When you come right down to it, all of us individually are somewhat like the church at Sardis, the one described in Revelation 3:1-6. I would like to use the objectified and dispassionate voice of "all of us" but in truth I can only answer for me. Most commentators believe that the churches mentioned in the first three chapters of the apocalyptic book are both historical (actual churches) and types of the church throughout history. Not only that, I believe I have to turn the uncomfortable truth-ray of these verses on myself and admit that they are all more or less true of me.
Like these folk, sometimes I am like a dead man. I have the reputation of being alive, but I am dead. There are times when God seems distant, not because he is but because I am distracted and removed, caught up in myself and my concerns, living like an orphan. I'm active, and there are works, but they lack spirit. They are not complete. They do not come from pure motive but from the keeping up of appearances, as in "Look at me. I'm alive." Some works can come from a hollow religion, not from pure religion but from an impure justifying of myself. The Westminster Divines had it right: "Good works are only such as God hath commanded in his holy word, and not such as, without the warrant thereof, are devised by men, or upon any pretense of good intention." Commenting on this, G.L. Williamson says there is a real sense in which unbelievers can never do a truly good work, and believers can rarely do a perfectly good work (if they can at all), because there is "imperfect conformity of conscience to the Word of God." Like that song by Jays of Clay, "Dead Man (Carry Me)":
I'm just a dead man
Lying on the carpet
Can't find a heartbeat
Make me breathe,
I want to be a new man
Tired of the old one
Out with the old plan
Life and a truly good work comes only when I am inhabited by the Spirit. So I'm a little bit of Sardis, needing awakening everyday, repenting of poor motives and remembering what I have received which is, of course, everything, all I need, life itself. If I know that, how can I attribute anything to myself?
OK, so I'm dead without Christ, dead every moment of every day that I turn away from God. I admit it. I turn around and face God and remember He did it all for me. What now? He says to "strengthen the things that remain" (v. 2). Some commentators think John was referring to people, specifically the faithful ones mentioned later in these verses, and some to practices. I assume it was all the above but, as to me, I think it is saying that I am to build rightly on the things that remain, offering what I have as a service to God, not focusing on what I lack but on what I have. For example, if God hasn't given me the money to be a huge giver, then I can find creative ways to give of my time, of "what remains," not fretting about what I cannot do (which is common) but strengthening and building on what I can do. If, as in my case, he has given me little profound to speak but with a great love of words, then I can write and write and write in service to Him. If I have an insufficient love of His Word, then I can stop fretting and open the Book of Life and study it as a way into the love of the Book of His Word.
Strengthen what remains, he says. In the end, what remains is the deposit He has left, the residual investment that He has not withdrawn but rather said "use it." Put your hand to the plow. Lean in. Lean into Him. If you can't give it all, can't even give most of it, then offer up what you can.
As a friend often says by way of summing up: "That's what I'm talking about."