One of the people I most admire is a man named Kent Hughes. He was a pastor for more than 40 years, and when he was 75, he came out of retirement to help fill a temporary vacancy at my seminary.
He and I also belonged to the same church when I lived in Philadelphia, and I remember one week my wife and I happened to sit next to his wife and him. As I introduced my wife to him, he asked us how long we’d been married. We told him, “Actually this week is our six-month anniversary.” I then asked him how long he and his wife had been married. He said, “Fifty-two years. So about 100 times longer than you two.”
The reason Kent Hughes is one of the people I most admire is he’s remained faithful till the end. His love for God, for Christ’s church, and for his wife is very evident. In a world filled with scandal and deconversion stories, he’s remained faithful to God and faithful to his wife.
That’s the kind of life I want to live, too. But how do we do it?
In Revelation 3, Jesus writes a letter to the church in Sardis about this very thing. It’s a call to finish what you started. Specifically, it’s a letter about crossroads, those points in your spiritual life that determine if you will finish what you started, or if you’ll slowly drift further from God.
Jesus writes a letter to the church in Sardis about how to finish what you started.
If you’ve been a Christian for some time, you’ve probably experienced ups and downs in your walk with God—spiritual highs, but also spiritual lows.
That’s totally normal. What’s most important is, what do you do in those low times? That’s what this letter is about.
As Robert H. Mounce writes in The Book of Revelation (91), Sardis was once one of the most powerful cities in the ancient world. And one of the reasons why was its wall. The city had a mountain fortress with walls that rose 1,500 feet above the valley, and this made the city nearly impenetrable.
But in 549 BC, the Persian king Cyrus defeated the city, and he did it right under the Sardinians’ noses (92). He sent someone to climb up a crevice that he found in the wall.
If the watchmen of the city had been paying any attention, they would have seen the climber coming and could have easily defeated him. But they weren’t paying any attention, and so he climbed up all 1,500 feet of the wall, entered the city, and opened the front gates and let the Persian army in.
Because Sardis failed to remain watchful, the Persians didn’t even need to overcome the wall. They marched straight through the front gate and defeated the city.
Because Sardis failed to remain watchful, the Persians didn’t even need to overcome the wall.
And you’d think after that Sardinians would have learned their lesson. But the same thing happened again in 216 BC (93).
Jesus begins his letter to the Christians in Sardis by admonishing them to “wake up” (Rev. 3:2). We could also translate this phrase, “Be watchful.” This command would have cut to the hearts of Jesus’s followers in Sardis. They knew the consequences of assuming their security and failing to remain alert.
We’re All Vulnerable
Jesus is saying the same is true in our spiritual lives. To finish what you started, you need to remain attentive to your faith. It’s dangerous to assume your heart is not vulnerable to our enemy.
To finish what you started, you need to remain attentive to your faith. It’s dangerous to assume your heart is not vulnerable to our enemy.
The Devil is very real, and he’s very sly. Often his strategy is just like those who conquered Sardis—get inside and open the gates from within. He tries to slowly and subtly lure you to desire things other than God, to change you from within, to accommodate your life to the idols of our day. And all he has to do is to set you one degree off course, and gradually, with time, you’ll find yourself drifting further and further away from God.
That’s what happened with the Sardinians. They accommodated the idols of their culture and so soiled their garments (Rev. 3:4), as Grant R. Osborne writes in Revelation.
It’s easy to start our walk in a certain way and gain a reputation for being a Christian, but then as time goes on, instead of growing in holiness, we gradually look more and more like our non-Christian neighbors.
So how do you avoid this? How do you remain watchful and finish what you started?
Three Keys to Finish
It’s very normal to experience low points in your spiritual life. In fact, sociologists have found that in the middle of anything, there’s usually a dip, as Daniel H. Pink writes in When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing (115). Whether it’s our happiness in life, our energy throughout the day, or our performance on a project, there’s almost always a slump in the middle. We start out strong, and eventually we slowly decline.
That happens in our spiritual life, too. It’s part of our fallen nature. Our hearts are prone to wander, prone to leave the God we love.
The most important thing is, how do you respond when you’re in that middle point? Will you let the decline continue, or will you wake up and climb back up that hill?
Jesus’s letter to the church in Sardis tells us how to respond in these times. It gives us three keys to finishing what you started. None of this is anything extraordinary. They’re not about mountaintop experiences. They’re simple expressions of everyday faithfulness. But they’re the key to finishing strong.
“Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it, and repent” (Rev. 3:3). The first key is to remember. And the best way to remember what you have received and heard is to worship with God’s people every Sunday. We gather to remember who God is, what he promises to us, and how he has called us to live. To finish what you started, you need to let the Word of God restore and nourish your soul each Sunday.
The second key is to keep. We have to not only recall the ways of God. We also have to keep them. There’s a volitional element to our walk with God. We have to follow God’s commands, even when it costs us something, even when we don’t feel like it, even when we don’t understand.
And know that you’re not at this on your own. The power of God is at work in you. Ask him for help. And ask a Christian friend for help.
The third key is related to the second. It’s to repent. It’s another volitional command, and it’s the flip side of keeping. Do the things God commands, and repent of those things you did but shouldn’t have.
And know this: God’s arms are open wide to receive you. If you come to him and repent, he will forgive.
We all have times of dryness in our souls, spiritual lows, times when we wander from God, but if in those times you remember, keep, and repent, then Jesus makes three promises to you in this letter.
His first promise is that you will be clothed in white garments (Rev. 3:5). White clothes are a symbol of purity. This is a promise that if you have washed your soiled garments in the blood of Jesus Christ (cf. Rev. 7:9–14), then your sins are covered, and when you get to that last day, having finished what you started, you will walk in white, pure and blameless before God.
In Roman culture, wearing white was a symbol of victory and celebration (Osborne). Citizens would wear white when they were celebrating a military victory.
Jesus promises that like a Roman general returning from a victory over his enemies, so he will return to us victorious over all sin and death. We can finish what we started because he will finish what he started. And like Roman citizens celebrating their victory, so too on that day we will celebrate like we’ve never celebrated before!
Jesus’s second promise is that he will never blot out your name from the book of life (Rev. 3:5). If you have genuine faith in him, he will keep you till the end. You will finish what you started!
And Jesus’s third promise is the climax of the whole passage: “I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels” (Rev. 3:5). It’s a picture of Jesus as a judge, pronouncing his verdict (Osborne). Those who are faithful till the end, he will declare on that last day before the Father that they are righteous, pure, and victorious. As G. K. Beale suggests in The Book of Revelation (280), you may hear him read aloud your name from the book of life.
We all experience spiritual lows and times when we wander away from God.
What matters most is what you do in those times. Reach out to him. Finish what you started.