Church Five, Sardis
“Remember herefore how thou hast received and didst hear, and keep it, and repent” (Revelation 3:3. Scriptures from Revised Version Improved and Corrected).
By Len Griehs
Sardis1 was the capital of the powerful kingdom of Lydia (western provinces of Turkey), conquered by Cyrus in 547 BC. Paganism flourished in Sardis. John the Revelator lamented over many Christians who had returned to former beliefs. Thus verse three, “remember therefore how thou hast received and didst hear: and keep it, and repent.”
The message to the fifth church of the Gospel Age, represented by Sardis, deals with the time papacy was to be upset by the Reformation. Martin Luther, whom this author considers the messenger to Sardis, led the Reformation beginning in 1517. He accelerated the downfall of Papal control with astounding speed.
“The fifth angel sounded, and I saw a star from heaven fallen unto earth, and there was given to him the key of the wellshaft of the abyss … it was given them that they should not kill them, but … should be tried five months: and their trial is as the trial of a scorpion, when it striketh a man” (Revelation 9:1,5).
John Wycliffe, about 150 years before Luther, is widely recognized as a forerunner of the Protestant Reformation, though he never officially left the Catholic church. Because of his popularity in England, and the Great Schism of 1378, when rival popes were elected, Wycliffe was under “house arrest” and left to pastor his Lutterworth parish. While saying Mass on Holy Innocents’ Day, December 28, 1384, he suffered a stroke and died in a few days. Luther, the “star from heaven,” elevated the reformation from Wittenberg
133 years later.2
John had written to Smyrna, “ye shall have tribulation ten days” (Revelation 2:10). Brethren generally apply that “ten day” tribulation to ten years of persecution begun by Emperor Diocletian, from 303 to 313 AD. This “day for a year” key also appears in the five month, or 150 day trial period of Sardis, from 1517 to 1667, when William Penn issued The Sandy Foundation Shaken and inaugurated the Philadelphia stage that carried into the New World.
Luther’s attack against certain practices of the Catholic Church, while teaching moral theology at Wittenberg University in Germany, began with his decision to take public the denunciation of plenary indulgences.3
Luther’s break with Rome charted the course of the Reformation in Europe: Switzerland (Huldryk Zwingli, John Oecolampadaeus,4 Heinrich Bullinger), Britain (Thomas Cranmer, William Tyndale), Scandinavia (Erasmus), France (Huguenots influenced by John Calvin), and Italy (in 1550 about 1000 Venetians were counted as part of the Anabaptists by Pope Julius III).
(1) The meaning of “Sardis” is uncertain. Arnold Genekowitsch Fruchtenbaum, Footsteps of the Messiah, give three options: Prince of Joy, or That which remains, or Those escaping. Either of the last two might be fitting for the Reformation.
(2) The Prophetic Faith of Our Fathers, Volume 1, page 91, LeRoy E. Froom. For more information on Wycliffe, see the previous article on Thyatira.
(3) The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes an indulgence as “a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain prescribed conditions through the action of the Church which, as the minister of redemption, dispenses and applies with authority the treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and all of the saints.”
(4) One editor suggests, “John Oecolampadaeus was the star of the Swiss movement.”
On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed a document written in Latin to the Wittenberg church door: Disputatio pro declaratione virtutis indulgentiarum (Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences). Scholastic disputations were a common and formal method for debating established truths in theology and the sciences. The document became known as the “95 Theses.” Many Protestant churches still observe October 31 as Reformation Day.
Justification by Faith
“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” (Revelation 3:5,6).
In “White Raiment Loaned to Us,”5 Br. Russell suggests that white garments represent justification, Christ’s robe of righteousness. Luther’s recovery of this most important doctrine occurred while he was teaching at Wittenberg. Hans Luther had envisioned a life of law for his son. Early in life, however, Martin became captivated when reading about the lives of past saints. In 1505, while caught in a terrific thunderstorm, he vowed to become a monk if spared. Thus he entered the strict order of Augustinian Eremites in Erfurt, a short distance from the university he attended the past year. Enamored with Augustine’s fascination with Scripture, Martin began to read the Bible.
His eagerness to learn propelled him through Eremite training and five years later he was chosen as a delegate to a consortium in Rome. There he found extensive corruption in the church, but it was the culture shock of Italy that affected him greatly. Within a year he was sent to teach at Wittenberg. There, driven by his investigation into Scripture, he developed a revulsion for papal indulgences and the claims of the pope to be the mouthpiece of God.
Luther’s lectures to students were heavily from the Psalms. He printed new versions of the Psalter, a collection of psalms published by the church, with wide margins so his students could take notes during lectures. He encouraged them to write their own commentaries, discarding those in use at the time.
After teaching the Psalms, Luther began to lecture on the Book of Romans. Two of his lecture manuscripts from 1515, in his own handwriting, exist today. These indicate that he was already thinking about justification by faith as outlined in Romans, concluding that Jesus provided all the means of salvation (Romans 10:9,10). He also saw, in Psalms, that all righteousness comes from God (Psalms 97:2, 119:42).6 The Catholic Catechism defined justification using the Latin justificare, from justus and facare meaning “to make righteousness.” The Church taught that justification came through church sacraments, to make an unrighteous people, righteous.
However, Luther saw that the Greek words used in Romans, dikaios, dikaiosune, did not mean to make righteous, but to regard, count, or declare as righteous. He concluded that faith in Christ’s sacrifice alone brings justification without the Church’s intervention. “Whoever hates sin is already outside sin and belongs to the elect.” His new view of Romans 1:17, quoting from Habakkuk 2:4, identified this as imputed righteousness: “The righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith, as it is written ‘he who through faith is righteous shall live.’” 7
(5) Zion’s Watch Tower, R5668.
(6) Psalms 119:42 does not use the word “righteousness,” but Luther used this verse to show the reliability of trusting God’s word, from which we learn righteousness.
(7) An English translation of Luther’s translation from the Latin Vulgate to German, from The Reformation, by Diarmaid MacCulloch.
Luther’s Attack on Papacy
“The king shall do according to his will … he shall exalt himself, and magnify himself above every god, and shall speak marvelous things against the God of gods; and he shall prosper till the indignation be accomplished; for that … determined shall be done” (Daniel 11:36).
Once the apostles were gone, dissension and schisms grew in the early Church (Matthew 13:25). Councils and Synods were called to formulate official doctrine. In subsequent centuries, the church and papacy became corrupt in every way. When Luther wrote to Albrecht, the archbishop of Mainz and Magdeburg, criticizing the activities of Peter Tetzel, a Dominican friar and Pope Leo X’s commissioner of indulgences, as an effort to provide funds for rebuilding St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, he began the undermining of papal power.
Luther attached the “95 Theses” to the letter, insisting that only God could grant forgiveness for sin. Salvation could not be acquired through indulgences. But he did not stop there.
Luther had concluded from the Book of Daniel that the willful king who exalted himself above every god (Daniel 11:36), lording over emperors, was the pope. From the days of Constantine, Western Rome had expanded its apostasy in the supreme exaltation of papacy.8 Luther was ready to challenge papacy itself.
Denunciation of Transubstantiation
In 1520, Luther was condemned by a papal bull, which he burned at the gates of Wittenberg. There he also burned many works of canon law that were a foundation of papal authority. He also published three works that year:
Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation — in which he accused the pope of being an imposter as God’s representative on Earth, and the Antichrist.
The Babylonian Captivity of the Church — written in Latin and addressed to the clergy. In it he discounted four of the seven sacraments of the church, and discounted transubstantiation.
The Freedom of a Christian — espoused good works, not as a requirement for salvation, but as an expression of love and gratitude for God’s loving nature. “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.”
The Revolution of the Sardis Period
Other reformers appeared throughout Europe following Luther’s exposure of papacy.
● Huldryk Zwingli (1484-1531) read Erasmus’ New Testament and looked at church practices of his day compared to the Church of Paul and the Apostles. He challenged Lent as not found in the Gospels and claimed the Bible as the only source of Divine Law.
● John Calvin (1509-1564) became the French voice of Luther and his theology, with periodic revision, and supported his teachings.
● Philipp Melanchthon became an intellectual leader of Luther’s movement. He was appointed professor of Greek at Wittenberg in 1518 at the age of 21 and quickly picked up Luther’s ideas. Melanchthon’s students rejected the Eucharist as anything but a symbol to aid memory in recalling the sacrifice of Christ.
Martin Luther made some serious mistakes in his ministry. He became intolerant of those who would not accept his views, resulting in a judgment especially against the Jews. However, God used Luther to jump-start the Reformation. In some ways he was similar to St. Peter. No other disciple of Jesus made as many mistakes. No other disciple presumed to correct Jesus. No other disciple was reproved so sharply. Yet Peter was ready to fight for and die with Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. He became the model of agape love. He was used by God to open the message to Gentiles. He became the recognized leader of The Twelve after Jesus’ ascension. His ministry is a model for those
who would be the servant of all.
The Reformation Church was pulled from stagnation by Martin Luther and others who also had these Peter-like qualities. It was time to begin the recovery of truth taught by the apostles. But full recovery would take time.
Not only would papacy’s religious hold be exposed during this period, but the revolution begun by Luther found its way into church control over creation science.
Galileo Galilei was born at Pisa in 1564. Twenty-one years earlier, the Polish mathematician, astronomer, and cleric Nikolaus Copernicus published De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (On the Revolutions of Celestial Spheres). Copernicus’ book contradicted almost everything the Church taught about the construction of the heavenly bodies.
The Church promulgated the theories of Ptolemy and Aristotle, believing they were confirmed by Scripture. These theories held that Earth sat motionless at the center of the Universe while the Sun revolved around it, citing Psalms 104:5: “He set the earth on its foundations; it can never be moved.” Copernicus disputed this theory, claiming that the Sun was at the center and Earth and other planets circled it (the Church had taught these were “wandering stars”). The Sun moving across the sky was an optical illusion, the result of a revolving earth.
Galileo vocally supported Copernicus’ statements from his twenties. He lectured publicly on them in He moved to the University of Pisa and taught mathematics, disproving Aristotle and Ptolemy by experiments with dropped objects from the leaning tower. Galileo published The Messenger of the Stars, writing about the movements of Jupiter and its moons.
Pope Paul III (1534-49) and Gregory XIII (elected 1572) were favorable to the teachings of Galileo, but shrugged at the ideas of Copernicus. In 1542, when Paul III revived the Inquisition to suppress Protestants, he denounced Galileo’s teaching regarding the motion of the planets as published in Messenger. Galileo had made it clear that papacy had not just peddled inaccuracies, but suppressed the truth to benefit the church.
On June 22, 1613, Galileo appeared for the last time before the revived Inquisition, “guilty of heinous crimes.” He was forced to deny his work: “I curse and detest [my] errors and heresies.” Nearly 200 years would go by before his work Dialogo was removed from the list of prohibited books. Galileo’s denial was ultimately disseminated throughout Catholic Europe.