In a recent sermon by a pastor, he quoted Rev. 3:20 in line with a response to the gospel.
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.
On many gospel tracts today, it is one of the many verses used. Many quote Rev. 3:20 and point to the fact that, if one opens “his heart” and responds to the gospel call, Christ will come in. But does Rev. 3:20 really say that? Can the unregenerate sinner, dead in his sins, open their heart to believe the gospel?
Context: The Seven Churches
The book of Revelation is primarily eschatological, that is, it focuses on the second coming of Christ; end time teachings. In the Revelation of Christ to John, he gives him a series of messages to be passed unto seven churches in Asia minor. The churches were in Ephesus (Rev.2:1-7), Smyrna (Rev. 2:8-11), Pergamum(Rev.2:12-17), Thyatira(Rev.2:18-29), Sardis(Rev. 3:1-6), Philadelphia(Rev 3:7-13) and Laodicea(Rev 3:7-13). To these churches, he commends, condemns, counsels and challenges.
Christ commends the church of Ephesus for their good works, labor, patience, and their hatred of the Nicolaitians. However, he condemned them for leaving their first love and counseled them to remember from where they have fallen and repent. The challenge was to give to each of the tree of life all who overcome. The church in Smyrna, was also recommended for their works, enduring tribulation and poverty. There was not a single word of condemnation for them. However, he counseled them to fear not and continue to be faithful. They were promised not to be hurt by the second death if they overcome.
Those in Pergamum were also commended for their works, for holding fast to his name and not denying the faith. However, they were condemned for having false teachers of Balaam and the Nicolaitans. They were simply told to repent, and to all who overcome, they would be given hidden manner and a white stone
The church in Thyatira also received commendation for their good works, service, faith and patience. However, their condemnation was for allowing Jezebel to teach idolatry and compromising. They were counseled to hold on fast unto what they have until Christ comes, and all who will overcome, were promised millennial leadership and a morning star. After them, the church in Sardis also received commendation for their works. However, they received a more severe condemnation because they were dead and their works were not complete. They were told to watch and strengthen the things that remain, they were also told to remember, hold fast and repent. To all those who overcome, they were promised to be clothed in white raiment. Their name would not be blotted out of the book of life.
The church in Philadelphia received commendation for their works, their missions, their little strength for keeping his word and for not denying his name. Like the church of Smyrna, there was not a single condemnation. They were told to hold fast to what they have, and were promised to be made a pillar and all who overcome, will have written upon them the name of God and a new name.
The Church of Laodicia
I have separated Laodicia from all the others because it is in their letter we see Rev 3:20. This church, had become lukewarm, wretched, miserable, poor blind and naked. This was a reference to their spiritual state. Though they were rich physically, their spiritual state was nothing to write home about.
For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. 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 (vv.17-18).
Their rebuke, was strong but in verse 19, Christ notes that, “Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent.” It is out of love, Christ speaks such strong words like, “spew you out” so that they may repent. This like all the other churches, was their counsel. They were told to be zealous and repent. Like the challenge he threw to all the other churches, he says in verse 20, “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.” Christ here calls a backsliding church to repentance. Revelation 3:20 is an urgent call to repentance of a lukewarm church. It is important to note that this is a letter to a church not an unbeliever. The church in Laodicea was neither cold nor hot; they had become lukewarm. Christ here then says to a church, that had backslidden, to come back before he returns.
In the broader context of Revelation, which primarily speaks on the return of Christ, Christ the master of the house stands outside the door. This is a reference to the nearness of his coming. It is like what is said in Matthew 24:33: “Then you will be like servants waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that when he comes and knocks, they can open the door for him at once.” James even notes something similar in James 5:9 when he says, “Do not complain about one another, brothers, so that you will not be judged. Look, the Judge is standing at the door!”. There is a sense of urgency about the text. He starts by saying, “Behold”, that is look, a way of capturing the attention of his audience. We must therefore treat Revelation 3:20 as a wake-up call to the church–Christians and not necessarily a call for repentance of the sinner who cannot by themselves open their hearts. Christs’ coming will be sudden and it is so near that it is referenced as “standing at the door”.
Christ is coming, and when he comes he will dine with his bride. Unrepentant sinners will have no place at the table with him. Like those painted in the parable of the ten virgins as sleeping, the church of Laodicea had fallen asleep. They needed to wake up. The church of Laodicea then, was told to repent before he comes, a coming which is near. Those who hear his voice, are his sheep, and they truly repent.
The Problem With Opening Our Hearts
The Bible tells us that fallen humankind are by nature dead in their sins and they cannot open their hearts. To come to saving faith therefore, God will have to regenerate their hearts; replace their heart of stone with a heart of flesh to be able to believe the Gospel. It’s all the work of God. What sinners need is not opening of an old heart but the creation of a new heart to believe the Gospel. And only God can do this through his Holy Spirit. Christ doesn’t need permission to come into the heart of the unregenerate sinner; He is the master of the house. Like Lydia in Acts 16:14, we need God to open our hearts so that we believe in the gospel.
Revelation 3:20 has nothing to do with the gospel being proclaimed to unbelievers. This is a letter written to a church. To apply this text to an unregenerate unbeliever is to simply twist the word of God. Many, in zeal for people to respond quote Revelation 3:20 but it simply does not fit in our evangelistic settings. It is a call to a Church. Shall we put it back in its place?