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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Sardis

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(Σάρδεις, Lat. Sardes or Sardis; the sing. [Note: singular.] form Σάρδις is found in Ptolemy)

Sardis, the capital of the kingdom of Lydia, was one of the most ancient and renowned cities of Asia Minor. Built on a strong hill projecting, with smooth and steep flanks, from the northern side of Mt. Tmolus, it commanded the wide and fertile plain through which the Hermus, about 3 miles N., flowed westward to the aegean Sea. On three sides it was deemed inaccessible, the only approach being the neck of land which joined the hill to the Tmolus range. It was thus an ideal capital in days of primitive warfare between Lydia and Phrygia. In later times a second city was built around the foot of the hill, 1500 ft. lower than the acropolis.

In Sardis the kings of Lydia, whom the Greeks counted ‘barbarians’ (Herod. i. 6), reigned in Oriental splendour and luxury. But centuries of material prosperity made the Lydian character soft and voluptuous, and the fall of CrCEsus, whom Solon warned in vain of the fickleness of fortune, became to the Greeks the supreme illustration of the danger of careless security.

When Cyrus, king of Persia, besieged the city (549 b.c.), and offered a reward to the soldier who should first mount the wall, ‘a Mardian named HyrCEades endeavoured to climb up on that part of the citadel where no guard was stationed, because there did not appear to be any danger that it would be taken on that part, for on that side the citadel was precipitous and impracticable.… Having seen a Lydian come down this precipice the day before, for a helmet that had rolled down, and carry it up again, he noticed it carefully, and reflected on it in his mind; he thereupon ascended the same way, followed by divers Persians; and when great numbers had gone up, Sardis was thus taken and the town plundered’ (Herod. i. 84). The same daring exploit was performed by the Cretan Lagoras, who scaled the heights and captured the citadel for Antiochus the Great (218 b.c.). After the defeat of Antiochus at Magnesia (190 b.c.), Sardis was gifted by the Romans to the kings of Pergamos. From the time of Alexander the Great it had enjoyed the constitution of a self-governing city of the Greek type, and under the Romans it became the head of a conventus juridicus in the Hermus valley. It still amassed wealth, but its ancient power and prestige were gone. The once brave, warlike, victorious Sardians had long been despised as ‘tender-footed Lydians,’ who could only ‘play on the cithara, strike the guitar, and sell by retail’ (Herod. i. 55, 155). Living on the traditions of a splendid past, Sardis sank into a second-rate provincial town. It seemed to have no power of material or moral self-recovery. In a.d. 17 it was destroyed by an earthquake, and rebuilt with the aid of Imperial funds.

The delineation which the Apocalypse gives of the Church of Sardis is singularly like that which history gives of the city. It is scarcely possible to imagine that the writer was unconscious of the resemblance when he added touch after touch to his picture, and the parallel could not but strike every intelligent reader. In the time of Domitian the Christian community needed to be told humiliating truths regarding itself. Years of evangelism had not delivered it from the spirit of the city which boasted her great name and fame, while she lapped herself in soft Lydian airs and closed her eyes to the dangers of overweening self-confidence. Within a single generation the Church is repeating the city’s history of a thousand years. (1) It has a name to live and is dead (Revelation 3:1). It is now only apparently what it once was really-a living Church. The youthful vitality is spent, its spiritual renown has become a nominis umbra. Religiously as well as politically decadent, Sardis seemed incapable of reanimation. Ramsay characterizes it ‘the city of death.’ (2) The Church, like the city, has ‘fulfilled’ none of its works. Beginning with great ambitions, high hopes, and noble endeavours, it has lacked the grace of perseverance, and so has realized nothing. After a springtime rich in promise, how meagre the harvest! (3) The Church is warned that it must watch, if it is not to be surprised as by a thief in the night (3:3). To any public-spirited Sardian that was ‘the most unkindest cut of all,’ for in the critical times of history Sardis had always been caught napping. (4) It is implied, though not directly asserted, that the Church of Sardis had defiled its garments with the immorality of the soft and dissolute city which had been the age-long worshipper of Cybele, when it ought by this time to be like an urbs candida, wearing the white robes of purity and victory. No one of the Seven Churches of the province of Asia, not even Laodicea, is so severely rebuked as Sardis. All the more warm and tender are the words of praise addressed to the few who have kept themselves unspotted ‘even in Sardis.’ Their virtue has a peculiar grace because it blooms in such an atmosphere, and the reward of their purity will be fellowship with the perfectly pure-God and His holy angels.

Literature.-W. M. Ramsay, The Letters to the Seven Churches of Asia, 1904, p. 354 f.; C. Wilson, in Murray’s Handbook to Asia Minor, 1895.

James Strahan.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Sardis'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdn/s/sardis.html. 1906-1918.

Lectionary Calendar
Sunday, July 21st, 2019
the Week of Proper 11 / Ordinary 16
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