised to the few faithful in Sardis, purity and life--to have their name standing always in the Book, openly acknowledged and emblazoned before God.
In the Smyrnaean letter also the concluding promise is to a certain extent anticipated in the body of the letter, as here; and the tone of that letter is throughout warm and appreciative, beyond the rest of the Seven Letters. Where this letter rises to the tone of love and admiration, it approximates to the character of the Smyrnaean letter, and like it ends with the promise of life.
The "Book of Life" is here evidently understood as an official list (so to say) of the citizens of the heavenly city, the true Jerusalem, the Elect City, peopled by the true Christians of all cities and provinces and nations. As in all Greek and Roman cities of that time there was kept a list of citizens, according to their class or tribe or deme, in which new citizens were entered and from which degraded citizens were expunged, so the writer of this letter figuratively mentions the Book of Life. There is a remnant in Sardis whose names shall never be deleted from the Book, from which most Sardians have been expunged already.
That undoubtedly is the meaning which would be taken from the words here by Asian readers. Mr. Anderson Scott points out that in the Jewish Apocalyptic literature a wider sense is given to the term, and the "Book of Life" is regarded as a record of exploits, a history of the life and works of God's people. That this second sense was in the writer's mind elsewhere is certain; but it is certain that he speaks and thinks of two distinct kinds of books: one is a series of books of record: the other is the Book of Life. This is clear from the words of 20:12: I saw the dead great and small, standing before the Throne; and books were opened: and another book was opened, which is (the Book) of Life: and the dead were judged out of the things which were written in the books, according to their works. With this passage 13:8, 17:8, 20:15 should be compared, and from it they should be interpreted. The wider sense could not be gathered by the Asian readers from this reference, and was assuredly not intended by the writer of the letter.
This is one of many points of difference which strongly mark off the Apocalypse of John from the common Apocalyptic literature of that age and earlier times; and this immense difference ought never to be forgotten (though it is perhaps not always remembered clearly enough) by those scholars who, in studying the great influence exerted by the older literature of this class on our Apocalypse, have seen in it an enlarged Christian edition of an originally Jewish Apocalypse.
White was widely considered among the ancient nations as the colour of innocence and purity. On this account it was appropriate for those who were engaged in the worship of the gods, for purity was prescribed as a condition of engaging in divine service though usually the purity was understood in a merely ceremonial sense. All Roman citizens wore the pure white toga on holidays and at religious ceremonies, whether or not they wore it on ordinary days; in fact, the great majority of them did not ordinarily wear that heavy and cumbrous garment; and hence the city on festivals and holidays is called "candida urbs," the city in white. Especially on the day of a Triumph white was the universal colour-though the soldiers, of course, wore not the toga, the garb of peace, but their full-dress military attire with all their decorations--and there can hardly be any doubt that the idea of walking in a Triumph similar to that celebrated by a victorious Roman general is here present in the mind of the writer when he uses the words, "they shall walk with me in white." A dirty and dark-coloured toga, on the other hand, was the appropriate dress of sorrow and of guilt. Hence it was worn by mourners and by persons accused of crimes.
The Asian readers could know of a Roman Triumph only from literature and report, for in the strictest sense Triumphs could be celebrated only in Rome, and only by an Emperor in person; but, in proportion as the Triumph in the strict old Roman sense became rare, the splendour and pomp which had originally been appropriated to it alone were more widely employed; as, for example, in the procession escorting the presiding magistrate, the Praetor, to the games in the Roman Circus; and there is no doubt that the great provincial festivals and shows, which were celebrated in the chief Asian cities according to Imperial policy as a means of diffusing Roman ideas and ways, were inaugurated with a procession modelled after the stately Roman procession in which the Praetor was escorted in triumph to the circus, as Juvenal describes it:--
What! had he seen, in his triumphant car,
Amid the dusty Cirque, conspicuous far,
The Praetor perched aloft, superbly drest
In Jove's proud tunic with a trailing vest
Of Tyrian tapestry, and o'er him spread
A crown too bulky for a human head:
Add now the Imperial Eagle, raised on high,
With golden beak, the mark of majesty,
Trumpets before, and on the left and right
A cavalcade of nobles, all in white.
Thus though the Triumph itself could never have been seen by the readers of this letter, they knew it as the most typical celebration of complete and final victory, partly from report and literature, partly from frequently seeing ceremonies in the great Imperial festivals which were modelled after the Triumph. Hence, St. Paul in writing to the Colossians, 2:15, uses a similar metaphor: "he made a show of the principalities and the powers, openly triumphing over them in it," which (as Lightfoot and scholars generally recognise) means that the powers of the world were treated as a general treats his conquered foes, stripped of their honours, and paraded in the Triumph as a show to please the citizens and to glorify the conqueror.
The Triumph was in origin a religious ceremonial. The victorious general who celebrated it played for the moment the part of the Roman god Jupiter; he wore the god's dress and insignia, and resigned them again when he reached the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus on the Capitoline Mount. But it need not be thought strange that St. John and St. Paul should use this pagan ceremonial to express metaphorically the decisive triumph of Christ over all opposing powers in the world, when we have seen that Ignatius describes the life of the true Christian as a long religious procession similar to those which were celebrated in the pagan ritual.
The warm and loving tone in the latter part of the Sardian letter need cause no wonder. There is always something peculiarly admirable and affecting in the contemplation of a pure and high life which maintains unspotted rectitude amid surrounding degradation and vileness. No characters stand out in clearer relief and more striking beauty than the small bands of high-minded Romans who preserved their nobility of spirit and life amid the degeneracy and servility of the early Empire. The same distinction marks this remnant of purity amid the decaying and already dead Church of Sardis. Even the thought of it rouses a warm interest in the modern reader's mind and we understand how it inspires this part of the letter with an unusual warmth of emotion, which contrasts with the coldness that we observed in the Ephesian letter.
Hence also we see how the analogy between these two letters, the Sardian and the Ephesian, ceases towards the end of the letter. The standard of conduct throughout the Ephesian Church had been uniform; the whole Church had acted correctly and admirably in the past; the whole Church was now cooling down and beginning to degenerate. No exception is made; no remnant is described that had not lost heart and enthusiasm. The changeable nature of Ephesus had affected all alike. And therefore the penalty is pronounced, that the Church shall be moved out of its place. It is a conditional penalty; but there is no suggestion that any portion of the Church has escaped or may escape it. The Church as a whole must revivify itself, or suffer the penalty; and Ephesus cannot alter its nature; changeableness is the law of its being. There is no real hope held out that the penalty may be avoided; and the promise at the conclusion is couched in the most general terms; this Church is cooling and degenerating, but to him that overcometh vigour and life shall be given.
On the other hand, the Sardian Church has not been uniform in its conduct, and it shall not all suffer the same fate. The Church as a whole is dead; but a few, who form bright and inspiring exceptions, shall live as citizens of the heavenly city. There is no hint that Sardis shall be spared, or the Church survive it. Its doom is sealed irrevocably; and yet a remnant shall live.
Sardis today is a wilderness of ruins and thorns, pastures and wild-flowers, where the only habitations are a few huts of Yuruk nomads beside the temple of Cybele in the low ground by the Pactolus, and at the distance of a mile two modern houses by the railway station. And yet in a sense a remnant has escaped and still survives, which does not indeed excite the same loving tenderness as makes itself felt in the latter part o this letter, yet assuredly merits our sympathy and interest. In the plain of the Hermus, which Sardis once dominated there are a few scattered villages whose inhabitants, though nominally Mohammedans, are clearly marked off by certain customs from the Turkish population around. Their women (according to the account given us at Sardis) usually bear Christian names, though the men's names are of the ordinary Mohammedan class; they have a kind of priests, who wear black head-dress, not the white turban of the Mohammedan hodjas and imams; the villages hold private assemblies when these "black-heads" (Kara-Bash) pay them visits; they practise strict monogamy, and divorce (which is so easy for true Mohammedans) is not permitted; they drink wine and violate other Mohammedan rules and prohibitions; and it is believed by some persons who have mixed with them that they would become Christians forthwith, if it did not mean death to do so. At the same time they are not at all like the strange people called Takhtaji or Woodmen: the latter are apparently a survival of ancient paganism, pre-Christian in origin.