If Revelation 3:20 isn’t the most popular misused Bible verse, it’s certainly the most repeated. It’s so often repeated that it’s become an accepted part of church culture and lingo. It has strong sentimental value attached to it. We often hear something like this: “Jesus is knocking on the door of your heart. He wants to come in. He wants to save you. Will you open up and let him in today?” The picture (there are literal pictures) is of poor, pitiful, dejected, unwanted Jesus standing at the door knocking and pleading for sinners to be nice and open up so he can come in and save them.
“Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me”
This picture poses a Pandora’s box of issues. To examine these, we need to look at the original context of Revelation 3:20, it’s actual meaning, it’s correct application, and problems posed by misusing it. I’ll go ahead and say this blog probably won’t change anyone’s mind who believes Revelation 3:20 is actually saying that Jesus is knocking on the heart’s door trying to get it. The reason for this is it presents a sentimental picture of a loving, kind, gentle Lord who wants to have fellowship with us. This is a vision of God’s care and concern that’s hard for anyone to reject. Indeed, scripture itself presents our Lord in this manner. . . just not in Revelation 3:20! (Try Psalm 23.)
Context. The context of Revelation 3:20 is it’s a portion of one of the seven letters to seven churches in Asia Minor. Jesus spoke to specific issues within each of the seven churches. Revelation 3:20 is addressed to the church at Laodicea. Laodicea had issues. Jesus called their zeal for him “lukewarm.” Their love for him was bland to such a degree that it made him want to vomit (vv. 15-16)! It’s not cool when God essentially says, “You make me sick to my stomach.” Not only that, but he called them “wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked” (v. 18).
What had happened at the church at Laodicea is it had become spiritually apathetic and lazy. Their listlessness had blinded them to their need of Jesus, and to the needs of others around them. In essence, they had shut the world out and become their own little island. They had become self-reliant to the extent that Jesus was no longer needed. This sounds like many churches today, doesn’t it?
Because of this, Jesus said to them, “Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent” (v. 19). In other words, “Guys, I love you and I know I’ve had some harsh words for you, but, turn away from your sinful self-centeredness and reembrace me! Rediscover me as the source of your deepest needs. I‘m giving you another opportunity to make things right.” Against this backdrop he went on to say “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me” (v. 20).
Interpretation. Jesus said that the Laodicean church, the one he’d purchased with his own blood (Rev. 1:5), had become so cold, callous, and lethargic that they were blind to their own need for him. It’s as if he’d been kicked to the curb. But, in his great mercy and grace, instead of coming to them with vengeance and judgment, he came offering the church wise counsel, a chance for repentance, and a chance for a fresh start.
The picture is not one of Jesus pleading with lost sinners to open a locked door. He is speaking to Christians, albeit lazy, callous, self-absorbed, and aloof Christians. They, like the church at Ephesus, had forgotten their first love (Rev. 2:4).
Because of these facts, the whole “Jesus knocking at the sinner’s heart door” interpretation falls apart when placed in its proper biblical context. It makes no sense. Jesus was speaking to a Christian church who had turned their backs on him, not lost people who had never known him! The picture of the door as being a human heart is completely made up. The metaphor is not in the text at all. The door spoken of is the metaphorical entrance to the church, in which Jesus longs to walk in the midst thereof (Rev. 1:12-13). It symbolizes the fellowship and closeness each church should have with Jesus. However, the churches in Asia Minor were lacking in these areas, and Jesus was symbolically “left out in the cold” by their sin.
Application. How can we apply Revelation 3:20? One obvious way is to stop telling sinners that Jesus is knocking on the door of their heart. Jesus may indeed be pleading, prodding, and pursuing them, and speaking into their souls. After hearing a clear presentation of the gospel, this truth will become evident. Jesus is as much knocking at the door of their eyes and ears as their heart. A tugging at the heartstrings does not bypass our mental faculties.
Revelation 3:20 has more application for the church, who are Christ followers, than it does for lost sinners. Jesus spoke to his people about issues that bothered him. If we can glean anything from this verse, it’s that we should be on our guard against spiritual malaise. It is easy for a church to become so self-absorbed and self-sufficient that Jesus essentially is no longer needed. We can paint “doing church” by the numbers. We’ve been functioning this way for years.
Revelation 3:20 is a wake-up call. We may be doing everything “by the book,” but it isn’t by God’s book. It’s by the one we’ve written that we’re more comfortable with. In his vast love, Jesus says we must repent if we’re ever to experience that sense of absolute dependence upon him and close fellowship with him again. Revelation 3:20 is a damning indictment on a cold, lazy church.
Lord, may it never be so with us.