“Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me” (Rev 3:20).
For a long time, well-intentioned pastors and college evangelists have applied Jesus’ words (dictated by John as a part of the seven letters to the churches of Asia minor) from Revelation 3:20 to the unconverted. As I recently heard this passage explained:
“Jesus is knocking on the door of your heart, but the doorknob is on the inside, so it’s up to you to let Him in. God is not going to force a relationship with you. The decision to accept Jesus is up to you.”
Is this a proper application of this passage? In short, no. Here’s why:
Whenever you begin to study a passage of scripture, you must understand its original context. In this case, our passage is just one verse of a short letter of rebuke from Jesus to the church at Laodicea. Because of Laodicea’s great wealth, Jesus condemns this church for their attitude of self-sufficiency that has resulted in spiritual complacency.
“I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth” (Rev 3:15).
The city of Laodicea was well situated along a prominent trade route and known for its banks, black wool, and medical schools. One deficiency was the lack of a good water supply. Nearby, Hierapolis had natural hot springs, but the water traveled down over limestone cliffs and became lukewarm and salty. Thus, Jesus’ imagery reflects His knowledge not only of their particular cultural situation but of their true spiritual condition. Though they thought they were rich, Jesus reveals they are, in fact, destitute (3:17). Jesus’ offers some tough love to His way-ward church: “Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent” (Rev 3:19).
Jesus’ words are one hundred proof law, climaxing in a call of repentance with the imagery of a warning knock on the door, summoning those with “ears to hear” to jump to attention as servants ready to greet their master (Rev 3:20). This verse harkens back to Jesus’ teaching concerning His second advent in Luke 12:35—37:
Stay dressed for action and keep your lamps burning, and be like men who are waiting for their master to come home from the wedding feast, so that they may open the door to him at once when he comes and knocks. Blessed are those servants whom the master finds awake when he comes. Truly, I say to you, he will dress himself for service and have them recline at table, and he will come and serve them.
To put it in contemporary terms, it would be like Lord Grantham returning from London to Downton Abbey, his castle. His butler, Mr. Carson, opens the door of welcome, where his Lord surprisingly invites his servants to join him upstairs for a meal that he will provide. It’s a complete act of kindness for it is his house, food, and table.
Jesus’ words are one hundred proof law, climaxing in a call of repentance with the imagery of a warning knock on the door
The emphasis in both of these passages is the honor of awaiting servants who stand ready to answer the door and welcome the master home upon his return: He will serve dinner to his servants (Luke 12:37), and will dine with them (Rev 3:20). While this certainly has some connections to the Lord’s Supper, the meal in the book of Revelation is always pointing forward to the marriage supper of the Lamb (Rev 19:9).
Now that we have set the passage in its proper context, let’s examine the popular notion that this verse is about Jesus standing at the door of unbelievers’ hearts, hoping they’ll answer and receive Him.
First, as we noted, the passage is directed to a church of unfaithful believers, not an individual unbeliever.
Second, the problem with individual unbelievers is not a locked door but a dead heart. Before conversion, Paul tells us that we were all “dead in our trespasses and sins” (Eph 2:1). Dead people do not answer doors. They just lay rotting. What dead sinners need is resurrection; they need to be born again (see John 3:3). Those espousing a synergistic misconception of Revelation 3:20 typically have a low view of sin’s corruption coupled with an equally unorthodox notion that Jesus somehow needs your help to save you. The A-to-Z of your salvation is 100% Jesus working through his means of grace alone and the work of the Holy Spirit to apply it—bringing to life that which was dead (Eph 2:4—10).
The problem with individual unbelievers is not a locked door but a dead heart.
Third, as Dennis Johnson notes, the Laodiceans in our passage cannot avert Jesus’ arrival by ignoring His knock, but their response to His warning will determine whether His entrance brings them the joy of the banquet or the exposure of their shame (Triumph of the Lamb, 93). In other words, the call to repentance in the letter to Laodicea is to turn from self-sufficiency to the only One who can save. Thus, the paradoxical challenge. When the church recognizes they are completely poor and naked, Jesus invites them to buy from him.
I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see (Rev 3:18).
How can those who are destitute afford precious metals such as gold? Jesus is echoing the words of the prophet Isaiah: “Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price” (Isa 55:1).
Everything the church needs—then and now—must be the free gift of God. Free to us, but at great cost to God, who sent His only begotten Son to die for sinners like us.